Skip to main content
SearchLoginLogin or Signup

Chapter 4: The Etruscan and Italic Cities

Published onApr 22, 2021
Chapter 4: The Etruscan and Italic Cities

Axial System

Axial layouts are found at Veio, possibly at Monterado and Cortona,1 and certainly in the archaic nucleus of Pompeii (which might be attributed to the Italic environment). Thus it appears that the axial system was not unknown even in the Etrusco–Italic world where, as has been said, it developed independently of Greek influences, at least in its elementary form. The more complex layouts such as those of Capua and Marzabotto, on the other hand, are thought to be the result of direct Greek influence. The orthogonal layout of Veio presented by von Gerkan2 is undoubtedly pure fantasy and in any case belongs to the Roman epoch, as Lehmann–Hartleben observes.3 Finally, there is a small sector of Vetulonia with road crossings.4 This has been highly acclaimed, especially by Patroni,5 as basic evidence of the Etruscan grid plan and has been compared by him to the plans of Marzabotto and Pompeii. In reality, the remains of Vetulonia, which belong to the late Etruscan and Etrusco–Roman periods, prove the opposite. In no sense can they be considered an example of uniform planning when compared to the perfect orthogonality achieved even in layouts on mountain sites.

The only characteristic of Etruscan city planning that can be documented now, given our present inadequate knowledge, is the axial system, already noted by Haverfield and von Gerkan as being characteristic of the Italic people. Yet we must point out first that the system is also found in Greece, and second that it has no prehistory. Attempts to derive the axial system from the terremare plan failed after it was learned that the terremare did not have a regular plan, nor has it been possible to establish the cardine and decumanus in Villanovian Bologna.6

Roma quadrata

On the other hand, the axial system, once perfected, found widespread use in the Roman world. It is not found in Rome itself, as Varro supposed: (Solin. I, 17: dictaque primum est Roma quadrata, quod ad aequilibrium foret posita. In other words, bounded and delineated by means of the groma.) Following Varro’s lead several scholars, especially Täubler7 and Basanoff,8 have attempted unsuccessfully to reconstruct a cardine and decumanus on the Palatine. Not much more fortunate is Piganiol’s attempt to find a cardine and decumanus through the Roman Forum.9

Axial System and the Templum

Special significance surrounded the use of the axial system as it was elaborated. For the Etruscans it incorporated the relation between terrestrial delimitation and the celestial templum.10 The heavens were like a circle divided into four parts by two axes. The cardine and decumanus as employed in city planning were an earthly representation of the heavenly pattern. Further delineations within the four sectors determined the distribution of the seats of the gods (known principally through Martianus Capella). These arrangements within the four sectors were closely tied to the art of reading omens by the quadrant in which lightning is seen and to augury, as seen by the subdivisions of the entrails of Piacenza, inscribed with the names of gods appropriate to each. The various sectors were probably also linked to the flight of birds. The Etruscans, however, unlike the Romans and Umbrians, left no trace of this art.

Orientation of the Templum

Thus, to the templum of the heavens corresponded a templum on earth, that is, the “place consecrated by auspices.” Unfortunately, the evidence concerning the orientation of the templum is contradictory.11 Varro, De Ling. Lat. VII, 7,12 Festus 454 L,13 and Pliny, Nat. Hist. II, 14314 all imply that a southern orientation was preferable. From Livy I, 18, 6,15 Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Ant. Rom. II, 5, 2–3,16 Plutarch Quaest. Rom, 78,17 Servius Aen. II, 693,18 and Isidorus, Etym. XV, 4, 7,19 we infer an eastern orientation. Yet Vitruvius IV, 5, 1,20 who according to Nissen21 draws from Hellenistic sources, recommends that the front of the temple face west. This orientation is the one the gromatici knew, for they favored the west not only for the orientation of the temple but especially for base lines for land surveys.22 And finally, it appears from Homer, M 237 ff. and Plato De Leg. VI, 760d23 that the Greeks had a northern orientation. Many different cosmic systems merge in these doctrines and make it almost impossible to point out time sequences, since they range from Babylonian times through to the Hellenistic era.24 As Cicero observed, the fundamental motive is certainly the quadripartite division of the heavens, which accounts also for the system of sixteen regions.25 This motive is common in the Babylonian art of speculation as a function of augury26 and probably derives from it.27 Changes in the art of orientation reflect differences in ritual. The Etruscans, however, did favor a southerly orientation. Aside from the authority of Varro and the other sources cited by Festus (see footnote 13), the orientation of the Comitium Romanus, with the Curia to the north and the Tribunal to the south,28 can be adduced as evidence. The Saepta Iulia which supposedly follow a more ancient layout are also on a north–south axis. South-facing temples were the most common. This orientation was precise at Marzabotto, the Temple of Apollo in Rome, and at Jupiter Anxur at Terracina (though its terrace did not comply) but was only approximate at Civitacastellana, Bolsena, the Capitolium at Rome, and at Segni. Frequently the urban pattern prevailed over the religious one. The Greek temples, on the other hand, faced east as a matter of principle.

