The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria

The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria

by George Dennis

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The first scholarly account of Etruscan archaeological sites, written after several visits to Etruria and first published in 1848.  See more details below


The first scholarly account of Etruscan archaeological sites, written after several visits to Etruria and first published in 1848.

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Cambridge University Press
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Cambridge Library Collection - Archaeology Series
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5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.60(d)

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The Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria

By George Dennis, Pamela Hemphill


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03575-8


VEIL — The City.

Hoc tune Veii·fuêre: quae reliquiae ? quod vestigium ? — Florus.

Sic magna fuit censuque virisque Perque decem potuit tantum dare sanguinis annos; Nunc humilis veteres tantummodo Troja ruinas, Et pro divitiis tumulos ostendit avorum. — Ovid. Met.

Of all the cities of Etruria, none takes so prominent a place in history as Veii. One of the earliest, nearest, and unquestionably the most formidable of the foes of Rome — for nearly four centuries her rival in military power, her instructress in civilisation and the arts — the southern bulwark of Etruria — the richest city of that land — the Troy of Italjr — Veii excites our interest as much by the length of the struggle she maintained, and by the romantic legends attending her overthrow, as by the intimate connection of her history with Rome's earliest and most spirit-stirring days. Such was her greatness — such her magnificence — that, even after her conquest, Veii disputed with the city of Romulus for metropolitan honours; and, but for the eloquence of Camillus, would have arisen as Roma Nova to be mistress of the world. Yet, in the time of Augustus, we are told that the city was a desolation, and a century later its very site is said to have been forgotten. Though re-colonised under the Empire, it soon again fell into utter decay, and for ages Veii was blotted from the map of Italy. But when, on the revival of letters, attention was directed to the subject of Italian antiquities, its site became a point of dispute. Fiano, Ponzano, Martignano, and other places, found their respective advocates. Some, with Castiglioni, placed it at Civita Castellana; others, with Cluverius, at Scrofano, near Monte Musino; Zanchi at Monte Lupolo, above Baccano; while Holstenius, Nardini, and Fabretti assigned to it the site which more recent researches have determined beyond a doubt to belong to it. This is in the neighbourhood of Isola Farnese, a hamlet, about eleven miles from Rome, on the right of the Via Cassia, which agrees with the distance assigned to Veii by Dionysius and the Peutingerian Table.

The ancient road from Rome seems to have left the Via Cassia about the fifth milestone, not far from the sepulchre vulgarly, but erroneously, called that of Nero; and to have pursued a serpentine course to Veii. Instead of pursuing that ancient track, now distinguishable only by the sepulchres and tumuli at its side, travellers usually push on to La Storta, the first post-house from Rome, and beyond the ninth milestone on the Via Cassia. Hence it is a mile and a half to Isola by the carriage road; but the visitor, on horse or foot, may save half a mile by taking a pathway across the downs. When Isola Farnese comes into sight, let him halt awhile to admire the scene. A wide sweep of the Campagna lies before him, in this part broken into ravines or narrow glens, which, by varying the lines of the landscape, redeem it from the monotony of a plain, and by patches of wood relieve it of its usual nakedness and sterility. On a steep cliff, about a mile distant, stands the hamlet of Isola — consisting of a large chateau, with a few small houses around it. Behind it rises the long, swelling ground, which once bore the walls, temples, and palaces of Veii, but is now a bare down, partly fringed with wood, and without a habitation on its surface. At a few miles' distance is the conical, tufted hill of Musino, the supposed scene of ancient rites, the Eleusis, or Delphi, it may be, of Etruria. The eye is next caught by a tree-crested mound in the plain beyond the site of the city; then it stretches away to. the triple paps of the Monticelli, and to Tivoli, gleaming from the dark slopes behind ; and then it rises and scans the majestic chain of Apennines, bounding the horizon with their dark grey masses, and rests with delight on La Leonessa and other well-known giants of the Sabine range, all capt with snow. Oh, the beauty of that range ! From whatever part of the Campagna you view it, it presents those long, sweeping outlines, those grand, towering crests — not of Alpine abruptness, but consistently with the character of the land, preserving, even when soaring highest,, the true Italian dignity and repose.

Isola is a wretched hamlet of ruinous houses, with not more than thirty inhabitants. Even the palace, which belongs to the Rospigliosi family, is falling into decay, and the next generation will probably find the place uninhabited. The caverns which yawn in the cliffs around whet the traveller's interest in the antiquities of Veii. In the little piazza are several relics of Roman domination, sculptural and inscriptive.

