The origins of Spoleto, located along the slopes of the hill Saint Elias, date back to the late Bronze Age, as shown by some remains of the necropolis, found in the perimeter of the city.
In the 5th and 4th centuries BC the Umbrians occupied the territory, and the city became a “castrum” (Fortress), with the construction of the so-called “Cyclopean walls”, made of huge blocks of polygonal limestone.
Little is known about the circumstances in which the Romans established the colony of Spoletium on the site of modern Spoleto in 241 BC. It is possible that the Umbrian inhabitants were happy to receive the protection of Rome, or they may alternatively have been dispossessed. The colony received a substantial ring of walls soon after colonisation that incorporated part of the original walls of the much smaller Umbrian settlement.
The new walls proved well able to withstand Hannibal in 217 BC as he marched victoriously across central Italy after the Battle of Lake Trasimeno. According to tradition, he was repulsed from the walls of Spoleto [Porta della Fuga]. [Depicted in the Vatican Galleria delle Carte Geografiche]. It might have been in the aftermath of this victory that the Romans decided to favour the colony by building the branch of Via Flaminia that would link it to Rome and the Adriatic.
An inscription (CIL XI 4772) from Spoleto (and others from Herculaneum and Cyzicus) name Gaius Calvius Sabinus as a patron of Spoleto. This may well have been the Consul of 39 BC.
Cicero described Spoletium as “colonia latina in primis firma et illustris” (a Latin colony, … among the first for vigour and high character) during his defence of Lucius Cornelius Balbo in 95 BC (Pro Balbo 21 or 48, depending on nomenclature).
Spoletium suffered grievously in the civil war of 83 BC. The Sullan generals, Pompey andCrassus 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] It probably became a municipium at this point.
There are many ruins that testify to the Roman presence in the city, like the Arch of Drusus (38-9 BC) and Germanicus (16 BC-19 AD), Roman Theatre (first century AD) and a house attributed to Vespasia Polla (born in 15 c. BC-first century AD), mother of Emperor Vespasian (9-79 AD).
The city suffered further in an earthquake of 63 BC, but nevertheless soon began to recover, particularly after it backed the future Emperor Augustus during the Perusine War.
Rescripts of the Emperor Constantine (326) and the Emperor Julian the Apostate (362) are dated from Spoleto.
Origins of the name: etymology of Spoletium or Spoletum
As Regards the etymology of “Spoletium-Spoletum”, we can say that we are still in a situation of waiting. We begin with a hypothesis proposed in the 18th century by Minervius Severus, who said that the city’s name derived from the Latin word “Spolia” (“Spolia” are the spoils of war). Also interesting is the difference that he established between “Spolet-i-um” and “Spol-e-tum,” saying that “Spoletum”, without the “i” is a bad error:
“[…] Many claim that Spoleto derives from the fact that they “shared the spoils of the enemy in war.” Others, however, think that ‘Spoletium’ means almost ‘Glad (‘Laetum’) to have snatched the spoils from the enemies’ (“Spoliis-Laetum”) [Italian “Spoleto”]). Many then say ‘Spol-e-tum’ and not ‘Spolet-i-um’, and they say “Spoleto-a-ni” and not “Spolet-i-ni”, a gross mistake: ‘Spoletum’, in fact, is a city in Spain, in the Diocese of Toledo, where a council ‘spoletanum’ was held, and ‘Spalatum’ is a town in Dalmatia…
…But the Greeks, who were the masters of all of us in everything, say ‘Spolet-i-um’ and not ‘Spol-e-tum’, such as, for example, Strabo (58-25 ca. BC), Ptolemy (90-168 ca. AD), Athenaeus [flourished from the second and beginning of the third century] and others”).
Apart from the naive etymology proposed, Severus Minervius was very keen to establish the relations of linguistic similarity between “Spoleto” and “Spalat”, Dalmatia, identifying in these two cities a common root; which is true, as demonstrated by contemporary studies. In fact, Dengler writes that they are two names of Illyrian origin, for which he considers correct “the conjecture that ‘Spalat’ and ‘Spoleto’ were used by related groups of Illyrian-speakers”.
