Rome And Etruria

On entering the Etruscan borders a veil of mystery as alluring and as baffling as the Sphinx seems to descend and make every step uncertain. In presence of the immense variety of material and of conjecture, it would be easy to pass beyond what is necessary to illustrate the central purpose of this book, which is to elucidate Rome and her relations to ancient Italy. The temptation to discuss “origins” is almost irresistible; we feel that the antiquities of Etruria have a more direct bearing upon the outward form of early Roman civilization than any other group in Italy. After granting Latin supremacy in internals, we concede Etruscan supremacy in externals. We cannot split hairs in a discussion as to whether the tombs of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. in Southern and Central Etruria, whose contents, while richer and more varied, are similar in character to those of Latium, represent the Etruscans themselves, or an Italic race which preceded them before the Etruscan conquest.

The Etruscan inhabitants even in their own persons, as they are reproduced in sculptures and paintings, help to confuse our judgment. We are prepared to find at least two distinct physiological types ; a dominant Etruscan and a subject Italic race, the latter with many variants. But, knowing the aristocratic constitution of Etruria, the fact that the subject races and the populace were allowed no share in the government or in society, we are almost constrained to see the Etruscan aristocracy alone in the figured representations. Would they have allowed any but their own aristocracy within the charmed circle of art? This is confirmed by the Etruscan form of nearly all the funerary inscriptions. If then it is only the type of the dominant families that we must recognize in the figures on the sarcophagi and in the frescoes of the tombs, how comes it that they represent two such diametrically opposite types of humanity? On one side we see a type with the broad, smooth forehead, high cheek bones, long slanting eyes, prominent nose, thin cheeks and long chin, with lithe, tall, slender bodies and lively, expressive, almost sardonic expression, so characteristically given in the couple from Caere of the age of the Tarquins in plate xiii, and in many frescoes. On the other hand we see the type of broad-faced, stolid, heavy-lipped and jowled people, with arrogantly placid and materially minded expression, with bull necks and thick-set bodies. Both types occur, but the second is more prevalent in the age of decadence and the former in places like Caere where Greek blood prevailed. Who will give us the key to the enigma?

At all events the concrete facts are now the important things: we can afford to wait for the historic explanation. Meanwhile we note that at Corneto (Tarquinii) , Vetulonia and Bisentium, for example, there have been found in the very earliest tombs the same cabin urns which were found in Alba, as well as in Rome itself. The same Phoenician glazed Egyptianizing vases imported for the nobles of Caere are found in Rome. From Central Etruria to Praeneste and Norba there is an almost uninterrupted line of tombs of the iron age with objects of attire, of ornament and of household use which are practically identical. The tombs of the great men of the age of Romulus were filled with similar treasures of imported or native manufacture, whether it is the Bernardini tomb at Praeneste, the Tomba del Guerriero and the Isis tomb at Vulci, the Regulini-Galassi tomb at Caere or the Tomba del Duce at Vetulonia.

Perhaps the closest analogies with the Roman province can be traced in the case of the antiquities of Caere and of the Faliscan region. The Etruscan museum in Rome, Papa Giulio, is mainly composed of the Faliscan antiquities from Falerii itself and from a neighboring city whose ancient name is uncertain. We call it Narce. In excavations which were afterwards carried on under my supervision for some American museums at Narce our excavator was so lucky as to find the tomb of a warrior of the utmost importance, comparable in some ways to the famous tombs of warriors and chiefs I have just mentioned and perhaps even earlier than any of them. It is the only one of its class yet discovered on these Faliscan sites.

I reproduce some of its contents,—especially the bronze helmet and breastplate,—not only because I believe them to be the finest of their class but because they are probably just the type of armor worn by the Roman kings and their chief warriors in the first century after the foundation of the city. Such may have been the spolia opima of Acro, king of Caenina, which Romulus is fabled to have offered to Jupiter Feretrius. The tomb can hardly be later than the beginning of the seventh century. The helmet has the highest and most richly decorated crest of any yet discovered. Of course both helmet and breastplate are votive offerings and are too light and delicate for use. Like so many of the most interesting pieces found in tombs they were made especially for burial purposes in imitation of the things actually used. On the other hand, the other and less spectacular pieces in this tomb were in actual use. We see on the right the water flask to be slung on by a strap ; the two horse’s bits for the chief’s chariot (biga), the bronze disks with pointed centers and the small square plaques, with geometrical decoration, originally used, we imagine, on the harness of the war horses; and a large cup with figures of horses on its handles which helps to date the tomb. Then we see his favorite drinking cups, his fibula, strigils and a heavy ring of large size which may have been part of the attachments of the war chariot.

But I must leave almost untouched this illimitable field of arms and costume, manners and customs and the outward show of daily life, because, beyond suggesting how much Roman life and history can be illuminated from these sources, my limits are strictly those of architecture. In this field there is enough material and to spare. It is quite different in character from what we have found in the Hernican and Pontine cities. Etruria has practically no cities walled with polygonal masonry; the few examples in Southern Etruria,—Cosa, Populonia, Saturnia, Graviscae, —can be ascribed to non-Etruscan sources. Neither does she give us colossal examples of city and acropolis walls in her own special straight-coursed style, though she was the greatest city-building race in Italy. What we do find is mostly of the time when Roman influence was dominant, or at least threatening. This is because some sinister fate seems to have overtaken them. Veii was wiped out by Rome at an early date. So was Falerii, somewhat later. Populonia and Volaterrae were destroyed and sold out by Sulla. Perusia was burned by the young Augustus. Malaria in the region of the Maremma had already in the time of Augustus made a desert of Caere. At Arezzo the Roman city so substituted the Etruscan that not a certain trace of the older city remains. Even Tarquinii, which shares with Caere the honor, according to tradition, of having fundamentally influenced Rome in the age of the Tarquins and later, has left hardly a trace. Except at Perugia, Fiesole and a few other sites there is hardly more than enough left to show the style of masonry.

Still, while we miss, in Etruria, the impressive massing of constructive remains, this is more than compensated by the artistic quality and suggestiveness of the single works and the details of architecture that we find everywhere,—in the gates of Volterra and Perugia, the tomb façades of Norchia and Castel d’Asso, the temple terracottas of Falerii, Luna and Telamon, the sarcophagi of Volterra and Perugia, the domical and vaulted tombs of Veii, Cortona, Vetulonia, Chiusi, Quinto Fiorentino and other sites; the chamber tombs of Tarquinii (Corneto) , Vulci, Caere (Cervetri) , Volsinii (Orvieto) and Perusia, All these are invaluable in a reconstruction of early Roman architectural and decorative work of all classes. Nor must it be forgotten that we start with the obvious fact that the models for the Servian wall and all its accessories were furnished not by Latium but by Etruria, which had already perfected the use of square-coursed masonry and of the arch and vault. The introduction of this course masonry into Rome was attributed by the Romans themselves to the Etruscans. Dionysius in his Roman Antiquities says that Tarquinius Priscus first used it. This is doubtless fairly correct even though the so-called “Servian walls” in Rome are not older than the fourth century.