Key to Ancient Umbria

Cupra, a Great Mother Goddess?

Nancy Thomson de Grummond (referenced below, 2006a, at p. 71) observed that, in prehistoric times:

  1. “..., there was a concept of a great mother goddess who related especially to fertility and the earth ... , [and] was the most important deity ... In Greece, vestiges of this idea are seen in the myth of Gaia (Earth), who is described as bringing order out of Chaos in the beginning, and who was, for a while in the history of the universe, the only goddess and the most powerful force.  ... [However], the competing force of the sky, her husband Ouranos, began a conflict with her that echoed down the generations ... .”

This ancient concept of a great mother goddess was not, by any means, confined to the Greeks: as the late Eric Edwards wrote (on the website containing his collected works):

  1. “These primordial goddesses were associated with, and a feature of, the early societies of Mesopotamia, Crete, Egypt, Greece, the Aegean, and southern Europe.  There was no single cultural centre in the ancient Mediterranean, even though there did exist an inter-cultural diffusion between the Mediterranean, the Near East, the Aegean, and European lands.”

Nancy Thomson de Grummond (as above) observed that, in Greek mythology, the civil war between the deities finally ended when:

  1. “... Zeus emerged from the turmoil as ruler of gods, men and the universe.  At the same time, the concept of female deity fragmented into various goddesses who were in charge of various spheres ...”

She then outlined what she acknowledges was a highly simplified scheme in which:

  1. “... Hera was concerned with marriage ... ; Aphrodite oversaw love and sex; Artemis protected virginity ; and Athena was goddess of war and crafts.  Demeter took agriculture as her special interest, and myths about her also show her as an archetypical mother.” 

Thus, the Greeks sidelined and diluted the concept of the great mother goddess in favour of the supreme and all-powerful god Zeus. 

It is against this backdrop that we might usefully analyse a number of surviving Umbrian inscriptions (discussed below) that name a mother goddess called Cupra:

  1. four from Plestia that date to the 4th century BC, which read ‘cupras, matres pletinas, sacru esu’ (I am a sacred to Cupra, mother of the Plestini); and

  2. a fifth, from Helvillum, which dates to ca. 150 BC and uses the Latin alphabet, contains the phrase ‘CVBRAR MATRER BIO ESO’ (which probably means:  ‘This [is] the bia [probably a fountain, or perhaps the water from a fountain] of Cupra Mater”).

The goddess (although without the epithet mother) is also recorded across the Apennines in Picenum, where she had an important sanctuary on the Adriatic coast: the earliest surviving record of it is from the Greek polymath Strabo, who recorded that, as one travelled south along this coast from Ariminium (in the territory of the Umbrians), one came to Ancona, the northern-most coastal city of Picenum, which was:

  1. “... of Greek origin, having been founded by [exiles who fled from the tyranny of Dionysius I of Syracuse, on the east coast of Sicily].  ... [Then comes] Auxumon ... , Septempeda, Pneuentia, Potentia, and Firmum Picenum (with its port of Castellum).  Beyond it is the temple of Kypra,  which the Etruscans built and dedicated to Hera, whom they call Kypra”, (‘Geography’, 5: 4: 2).

We find Strabo’s Kypra rendered in Latin as Cupra only a few decades later:

  1. Silius Italicus, in his poem ‘Punica’, wrote the Picene army that reinforced the Romans at the Battle of Cannae (216 BC), in the early stages of the Second Punic War, included men:

  2. “... for whom the altar of Cupra smokes by the shore, ...” (‘Punica’, 8:458);

  3. the Roman Geographer Pomponius Mela (‘De Chorographia’, 2: 65: 2) placed ‘urbs Cupra’ on the Adriatic, between Ancona and the stronghold of Firmum and thus presumably near the sanctuary recorded by Strabo and Silius Italicus; and

  4. Pliny the Elder (‘Natural History’, 3:18) recorded that, when the Emperor Augustus reorganised the administrative structure of peninsular Italy in 7 BC, the Fifth Region (Picenum) included the coastal city of Cupra mentioned by Pomponius Mela (and, in the interior, ‘Cupra surnamed Montana’).

