Key to Umbria: Spoleto

Ancient Spoleto

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History:  History     Ancient History

Pre-Roman History

Modern Spoleto stands on a strategically important site at the south of the Valle Umbra.  Graves discovered on the site of the Rocca and under the Duomo suggest that the site was inhabited from the 7th century BC, although there is nothing to suggest that there was a substantial city here before the establishment of the Roman colony in 241 BC.

Excavations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries revealed rich Umbrian or perhaps Sabine necropoles at two nearby sites, Monteleone di Spoleto and Sant' Anatoli di Narco, from a very early date. 

Colony of Spoletium 

Pertica of Spoletium

Adapted from Camerieri and Manconi (referenced below, Figure 3)  

According to Velleius Paterculus (ca. 19 BC - 31 AD):

  1. “Spoletium [was formed] three years [after the consulship of Torquatus and Sempronius [i.e. in 241 BC], in the year in which the Floralia were instituted” (‘Roman History’, 1:14:8) .

The colony, which was assigned to the Horatia tribe after the Social War, received a substantial ring of walls soon after colonisation that incorporated part of the original walls of the much smaller Umbrian settlement.   

According to Paolo Camerieri and Dorica Manconi (referenced below, at p. 19):

  1. “The founding of the Latin colony of Spoletium probably constituted the completion of the programme of Romanisation of the northern Sabina that had been undertaken by M’ Curius Dentatus.  [This process] had begun with the founding of the Latin colony of Narnia, and continued with the establishment of the prefectures of Roman citizens at Amiternum, Reate and Nursia ... Having regard to the location  of the colony [of Spoletium] ..., it undoubtedly provided a secure base for the final Romanisation of Umbria and central Italy, complimented 20 years later by the construction of Via Flaminia ...” (my translation). 

An entry in the ‘Book of Colonies’ (reproduced with a translation into English by Brian Campbell, referenced below, at pp. 177)  provides a technical description of the legal status of various types of land that had been assigned to the new colony.  Paolo Camerieri and Dorica Manconi (referenced below, at p. 20) summarised this entry as follows: 

  1. “... the text of the ‘Liber Coloniarum’ seems to represent a Spoletium that, at the time of the deduction of the colony, enjoyed a vast and probably sparsely populated territory that was characterised by large areas of public land in common use in the plains and mountains ... while the lands to be assigned directly to the settlers seems to have been almost marginal compared to the vastness of the available territory.  This seems to be confirmed ... by the fact that evidence of land division is found only in some areas”, (my translation).

The extent of divided land, ‘subseciva’ (uncultivated land in common use) and public ‘silva et pascua’ (woods and pasture) is illustrated in the figure above.

Fonti del Clitunno

A sanctuary at the  source of the river Clitumnus (marked as the Lacus Clitumnus on the plan above) was the subject of a letter written by Pliny the Younger in the 1st century AD:

  1. “Near [the source of the Clitumnus] stands an ancient and venerable temple, in which is placed the river-god Clitumnus, clothed in the usual robe of state; ...” (Letter LXXXVIII to Romanus).  

Paolo Camerieri and Dorica Manconi (as above) established that this sanctuary, which had probably previously belonged to Mevania, passed to Spoletium on colonisation.  This is supported by literary references:

  1. Vibius Sequester included the “Clitumnus mevaniae” in his ‘De fontibus’ (on river sources),which places the source of the river in the ownership of Mevania; while

  2. Servius, in his commentary on a passage of Virgil’s “Georgics”, noted that:

  3. Clitumnus et deus et lacus in finibus Spoletinorum”  (‘Commentary’, 2:146)

  4. Clitumnus, [its] deity and [its] lake are  in the territory of Spoletium

Sacred Grove


These two archaic Latin inscriptions (CIL XI 4766) in the Museo Archeologico, which were found about 10 km west of the Fonti del Clitunno, bear nearly identical texts: 

