Tomb of the Augurs

Last updated
Phersu (left wall) running or dancing, Tomb of the Augurs, late 6th century BC, Tarquinia Phersu from the painted walls of the tomb of the Augurs at Tarquinia, 525-500 BCE, Etruscan.jpg
Phersu (left wall) running or dancing, Tomb of the Augurs, late 6th century BC, Tarquinia

The Tomb of the Augurs (Italian Tomba degli Àuguri) is an Etruscan burial chamber so called for by a misinterpretation of one of the fresco figures on the right wall thought to be a Roman priest known as an augur. The tomb is located within the Necropolis of Monterozzi and dates to around 530-520 BC. This tomb is one of the first tombs in Tarquinia to have figural decoration on all four walls of its main or only chamber. [1] :xxxiv The wall decoration was frescoed between 530-520 BC by an Ionian Greek painter, perhaps from Phocaea, whose style was associated with that of the Northern Ionic workers active in Elmali. This tomb is also the first time a theme not of mythology, but instead depictions of funerary rites and funerary games are seen. [2] :37



The chamber is decorated with a figurative frieze on all four walls. The inclusion of plants and animals in all four frescos have led scholars to interpret that the events depicted in the tomb to take place outside. [1] :xxxiv sadly many of the figures depicted in the frieze, specifically those on the left and front wall, have been lost as the frescos have deteriorated over time and from exposure. The entrance wall has figures placed on it yet because of deterioration no one can say for sure who or what these figures are and the actions that they are depicting.

Rear Wall

Painting on the rear wall Tomba degli Auguri.jpg
Painting on the rear wall

On the center of the rear wall a painted door is placed. Scholars differ on interpretations of what the door denotes. Some interpret the door as a representational illustration of the door to the tomb. It is, however, more likely interpreted by scholars as a symbolic door or portal to the Underworld that acts as a barrier between the kingdom of the living and the kingdom of the dead. [1] :xxxiv Two figures on either side of the door each extend one arm towards the door and the other arm places the hand against their forehead in a gesture of salutation and mourning. The two men scholars either interpret as augurs or as mourners who are relatives of the deceased. [1] :xxxv The latter is thought to be the more accepted interpretation of the two figures since reading the name written on the wall next to the men, Apastanasar, contains the root of apa which means father. Above the door shows a lion and leopard killing a deer.

AugureGLG.jpg The two augurs on either side of the door, rear wall of the tomb. AugureDLG.jpg

Right Wall

The whole right wall depicts the funerary games in honor of the deceased. Funerary games were a tradition among many ancient societies, which is emphasized and illustrated to modern readers from Homer's description in the Iliad of the contests staged at the funeral of Patroclus. Homer writes:

"Wrestling is the third event. Fairly typical, the prizes are a tripod [three 3-footed cauldrons given as gifts] worth 12 oxen for first prize, and a woman worth 4 oxen for the loser." [3]

This wrestling scene that Homer describes in the Iliad can be seen in the central motif of the right wall. It is also important to note the Etruscan funerary games, often bloody and deadly in nature, are seen as the original gladiatorial games as stated by the Romans. As a result, this part of Etruscan culture was inherited by the Romans into their own culture as a precursor to the spectacle of gladiatorial combat. [1] :xxxv

On the far end of the wall, closest to the rear wall, depicts a man wearing a purple tebenna, common Etruscan male robe, whose color alludes to the man being of elevated stature. The man is looking over his shoulder and gestures with a salutary pose to his two attendants, two figures of shorter stature. One attendant carries a folding stool, the official seat of the man's high office, and the other attendant is huddled on the ground with a hood covering his head. Many scholars interpret this end of the motif of the crouched attendant as weeping/mourning for his master, which leads scholars to conclude that the man in the purple robes is most likely the deceased coming to watch his funeral games. [1] :xxxiv

In the center of the right wall shows the funerary game of wrestling in honor of the deceased. Depicted are two wrestlers – one younger and one older – who are wrestling in the Greek style [stark naked so no grabbing hold of any piece of clothing can take place]. The younger wrestler is identified as having no beard and having a slimmer torso while the older wrestler has a beard, an identifying marker for advanced age in a male, and a thicker upper body. [2] :38 Placed between the two wrestlers are three bowls of different colors, perhaps representing a silver, bronze and copper bowl, that are positioned one top of each other and are most likely the prize for the winner, as described in the Iliad.

