Spoleto: Remains of a Roman city

Sceptre head, 7th century BCE.

The area around Spoleto has been inhabited since at least the eighth century BCE. Rich grave finds from several necropolises demonstrate that there must have been a settlement here of some importance. Excavations in 2008-2009 in the Piazza d’Armi, north of the railway station, have for instance uncovered the tomb of an Umbrian aristocrat or “king”. Here archaeologists found sceptre heads made of bronze and iron and decorated with images of animals and people, perhaps deities. The heads can now be admired in Spoleto’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

Roman Spoleto under the Republic

In the late fourth century BCE, the Romans arrived in Umbria. In the traditional Roman way, they brought the area under control by founding colonies at strategic locations. The Roman historian Velleius Paterculus writes that three years after the consulship Torquatus and Sempronius, which was in 244 BCE, the Romans founded the colony of Spoletium.[1] The birth of Spoleto as a city can therefore be dated to 241 BCE. The Romans had just defeated Carthage in the First Punic War and could now focus on consolidating their power in Umbria. Spoletium was founded as a Latin colony. The Latin status of its citizens ensured them the rights of intermarriage and commerce with Roman citizens, but they lacked Roman citizenship themselves.

The Torre dell’Olio.

Spoletium likely profited from its location on the eastern branch of the Via Flaminia, the road that was constructed in 220 BCE and connected Rome to its Latin colony of Ariminum on the Adriatic coast. The vicinity of the Via Flaminia may on the other hand have proved a curse in 217 BCE. In that year the Carthaginian general Hannibal smashed a Roman army on the shores of Lake Trasimene, killing the consul in charge, who happened to be the same Gaius Flaminius who gave his name to the road when he ordered its construction. After his victory, Hannibal may have moved south along the Via Flaminia and according to the Roman historian Livius, he assaulted Spoletium and tried to take the city by storm.[2] However, the brave citizens of Spoletium managed to repulse his assault parties and inflicted heavy casualties on the Carthaginians. Livius claims that “[a]s a single colony was strong enough to defeat his unfortunate attempt he was able to form some conjecture as to the difficulties attending the capture of Rome, and consequently diverted his march into the territory of Picenum”.

The Spoletans supposedly beat back Hannibal’s forces near a north-western gate of the city that is now called the Porta Fuga, the Gate of Flight. Here we also find the famous Torre dell’Olio, the Tower of Oil, from which the citizens were said to have poured down boiling oil on the Carthaginians. Unfortunately, the heroics of the Spoletans may have been exaggerated a bit by Livius: Hannibal’s attack on the city is not even mentioned by Polybius, a Greek historian and one of the most important sources for the Second Punic War. Perhaps the attack was no more than a skirmish, intended to test whether Hannibal’s army could take a fortified city. What is more, the Torre dell’Olio has nothing to do with Antiquity. It is a medieval tower built in the thirteenth or fourteenth century.

Cippus with the text of the Lex luci spoletina (3rd century BCE).

Over the course of the Second Punic War, Spoletium proved to be consistently loyal to the Roman cause. In 209 BCE, it was among the eighteen Latin colonies who continued to provide Rome with soldiers and money, while twelve others were so exhausted by the war that they refused to do so any longer. Livius claims that five years previously, a woman had been turned into a man in Spoletium.[3] He discusses the event among the many portents of this year, but could he have been referring to the first transgender operation in the world ever? (this is a joke of course)

The Illyrian king Genthios was briefly detained in Spoletium in 167 BCE, before being moved to Iguvium (modern Gubbio). In the early first century BCE, probably in 89 BCE, the city became a municipium; its inhabitants were granted Roman citizenship and enrolled in the tribus Horatia. The grant of citizenship was likely triggered by the Social War (91-88 BCE). Spoletium does not seem to have enjoyed its new status for long, because just a few years later the factions of Sulla and Marius were at each other’s throats. The generals Pompeius and Crassus, serving under Sulla, inflicted a heavy defeat on the Marian general Gaius Carrinas on the plains of Spoletium. Carrinas was besieged in the city, but managed to escape during the night while a heavy rainstorm was raging.[4] Spoletium itself was not so lucky, as it was taken and sacked. Subsequently veterans from Sulla’s army were settled here. Perhaps it was this unfortunate episode in the city’s history, or the earthquake that hit the area in 63 BCE, that necessitated a rebuilding of the city walls. A plaster cast of an inscription kept in the Parcheggio Spoletosfera 1 parking mentions the names of the quattuorviri (local magistrates) who were involved: Publius Marcius Hister and Gaius Maenius Rufus.

