The story of Rome’s first rival

A review of a new book on Veii

The early history of Rome is dominated by its rivalry with the Etruscan city of Veii, just up the Tiber. Until now, Anglophone readers had few resources to explore the latter’s story.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

Veii is the second instalment, after Caere, of the University of Texas Press’ new series “Cities of the Etruscans.” The book under review was edited by Jacopo Tabolli, who has excavated at the site of Veii for some time now. Chapters were authored by many prominent figures in both the study of the city itself and Etruscology more generally. The papers are divided into four distinct parts which focus on different aspects of Veii.

Overview of the book

Part I looks at the archaeology of the city. Valeria Acconcia opens with a study of the Piazza d’Armi plateau which is south of the main plateau of the city. This includes a history of excavations on the site and discussion of what this history of examination can tell us about settlement in this part of Veii. This began in the ninth century BC and continued through to the early fifth century. She outlines a four-phase history of occupation. Amongst the discoveries noted are the hut burial, so-called oikos (temple), and the monumental cistern. Importantly, Acconcia notes that the fortifications once dated to the sixth century BC are actually medieval, of the ninth to eleventh century AD.Show A full discussion of this major reconsideration can be found in G. Bartoloni and L. Pulcinelli, “Veio. Le mura di Piazza d’Armi,” in P. Fontaine and S. Helas (eds.), Fortificazione arcaiche del Latium vetus e dell’Etruria meridionale (2016).

The second chapter discusses the surveys that have been conducted in Veii and its hinterland. Roberta Cascino takes us through Ward-Perkins’ work from the 1950s to more recent work of this type. The importance of these projects is shown by how they have illuminated our understanding of the city’s settlement history.

Stefano Campana closes out Part I with an overview of an ongoing project to examine the Veii plateau via magnetic survey. This is still a work-in-progress, but this chapter shows its promise. We mostly hear about the results as they pertain to the city’s road system, which originated in the Iron Age, i.e. early in the settlement’s history. It consisted of two major arterial roads and numerous collector roads which connected the various residential and public areas within the city to the major thoroughfares. Magnetic survey has also supported the results of earlier field walking surveys, which helps instill confidence in broader arguments made using them as evidence.

Part II of the book is dedicated to the history of Veii. It includes thirteen chapters which consist of narrative discussions, such as Folco Biagi’s paper on Veii from the Final Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, and topical discussions, such as Francesca Boitani’s “Veii and the Greeks.” The chapters in this section provide a thorough overview of the development of the city, its territory, and its relations with its neighbors and those further afield.

We begin with the earliest visitation and habitation of the plateau which made up the later city. Humans have been active in the area since the paleolithic, but only inhabited it permanently from the Early Iron Age. This is not necessarily abnormal for the sites which would become the great city-states of the region.

One of the most interesting discussions in this part of the book, at least to me, is that of Veii’s territory and borders. Jacopo Tabolli’s chapter, in particular, provides a very enlightening overview of the city’s relations and ties to those closest to it, namely the peoples of the Ager Faliscus and Ager Capenas. He convincingly describes the Tiber basin as a cultural melting pot, in which elements of all the regional cultures can be found mixed together in different ways at the various settlements.

Part III is made up of eight chapters that look in-detail at the material culture of Veii. While this is, in general, the same type of evidence as discussed in the earlier chapters, the authors here examine specific categories on their own terms, rather than through a historical lens. Topics include pottery styles, metalwork, wall painting, sculpture, and architectural decoration. We are presented with an image of a Veii whose tastes changed rather dramatically from the Early Iron Age to the later years of its existence. This section has shown also that it was a city of production and craft, style and innovation.

Part IV is brief, consisting mostly of Christopher Smith’s historical discussion of Camillus and Rome’s conquest of Veii. Jacopo Tabolli and Orlando Cerasuolo’s conclusion is located in this section, as well, and is followed by a helpful chronological outline of the city’s history (p. 229-233). Interestingly, and conveniently, this includes the dates of archaeological projects carried out in and around Veii, ending with an entry for 2016 CE: “The Museum of the Ager Veientanus in Formello is reopened to the public with a new collection” (p. 233).

