1902 Encyclopedia > Umbria, Italy

Umbria, Italy




UMBRIA (Ombrike, Omrikoi, Oumbroi, [Gk.] UMBRI). The early Greeks applied the name Ombrike to all central and northern Italy. Herodotus (iv. 49) speaks of it somewhat vaguely, as if it extended up to the Alps. The Umbrians probably extended across central Italy from sea to sea down as far as Latium. Pliny (iii. 13, 19) tells us that the Umbri were considered the most ancient nation of Italy (antiquissima gens Italeae), by which he probably means, of the Italian stock. The Greek writers included under the name of Umbria the district known in later times as Picenum. Pseudo-Scylax makes Umbria march with samnium, and describes Ancona as a city of Umbria. The Umbrians seem to have found the Siculi and Liburno in occupation of the land into which they advanced, the former holding the parts lying towards the interior, the latter people the district along the Adriatic. The Umbrians were one of the chief peoples of that branch of the Indo-Europeans family which had entered Italy from the north and driven out and absorbed the older inhabitants. They were more closely connected with the Samnites and Oscans than with the latin stock, as is shown by their language. Their possession of the fertile regions of upper Italy exposed them to the constant assaults of fresh bodies of invaders, pressing on over the alps, and perhaps likewise from the seaboard. Their force was extended over a wide area, and thus too weak to withstand the attacks from various sides to which they were exposed. Thus their extensive territory was gradually reduced by the successive encroachments of other peoples. First came the Etruscans, who according to Herodotus (i. 94) were Lydians, who established themselves in the land of the Umbrians. From which side of Italy they made their invasion, whether from the mouth of the Po or from the western coast of what later became Etruria, or whether from both, we have no means of determining. That the Umbrians did no yield without a struggle we cannot doubt. It was only after three hundred of their towns had been captured by the Etruscans that they succumbed. Nevertheless they still retained considerable influence in upper Italy, which, according to Strabo (v. 216), continued down to the time of the Roman conquest. For he says that there was a large Umbrian element in the Roman colonies in the region of the Po, as also some Etruscan. For, according to him, the Umbrians and Etruscans lived in a continual rivalry for the preeminence, so that if the one peole made an expedition northwards, the other determined not to be outdone. So when the Etruscan had marched against the barbarians who dwelt near the Po, and had soon again been expelled owing the their effeminacy, the Umbrians in turn marched against the conquerors of the Etruscans. In consequence of this alternating struggle for these regions they planted many colonies, some Etruscan, other Umbrian. Most of the colonies were Umbrian because the Umbrians lay closer to the disputed tertiroy. Thus, even though they lost the sovereignty, the Umbrian race probably continued to form a considerable portion of the population of a wide extent of country. At all events, at the time of the Gaulish inroad the Etruscans seem to be in possession of the mouth of the Po. At this time, therefore, Umbria as a state consisted of the region bounded on the W. by the Tiber, on the S. by the Sabines, on the E. by Picenum and the Adriatic, while on the B. it extended close up to the southern or Spinetic mouth of the Po. Scylax describes the Etruscans as extending from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic, and represents them as in possession of the ancient Greek town of Spina. How much farther south the Etruscan sway had once reached we cannot determine, but that they had once held this region, as far as Ravenna at least, is rendered probable by the tradition that Ravenna had been founded by a colony of Thessalians who, not brooking the insulting treatment which they received from the Etruscan, gladly admitted some Umbrians, who thus became the possessors of the city. When the great Gaulish inroad took place at the beginning of the 4th century B.C. Etruscans and Umbrians alike suffered severely. Some of the Celtic tribes crossed the Po and formed permanent settlements. The Ananes settled in the Apennines, the Boii between the former and the Adriatic; next came the Lingones; andfinally the Senones occupied the seaboard of the Adriatic as far as the Rubicon. This region in Roman times was known as the Ager Gallicus. (Polybius, ii. 16). But it was not only in the north and west that the Umbrians hd been driven back. The early Greeks had included under the name of Umbria the district along the Adriatic, afterwards known as Picenum. This consisted of a fertile region, extending from beyond Ancona to the river Matrino. It is not improbable that the Picentes issued from the Sabine region. Tradition alleged that the Picenmtes led by the woodpecker (picus) of Mars, marched forth to occupy what is now the march of Ancona. But it was probably only after a long struggle that this conquest was effected, fro from another tradition we learn that the Sabines, after carrying on war against the Umbrians for a long time, at length vowed a sacred spring, and dedicated all the produce of the year to the gods. Then at length they became victorious (Strabo, v. 250). Thus, by the advance of the Gauls from the north and the Picentes from the south, the Umbrians were shut off from the seaboard, and confined to the district known as Umbria in historical times. When Rome began the consolidating of Italy, Umbria, consisted of the region bounded by the Ager Gallicus on the N., by Etruria (the Tiber) on the W., by Picenum on the E., and by the Sabines on the S. The Umbrians kept a desperate hold of this district, which lies between the two arms of the Apennines. This position indicates of itself that they had been driven before stronger foes. Hanceforth they play but an insignificant part in Italian history. This is explained by the physical formation of their country. It is an extremely mountainous region, with a few small plains between, which were noted for their fertility. Hence arose a number of small but thriving communities, none of which had the capacity of developing into a leading state such as Rome became for the Latins. Their want of seaports likewise excluded them from trade, the mouths of all rivers which flowed from their country being in the hands of their enemies.





