Umbria: Hypogeum of the Volumni

Stairs leading to the hypogeum.

No matter where we were driving on the roads around Perugia, there were yellow signs everywhere that gave directions to the Hypogeum of the Volumni. With so much encouragement it was obviously impossible not to visit this Etruscan funerary chamber. The hypogeum can be found in Ponte San Giovanni, just east of Perugia. It is actually located directly outside the town, at a location where a busy motorway and railroad tracks intersect. Perhaps this was the reason that – in spite of the yellow signs – we initially took a wrong turn and ended up at the car park of a local supermarket. When we had finally found the correct location, it was uncertain for a while whether we would be able to visit the hypogeum. The door to the place was open, but inside there was no one to be found. Of course it soon turned out there was a sound explanation for this: the employee on duty had accompanied a group of visitors to the underground chamber. It should not come as a surprise that the actual hypogeum is underground, as the term “hypogeum” is a combination of the Greek words for “under” and “earth”.

The arrival of the Romans

Around the year 311 BCE the city of Perusna joined a coalition of Etruscan cities that were worried about the growing power of Rome. The war that followed quickly turned into a disaster for Perusna. In 309 BCE a Roman army advanced all the way up to the gates of the city and defeated a local force. Perusna then surrendered and was forced to accept a Roman garrison. At the beginning of the third century the city again tried to throw off the Roman yoke. At the time the Romans were up against a (fairly loose) coalition of Etruscans, Umbrians, Samnites and Celts. The conflict culminated in the famous battle of Sentinum, fought in 295 BCE, which saw a Roman army inflict a heavy defeat on the Samnites and Celts. A year later the Romans brought rebellious Perusna back into the fold. A forty-year armistice was agreed and the city was ordered to pay a fine of 500,000 as. In the years that followed Perusna remained loyal to the Roman conquerors. A process of Romanisation set in that led to the gradual transformation of Perusna into the Roman city of Perusia.

Tablinum with the urns.

People that were willing to cooperate with the Romans quickly learned that Romanisation could be highly profitable. In a city such as Arretium (Aritim; modern Arezzo) this was for instance the case for the clan of the Cilnii. Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, friend and advisor of the emperor Augustus, was a scion of this clan. In Perusia it seems to have been the Velimnas family that reaped a lot of profit from its close contacts with Rome. The hypogeum that the family commissioned demonstrates that it must have been wealthy and powerful. The underground funerary chamber was found by chance during roadworks in 1840. It was systematically excavated starting in 1963. The hypogeum is part of a larger burial ground, the so-called Palazzone necropolis, of which the history goes back to the fifth and sixth century BCE. Visitors entering the small building that has been erected around the entrance to the hypogeum will immediately notice dozens of Etruscan cinerary urns, most made of travertine. On many of the urns we see the reclining effigy of the deceased, texts in the Etruscan script and sculpted reliefs that often feature battles. See the selection of images below:

The hypogeum

Visitors descend to the hypogeum via a staircase. The hypogeum has the shape of a Roman house, with a central atrium and several rooms. The most important of these is the tablinum or reception room. Inside the tablinum are six large cinerary urn made of travertine and one marble sarcophagus. The most beautiful and most important urn is set against the back wall. It belongs to Arnth Velimnas Aules. His Etruscan name was quickly latinised to Arruns Volumn(i)us, hence the name “Hypogeum of the Volumni”. It is not clear whether the Velimnas family from Perusna and the Roman clan known as the gens Volumnia were related. The latter clan provided the Roman Republic with two consuls between the fifth and third century.[1] There is little doubt that the gens Volumnia was of Etruscan extraction, but a connection with Perusna cannot be proven. Arnth Velimnas can be seen reclining for supper on his urn, holding a dish in his left hand. The urn once had a fresco representing the entrance to the afterlife, but very little of this is left. On either side of the traces of fresco we see two lasae. These are winged female creatures from Etruscan mythology. Their task was to accompany the soul of the deceased to the afterlife.

Urns of Arnth Velimnas Aules, his grandfather, father and brothers.

Arnth Velimnas Aules and two lasae.

To the right of Arnth Velimnas Aules’ urn are the urns of his grandfather, father and brothers. On the left is the urn of his daughter Veilia. Unlike the other family members she is sitting rather than reclining. When it came to naming children, the Romans were not very emancipated. Girls were only given a family name, not a first name. If multiple girls were born to the same parents, then these girls were simply numbered (Julia Prima, Julia Secunda etc.) or other methods were employed to distinguish between them (for instance Claudia Maior and Claudia Minor). By contrast, Etruscan girls did in fact receive a first name. All the urns feature the name of the deceased in Etruscan, written from right to left in accordance with Etruscan customs. The marble sarcophagus has the shape of a Roman house and is clearly much younger than the cinerary urns. While there is a reasonable degree of certainty that the sarcophagus dates from the first century CE and moreover marks the last use of the funerary chamber, there is much discussion about the dating of the urns. It is in any case certain that they date from after the Roman annexation of Perusna. Previously they were usually dated to the second half of the second century BCE, but nowadays the theory that they date from the third century BCE is heard ever more often.


Tympanum with a shield, two swords with birds and two figures.


[1] Publius Volumnius in 461 BCE and Lucius Volumnius in 307 and 296 BCE. It should be noted that the latter actually fought against the Etruscans. There was also a woman named Volumnia, the wife of the legendary Roman commander Marcius Coriolanus.

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