Cisra (Roman Caere / Modern Cerveteri)

Tombs at the Banditaccia Necropolis, Cerveteri

The ancient city of Cerveteri (Latin: Caere Greek: Agylia) is located about 50 km north-west of Rome and occupied an immense area protected by steep slopes and fortifications. The English word ceremony comes from the Latin caeremonium, meaning "pertaining to Caere," and reflects the Etruscan fascination with divination and prophecy.

Through its ports of Pyrgi, Alsium and Punicum, the city became an important early trading centre. Its name in Etruscan has been variously represented as Cisra, Chaisra or some other variant. In the Phoenician tablet from Pyrgi, it is referred to as Kisry.


The earliest major settlements at Cerveteri date from between the 9th and 8th centuries BCE and are characteristic of the Villanovan period. At least two villages were established during this time, as evidenced by the finds of biconical and hut shaped cinerary urns at the oldest Necropolis areas of Cava della Pozzolana and Sorbo. Trading with the Euboean Greeks commenced in the mid 8th century BCE with Etrusco -Geometric vessels becoming more common in the grave-goods. From the 7th century BCE onwards, Caere underwent rapid demographic development, becoming Etruria's chief trading centre. By the beginning of the seventh century, Euboean influence had been replaced by that of the Corinthian and other Greek colonies which had been established in Southern Italy and Sicily.

During the seventh century, local manufacture of pottery started to emulate the Greek imports, with new traditions of early Orientalising vase painting becoming established in Cerveteri. An example of these are the works of the "Painter of the Heptachord". The craft of manufacturing bucchero ware also originated in Caere during this period.

Trench type burials began to be replaced by the chamber tomb or hypogeum. The richness of grave-goods from the Orientalising period are legendary, with examples being the Regolini Galassi and Calabresi tombs, the contents of which are on display at the Vatican Etruscan museum. The Gold jewellery and vases from this period are of particularly fine workmanship.

In the 6th century BC, Caere, at the height of its power, clashed, emerging victorious, with the Phocaean Greeks of Italy who at the time were establishing their control on the Tyrrhenian Sea via the colony of Alaria on Corsica. Following the so called "Battle of the Sardinian Sea", hundreds of Phocaean prisoners were stoned to death in Caere, which according to ancient sources resulted in a plague on the city, which was only lifted after consultation with the oracle at Delphi. By way of expiation, the citizens of Caere were required to schedule athletic contests every year to honour the dead Phocaeans. The Greek prisoners were buried en masse probably at a site located midway between Caere and Pyrgi, which has been recently located.

Commercial relations were not interrupted but, on the contrary, a rich community of merchants and craftsmen of Greek origin flourished in the city.

After the crisis common to the whole of Etruria in the 5th century BC, there was a strong recovery in the next century, made possible in part thanks to the excellent relations enjoyed with Rome, of which Caere was a traditional ally.

In 253 BCE Caere, supporting Tarquinii (modern Tarquinia) against Rome, was defeated and lost part of its territory, including the coastal area.

Deprived of its ports, Caere was thus doomed to a crisis which came to an end with its total extinction in the 1st century CE.

The Ancient City

As you can see from the map (below), the area of the ancient city covered approximately 150 hectares, in comparison with the modern town, which occupies only a third of this space. The remainder of the area is now used for agriculture. The plateau of tufa where the city was located runs on a north-east south-west line, roughly 5 kilometers from the sea, and surrounded to the north by the valley of the Manganello, and to the south that of the Mola.

The cliff sides in some places reach a height of 50 meters, and formed the major defensive element of the city. In the areas where the cliffs were lower, or disappeared completely walls were built to form a continuous line of defense. Today a continuous section of 400 meters of wall is still visible. Near the end of the Via degli Inferi (the road to hell, or funerary road) the cliffs on both sides of the Manganello stream were deepened to about 40 meters, to form a defensive trench and wall, integrated in some points with stone walls.

All of these walls date to the first half of the 5th century BCE. There were a series of at least 7 gates, providing outlets to the surrounding areas. The only one to have any visible structures is the so-called "PORTA COPERTO" (covered gate) (A), located on the narrow side of the plateau to the north-east. Through this gate ran a road leading to the Necropolis of Cava della Pozzolana, and beyond it towards the area of Bracciano. Of this gate there remains only descriptions, and a breach in the walls, which here have a width at the base of 5 meters. The second gate (B), opened out onto the north cliff, where a new modern cemetery is under construction. at a point where the cliffs open out into a natural amphitheatre. This gate was mostly intended to give access to the Banditaccia Necropolis. The third gate (C), was along the continuation of the Via degli Inferi, which entered the city area, and reached the Manganello temple. The fourth (D), was located below the temple, and gave access to the sea road, and some of the stone blocks are still visible on the site. The fifth (E), was on the present site of the castle (Castello Ruspoli), and also opened towards the sea. The sixth (F), and the seventh (G), were both on the south cliff, giving access to the Sorbo and Monte Abetone Necropoli, as well as the areas to the south of the city.