Honce loucom/ ne qu<i>s uiolatod/ neque exuehito neque

exferto quod louci/ siet neque cedito/ nesei quo die res deina

anua fiet eod die/ quod rei dinai cau[s]a/ [f]iat, sine dolo cedre

[l]icetod, seiquis/ uiolasit Ioue bouid/ piaclum datod

si quis scies/ uiolasit dolo malo/ Iouei bouid piaclum

datod et a(sses) CCC/ moltai suntod

eius piacli/ moltaique dicator[ei]/ exactio est[od]

Michael Gilleland has posted on line two English translations, one of which is as follows:

  1. “Let no-one violate this grove nor carry out anything that is in the grove nor set foot in it [or possibly 'cut it'] except annually on the day of the rite; on the day when it is done because of the rite, it shall be permitted to enter (cut) it with impunity. Whosoever violates the grove shall give a purificatory offering of an ox to Jupiter; whoever violates it knowingly and maliciously shall give a purificatory offering of an ox to Jupiter and shall be fined 300 asses [a unit of currency].  The dictator (chief magistrate) shall be responsible for the exaction of the offering and fine”.

The inscriptions record the terms of the so-called lex Spoletina, which governed the use of a wood or grove that was sacred to Jupiter, which was presumably located in the area in which the cippi were found.

In fact, Giuseppe Sordini found the cippi on two separate occasions and in two separate locations:

  1. Inscription A was found in 1879 on Colle di San Quirico, between Castel San Giovanni and Castel Ritaldi; and

  2. Inscription B was found in 1913, embedded in the facade of the church of Santo Stefano in Picciche.

Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2012, p. 420) pointed out that Picciche was on a side road off the main Mevania-Spoletium road that crossed the Valle Umbra towards the Fonti del Clitunno.  He suggested that:

  1. “It is likely that [Inscription B] was originally beside this road, alerting travellers to the fact that they were entering an area that was subject to specific religious constraints;  [Inscription A] must have had an analogous function, and its find spot near Castel Ritaldi lends credence to the hypothesis that it was beside the main  Mevania-Spoletium. road” (my translation)

According to Luca Donnini (in ‘Screhto Est’, referenced below, entry 75):

  1. “Regarding the chronology of the two cippi, based on the script and the language, it certainly seems that both can be securely dated to the years immediately following the deduction of the Latin colony of Spoletium in 241 BC, ...” (my translation)

Thus we can place the sacred grove in the northern strip of ‘silvus et pascua’ in the plan of the pertica of Spoletium above.

Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2007, p. 95) pointed out that the cippi had been found:

  1. “ ... immediately to the west of the Fonti del Clitunno and can indeed be identified as belonging to the sanctuary of Clitumnus, whose identification with Jupiter [recorded by Vibius Sequester] is perfectly consistent with the mention of Jupiter in connection with the [propitiatory fine demanded by the lex Spoletina]” (my translation)

Sisani’s reference (at note 50) to Vibius Sequester related to an entry in his De fluminibus(on rivers), in which he recorded that:

Clitumnus Umbriae, ubi Iuppiter eodem nomine est

Clitumnus in Umbria,where Jupiter has the same name

On this basis, we can reasonably assume that this sacred grove was also transferred to the colony of Spoletium soon after its deduction in 241 BC, and that it formed part of the public ‘silva et pascua’ (woods and pasture) that is marked at the northwestern part of the pertica of the colony.

Via Flaminia (220 BC)

Festus recorded that Via Flaminia, the Roman road to Rimini (Ariminum) on the Adriatic coast, was named for C. Flaminius:

  1. “The Circus Flaminius and the Via Flaminia are named for the Consul Flaminius, who was killed by Hannibal [in 217 BC] beside the Lake of Lake Trasimeno [see below]” (‘De verborum significatu quae supersunt cum Pauli epitome’, p. 59 of Part I of the Thewrewk edition, my translation).

This is sometimes taken to imply that Flaminius built the road as Consul (for the first time) in 223 BC, but it seems more likely that Festus was using the consulship simple to identify the Flaminius, who was killed at Lake Trasimeno during his 2nd consulship.  According to the Periochae (summary) of Book 20 of Livy’s ‘History of Rome’, he built the road and the circus in 220 BC, when he held the post of Censor.

