History of Bettona, Italy

See Bettona guide for highlights and historic monuments

Vettona, now Bettona, in Umbria, was a Municipium in Roman times, spoken of by Pliny the Elder, and also mentioned in other inscriptions [1].  However, in fact the ancient sources were rather sparing in Bettona.

Basically, even today we only have various inscriptions, and the reference of Pliny the Elder (III, 14), who mentioned the inhabitants of Vettona, calling them "Vettonenses". However, despite the lack of literary sources, the archaeological, historical and linguistic studies enable us to reconstruct the ancient aspect of Bettona.

Ancient origins of the city of Bettona

Archaeology has made a fundamental contribution to our knowledge of ancient Bettona; in particular of the walls, still largely visible, which were studied in depth. Vettona arose on a hill that was part of the Martani Mountains and had an elliptical shape. It was located in a militarily strategic location, surrounded by steep slopes that controlled the plain below, occupied by the so-called "Lacus Umber."

In this regard it was noted that a local tradition told that it was the Etruscans of the outpost of Bettona (Vettona), on the left bank of the Tiber, that were first to reclaim the marsh around the famous Lacus Umber [11].

In pre-Roman times Bettona was presumably a fortified outpost of Perugia, and in Roman times it formed an important junction point along the Amerina Road, which passed through Orte, Amelia, Todi , Perugia and Bettona and represented an alternative highway to the traditional Flaminia Road.

With regard to the walls, even these days there remains a part of the wall built by the Etruscans and later restored by the Romans, as evidenced by an inscription now in the Art Gallery of Bettona, which contains the names of the magistrates who “murum reficiundum curarunt” [provided for the reconstruction of the walls].

The mighty Etruscan walls, whose remains were found in the village called "Colle", were built with rectangular and trapezoidal sandstone blocks  arranged with dry stones. According to scholars, they completely surrounded the city, for a perimeter of about 900 meters (Fontaine). According to P. Fontaine [12], the walls of Bettona date back to the 4th century BC and were built by Perugia in anticipation of attacks by the Gauls, while according to M. Scarpignato [13], the walls date back to the 3rd century BC.

There are also some parts of the walls which were erected in 1367 by Cardinal Albornoz (1310-1367), after the earlier walls were literally destroyed by Perugia in 1352.

After the Romans

With regard to the Christianization of Bettona, it would seem that it was one of the oldest dioceses, as a bishop of Bettona was present at the Roman Council in 465 AD. [14]. However:

"The issue of the early Christian Diocese of Bettona has recently been subjected to a critical analysis by Nicolangelo D'Acunto, who states that 'there is no conclusive evidence on the question of the possibility that Bettona was a diocese in the early Middle Ages. If the acts of the Council of 465 really mention a 'Vectonensis' [from Bettona] Bishop, whom we can call Restituto or Gaudenzio, the lack of subsequent proofs would mean that (…) the diocese was suppressed" [15].

After the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD), Italy was invaded by the Ostrogoths of Theodoric (454-526).

Gothic and byzantine rule of Bettona

Theodoric ruled Italy from 493 to 526 without altering the arrangement of the provinces and the municipalities of Roman origin, and leaving a degree of autonomy, a situation maintained until 545 when Totila (died 552 AD), king of the Goths, sacked and destroyed several Umbrian cities, among which Bettona.

With the Byzantine attempt to reconquer Italy, Umbria, because of its strategic importance, became a theatre of war. The army of Narses (478-573 AD), sent to Italy by Justinian (483-565 AD), clashed with that of Totila, who was defeated and killed. Afterwards Bettona passed to the Duchy of Spoleto and finally under the dominion of the State of the Church.

Middle ages in Bettona

Really, the 'communal' period was an inextricable tangle of conflicts and tensions among cities and the Guelph and Ghibelline parties. There are no specific criteria to find a common main theme in such a variety of conflicts, but there were certainly fierce parochial hatreds.

The Perusians ruled Bettona through their podestà, annihilating the autonomist pride of Bettona, which formed an alliance with the Ghibellines, despite the Guelph tradition that for centuries had marked the policy of the city, which recognized the authority of the Pope from the 13th century.

It was in such a situation that there arose a bitter siege, which ended in 1352 with the surrender and destruction of Bettona. In 1367 Cardinal Albornoz gave the city back to the domains of the Papal States, but Antipope John XXIII (1370-1419) granted the Vicariate to Ugolino Trinci of Foligno ( died 1415). After the death of Ugolino the city passed to his son Nicholas, who was confirmed as Vicar of the cities of Foligno, Nocera, Bevagna, Bettona and Montefalco by Pope John XXIII.