It is necessary to take Isola on the way to the ancient city, as the cicerone dwells there, and the key of the Painted Tomb is to be there obtained.

He who would make the tour of Veii must not expect to see numerous monuments of the past. Scarcely one Etruscan site has fewer remains, yet few possess greater interest. Veii lives in the page of history rather than in extant monuments; she has no Colosseum, no Parthenon, no Pyramids — few fragments even from which the antiquarian Cuvier may reconstruct her frame. The very skeleton of Veii has crumbled to dust — the city is its own sepulchre — si monumentum requiris — circumapice!

Yet is there no want of interest in a spot so hallowed by legend and history. The shadow of past glory falls as solemnly on the spirit as that of temple or tower. It is something to know and feel that "here was and is" not. The senses may desire more relics to link the present to the past; but the imagination need not here be "gravelled for lack of matter."

Since there are such scanty remains at Veii, few will care to make the entire circuit of the city, yet there are three or four spots of interest which all should visit — the Arx — the Columbarium — the Ponte Sodo — and the Painted Tomb. Beyond this there are but scattered fragments of walls — the sites of the gates, determined only by the nature of the ground — and the remains of several bridges.

I shall detail the track I took on my first visit, and the reader, with the aid of the Plan, will be enabled to trace the site of every object of interest within and around the walls of Veii.

My guide led the way into the glen which separates Isola from the ancient city, and in which stands a mill — most picturesquely situated, with the city-cliffs towering above it, and the stream sinking in a cascade into a deep gulley, over-shadowed by ilex. The road to the mill is cut through tufo, which presents some remarkable features, being composed of very thin strata of calcined vegetable matter, alternating with earthy layers, showing the regular and rapidly intermittent action of some neighbouring volcano — the now extinct crater of Baccano or of Bracciano. The bed formed by an igneous deposit had been covered with vegetation, which had been reduced, to charcoal by a subsequent eruption, and buried beneath another shower of earthy matter, which in its turn served for a hotbed to a second crop of vegetation. That these eruptions occurred at very short intervals is apparent from the thinness of the charcoal layers. The whole mass is very friable, and as this softness of the rock precluded the formation of a water-trough on one side, so frequently seen in Etruscan roads, to carry off the water from above, small pipes of earthenware were here thrust through the soft tufo in one of the cliffs, and may be traced for some distance down the hill. From the mill a path leads up to the site of one of the ancient gates (A in the Flan). Near this, which commands the view of Isola, given in the woodcut, which is from a sketch by the author, are some remains of the Avails, composed of small rectangular blocks of nenfro.

Following the line of the high ground to the east, I passed several other fragments of the ancient walls, all mere embankments, and then struck across bare downs or corn-fields into the heart of the city. A field, overgrown with briers, was pointed out by my guide as the site of excavations, where were found, among other remains, the colossal statue of Tiberius, now in the Vatican, and the twelve Ionic columns of marble, which sustain the portico of the Post-office at Rome. This was probably the Forum of the Roman "Municipium Augustum Veiens," which rose on the ruins of Etruscan Veii. The columbarium, or Roman sepulchre, hard by, must have been without the limits of the municipium, which occupied but a small portion of the site of the original city; when first opened, it contained stuccoes and paintings in excellent preservation, but is now in a state of utter ruin.

I next entered on a wide clown, overrun with rank vegetation, where tall thistles and briers played no small devilry with one's lower limbs, and would deny all passage to the fair sex, save on horseback. On I struggled, passing a Roman tomb, till I found traces of an ancient road, slightly sunk between banks. This was the road from Rome to the municipium, and after crossing the site of the ancient city in a direct line, it fell into the Via Cassia. I traced it a long distance southwards across the briery down, and then into a deep hollow, choked with thickets, where I came upon large polygonal blocks of basalt, such as usually compose Roman pavement. This was without the limits of the Etruscan city in a narrow hollow, which separated the city from its Arx. At this spot is a fragment of the ancient walls. The road ran down the hollow towards Rome, and was probably known as the Via Veientana. There are no remains of the gate.

