BMCR 2021.05.15

Tra ostentazione e austerità: le tombe di Veio tra VI e IV sec. a.C.

, Tra ostentazione e austerità: le tombe di Veio tra VI e IV sec. a.C. Bibliotheca etrusca, 3. Rome: Arbor Sapientiae, 2020. Pp. 436; 7 p. of plates. ISBN 9788831341127 €45,00.

This welcome publication of Marco Arizza’s doctoral thesis on Veii’s Archaic burial practices represents the latest output of an extraordinarily productive phase of research at the South Etruscan capital of Veii by faculty and students from the Sapienza University of Rome. The majority of this book consists of a long, detailed catalogue, which will mostly excite scholars with specific interest in Iron Age Italian funerary ideology. However, I intend for this review to draw wider and (I think) deserved attention: Arizza’s results cast new light upon the very old question of the sociopolitical implications of burial in Rome and its surrounding region in the transitional period between Monarchy and Republic.

For at least a century now, scholars have observed a sharp decline of burial evidence from Rome, Latium, and South Etruria beginning in the sixth century BCE. There are exceptions, of course, but the general trend is that of fewer burials containing fewer and less spectacular objects than in preceding periods. In an influential paper, G. Colonna connected this material tendency to historical evidence, and particularly to sumptuary laws in the tenth of the Twelve Tables, which he argued codified behavioral norms reflective of the political ideologies of the Servian monarchy and Early Republican state.[1] Arizza’s study builds upon this thesis by adding new data from Rome’s nearest Etruscan neighbor, which confirms in close detail—closer than what we may discern at Rome itself—the changes affecting Veian burial practices at this time.

The text is divided into five sections. Section I offers a rapid overview of previous scholarship, starting from G. Pinza and F. von Duhn, but mostly contending with the debate following Colonna’s study. Here and throughout, scholarship in Italian dominates to the exclusion of works in other languages, and some gaps appear to which I return below. Arizza focuses on L. Drago’s suggestion that Archaic Veii witnessed the emergence of a brand-new tomb type, the vestibule tomb (tomba a vestibolo). Such tombs consist of an unroofed rectangular room, a few meters wide and long, carved directly into the tuff. This “vestibule” was accessed by steps carved along one side, while a niche or loculus in an opposite wall hosted the deceased’s remains, closed off behind tiles or tuff slabs.

Section II, a 360-page catalogue, makes abundantly clear that Drago’s intuition was correct. Arizza locates 87 tombs datable to the Archaic period, 63 of which adhere to this vestibule type. Many examples are published for the first time, as Arizza draws from an array of sources, from old archival accounts to freshly discovered material, including excavations directed by the author. The catalogue, studded with plans and photographs, is organized exhaustively into 31 sites, each with a brief introduction, followed by individual treatments of each tomb, every burial within them, and all objects. Some of this information could perhaps be more succinctly communicated in tabular form, but undoubtedly Arizza puts forward substantial new data for Veian burial ritual in the period.

A map at the book’s end orients readers to the spatial distribution of these burials, which appear from the edges of Faliscan territory to the north to the Caeretan frontier to the west. Burials are absent from a strip of land just west of the Tiber in the Colli Portuensi, perhaps representing a sort of buffer zone between Veii and Rome. Generally speaking, tombs appear in relation to all sorts of sites, from settlements of all sizes in the ager Veientanus to the well-known large Iron Age cemeteries ringing the city. Often, Archaic tombs continue earlier Iron Age burials; we even find one example beside Eneolithic tombs. In many instances, we also find later Roman burials.

Sections III and IV offer statistical analyses and then apply their results to a discussion of funeral ideology. Arizza develops a four-part typology of Veian tombs of the sixth to fourth centuries BCE, dominated by vestibule tombs; a lesser number feature dromoi with or without hypogea, and a few are simple pit-burials. Vestibule tombs seem to be an architectural development specific to the area around Veii. Their architecture raises interesting questions of maintenance, since no positive evidence confirms they were roofed, while signs of burnt offerings made against the closed-off burial niches indicates post-depositional rites, for which purpose they presumably remained open. Arizza wonders whether families performing rites also tended to open tombs.

Tombs fall into three phases: Phase I (550-500 BCE), Phase II (500-400 BCE), and Phase III (400-350 BCE), the last showing continuity beyond Roman conquest, which Arizza considers in relation to Livy’s notice that Rome (re)settled loyal Etruscans on the ager Veientanus (6.4). Phase I shows consistent cremation burials, while the architectural type varies between the vestibule tomb and other categories. By Phase III, inhumation dominates, but all tombs belong to the vestibule type.

Statistical study of grave goods shows an expected dominance of pottery, particularly unpainted fine wares. Metal and glass objects are rarer. Only two later tombs contain any gold ornament. Other notable finds include two examples of aes grave found in the hands of inhumed females, possibly as symbolic payment for passage to the underworld. Only rarely do politically symbolic goods appear: one tomb contains part of a magistrate’s chair, and large nails in another may pertain to a carriage. There is no weaponry whatsoever.

