Gubbio: Umbrians and Romans

Roman theatre of Gubbio.

The Italian region of Umbria is a modern creation. Historically, the region where the Ancient Umbrians lived, ‘the oldest of the peoples of Italy’[1], was both much smaller and much larger. It was smaller because the western part of modern Umbria was in the hands of the Etruscans, who lived in cities such as Perugia and Orvieto. But it was also much larger, for the simple reason that Umbrians lived in what are now the Marches and the Emilia-Romagna as well. The Umbrians were not a unified people, but a collection of tribes or clans who mostly lived in small villages. The people there were farmers and shepherds, who tilled the earth and tended to their flocks of sheep. There were a few proper towns, which likely came into existence as late as the fifth or fourth century BCE. Gubbio or Ikuvium was one of them (Amelia, discussed previously, is another example, and it is much older).

Ancient Ikuvium was built on the slope of Monte Ingino. This was obviously done to make the town more defensible. These were dangerous times, and the most dangerous enemy was probably a growing power to the south called Rome. The Romans came to dominate the Umbrians in the late fourth or early third century BCE. After the Battle of Sentinum in 295 BCE, in which the Umbrians did not participate even though they were part of an anti-Roman coalition of Etruscans, Celts and Samnites, Roman dominance was no longer challenged. Gubbio became known as Iguvium. King Genthios, the hapless king of the Illyrians, was imprisoned here in 167 BCE after the Third Macedonian War. Genthios also died here and some like to believe that he was buried in the large mausoleum which stands some 375 metres south of the Roman theatre of Gubbio. Others believe it is the final resting place of a man named Pomponius Graecinus, but in reality we simply do not know for whom the mausoleum was constructed.

The Roman theatre of Gubbio, with medieval Gubbio behind it and the church of Sant’Ubaldo on the mountain.

The aforementioned theatre dates from the first century BCE. It demonstrates that life in the Roman era was relatively safe and people came down from the mountain to live in the valley. It was only during the early Middle Ages that the inhabitants returned to the higher parts again and basically refounded the town. Nowadays, Gubbio is recognised as one of the best preserved medieval towns in all of Italy. The ruins of the theatre are the most tangible remains from the Roman period (see the images above). This was a large theatre once. It has seats for approximately 6.000 spectators, which demonstrates that Iguvium was an important settlement. Some of the decorations of the theatre are kept in de Museo Civico, which is housed in the Palazzo dei Consoli. Here we also find the remains of an inscription commemorating the restoration of the theatre by a local magistrate named Gnaeus Satrius Rufus. Next to the theatre is a small museum (or antiquarium). It is housed in a building that was built over a Roman domus. Here one can admire a few mosaics, but we found the museum closed when we visited Gubbio in September 2018.

The Iguvine Tables.

Statuette of Mars.

We did visit the Palazzo dei Consoli and the Museo Civico. Here one can learn a lot about the society, culture and religion of the Ancient Umbrians. The most famous objects on display here are the Iguvine Tables, a set of seven bronze tablets containing some 4.300 words in the Ancient Umbrian language (see the image above). The tables were discovered in 1444 and were sold to the local authorities in 1456. They have been studied by scholars since the sixteenth century. The tablets use two different kinds of script. The script used by tables 1 to 5 is a slightly adapted form of the Etruscan alphabet.[2] These tables should be read right to left. Part of table 5 used the Latin script of the Romans[3], and so do tables 6 and 7. As a consequence, these should be read left to right. Thanks to the Iguvine Tables “the language of the Ancient Umbrians (…) is the best documented of the languages of Ancient Italy”, apart from Latin of course.[4] The tables have “the longest ritual text we have from Antiquity”.[5]

The texts on the tables deal with religious rites, ceremonies and formulas. The museum provides visitors who cannot read Ancient Umbrian (i.e. practically all visitors) with a short glossary of terms used on the tables. Some words, such as okri (sacred mount), seem to have no relationship with Latin whatsoever. In others we do recognise words that are also known in Latin. Examples are trifu (a district; tribus in Latin), poplo (‘the body of armed patricians’; cf. Latin populus) and uinu (wine; vinum in Latin).

Lid of a funerary urn.

Another interesting item on display at the museum is the lid of a funerary urn from Bevagna. The lid dates back to the second century BCE and the urn once contained the ashes of a local magistrate. The decorations of a wheel and two griffins are not that impressive, but the text on the lid is important. The script used is once again an adapted form of the Etruscan alphabet. In the Latin alphabet, the text reads:


which indicates that the name of the deceased was Pettius, son of Pettius. He was from the gens Ofedia and held the office of Uhtur, probably the Umbrian equivalent of a consul.


[1] ‘Gens antiquissima Italiae’, according to Plinius the Elder (Natural History, Book 3.112).

[2] Which is based on the Greek alphabet, which in turn is based on the Phoenician alphabet.

[3] Itself based on the Etruscan alphabet.

[4] According to an information panel in the Museo Civico.

[5] Ditto.

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