Key to Umbria: Spello

This marble inscription (CIL XI 5265), which records the content of a decree (rescript) issued by the Emperor Constantine and his sons, is now exhibited in the Sala Zuccari, Palazzo Comunale Vecchio (as illustrated above).  As set out by Luigi Sensi (referenced below), the archives of the Comune di Spello record its discovery in 1733.  Sensi reproduced information supplied in 1734 by Andrea Adamo (referenced below, in the note on p. 48) that described the find spot as:

  1. “... underground, close to two dead bodies, on ground belonging to the Compagnia delle Morte ..., near the road, a short distance from the amphitheatre and almost contiguous with the vestiges of the theatre” (my translation).

Thus the find spot was at the heart of the Roman Sanctuary at what is now Villa Fidelia.  The presence of dead bodies nearby and the fact that the land belonged to the Compagnia delle Morte suggests that, by 1733, this part of the site was used as a cemetery, and Luigi Sensi reasonably suggested that the marble inscription had been reused to cover a tomb here.

A translation (1961) into English by Johnson, Coleman-Norton & Bourne is available on-line, although some details have been improved by subsequent scholars.   I have relied on that by Noel Lenski (referenced below, at pp 118-9).  Note that there is still no consensus on some aspects of the translation.  In these pages, I have used the Latin for disputed or unclear words or phrases, followed by the alternative English translations in square brackets.

Content of the Rescript

In the Rescript (or more precisely, in the version of the Rescript that is reproduced in the inscription), Constantine replied, broadly in the affirmative, to three requests from Hispellum:

  1. Two of these requests apparently related to Hispellum itself:

  2. that Constantine should give a name derived from his family name to the city; and

  3. that a Templum Flaviae Gentis (temple of his Flavian family) should be built there.

  4. The third request seems to have been made on behalf of ‘Umbria’:

  5. The supplicants recorded that they had previously selected a priest to represent them (alongside a similar priest selected by Tuscia) at an annual festival involving theatrical shows and gladiatorial games that had been held aput Vulsinios (in or, perhaps, near Volsinii), a city of Tuscia (Etruria).

  6. They requested that, in future, the priest provided by Umbria should preside over a version of the festival at Hispellum, albeit that the traditional practice would continue, otherwise unchanged, at Volsinii. 

Each of these requests is considered in a related page of this website - see the links in the yellow boxes above and below.

The Rescript did not apparently identify:

  1. the place of issue; or

  2. the date.

The last point is particularly important in any consideration of the political and religious context in which the Rescript was issued.  The possible date of issues is therefore discussed in detail below. 

Date of the Rescript

The only surviving clue to the date of issue of the Rescript comes in the opening lines of the inscription, where three of Constantine’s sons are associated with its issue:

  1. Flavius Constantinus [i.e. Constantine junior];

  2. Flavius Julius Constantius [i.e. Constantius junior, who had been named for Constantine’s father]; and

  3. Flavius Constans.

As discussed below, none of these sons is given the title Caesar.

The evolution of imperial college under Constantine can be summarised as follows:

  1. He designated his first two sons as Caesar in 317 AD:

  2. Crispus, who was probably about 20; and

  3. Constantine junior, who was then only a baby. 

  4. His third son, Constantius, was similarly designated in 324 AD, when he was 7.

  5. Constantine had Crispus executed in 326 AD. 

  6. He designated his youngest son, Constans, as Caesar in 333 AD, when the boy was about 10.

From this point, Constantine and his three surviving sons constituted what might be considered a dynastic tetrarchy.

  1. Constantine further extended the imperial college in 335 AD, when he designated  his nephew, Dalmatius (or Delmatius) as the fourth Caesar, perhaps in preparation for his own demise. 