Today scholars seem inclined to accept the hypothesis that “Spoletium” has its roots in the Etruscan name “spur”, which means “city”. A. Morigi writes:
“[…] The antiquarian tradition is to read the place-name as the sum of the Greek terms ‘Spao’ (‘to separate’) and ‘lithos’ (‘stone’), to suggest ‘separated cliff’ from behind Monteluco of Colle Sant’Elsa. A second option would coincide with a Etruscan root ‘Spur’ and the corresponding locative ‘spur-ethi’, to emphasize the ‘urban circle’ […]” . E.A. Gutkind writes: […] The name of ancient Spoletium has been derived from the word ‘spur’ […].
The hypothesis of an Etruscan origin of the name of Spoleto would seem, therefore, widely accepted, but with some exceptions. S. Bocci writes: “[…] the hypothesis of an original Etruscan presence in the territory, based on a possible etymology of the name of city (from the Etruscan ‘spur’, ‘city’) is not substantiated by the archaeological documentation […]”.
All things considered, however, most scholars seem to accept the origin of Spoleto from the Etruscan root “spur”, and we can say that, until now, this is the only scientific data, although conjectural, which we have.
Arch of Drusus and Germanicus
Excavations in 1955-7 lowered the level of the street on the left in order to reveal much of the original structure and a stretch of Roman paving. However, most of the stonework to the right remains encased in the adjacent buildings.
Spoleto city walls
It is also interesting to visit the Spoleto city walls – the oldest wall is located in the upper part of the city.
The lower layer of the wall consists of large polygonal blocks of limestone, dating from the 4th century BC (i.e. pre-Roman times) while the middle part of the walls is of square blocks and includes the remains of a watchtower, dating back to the foundation of the colony in 241 BC. The top layer, of smaller blocks, was added in the second half of the first century BC.
The medieval walls that surround the base of the hill of the city and are also well preserved.
The forum and the area of Palazzo Mauri
Archaeological digs carried out following renovation works on historical buildings recently uncovered evidence which is certainly significant for starting to form a picture of the urban situation of the capital of the Duchy.
In 2004, during the progress of post seismic recovery work on the 6th century Palazzo Mauri, near to the forum of the Roman era, a complex of environments destined for a spa was found, of which two areas were uncovered: the first shows a semicircular bath coated in cocciopesto (concrete with broken brick). The other, a square plan of about 6m a side with a central drainage grate made in marble and sculptured in bas-relief with vegetable motifs, has an extraordinary mosaic floor. Its decoration include baskets and develop into ample, very elegant swirls enclosing bunches of grapes and shoots with leaves. Among the shoots there are various animals, deer, birds, a horse and a hare. Along the walls the mosaic is bordered by a plait containing triangles and rosettes.
The depiction is mainly compiled using the colours red and black on a white background, embellished with blue, green and burgundy glazed tesseras for the representation of the animals. The decoration as a whole is of great elegance and formal balance, also in the coded effect of the elements.
The mosaic seems to date back to the last decades of the 6th century, and in its clear reference to Christian symbology, it constitutes a document of exceptional interest as the quality of the representation reports a very high end patrons and at the same time certifies that a building complex of notable importance in the area.
The pre-existent spa building, therefore, might have been the subject of interventions of reflooring commissioned by the first Longobard Dukes in relations to their residence, or, rather, with that of the archbishops’ premises, taking the Christian nature of the representation into account, which may induce it to be considered as used as a baptistery. The discovery of the important mosaic inside Palazzo Mauriundoubtedly confirms that this sector of the city was re-qualified by the Longobards.
It would therefore be interesting to further examine the analysis of this sector, with new investigations on the Church of Saints Ansano and Isaac, backing on to the Roman wall in relation to the city gate, established on the podium of a temple and by the very rich angiographic tradition.
