BMCR 2005.07.30

Tarquinia. An Etruscan City. Duckworth Archaeological Histories Series

, Tarquinia : an Etruscan city. Duckworth archaeological histories. London: Duckworth, 2004. xii, 218 pages, [12] pages, of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0715631624. £16.99.

The book under review is as one of the first in a new series, the Duckworth Archaeological Histories, charting the history of sites, buildings and towns from all areas of the world, from the time of their construction to the present day. The topic of this excellent book is the greatest city of ancient Etruria, Tarquinia, famous for Etruscan archaeology and art, but also for Etruscan religion and important as a site for the history of Etruscan society. Its interest lies also in the city’s aftermath, its relationship with Rome, and its Nachleben in modern history and literature.

Tarquinia is one of the fifteen urbanised centres in the South Etruscan volcanic landscape which developed more rapidly than the rest of Central Italy. In pre-historic times, fluvial erosion cut out deep crevices into the fertile tufa layers, thus creating vast platforms and a naturally protected area for settlement. Rivers and streams, woodlands and clay banks offered everything that was needed for everyday life, building, and a safe trade connection to the sea, where the harbour Gravisca was situated. The landscape of power can be easily detected for Tarquinia when studying its geographical, economic, and historical-political circumstances. The plateau measured over 300 ha, and must have housed 35,000 people at the height of its power, thus creating a dynamic human landscape and a complex political system. The origin of Tarquinia lies in a cluster of proto-Etruscan settlements dating from the 9th century that must have grown organically into the archaic settlement. The development of social strata can be detected from the necropoleis around the main city, pointing towards domination of smaller centres, based on trade, client relationships, and development of real principes-gentes structures. Tarquinia must have overpowered smaller urban centres such as Tuscania, Tolfa, Luni, and San Giovenale. Its territorial control extended over a vast area for the time, defined by the rivers Arrone, Mignone, and Lake Bolsena. One of the most extraordinary things about Tarquinia is that it never evolved into a medieval town, the (natural) fate of so many other Etruscan cities. This is a gift to modern archeologists. Medieval Tarquinia was constructed on a new site nearby. In fact, the Etruscan city lies intact on the Cività plain, and restitivity methods have revealed structures that point towards a Hippodamian system of town planning that must have been realised in the 5th century BC. Recent explorations, however, have encountered many archaic cult shrines and buildings. Future excavations will undoubtedly give rise to a more complete picture of Tarquinia as a living city. As early as the 18th century, several burial grounds were discovered around the city’s ruins. The most famous is the Monterozzi necropolis with beautifully painted tombs, the earliest of which must have been done by Greek immigrants. Tarquinia boasted the largest urban sanctuary of Etruria, the Ara della Regina, measuring over 75 by 35 meters. Reconstructed in the 4th century BC with an impressively decorated roof, the temple demonstrated civic pride and political power. This will have been intended in part to impress Rome, its future enemy, an effort expended in vain, as Tarquinia was Romanised in 281 BC, the last of the independent Etruscan centres. Ancient history tells us about the Tarquinian dynasty which claimed famous Greeks through intermarriage, supplied Etruscan kings to Rome, and had the first augur in the person of Tarchon, to whom the Disciplina Etrusca and the Libri Tagetici were revealed through the child prophet Tages. These legends make Tarquinia central to the study of Etruscan religion, the only topic in Etruscan Studies that remains poorly investigated in modern scholarship.

