Early Rome

Early Rome

Originally a small town on the banks of the Tiber River, Rome grew in size and strength, early on, through trade. The location of the city provided merchants with an easily navigable waterway on which to traffic their goods. Greek culture and civilization, which came to Rome via Greek colonies to the south, provided the early Romans with a model on which to build their own culture.

From the Greeks, they borrowed literacy and religion as well as the fundamentals of architecture. The Etruscans, to the north, provided a model for trade and urban luxury. Etruria was also well situated for trade and the early Romans either learned the skills of trade from Etruscan example or were taught directly by the Etruscans who made incursions into the area around Rome sometime between 650 and 600 BCE. (61)

Etruscan Civilization

The Etruscan civilization thrived in central Italy during the first millennium BCE. Occupying the approximate area of present-day Tuscany, the region derives its name from the word Etruscan.

During the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, the Etruscans became sea traders and actively participated in Mediterranean trade. The civilization also began to expand, and the Etruscans eventually settled as far north as the Po River and as far south as the Tiber River and the northern parts of Campania.

Aside from trade, a large part of Etruscan wealth came from the rich natural resources of the territories they lived in. The soil was fertile for agriculture and the land was rich with minerals and metals, which were mined. Etruscan cities and regions appear to have been ruled over by a king, and Etruscan kings are accounted for as the early rulers of Rome. While the Romans proudly remember overthrowing their Etruscan rulers, many aspects of Etruscan society were adopted by the Romans.

Very little is known about the Etruscans through written records. The Etruscans did not leave any written historical accounts, and what is known today about their culture and history is from written records by the Greeks and Romans that have survived.

Map of Italy highlighting two zones of Etruscan civilization from 750–500 BCE. The first zone highlights Etruscan civilization in 750 CE in central Italy. The second zone highlights Etruscan civilization stretching from Northern Italy to southwest Italy.
Figure 5-1: Etruscan civilization map by NormanEinstein is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

These records, while providing information, view Etruscan culture from an outside, foreign eye and so can be deceptive in their accounts of Etruscan society. Because of this, most of what is known about the Etruscans comes from archaeological records.

Since many Etruscan cities have been continually occupied since their foundation — first by the Etruscans, then the Romans, up to today — a majority of Etruscan archaeological sites are tombs and necropoleis. Archaeologists and historians rely on Etruscan funerary culture to derive ideas about the society’s culture, customs, and history.

Despite the distinctive character of Etruscan art, the history and stylistic divisions generally follows the divisions seen within Greek art history and stylistic developments. The Etruscans established contact with Eastern cultures, including Greeks, Phoenicians, and Egyptians, around 700 BCE, and this marks the beginning of the Orientalizing period of their culture. (62)

Etruscan Temples

Etruscan temples were adapted from Greek-style temples to create a new Etruscan style, which, in turn would later influence Roman temple design. The temple was only one part of the templum, the defined sacred space that includes the building, altar and other sacred ground, springs, and buildings. As in Greece and Rome, the altar used for sacrifice and ritual ceremonies was located outside the temple.

This is a photo of the ruins of the foundation of an Etruscan temple at Orvieto. The central stairway highlights the frontality of the temple that once stood at this site.
Figure 5-2: Etruscan temple at Orvieto by Nixdorf is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Today only the foundations and terra cotta decorations of Etruscan temples remain, since the temples themselves were primarily built of wood and mud brick that eroded and degraded over time. The Etruscans used stone or tufa as the foundation of their temples.

Tufa is a local volcanic stone that is soft, easy to carve, and hardens when exposed to air. The superstructure of the temple was built from wood and mud brick. Stucco or plaster covered the walls and was either burnished to a shine or painted. Terra cotta roof tiles protected the organic material and increased the longevity and integrity of the building. (63)

The Basic Temple Structure

Archaeology and a written account by the Roman architect Vitruvius during the late first century BCE allow us to reconstruct a basic model of a typical Etruscan temple. Etruscan temples were usually frontal, axial, and built on a high podium with a single central staircase that allowed access to the cella (or cellas).

Two rows of prostyle columns stood on the front of the temple’s portico. The columns were of the Tuscan order, a derivative of the Doric order consisting of a simple shaft on a base with a simple capital. A scale model of the Portonaccio Sanctuary of Minerva suggests that the bases and capitals of its columns were painted with alternating dark- and light-valued hues.

While most portico columns were made of wood, there is evidence that some were made of stone, as at Veii. They were tall and widely spaced across a deep porch, aligning with the walls of the cellas.