Theories of Surveyors

In the cities and in the agri centuriati, the orientation system is different. The base line here is east-west. There is no doubt that the doctrines of the gromatici are abstract speculations that have artificially superimposed cosmic theories on standard surveying practice. However, it appears exaggerated to believe that these doctrines were formulated by Varro, based on the Hellenistic theories of westerly orientation of the temples, as Barthel maintains.29 Nor can we say, as Weinstock maintains,30 that there was no link between the art of surveying and the theories of the cosmos. Contrary to the usual statements, there are examples of oriented centuriation;31 it must also be noted that the centuriation was designed after the groma with auspices had been placed.

Having made these qualifications, we must nevertheless agree in relating the theorizing of the gromatici to the erudition of the late Republic. In particular, the system of urban and agrarian delimitation has nothing in common with the templum, as is seen even in the fact of east-west orientation rather than north–south. (However, W. Müller maintains that a relation existed between the templum of the augurs and the use of delimitation, and he sees delimitation as a transposition of an ancient concept of the celestial calendar.32)


But it is the city that interests us particularly. The theories of K. O. Müller and Nissen of a city being a templum have been justly denied by Valeton33 and by Thulin.34 Although the founding of the city occurred according to an Etruscan ritual,35 inauguratio urbis dealt with tracing the walls, not with patterning the city itself, as Valeton observes.36 The theory of Kornemann,37 must be reconsidered with skepticism. He compares the distinctive character of the urbs to the oppidum in the sacred delimitation of the templum and in the confines of the pomerium. Likewise, there is much doubt about an element always considered fundamental to the supposed urban templum, and that is the mundus in the city center. At Ostia, Calza38 for one proposes to find the mundus at the crossing of the cardine and decumanus. However, if there is any one thing clear from the texts, as Hedlund39 especially has shown, it is that the mundus has nothing to do with the rites of founding the city.40 In fact, the mundus at Rome was a cavern sacred to Ceres and the Mani, and there is no source that places it on the Palatine.

Theory of the Quadripartite Circle

A further line of reasoning in favor of the relationship between the templum and the city has been set forth—namely the theory of a quadripartite circular city analogous to the Oriental city, postulated on two basic arguments. The first, concerning the circular form in general, is based on the morphological link between mbs and orbis,41 already established by Varro but without foundation.42 The second argument, advanced by W. Müller43 among others, is that the appellative Roma quadrata should be taken to mean quadripartite, as Altheim had formerly proposed, and that the concept of a circular city is to be found in a passage of Plutarch.44 The difficulty here is that, even if this interpretation of quadrata is valid, it must be explained in some other way.45 Furthermore, the reference from Plutarch concerns a theory that has nothing to do with Roma quadrata; in fact, the passage has no value even as testimony to a tradition of a circular Rome.46

In conclusion, the celestial templum and the augurial templum are distinct from urban road patterning systems. For the systems of orienting the temple, the following choronological references exist: on the evidence of Saepta Iulia, probably the fourth century; and on the evidence of the Comitium and the Temple of Jupiter, the end of the sixth century, although a much older date can be assigned to the art of divination, especially if we allow ties with the East by way of Mesopotamia.47

Greek Influence

On the other hand, the orientation of the city, later employed in the agri divisi, is attributable to Greek influence, especially on the grounds of the Greek origin of the word groma, as Thulin has suggested.48 Posidonia can be adduced as additional evidence, since it is an example of east-west orientation.

These conclusions substantially diminish the importance of the Etruscan influence upon the development of uniformly planned cities. Only after the fourth century do certain original developments emerge. Two fundamental characteristics of Etruscan–Italic architecture can be singled out, orthogonality and axial symmetry (which the Etruscans are supposed to have inherited in turn from the Egyptian–Mesoptamian world).49 These characteristics are found in the layouts of temples, houses, and towns. It is not correct, however, to claim that these characteristics are exclusively Etruscan, particularly if the axial house plan is of Eastern derivation, as seems likely.50 Nor can we ignore that Etruscan and Italic influence in the development of the regular city was slight. As Pallottino has noted, frontality and axial symmetry pertain to the entire Mediterranean culture.


No comments here
Why not start the discussion?