Various Opinions on the Dating of the Rescript

Since Crispus  and Dalmatius are absent from the imperial college as defined in the Rescript, the obvious conclusion is that it was issued at some time in the period 326-35 AD.  However, there is a problem: both Constantine junior and Constantius held the rank of Caesar throughout this period, and Constans was similarly designated from 333 AD.  Why was their rank omitted in the inscription (and thus, presumably, in the Rescript itself)? 

There are broadly two schools of thought among those scholars (see the references below) who accept the broad period 326-35 AD:

  1. Kayoko Tabata suggested that a period of time elapsed between the issue of the Rescript and the carving of the inscription.  According to this theory:

  2. The Rescript was probably issued in 326 AD, when Constantine was briefly in Rome for his vicennalia (the celebration of his first 20 years in office): he is known to have issued another rescript from Spoleto at this time (on 25th September, Codex Theodosianus 16.5.2).  This was his only visit to Italy after 315 AD, and would have provided the Hispellates with an ideal opportunity to make their request. 

  3. The inscription was probably carved in 333 AD, when it was expected that Constans would soon be designated Caesar.  Space was left so that “Caesss” could be inserted when Constans’ elevation became official.  In the event, for whatever reason, the inscription was never updated.

  4. Raymond van Dam suggested a less complicated possibility: simply that both the Rescript and the inscription dated to the period in which all three sons were part of the imperial college.  On this theory, their common designation as Caesar had simply been omitted in the inscription, although presumably not in the Rescript itself.  Thus, he suggested (at pages 53-4) that the Rescript had been issued between the accession of Constans and that of Dalmatius: i.e. in the period December 333 AD - September 335 AD.  More specifically, he suggested that the the requests from the Hispellates had been submitted in 333 AD, soon after Constans’ elevation, in the hope that Constantine (and, presumably, his newly-elevated son) would visit the city en route for Rome, where it was hoped (as it turned out, forlornly) that Constantine would celebrate the 30th anniversary of his accession.

Another group of scholars suggest a later dating (i.e. after 335 AD):

  1. As Jacques Gascou pointed out, although Constantine died in May 337 AD, he was still officially regnant until his three sons were proclaimed Augusti in the following September.  Richard Burgess has deduced that Dalmatius was murdered in the month following Constantine’ death.  Thus, in the period June - September 337 AD, the imperial college would also have been officially as recorded in the Rescript, albeit that Constantine was ruling from the grave and the status of his sons was best left unstated.

  2. Timothy Barnes (referenced below) strongly supported this contention: he argued (at page 21-2) that, since Hispellum had requested a name derived from the imperial cognomen (de nostro cognomine), the name that it actually received implied that:

  3. “... the Emperor who gave [it] ... was surely Flavius Constans.” 

  4. He therefore asserted that Constans had issued it from Milan (where he was probably resident for much of  in 335-7 AD) in the period: 

  5. “... when there was an official pretence  that the dead Constantine still reigned.”.

  6. I have to say that I find this unconvincing.  As discussed in my page Constantine's Re-naming of Cities, Constantine had renamed Arles as Constantina in 328 AD, in honour of Constantinus junior; he could therefore have similarly honoured the newly elevated Constans at any time after December 333 AD.

For what it is worth, it seems to me that the period suggested by Raymond van Dam -  i.e. at some time in the period December 333 AD - September 335 AD - is the most likely.  

Whatever their detailed differences, most scholars now accept that the Rescript was issued towards the end of Constantine’s life or soon thereafter.  This was the time at which his plans for the dynastic succession were about to be put to the test.  Nowhere was this issue more delicate than in the provinces of Italy and Africa, where his power was to pass to the young and untried Constans.  This political consideration provides the context for much of the detailed analysis that follows (see the links in the yellow boxes above and below).

Templum Flaviae Gentis


San Fedele (18th century)

On foundations of  the Templum Flaviae Gentis

Manconi, Camerieri and Cruciani (referenced below, 1996, pp 387-8) reported that an examination of  the small church of San Fedele, which stands on the site of the Roman sanctuary, had revealed the remains of:

  1. “... a structure that we can confidently date to the late Imperial period on the basis of the use of the [construction] technique of opera mixta, ....  We are dealing here with an element pertinent to a late phase of the sanctuary [at Villa Fidelia]  (3rd - 4th century AD), probably the phase recorded in the Rescript of Constantine” (my translation).  