Plaster cast of an inscription pertaining to the rebuilding of the city walls.

Roman theatre of Spoleto

Busts of Gaius Calvisius Sabinus (?) and Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.

Spoletium is not mentioned often for the Imperial period, but the city’s most important and most visible Roman monuments date exactly from this era. First of all, there is the Roman theatre, located just west of the Piazza della Libertà. It was probably built between 30 and 10 BCE and offered seating for up to 3.000 people. According to one theory, the theatre was constructed by order of Gaius Calvisius Sabinus, who had been consul in 39 BCE. He was a loyal supporter of first Gaius Julius Caesar and then the latter’s adoptive son Augustus. When the area of the theatre was excavated in the 1950s, a bust from the first century BCE was unearthed which may represent Sabinus. Archaeologists also discovered a bust of a young man in his twenties. There is an excellent possibility that the man is Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the future emperor Augustus. The bust is one of the earliest known portraits of  Octavianus/Augustus. It was made in about 40 BCE. The two busts mentioned here are now exhibited side by side in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale.

The theatre may not have been built in the most stable part of town. Not long after, and perhaps even during its construction, the western side of the structure simply broke off and slid down the hill. The damage was repaired – on more than one occasion it seems – and the theatre remained in use until the end of the fourth century. When it was abandoned, it was likely already partially buried, which made its conversion into a cemetery a lot easier. The marble decorations and other ornamentations of the theatre were pillaged and used as spolia for other buildings in Spoleto. In the eleventh century, the church of Sant’Agata was founded here, as was a palazzo of the Corvi family. In 1396, the church was granted to a community of Poor Clares, Franciscan nuns who abandoned their convent at San Paolo inter vineas outside the walls of Spoleto. They also acquired the buildings belonging to the Corvi family and established a new convent there, which they enlarged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Theatre of Spoletium, with the Museo Archeologico Nazionale and the church of Sant’Agata in the background.

The contours of the Roman theatre must still have been visible at the time, because they were sketched by the painter and architect Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536). However, this was no longer the case when in 1866 the convent of the Poor Clares was suppressed and the buildings were converted into a prison. In 1891, the local archaeologist Giuseppe Sordini (1853-1914) announced that he had discovered the remains of the theatre. It was Peruzzi’s sketch that had provided him with valuable clues. Unfortunately excavations had to wait until 1955, when the buildings of the now former prison were ceded to the Ministry of Education. Spoleto’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale, housed in the former convent, was opened in 1985. The largely reconstructed theatre is an integral part of it and definitely the highlight. Only the eastern side can be considered more or less original; the western side was rebuilt in the 1950s. The marble of the orchestra (ὀρχήστρα), that is: the area of the theatre in front of the stage (scaena), dates from the fourth century.

The theatre was lavishly decorated once, but was picked clean when it was closed down. The archaeological museum has a few fragments of marble decorations on display, but these are not the most interesting items in the collection. Objects that are much more interesting are two cippi with the text of the Lex luci spoletina, i.e. the law that applied to the sacred grove of Jupiter outside Spoletium (see the image above). Both cippi were discovered by Giuseppe Sordini and the text that has been chiselled into the limestone is in Archaic Latin. The word for grove is lucus in Classical Latin, but here we read loucos. The law warns people not to take anything away from the sacred grove, except when it is the day of the annual sacrifice. Unintentional violation of the law will incur a fine of one ox, while the penalty for intentional violation of the Lex luci spoletina is an ox AND 300 asses (bronze coins).The fine is to be paid to a magistrate known as the dicator, who is able to make peace with Jupiter again.

Inscription mentioning Marcus Septimius Septimianus.

