2000 Years of Roman History, Part One: The First Romans
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Roman taxi drivers aren’t shy about sharing their life philosophy. An engaging conversation took place with one of Rome’s female taxi drivers (75 percent of taxi drivers are men) who discussed life as a driver, what is important to her and why Rome is so special. She learned a lot after leaving a job as a director in a large hotel. “Quality of life is most important. Jobs are like coins; there is one side and then there is the other.” She prefers driving to management (“Saturday is a day of rest”) and setting her own schedule, working from 8-5.
Driving on roads full of pot holes from the east side near Santa Maria del Popolo across town to the Vatican, she spoke about Roman life. Many things in Rome are broken, like infrastructure and poor city services, but the uniqueness of the city intermingles modern day living with rich history. Something she said stuck with me – “Roma ha fatto la storia e siamo la storia,” and in English, “Rome made the history and we are the story.” The word in Italian for history and story is the same = la storia. The Roman people continue to tell the story of their city. No other Italian city has more storia than Rome. This living history is evident in each neighborhood. It’s impossible to walk through any district or down a street and not experience its history coexistent in the context of modern Italian life.
Five Roman artworks from about 500 BCE (before current era, also known as BC, before Christ) to 1650 tell the storia of its rich past. The next five posts will highlight a work of art, in social and historical context, to tell the storia of Rome.
These may not be the art works that immediately come to mind, for example, the Colosseum or the Spanish Steps. Lesser known art comes with fewer pre-conceived notions. These posts will explore Etruscan art, a Roman garden painting, the medieval church Santa Maria in Trastevere, a portrait of a Renaissance pope, and a model of an angel for St. Peter’s Basilica. These five posts will time travel from 520 BCE to 1666, some 2100 years of history and art.
Map of Etruscan territory. Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome.
The First Romans
The Etruscans were the homegrown Italians, the native peoples inhabiting Etruria, just north of Rome to Northern Tuscany. Etruscan culture is often overlooked and underappreciated nowadays, thanks to the Romans who did an effective public relations job appropriating Etruscan culture then casting it as their own, only better. Twelve Etruscan city-states, united more religiously and culturally than politically and militarily, came to being during the Iron Age (1000 BCE).
Frescoed hemisphere ceiling, 1550s, Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome. The villa was built for Pope Julius III in the mid 1550s. It is worth a trip just to see the charming villa, the beautiful frescoed portico ceiling, gardens, and architecture. It's the best place in Rome to experience the Etruscan culture.
If you envision isolated nomadic primitive peoples in huts wearing animal skins, think again. Etruscans had a written language, very sophisticated religion, elaborate rituals, domesticated livestock, chariots, and lived a visually rich life. Etruscan artifacts have been located along the Rhine river in Germany, southern Spain, southern France, and as far east as Greece and northern Egypt. Robust trade and cultural exchanges occurred throughout these regions, but especially to and from Greece. Etruscan cities were rich in minerals highly desired by other cultures. And the Greeks made pottery highly desired by the Etruscans. Greeks had established trading colonies on the Italian peninsula for hundreds of years and artisans practiced their crafts freely.
Bronze mirror, Dance Scene with Nymph and Silenus, Etruscan made, 500 BCE, Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome.
Large settlements like Volci, Tarquinia, Veii, Caere, and Cerveteri thrived on plateaus close to bodies of water and traded in raw materials. Etruscans were especially skilled in bronze work and many bronze figures survive. Numerous Etruscan bronze mirrors survive, approximately 3-4,000. Frequently given as wedding gifts, they were sometimes buried with the deceased. They were artfully engraved on the non-reflective side, usually with mythological scenes and figures. A mirror depicting a Dance Scene with Nymph and Silenus illustrates the playful nature of the figures decorated with a surround of grape vines and birds. Silenus is a satyr, part human and part horse, associated with the wine god Dionysus, and often represents excess and folly. The scene does not necessarily discourage excess and folly, but encourages limited shenanigans.
The sixth century BCE was prosperous for Etruria. Trade was brisk, economic and political life relatively stable, and Etruscan culture, although it varied greatly from north to south, was highly developed. Funeral rites were an important part of Etruscan religious life. Cremation was common until about 500 BCE when burying the dead in large terracotta sarcophagi became common, especially for the upper classes. Placing an effigy of the deceased on top of the sarcophagus was an Etruscan creation. Multi-room tombs were built, some with painted walls, but the elite buried their families in style, with many precious objects.
Sarcophagus of Married Couple, from Cerveteri, 530-20 BCE, Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome. Studies show the average death age was 44 for women and 49 for men. Couples are frequently represented in Etruscan art. The husband partially covers his wife with his mantle.
Sarcophagus of the Married Couple
A highly skilled artist created the Sarcophagus of the Married Couple with intimate and touching details: braided hair, elbows that lean into the pillow, a tender embrace, folds of fabric, and outstretched hands. The couple has what is called an “archaic smile” typical of the time period, seen also in Greek art, – sort of a half-smile lacking in individual features. The couple is shown half-reclining on a banquet chaise originally holding banquet cups. The practice of funerary banquets was common in Greek, Etruscan and Roman cultures.
Sarcophagus of Married Couple, from Cerveteri, 530-20 BCE, Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome. The hair style is convincingly portrayed with dreadlock-like curls. When this sarcophagus was found in 1881 it was in 400 fragments. The sarcophagus was originally made as one piece then cut in half to prevent breakage during firing.
However, the couple is represented with genuine affectionate. Originally the couple would have been painted, the wife with lighter skin tone and the husband with darker tones. These terracotta sarcophagi were truly Etruscan as the Greeks did not place effigies of the dead on their tombs and the tradition was discontinued by the Romans. The representation of martial affection is unheard of in Greek art, as was the status of Etruscan women, who moved about freely socially and were generally held in high esteem. This is true of aristocratic families for which we have documentation; we know little or nothing of the poor and lower classes. Goddesses played an important part in Etruscan religion with emphasis on healing, fertility, and birth.
Sarcophagus of Married Couple, from Cerveteri, 530-20 BCE, Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia, Rome.
The End of an Era
A variety of factors caused the fracture of Etruscan society, primarily because they were not united militarily. The Romans leveraged this weakness to their advantage. Economically, southern Etruscans suffered after losing sea faring trade routes although Volterra in the north was less impacted and remained prosperous even after Roman rule. As Rome grew in size, there was conflict between Etruria and Rome for over two hundred years, but eventually the stronger military began to force the independent twelve Etruscan cities into submission.
Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, maintained peace with the subjugated cities. Many aristocratic Etruscans became Roman elite and served in the senate while others fled to north Africa. The Etruscan culture and religion formed the foundation of the Roman empire’s culture and religion.
The Romans claimed the Etruscans were backwards and the Greeks represented them as loose and immoral. Greek culture was considered the epitome of class and the Romans were anxious to mimic and associate themselves with the Greeks and in turn disparage the Etruscans. Modern excavations and research have given the Etruscans their rightful place as a powerful and cultured people.
Haynes, Sybille. Etruscan Civilization. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000.
Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage. Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
Turfa, Jean MacIntosh, ed. The Etruscan World. Routledge, 2013.