Key to Umbria: Orvieto

Ancient History: Etruscan Velzna/ Roman Volsinii

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Ancient History:  Velzna/ Volsinii      Destruction of Velzna

Volsinii (Bolsena): Republican Period;    TriumviralPeriod;

Early Empire;    Imperial Period;     Late Empire;    

Rescript of Constantine at Hispellum (ca. 335 AD)

Orvieto, the probable site of Etruscan Volsinii

Orvieto, the Site of Velzna/ Volsinii ?

Orvieto stands on an almost impregnable nature of the high cylindrical cliff of tufa, making it unsurprising that it was the location of an Etruscan settlement: its inhabitants would have controlled a vast territory bounded by the shores of Lake Trasimeno and Lake Bolsena, and by the Tiber and Paglia rivers.  Nevertheless, evidence of the Etruscan roots of the city came to light only in 1527-32, when cult objects were found during the construction of the Pozzo di San Patrizio.  Even more surprisingly, these Etruscan roots were largely forgotten until 1828, when excavations carried out during roadworks on a nearby site uncovered the remains of what is now known as the Tempio del Belvedere.  Some two years later, during the construction via Cassia Nuova immediately outside the city, further evidence of the city’s Etruscan heritage was discovered, when the first signs of what is now known as the Necropoli del Crocifisso del Tufo appeared.  Subsequent excavations included the discovery of the Necropoli di Cannicella, on another site below Orvieto, in the 1870s.  

By  the time that George Dennis (referenced below) visited Orvieto in 1842,  the city’s Etruscan roots were beyond doubt.  However, he observed (at p. 527) that there was still no consensus on the identity of this Etruscan city:

  1. “The antiquity of Orvieto is implied in its name, a corruption of Urbs Vetus.  But, as to its original appellation, we have no clue ....: 

  2. -Müller [Karl Otfried Müller, referenced below] broaches the opinion that this Urbs Vetus was none other than the "old city" of Volsinii, which was destroyed by the Romans ... [in 264 BC].  But the distance of 8 or 9 miles from the new town [i.e. Bolsena, the site of what Müller  dubbed the “new” Roman city of Volsinii] is too great to favour this opinion.

  3. -Niebuhr [Barthold Georg Niebuhr, referenced below] suggests, with more probability, that [the cliff on which Orvieto stands] may be the site of Salpinum, which [according to Livy]  ... assisted Volsinii in her war with Rome [in 392 BC].”

William Harris (referenced below, at p. 113) summarised his view in the light of the archeological record that had become available by 1965:

  1. “Orvieto is probably the site of Etruscan Volsinii.  This identification, which goes back to K. O. Müller, has been assailed by Raymond Bloch in a series of articles on the archaeology of Bolsena.  It is, however, supported by the evidence of both sites: the finds at Orvieto (notably the rich groups of 6th and 5th century tombs recently excavated by Mario Bizzarri in the Crocefisso del Tufo cemetery) easily outweigh the small quantity of early material that has emerged from the Bolsena site.”

However, the question is still not completely resolved: see, for example, this book by Angelo Timperi (which is sadly out of print and which I have not been able to consult).  However, it is probably fair to say that most scholars now accept Müller’s intuition: for example, Pierre Gros (referenced below), who is an expert in the archeology of Bolsena, presented the arguments for Orvieto in persuasive terms.  He concluded (at p. 20) that:

  1. “... the body of evidence [that he had assembled] makes it likely that Etruscan Volsinii was located on the rock of Orvieto.  [However], this does not mean that Roman Volsinii [on Lake Bolsena] was established in a previously-unoccupied location.”

More recently, the excavation of the sanctuary at Campo della Fiera (discussed - link) have further strengthened the case for Orvieto as the location of Etruscan Volsinii.   