An inscription (CIL IX 5294) from modern Cupra Marittima (now in the church of San Martino at nearby Grottammare) records that the Emperor Hadrian rebuilt the temple of ‘dea Cupra’ there in 127 AD.

This page describes the substantial body of for the cult of Cupra that survives across Umbria and neighbouring Picenum, before considering what all of this indicates about her origins, attributes and spheres of interest.  

Evidence from Umbria

Sanctuary of Cupra at Plestia

Roberto Perna and colleagues (referenced below, at p. 106) recorded that the excavations undertaken in the 1960s at località la Capannaccia, on the outskirts of modern Colfiorito had revealed evidence of:

  1. “... a sanctuary that began to be used from the 5th or the 4th century BC. ...  [In particular], a  deposit of votive objects that was brought to light included schematic bronzes of warriors and offerers, important dedications on bronze foils to the goddess Cupra [see below], and other objects that attest to a continuity of the cult here until at least the first century BC.”

Alberto Calderini (referenced below) described this location, which was:

  1. “... on the strip of land that emerged between the two lakes that once occupied the vast depression [here]:

  2. the lake of Colfiorito, which is now reduced to a swamp; and

  3. the Lacus Plestinus, in the plain of Casone, which [Livy recorded in 218 BC and which] was drained in the 15th century.

  4. This strip of land was, in effect, the most important route across the Apennines between Umbria (and thus Etruria) and Picenum.  Even today, it hosts an important market at the church of Santa Maria di Pistia, in the area in which the ancient sanctuary ... is located”, (my translation).

The sanctuary was some 200 meters north of this lovely church, which stands on (and was named for) the later Roman city of Plestia. 

Laura Bonomi (at schedules 19-22 in the catalogue ‘Screhto Est’, referenced below, edited by Luciano Agostiniani et al.) described it (at p. 25) as:

  1. “... the principal pre-Roman sanctuary of the [non-urban] territory of the Plestini.  [It served as the locus of their] federal cult [and was also used by] semi-nomadic pastoralists during their summer stay in the mountain pastures that surround [the site, which was] on the southern shore of the Lacus Plestinus. ... It was probably founded in the 6th century BC by the aristocrats who dominated Plestine society, on a site that had been previously occupied by an Iron Age dwelling ...”, (my translation).

Votive Bronzes (6th - 4th centuries BC)


Archaic votive bronzes from the sanctuary exhibited in Museo Archeologico, Colfiorito

Other votive bronzes from this period are exhibited in

the Museo Archeologico, Perugia and in the Museo Archeologico, Palazzo Trinci, Foligno.

Laura Bonomi (as above, at pp. 25-6) observed that the abundant votive material that was found in a deposit during the excavations:

  1. “... attests to cult activity here from the 6th century BC ... The archaic phase, to which we cannot attribute any walled structures, is evidenced by thousands votive bronzes, some actual statues but the majority schematic figures of male warriors, praying females and animals. ... Most of the ceramic and glass vessels [in the deposit] were linked to water and the use of water”, (my translation).

She noted that the bronze plaques discussed below belonged to this pre-Roman phase of the sanctuary’s existence.

Bronze plaques (4th century BC) 


                                               cupr ...                                                                                 matres p ... 

     Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Umbria,  Perugia                   Museo Archeologico di Colfiorito, Colfiorito matres pletinas sacru esu

Museo Archeologico di Colfiorito, Colfiorito


cupras, matres pletinas sacru ...

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Umbria, Perugia

As noted above, the most important finds from the site of the sanctuary were four fragmentary bronze foils with inscriptions relating to the goddess Cupra:

  1. two of which are exhibited in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Perugia; and

  2. two of which are in Museo Archeologico, Colfiorito.