The earliest surviving reference to Via Flaminia is by Strabo, in a work first published in 7 BC.  Here, he gave a detailed account of the cities of Umbria in relation to the road:  

"The cities this side the Apennine Mountains that are worthy of mention are:

  1. First, on the Flaminian Way itself:

  2. Ocricli [Otricoli], near the Tiber;

  3. Narnia [Narni], through which the Nar River flows (it meets the Tiber a little above Ocricli, and is navigable, though only for small boats);

  4. Carsuli; and

  5. Mevania [Bevagna], past which flows the Teneas (this too brings the products of the plain down to the Tiber on rather small boats); and

  6. ... still other settlements, which have become filled up with people rather on account of the Way itself than of political organisation; these are:

  7. Forum Flaminium [Forum Flaminii]; and

  8. Nuceria [Nocera Umbra] (the place where the wooden utensils are made) …

  9. Secondly, to the right of the Way, as you travel from Ocricli to Ariminum [Rimini], are:

  10. Interamna [Terni];

  11. Spoletium [Spoleto]; and

  12. Aesium [Assisi] …”, (‘Geography’, 5: 2:10).

This has led some scholars to suggest that the branch of the road from Narni to Forum Flaminii through Interamna (Terni) and Spoletium, of which the earliest surviving record is in the Itinerarium Antoninum (early 3rd century AD) had not been part of Flaminius’ road.  However, as Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2007, at p. 124-5) pointed out, Strabo was writing more than two centuries after the road’s construction.  He argued that:

  1. “... given the close link between colonisation and road connections, it is difficult to believe that the colony [of Spoletium] remained unconnected to Rome for so long, and that Flaminius had not  directed his road so as to take advantage of a stronghold founded twenty years earlier” (my translation).

He also argued (I think correctly) that Hannibal’s march from Lake Trasimeno to Spoleto (discussed below) made sense only if Spoleto was on the Via Flaminia, and thus on the most convenient route for a rapid attack on Rome. 

Via Flaminia crossed the Tessino River by Ponte Sanguinario, a bridge that was probably built (or perhaps restored) in 27 BC, during Augustus’ restoration of Via Flaminia itself.   Two roads from Spoleto linked the city to Via Flaminia:

  1. one from Porta Romana, to the south; and

  2. one from porta Fuga, to the north.

A stretch of the latter road has been excavated just outside Porta Fuga,

Second Punic War (218 - 201 BC)

Hypothetical location of the Lacus Umber

After Carlo Pietrangeli, “Mevania”, (1953) Rome

In 217 BC, Hannibal famously crossed the Alps and inflicted a series of defeats on the Romans.  The most devastating occurred al Lake Trasimeno, some 20 km northwest of modern Perugia, where the Consul Flaminius (the builder of Via Flaminia, mentioned above) was killed.  The Romans had been taken by surprise by the Hannibal’s sudden appearance in Etruria, and Flaminius’ consular colleague, Gnaeus Servilius, was still in Rimini.  Livy recorded that, while the Senate was still digesting the dreadful news from Trasimeno:

  1. “... another unexpected defeat was reported: 4,000 horse, sent under the command of [Gaius] Centenius, propraetor, by the Consul Gnaeus Servilius [to reinforce Flaminius] were cut off by Hannibal in Umbria, to which place, on hearing of the battle at [Trasimeno], they had turned their course” (‘History of Rome’, 22:8).

Appian was more specific about the location of the defeat of Gaius Centinus, reporting that he had been:

“...  sent into Umbria to the Plestine marshes, to occupy the narrow passages that offered the shortest way [for Hannibal to reach] to Rome” (‘War against Hannibal’, 9).