The plan of this structure (at Figure 17 of Manconi’s paper) reveals an elongated hall with an apse, which later used as the foundations of the church.  Filippo Coarelli  (referenced below, 2001, at p. 46) considered that:

  1. “The dating attributed to [the foundations of San Fedele] ... and the presence of an apse (which is typical of edifices of the imperial cult) allows us to identify it, without any doubt, as the temple of the gens Flavia mentioned in the Rescript ...”

This temple at Hispellum is the only securely documented temple of the cult of Constantine’s gens Flavia.  I suggest in my page Constantine's Imperial Cult that it was probably devoted to Constantine’s two deified ancestors:

  1. divus Constantius; and

  2. divus Claudius II.

We might reasonably assume that, after the death of Constantine in 337 AD, the cult here expanded to include that of divus Constantinus.

As discussed in my page Templum Flaviae Gentis, Constantine insisted in the Rescript that this temple could be built at Hispellum only on condition that it would not be:

  1. “... polluted by the deceits of any contagious superstition.” 

John Curran (referenced below, p 181) pointed out that the superstition in question was probably animal sacrifice, since:

  1. “... [as] one of the most objectionable acts which the pagans practiced, Constantine could not sanction it in connection with the imperial cult.”

This scrap of information throws considerable light on how the imperial cult was adapted to reconcile the religious practices of the ancient State religion to the religious sensibilities of the first Christian emperor.

Annual Festival

As noted above, the third request seems to have been made on behalf of ‘Umbria’, which had previously selected a priest to represent it (alongside a similar priest selected by Tuscia) at an annual festival involving theatrical shows and gladiatorial games that had been held at Volsinii, a city of Tuscia (Etruria).  This is easily the most perplexing of the passages in the Rescript and has given rise to a vast body of literature representing a number of differing points of view (which I have attempted to summarise Theatrical Shows and Gladiatorial Games).

  1. The first area of uncertainty relates to the identities of “Tuscia” and “Umbria”:

  2. For some scholars, these were (respectively) the Etruscan and Umbrian cities that had been grouped together for administrative purposes in ca. 294 AD to form the Province of Tuscia et Umbria.

  3. For others, the respective groups of cities were associated with ancient pan-Etruscan and pan-Umbrian federations that, by the 4th century AD, were purely religious in nature.

  4. Next, there is the question of why Umbria celebrated the festival jointly with Tuscia and at Volsinii, since the sanctuary at Hispellum, which had been monumentalised in the 1st century BC, had a theatre and an amphitheatre that could (and, after the Rescript, presumably did) accommodate participants from the neighbouring cities. 

  5. This is related to the question of when the two groups had been “joined together” for the purpose of celebrating the festival at Volsinii: the Rescript simply says that this was according to consuetudo prisca (previous/ ancient custom):

  6. For the first group of scholars (above), the joining together had happened in ca. 294 AD, and (according to most scholars in this group) Volsinii had been chosen for the joint religious festival because it was the provincial capital and thus the locus for the provincial imperial cult (although there is no supporting evidence for this).

  7. For the second group, the tradition was much older than that, and Volsinii had been chosen for the joint religious festival because it had been the meeting place of the Etruscan federation in the 4th century BC.  For most scholars in this group, the joint festival was dedicated to the Etruscan goddess Nortia (a cult for which there is some evidence in the vicinity of Hispellum in the 1st century BC), whose main cult site was at Volsinii.