To the left of the younger wrestler presides the agonothetes , the referee, who watches over the match. Written above the man is the word teverath leading scholars to question if this is the man's name, occupation or title. Clad in a cloak with one arm outstretched and in the other he carries a lituus, an augur's crook, he approaches the wrestling match. Two red birds are flying over the wrestling match, a detail that led to the initial misinterpretation of the scene depicting two augurs, are actually the deceased and referee watching the flying birds and the match. Hence the name, Tomb of the Augurs. [2] :38

On the closest section to the entrance of the right wall is the last motif, which some may consider quite gruesome. It is here the funerary game of bloodletting, a game performed to appease the soul of the deceased, is shown. A masked figure wearing a pointy hat, a long, black false beard, a black/blue jacket with white tassels, and a red loincloth is shown with the word phersu written above. The Etruscan word phersu, meaning "mask," "masked man," or even possibly "actor," since in Greek and Roman plays the actors always wore masks to show what sort of characters were being impersonated. [2] :40 Scholars debate that the phersu painted in this scene is an actor costumed to impersonate an executioner. It is said that when the Romans adopted the Etruscan custom of using slaves and criminals as gladiators, first in funeral games, and finally in exhibitions in vast arenas for the general public, once a gladiator fell mortally wounded and lay still in the arena, out came one masked and costumed man to deal him a "mercy blow" with a hammer to his forehead. But it wasn't a phersu that this fellow impersonated. It was Charun, the Etruscan demon who ferried the dead into Hades. [4] From this scholars even say that the masked man is in fact an actor impersonating Charun in the tomb of the Augurs and not a torturer or executioner.

The phersu is holding a rope that is attached to the collar of a black dog. When the phersu pulls on the rope, as depicted in the fresco, a nail on the dog's collar bites into its neck, enraging the animal and causing it to attack a tethered man. The tethered man has multiple bleeding bites on his legs, a sack tied over his head and a club in one hand to fend off the dog giving the bloodletting an exciting aspect for the Etruscan spectators to watch. Many scholars believe that this tethered man is a condemned criminal already sentenced to die that is being used for the funerary games. [4] (Although this animal has customarily been described as a "dog," the length of its tail, the proportions of its head and the fact that it is using its exposed claws to lacerate its adversary's legs would seem to make it far more likely that the "black dog" is actually a black leopard.)

Left Wall

At the center of this wall two boxers can be seen fighting. To the right of the boxers another phersu can be seen. The action of the phersu is debated. Some interpret the phersu, who is wearing only a red tunic and no loincloth, as dancing solo surrounded by nature. Yet other scholars disagree with this interpretation. Instead other scholars take note of the remnants of two figures to the far left of the wall. One figure can be interpreted as an auleta, a musician playing the aulos. [5] The other, scholars note, only shows the figure's legs. The lost figure's legs are the same hue as the other athletes and are in the same position as the phersu’s at the other end of the wall. Scholars interpret this scene as the phersu being pursued by an opponent in some sort of funerary game. [2] :38

Related Research Articles

Etruscan religion Polytheistic religion practised in ancient Etruria

Etruscan religion comprises a set of stories, beliefs, and religious practices of the Etruscan civilization, originating in the 7th century BC from the preceding Iron Age Villanovan culture, heavily influenced by the mythology of ancient Greece and Phoenicia, and sharing similarities with concurrent Roman mythology and religion. As the Etruscan civilization was assimilated into the Roman Republic in the 4th century BC, the Etruscan religion and mythology were partially incorporated into ancient Roman culture, following the Roman tendency to absorb some of the local gods and customs of conquered lands.

Charun Etruscan mythological figure

In Etruscan mythology, Charun acted as one of the psychopompoi of the underworld. He is often portrayed with Vanth, a winged figure also associated with the underworld.


In Etruscan mythology, Tuchulcha was a chthonic daemon with pointed ears, and hair made of snakes and a beak. Tulchulcha lived in the underworld known as Aita.