Of the Umbrians’ political and municipal organization little is known. In addition to the city (tota) they seem to have had a large territorial division in the tribus (trifu, acc.) as we gather from Livy (xxxi. 2 per Umbrian quam tribum Sapinian vocant; cf. xxxiii. 37) and from the Eugubine Tables (trifor Tarsinates, vi. B. 54). From the fertility of their land their communities were very prosperous. The olive and vine flourished in their valleys; they grew spelt abundantly; and the boars of Umbria were famous. Ancient authors describe the Umbrians as leading effeminate lives, and as closely resembling their Etruscan enemies in their habits (Theopompus, fragm. 142; Pseudo-Scymnus, 366-8). It is almost certain that each race influenced and modified the other to a large extent. Mommsen has pointed out that the names of many towns in Etruria are Umbrian, a fact which shows how persistent even after conquestwas their influence in that region. On the other hand, we have conclusive proof of strong Etruscan influence in Umbria. For instance, they undoubtedly borrowed their alphabet and the art of writing from the Etruscans. Their writing runs from right to left. The alphabet consists of nineteen letters. It has no separate symbols for O, G, Q; the aspirates _ and __ are wanting; on the other hand, it possesses froms for Z and V, and has likewise the Etruscan f (__). It also has a symbol __ peculiar to itself for expressing the sound of palatal k when followed by either e or i. It is also very probable that they borrowed the art of coining money from Etruria. Two towns are known to have issued coins, which consist entirely of bronze, and belong almost entirely to the series of aes grave. The most important is that of Tuder (Todi), which must have been a place of some note. It was a strong fortress on the left bank of the Tiber on the confines of Etruria. Iguvium (Gubbio), which struck coins after the standard of Tuder, was a strong place likewise on the western or Etruscan side of the Apennines. The fact that is only in towns on the side next Etruria that a coinage is found indicates that it was from the Etruscans they borrowed the art. The Umbrians counted their day from noon to noon. But whether they borrowed this likewise from the Etruscans we do not know (Pliny, ii. 77). In their measuring of land they employed the vorsus, a measure common to them and the Oscans (Frontinus, De Limit., p. 30), 3 1/3 of which went to the Roman jugerum. When the Roman undertook the conquest of Italy, the most feeble resistance of all was offered to them by the Umbrians. In the great struggle between the samnite confederacy and Rome Umbria played an insignificant part. It is probable that all through the Second Samnite War their sympathies were altogether on the side of their Samnite kinsmen, and that some assistance was afforded by individual communities. It is not unlikely therefore that it was with a view to keep the Umbrians in check that the Romans planted a colony at Nequinum on the Nar, whose inhabitants were known as Nartes Interamnates, and who are included with the Etruscans, Iapydes, and Tadinates in the list of persons who were forbidden to be present at the sacred rites of Iguvium. At length in 308 B.C. the Umbrians made a vigorous effort to aid the Samnites, which, had it taken place earlier in the war, might have had the most important influence on the issue of the struggle. As it was, it came too late ; the Etruscans had already laid down their arms. The Umbrians, who threatened to march on Rome, were intercepted by Rullianus with the Roman army from Samnium on the upper Tiber, a step which the Samnites nowbroken could not prevent; and this was sufficient to disperse the Umbrian levies. When the Third Samnite War broke out, the Umbrians took no active part in its operations; but how their sympathies lay is evident from their affording a ready passage to the Samnite army under Gellius Egnatius on its march to Etruria, 296 B.C. When the battle of Sentinum (295) finally crushed the Samnites and Etruscans, Umbria remained in the hands of the Romans. Henceforward the process of latinizing went on steadily, for by the 1st century B.C. we find them employing the Latin alphabet in copies of the ancient sacerdotal ritual of iguvium (see EUGUBINE TABLES). We know that the Oscan language only finally expired in the 1st century of our era, and there is no reason for believing that the Umbrian had disappeared much earlier. When the Romans conquered the Senones, 280 B.C., the Ager Gallicus was restored to Umbria, and both together formed under the empire the sixth region of Italy.





Strabo (v. 227) regards Ravenna as the boundary of Umbria. The Via Flaminia passed up through it from Ocriculum to Ariminum, along which lay the important towns of Narnia (Narni) Carsulae (Carsigliano), Mevania (Bevagna), Forum Flaminii, Nuceria, and Forum Sempronii. To the east lay Interamna (Terni), the probable birthplace of Tacitus, Spoletium (Spoleto), and the most important town of Camerinum on the side of the Apennines towards Picenum. On the side towards Etruria lay Tuder (Todi), Iguvium, which occupied a very advantageous position close to the main pass through the Apennines, America (Amelia), and Hispellum (Spello_; on the Clitumnus (Clitunno) was Assisium (Assisi), the birthplace of Propertius, whilst far to the north lay Sarsina, the birthplace of Plautus. For the position of the country in the time of Augustus, see vol. xiii. Plate V.

See Bréal, Les Tables Eugubines, 1875; Bucheler, Umbrica, 1883; Kirchhoff, Griech. Alphabet, 4th ed., 1887, Head, Historia Numorum, 1887. (W. RI.)



The above article was written by William Ridgway, M.A., formerly Professor of Greek, Queen's College, Cork; author of The Origin of Metallic Currency and Weight Standards.




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