For reason set out in my page Theatrical Shows and Gladiatorial Games, I think that the joining together probably occurred in the 1st century BC, when a priest representing the municipia who used the Augustan sanctuary at Villa Fidelia participated alongside a colleague from the revived Etruscan League in the celebration of an annual imperial anniversary that was marked by the driving of the clavis annalis at a temple of Nortia in or near Volsinii.  I suggest that, following changes made at Volsinii in ca. 326 AD, in which the annual ceremony was divorced from the Temple of Nortia (which was “polluted by the deceits of any contagious superstition”), it was possible for the people of Umbria to celebrate this imperial anniversary at their own sanctuary at Hispellum.

One or Three Requests?

So far, I have implied (in the interests of clarity) that each of the three request in the Rescript was separate from the others, but this is probably misleading.  Specifically, the drafting of the Rescript implies that Constantine approved the partial transfer to Hispellum of the annual festival that had previously been held at Volsinii as a consequence of the construction of the Templum Flaviae Gentis there:

  1. Consequenter (As a consequence) [of the erection of the Templum Flaviae Gentis at Hispellum], we grant you permission for the [annual festival, previously held at Volsinii] also to be held in this city.”

John Hanson (in his book “Roman Theater-Temples” referenced below) argued (in my view, probably correctly) that the use of the word “Consequenter”  here signified that the citizens of Hispellum would not have been allowed to hold the annual festival in their own city unless they had also constructed a new temple:

  1. “The relation between the two [i.e. the construction of the new temple and the transfer of the festival to Hispellum] is regarded [in the inscription] ... as both topographically and logically necessary.” 

If this is correct, then we must assume that:

  1. by the time that the annual festival that was to be partially transferred from Volsinii to Hispellum, it was dedicated to the cult of Constantine’s gens Flavia;

  2. the Rescript was the (largely affirmative) answer to a single request: that the pan-Umbrian sanctuary at Villa Fidelia should be dedicated to the gens Flavia and that this should be established reflected in its new name of Hispellum, Urbs Flavia Constans; and

  3. that the assent was conditional upon the construction of a new temple dedicated to this cult that was unpolluted by “the deceits of any contagious superstition”.

I must stress that this hypothesis puts a good deal of weight on a single word,consequenter”, and that this view is unlikely to be widely accepted.    However, a second inscription that was also found in the Roman sanctuary might provide support for it. 

Caius Matrinius Aurelius Antoninus

An inscription (CIL XI 5283; EDR 123166; LSA-1638) on the base of a statue that was found in 1581 near the amphitheatre of the Roman sanctuary commemorates Caius Matrinius Aurelius Antoninus.  Although Antoninus had reached the highest post in the civic administration of Hispellum, his cursus gives pride of place to his religious offices:
  1. as coronatus (crowned priest) of the province of Tuscia et Umbria; and

  2. as pontifex gentis Flaviae, a priesthood related to the recently instituted cult of the gens Flavia at Hispellum.

I discuss this inscription in more detail in my page Caius Matrinius Aurelius Antoninus.

According to the inscription: 

  1. “the people of Flavia Constans [set up this statue] to a most worthy patron” 

Since Flavia Constans was now in existence, this inscription must post-date the Rescript, albeit probably by only a short period of time.  Given the proximity of the two find spots, we can reasonably assume that Caius Matrinius Aurelius Antoninus officiated at the temple that the Rescript permitted, the Templum Flaviae Gentis, in his capacity of pontifex gentis Flaviae.

The inscription also described Antonius as the:

  1. “... sponsor of the most abundant spectacles and of extraordinary rejoicing in the theatre...”

It seems likely that these spectacles took place in the theatre (and, quite possibly, in the amphitheatre) of the Roman sanctuary, and it is tempting to suggest that Antonius presided over at least some of them in his capacity of pontifex gentis Flaviae.  Thus:

  1. Duncan Fishwick (referenced below, 1991, at p 576) asserted that:

  2. "Constantine entrusted an imperial priest with the provision of scenic and gladiatorial games at Hispellum in Umbria, in connection with the aedes gentis Flaviae."

