The Etruscans were scaredy-cats. That was all I knew about them, after taking in regular schoolroom doses of Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, including these stirring words:
But all Etruria's noblest
Felt their hearts sink to see
On the earth the bloody corpses,
In the path the dauntless Three:
And, from the ghastly entrance
Where those bold Romans stood,
All shrank, like boys who unaware,
Ranging the woods to start a hare,
Come to the mouth of the dark lair
Where, growling low, a ﬁerce old bear
Lies amidst bones and blood.
We boys were all for brave Horatius and his faithful chums, and all against the beastly Etruscans and their king Tarquinius Superbus with his underhand tricks and ridiculous name.
In ensuing years it never occurred to me to change that childhood view. All the greater delight, then, to have my eyes dazzlingly opened to the colourful, life-loving, deeply spiritual and sensual civilisation the Etruscans developed between 800 and 300 BC in the lands between the Arno and the Tiber, before the Romans moved in to crush and subdue them.
The Etruscans in Latium, the little black book I picked up from the Italian Tourist Board, had a map showing all the Etruscan sites in the Lazio region - town remnants, temples, cemeteries and associated museums - and spoke of "that air of mystery and reﬁ nement … characteristic of this mysterious people".
Its photographs showed delicate bracelets and pendants of beaten gold, black pottery goblets, beautifully carved statues of recumbent, smiling men and women, wall paintings of feasts and battles, and the extraordinary necropolises in which these objects lay forgotten for nearly 3,000 years.
All the Etruscan sites in Lazio can be reached from Rome within a couple of hours. They can be reached even more easily from La Posta Vecchia, an elegant 17th-century hotel near Ladispoli, 20 miles north of Rome, which stands with its feet in the Tyrrhenian Sea and its ﬂ ank butted up against the 15th-century Castle of Palo.
The ﬁrst site I visited was the nearest to the hotel, and easily the most spectacular. In the vast necropolis at Cerveteri , the Etruscans buried their dead throughout the rise, ﬂourishing and decline of their civilisation.
They buried them in clusters of round stone buildings, each tomb 70 or 80 yards in circumference, or in long barrack-like streets of terraced stone houses.
In chambered rooms the dead were laid to rest on beds of tufa or marble. Some were placed in stone sarcophagi, their own efﬁgies lying above them on the cofﬁn lids, each statue propped up on one elbow and staring intently towards the doorway of the tomb.
The places they lay in were replicas of Etruscan domestic rooms, giving me the eerie feeling that I was paying calls on people who had either just popped out or were hiding from me.
The Tomb of the Reliefs gave the best glimpse into the lives of these dead. Painted stucco relief mouldings on the walls and pillars showed warlike preoccupations - weapons, helmets, shields, swords - as well as domestic items such as axes, ﬂails, griddles and a coil of rope, with sinuous cats depicted slinking among them.
Real cats were catching lizards on the sunlit walls. It wasn't until I got to the up-country museum in the black-stone Castello d'Abbadia at Vulci that the Etruscans themselves began to come alive.
Here were pottery deer with long ears, vases decorated with lively boar hunters, dancers with tails, battling heroes, a perfume jar cunningly shaped like a sandalled leg. A sense of a humorous people came through - people who danced wildly and observed nature lovingly.
With a young archaeologist, Sylvia, I walked a circuit of the rough tufa walls and wheel-worn ﬂagstone roadway of the town they built on a nearby plateau.
Where did the Etruscans arrive from in 800 BC? "Some think they were Greeks, or from Asia Minor," Sylvia said, "but probably they came in gradually from around the Mediterranean. They were the overlords, dominating the peasants here. They founded 12 cities, and they became great traders and very rich. That's why the nobles could afford to be buried so splendidly."
Next day I came up to Tuscania, not far from Vulci, with permission to explore the rock-cut tombs in the cliffs around the town. These chambers were cut square into the tufa, with carved benches running round their walls. Best of all was the Tomb of the Queen, reached by a long passageway - a great chamber deep in the cliffs with a honeycomb of passages around and below it.
Through holes in the ﬂoor I glimpsed shadowy tunnels and byways running off to unknown destinations. Two museums really shone a light on the Etruscans for me - the one at Tuscania, and its sister museum down the road at Tarquinia.
The sarcophagus-lid efﬁgies had faces carved in portraiture of the deceased: a grinning man with a tip-tilted nose, an old woman lined and sunken-cheeked, a magistrate with a pinched, sour mouth.
At Tarquinia many were named in backwards-running Etruscan writing: Larth Alvethna in a fancy cap, Laris Partunus the priest with one hand raised in blessing, Velthur Partunus with his feet on a horned river god.
The names bestowed personality, almost an intimacy. There were rooms full of pottery, of bronze helmets and goblets, of jars painted with vivid, cruel battle scenes: men grabbed by the hair, speared, forced to their knees, humiliated.
The Etruscans were engaged from around 400 BC in a long struggle with the Romans, and echoes of the pain of their long defeat reverberated in those violent scenes. I wanted an antidote to the gloom and - unsurprisingly, among such death-obsessed people - I found it underground in the fabulous painted tombs of the Tarquinia necropolis.
Here in vivid frescoes were the Etruscans of the glorious 6th century BC in all their vigour and liveliness: courting, feasting, hunting birds and deer, making love and making merry in the woods and ﬁelds of Lazio.
The Romans and their jackboot sandals cast no shadow for these delighted and delightful folk, celebrating the pleasures of life at the very gates of the Underworld.
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