They are inscribed in the Umbrian language, using an Etruscan alphabet that shows the influence of Volsinii (Orvieto).   Only the upper three of the fragmentary inscriptions illustrated above were initially published, because the fourth had been folded into four, with the inscription hidden from view.  However, the fourth was separated into its component parts in 1990, at which point it became possible to confirm that the completion of all of the inscriptions to read:

cupras, matres pletinas, sacru esu

I am a sacred to Cupra, mother of the Plestini 

Luciano Agostiniani (at schedules 19-22 of the catalogue Screhto Est’, referenced below, which he co-edited) suggested (at p. 26) that these:

  1. “... roughly rectangular strips had probably served a votive function. ... The form of the letters  suggests a relatively early date, around the 4th century BC”, (my translation).

The inscriptions are also discussed  in the page on Umbrian Inscriptions before the Roman Conquest.

Terracotta Reliefs from the Sanctuary (3rd - 1st centuries BC)


The Museo Archeologico, Colfiorito displays a number of terracotta reliefs that were discovered during the excavations, which would have decorated the exterior of the sanctuary and attest to its monumentalisation after the Roman conquest.  The notes in the museum record that they belonged to three separate phases:

  1. antefixes from the late 3rd century BC;

  2. decorative reliefs, some depicting  chariot races, from the middle of the 2nd century BC; and 

  3. reliefs suggesting a restoration of the exterior in the early 1st century BC.

Other antefixes from these periods are exhibited in the Museo Archeologico, Perugia and in the Museo Archeologico, Palazzo Trinci, Foligno.

Roberto Perna and colleagues (referenced below, at pp. 147-8) associated both:

  1. the initial monumentalisation of the sanctuary; and

  2. the urbanisation of Plestia itself;

with the period in which the Romans settled at Plestia were assigned to the Oufentina tribe.  Since

  1. nearby Forum Flaminii was almost certainly established soon after the completion of Via Flaminia in 220 BC; and

  2. since its citizen settlers were also assigned to the Oufentina;

it is usually assumed that Plestia received viritane settlers from Rome at about the same time.  Perna et al. also recorded (at p. 154) that:

  1. “The [new] urban settlement had an extension of approximately 500 meters in the East / West direction and 320 meters in the North / South direction; the Iron Age sanctuary of [the Umbrian Plestini] would therefore be located in an extra-urban setting that was only about 200 meters from the northern limits of [this new, essentially Roman, town].”

Sanctuary of Cupra at Plestia: Conclusions

The excavation of this site in the 1960s led to the discovery of what is the only securely-attested body of physical evidence for the Umbrian cult of Cupra in the pre-Roman period.  It is important to bear this in mind when interpreting the other evidence for the cult, which either:

  1. belongs to the period after the conquest; or

  2. reflects the interpretation of Roman and Greek authorities in or after the Augustan period.

The key element of this body of pre-Roman evidence is provided by the inscriptions described above, which indicate that the Plestini venerated Cupra as their mother, and thus their protector and patron.  This might suggest that she was more generally regarded as a mother goddess (although it does not suggest, at least to me, that she had a specific link to female fertility).  The votives of warriors suggest that she was thought to protect the men of Plestia in battle and/or to bring them victory, and we cannot therefore exclude the possibility that she was, in some sense, a goddess of war.

The influence of the Romans in this area would have followed their initial victory in 308 BC over the Umbrian army that had assembled at at Mevania in the Valle Umbra (some 30 km to the west).  However, it is unlikely that the lives of the Plestini were much affected until the completion of Via Flaminia in 220 BC, when the land on adjoining the sanctuary seems to have been assigned for Roman citizen settlement.  Hannibal swept down from Lake Trasimene towards Rome in 217 BC, and might have defeated a Roman army in the ‘Plestine marshes’ (if Appian , War against Hannibal’, 11, is to be believed).  It is thus at least possible that the Romans felt the need to placate the local goddess Cupra thereafter by adopting and monumentalising her sanctuary.

Temple of Mars Cyprius, near Iguvium


Copies of a statue of Mars Cyprius anda  related inscription (Museo Civico , Gubbi)o

The originals are in the Museo Archeologico, Florence

This statue and large fragments of a related inscription illustrated were found in 1781 near the Eremo di San Pietro in Vigneto, some 16 km south of Iguvium (modern Gubbio), above the valley of the River Chiascio and on the ancient road that led to Asisium. 

