Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 4.
Robert Leighton, Tarquinia: An Etruscan City. Duckworth Archaeological Histories. London: Duckworth, 2004, Pp. xii + 218. ISBN 0-7156-3162-4. UK£16.99.
Richard J. Evans,
Department of Classics and Modern European Languages, University of South Africa
'There are many good books about the Etruscans, but a general survey of one major site is a comparatively unusual . . . departure' (p. ix). Studies which concentrate on single cities, towns or areas within an identifiable civilisation may be compared to the biographical study of individual figures of a historical period. As such this volume follows an increasing but relatively novel trend and is to be welcomed, for it enhances overall knowledge of, in this instance, the Etruscans, by casting the spotlight on one particular element, here the city of Tarquinia which 'has contributed more than any other site, with the possible exception of Cerveteri (Caere) . . . to an understanding of the genesis of Etruscan civilisation from its prehistoric roots to Romanisation . . .' (p. 1).
Leighton has followed the chronological route for examining a site which encompasses the adjacent plateaus of Civita and Monterozzi, the latter the location of the modern town of Tarquinia, but in antiquity one of the largest of the Etruscan cemeteries, indeed of antiquity (p. 27); and today it is one of the most celebrated and visited for its painted tombs and their architectural and artistic treasures. Chapter 1, 'Discovery and Loss' (pp. 1-31), traces 'the several phases in the process of recovery . . . ; its origins are obscure but it was well under way by the Renaissance' (p. 1f.). Of course, for many years tomb robbery and amateur excavation for financial gain preceded modern scientific exploration. Much has been lost from what were mostly acts of despoliation whose by-product was paradoxically to make ancient Tarquinia an inspiring subject for prose and poetry, examples of which are liberally incorporated into Leighton's text (pp. 2-24). In Chapter 2, 'Origins and Growth' (pp. 32-58), the great age of the site, inhabited at least from 3,500 BC, is duly noted (p. 38). This is followed by discussion of the local Villanovan culture, roughly contemporary with the traditional foundation of Rome, established on Civita (pp. 39-44), and rapidly flourishing, if the quantity and standard of grave goods, amply illustrated (pp. 55 & 57), is a sure indication. In Chapter 3, 'The Rise of the City State' (pp. 59-85), the emergence of the more familiar Etruscan community between about 700 and 600 BC is discussed primarily through reference to the growing abundance of grave goods, of which numerous sketched illustrations feature. It was during this period, of course, that Tarquinia became an Etruscan city of some consequence, a phenomenon assumed to have 'emerged as a result of contacts with Greek colonies, which introduced a new form of urban life and sophistication to a relatively undeveloped Villanovan society' (p. 81). However, Leighton rightly observes that this explanation is an oversimplification of the cultural advances occurring at this time, that Villanovan Tarquinia was a highly complex community, and that neither Greek nor Phoenicians actually settled in this region. Yet it is precisely this combination of inherent and foreign factors which produced the civilisation which is labelled today as 'Etruscan', and which Leighton describes as the result of 'interactive processes, within an increasingly 'cosmopolitan world' (p. 83).