Vanth Etruscan deity associated with death and the journey of the deceased to the Underworld

Vanth is a chthonic figure in Etruscan mythology shown in a variety of forms of funerary art, such as in tomb paintings and on sarcophagi.

Ancient Egyptian funerary practices

The ancient Egyptians had an elaborate set of funerary practices that they believed were necessary to ensure their immortality after death. These rituals and protocols included mummifying the body, casting magic spells, and burial with specific grave goods thought to be needed in the Egyptian afterlife.

English church monuments

A church monument is an architectural or sculptural memorial to a deceased person or persons, located within a Christian church. It can take various forms ranging from a simple commemorative plaque or mural tablet affixed to a wall, to a large and elaborate structure, on the ground or as a mural monument, which may include an effigy of the deceased person and other figures of familial, heraldic or symbolic nature. It is usually placed immediately above or close to the actual burial vault or grave, although very occasionally the tomb is constructed within it. Sometimes the monument is a cenotaph, commemorating a person buried at another location.

Tomb of the Roaring Lions

The Tomb of the Roaring Lions is an archaeological site at the ancient city of Veii, Italy. It is best known for its well-preserved fresco paintings of four feline-like creatures, believed by archaeologists to depict lions. The tomb is believed to be one of the oldest painted tombs in the western Mediterranean, dating back to 690 BCE. The discovery of the Tomb allowed archaeologists a greater insight into funerary practices amongst the Etruscan people, while providing insight into art movements around this period of time. The fresco paintings on the wall of the tomb are a product of advances in trade that allowed artists in Veii to be exposed to art making practices and styles of drawing originating from different cultures, in particular geometric art movements in Greece. The lions were originally assumed to be caricatures of lions – created by artists who had most likely never seen the real animal in flesh before.

Etruscan art art movement

Etruscan art was produced by the Etruscan civilization in central Italy between the 10th and 1st centuries BC. From around 750 BC it was heavily influenced by Greek art, which was imported by the Etruscans, but always retained distinct characteristics. Particularly strong in this tradition were figurative sculpture in terracotta, wall-painting and metalworking especially in bronze. Jewellery and engraved gems of high quality were produced.

False door architectural pattern in Ancient Egypt

A false door is an artistic representation of a door which does not function like a real door. They can be carved in a wall or painted on it. They are a common architectural element in the tombs of ancient Egypt, but appeared possibly earlier in some Pre-Nuragic Sardinian tombs. Later they also occur in Etruscan tombs and in the time of ancient Rome they were used in the interiors of both houses and tombs.

Funerary art Art associated with a repository for the remains of the dead

Funerary art is any work of art forming, or placed in, a repository for the remains of the dead. The term encompasses a wide variety of forms, including cenotaphs, tomb-like monuments which do not contain human remains, and communal memorials to the dead, such as war memorials, which may or may not contain remains, and a range of prehistoric megalithic constructs. Funerary art may serve many cultural functions. It can play a role in burial rites, serve as an article for use by the dead in the afterlife, and celebrate the life and accomplishments of the dead, whether as part of kinship-centred practices of ancestor veneration or as a publicly directed dynastic display. It can also function as a reminder of the mortality of humankind, as an expression of cultural values and roles, and help to propitiate the spirits of the dead, maintaining their benevolence and preventing their unwelcome intrusion into the lives of the living.

Tomb of the Whipping Etruscan tomb

The Tomb of the Whipping is an Etruscan tomb in the Necropolis of Monterozzi near Tarquinia, Italy. It is dated to approximately 490 BC and named after a fresco of two men who flog a woman in an erotic context. The tomb was discovered and excavated in 1960 by Carlo Maurilio Lerici. Most of the paintings are badly damaged.

Funerary cult

A funerary cult is a body of religious teaching and practice centered on the veneration of the dead, in which the living are thought to be able to confer benefits on the dead in the afterlife or to appease their otherwise wrathful ghosts. Rituals were carried on for the benefit of the dead, either by their relatives or by a class of priests appointed and paid to perform the rites. These rituals took place at the tombs of the dead themselves or at mortuary temples appointed to this purpose. Funerary cults are found in a wide variety of cultures.