  1. The base of the statue contains an inscription (CIL XI 5806) that reads:

  2. L(ucius) Iavolenús Ápulus/ votum solvit l(ibens) m(erito)

  3. Maurizio Matteini Chiari (referenced below, at pp. 416-7. entry 622) observed that it:

  4. “... presents the donor [Lucius Iavolenus Apulus] in the nominative, [followed by] an expression of gratitude for a favour [that he had] received.  No mention is made of the god [from whom he had received this favour], which would have been superfluous, given the fact that the base supported a statue of Mars Cyprius”, (my translation).

  5. He also pointed out that the iconography is that of Mars Ultor (see below).

  6. The related inscription (CIL XI 5805) has been completed as follows:

  7. [M]arti Cyprio

  8. [L̲(ucius) I]ạvolénus Apụlus signum

  9. marmoreum ex voto posuit et

  10. aedem vetusṭate con[lapsam]

  11. refecit adiẹcto pronao et co[lumnis?]

  12. According to Alberto Calderini (referenced below, at p. 65), this inscription records two projects that were undertaken here by the above-mentioned Lucius Iavolenus Apulus:

  13. the donation of the marble statue of Mars Cyprius; and

  14. the restoration of his temple.

  15. Calderini included this archeological evidence in his dossier on the goddess Cupra because (as discussed below), the otherwise unknown Mars Cyprius might have been understood as ‘Mars of Cupra’ at the time of the temple’s restoration.

The statue and the fragments of the related inscription are now in the Museo Archeologico, Florence and the copies illustrated above are in the Museo Civico of Gubbio. 

The date of this restoration is not known with any precision:

  1. Alberto Calderini (as above) suggested that the statue and the two inscriptions date to the Flavian period (69-96 AD): while

  2. the EDR database (see the CIL links) dates the inscriptions (and, by inference, the statue) to the 2nd century AD.  

Early Imperial Restoration of the Temple

The longer inscription above records that Iavolinus had restored and extended an ancient temple that had been in a state of collapse.  Our knowledge of its later history derives entirely from:

  1. this statue and inscription; and

  2. a report on their fortuitous discovery  after a heavy storm in 1781 that was published in the following year by a local antiquarian, Sebastiano Ranghiasci (referenced below).

Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2001, at p. 71, note 64) noted Ranghiasci’s estimate that the restored temple was only about seven meters long (although he cautioned that this must have been speculative, since Ranghiasci himself had acknowledged that there were only very scant remains of the temple walls by the time of the discovery.). This interesting website quotes an extract from Ranghiasci’s report, in which he recorded that:

  1. the monks of San Pietro in Vigneto had destroyed the temple in order to make way for a hospice (which would have provided accommodation for travellers); and

  2. travertine remains of it that were similar to the material used for the base of the statue above had been re-used in the arch of an ancient door of their church. 

Since the hermitage was first documented in 1131, we might reasonably assume that the temple had been demolished at around this time.

Earlier Temple of Mars and Cupra ?

Two terracotta  figurines from the site, sketched by Sebastiano Ranghiasci (referenced below) and

reproduced by Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2001, at p. 73, figure 41)  and

Alberto Calderini (referenced below, at p. 100, figure 13)

As Alberto Calderini (referenced below, at p. 65 and again at p. 68) pointed out, the cult of Mars Cyprius, as evidenced by CIL XI 5805 (above), is otherwise unknown.  Thus, we have no means of ascertaining whether the temple that he restored was:

  1. originally dedicated to Mars Cyprius; or

  2. given this dedication at the time of Iavolinus’ restoration.

However, Calderini drew attention (at p. 63 and again at p. 65)  to a now-lost funerary  inscription (CIL IX 2482) from the same period that was found at Saepinum in Samnium, which commemorated a young lady called Iavolena Cypris.  This might suggest that the epithet ‘Cyprius’ had a particular significance for the gens Iavolena, in which case the second of these possibilities would be the more likely.