Velzna/ Volsinii

The Etruscan name for the city that the Romans called Volsinii was ‘Velzna’ or ‘Velsna’.  Like other Etruscan cities, its history only comes into focus for us in the classical accounts of its conquest by Rome.  However, there are fragments of evidence that refer to the city before this time:

  1. One of the frescoes (4th century BC) in the so-called Francois Tomb of Vulci (now in Villa Albani, Rome) depicts a local hero, Larth Ulthes, stabbing Laris Papathnas Velznach (both identified by inscriptions).  This belongs to a series of frescoes in which heroes of Vulci murder foreign enemies, probably during a war in the 6th century BC: in this case, ‘Velznach’ probably means that Laris Papathnas was ‘of/ from Velzna’.

  1. Pliny the Elder mentioned the ancient city twice (using a Latin name):

  2. “... Volsinium, the most opulent town of the Tuscans, was entirely consumed by lightning” (‘Natural History’ 2:53); and

  3. “There is an old report in Etruria that thunder was invoked when the city of Volsinium had its territory laid waste by a monster named Volta” (‘Natural History’ 2:54)

  4. John Zonaras (see below) recorded that the people of Volsinii were:

  5. “... the most ancient of the Etruscans; they had acquired power and had erected an extremely strong citadel, and they had a well-governed state.  Hence, on a certain occasion, when they were involved in war with the Romans, they resisted for a very long time.” 

Italo Vecchi (referenced below, in his entries 10-13 inclusive) catalogued four coins (three gold and one silver) with the legend Velsu,Velsna or Velzna, which he dated to the 3rd century BC.  Laura Ambrosini (referenced below, at pp.  220-1) also identified Volsinii as the centre of production of a series of bronze oval coins (early 3rd century BC) bearing the club of Hercules: judging by their find spots, these coins were widely spread across Etruria and Umbria.

A number of Etruscan gilded relief vases produced in 350-250 BC are classified as “Volsinian”. They have usually been found in tombs, as part of symposium sets.  Over 700 are known, although only about half of them came from Orvieto, Bolsena and the intervening area.  They have been catalogued by Laura Maria Michetti (referenced below).  

Wars Agains Rome (392-280 BC)

Volsinii, which (as noted above) was famously impregnable, was one of the first Etruscan cites to engage with Rome and one of the last to be completely defeated.  (Its fabled impregnability is one of the best arguments for locating it at Orvieto). 

Livy described four wars between Volsinii and Rome in the period 392-280 BC:

  1. “[In 392 BC]  a new war broke out with the Volsinians, whither an army could not be led, on account of a famine and pestilence in the Roman territories, which arose from drought and excessive heat; on account of which the Volsinians, forming a junction with the Salpinians, being elated with pride, made an unprovoked incursion into the Roman territories.  War was then proclaimed against the two states.  .... The first engagement was with the Volsinians.  The war, important from the number of the enemy, was without difficulty brought to a close.  At the first onset, their army was put to flight. 8,000 soldiers, hemmed in by the cavalry, laid down their arms and surrendered.  The account received of that war had the effect of preventing the Salpinians from hazarding an engagement; the troops secured themselves within their towns.  The Romans drove spoil in every direction, both from Salpinian and Volsinian territory, there being no one to repel that aggression; until a truce for 20 years was granted to the Volsinians, exhausted by the war, on condition that they should make restitution to the Roman people, and furnish the pay of the army for that year” (‘Roman History’, 5: 31-2).

  2. “[In 308 BC , shortly before war the with Umbrians at Mevania], Decius [the consul Publius Decius Mus] … took several forts from the Volsinians by assault, some of which he demolished, so that they might not serve as receptacles to the enemy, and by extending his operations through every quarter, diffused such a dread of his arms, that the whole Etrurian nation sued to the consul for an alliance.  This they did not obtain, but a truce for a year was granted them.   The pay of the Roman army for that year was furnished by the enemy, and two tunics for each soldier were exacted from them: this was the price of the truce” (‘Roman History’, 9:41).