He also gave an account of the battle:

  1. “ When Hannibal saw the Plestine marsh and the mountain overhanging it, with Centenius between them guarding the passage, he asked the guides whether there was any way around.  When they said there was no path and that the whole region was rugged and precipitous, he nevertheless sent a body of lightly armed troops, under the command of Maharbal, to explore the district and pass around the mountain by night. When he judged that they had reached their destination, he attacked Centenius in front.  While the engagement was in progress, Maharbal was seen pushing forward strenuously on the summit above, where he raised a shout. The Romans thus surrounded took to flight, and there was a great slaughter among them: 3,000 being killed and 800 taken prisoners, while the remainder escaped only with difficulty” (‘War against Hannibal’, 11).

It is difficult to see how this could make topographical sense, since neither Plestia nor the  Lacus Plestinus on which it stood blocked Hannibal’s access to Rome.  As Guy Bradley (referenced below, at p. 148) pointed out, some scholars think that Appian had confused the Lacus Plestinus with the Lacus Umber: it does seem more likely that Centenius had occupied the passes along the shore of this lake in order to prevent Hannibal reaching Via Flaminia. 

According to Livy, after the defeat of Centenius :

  1. “Hannibal, marching directly through Umbria, arrived at Spoletum, and, having completely devastated the adjoining country, commenced an assault upon the town, but was repulsed. ...[This gave him an insight into the problems that he would face in taking Rome.  He therefore] turned aside into the territory of Picenum” (‘History of Rome’, 22:9).

As noted above, Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2007, at p. 124-5) argued that Hannibal probably marched along the eastern branch of Via Flaminia in order to reach Spoleto.  According to tradition, he was repulsed from the walls of Spoleto at Porta della Fuga, which was named for his ignominious withdrawal.  [Depicted in the Vatican Galleria delle Carte Geografiche].  


Cicero, during his defence of L. Cornelius Balbo in 95 BC described Spoletium as:

  1. “...  a Latin colony that was especially powerful and distinguished”, (‘Pro Balbo’, 49, translated by Robert Gardner, referenced below, at p. 691)

The city was reconstituted as a municipium, probably in 90 BC, and a number of inscriptions testify to its subsequent administration by quattuorviri and its assignation to the Horatia tribe.

Spoletium suffered grievously in the civil war of 83 BC.  The Sullan generals, Pompey and Crassus attacked the Marian general Carrinas who took refuge in the city.  Carrinus escaped but the city was sacked.  Sulla confiscated much of what he did not destroy and settled veterans on the confiscated property.  [Sostruzione Sillane]  Florus observed:

  1. “One could endure the punishment of individuals, but the most renowned towns of Italy were put up to auction — Spoletium, Interamnium [probably Interamna Praetutiana, modern Teramo], Praeneste, Florentia” (‘Epitome of Roman History’ 2:9). 

The city suffered further in an earthquake of 63 BC, but nevertheless soon began to recover.  A long inscription (CIL XI 4809) in a stretch of the walls in viale G. Matteotti records the restoration of something, presumably of the walls following the earthquake, by the two quattuorviri jure dicundo.

Perusine War (42-1 BC)

When the consul L. Antoninus (the brother of Mark Antony) revolted against the triumvir Octavian in 41 BC, he famously and tragically soon found himself besieged at Perusia (Perugia).  Lucius’ ally and sister-in-law Fulvia tried to assemble help for him from the generals of Mark Antony who remained in the west (while Mark Antony himself was in Egypt); the generals in question were primarily: P. Ventidius Bassus; C. Asinius Pollio; and L. Munatius Plancus. Thus, Appian:

  1. “Fulvia urged Ventidius [and] Asinius ... to hasten from Gaul to the assistance of Lucius, and collected reinforcements, which she sent to Lucius under the lead of Plancus.  He destroyed one of Octavian's legions, which was on the march to Rome.  While Asinius and Ventidius were proceeding ...  to the relief of Lucius ... Octavian and Agrippa, leaving a guard at Perusia, threw themselves in the way.  [Asinius and Ventidius] retreated: Asinius to Ravenna; and Ventidius to Ariminum [Rimini].  Plancus took refuge in Spoletium.  Octavian stationed a force in front of each, to prevent them from forming a junction, and returned to Perusia, where he speedily strengthened [the siege]” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:33).