Another factor also arguably points in this direction: Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2001, at p. 74, notes 71 and 72) noted that the report of Sebastiano Ranghiasci (referenced below) included a sketch (reproduced above) of two figures that were also found here in 1781.  The figures were each about 50 cm high (the male being slightly larger than the female, presumably because she was seated).  Ranghiasci

  1. reasonably assumed that the male figure represented Mars, and observed that:

  2. “... his youthful appearance [is] appropriate for this deity, [who] is depicted bare-headed, as we see  in other Etruscan images of him”, (my translation from Sisani’s note 71); and

  3. while the female figure:

  4. “... has a grave and majestic expression and wears a diadem of rays  ... she is dressed dressed in a tunic that reaches her feet, above which wears a cape ..”, (my translation from Sisani’s note 72).

Sisani suggested (at p. 75-6) that:

the iconography of the female figure is typical of Italic votive figures of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC; and

other stylistic features of both figures support this dating. 

He argued (at p. 76) that, since:

  1. the votive objects found in Italic sanctuaries at this time are almost always made from bronze and are also generally smaller than 50 cm; and

  2. the find spot was:

  3. “... in the heart of Iguvine territory, in an area that was unaffected by Roman colonisation” (my translation);

we might reasonably hypothesise that the terracotta figures described and sketched by Ranghiasci:

  1. “... should not be thought of as ex-voto objects, but rather as cult statues from the older [i.e. pre-restoration] phase of the temple. ... [If so, then the sketches of them represent]  the only evidence  we have for the deities of the temple: they confirm a double cult, male and female, as evidenced by the two [figurines]” (my translation).

Identity of the Female Figure

Bronze mirror (ca. 300 BC), probably depicting the Judgement of Paris, probably from Volsinii

Now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (AN 1871.97)

From Nancy De Grummond (referenced below, 2007, pp. 14-5 and Figures 2a-d)

Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2001, at p. 77) pointed out that Iavolenus’ statue, which presumably accompanied a re-dedication of the temple to Mars Cyprius, probably post-dated the original building of the temple by at least 200 years and thus might not have reflected its original dedication.  He argued (at p.78) that:

  1. “If the characterisation [above of the two pre-restoration figures] as cult images from the original temple is correct, then the possibility that the female figure represents Cupra becomes extremely seductive”, (my translation).

In support of the hypothesis, he noted that:

  1. her ‘matronly’ appearance  could reflect the epithet ‘Mater’ that Cupra was given at Plestia and Helvillum; and

  2. she might be wearing a diadem of rays, which (he claimed) was frequently the case with the Etruscan goddess Uni, whom Strabo (see below) recorded as her counterpart. 

Alberto Calderini (referenced below, at pp. 99-100) found Sisani’s hypothesis compelling:

  1. “The female statuette, then, can only represent the goddess who was the companion of Mar Cyprius, namely Cupra ... : her diadem of rays ... , however difficult to read [from the surviving sketch], certainly refers to ... Uni, while her seated posture is well suited to a goddess who is elsewhere given  the title of Mater”, (my translation).

However, it seems to me that this body of evidence, while interesting, is not conclusive: even if it is accepted that these relatively small terracotta figurines represent Mars and Cupra, it cannot be securely established that they were cult images, and that the temple was therefore originally dedicated to Mars and Cupra.

Furthermore, I think that too much has been taken here from the putative diadem of rays.  As Sisani himself acknowledged, it is not beyond doubt that the female figure is actually wearing a diadem.  Furthermore, a diadem with rays was not (as he suggested) a common attribute of Hera, and it was not confined to her alone.  For example, in her description of the scene depicted on the mirror illustrated above, Nancy De Grummond (referenced below, 2007, at p. 14) pointed out that:

  1. the putative figure of Turan/Aphrodite (far left) wears:

  2. “... a crown with rays ...”;

  3. the putative figure of Menvra/Athena (inner right) wears:

  4. “... a diadem with rays ...”; and

  5. the putative figure of Uni/Hera (inner left), Strabo’s Etruscan counterpart of Cupra, wears:

  6. “... a more elaborate diadem than those on the first two figures, featuring rays and semicircular and circular patterns ... ”

None of them was identified from this aspect of her regalia: their collective identities were clear from the likely context (the Judgement of Paris) and their individual identities from:

  1. her nakedness (Turan/Aphrodite)

  2. her spear (Menvra/Athena); and

  3. her depiction as “a tall and well dressed female” (Uni/ Hera).

