Exploring Veio, Rome’s “last big enemy”

Entering medieval Isola Farnese, in Rome outskirts, near former Etruscan city Veio

Who has read my previous posts about Rome knows that I love wandering about its ancient ruins and staring in awe at their majesty. This, however, should not lead my readers to believe that I agree with Romans’ foreign policies of conquering and invading, although, I admit, unlike today’s imperialist wars, at least they have left us an heritage of some stunning remains.

This being said, I feel it is such a shame that the civilization prior to the Romans in Central Italy has been wiped out by the mighty new dynasties of divine origins, and their existent remains so poorly represented today in the Italian capital and its surroundings.

During my last trip to Rome, I visited Veio, the last Etruscan city that surrendered to the new conquerors’ fury, Rome’s “last big enemy”.

As soon as my friend Silvia and I arrived where the archaeological site was supposed to be, we realized we were dawdling about a medieval district, known as Isola Farnese. After asking a seldom inhabitant for direction, we learnt we were to go further down into the countryside to find Veio. Despite the increasing temperatures, we made our way to a great green sweep and started to chase ancient remains.

My friend Silvia in Isola Farnese trying to figure out where to go next

While the area was already inhabited in the prehistoric Iron Age, the city of Veio, southernmost center of Etruria, homeland of the Etruscan civilization, was founded and built between the 8th and the 5th centuries BC. When Veio was created, the area was already widely populated, being a fertile land rich in water supplies thanks to the ancient lakes nearby.

The city of Veio (Veii for the Romans) controlled a huge territory, from northeastern Sabina area to Cerveteri, another great Etruscan city on the northwest, while on the south it included all the territories along the right bank of the Tiber River, from today’s districts of the Gianicolo, Trastevere, the Vatican up to Monte Mario hill.

Silvia again, this time in the Etruscan settlement, looking a bit desperate while we tried to gather all the knowledge we had about ancient Italian history and understand how the settlement was actually laid out

There are many Etruscan remains in Rome, even along Via Flaminia, but certainly they are not as well preserved as the Roman ruins themselves, the ones with divine origins, just to make it clear. Veio has been the very last Etruscan city to surrender to Roman power, and the conflict between the two started with their obvious attempts to control the trade landing along the Tiber River that at the time was pivotal to deliver food supplies to men and animals. Most Etruscan cities refused to help Veio against Rome, and finally, after a lengthy war and endless massacres, in 396 BC Etruria’s last stronghold fell at the hand of emperor Marco Furio Camillo, leaving Rome free to conquer the rest of central and southern Italy.

Etruria stretched out all over most central Italy overlooking on the Tyrrhenian Sea, and while Rome little by little conquered all its cities and determined its end, it also incorporated much of their culture. The origins of this civilization are very much shrouded in mystery, and this is probably due to the uncertainty around their language, written in Greek characters, but which is not comparable to any other Mediterranean idioms, and in which we have only managed to resume brief texts belonging to their religious, funerary or magical rituals, but never a full literary composition. Even ancient historians such as Erodotus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus already debated over their origins: the first considered them natives from Anatolia, while the latter stated they were natives from the same Italy. This controversy has survived up to our days.

A deep well, which I think it was the cistern all Etruscan settlements had

The latest archaeological finds would give for sure that they were natives from central Italy, where their civilization actually developed and from where they departed for their trades and relations with other populations. Famous for their sailing abilities, Etruscans were strong allies of Phoenician Carthage, and by the sixth century BC they had colonized northern Italy up to the Po River’s valley and the south up to Campania region.

Pretty soon, though, neighboring and competing cities started being unnerved by their expansion. By the fifth century their commercial exchanges with Greece were already in decline and they were being attacked from north (by the Gauls) to south (by raising Rome). In the end, Etruscans even helped Rome during the Punic Wars and after the battles against Sulla, in 80 BC Etruscans became Roman citizens and their culture started disappearing. Even their language disappeared, except for some religious and magic rituals used up until the end of the Roman Empire.

Temple devoted to the god Apollo, or at least the remains and the representation of how it was in its heyday

My friend Silvia and I tried our best to spot Etruscan ruins in the huge park of Veio, and we actually did see some of them. We also tried to understand what they actually were and whether they belonged to proper Etruscan tradition or they were already influenced by the Roman presence. This is how we found what we think it was a settlement, surrounded by houses, a holy building and a deep cistern in the center serving as water reserve, and, further deep in, the ruins of what seemed a majestic temple.

Many elements from the Etruscan culture were kept by the Romans, the same Wolf that rescued and raised the first king was an Etruscan symbol. From an artistic and architectural point of view they mainly left us funerary mausoleums and beautiful paintings depicting moments of daily life, burial rituals and themes of the afterlife, influenced by the different foreign cultures they were in contact with throughout the different periods of their existence.