Tomb of the Leopards Etruscan burial complex

The Tomb of the Leopards is an Etruscan burial chamber so called for the confronted leopards painted above a banquet scene. The tomb is located within the Necropolis of Monterozzi and dates to around 480–450 BC. The painting is one of the best-preserved murals of Tarquinia, and is known for "its lively coloring, and its animated depictions rich with gestures."

Tomb of the Bulls Etruscan archaic tomb in Tarquinia

The Tomb of the Bulls is an Etruscan tomb in the Necropolis of Monterozzi near Tarquinia, Italy. It was discovered in 1892 and has been dated back to either 540–530 BC or 530–520 BC. According to an inscription Arath Spuriana apparently commissioned the construction of the tomb. It is named after the two bulls which appear on one of its frescoes. It is the earliest example of a tomb with complex frescoes in the necropolis.

Monterozzi necropolis Etruscan necropolis in Lazio, Italy

The Monterozzi necropolis is an Etruscan necropolis on a hill east of Tarquinia in Lazio, Italy. The necropolis has about 6,000 graves, the oldest of which dates to the 7th century BC. About 200 of the tomb chambers are decorated with frescos.

Tomb of Hunting and Fishing Etruscan late archaic tomb in Tarquinia

The Tomb of Hunting and Fishing, formerly known as the Tomb of the Hunter, is an Etruscan tomb in the Necropolis of Monterozzi near Tarquinia, Italy. It was discovered in 1873 and has been dated variously to about 530–520 BC, 520 BC, 510 BC or 510–500 BC. Stephan Steingräber calls it "unquestionably one of the most beautiful and original of the Tarquinian tombs from the Late Archaic period." R. Ross Holloway emphasizes the reduction of humans to small figures in a large natural environment. There were no precedents for this in Ancient Greek art or in the Etruscan art it influenced. It was a major development in the history of ancient painting.

Grotta Campana

The Grotta Campana or Tomba Campana is an Etruscan tomb in Veii, which was rediscovered in 1843 by Giampietro Campana. For a while it was considered to contain the oldest known Etruscan frescoes. It is named after the owner of the land where and when the tomb was discovered. Because of a lack of inscriptions, it is unknown who was buried in this tomb. The tomb has not been dated with any precision.

Tomb of the Blue Demons Etruscan tomb

The Tomb of the Blue Demons is an Etruscan tomb in the Necropolis of Monterozzi near Tarquinia, Italy. It was discovered in 1985. The tomb is named after the blue and black-skinned demons which appear in an underworld scene on the right wall. The tomb has been dated to the end of the fifth century BC.

Tomb of the Dancers Peucetian tomb in Ruvo di Puglia, Italy

The Tomb of the Dancers or Tomb of the Dancing Women is a Peucetian tomb in Ruvo di Puglia, Italy. It was discovered in the Corso Cotugno necropolis in November 1833. The date of its construction is uncertain, dates ranging from the end of the fifth century BC to the mid-fourth century BC have been proposed. In any case, the tomb's frescoes are the oldest example of figurative painting in Apulia, together with another tomb in Gravina di Puglia. The Peucetians borrowed the practice of painting tombs from the Etruscans, who had an important influence on their culture. The tomb is named after the dancing women which appear on the frescoes in the tomb. The panels with the frescoes are now exhibited in the Naples National Archaeological Museum, inv. 9353.

<i>Morgan Amber</i> miscellaneous-amber highlighted in The MET collection

Carved amber bow of a fibula, also known as the Morgan Amber, is a 5th-century BCE Etruscan fibula by an unknown artist. It is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 A History of Roman Art, Enhanced Edition, Wadsworth CENGAGE Learning, Boston, 2010
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 The Great Centuries of Painting: Etruscan Painting, Second Edition, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1952
  3. Homer, "The Iliad", Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Book 23: The Funeral Games of Patroclus
  4. 1 2 Xanthippos, Funeral Games in the Tomb of the Augurs, 2011
  5. "Tomb of the Augurs - 3D model". Europeana. Retrieved 2015-11-06.

Coordinates: 42°14′18″N11°47′41″E / 42.2382°N 11.7947°E / 42.2382; 11.7947