Key to Ancient Umbria

Early Evidence for Umbrian Ethnicity

Dorica Manconi (referenced below, at p. 604) cited as the early evidence for the ethnos ‘Umbrian’, in the Greek inscriptions (6th century BC) on two vases found in Etruria:

  1. one from Gravisca commemorates ‘Hrhi Ombrikos’; and

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

Denise Demetriou (referenced below, at p. 82 and notes 88-90) acknowledged that the first of these and other unusual names recorded at Gravisca:

  1. “... suggest the possibility that non-Greeks were using the sanctuary of Hera [here] as early as the 6th century BC, even if they wrote their dedications in the Greek language.”

However, she noted that some scholars question whether  Ombrikos and Omrikos do indeed indicate Umbrian ethnicity.  The first mention of the Umbrians in recorded history relates to 524 BC, when, according to the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, they fought as allies of the Etruscans in an attack on the Greek colony of Cumae, south of Rome:

  1. “In the 64th Olympiad, when Miltiades  was archon at Athens, the Etruscans … joined themselves to the Ombrici (Umbrians), Daunians and many other barbarians and undertook to overthrow Cumae …”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 7: 3).

The only record in an Italic language (see below) that probably indicates Umbrian ethnicity occurs in a inscription (5th century BC) on a fragment of a bronze bracelet that was discovered in 1979 at Chieti (which is now in the Museo Archeologico there): Chieti, ancient Teate, on the southern Adriatic, was in the territory of another ancient people known as the Marrucini, at least by 325 BC, when they submitted to Rome.  Adriano La Regina (referenced below), who illustrated and described this inscription as his catalogue entry 19 (pp. 262-6), suggested (at p. 266) that it might have belonged to a priestess who was possibly involved in the cult of Dionysus.  The words of interest in the present context  are:

ombriíen akren

which La Regina translated (at p. 264) as ‘in agro Umbro’ (in Umbrian territory).  He argued that:

  1. “... it is unlikely that 'ager Umber' was used here as a geographical reference to Umbria; of course, [this does not mean that] the adjective loses either its ethnic meaning or its historical value in indicating that ‘Umbria’ was known in a Sabellic [see below] environment in the middle of the Republican period” (my translation).

Evidence for the Extent of Umbrian Territory

The classical sources generally agree that the early Umbrians inhabited a large area of peninsular Italy, from which they were pushed back over time by other peoples.  This can be discerned, for example, in at least two early Greek sources:

  1. Herodotus, who wrote in the 5th century BC, believed that the territory of the Umbrians (whom he knew as the Ombrici) had included the land between the Tiber Valley and the west coast of the peninsular until the arrival of colonists from Lydia (in modern Turkey), who pushed them back across the Tiber and founded the first Tyrrhenian (i.e., Etruscan) cities:

  2. “In the reign of Atys, son of Manes, there was great scarcity of food in all Lydia. ... At last, [Atys] divided the people into two groups, and made them draw lots, so that the one group should remain [in Lydia] and the other should leave the country; Atys himself was to continue as the leader of those who [remained, while] his son, whose name was Tyrrhenus, [was to became the leader] of those who ... sailed away to seek a livelihood [elsewhere].  At last, after sojourning with one people after another, [the latter group] came to the[land of the] Ombrici, where they founded cities and have lived ever since. They no longer called themselves Lydians, but Tyrrhenians, after the name of the king's son who had led them there”, (‘The Histories’, 1: 94: 3-7). 

  3. Later in his account, he implied that Umbrian territory had also originally extended as far north as the Alps:

  4. “From the region which is above the territory of Ombrici, the river Carpis and another river, the Alpis, flow also towards the North Wind and run into .... the Ister (Danube)”, (‘The Histories’, 4:49). 

  5. The Alpis and perhaps the Carpis, which are otherwise unknown tributaries of the Danube, seem to have been originated in the Alps.

  6. The so-called ‘Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax’, a Greek description (4th or 3rd century BC) of coastlines (Latinised as ‘peripluses’) recorded the circumnavigation of the ‘inhabited sea’ (the Mediterranean) by someone who called himself ‘Skylax of Karyanda’.  He recorded that the Etruscans now occupied the Tyrrhenian coast north of Rome. but he identified the people who inhabited the Adriatic coast around Ancona as Umbrian  Thus, as he travelled south from Iberia, along the Tyrrhenian coast, he first came across the ‘Tyrrhenoi’ (Etruscans):

  7. “And after Antion [comes] the Tyrrhenian nation as far as the city of Rome, a coastal voyage of 4 days and 4 nights” (paragraph 5).

