• City of the Dead

An Etruscan necropolis outside the ancient Italian town of Caere (modern-day Cerveteri) serves as a “sleeper” location in Rubies of the Viper. I say “sleeper” because at first the necropolis seems merely to provide local color, but it turns out to play a critical role in the story.

I had already written Rubies of the Viper, including those scenes in the necropolis, before I actually set foot in that real-life city of the dead… at which point I was delighted to discover how spot-on my descriptions (based on extensive research) were—both on the outside and within a specific tomb. Walking those ancient, rutted streets gave me goose bumps… not only because of the Etruscan presence on that spot thousands of years earlier, but also because several very-real-to-me characters had also “been there.” I kept saying to my husband: “Alexander did such-and-such right here!” and “That’s where Theodosia met so-and-so!”

The necropolis near Caere/Cerveteri was almost a millennium old by the first century A.D. It had been established circa 900-800 B.C. by the Etruscans, a local tribe that ultimately colonized a large area that included all of modern Tuscany. The etymological root of “Tuscany” is, of course, “Etruscan.” (Similarly, the body of water to the west of the Italian peninsula was called the Etruscan Sea in Roman times; it’s still known as the Tyrrhenian Sea… “Tyrrhenian” being another word for “Etruscan.”)

The Etruscan culture is fascinating for many reasons. Unlike most other ancient civilizations (and many modern ones), they enjoyed equality of the sexes. They were the first tribe in Italy to develop writing, using an alphabet they created based on the Greek one. Their language was spoken for well over a thousand years… continuing in use for several hundred years A.D. Rivals to the Greeks, they developed impressive agricultural and shipping enterprises as well as finely crafted works of art.

By the time Theodosia, Alexander, and Stefan paid their first visit there in A.D. 53, the necropolis at Caere had already been plundered for treasures (coins, jewels, pottery, funeral urns, etc)… the best of which ended up in homes of the uber-wealthy… such as Theodosia’s Villa Varroniana.

From the outside, the necropolis at Caere/Cerveteri is a mass of grass-covered, beehive-shaped mounds, plus a few rectangular structures, all connected by a series of unpaved streets with deep ruts carved over the centuries by wagons bearing bodies to the tombs. This web page offers two exterior photos, a map, and additional information.

On the inside, the tombs were set up like the Etruscans’ homes: with benches, rooms, doors, colorful frescoes on the walls, etc. They were mostly subterranean, so they had stairs—in some cases quite long ones—leading down from the street.

For somebody else’s photos of the tombs, click here and be sure to click “next” to see many more great images.

—text copyright © Martha Marks—