  3. [Immediately after the Battle of Sentinum in 294 BC], Postumius [Lucius Postumius Megellus, consul in that year] first laid waste the lands of the Volsinians; and afterwards, on their marching out to protect their country, gained a decisive victory over them, at a small distance from their own walls.  2,200 of the Etrurians were slain; the proximity of their city protected the rest.  … But a peace, effected that year in Etruria, was still more important and honourable than the war had been.  Three very powerful cities, the chief ones of Etruria, (Volsinii, Perusia, and Arretium) sued for peace; and having stipulated with the consul to furnish clothing and corn for his army, on condition of being permitted to send deputies to Rome, they obtained a truce for 40 years, and a fine was imposed on each state of 500,000 asses, to be immediately paid” (‘Roman History’, 10:35). 

  4. [In 282 BC, war broke out against] the Volsinians, and Lucanians, when the Romans decided to support the inhabitants of Thurii against them” (‘Periochae’, 11:12). 

This last incident took place among the growing tension between the Romans and the inhabitants of Tarentum, the important Greek city in southern Italy .  Tarentum regarded  its neighbour, Thurii (also Greek), as within its sphere of influence. Thus, when Thurii turned to Rome, rather than to Tarentum, for protection from the Lucanians, hostilities became inevitable.  According to Cassius Dio:

  1. “The Romans had learned that the Tarentines and some others were making ready to war against them ... and, by sending men to the Etruscans, Umbrians and Gauls, [had] caused a number of them also to secede, some immediately and some a little later” (‘Roman History’, 9:39).  

In 280 BC, Tarentum secured the services of the Greek commander Pyrrhus, in what proved to be the start of the so-called Pyrrhic War.   In order to secure their position, the Romans seem to have sent an army into Etruria: thus, the ‘Fasti Triumphales’ record that the consul Tiberius Coruncanius was awarded a triumph over the Vulcientes (from the Etruscan city of Vulci) and Vulsinienses in that year.  Although the sources for this period are very sparse, it seems that this last Roman triumph marked the end of Volsinian independence: the city made a treaty with Rome, under which it retained its nominal independence, but under Roman hegemony.   This treaty was documented by Cassius Dio (as summarised by John Zonaras) in his account of the subsequent destruction of the city (as described below):

  1. “In the consulship of Quintus Fabius and Aemilius [i.e. 265 AD, the Romans] made an expedition to Volsinii to secure the freedom of its citizens [i.e. the noble faction that had appealed for their help]; for they were under treaty obligations to them” (‘Roman History’, 10 - search on “Volsinii”).

Destruction of Velzna/ Volsinii (264 BC)

In contrast with the sparse sources for 280 BC, a number of sources document the events of 265-4 BC, when Volsinii was  rocked by the revolt of a social class that was made up of freed slaves: 

  1. Valerius Maximus gave a series of examples of the damage done to various cities by vice, included a cautionary tale about Volsinii at this time:

  2. “[Vices] also brought the city of Volsinii to calamity.  It had been rich, with well-established customs and laws, and was regarded as the capital of Etruria.  However, after its descent into luxury, it was buried in injustice and baseness, which led to the insolent rule of slaves.  Initially, very few slaves dared to enter the senatorial order, but later they came to control the entire state.  [For example, they routinely]: had wills drawn up at their own discretion; forbad free-born men to assemble at banquets and elsewhere; and married their masters’ daughters.  Finally, they enacted a law that allowed them to rape wives and widows with impunity and that specified that no virgin could marry a free-born man before being deflowered by one of their number” (my translation from “Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX”, 9:1 ext2, search on “Volsiniensium”).