Earlier Temple of Mars and Cupra: Conclusions

In short, it seems to me that:

  1. we might reasonably assume that the male terracotta figure sketched by Ranghiasci represented Mars;

  2. if so, then it is likely that the female figure represented Cupra (which would parallel the mythical association between Mars/Ares and Venus/Aphrodite);

  3. stylistic considerations arguably date them to ca. 200 BC;

  4. it is possible that, notwithstanding their relatively small sizes, they were cult images of Mars and Cupra, and that the temple had been dedicated to both of them as separate deities before its rededication in the 1st or 2nd century AD to the otherwise unknown Mars Cyprius; and

  5. it is possible that ‘Cupra’ was depicted wearing a diadem of rays, in which case this would have put her on a par with important Etruscan goddesses such as Uni, Turan and Menvra.

Mars Cyprius

Tiziana Capriotti (referenced below, 2004, at p. 11) observed that the longer inscription above is the only surviving evidence that Mars was ever given the epithet ‘Cyprius’. 

Nora Clark (referenced below, at pp. 18-9) included ‘Cypria’ (‘of Cyprus’) among a long list of epithets given to Greek Aphrodite (whose Roman counterpart was Venus).  The association of this goddess with Cyprus was recorded from an early date:

  1. Hesiod (ca. 700 BC) recorded the gory details of her birth:

  2. “And so soon as [Kronos] had cut off the members [of his father, Uranus] with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away ...: and a white foam spread around them from [Uranus’] immortal flesh and a maiden grew in it.  First, she drew near holy Cythera, and then she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth as an awful and lovely goddess... Gods and men call her

  3. Aphrodite ... ;

  4. [Aphrogenes], because she was foam-born;

  5. Cytherea, because she reached Cythera [presumably while still in embryonic form];

  6. Cyprogenes, because she was born in billowy Cyprus; and

  7. Philommeides [genital-loving], because she sprang from the members [of Uranus]”, (‘Theogony’, 188-200).

  8. She was also referred to in one of the so-called Homeric Hymns (which were written in the 7th and 6th centuries BC) as:

  9. “... golden Aphrodite, the one from Cyprus ...”(Hymn 6: 1).

She observed that:

  1. “... the obvious associations  ... would be:

  2. with Venus (the natural partner for Mars); or

  3. with Cupra”, (my translation). 

  4. The linguists have formulated interesting ... hypotheses  ... [that lead to the theonym ‘Mars of Cupra’ (a Mars linked to... Cupra).  [It is possible that the associated] ritual was part of the ritual related to Cupra, and unrelated to the canonical figure of Mars”, (my translation).

Sanctuary of ‘Cubra Matrer’ at Helvillum

This inscribed bronze plaque in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Perugia was found in 1868 at Aja della Croce, near modern Fossato di Vico.  This was the site of Helvillum, a way station on Via Flaminia, at its junction with a side road to Anccona.  The inscription (ST UM 7), which uses the Latin alphabet, reads:





Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2007, at p. 400, entry 96) dated the inscription to the late 3rd century BC, presumably because he assumed that it had been erected soon after construction of Via Flaminia in 220 BC.  However, Giulio Giannecchini (in L. Agostiniani et al., referenced below, p. 51, entry 35) more recently dated it to the second half of the 2nd century BC.

Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2009, pp. 204-5, entry 26) observed that the inscription conveys two distinct pieces of information:

  1. the first line can be translated as:

  2. “This [is] the ‘bia’ [probably a fountain, or the water from a fountain] of [the goddess] Cupra Mater”; and

  3. the last three lines record that:

  4. “[This] cistern was built at a cost of 159 nummi in the maronate (magistracy) of :

  5. Vibius Varius, son of Lucius; and

  6. Titus Fullonius, son of Caius”.

  7. We might reasonably assume that these were magistrates of nearby Tadinum, to which the small settlement at Helvillum probably belonged, and that they are named here as a dating device.  

