Key to Umbria

Tacitus (ca. 55-117 AD )

Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, the author of the “Histories” (105-9 AD) and the “Annals” (113 AD), was close to the Emperor Vespasian and the later Flavian emperors.  The city of Terni claim that he was born there, although there is no proof of that.

Tacitus on the Emperor Claudius and Etruscan Culture

In the “Annals”, Tacitus recorded that the Emperor Claudius proposed to the Senate the establishment of a college of haruspices, quoting the following extract of his speech:

  1. ‘This oldest of Italian arts should not be lost through negligence.  It has often happened that their advice had been sought  in times of disaster, following which ceremonies have been restored and observed more duly for the future.  The nobles of Etruria ... have retained this art, handing it down from father to son [making it the inheritance of distinct families].   However, it is now less zealously studied through the general indifference ... and the growth of foreign superstitions.  At present all is well, but we must show gratitude to Heaven by taking care that the rites that are observed during times of peril are not forgotten in prosperity” (11:15).

A resolution of the Senate was accordingly passed.

Suetonius (died after 122 AD)

The historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus is best known for the De Vita Caesarum (Twelve Caesars), a set of biographies of 12 successive Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to the Emperor Domitian.

Suetonius on Mevania and the River Clitumnus

In his biography of the Emperor Caligula, Suetonius wrote that “he had but one experience with military affairs or war, and then on a sudden impulse; for having gone to Mevania to visit the river Clitumnus and its grove [in 39 AD], he ... was seized with the idea of an expedition to Germany” (para. 43).

Suetonius on the Emperor Claudius and the Etruscans

In his biography of the Emperor Claudius, Suetonius recorded that, “he even wrote historical works in Greek:20 books of Etruscan history; and 8 of Carthaginian [history].  Because of these works, there was added to the old museum at Alexandria a new one called after his name, and it was provided that:

  1. in the one, his Etruscan history should be read each year from beginning to end; and

  2. in the other, his Carthaginian;

by various readers in turn, in the manner of public recitations” (para. 42:2).

Juvenal (died early 2nd century AD)

The Roman poet Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis (Juvenal) is best known for his surviving 16 satirical poems (in 5 books).

Juvenal on Sejanus and Nortia/Fortuna

In Satire X, entitled “The Vanity of Human Wishes”, Juvenal muses:

  1. “But what of the Roman mob?

  2. They follow Fortune, as always, and hate whoever she condemns. 

  3. If Nortia, as the Etruscans called her, had favoured Etruscan Sejanus;

  4. if the old Emperor [Tiberius] had been surreptitiously smothered;

  5. that same crowd in a moment would have hailed their new Augustus”.

Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century AD)

The Greek writer Publius Aelius Phlegon was a freedman of the Emperor Hadrian.  His most important work was “the Olympiads”, a historical chronography in 16 books that covered the period from the 1st to the 229th Olympiad (776 BC to AD 137).  His “Mirablia” (Book of Marvels) is a compilation of grotesque, bizarre or sensational events.

Phlegon on Mevania

Phlegon reports a number of instances of sudden sex change, one of which occurred at Mevania at the villa of Agrippina Minore, the sister of Caligula (see the entry above).  This account was written when she was married to the Emperor Claudius and was hence entitled “Augusta”.  She was the mother of the future Emperor Nero, who probably ordered her murder in 59 AD.

  1. “There was also an hermaphrodite in Mevania, a town in Italy, in the country house of Agrippina Augusta when Dionysodoros was archon in Athens, and Decimus Iunius Silanus Torquatus and Quintus Haterius Antoninus were consuls in Rome [i.e. in 53 AD].  A maiden named Philotis, whose family came from Smyrna, was of marriageable age and had been betrothed to a man by her parents when male genitals appeared in her and she became a man (Mirablia, 7, translated by William Hansen 1996 - see link above).

Tertullian (died ca. 220 AD)

Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was a prolific Christian writer.  Some 30 of his theological works survive.  These include:

  1. the “Apologeticus pro Christianis”, which was addressed to the Roman magistrates, defended Christianity and the Christians against the reproaches of the pagans; and

  2. the “De Idolatria”, in which he discusses the difficulties of living as a Christian in a pagan world..

Tertullian on Pagan cults in Narnia, Volsinii and Ocriculum

“Every province even, and every city, has its god.  I have spoken, I think, of Roman provinces, and yet I have not said that their gods are Roman; for they are not worshipped at Rome.  [Neither are those that] are ranked as deities in Italy by municipal consecration, such as: … Visidianus of Narnia, … Nortia of Volsinii, Valentia of Ocriculum, … In, fact, we alone [i.e. the Christians] are prevented having a religion of our own.  We give offence to the Romans, we are excluded from the rights and privileges of Romans, because we do not worship the gods of Rome” (“Apologeticus pro Christianis”,  24:8).

Tertullian on Provincial Priests

There is a dress proper to every one, for daily use as as well as for office and dignity.  [For example,...] the gold [used] as ornaments of the neck [were], among the Egyptians and Babylonians, signs of dignity, just as ...  the golden wreaths of provincial priests are now” (“De idolatria”, 18:1).