  3. John Curran (referenced below, at p. 181) wrote:

  4. “An inscription from Hispellum ... records the arrangements [that Constantine] made for [his own imperial cult] there ...:

  5. -The erection of a temple in honour of members of the imperial family ... was allowed. 

  6. -Theatrical and gladiatorial games were instituted ...

  7. -The city even received a new name in recognition of its outstanding loyalty: ‘Flavia Constans’.

  8. Attached to the cult (here and in Rome) was a newly created priesthood, the Pontifices Gentis Flaviae.  But these priests were apparently to have a role only in the administration of the festivities attached to the cult ....” 

  9. Noel Lenski (referenced below, at p. 128), in his account of the inscription for Caius Matrinius Aurelius Antoninus, characterised it as:

  10. “... our lone piece of evidence for the [transferred] festival in action at Hispellum, [which] shows that it  involved:

  11. -a priest of Constantine’s family cult;

  12. -celebrating in Constantine’s family temple;

  13. -at a city now named for Constantine’s son;

  14. according to prescriptions laid down by Constantine himself.”

Read more:

N. Lenski, “Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics”, (2016) Philadelphia

T. Barnes, “Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire”, (2011) Chichester

R. W. Burgess, "The Summer of Blood: The ‘Great Massacre’ of the 337 and the Promotion of the Sons of Constantine", Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 62 (2008) 5-51 

R. van Dam, “Roman Revolution of Constantine”, (2007) Cambridge

F. Coarelli, "Il Rescritto di Spello e il Santuario ‘Etnico’ degli Umbri”, in

  1. Umbria Cristiana: dalla Diffusione del Culto al Culto dei Santi,” Atti del XV Congresso Internazionale di Studi sull’ Alto Medioevo, Spoleto (2001) pp. 39-52

J. Curran, “Pagan City and Christian Capital: Rome in the 4th Century”, (2000) Oxford

L. Sensi, “Sul Luogo del Ritrovamento del Rescritto Costantiniano di Spello”, in:

  1. Atti dell'Accademia Romanistica Costantiniana: XII Convegno Internazionale in Onore di Manlio Sargenti”, (1998) pp 457-77

D. Manconi, P. Camerieri and V. Cruciani (Eds),  “Hispellum: Pianificazione Urbana e Territoriale”, in

  1. G. Bonamente and F. Coarelli (Eds.), “Assisi e gli Umbri nell' Antichità: Atti del Convengo Internazionale  (Assisi, 18-21 December 1991)”, (1996) Assisi

K. Tabata, “The Date and Setting of the Constantinian Inscription of Hispellum”, Studi Classici e Orientali, 45 (1995) 369-410

D. Fishwick, “Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire (Volume 2.2)”, (1991) Leiden

J. Gascou, “Le Rescrit d' Hispellum”, Mélanges d'Archéologie e d' Histoire 79 (1967) 609-59

J. Hanson, “Roman Theater-Temples”, (1959) Princeton 

A. Adamo, ‘Storia di Volseno: Volume 2”, (1734) Rome

Roman SanctuaryMain Page   

  Rescript of Constantine:  Main Page;    Flavia Constans;   Templum Flaviae GentisTheatrical Shows and Gladiatorial Games

Associated Inscription:   Caius Matrinius Aurelius Antoninus 

History: Constantine's Re-naming of Cities;     Constantine's Imperial Cult

Return to the page on the History of Spello.


Rescript of Constantine (ca. 335 AD)

Umbria:  Home   Cities    History    Art    Hagiography    Contact 


Spello:  Home    History    Saints    Art    Walks    Monuments    Museums  

Roman SanctuaryMain Page   

  Rescript of Constantine:  Main Page       

Flavia Constans;   Templum Flaviae GentisTheatrical Shows and Gladiatorial Games

Associated Inscription:   Caius Matrinius Aurelius Antoninus 

History: Constantine's Re-naming of Cities;     Constantine's Imperial Cult