  8. Sisani suggested that the terracotta support to which the plaque is still fixed probably came from the rim of a round puteal that covered the opening of the cistern that was mentioned in the inscription. 

Francesco Marcattili (referenced below, 2016, at pp. 477-80 and Figure 16) described the excavations that were carried out in 1918 on a site adjacent to the find spot of the inscription, which revealed a rectangular sanctuary containing two large water basins.  On the basis of his analysis of cult sites in Italy dedicated to Bona Dea, with whom the Umbrian Cupra has been identified (see below), he observed that:

  1. “[The fact] that the cult celebrated in the sanctuary of Cupra of Helvillum was identical to that officiated for Bona Dea in Ostia (and elsewhere) is revealed without a shadow of doubt by the existence of two large open basins ... in the immediate vicinity of the [find spot of the inscription]. ...  As is evident, we have here a coherent structural and functional system that satisfies the liturgical requirements ... that were common to the worship of both Bona Dea and Cupra” (my translation).

In other words, the bia at Aja della Croce seems to have been integral to a sanctuary dedicated to Cupra, albeit that her cult seems to have been to some extent Romanised by this time.

Umbrian Inscription (late 2nd century BC) [28]

This inscription, which  was discovered in the convent of San Damiano in 1982, was embedded in the corner of the cloister below Monte Subasio during the restructuring of the complex in 2001.  The inscription, in the Latin alphabet, reads:



The inscription was originally thought to have been in Latin, but the word “aso” is now thought to be the Umbrian word for an altar.  Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2007) translated it as:

altar sacred to Arentia  O[.....]

where the “O” is an abbreviation of the unknown Umbrian word that equates to the Latin epithet “Obsequens” (as in “Venus Obsequens”, where the epithet is translated into English as compliant, gracious or accommodating).  Arentia is otherwise unknown in Italy, but Arentius and his wife Arentia were worshipped in ancient Lusitania (modern Portugal).

Cupra Marittima

Inscription (CIL IX 5294) that records the restoration of the

templum Dea Cuprae by the Emperor Hadrian in 127 AD

Now in the wall of the church of San Martino, Grottammare

(CIL IX 5294)

Strabo  mentioned Cupra in his account of the geography of Picenum:

  1. “Next in order comes the temple of Cupra, which was established and founded as a city [Cupramaritimma] by the [Etruscans], whose name for Hera [the Roman Juno] is ’Cupra’” (‘Geography’, 5;4;2).


Cupra is recorded in a number of surviving inscriptions from Umbria described below.  Her name also lives on at the towns of Cupramontana and Cupramaritimma in what was Picenum . 

According to Varro:

  1. cyprum Sabine bonum” (‘cyprum’ was the Sabine word for ‘good’) (‘De Lingua Latina’, V 159)

As Francesco Marcattili (referenced below, 2016, at p. 469) pointed out:

  1. “... this brief observation ... is very important, not only for its linguistic implications but also, more generally, for its important historical-religious significance: the text is, in fact, a basic argument in the identification of the Umbrian/ Picene goddess Cupra with the Roman goddess Bona Dea”, (my translation).

Strabo on Cupra

The Goddesses of the Etruscans

In her subsequent analysis, Nancy Thomson de Grummond (referenced below, 2006a, at pp. 71-112) investigated the extent to which Greek models of the Great Goddess were reflected in Etruscan religion.  Her subsequent analysis reveals that Greek concepts were easily recognisable in the depiction of female divinity in Etruscan art.  However, she pointed out (again at p. 71) that:

  1. “We do not have any evidence of a single great earth mother goddess [in Etruscan religion]: neither do we find that [each of the Etruscan goddesses was] associated with one particular sphere.  Rather, we see considerable fluidity in their identities.”

As noted above, the fragmentation of the originally all-powerful earth goddess in Greek mythology probably also occurred in other cultures.  For example, Nancy Thomson de Grummond compared the Greek experience here with that of the Etruscans.  She noted that, is sharp contrast to the ancient presence of Gaia in the Greek tradition:

  1. “We do not have any evidence of a single great earth mother goddess [in the Etruscan pantheon]”.

