Whether or not you’re a student of history (actual or amateur), it’s impossible not to get excited about history when you’re in Italy. Many of the country’s most popular attractions are from the ancient Roman era, and still more are from several hundred years ago. It’s humbling to imagine someone like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci or even Julius Caesar walking through the same cities you’re visiting, possibly even on the same streets.
(Sidebar? I still get chills walking into the Pantheon.)
But there’s a history in Italy that’s even more ancient than ancient Rome – and I’m not talking about dinosaurs here, either. Here are three ancient cultures you can learn more about in Italy, each of which predates the Roman Empire.
c 1700 BCE – c 238 BCE
The island of Sardinia was home to the Nuragic people for hundreds of years, but very little is known about them today. Most of the Nuragic structures left are known as “nuraghi,” almost-cylindrical towers. There are parts of roughly 7,000 left around Sardinia, with the nuraghi around Barumini having enough historical significance that they’re the island’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There’s no written record of the Nuragic civilization, so what historians primarily rely upon are the accounts written by ancient Greeks and Romans – and all of that is taken with a hefty grain of salt. The purpose of the nuraghe towers isn’t even known for certain, though the most popular theory today is that they were built as fortified homes.
One of the biggest nuraghi is called Santu Antine near Torralba, in north-central Sardinia, while the UNESCO site of Su Nuraxi near Barumini is in the south-central part of the island. In both places, there are remains of a village of some sort around or near the nuraghe itself.
Santu Antine is open year-round from 9:00am until 8:00pm, with guided tours running almost every hour through the day starting at 9:30am. (There are fewer tours from October-March.) Tickets are €6 per person. Su Nuraxi is open year-round at 9:00am, and closing (depending on the month) between 4:00pm and 7:30pm. Guided tours are required, and depart every half-hour. Tickets are €10 per person (€8 for children ages 13-17, €6 for children ages 7-12) and include the archaeological site and the museum. Note that the archaeological sites are outdoors, so dress appropriately for the weather.
c 750 BCE – c 100 BCE
If the word “Etruscans” looks familiar, that’s because it’s the name for the people who once lived in present-day Tuscany. The name the Romans gave to the people, Etrusci or Tusci, later became the basis for the name of the region of Tuscany. The Etruscan territory expanded beyond the boundaries of what is now Tuscany, extending into parts of modern-day Umbria and Lazio, in what was known as Etruria.
As is the case with the people who built the nuraghi on Sardinia, precious little is known about the Etruscans. They had their own language, including a written language, but it hasn’t been totally deciphered. So, again, modern scholars rely heavily on accounts written by ancient Romans (and those often don’t agree), as well as artifacts and frescoes in Etruscan tombs.
Many cities in modern Italy got their start as Etruscan cities, long before the civilization was completely subsumed by a rapidly expanding Roman Empire – Arezzo, Cortona, Volterra, Chiusi, Perugia, and Tarquinia among them. And there is evidence of the Etruscans that tourists can see too, some in museums and some in situ.
The walls that surround Volterra date from the Etruscan era, and the Museo Etrusco Guaranacci has Etruscan artifacts on display. In Populonia, Cortona, Vetulonia, and Chiusi you can see some Etruscan tombs. Orvieto has Etruscan tombs as well as artifacts in three different museums.
The museums and necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia (operated by the same organization) make a great stop for anyone interested in the Etruscans. Both necropolises are open from 8:30am until dusk year-round, and tickets for each are €6 per person. At Cerveteri, reservations are required, with an accompanying €2 reservation fee per person. Each museum is open from 8:30am-7:30pm year-round, and tickets are €6 per person. If you’re visiting both the necropolis and museum in each town, you can get combined tickets for €8 per person per town.
c 740 BCE – c 89 CE
The name “Magna Graecia” is Latin for “Greater Greece” (a name bestowed by the ancient Romans) and refers to Greek settlements around the coastal parts of present-day Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, and Sicily. The culture eventually became unique, a combination of the Greek and native cultures. Although Magna Graecia was eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire, plenty of evidence of the people who occupied those areas before the Romans took over still exists.
One modern city that has its roots in Magna Graecia is Naples. The original Greek name, Neapolis, means “New City,” and there are still some Greek ruins underneath the modern city streets. Nearby Paestum is home to a complex of three beautifully preserved ancient Greek temples. But one of the best places to see what remains of Magna Graecia is outside Agrigento in Sicily, in what’s known as the UNESCO-listed Valley of the Temples. There, you’ll find some of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples anywhere in the world – including Greece.
The archaeological area at Paestum with the temples is open starting at 8:30am year-round (the closing time varies depending on the season). The Paestum museum is open from 8:30am-7:30pm (from May 7-October 1, the museum closes at 10:30 on Saturdays). Tickets are €9 for the archaeological site and museum combined.
The archaeological park at the Valley of the Temples is open from 8:30am-7:00pm year-round, and tickets are €13.50 per person to visit the temples and the museum (€10 for the temples alone). There are usually evening tours available during the summer.