It is likely that Spoletium gave willing support to Plancus, and that there were consequences when Lucius was forced to surrender.  It was possibly in this context that Spoletium lost control over the sanctuary at the  source of the river Clitumnus:  Pliny the Younger, who visited it in the in the 1st century AD, recorded in a letter that:

  1. “The Hispellates, to whom Augustus gave this place, furnish a public bath, and likewise entertain all strangers at their own expense” (Letter LXXXVIII to Romanus).  

Paolo Camerieri and Dorica Manconi (referenced below, at pp. 23-4, and in Figure 3, which is reproduced here at the top of the page) identified an ‘anomalous’  parcel of land that included and adjoined the Lacus Clitumnus, the centuriation of which was based on the same allotment size (706 meters) as at Hispellum.  This suggests that the transfer of the sanctuary from Spoletium to Hispellum probably also took place at the time of the colonisation of the latter in 41 BC, and that it involved the lake and the newly-centuriated parcel of land to the south of it.  A now lost inscription (CIL XI 4907) from Castel Ritaldi (which, as noted above, was close to the find spot of one of the cippi inscribed with the lex Spoletina and thus probably close to one of the entrances to the grove) read:

...Pomponius T f./ Lem(onia) Ruf(us) ...

This does indeed suggest that some land in this area, which possibly included the grove itself, passed to Hispellum (since the new settlers there were assigned to the Lemonia tribe).

Despite these losses, Emilio Gabba (referenced below, at p. 102) commented that Spoletium was not excessively punished in the aftermath of the Perusine War.  He suggested two possible reasons for this:

  1. Octavian might have been well-disposed towards Spoletium because, as Pliny the Elder recorded, he had received favourable omens when he took the auspices here immediately after the Senate had recognised his imperium in 43 BC: 

  2. “When [Octavian, the future] divus Augustus was sacrificing at Spoletium, upon the first day of his entering on the imperial dignity, in six different victims, the liver was found rolled over within itself, from the very lowest lobe; and the answer that was given by the diviners was to the effect that, in the course of the year, he would gain a twofold sway [i.e. double his power]” (‘Natural History’, 11: 73). 

  3. Spoletium enjoyed the patronage of C. Calvisius Sabinus, one of Octavian’s earliest and most influential supporters.

C. Calvisius Sabinus 


                                  Bust (1st century BC)                           Inscribed statue base (ca. 31 BC)

                               probably of C. Calvisius Sabinus         commemorating C. Calvisius Sabinus

                                      From Roman Theatre                           From San Martino in Trignano 

                                Museo Archeologico, Spoleto                      Museo Archeologico, Spoleto

According to Ronald Syme (referenced below, 1939, at p. 221 and note 1), Calvisius Sabinus was one of only two senators who tried to protect Julius Caesar from his assassins in 44 BC.  Thereafter, he became a staunch supporter of Octavian.  He served as consul of 39 BC, and as the admiral of Octavian’s fleet in 38-7 BC.  However, he performed badly during a naval engagement off Sicily against Sextus Pompeius and was replaced in that capacity by Agrippa.  According to Appian, Agrippa’s subsequent victory over Sextus Pompeius at the Battle of Naulochus in 36 BC:

  1. “... seemed to be the end of the civil dissensions [in Italy].  Octavian was now 28 years of age.  Cities joined in placing him among their tutelary gods.  At this time, Italy and Rome itself were openly infested with bands of robbers, whose doings were more like barefaced plunder than secret theft.   [Gaius Calvisius] Sabinus was chosen by Octavian to correct this disorder.   He executed many of the captured brigands, and within one year brought about a condition of absolute security” (‘Civil Wars’, 5:132).

We know from a shorter account by Cassius Dio that the unrest had centred on Etruria:

  1. “Meanwhile the parts of Etruria which had been in rebellion had subsequently become quiet as soon as word came of his victory [at Naulochus]” (‘Roman History’, 49: 15: 1).

Calvisius Sabinus was proconsul of Hispania in 31-29 BC and is last recorded in an entry in the fasti Consulares for 28 BC:

  1. “Calvisius Sabinus celebrated a triumph from Spain on May 26th, and donated a palm”.