She then described the most important Etruscan goddesses, and noted the extent to which each of them did or did not parallel the goddesses that emerged in the Greek tradition after the Gaia’s eclipse.  We might usefully concentrate on the three most important of these, who were frequently depicted together in Etruscan art in scenes of the judgement of Elcsnestre (Alexander in Greek, but more commonly known to us as Paris): Uni; Menvra; and Turans; in Greek mythology, these goddesses were (respectively): Hera; Athena; and Aphrodite.


In Greek mythology, the most important thing about Hera was the fact that she was married to Zeus, and was thus the most ‘senior’ of the female Greek divinities.  Nancy Thomson de Grummond (referenced below, 2016a, at p. 78) observed that she was usually differentiated from Athena and Aphrodite in Greek depictions of the Judgement of Paris by:

“... tugging at her veil, to remind the viewer of her marriage”.

Similar iconography is sometimes used for Uni in Etruscan art, and she is also often depicted as taller, better-dressed and more bejewelled than other goddesses and prominently placed among them, often seated on a throne. 

However, Nancy Thomson de Grummond (referenced below, 2006a, at p. 78) also noted that:

  1. “... Uni had richer associations in Etruria [than Hera did in Greece, as evidenced] by the remarkable bilingual sacred gold tablets from her sanctuary at Pyrgi, [the port of the Etruscan city-state of Caere, where her] name is rendered in Phoenician by that great fertility goddess Astarte .”

Her name might derive from an Indo-European root ‘iuni’ (young): it could, therefore be a load word from Latin, reflected in the Latin name Juno.   


Nancy Thomson de Grummond Nancy Thomson de Grummond (referenced below, 2016a, at p. 71) observed that:

  1. “]Minvra’s] name is is indigenous to Italy.  Many, if not all, scholars think that it is originally Etruscan, and was then adopted by the Romans and other Italic cultures.  ... her cult was widespread among the Etruscans ... [who] considered [Greek] Athena [to be] her parallel, and often represented her in art with the attributes of Athena.”

However, she also noted that Menvra had a number of other attributes that:

  1. “... distinguish her from Athena ... , and it is clear  that she does not originate in Greece.

Read more:

Marcattili F., “Il Santuario di Cupra a Fossato di Vico”, Studi Etruschi, 80 (2017) 115-29

Marcattili F., “Tra Venere, Bona Dea e Cupra: Note a Margine della Lamina di Fossato di Vico”, in:

  1. Ancillotti A. et al. (editors), “Forme e Strutture Della Religione nell' Italia Mediana Antica: Atti Del Terzo Convegno Internazionale Di Studi Umbri: 21-25 Settembre 2011”, (2016) Rome, at pp. 469-489

Clark N., “Aphrodite and Venus in Myth and Mimesis”, (2015)  Newcastle upon Tyne

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

Perna R. et al., “Scavi e Ricerche nell'Antica Plestia” Picus, 31 (2011) 103-68

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

Thomson De Grummond N., “Corpus Speculorum Etruscorum: Great Britain 3: Ashmolean Museum; Claydon House; Pitt Rivers Museum”, (2007) Rome

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

Thomson de Grummond N. (2006a), “Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend”  (2006) Philadelphia PA

Thomson de Grummond N. (2006b), “Prophets and Priests”, in:

  1. Thomson de Grummond N. and Simon E. (editors), “The Religion of the Etruscans”, (2006) Austin TX, at pp. 27-44

Calderini A., “Cupra: Un Dossier per l' Identificazione”, Eutopia, 1:1-2 (2001) 45-129

Sisani D., “Tuta Iguvina: Sviluppo e Ideologia della Forma Urbana a Gubbio”, (2001) Rome

Traill D., “Ovid, Tristia 2: 8: 296, and 507: Happier Solutions”, Hermes, 120:4 (1992) 504-7

Ranghiasci S., “Del Tempietto di Marte Cyprio e de’ suoi Monumenti Dissotterrati nella Campagna di Gubbio l’ Anno 1781”, (1782) Venice

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