The Roman forum was built along a north-south axis on a terrace on the western slope of Spoletium. The remains of its paving have been found some 1.5 meters below the present street level of what is now Piazza del Mercato. This piazza is, however, much smaller than the original forum, which extended:
- to the north along the length of what is now Via Palazzo dei Duchi (to the left of the Fonte di Mercato);
- to the south, along Via dell’ Arco di Druso to the Arco di Druso itself.
This noble house, which stood on the terrace above the forum, was excavated in 1885-1914 by Giuseppe Sordini under a building that subsequently became part of Palazzo Comunale. The house dates to the time of the Emperor Augustus and was renovated in the 2nd century AD. It is thought to have once belonged to Vespasia Polla, the mother of the Emperor Vespasian(69-79 AD).
The floor plan survives in tact, along with the remains of the mosaic floor and fragments of wall, some containing frescoes. The house had a large atrium with its main reception room (tablinum) behind it. There were bedrooms to the sides of the atrium and living rooms to the sides of the tablinum. The peristilium (inner garden) was to the left.
The inscription (CIL XI 2 4819), which was recorded in the 16th century, read:
SEX . VOLVSIVS . SEX . F . HOR
MELIOR . IIII VIR . QQ . AVGVR . PATRON
MVNICIPI . OB . HONOREM . IÌÌI VIRATVS
SEX . VOLVSI – NONIANI . FILI – SVI . BASILICAM
SOLO . PVBLICO . A . FVNDAMENT
PECVNIA . SVA . FECIT
This records the name of the quattroviro who built a basilica: the existence of this magisterial post suggests that the basilica in question was built after 90 BC, the date at which Spoleto became a municipium.
Giuseppe Sordini discovered this temple under Sant’ Ansano, to the left of the Arco di Druso (with Piazza del Mercato behind you) in 1900.
The temple built on a podium some 3 meters high and had a colonnade along the front and sides of an open vestibule in front of the rectangular main room. Steps from the colonnade led down into the forum.
The first church of Sant’ Ansano was built on the foundations of the temple, probably in the 9th century. The church was rebuilt with the opposite orientation in the 12th century:
- its new facade was built over the original apse;
- the body of the church was extended south (i.e. back along what is now Via dell’ Arco di Druso), obliterating the old facade.
The chapels that had been built in the left wall of the church were demolished in 1955-7 to reveal the remains of the right wall of the temple (illustrated above). The podium along the right side is now clearly visible, with a stretch of the original Roman paving in front of it. Part of one column from the right side of the colonnade has been inserted in its original position and the position of others has been marked out in concrete.
The theatre was built in local stone on an artificial terrace just inside the city wall. The theatre was bounded by a semi-circular ambulatory, with three entrances to the cavea (seating area). One of these entrances still survives (illustrated here).
The structure was badly damaged, perhaps by an earthquake, soon after its completion; an enormous fissure opened up across the cavea (seating area). Only the left part (seen from the orchestra in the illustration above) survives. The rest, which subsided by over a meter, was rebuilt in 1954-60.
The floor of the orchestra (the semi-circular space between the audience and the stage) was repaved in coloured marble in the 4th century AD, and is one of very few that survive from Roman times.
This page of the website of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici dell’Umbria contains a brilliant 3D image of the Roman theatre.
Archaeological Museum of Spoletium
A number of important artefactes that were found during the excavations of 1954-60, are now in the Museo Archeologico. They include the interesting portrait busts above
The bust on the right is sometimes said to be of Julius Caesar. However, it is more likely to portray Caius Calvisius Sabinus, who is named in an inscription from Trignano as a patron of Spoleto. He was one of only two senators who tried to protect Julius Caesar from his assassins in 44BC and was consul in 39 BC.