The Arx is a table-land of no great extent, rising precipitously from the deep glens which bound it, save at the single point where a narrow ridge unites it to the city. Such a position would mark it at once as the citadel, even had it not traditionally retained its ancient designation in its modern name, Piazza d'Armi; and its juxta-position and connection with the city give it much superior claims to be so considered, than those which can be urged for the height of Isola Farnese, which is separated from the city by a wide hollow. There is also every reason to believe that this was the site of the earliest town. Here alone could the founder of Veii have fixed his choice. The natural strength of its position, and its size, adapted it admirably for an infant settlement. In process of time, as its population increased, it would have been compelled to extend its limits, until it gradually embraced the whole of the adjoining table-land, which is far too extensive to have been the original site; so that what was at first the whole town became eventually merely the citadel. Such was the case with Athens, Rome, Syracuse, and many other cities of antiquity. There may possibly have been a second settlement at Isola, which may have united with that on the Arx to occupy the site of the celebrated city; just as at Rome, where the town of Romulus, confined at first to the hill of the Palatine, united with the earlier town on the Capitoline, to extend their limits as one city over the neighbouring heights and intervening valleys.

I walked round the Piazza d'Armi, and from the verge of its cliffs looked into the beautiful glen on either hand, through which, far beneath me, wound the two streams which girded Veii, and into the broader and still more beautiful hollow, through which, after uniting their waters, they flowed, as the far-famed Cremera, now known as La Valca, to mingle with the Tiber. Peculiar beauty was imparted to these glens by the rich autumnal tints of the woods, which crowned the verge or clothed the base of their red and grey cliffs — the dark russet foliage of the oaks, the orange or brilliant red of the mantling vines, being heightened by the contrast of the green meadows below. Scarcely a sign of cultivation met the eye — one house alone on the opposite cliff — no flocks or herds sprinkled the meadows beneath — it was the wild beauty of sylvan, secluded nature.

Far different was the scene that met the eye of Camillus, when he gazed from this spot after his capture of Veii. The flames ascending from the burning city — the battle and slaughter still raging — the shouts of the victors and shrieks of the vanquished — here, his victorious soldiers pressing up through the hollow ways into the city, eager for spoil — there, the wretched inhabitants flying across the open country — yon height, studded with the tents of the Roman army — the Cremera at his feet rolling reddened down the valley towards the camp of the Fabii, whose slaughter he had so signally avenged — all these sights and sounds melted the stern warrior to tears of mingled pity and exultation.

Veii, so long the rival of Rome, had fallen, and her generous conqueror mourned her downfall. Like Troy, she had held out for ten long years against a beleaguering army: and like Troy she fell at last only by the clandestine introduction of an armed foe.

The story of the cuniculus, or mine of Camillus, is well known; how he carried it up into the temple of Juno within the citadel — how he himself led his troops to the assault — how they overheard the Etruscan aruspex, before the altar of the goddess, declare to the king of Veii that victory would rest with him who completed the sacrifice — how they burst through the flooring, seized the entrails and bore them to Camillus, who offered them to the goddess with his own hand — how his troops swarmed in through the mine, opened the gates to their fellows, and obtained possession of the city. Verily, as Livy sapiently remarks, "It were not worth while to prove or disprove these things, which are better fitted to be set forth on a stage which delighteth in marvels, than to be received with implicit faith. In matters of such antiquity, I hold it sufficient if what seemeth truth be received as such."

I wandered round the Arx seeking some traces of this temple of Juno, which was the largest in Veii. The sole remains of antiquity visible, are some foundations at the edge of the plateau, opposite the city, which may possibly be those of the celebrated temple, though more probably, as Gell suggests, the substructions of towers which defended the entrance to the citadel. Several sepulchral monuments have been here discovered; among them one of the Tarquitian family, which produced a celebrated writer on Etruscan divination, and which seems from this and other inscriptions to have belonged to Veii. As none of these relics were Etruscan, they in no way militate against the view that this was the Arx, but merely show that it was without the bounds of the Roman municipium.

Of the cuniculus of Camillus no traces have been found. Not even is there a sewer, so common on most Etruscan sites, to be seen in the cliff beneath the Arx, though the dense wood which covers the eastern side of the hill may well conceal such openings; and one cannot but regard these sewers as suggestive of the cuniculus, if that were not a mere enlargement of one of them to admit an armed force. Researches after the cuniculus are not likely to be successful. Not that I agree with Niebulir in doubting its existence; for though it were folly to give full credence to the legend, which even Livy and Plutarch doubted, yet there is nothing unnatural or improbable in the recorded mode of the city's capture. When a siege of ten years had proved of no avail, resort might well have been had to artifice; and the soft volcanic rock of the site offered every facility for tunnelling. But if the cuniculus were commenced in the plain at the foot of the height, it would not be easy to discover its mouth. The entrance would probably be by a perpendicular shaft or well, communicating with a subterranean passage leading towards the Arx.


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