Another object of interest is a block of travertine with an inscription mentioning a certain Marcus Septimius Septimianus. The block dates from the second century CE and was likely once used as building material for the church of San Gregorio Maggiore elsewhere in Spoleto. It provides us with a lot of information: the block confirms that the Spoletans belonged to the tribe of Horatia and it mentions that Septimianus possessed a public horse (equus publicus), that he was a quattuorvir (a local magistrate) and that he was a praefectus fabrum or commander of engineers and carpenters in Rome. Note that this is not a funerary inscription; the block was probably the pedestal for a statue of Septimianus. It was commissioned by the scamillarii (mentioned in the inscription) or scabillarii, the people who played a percussion instrument that would have been used during theatrical performances. Septimianus was their patron.

Arch of Drusus and Casa Romana

If we walk due east from the Roman theatre, we will arrive at the church of Sant’Ansano, which was built over the ruins of a Roman temple from the first century. I had been told that its crypt is very much worth a visit, but the church appeared to be closed permanently when I visited Spoleto in September of 2018. As several other churches in Spoleto were also closed, this may have been another case of inagibilità.

Arch of Drusus.

To the left of the church visitors will notice an arch from the Roman era. It was built in the early first century in honour of Drusus Julius Caesar (14 BCE-23 CE), son of the emperor Tiberius, and his adoptive brother Germanicus (15 BCE-19 CE). The arch was erected by the Senate of Spoleto in 23 CE on the occasion of the death of Drusus. It was built over the cardo maximus, the road running north-south through Spoleto, which met the decumanus at the forum of the city. Part of the inscription is still legible. The arch was the monumental gate that gave access to this forum, the current Piazza del Mercato. It should, however, be noted that the Roman forum was much larger than the modern piazza.

East of the forum stood a splendid domus or private residence, constructed in the first century CE. The remains of this Casa Romana are located underneath the Palazzo Comunale, the town hall of Spoleto. A popular theory is that the house belonged to Vespasia Polla, the mother of the emperor Vespasianus (69-79). She was from a noble family from Nursia (present-day Norcia) and the Roman biographer Suetonius tells us that “there is moreover on the top of a mountain, near the sixth milestone on the road from Nursia to Spoletium, a place called Vespasiae, where many monuments of the Vespasii are to be seen, affording strong proof of the renown and antiquity of the house”.[5] So Polla and her family definitely hailed from the region, but more concrete evidence for her ownership of the house is an inscription which mentions the name ‘Polla’ and which was found during excavations. This is not definitive proof yet, but the theory is plausible enough and the house certainly belonged to a person of considerable social prestige, although it cannot be considered exceptionally large.

Atrium of the Roman house.

The house was discovered in 1885 by Giuseppe Sordini, who also led the excavations until his death in 1914. The Casa Romana is renowned for its wonderful floor mosaics and is open to the public today. Visitors in Antiquity would have first entered the atrium of the house, where the impluvium collected the rainwater that came in through the open roof (see the image above). The atrium gave access to the tablinum, the large reception room. The rooms on either side of the tablinum have been identified as living rooms, while the atrium also adjoined on two cubicula or sleeping rooms. Between the living and sleeping rooms we find two corridors or alae, one of which led to the garden or peristylium. Several rooms are missing. We for instance do not know where the kitchen, the dining room and the bathroom were (wealthy Romans could afford houses with private bathrooms). It has been hypothesised that the house once had a second storey.

Floor of the tablinum.

The floor mosaics are of excellent quality, although they feature fairly simple geometrical patterns rather than intricate scenes involving people and deities. The mosaics were largely executed in black and white tesserae, with the two living rooms using a little red as well. In the living room to the right of the tablinum, part of the wall decorations have been preserved. Here we can see the remains of the frescoes that once adorned the walls of the rooms.

Living room.

Sources for this post include my Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) travel guides. Much information came from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale and the Casa Romana. The Key to Umbria website was helpful as well. Ancient sources used for this post are mentioned in the footnotes.


[1] Velleius Paterculus, Roman History, Book I.14.

[2] Livius, Ab urbe condita, Book 22.9.

[3] Livius, Ab urbe condita, Book 24.10.

[4] Appianus, Bellum Civile I.90.

[5] Suetonius, The Life of Vespasian 1.3.


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  5. I’m trying to find an excavation like this where the archaeologist used volunteers from a nearby mental asylum to help dig. It was a theatre and temple complex from memory. The amazing thing was that all the mental patients were cured of their mental health issues after helping with the dig. Does anyone know which dig that was? I was wondering if it was this place?

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