Evaluation

Altogether, this book presents a view of Veii that few readers of English will be used to, or even perhaps expect. The great city typically plays the role of antagonist in studies of early Rome and the details of its own life are elided. Even in surveys on Etruscan archaeology and history, it typically takes a “backseat” compared to the coastal centers such as Caere or Tarquinia. Those interested have had for some time Robert Leighton’s monograph on the latter, and since 2016 the volume Caere in the same series as the subject of this review.Show R. Leighton, Tarquinia: An Etruscan City (2004).

It is impossible to discuss all the insights gained, and wonderful things explored, in this book. I wish to simply highlight a few.

Luca Pulcinelli’s chapter on “The Defensive System” is very timely and thorough. The study of fortifications in Central Italy has been growing for some time, with a major volume reevaluating the chronology of some of these notable amongst the rest.Show P. Fontaine and S. Helas (eds.), Fortificazione arcaiche del Latium vetus e dell’Etruria meridionale (2016). Pulcinelli shows that he is up-to-date on this research and with this chapter has made it accessible to those who are less capable in the European languages. He rightly points to the strength of the fortifications at Veii, especially from the sixth century onward, which were all but impervious to the siege engines of the time (ladders and rams) (p. 151).

We are also enlightened about an aspect of Veii’s artistic legacy which is often overshadowed by its neighbors (especially Tarquinia), and that is wall paintings. Francesca Boitani supplies us with a delightful, if short, chapter on the topic, supplemented by a number of full-color plates. She highlights one of the most interesting and charming painted tombs from Etruria, “The Tomb of the Roaring Lions.” Painted in the early seventh century BC, its style is endearing and, though influenced by the Late Geometric from the Aegean, is rather unique.

Barbara Belelli Marchesini’s contribution is also an interesting standout for its topic, “Kilns and Evidence of Ceramic Production.” While classical archaeology has had a perennial obsession with pottery, the manufacture thereof has not always been appreciated. She covers all of the evidence for this kind of activity throughout the city, shedding light on one of the most important day-to-day activities of any ancient settlement. The discussion of the so-called Lady of the Furnaces, a single female inhumation burial in one of the earliest industrial areas (later covered by a defensive agger at the end of the ninth century BC), is refreshing, and reminds us of how little we know about specific cultural practices in the Early Iron Age. Why was this woman buried here, on the main urban plateau?

Amongst a volume of chapters that primarily deal with archaeology, Christopher Smith’s paper is an interesting and enlightening discussion of the history – or myth – surrounding Rome’s conquest of Veii and its territory. He focuses on the story of Marcus Furius Camillus, who is said to have led the Roman forces at the end of a fabled ten-year siege of their Etruscan neighbour. Of course, the duration of this is mythological and was created to make the first major act of aggression by Rome equivalent in scope to the Trojan War. Nevertheless, the figure of Camillus is fraught with difficulties in terms of historical interpretation. Did he actually exist? If so, is the history of his life that we possess accurate at all?

Smith addresses critical responses to the first of these questions, showing both their strengths and their weaknesses. He takes a judicious stance, in some ways conceding that we cannot side entirely with the sceptical answers, but also that the story of Camillus as we have it is at best a mythologized version of actual historical events. The conclusion that “in the end, however, we do not need to decide whether Camillus was a real person or a historicized myth in order to be able to say something about the history of Veii in the early fourth century BCE” is erudite and presents a way forward not afforded by hyper-critical approaches (p. 223).

In general, my impression of this volume is that it is an important addition to the corpus of Etruscan studies. Not only does it bring considerable research to English readers that would otherwise be unavailable, but its chapters include insightful new thoughts on their relative topics by the stellar cast of authors. It is a testament to the success of the new series from the University of Texas Press, spearheaded by the series editors Nancy Thomson de Grummond and Lisa C. Pieraccini.

Audiences of students, scholars, and general readers will find much of value in this book, and anyone with a serious interest in Etruria or early Rome should seek it out. I look forward to the future volumes and to the renewed passion for Etruscology that I hope they will instil in Anglophone students.