Key to Umbria

Ancient Umbrians (ca. 900-300 BC)

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Literary sources   

(Note that the page “Literary Sources” expands on all the classical references in the account below)

Greek and (later) Roman historians frequently wrote about “the Umbrians” and their collective history.  Two Greek inscriptions (6th century BC) on vases found in Etruscan cities also relate to this ethnic identity:

  1. one from Gravisca commemorates “Hrhi Ombrikos”; and

  2. another from Caere, beside a figure that seems to be a slave, reads “Omrikos”.

The only surviving early reference to the Umbrians in an Italic language occurs in an inscription (5th century BC) on a bronze bracelet that was discovered in 1979 in Chieti (some 200 km east of Umbria, near the Adriatic coast).   This was a sporadic find of an object that seems to have been “restored” in antiquity, causing the obliteration of part of the text.  The twelve surviving words, which are in the South Picene language, cannot yet be translated, but they seem to form part of a votive dedication.  They include the phrase “ombriín acren posticnam”, which certainly refers to Umbria and may mean “in the land of the Umbri”.  [Where is the inscription now?] 

The classical sources generally agree that the Umbri inhabited a large area of Iron Age Italy, but that they were pushed back over time by other peoples.  This can be discerned, for example, in at least two very old Greek sources:

  1. according to Herodotus, the Lydian immigrants who became the Etruscans took their new land from the “Ombrici” (Umbrians).

  2. the Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax  records the extensive territory of the “Ombrikoi” (Umbrians) along the Adriatic coast: “And after Saunitai is the nation Ombrikoi, and in it is a city, Ankon (Ancona).  And this nation worships Diomedes, having received benefaction from him: and there is a sanctuary of him.  And the coastal voyage of Ombric territory is of two days and a night”.

  3. By the time of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Pliny the Elder and Strabo, who were writing in the 1st century BC, the Umbrian cities were mostly constituted as Roman municipia and the Umbrian language had probably fallen into disuse.  Nevertheless, they were all well aware the ancient traditions:

  4. according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in addition to their heartland, “the Umbrians inhabited a great many other parts of Italy ... and were an exceedingly great and ancient people”. 

  5. according to Pliny the Elder: “The Umbri are considered to be the most ancient nation of Italy (“gens antiquissima Italiae existimatur”) .... We read that 300 of their towns were conquered by the Etruscans".

  6. according to Strabo, the ancient Umbrians contested with the Etruscans for control of the Po Valley, and settled at both Ravenna and Rimini before the arrival of the Romans.

The Umbrians' first appearance in recorded history comes in 524 BC when, according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, they fought as allies of the Etruscans in a failed attack of the Greek colony of Cumae, south of Rome: “In the 64th Olympiad, when Miltiades  was archon at Athens, the Tyrrhenians … joined themselves to the Umbrians, Daunians, and many other barbarians and undertook to overthrow Cumae … though they could allege no other just ground for their animosity than the prosperity of the city”.  (The Cumaen general Aristodemus easily defeated the badly organised "barbarians", and subsequently became tyrant of Cumae).

Livy reports the first recorded contact between the Umbrians and the Romans, which took place in 310 BC.

Material Culture

The earliest archaeological evidence of the early Umbrian settlements comes from the necropolis under the Acciaierie steelworks outside modern Terni, which dates to the late Bronze Age (10th century BC).

Grave goods from the 7th and 6th centuries BC indicate the existence by this time of a noble élite that imported prestige items from the Etruscan cities across the Tiber.   The most famous of these grave goods is probably the Biga di Monteleone di Spoleto.  Similar chariots have been found elsewhere in the region, including the so-called Carri Etruschi di Castel San Mariano di Corciano, which were found near Perugia.


The settlement of stable, urban communities on what were to become the Roman cities of Umbria probably began in the 5th or perhaps the 4th century BC.  The oldest surviving city walls in the region, at Otricoli, Amelia and Bettona, date to this period. 


[Indo-European language]

One of the earliest surviving inscription (late 5th century BC) in the Umbrian language uses an Etruscan alphabet.  It is on a bronze, nearly life-sized votive statue known as the Mars of Todi.  This statue was found at Montesanto, outside Todi on what was probably a cult site dedicated to the Umbrian version of the Greek god Ares (Roman Mars). 

[Iguvine Tables]

For more on the Umbrian and related languages see the page on Early Umbrian Inscriptions.


Link to Umbrian Religion

Forms of Government

Link to Umbrian Forms of Government.

Read more: 
S. Sisani, “Umbrorum Gens Antiquissima Italiae: Studi sulla Società e le Istituzioni dell' Umbria Preromana”, (2009) Perugia
G. Bradley, "Ancient Umbria", Oxford (2000)  
Ancient Cities of Modern Umbria:  Main Page     Literary sources    
Ancient Umbria     Etruscan Volsinii and Perusia     Upper Sabinium and Nursia 

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