Claudian (ca. 370 - 404 AD)

Claudius Claudianus was the court poet of the Emperor Honorius.  He is chiefly remembered as a propagandist for Honorius and for his general, Stilicho, and was perhaps fortunate to die some time before the defeat of his patrons when the Goth Alaric sacked Rome in 410.  The Latin texts of all his known works, together with translations into English, are provided in the website of William P. Thayer

Claudian on Via Flaminia in Umbria

Claudian’s panegyric "On the Sixth Consulship of the Emperor Honorius" describes  a journey of Honorius from Ravenna to Rome in 404 AD.  Honorius enters modern Umbria at:

  1. “an arch, tunnelled through the living rock, [which] affords a path through the mountain's very heart, rising above the temple of Jove [Temple of Jupiter Apenninus] and dizzy altars set up by the shepherds of the Apennines.  Twas thy good pleasure, too, to visit Clitumnus' wave, beloved of them that triumph, for thence do victors get them white-coated animals for sacrifice at Rome.  Thou markest well also the stream's strange property, flowing gently on when one approaches with silent step, but swirling and eddying should one hasten with louder utterance; and while it is the common nature of water to mirror the exact image of the body, it alone boasts the strange power that it mimics not human form but human character.  Next thy royal charger treads the streets of Narnia, looking out from its eminence upon the plain below: not far therefrom flows the strangely coloured stream [the Nar]that gives the town its name, its sulphureous waters flowing in tortuous course between opposed mountains through dense forests of holm-oak.  Then when in greeting to Father Tiber thou hast poured a libation of his waters thou art welcomed by Rome's arches and all the magnificent buildings which line the roads of that noble city's suburbs” (505-14, search on ‘Jove’).

Claudian on the Clitumnus

In a surviving fragment of one of Claudian’s poems known as the "Description of a Herd", Claudian compare it favourably with a number of famous comparators, including the herds of bulls raised on the banks of the Clitumnus:

  1. “Not such [were] the bulls thou bathest, Clitumnus, in thy stream for pious vows to offer duly to Tarpeian Jove” (Poem IV (LIV)).

Historia Augusta (4th or 5th century)

The Historia Augusta is the name given to a collection of  biographies of Roman emperors of the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  It claims to have been written by a collection of historians in the time of the Emperor Constantine I, but this is a hoax.  In fact, it had a single unknown author, and was written in the 4th or 5th century: it was certainly written before 425 AD, when the Roman author Symmachus made use of it.  The biographies have to be used with caution because much of the content is demonstrably fabricated.  However, they do throw light of the Roman world in the late empire.

Temple of Jupiter Apenninus in the Historia Augusta

This temple near Gubbio makes two appearances in the collection:

  1. “Similarly, when once in the Apennines [the Emperor Claudius II] asked about his future, he received the following reply: "Three times only shall summer behold him a ruler in Latium." (Life of Claudius: paragraph 10.4).

  2. “[Firmus] even owned, it is said, two elephant tusks ... to which [the Emperor] Aurelian planned to add two more and make of them a throne on which he would place a statue of Jupiter ... to be set up in the Temple of the Sun; and, after asking advice of the oracle in the Apennines, he purposed to call him Jupiter the Consul or the Consulting.” (Lives of Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus and Bonosus: paragraph 3.4).

Vibius Sequester (ca. 400 AD)

Vibius is known for his “De fluminibus, fontibus, lacubus, nemoribus, gentibus, quorum apud poëtas mentio fit” his 7 alphabetical lists of geographical names mentioned by the Roman poets.  The lists cover: Flumina (rivers); Fontes (river sources); Lacus (lakes); Nemora (forests); Paludes (marshes); Montes (mountains); and Gentes (peoples).

Vibius on the Clitumnus

Vibius makes two references to the Clitumnus:

  1. in his “De fontibus” (on river sources), Vibius refers to the “Clitumnus mevaniae”, placing the source of the river in the ownership of Mevania;

  2. in his “De fluminibus” (on rivers), Vibius records “Clitumnus Umbriae, ubi Iuppiter eodem nomine est”: i.e. the Umbrian deity Clitumnus, for whom the river was named, was a manifestation of Jupiter.

Sidonius Apollinaris (died 489 AD)

St Sidonius was bishop of Auvergne from ca. 470 until his death.   He was also a prolific writer, and 9 books of his letters survive.

Sidonius on Via Flaminia and its Rivers

In his letter (467 AD) to his friend Herenius, Sidonius describes what must hve been an unpleasant journey to Rome along Via Flaminia:

  1. “After [crossing the Apennines], I just traversed the other towns of the Flaminian Way - in at one gate, out at the other - leaving the Picenians on the left and the Umbrians on the right; and here my exhausted system succumbed ... Fever and thirst ravaged the very marrow of my being; in vain I promised to their avidity draughts from ... every stream present or to come: water of Velino clear as glass; of Clitunno ice-cold; cerulean of Teverone; sulphureous of Nera; pellucid of Farfa; muddy of Tiber.  I was mad to drink, but prudence stayed the craving” (Book I, Epistle V).

Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636)

St Isidore of Seville was an influential figure in the early medieval church,.  He grew up in Seville, under the Visigoths and was bishop of Seville in 600-36.  He wrote a number of books, including the “Historiae Gothorum Vandalorum et Sueborum” (History of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi, 624 AD), which chronicled the history of the Visigoths from 256 until his own times.  He also wrote an encyclopedia entitled “The Etymologies”.

Isidore on the River Clitumnus

In the Introduction to the History of the Goths, Vandals, and Suevi, in which Isidore heaps praise on the fertility of Spain, he includes the Clitumnus as a worthy (albeit inferior) comparator for Spanish rivers:

  1. “Nor are you to be held inferior in rivers. .... Clitumnus [yields to you] in cattle, ... even though [it] once sacrificed great oxen as victims on the Capitol” .

In paragraph 13:13:6 of the Etymologies, Isidore writes:

  1. Clitumnus lacus in Umbria maximos boves gignit”.

  2. Lake Clitumnus  in Umbria produces the largest oxen.  (This is presumably the lake at the source of the river).

Isidore on the Lacus Clitorius

In paragraph 13:13:2 of the Etymologies, Isidore writes:

  1. Ex Clitorio lacu Italiae qui biberint vini taedium habent”.

  2. Those who have drunk from Lake Clitorius in Italy have a loathing for wine.


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