The sixth century marks the high point of Etruscan culture and power in Italy in which achievement Tarquinia played a leading role, aptly designated by Leighton as 'Urbs Florentissima' (Chapter 4, pp. 86-136), 'a new act rather than just a scene change' (p. 86). Naturally enough, this is also the central part of the volume, the longest and most detailed chapter. Again there is much emphasis on the cemeteries and their growth, both in size and in the sophistication of the tombs (pp. 86-94) and their grave goods. From these artefacts it is possible to extrapolate a great deal; those imported betray 'the extent of trade' (p. 94) with Attica, Ionia, and further East (p. 98). A detailed discussion of the tomb paintings, 'unsurpassed in the classical world other than by the frescoes at Pompeii' (p. 100), a phenomenon which seems to originate in the seventh century, and which continues to the early Hellenistic era, underlines the affluence or power of Tarquinia, especially since '80% of all Etruscan painted tombs' (p. 100) are situated here. However, originality in imagery, common in the early stages, declines as the process perhaps became mass-produced and derivative. And as the graveyards grew, so evidently did the city, its population estimated at between eight and twenty-five thousand (pp. 126f.), the latter, perhaps more likely, being then on a par with the major cities of southern Italy and Sicily. Closely associated with Tarquinia was its harbour at Gravisca (pp. 128-31), both gateway to the outside world and entry point -- as was Pyrgi for Caere and Regis villa for Vulci -- for those luxuries, many of which found their way into the tombs. And for a time Tarquinia's control extended inland and south to include Rome (p. 132), and the 'zone of political influence . . . quite likely extended . . . as far as Lake Bolsena . . .' (p. 136). Chapter 5, 'Tarquinia and Rome' (pp. 137-182), is something of a 'nachleben', although Tarquinia was a Roman city for many more centuries than it was Etruscan. Achievements in this era have a tendency to be dismissed as having degenerated and, therefore to lack real value. Rightly stressed (p. 176) is the danger that the 'gloomy leitmotif of decline and melancholy nostalgia is . . . overstated and potentially misleading.' Besides, it is not historically accurate. In the face of overwhelming Roman military capacity, Tarquinia, prominent as she was among the Etruscan city-states, followed the wise course of the southern Italian Greek cities of reaching an equitable accommodation, which through the pax Romana far outweighed the uncertainties of continued independence.
Some editorial and authorial errors are evident. For instance, 64B (p. 5) = 65B (p. 164), an incorrect subheading (p. 45) may be noted, a comma has been missed (p. 62), 'patresfamilias' (p. 66, cf. 157) should not be italicised, and there is considerable inconsistent referencing of ancient literary sources. Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Strabo, Tacitus and the elder Pliny are all cited in discussion (pp. 78f.): the first two are referenced in footnotes, but Strabo is footnoted only much later in the volume (p. 132), while Tacitus and Pliny never feature. A further lack of precision, in an otherwise closely argued text, is evident when Leighton seems to be suggesting (p. 81) that Phoenicians settled in parts of Italy, a point reiterated, but which could easily have been avoided. Most illustrations have an indication of size but on one occasion (p. 97) '5cm' has presumably been lost, while the unusual 'leg-shaped perfume flask' (p. 96) does not appear to have warranted inclusion (Fig. 40), nor is there any reference to the funerary paintings of Poseidonia (p. 100) when these have similar symbolism to that contained in the tombs at Tarquinia. Further careless style makes a lituus 'military regalia' (p. 167). Tarquinia along with other Etruscan cities were rewarded for their loyalty to Rome in the Social War (91-89) by full citizenship 'after' 89 not 'by' (p. 175). Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161) was not emperor in the 160's (p. 176). Reference to other known examples of pincer-type city gateways, such as those at Syracuse, Megara Hyblaia, or Selinous, which suggest close contact with these Greek states and Etruria, would have been more beneficial than a note (p. 169, n. 50) simply referencing another modern work. Moreover, Leighton is simply incorrect to suppose, when at least half the soldiers in the Roman armies during the republican period were socii and Latins, that the 'career path for a Tarquinian aristocrat may . . . have inclined towards the civic and religious, rather than the military route of his Roman equivalent' (p. 162). On the contrary, it may be assumed that service in equestrian units was expected if not compulsory for all younger members of wealthy families in Tarquinia.
Although there is a great deal of technical detail regarding the various artefacts, often pottery, contained in the many excavated tombs, Leighton cleverly maintains the possible waning attention of the reader by the use of sub-headings throughout each chapter, which often themselves read like the elements of an adventure story: 'Sepulchral treasures', 'Illustrious corpses', 'East meets West: arts and crafts', 'City of the dead', 'Names and Faces: sarcophagi and inscriptions'. The lucid stye, accessible presentation and generous illustrations (twenty-five postcard size plates situated between pp. 116f., albeit in black and white and some rather faded) certainly enliven this essentially necrological study of Tarquinia and hence breathes further life into the subject for specialist and general readers alike.