  3. Paulus Orosius, writing in the ca. 417 AD, gave a similar account:

  4. “[In ca. 264 BC], the Volsinians, the most flourishing of the Etruscan peoples, almost perished as a result of their wantonness.  After making license a habit, they indiscriminately freed their slaves, invited them to banquets, and honoured them with marriage.  The liberated slaves, admitted to a share of power, criminally plotted to usurp complete rule of the state and, relieved of the yoke of slavery, were consumed with the desire for revolution.  Once free, they cursed those masters whom they, as slaves, had devotedly loved, because they remembered that these men had once been their masters.  The liberated slaves then conspired to commit a crime and claimed the captured city for their class alone.  So great were their numbers that they accomplished their rash purpose without real resistance.  They criminally appropriated the property and wives of their masters, and forced the latter to go into distant exile.  These wretched and destitute exiles betook themselves to Rome.  Here they displayed their misery and tearfully pleaded their cause.  They were avenged and restored to their former positions through the stern rule of the Romans” (‘Historiae adversum Paganos’, 4:5).

  5. Cassius Dio (as summarised by John Zonaras) recorded that:

  6. “These people [of Volsinii] were the most ancient of the Etruscans: they had acquired power and had erected an extremely strong citadel, and they had a well-governed state.  Hence, on a certain occasion, when they had been involved in war with the Romans, they had resisted for a very long time.  Upon being subdued, however, they drifted into indolent ease, left the management of the city to their servants, and used those servants also, as a rule, to carry on their campaigns.  Finally, they encouraged them to such an extent that the servants gained both power and spirit, and felt that they had a right to freedom; and, indeed, in the course of time, they actually obtained this through their own efforts.  After that, they were accustomed to wed their mistresses, to succeed their masters, to be enrolled in the senate, to secure the offices, and to [assume] the entire authority themselves.  Furthermore, they were not at all slow to requite their masters for any insults and the like that were offered them.  Hence the old-time citizens, not being able to endure them and yet possessing no power of their own to punish them, despatched envoys by stealth to Rome.  The envoys urged the senate to convene secretly by night in a private house, so that no report might get abroad, and they obtained their request.  The senators, accordingly, deliberated under the impression that no one was listening; but a certain Samnite, who was being entertained by the master of the house and was sick, kept to his bed unnoticed, and learning what was voted, gave information to those against whom charges were preferred.  These seized and tortured the envoys on their return; and when they found out what was afoot, they put to death the envoys and the other more prominent men as well” (‘Roman History’, 10 - search on “Volsinii”). 

Cassius Dio (as summarised by John Zonaras) described how, after the nobles of Volsinii had appealed for help, the Romans sent an army under the terms of the treaty:

  1. “[Quintus] Fabius routed those who came to meet him, destroyed many in their flight, shut up the remainder within the wall, and made an assault upon the city.  He was wounded and killed in that action, whereupon the enemy gained confidence and made a sortie.  Upon being again defeated, they retired and underwent a siege; and when they were reduced to famine, they surrendered.  The consul [of 264 BC, Marcus Fulvius Flaccus] scourged to death the men who had seized upon the honours of the ruling class, and he razed the city to the ground; the native-born citizens, however, and any servants who had been loyal to their masters, were settled by him on another site” (‘Roman History’, 10 - search on “Volsinii”). 

The “Fasti Triumphales” record that the Marcus Fulvius Flaccus, the consul of 265 BC, was awarded a triumph in the following year for his victory over the “Vulsinienses”.

At this point, the history of Etruscan Orvieto effectively ended.  The surviving population was moved to the ‘new’ Volsinii, at Bolsena (as described on the following page).

Fanum Voltumnae

Livy recorded a series of meetings of the ancient Etruscan Federation at the fanum Voltumnae in the period 434-389 BC. Unfortunately, he never specified its location.  However, Propertius, in an elegy  that he wrote in the form of a monologue delivered by a statue of Vertumnus in Rome, had this statue insisting:

  1. “[Although] I am a Tuscan born of Tuscans, [I] do not regret abandoning Volsinii’s hearths in battle” (‘Elegies’ 4.2). 

Scholars reasonably assume that a cult statue of Voltumnus/ Vertumnus that had previously adorned the fanum Voltumnae had been ritually called to  Rome after the sanctuary itself was destroyed in 264 BC.  It is possible that it had been located below Volsinii, at what is now the Campo della Fiera.