Picture of a model Etruscan temple. The temple has a slanted roof stationed atop eight columns and an inner chamber. The temple itself sits atop a porch with staircase.
Figure 5-3: Etruscan temple model by Jennifer Mei in Flickr is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Etruscans often, although not always, worshiped multiple gods in a single temple. In such cases, each god received its own cella that housed its cult statue. Often the three-cella temple would be dedicated to the principal gods of the Etruscan pantheon — Tinia, Uni, and Menrva (comparable to the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva). The wooden roof had a low pitch and was covered by a protective layer of terra cotta tiles. Eaves with wide overhangs helped to protect the organic material from rain.

Many aspects of Vitruvius’ description fit what archaeologists can demonstrate. However deviations did exist. It is clear that Etruscan temples could take a number of forms and also varied over the 400-year period during which they were being made. Nevertheless, Vitruvius remains the inevitable starting point for a description and a contrast of Etruscan temples with their Greek and Roman equivalents. (63)

Etruscan temples were usually frontal, axial, and built on a high podium with a single central staircase that allowed access to the cella (or cellas).
Figure 5-4: Etruskisk tempel by unknown from Wikimedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Etruscan Sculpture

During the Archaic period (600&–480 BCE), the Etruscan culture flourished. The Etruscans began building stone and wood temples and creating subterranean tombs. Etruscan trade flourished, and the civilization expanded to its furthest boundaries.

The period and style of art is named for its Greek counterpart. Although there are similarities between Etruscan and Greek Archaic art, significant differences mark specific sculptures as uniquely Etruscan. (64)

Apulu of Veii

The Apulu of Veii is a prime example of Etruscan sculpture during the Archaic period. Apulu, the Etruscan equivalent of Apollo, is a slightly larger than life-size terra cotta akroteria figure in the Portonaccio Temple at Veii, an Etruscan city just north of Rome.

The figure was part of a group of akroteria that stood on the ridgepole of the temple and depicted the myth of Heracles and the Ceryneaian hind. The figure of Apulu confronts the hero, Heracles, who is attempting to capture a deer sacred to Apulu’s sister, Artumes (Artemis). Apulu is the most intact surviving statue of the akroteria figures from this temple.

The figure of Apulu has several Greek characteristics. The face is similar to the faces of Archaic Greek kouroi figures. The face is simply carved and an archaic smile provides a notion of emotion and realism. The hair of Apulu is stylized and falls across his shoulders and down his neck and back in stylized, geometric twists that seem to represent braids. The figure, like Greek figures, was painted in bright colors, and the edge of his toga appears to be lined in blue. (64)

The statue of Apulu is bronze statue with braided hair and a white toga. Both arms are severed.
Figure 5-5: The statue of Apulu  by Ptyx is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Unlike Archaic Greek statues and kouroi, the figure of Apulu is full of movement and presents the viewer with an entirely different aesthetic from the Greek style. The figure of Apulu is dynamic and flexible. He strides forward with an arm stretched out. He leans on his front foot, and his back foot is slightly raised.

The body is more faithfully modeled (comparable to later Greek kouroi), and instead of being nude, he wears a toga that is draped over one shoulder. The garment’s folds are patterned and stylized but cling to the body, allowing the viewer to clearly distinguish the god’s chest and thigh muscles. While the Etruscan artist applied an Archaic smile to Apulu, the figure’s lips are full and his head is more egg-shaped than round—both characteristics of Etruscan art and sculpture. (64)

The Sarcophagus of the Spouses

A late sixth century sarcophagus excavated from a tomb in Cerveteri is a terra cotta sarcophagus that depicts a couple reclining together on a dining couch. The sarcophagus displays not only the Etruscan Archaic style but also Etruscan skill in working with terra cotta.

The figures’ torsos are modeled, and their heads are in a typical Etruscan egg-shape with almond shaped eyes, long noses, and full lips. Their hair is stylized, and their gestures are animated. The use of gesture is seen throughout Etruscan art, both in sculpture and painting. The woman might have originally held a small vessel, and the couple appears to be intimate and loving due to the fact that man has his arm around the woman. (64)

Picture of husband and wife laying side by side atop the terra cotta sarcophagus.
Figure 5-6: Etruscan sarcophagus by Frank Axelsson is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

A close look at the figures reveals some peculiarities. First, their faces are the same and in fact were most likely created from the same mold, a technique common in Etruscan terra cotta sculpture. The identical faces are differentiated by the addition of female and male hairstyles, including the man’s beard. Furthermore, despite the modeling of their upper bodies, the legs of the figures are flat and rather lifeless, an odd comparison to the liveliness of the figures’ upper halves. (64)