The inscription (CIL XI 4772) illustrated above, which came from San Martino in Trignano, some 8 km northwest of Spoleto, reads:

Pietati/ [C(ai)] Calvisi C(ai) f(ilii) Sabini

patroni co(n)s(ulis)

VIIvir(i) epul(onum) cur(ionis) max(imi)

It came from what was almost certainly the base of a statue: it is not certain that the man depicted was the consul of 39 BC, but Ronald Syme (referenced below, 1939, at p. 221 and note 1) argued it was, pointing out that the reference in the inscription to his ‘pietas’ almost certainly refers to his attempt to save Julius Caesar from his fate.  The inscription refers to Calvisius Sabinus as a patron, presumably of Spoletium; Ronald Syme, (referenced below, 1964, at pp 113-4) produced circumstantial evidence from other inscriptions from Herculaneum and Cyzicius that Calvius was actually from Spoletium and a member of the Horatia tribe.  As well as his consulship, it also records two positions that he held in Rome towards the end of his career:

  1. septemvir epulones (member of a college of seven men responsible for the organisation of public feasts in Rome); and

  2. curio maximus (an ancient priesthood). 

Since his proconsulate in Hispania is not mentioned, a date of ca. 31 BC seems reasonable. 

The bust illustrated above was discovered during the excavation of the Roman theatre at Spoleto in 1954-60.   The identity of its subject is unknown, but C. Calvisius Sabinus is an excellent candidate.  It is tempting to suggest that he had financed the building of the theatre: according to the website of the Soprintendenza   dell’ Umbria, its original construction dates to the 1st century BC.

Pushing this line of speculation further, it is entirely possible that =Sabinus commissioned this important bust (ca. 40 BC) of Octavian, which was also discovered during the excavation of the Roman theatre in 1954-60.  This bust, which is one of the earliest known busts of Octavian, was newly installed in the museum in 2014, after having appeared in international exhibitions in Rome and Paris that celebrated the 2,000th anniversary of his death.  This bust and a similar one at Béziers (now in the Musée Saint-Raymond, Toulouse) was the prototypes of the so-called ‘Béziers-Spoleto’ group, which is dated to ca. 40 BC. 

A similar bust of Octavian, which had been re-cut in ca. 315 AD as a bust of the Emperor Constantine, was discovered during excavations of the basilica forense of Volsinii/Bolsena and is now in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Viterbo.  One wonders whether Calvisius Sabinus commissioned the original bust at Volsinii after he had suppressed the revolt in Etruria in 36 BC.

Read more:

S. Sisani, “I Rapporti tra Mevania e Hispellum nel Quadro del Paesaggio Sacro della Valle Umbra,, in

G. Della Fina (Ed.), “Il Fanum Voltumnae e i Santuari Comunitari dell’ Italia Antica”, (2012) Orvieto (pp. 409-64)

P. Camerieri and D. Manconi, “Le Centuriazioni della Valle Umbra da Spoleto a Perugia”, Bollettino di Archeolgia Online, (2010) 15-39

S. Sisani,  “Fenomenologia della Conquista: La Romanizzazione dell' Umbria tra il IV sec. a. C. e la Guerra Sociale”, (2007) Rome

B. Campbell, “The Writings of the Roman Land Surveyors: Introduction, Text, Translation and Commentary”, (2000) London

G. Bradley, "Ancient Umbria", (2000) Oxford

E. Gabba, “Trasformazioni Politiche e Socio-Economiche dell' Umbria dopo il 'Bellum Perusinum'”, in:

G. Catanzaro and F. Santucci (Eds), “Bimillenario della Morte di Properzio”, (1986) Assisi pp. 95-104

R. Syme, “Senators, Tribes and Towns”, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 13: 1 (1964) 105-25

R. Gardner (translator), “Cicero: Pro Caelio; De Provinciis Consularibus; Pro Balbo”, (1958) Cambridge, MA

R. Syme, “The Roman Revolution” (1939, latest edition 2002) Oxford

History:  History     Ancient History

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