Archaeologists come across the ‘best’ conserved large Etruscan villa in Italy

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The site of Vetulonia (Vatluna or simply Vatl in Etruscan) is often perceived in historical circles as the ‘last’ of the Etruscan cities in Etruria proper. In fact, both ancient authors and archaeological pieces of evidence suggest how the settlement played its role in inspiring the adoption of the magisterial insignia (comprising the fasces lictoriae) by the Romans. And now, researchers have come across what they have termed as the best conserved large Etruscan villa in the history of Italian archaeology. It is given the moniker of domus dei dolia because of the first discovery pertaining to a room full of oil jars.

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The big residential unit boasting over 4,300 sq ft in area, had an arrangement of ten rooms along with secondary service areas. From the civil engineering perspective, the Etruscan villa was supported by a hulled structure comprising a clay-based ceiling – with attached beams, dry walls, and flooring composed of opus signinum (a unique mixture of broken tiles and mortar). The archaeologists also witnessed the impressive terracotta tiles and the intricate decorative features, including early Pompeian-style frescoes that embellished a secluded living room, along with exceptional bronze statuettes found in a hole under the floor.

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Suffice it to say, judging by these architectural features, this well preserved Etruscan villa belonged to a local nobleman of the city. And the locational aspect of the building rather alludes to the affluent occupant, with its address being in the middle of the Via dei Ciclopi, one of the main arteries that connected the Etruscan and Roman districts of Vetulonia. Regarding this seemingly unusual arrangement of nearby neighborhoods of ‘rivals’ Romans and Etruscans, archaeologist Simona Rafanelli, who has been excavating the site since 2015, had this to say –

From the third-century BC Vetulonia experienced a period of peaceful coexistence with Rome. The Etruscan city enjoyed a period of remarkable growth and economic prosperity, witnessed by the redecoration of sacred buildings, the construction of new domus and, more generally, by the demographic-urban expansion.

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Interestingly enough, after 3rd century BC, in spite of the eclipse of the Etruscan realm, Vetulonia was even granted the permission to mint their own coins by Rome – and many of such specimens were found during the excavation. The most striking of these coins relate to a particular bronze sestertius, decorated with the intricate motif of a trident between two dolphins on the reverse.

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Unfortunately, the relation between the Etruscans and Romans soured during what is known as Sulla’s first civil war, fought between the forces of namesake Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius. The citizens of Vetulonia, along with the populace of other Etruscan towns, took the side of Marius – who ultimately had to flee from Rome (to Africa) after Sulla unprecedentedly marched into the eternal city with his six loyal legions. In other words, many of these northern settlements had to face the wrath of Sulla (including Vetulonia itself which was probably set on fire), with his punitive actions destabilizing the economic ties of the Etruscans with rest of the Roman Republic.

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And lastly, and quite intriguingly, another fascinating coin specimen was found in the form of a silver denarius (pictured above) minted by one Lucius Thorius Balbus, who was a Triumvir Monetalis (a Roman official appointed to oversee the minting of coins) and a native of Lanuvio. Rafanelli concluded –

Of Balbo’s life, we know some key facts. He was, for instance, a committed supporter of Sulla and he died in Spain at the hands of a supporter of Marius. The coin, therefore, arrived in Vetulonia in the pockets of a soldier of Sulla who, presumably, lost it in the commotion generated by the fires and devastation brought to the city as a form of revenge for its loyalty to Marius. Sulla’s retaliation against the Etruscan cities, perpetrated after 80 BC, are reported in all ancient sources and I think I can say that here we have irrefutable evidence of it.

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Iron suspension ring, recovered in the triclinium (dining room) of the Etruscan villa.

Source: National Geographic Italia / Credit: Marco Merola

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