  8. Later, after rounding Sicily, the voyage continued north along the Adriatic coast, meeting (in succession):

  9. the ‘Ombrikoi’ (Umbrians):

  10. “And after Saunitai is the nation Ombrikoi, and in it is a city, Ankon [Ancona, where Greek settlers from Syracuse founded in ca. 390 BC].  And this nation worships Diomedes, having received benefaction from him: and there is a sanctuary of him.  The coastal voyage of the territory of the Ombrikoi takes two days and a night” (paragraph 16).

  11. the ‘Tyrrhenoi’ again:

  12. “ And after the nation of the the Ombrikoi comes that of the Tyrrhenians.  And these extend from the Tyrrhenic open sea outside to the Adriatic: and there is a Hellenic city (Spina) [an Etruscan port at the mouth of the Po], with a river: and voyage inland to the city by river of about 20 stades.  And there is up to it from Pise city [Pisa] , a road of 3 days” (paragraph 17).

  13. the ‘Keltoi’(Celts):

  14. “And after Tyrrhenians are the Celtic nation, left behind from the expedition [is this the sack of Rome in ca. 390 BC ??], upon narrows extending as far as [the] Adriatic.  And here is the inner end of the Adriatic gulf” (paragraph 18).

By the time of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (7BC), the Umbrian cities were mostly constituted as Roman municipia, and the Umbrian language had fallen into disuse.  Nevertheless, he had sources from which he described the arrival of a group of Pelasgians (whom he considered to be Greeks) in the lands of the Ombrici at an early date:

  1. “Those [Pelasgians] ... who had turned inland [and] crossed the mountainous part of Italy came to the territory of the Ombrici, who were neighbours to the Aborigines. (The Ombrici inhabited a great many other parts of Italy also and were an exceedingly great and ancient people.)  At first the Pelasgians made themselves masters of the lands where they first settled and took some of the small towns belonging to the Ombrici.  But, when a great army came together against them, they were terrified at the number of their enemies and betook themselves to the country of the Aborigines [who were also of Greek origin]”, (‘Roman Antiquities’, 1:19).

According to Pliny the Elder, who was writing shortly thereafter, the Augustan Sixth Region

  1. “... includes Umbria and the Gallic territory in the vicinity of Ariminum.  At Ancona begins the coast of that part of Gaul known as Gallia Togata [by then, the Roman ager Gallicus].  In ancient time, the Siculi and the Liburni possessed the greater part of this district ... These were expelled by the Umbrians, these again by the Etruscans, and these in their turn by the Gauls.", (‘Natural History’, 3:19).

None of these accounts should be relied on for detailed information.  However, taken together, they present the Umbrians as an ancient people who had been squeezed in territorial terms by (primarily):

  1. the Etruscans from the west; and

  2. the Etruscans and then the Gauls from the northeast.

Umbrian Language

It is clear from surviving inscriptions that, with the notable exception of the Etruscans, most of the ancient people of central and southern Italy spoke languages or dialects from the Italic branch of the Indo-European family.  Inscriptions in Italic languages survive from the 6th century BC, using alphabets derived (in many cases via the Etruscans) from the Greek settlers of the peninsular.  These inscriptions are usually written from right to left. 

These so-called Italic languages probably derived from a single root that gave rise to two variants in prehistoric times:

  1. Latin, which was spoken in Latium (Lazio); and

  2. another Italic language known as Sabellic, which in turn split into:

  3. Umbrian, which was spoken in a large part of central Italy;

  4. Oscan, which was spoken by the Samnites; and

  5. South Picene, which (as noted above) was spoken in an area along the southern Adriatic coast.  

  6. Oscan

  7. Livy recorded that, in 295 BC, during the Third Samnite War, the Roman general, Volumnius:

  8. “... sent persons who understood the Oscan language ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 20: 8)

  9. to spy on a Samnite army that was camped in Campania.  Stephen Oakley (referenced below, at p. 228) observed that, although:

  10. “Oscan and ... Latin were both Italic languages, ... [it seems that] they were not mutually intelligible.  Oscan was spoken by the Samnites and their kinsmen in Campania and Lucania: the tribes of the Abruzzo spoke a similar language [i.e., South Picene].”

Some 800 Oscan inscriptions survive, dating from the 6th century BC until the Social War (ca. 90 BC): some of the most important of these are illustrated and described in this page of website ‘Sanniti’.

