About North-West of Rome: Etruscan homeland
The Romans thought them vicious. In their painted wooden villas they perpetrated the worst excesses of a permissive society, such as taking their meals en famille, husband and wife reclining on the same couch. Yet Rome adopted their religious cults (vestal virgins and household gods), their arts of divination (thunder, sheeps’ livers and the flight of birds) and their entertainments. From flute-and-dance routines with which, after capture, they amused their masters on Capitol Hill, Roman comedy was born. Before that, long before Rome’s monuments were built, they ruled as kings. Their emblem of authority, twelve rods bound to an axe, became the badge of Empire and later of Fascism.
They were the Etruscans, the ‘long-nosed, sensitive-footed, subtly-smiling Etruscans’ as the novelist D.H. Lawrence called them. (His book Etruscan Places thoughtfully describes parts of the tour.) They founded cities from Lombardy to Campania but this region north-west of Rome was their homeland. Here is the great concentration of subterranean tombs with paintings and sculptures of surrealist artistry and high quality. They tell us as much as we know of a race which came from nowhere and vanished as mysteriously and spoke a language not yet properly deciphered. Of an Etruscan ruin Propertius wrote, 2,000 years ago:
In fact, you can see ancient Etruria without leaving Rome, in the glittering collections of the Villa Giulia (at Villa Borghese, closed Mon and winter afternoons) and the Vatican (Gregorian Museum, closed Sun except last Sun in month; closed public holidays and two weeks at Easter). Then, taking to the road and looking out for the ‘TOMBA ETRUSCA’ signs, without attempting too much, you can survey splendours in situ. They lie under archetypal pastures along earth-faults and round the black perimeters of volcanic lakes and clusters of surface ruins and tumuli (grave-mounds). For the tombs it is best (sometimes compulsory) to take a guide.
If you want to follow the circuit on the map by car, leave Rome on Via Trionfale or Via Cassia (north of St Peter’s Square), not failing to look back from Monte Mario at a wonderful cityscape. Clockwise, leave on Via Aurelia (just south of St Peter’s Square). Allow four days to cover the best places to visit.
On the main Rome-Livorno line from Termini station there are frequent trans for Cerveteri (for Caere), Santa Severa (Pyrgi), Tarquinia and Montalto di Castro (Vulci). You have to walk a few kilometres or telephone for a taxi to get to the tombs themselves.
Local bus connections are not to be relied on. A provincial railway goes through pleasant country from Rome’s Piazzale Flaminio station to Viterbo. All sites on the tour are served by COTRA buses which start from Rome’s Via Lepanto, just off Viale Giulio Cesare and close to the Lepanto underground station – www.cotraspa.it.