The forms of art that more than any other left some traces have been sculpture, especially from Cerveteri southward, and goldsmith, again in Cerveteri, where artists specialized in bracelets, pins and necklaces made with a particular technique called “granulation”, in which a jewel is decorated with small spheres of precious metal following a specific design pattern.

Etruscan objects kept in the Musei Capitolini in Rome’s Campidoglio

The unwillingness to devote resources to preserve the Etruscan remains as well as the Roman ones, seemingly in a denying sort of way, almost seems an effort to show that in Italy there was nothing before the Roman Empire.

I’ve always been very fascinated by civilizations that despite not leaving much to posterity still manage to stand out and make their presence heard after such a long time. I would have loved to see more of Etruria in Veio, but probably it was only the beginning of a new journey. In fact, next time I’ll go to Rome I’ll make sure I’ll visit Cerveteri and Tarquinia, widely known as the bext kept traces of this ancient population that has also had productive exchanges with Sardinia’s native nuragic civilization.

I’ll also make sure to update with my new findings as I’m completely drawn to explore these lost civilizations almost in a stubborn attempt to track a reconnection with the human beings occupying Italy thousands of years before me.

  1. Reply
    Cole @ Four Jandals July 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Didn’t even know this place existed until now. Maybe we will get the chance to visit in another week when we head back to Rome.

  2. I love your “stubborn” quest! It’s always so interesting to read all of the history.

  3. I like the way they’ve shown what that temple would have looked like. I always find it pretty difficult to picture what buildings used to be like when all that’s left is crumbling foundations!

  4. The Etruscans fascinate me.
    D. H. Lawrence’s book, Etruscan Places is a classic travel book with good info about what was known of the Etruscans back in the mid-20th century. In researching to write a review of the book, I found a lot of current museums and sites in Italy devoted to the Etruscans, plus some gorgeous pictures from Flickr. I’d love to go trace Lawrence’s steps and see how things have changed. (In case your site spams messages with urls in them, I’ll suggest if you’re curious, you just go to A Traveler’s Library.com and search for Etruscan in the search box.)
    P.S.: Have you been on the tour that takes you to the tombs under the Vatican? Those are Etruscan tombs.

    • Vera Marie,

      I’ve gone to the Banditaccia Necropoli in Ceverteri. I had never heard of it before until I ran across an article about how it has been refurbished and is open to the public. Apparently this was the site to not miss if one was in Europe until it fell into disrepair for many years. Here is the article. Someone tried to steal one of its most important statues.

      I am on my way to visit the Etruscan Ampitheater and the ancient Mithraeum in Sutri I am hoping this week… Now I have a new place to explore: Veio

      Thank you for the recommendation for D.H. Lawrence’s book, Etruscan Places. I will be ordering that.


    • Hi Vera, I read Lawrence’s book, I remember he didn’t appreciate Romans’ takeover either. Obviously we should not forget Etruscans also had a “conquering” spirit, the Romans were just stronger… Much research still needs to be done about Etruria, especially around their civilization, they had a very complex funerary and magical tradition, I read somewhere they also practiced human sacrifices, but would need to research this further. I haven’t been to the Etruscan tombs under the Vatican, which ones are they? I know there is an old cemetery that is not open to the public, or at least not on a daily basis, and requires a phone booking. I remember I called them last time I was in Rome in March and they told me they were fully booked until July!

  5. I am not good at history and never have been. I like to know the history of a place I visit, but I need it in short, interesting snippets with photos like this :-)

  6. Such an inspiring post. This is the stuff that makes us want to travel.

  7. I have long been fascinated by the Etruscans and enjoyed learning more about them at the small museum in Fiesole. I agree that much more effort should be made to protect the remains and to promote their old and interesting history.

  8. I appreciate the history element in your post. It’s great to learn something in addition to seeing pretty photos.

  9. Great Photos! Great history. I like how you have written about the Etruscan people so short but eloquently. Last summer I went to the Necropolis in Cervetri. Apparently this was one of the not miss sites to visit if one was in Europe in the early 20th century and they have just refurbished it for visitors. I had never even heard of it before.

    I just came back from Civita Castellana and went to the archeological museum where they have a history of the Etruscans in stages. Their art changed as they intermingled with the Greeks. And I love their mulled wine crafts.

    Next we will go find the Veio site and will read D.H. Lawrence’s book “Estruscan Places”

    Thank you for the lovely blog post

    • Thanks for stopping by, Pietra, Etruscans were a fascinating civilization and it’s very interesting to trace them. There is a great Etruscan Museum in Rome that you might like, in case you happen to stop in the capital!

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