The important bust (ca. 40 BC) in the middle, which is one of the earliest known portrait bust of Octavian (later Emperor Augustus), 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 are the prototypes of the so-called “Béziers-Spoleto” group. (A similar head from Volsinii/Bolsena was recut in ca. 315 AD as a bust of Constantine and placed in the basilica forense there. It is now in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco, Viterbo).
The bust (ca. 30 BC) on the right probably represents Octavian and is typical of the portraits that were commissioned to celebrate his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium (31 BC).
The substructure is in the form of an arched passage that runs along Via Spagna to the west and Via del Duomo to the north. The entrance in the west wing (illustrated here) is in Via Spagna. The exterior of the north wing can be seen from the courtyard of the house at 11 Via del Duomo. Professor Bruno Toscano was involved in the excavations in 1963-4, and there is a photograph of the interior of the arcade in his “L’ Umbria: Manuali per il Territorio: Spoleto”, Rome (1978) page 374.
According to tradition, the Emperor Theoderic built a palace on the terrace here in the 5th century that was later used by Lombard and Carolingian dukes. It was certainly the site of:
the Benedictine nunnery of Sant’ Eufemia, which is documented in the reign of the Emperor Otto II (973-83), and
Palazzo Vescovile, from ca. 1178.
In 545 AD, the Gothic ruler Totila turned the amphitheatre into a fortress. Procopius documented this in his “De Bello Gotico”: “When the Goths captured Spoletium, they razed the whole circuit of the city wall to the ground, but they walled up the entrances of [the amphitheatre] and established a garrison of both Goths and Roman (i.e. Byzantine) deserters for the purpose of guarding the surrounding countryside”. The Byzantine general Belisarius captured the fortress two years later, helped by the defection of many of the “Roman deserters” back to their original allegiance.
The church of and monastery of San Gregorio Minore was built here in the 12th century.
Via dell’ Anfiteatro runs parallel to the major axis of the amphitheatre. Ten open arches that formed part of its ambulatory can be seen from Caserma Minervio. [Remains of an entrance at the end of the major axis ?] [Other remains in the inner courtyard of number 16 ?]
How to get:
International Airport of Umbria “St. Francis of Assisi” – Perugia
A 57 Km from Spoleto
Tel. +39 075 59 21 41
Ticket: Tel. +39 075 59 21 400
APM 800 51 21 41
SULGA +39 075 50 09 641
RADIOTAXI Perugia +39 075 50 04 888
RADIOTAXI Assisi +39 075 81 31 00
TAXI Bastia Umbra +39 075 80 11 047
rail links to and from Spoleto
• Rome – Ancona
• Roma – Foligno – Perugia – Terontola – Florence
From the square of the railway station (Piazza Polvani) you can use the city buses of MANAGEMENT CENTER line. Tickets can be purchased at the Bar of the station; at the time (September 2013) the rate is € 1.30 (€ 2.00 if purchased on board the bus).
Tel. 89 20 21-199 89 20 21-06 3000 Information on schedules, connections, rates, customer service, lost property, complaints – Active everyday 24h
Tel. 199 30 30 60 Service Disabled – Active every day from 6.45 to 21.30
Highway “del Sole” A1 Milan – Florence – Rome – Naples
For those coming from the north – exit Val di Chiana
Coming from the South – exit Orte
Highway “Adriatica” A14 Bologna – Taranto
For those coming from the north gate:
For those coming from the south exit of San Benedetto del Tronto
Highway E45 Cesena – Orte (longitudinally crosses all Umbria)
– Output on SS75 towards Assisi
– Acquasparta exit, then SS 418
– Terni exit, then SS 3
Archaeological Museum of Spoleto
Hours: weekdays and holidays 8:30 to 19:30
Free admission the first Sunday of the month.
ticket € 4.00, reduced € 2.00
Via S.Agata, 18a – Former Monastery of St. Agatha
06049 Spoleto – Perugia
Tel: +390743 223277
Umbria srl guides
Via della Luna, 19 – Perugia
Tel: +39075 573 293 3