Spello: Remains of a Roman city

Spello’s Porta Consolare.

The early history of Spello is poorly documented. The area of the town, which started as a settlement of the Umbrians, has been inhabited since at least the seventh century BCE. During the Roman era, Spello was known as Hispellum. It cannot have been more than a village, likely highly dependent on nearby Mevania (modern Bevagna), which was of much greater importance back then. The founding of the Latin colony of Spoletium in 241 BCE and the construction of the Via Flaminia in 220 BCE probably led to some degree of urbanisation, but there is no hard evidence that these developments changed the status of the town. During and after the Social War (91-88 BCE), many Italian cities were granted the status of municipia and their citizens acquired Roman citizenship, but Hispellum does not seem to have been included among these cities. The town had to wait another fifty years or so for major developments. In about 41 BCE, as the Roman Republic came crashing down, Hispellum was given the honour of becoming a Roman colony, where veterans from the Roman army were settled. The town was named after the gens Julia and henceforth became known as Colonia Julia Hispellum.

In 43 BCE, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus – the future emperor Augustus – formed the Second Triumvirate with Marc Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. According to the Roman historian Appianus, “they [the triumvirs] promised them [the soldiers], beside other gifts, eighteen cities of Italy as colonies — cities which excelled in wealth, in the splendour of their estates and houses, and which were to be divided among them”.[1] These cities included famous settlements such as Capua, Beneventum and Ariminum, but it seems unlikely that a settlement of minor importance such as Hispellum was among the original eighteen colonies. And yet there cannot be any doubt that the land here was colonised and that this led to a process of increased urbanisation. The citizens of Colonia Julia Hispellum were enrolled in the tribus Lemonia. The colony itself was administered by two magistrates, the duoviri.

Spello’s Porta Venere.

The triumvirs had plenty of veterans to settle. In 42 BCE, they defeated Caesar’s murderers at Philippi. Caesar Octavianus then won a victory over Antony’s brother Lucius Antonius during the so-called Perusine War (41-40 BCE) and in 31 BCE he defeated Antony himself at the Battle of Actium. It seems likely that Hispellum was colonised in more than one wave, so perhaps with each victory a new batch of veterans was sent off to the ever-expanding colony. When old Hispellum became Colonia Julia Hispellum, the town was provided with walls, probably for the first time in its entire history. Quite a few of the gates in the walls have survived, although these were altered in later centuries. We for instance entered the town through the Porta Consolare in the south of the historic centre (see the first image above). This gate was likely built around 41 BCE. Its lower part is still original, unlike the medieval tower on the right and the house on the left. The tower and the house likely replaced two Roman towers, one on either side of the gate. The statues above the central portal are also original, but they have been set up here fairly recently. Once they were part of a sarcophagus that was discovered near the Roman amphitheatre of the town.

Spello’s Porta dell’Arce.

An even more impressive gate is the Porta Venere in the west (see the second image above). It is younger than the Porta Consolare and was probably built in about 27 BCE. The two dodecagonal towers flanking the gate are called the Torri di Properzio, ‘the Towers of Propertius’. This refers to the claim that the Roman poet Propertius was born in Spello, although both Bevagna and Assisi claim that he was actually born there (see Assisi: Santa Maria sopra Minerva). The original Roman gate certainly had two towers, but the Torri di Properzio are rebuilds from the twelfth century.

The Porta dell’Arce, near the highest point of the town, is not really a gate. It is more of an arch – a double arch actually – that was probably named after the town’s ancient citadel (arx). And then there is the Arco di Augusto, the Arch of Augustus. I had a hard time finding it, and that it because virtually nothing is left of it. The most visible part of the arch is an inscription of which only the letters R DIVI F have been preserved. The full text of the inscription, which was probably not even part of the original arch, would have read IMP CAESAR DIVI FILIVS, or ‘Imperator Caesar, son of the Divine (Julius)’.

Remains of the Arch of Augustus. Note the letters R DIVI F.

Even though Colonia Julia Hispellum must have been a splendid settlement, very little of the Roman town has survived, apart from the walls and gates. The colony had an amphitheatre and an exceptionally large theatre that could accommodate some 10.000 people. This means the theatre was larger than that of Iguvium (modern Gubbio), which had seats for approximately 6.000 spectators and was considered relatively large. Unfortunately the scant remains of the amphitheatre can only be seen from behind a fence (or on Google Maps) and what was left of the theatre was demolished long ago. Opposite the amphitheatre was a complex of baths, the remains of which were discovered under the church of San Claudio. Opposite the theatre was an important religious complex with two temples. The one on the left is general referred to as the temple of Villa Fidelia, for historians assume it stood on the site of the current villa. The temple on the right was dedicated to Venus and the aforementioned Porta Venere is named after her.

One of the most fascinating archaeological discoveries from Spello is a Rescript from the Roman emperor Constantine (306-337) and his three sons or – as some like to believe – from his son Constans (337-350) in the name of his deceased father.[2] A rescript or rescriptum principis is basically the response of an emperor to specific requests by citizens or communities. The Rescript of Spello was probably issued between 335 and 337. It was discovered in 1733 at the site of the Roman theatre mentioned in the previous paragraph. The original is now on display at the Palazzo Comunale Vecchio, which we did not visit. We did, however, find a modern copy which had been set up on the edge of the car park where we left our car (see the image below).

Replica of the Rescript of Spello.

In the Rescript, the emperor and his sons Constantinus, Constantius and Constans responded to three related requests from Hispellum. They first of all granted the town the privilege of renaming itself Flavia Constans, after Constantine’s youngest son.[3] Furthermore, they allowed the town to build a temple in honour of the gens Flavia, but did add an important condition: NE AEDIS NOSTRO NOMINE DEDICATA CVIVSQVAM CONTAGIOSE SVPERSTITIONIS FRAVDIBUS POLLVATUR. So the emperor and his family did not want the temple that was dedicated to their name to be polluted with the delusions of any form of contagious superstition. One plausible interpretation of this somewhat puzzling condition is that the members of the gens Flavia, as Christians, did not want traditional pagan ceremonies and – especially – animal sacrifices in their temple. So in other words, one may doubt whether it was a temple at all. The third request revolved around theatrical performances and gladiatorial shows. As was mentioned above, the Rescript was found near the former Roman theatre. The templum gentis Flaviae was likely built in the vicinity, so it should not come as a surprise that the Rescript was found in this specific part of Spello.

The Key to Umbria website has much more information about Roman Spello.


[1] The Civil Wars, Book IV.3.

[2] Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 449. Singor believes the Rescript was issued in the summer of 337, when Constantine had already passed away.

[3] This is one of the reasons why some historians assume it was Constans who issued the Rescript. Another reason is that the Rescript may have been issued after 22 May 337, when Constantine was already dead (see the previous note). Constans, who was residing in Milan or Aquileia at the time, would then have issued it.

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  1. Pingback:Spello: Villa dei Mosaici – – Corvinus –

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