The concluding Section V contextualizes the material and considers its sociohistorical implications. Arizza argues that, while the vestibule tomb is particularly Veian, larger trends mirror Rome and Latium. As at Rome and in Latium, Archaic burial evidence declines at Veii starting in the sixth century, both in the number of tombs and in the quantity and quality of goods they contain. Burial also is seen to reflect a more level social order. This is especially true in Phase I, where cremation is consistently practiced. Multiple burials frequently occur in tombs, but with no differentiation between them. We only know of the multi-generational lifespan of such tombs from the chronological arc of goods sealed within their otherwise identical niches. No vestibule tomb reveals an obvious family progenitor, as especially lavish burials at the center of Early Iron Age tumuli are sometimes interpreted. Interestingly, the egalitarian outlook is disrupted somewhat in later phases, when more unusual grave goods occasionally appear, and ritual varies between inhumation and cremation.

Arizza argues that Veii’s new burial practices cannot be interpreted as economically motivated or as a sign of restricted or differently allocated wealth. He provides an “energetics” analysis comparing an Orientalizing tomb and an Archaic tomb from the same site; by his volumetric calculation, the Archaic tomb required more excavation and thus greater investment of labor for its construction.[2] Moreover, cremation practiced as a rule in Phase I was costlier in terms of resources than inhumation. So, Archaic burial in Arizza’s view was less ostentatious, but not less expensive; rather, he suggests changes were moral or sociocultural in nature, essentially endorsing Colonna’s view. He takes Livy’s famous note that Veii before Rome’s conquest reverted to a king (5.1) to confirm that the city’s government had prior to that point become less monarchic. Thus, he envisions a scenario in which, as at Rome, power and wealth at Veii were expanded to a larger group of elites, who maintained isonomia and collective identity through sumptuary legislation.

At this point, one senses some missed opportunities to engage with broader scholarship. First, T.J. Cornell’s important discussion, uncited here, already identified as problematic the idea that a specifically Roman legislation apparently affected a broader region.[3] To get around this difficulty, Arizza postulates similar laws at Veii, but this is only speculation, and it approaches the implication of a sort of regional common-law shared by independent, often adversarial, communities. Legal structures would not only circulate freely between Rome and Veii in this scenario, but they also would permeate territory: many vestibule tombs belong to rural sites or frontier zones, raising questions about how laws were propagated and enforced. Second, in fact the Twelve Tables make little reference to the contents of burial but mostly target sumptuous funerals. Since there is no evidence of the cremations themselves, we must assume that aspects of post-cremation deposition reflect funerals. But this can only be an assumption, while the use of the Twelve Tables to read Veian burial in such a direct manner creates potential problems.

A further, related point is that burial archaeology as a field has considerably deconstructed the notion that funerary ideology reflects social structure. That the world of the grave was more ideal than reality is by now well-established in the literature.[4] Following Colonna’s approach, Arizza tends to assume Veii’s tombs reflect its sociopolitical structure in a one-to-one manner. This approach might be acceptable if no other means existed of accessing Archaic Veii’s society, but this is not true. For example, the University of Rome’s excavations have also revealed on the urban plateau of Piazza d’Armi an exceptional burial of the ninth century, subsequently monumentalized and transformed into a cult site, which endured well into the fifth century within the expanding urban fabric. If the excavators are correct in seeing this burial venerated as a sort of founder’s cult, its long-term continuity complicates broader notions of political rupture.[5] That is, we might further explore how those families building and maintaining vestibule tombs across Veii’s territory related not only to one another, but also to the past. Moreover, I still question whether historical processes, like law codes, were necessarily identical between city and hinterland, and on both aspects it would be revealing to integrate Arizza’s results with those of landscape archaeology in the region by the British School at Rome.

Of course, we can only ask these questions thanks to Arizza’s considerable efforts, which reveal in rich detail the contours of changing funerary practice across Archaic Veii’s territory. The period in this part of Italy remains understudied compared to the Monarchy or the Middle Republic. Going forward, Arizza’s study should play a central role, as it showcases both the period’s importance and what evidence is available for its reconstruction.

Before concluding, a final word on the publisher. Arizza’s book is the third in a new series, Bibliotheca Etrusca, by the Roman publishing house and distributor Arbor Sapientiae. It is normal to say something about the production quality of a book under review, but I am unable to do so.[6] After I agreed to review the volume, the publisher pulled a bait-and-switch, sending a digital version of it in PDF format instead of the expected hard copy, along with complaints about shipping costs. Much might be said in response to that decision, but I restrict myself to this particular volume. I repeat, the book is image-heavy and features a dense catalogue; it is replete with cross-references, and it would have been helpful to flip back and forth to the maps to locate lesser-known sites. All of this made the digital copy given to me exceedingly cumbersome to work with. The author, whose accomplishments I have tried to convey, is by no means at fault for this outcome, but the publisher did him no favors. I cannot confirm for interested researchers or librarians if this book is up to the task of the sort of consultation, which its contents would encourage: caveat emptor.


[1] G. Colonna, “Un aspetto oscuro del Lazio antico. Le tombe del VI – V secolo a.C.,” PP 32 (1977): 131–65.

[2] The calculation is rudimentary and might be developed. For example, can we identify changes to excavating techniques, which may have affected labor cost per unit?

[3] T.J. Cornell, 1995. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c. 1000–264 B.C. London, Routledge: 105–8.

[4] Especially in scholarship in English, but see also, for example, V. Nizzo, ed. 2018 Antropologia e archeologia a confronto: archeologia e antropologia della morte 3. Costruzione e decostruzione del sociale. Rome, ESS.

[5] V. Acconcia and G. Bartoloni, 2014. “La Cittadella di Piazza d’Armi,” RendPont 86: 273–96.

[6] Typos are rare and unobtrusive, except for some confused labels on catalogue entries for the sites of Monte Oliviero and Monte Michele.