The Etruscans built a significant network of roads between their cities, and most of these roads were improved by the Romans, and are still in use today. Both the VIA CLODIA and the initial part of the VIA AURELIA were first laid out by the Etruscans. The Via Clodia runs from the Tiber crossings in Rome to Sovana, in the area of Lake Bolsena. The Aurelia is the coastal road which became a Consular road in the second century B.C. In the city area there have been no regular excavations carried out, but only sporadic probings, notably those done by Mengarelli in the 20's in the area of the sports field, where he found traces of a temple dedicated to HERA, and on a cliff above the Manganello, where a structure was found, probably another temple, of unknown dedication .

Other excavations were carried out in the last century near the remains of the theatre, uncovering a number of marble slabs of the Roman period, of enormous importance, with allegorical images of each of the major Etruscan cities. These slabs are now preserved in the Gregorian Etruscan Museum in the Vatican. The structures in which they were found are classified as being Roman.

The Necropolis Areas

(Also see some of my personal photographs taken of the Banditaccia Necropolis in 2002)

The great development of ancient Caere is shown by the number and wealth of the tombs discovered in its necropolis.

The Necropoli of Cerveteri include the Banditaccia, Sorbo, Cava della Pozzolana, Groppie di San Antonio and Monte Abetone. The Bandittacia represents one of the most interesting archaeological areas in the whole of the Mediterranean.

The majority of the tombs can be dated back to between the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. The most common tombs are those of the underground chamber and tumulus types, where the inner rooms imitate and at times faithfully reproduce the settings of the dwellings of the living.

In the 5th century BCE, a real city of the dead rose up with streets intersecting at right angles and areas devoted to worship. The tombs are more modest than in the previous period: the chambers are small and the style has become standardized.

Only in the last centuries was there a return to the underground tombs with a complex floor plan, the symbol of a return to power by the aristocracy.

The tomb treasures include many bronze and silver objects, refined gold jewellery, vases of local production, including the famous bucchero ware and others imported from Greece and painted terracotta objects including votive figures and heads.


Pyrgi was one of the ports of the city of Caere, lying about eight miles away and was very famous for its sacred area, which was visited by Phoenicians and Etruscans alike. Archaeological excavations have brought to light the remains of two sanctuaries dedicated to Uni and the Phoenician goddess Astarte (Western form of Ishtar). The more ancient can be dated around the 6th century BC, whilst the more recent dates back to the middle of the 5th century BC. The Pyrgi lamellae, a series of three inscriptions on rolls of gold foil (Two in Etruscan and one on Phoenician) were discovered during the excavation of the older sanctuary, and describe a tyrant named Thefarie Velianas, who ruled over Caere at this time. This was about the time of the great alliance between the Etruscans and the Phoenicians which led to the purging of the Greeks from Corsica, and the Phoenician conquest of greek settlements in Sardinia. The joint consecration of the temple by both sides of the alliance in the Pyrgi inscriptions agrees well with historical traditions in that respect.

The fragments of a mythological high relief which decorated the fronton of the more recent temple, and the three gold lamellae are on display in Rome at the Villa Giulia Museum.

Getting There

Road leading to the Banditaccia Necropolis

Cerveteri is about 50 km North West of Rome. From Fiumicino Airport, you can drive North along the Highway (allow about 20 minutes - Toll section). If you are relying on Public transport, head for Lepanto metro station and take a blue 'Cotral' bus (destination Ladispoli/ Cerveteri). If returning to Rome, buy a 'BIRG' ticket, which will cost about 4 Euros. The trip to Cerveteri takes about 40 minutes. Get off at Cerveteri, which is the terminus. The terminus is next to the museum, located in the Castello Ruspoli, an imposing 11th Century castle.

There is accommodation available in Cerveteri, Ladispoli or Civitavecchia (further afield to the North), contact details below. Very few Italian hotels have refrigerator or air conditioning. It is important to check. Some will not accept credit cards, and will require a cash advance to confirm bookings.

Sign for local eatery on the road to the Banditaccia
(Tuchulcha was an Etruscan Underworld demon)

From the piazza in Cerveteri, allow about 30 minutes (hilly) walk to the Banditaccia necropolis, or there is a tourist bus which leaves infrequently. Check with the tourist information centre.

Some Useful Contact Numbers

Motel Corsi, Via Aurelia, Km 27,700 Torrimpietra (Roma) Tel. 06/ Fax 06/
Tourist Information: Tel 06/99.43.706 0368/96.22.70

Cerveteri Centre for Imitation Etruscan Vases: Tel 06/99.42.743

Museum and Enclosed Necropolis: Entry is free. Museums are normally closed on mondays, except for holidays.

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