Archeology of Velzna

Sanctuary at Campo della Fiera


(Link to Campo della Fiera: Republican Period))

Temples of Nortia?

Remains of the so-called Tempio del Belvedere (ca. 500 BC) at Orvieto

According to Livy:

  1. “Cincius, a careful writer on such [inscriptions or monuments], asserts that there were seen at Volsinii also nails fixed in the temple of Nortia, an Etruscan goddess, as indices of the number of years” (‘Roman History’, 7:3).

Verrius Flaccus, epitomised by Festus, described this annual rite as follows:

  1. “The ‘clavus annalis’ [annual nail] was so called because it was fixed into the walls of the [Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome] every year, so that the number of years could be reckoned ...” (‘De verborum significatu’, 49 Lindsay).

Since Livy included Cincius’ account within his own account of the practice Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome in the early Republic, it would be natural to assume that Cincius was referring to Volsinii before its destruction in 264 BC.  Henk Versnel (referenced below, at pp. 273-4) was clearly of this opinion: referring to Livy’s summary of Cincius’ information, he asserted that:

  1. “This is a highly significant statement.  We learn from it that the clavi fixatio, like most of the rites around the idus septembres [at the the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus], was an Etruscan usage, associated with the goddess Nortia and taking place in or near Volsinii.”

There is evidence at Orvieto for two ancient temples at which a goddess akin to the Greek Athena (whom the Romans had absorbed as Minerva) was venerated:

  1. According to Simonetta Stopponi (referenced below, 2003, at p. 247), fragments of a frieze (ca. 500 BC) from the temple in Vigna Grande that are preserved [in museums ??] at Orvieto and Toronto came from a relief that:

  2. “... [depicted] the Gigantomachy of Athena [the mythical battle in which the Athena defeated the giant Enceladus] and probably related to the dedication of the temple” (my translation). 

  3. A bronze votive offering (ca. 450 BC) in the Museo Civico, Orvieto, which  came from the so-called Tempio del Belvedere (illustrated above), represents Athena holding a spear: she is wearing the aegis (cape) that her father Zeus had given her, which is adorned by a gorgon’s head and a fringe of snakes.  

These temples were close together on the northeast edge of the cliff, probably outside the urban centre of the Etruscan city.

As Enrico Zuddas (referenced below, at note 37) pointed out, we have no hard evidence to confirm that this deity was explicitly identified as Nortia at either temple.  However, Simonetta Stopponi (referenced below, 2003, at p. 257) suggested that the votive bronze from the Tempio del Belvedere represented a goddess of fate who was associated with:

  1. “... the tradition [derived from Cincius] that attributes to Volsinii the ceremony of the clavus annalis ... at the temple of Nortia, [which was] repeated at Rome in the cella of Minerva at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus; the goddess at the Tempio del Belvedere could therefore be a ‘Minerva Nortina’ ...” (my translation).

The tri-partite structure of the Tempio del Belvedere and the fact that its dedication seems to have been to Tinia/ Jupiter are certainly obvious parallels of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome: we can reasonably assume that Tinia shared this temple with the Etruscan goddesses Uni (Roman Juno) and Nortia (Roman Minerva).

Simonetta Stopponi suggested that:

  1. “It is ... probable that the cult of Minerva, in her various aspects, had its [main Volsinian] seat at the temple at Vigna Grande, where the deity was portrayed in battle with the giants [as mentioned above]” (my translation).

However, it seems to me that, if Cincius was indeed describing the situation at Volsinii before 264 BC, his Volsinian  “temple of Nortia” in which the rite of the clavus annalis took place would probably have been the cella of the goddess in the tripartite  Tempio del Belvedere. 

Other Temples and Deities of Volsinii

[To be expanded]

The worship of Tinia (Zeus, Roman Jupiter) also seems to have been prevalent at Volsinii, where the Tempio del Belvedere was dedicated to him.  The terracotta head of a bearded man (ca. 400 BC) from the Tempio di Via San Leonardo now in the Museo Civico is probably a representation of this god.