A study exclusively dedicated to one Etruscan site is quite unusual nowadays and important to anyone who wants to visit the town and understand its history fully. Tarquinia was last the subject of such a study, by no less a person than Massimo Pallottino, in 1937. I do not favour studies of separate towns, however, at least when it concerns Etruria. For specialists or those studying Etruscan society in its wider context, books on one site are not very useful, except for excavation reports on Etruscan sites, and then only if published properly. Since George Dennis’ Cities and Cemeteries, published in 1848, and Luisa Banti’s Il mondo degli Etruschi, published in 1968, it has been fashionable to study Etruscan society as a collection of highly diverse independent cities, disregarding the rural landscape and the life between the famous centres with their vast necropoleis. The authors of these books must have been guided by a fear of the unknown, choosing a fragmented approach to interpretation as the only way to understand this ‘mysterious’ people. This rather sterile approach was fortunately left behind in the late nineties, after a period of silence on Etruscan subjects, in favour of studies concentrating on the essence of Etruria, the landscape and its smaller settlements, and the way the people used their land outside of the big centres. Graeme Barker & Tim Rasmussen’s The Etruscans (1998) set a trend of bringing the Etruscans at once back to life and into the world by looking at their open society as a result of a long process of cultural transformations and interactions with other groups in the Mediterranean world.

This book is a clear exception to the stream of studies that do not get beyond the scientific guidebook approach to sites. It is clearly the result of thorough research and a deep understanding of Etruscan society, based on all available sources, well-written and flawlessly documented as well. The author’s intention to provide an introduction to this key site as well as to important topics in Etruscan Archaeology has been a success and is exemplary of a welcome new phase in Etruscan studies that attempts to put physical sites into the broadest socio-economic and political context available. Moreover, the timing of this study is excellent, appearing at the very moment that important and long awaited excavation results of the University of Milan’s Tarquinia project are expected. Under guidance of Maria Bonghi Jovino, this project has been producing monumental volumes steadily since 1997 ( Tarchna series) and a wonderful exhibition in 2001 in the Archaeological Museum in Tarquinia. A thorough catalogue has been dedicated to Tarquinia etrusca and the recent excavations in the urban area.

The structure of the book is simple, balanced, and well considered. Opening with a preface explaining the author’s aim and apologizing for its summary treatment of the topics, the book contains five chapters, all more or less equal in length and depth. Apart from the first chapter (Discovery and Loss, pp. 1-31), dealing with the history of the archaeological and antiquarian activities in Tarquinia from the Middle Ages to present times, chapters two to five are dedicated to the four important moments in Tarquinia’s Etruscan history. These chapters are set in chronological order, starting with prehistory and proto-Etruscan settlements (Origins and Growth, pp. 32-58), the territorial development in urban context (The Rise of the City State, pp.59-85), Tarquinia in its prime (Urbs Florentissima, pp. 86-138), and finally its difficult relationship with Rome and its decline as an Etruscan power (Tarquinia and Rome, pp. 137-183). Except for 25 black-and-white pictures, the book is extensively illustrated by fine black-and-white drawings (71!), which add to its attractiveness and completeness, notwithstanding its compact dimensions. I suppose the author himself is responsible for these remarkable drawings, as no reference is given to another person responsible for this work. Lists of illustrations are set at the beginning of the book. Notes, arranged by chapter, a chronology, an extensive and up-to-date bibliography, as well as a complete index are set at the back of the book. The text is written in a clear and fascinating style; it takes no effort whatsoever to start this book and finish it from page 1 to 183 without putting it aside. No effort for specialists at any rate — this is not novel, and neither is it easy reading for undergraduates interested in a basic introduction to an Etruscan city. It is absolutely necessary that the reader is well informed and specialised in Etruscan Archaeology, as well as being up-to-date with current discussions. Leighton considers every subject with care and includes all (recent) discoveries and theories on the different topics in his argument. The book is dense with information, well-argued and thoroughly documented with abundant references. I found no mistakes in the notes or bibliography, although some cross-references to figures in the text seem to have been mixed up (e.g. p. 5, fig. 64 B: Tomba dell’Orco ? seems a sarcophagus to me).

Thanks to the book under review, we can now reconstruct the history of an exemplary Etruscan city up to modern times, its regional and rural setting, its dead and past societies, and, finally, the wider stage of Etruscan Archaeology as part of the Mediterranean world. The book gives a clear insight into the problems of archaeological scholarship, excavations and interpretations in general. And I am looking forward to the next publication of Robert Leighton, hopefully on another Etruscan subject.