South Picene

Some 20 inscriptions in the language survive, most of which come from the coastal plain along the Adriatic, south of Ancona.  They are generally dated to the period from the 6th to the early 3rd century BC.  One of them, on a fragment of a bronze bracelet (5th century BC) from Teate (Chieti), was discussed above, as evidence of the fact that the Umbrian ethnicity was known in a Sabellic environment at this time.


The catalogue edited by Luciano Agostiniani et al. (referenced below) describes the entire corpus of surviving Umbrian inscriptions, which date from the 5th to the 2nd centuries BC.  The most important of these, and the longest by far, are the seven so-called Iguvine Tables (late 3rd - early 1st century BC), which belong to the period after the Roman conquest, but which clearly reflect the political and religious practices of ancient Iguvium.

Umbrian Settlements

Dorica Manconi (referenced below, at p. 614) observed that:

  1. “The beginning of the Iron Age ... coincides with the stabilisation ... of various ethnic lanuage groups [such as the Umbrians] on the sites and lands that would later become known in historical times. ... The scarcity of ... data coming out of the settlements [themselves] is ... enriched by those that emerge from [the associated] cemeteries and shrines.”

She listed the earliest of these proto-settlements as those at the later sites of:

  1. Plestia (from the 9th Century BC);

  2. Interamna Nahars;

  3. Spoletium;

  4. Iguvium;

  5. Tadinum;

  6. Tuder;

  7. Ameria; and

  8. Hispellum.

Evidence for more consistent development emerged in the 5th century BC at many of the of these centres, as well as at Mevania (p. 611).   In addition, as Manconi recorded (at p. 609):

  1. “Many of the hills on which [a number of] towns would be built ... were occupied by stable settlements that would gradually transform into true urban centres.”

These included a number of the centres mentioned above, and:

  1. Nequinum;

  2. Ocriculum;

  3. Asisium;

  4. Nuceria; and

  5. Camerinum.

We now approach the period in which Umbria began to feature in Roman history.  Dorica Manconi (referenced below, at pp. 614) observed that:

  1. “With the 4th century BC, the impulse towards urbanisation becomes even more apparent, certainly due to quicker communication with the Etruscan and Latin [city states].  This is no doubt due to the [increasing influence] of the Romans . ... It is not just coincidence that it is in this period that [many Umbrian communities] organise themselves like real towns, with stone-built city walls and gates [for example, at Ocriculum; Ameria; Spoletium; Vettona]”.

Dorica Manconi  (referenced below, at p. 627) observed that Iguvine Tables (mentioned above) represent:

  1. “... one of the most extraordinary documents relating to pre-Roman civilisation [in] the Italic world.”

In them, we find a college of priests called the Atiedian Brotherhood  who presided over public rituals at the city gates and processions around its walls.

As we shall see, Livy recorded the Romans formed alliances with the Umbrian people of Camerinum and Ocriculum in 310/9 BC and defeated an Umbrian army mustered at Mevania in the following year.  Then, in 300 BC, they:

  1. “.. invested the town of Nequinum in Umbria.  It was situated  ...  on high ground that is s steep and precipitous on one side, and it was impossible to take it either by assault or by regular siege works ...”, (‘History of Rome’, 10: 9: 8-10).

Thus, Nequinum apparently existed as a well-defended settlement, albeit that it was betrayed to the Romans in the following year, becoming the site of their first Umbrian  colony (which they named Narnia).  We might reasonably assume that most or all of the cities of Roman Umbria were already well-established by this time.

The details of these developments are included in the pages on  the individual cities.

Read more:

D. Manconi, “The Umbri”, in:

  1. G. Farney and G. Bradley (Eds), “The Peoples of Ancient Italy”, (2018) Boston and Berlin, at  at pp. 603-36

D. Demetriou, “Negotiating Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean”, (2012) Cambridge and New York

L. Agostiniani et al. (Eds), “Screhto Est: Lingua e Scrittura degli Antichi Umbri”, (2011) Città di Castello

A. La Regina, “Il Guerriero di Capestrano e le Iscrizioni Paleosabelliche”, in

  1. L. Franchi dell’ Orto (Ed.), “Pinna Vestinorum e il Popolo dei Vestini”, (2010) Rome

S. Sisani, “Umbrorum Gens Antiquissima Italiae: Studi sulla Società e le Istituzioni dell' Umbria Preromana”, (2009) Perugia

S. Oakley, “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X:Volume IV: Book X”, (2007) Oxford

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

Key to Ancient Umbria: Home         Site Map: Umbrians 

Umbria before the Roman Conquest

Umbrian Inscriptions before 310/9 BC        Goddess Cupra in Umbria and Picenum