Paintings from a lost mysterious race
The Etruscan tombs in Italy represent more than just the deaths of nobles of the past. They can also been seen as the symbol of the mightiest race that never was. You see, it was these mysterious people we know little about who established Rome and set into motion the great empire that would conquer the known world.
When you think of Ancient Italy, the first thing that normally comes to mind is the Romans. They brought the country into the first millennium AD with a strength and power unrivalled across the world. Their influence is still felt today in lands spanning an entire continent and beyond.
But if it wasn’t for the Romans, it may be the Etruscans we all learn about it history class instead. The Romans didn’t always control the Italian lands, of course, and right before them it was the Etruscans who were building a civilisation.
Based in the north of the country, it was around Tuscany, Umbria and northern Latium that the Etruscans called their heartland. (In fact, Tuscany is named after them.) It’s believed that they emerged as a unique race in about 800BC with their own language – Etruscan – that was unlike much else that existed at the time. Clearly there had been humans on these lands for millennia but they had generally been simple hunters and gatherers. The Etruscans were the beginning of the age of empires in this part of the world.
They took control of a collection of shepherd’s huts in 650 BC on the land that is today called Rome. They introduced rectangular urban planning, built underground sewers, laid out roads and bridges, and began to promote agriculture and trade. The great city grew from there and eventually its power reached a point where the Etruscans were thrown from their creation 150 years or so later.
Not much documentation has survived from the time of the Etruscans and trying to understand them is a mystery of historians. They used to read the flights of bird to try to tell the future; they dressed with pointy shoes; they introduced the arch into architecture; they would get gladiators to fight to the death at the funeral of a king. These are some of the snippets that remain from a mighty race.
Etruscan tombs, Tarquinia
Much of what we know about the Etruscans is from their tombs here in Tarquinia, a short trip north of Rome. The largest collection is in the Necropolis of Monterozzi, which has about 6000 graves dating back from the 7th century BC. Within many of them are intricately painted wall frescoes which show us an insight into Etruscan life.
You can see slaves pouring drinks for noblemen, scenes of hunting and dancing, musical instruments, sports, and the clothing of the time. Amazingly, the frescoes have been well-protected and are still vivid today.
There are 16 tombs that you can see for yourself on this site. From the outside it looks like they’re in small stone huts but these constructions are actually just the entranceways. Once you go into one, you’ll have to walk down a long flight of stairs to the actual tomb. Each is about the size of a bedroom and the entrance is protected with a door with a glass window. Press a button outside the door and a light will come on inside for you. Peering through the window you can then see the frescoes for yourself. There are similarities between each one but each is unique and I recommend seeing them all if you visit.
To get to Tarquinia from Rome, you can catch the train, which takes just over an hour. It’s a long way from the station into either the centre of town or the necropolis so it’s best to then take a bus. I made the mistake of thinking I could walk it and got extremely hot and extremely lost.
Roman ruins may dominate the ancient sites across Italy… but don’t neglect those who laid down the foundations for the Roman Empire to flourish. The Etruscans gave a lot to the world as we know it and, by studying their history, we may find they have a lot more still to give.
By public transport, get the train to Tarquinia and then the bus to the city centre.
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