There seems to have been a sanctuary dedicated to Vei (Demeter), the goddess of death and fertility inside the necropolis of Cannicella (see below), as evidenced by an antefix in the Museo Archeologico and the famous statue of the “Venus” of Cannicella in the Museo Civico. 

There seem to have been other Etruscan temples in Orvieto, including one on the site of Sant’ Andrea and another on the site of the Palazzo del Popolo.


[To be expanded]

From the 6th century BC, local workshops produced bronze, terracotta and other pottery artefacts that were much in demand throughout modern Umbria and beyond.  Examples of this work were discovered in many of the graves in the necropoles that surround the city. 

The most famous of these is the Crocifisso del Tufo to the north, which was in use in the 6th and 5th centuries BC.  In this necropolis, chamber tombs made of blocks of tufa are laid out in an orthogonal plan.  The name of the first occupant of each tomb was usually carved on the lintel above the entrance. 

The most important of the other Etruscan burial sites that ring the city are the contiguous necropoles of Cannicella and Fontana del Leone to the south.  A number of interesting finds from these sites are displayed in the Museo Archeologico and the Museo Civico.  The oldest tomb in the Cannicella Necropolis is a trench tomb of a woman from the 7th century BC.  Most of the later tombs are chamber tombs that date to the 6th or 5th centuries BC.   The presence of the sanctuary dedicated to Vei discussed above is perhaps the most unusual feature of this necropolis.

By the 4th century BC, nobles from Orvieto had begun to establish estates on the outskirts of the city, particularly along the road to Bolsena.  They began to bury their dead on their estates, as evidenced by:

  1. finds from the painted tombs at Settecamini (second half of the 4th century BC), which are displayed in Museo Archeologico;

  2. the painted tombs of the Hescanas family (late 4th century BC) at Castel Rubello; and

  3. the polychrome sarcophagus (second half of the 4th century BC) from Torre San Severo that is preserved in the Museo Civico.

Read more:

E. Zuddas, “La Praetura Etruriae Tardoantica”, in

  1. G. A. Cecconi et al. (Eds), “Epigrafia e Società dell’ Etruria Romana (Firenze, 23- 24 ottobre 2015)”, (2017) Rome

L. M. Michetti, “Le Ceramiche Argentate e a Rilievo in Etruria nella Prima Età Ellenistica”, (2003) Rome

S. Stopponi, “I Templi e l’ Architettura Templare”, in

  1. G. Della Fina and E. Pellegrini (ed), “Storia di Orvieto: Antichità”, (2003) Perugia: pp 235-74

L. Ambrosini, “Le Monete della Cosiddetta Serie ‘Ovale’ con il Tipo della Clava”, Studi Etruschi 63 (1997) 195-226

I. Vecchi, “The Coinage of the Rasna: a Study in Etruscan Numismatics: Part I”, Revue Suisse de Numismatique, 67 (1988)

P. Gros, “Bolsena I: Scavi della Scuola Francese di Roma a Bolsena

(Poggio Moscini): Guida agli Scavi”, Mélanges d' Archéologie et d' Histoire, 6 (1981)

H. S. Versnel , “Triumphus: An Inquiry Into the Origin, Development and Meaning of the Roman Triumph”, (1970) Leiden

W. Harris, “Via Cassia and the Via Traiana Nova between Bolsena and Chiusi”, Papers of the British School at Rome, 33 (1965) 113-33

G. Dennis, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria”, (1848) London

K. Müller, “Die Etrusker” (1828) Breslau

G. B. Niebuhr, “Roman History”, (1827) London

Ancient History:  Velzna/ Volsinii      Destruction of Velzna

Volsinii (Bolsena): Republican Period;    TriumviralPeriod;

Early Empire;    Imperial Period;     Late Empire;    

Rescript of Constantine at Hispellum (ca. 335 AD)


Return to the page on History of Orvieto.