Pope Leo X (1475-1521) in turn assigned it to Giovanni Paolo Baglioni (1470-1520), and Clement VII (1478-1534) to Malatesta Baglioni (born 1491), who died in Bettona  in 1531.

In 1559 Bettona passed to the State of the Church, and it was then ruled by the Baglioni until 1648, when it returned to the State of the Church (except the Napoleonic period) until the unification of Italy (1861).

Etymology of Bettona

One basic problem concerns the origins of the town - some scholars believed Bettona to be of Umbrian or maybe Etruscan origin, while others believed that the name "Vettona" had a Phoenician origin. In 1896 Giuseppe Bianconi wrote:

"Camillo Tarquini says that the name of Bettona derives from the Phoenician term ‘Beth-ona’=marital home." In fact, the Jesuit Father C. Tarquini, in the "Civiltà Cattolica", observed that "Beth means 'home', and derived from 'Buth' (‘pernoctavit’=he spent the night). In Etruria we have 'Vetona' or 'Beth-ona,' which means 'marital home'" [2].

The "vexed question" of the origins of "Vettona=Bettona" has been studied carefully and these days the Etruscan origin of Bettona is established. From the historical point of view, for example, S. Sisani  stressed the fact that at Vettona the typical Etruscan cult of incineration was widely practiced, and that on inscriptions concerning some local important figures occurred the honorary title of "praetor Etruriae", which indisputably gave Bettona an Etruscan background:

"The Latin literary and epigraphic sources (...) converge to characterize Tifernum Tiberinum, Arna and Vettona as Etruscan districts. In the latter cases, the Etruscan cultural traditions are supported by the diffusion, since the beginning of the 3rd century BC, of the funerary practice of incineration ...

... Tifernum Tiberinum and Arna thus testify to the existence east of the Tiber River of some towns unanimously considered by ancient sources as Etruscan towns ... in these cases we can  add a third case, that is Vettona. The suggestion in this case derives its existence to some figures who hold the position of 'praetor Etruriae', a high magistracy attested only in Etruscan cities" [3].

In fact, the Latin expression "praetor Etruriae" was the Latin calque (word borrowed from another language) of a high aristocratic magistracy of noble Etruscans, known as "zilath mechl rasnal", a name "recognized as corresponding to the 'praetor Etruriae'" [4].

The issue of "praetor Etruriae" being of Etruscan origin was considered by M. Bonamente, who examined the inscription relating to “praetor Etruriae”:

““Sex(to) Valerio Sex(ti) f(ilio)/ Clu(stumina tribu)/ Proculo,/(duo)viro, pontifici,/ pr(aetori) Etruriae,/ fúnus et locus sepultúrae/ d(ecreto) d(ecurionum) public(e) datus” [Here is buried at the expense of the State and by decree of the Decuriones [Militar Officers], Sextus Valerius Proculus, son of Sextus, belonging to the tribe called “Clustumina”, “Duovir” [a magistracy of two men.],  Supreme Pontiff, Praetor of Etruria].

M. Bonamente pointed out that “ the presence of 'praetores Etruriae' explains the Etruscan nature of Vettona, based on the undoubted affinity with Perugia, as archaeological finds show. This fact was pointed out by Cultrera:

‘The affinity of the art products and also the common language (...) demonstrate that Bettona belonged  to the terrritory of 'Etruria (...) In addition, this demonstrates the awareness among the local  inhabitants  of being of Etruscan and Umbrian origin’” [5].

Returning to the etymology, some scholars, with plausibility, connected "Vettona" with the Latin term "Vetus" (= old). In fact,  G. Bianconi wrote that:

"the learned archaeologist Francesco Orioli believed that 'if the Latin name ‘Vetus’ was common in Etruria, Vetunna [Bettona] should mean' the land of the ancients', the 'old country', and it indicated that even in Etruscan times the territory of ‘Vettona’ was considered an ancient and primitive land" [6].

In reality, "Vettona" derives from an Etruscan gentilitial name:

"In the case of Bettona, the Etruscan origin of the city is evident. The texts written in the Etruscan language also documented in this city the permanent presence of Etruscan speakers (...) The same [old name] 'Vettona' is comparable to the gentilitial name 'Vetuna-Vetuni', attested in Perugia and in northern Etruria " [7].

S. Marchesini, analyzing an Umbrian inscription ["mi mamerce Vetusa"], emphasized that "Mamerce Vetusa" indicated an Etruscan name. "Mamerce" was the first name, of Sabellic origin; while "Vetus(a)" was the proper name, and perhaps of Etruscan origin (...) In fact, "the name 'Vetus' is widely attested in Etruria" [8].

We conclude the question about the meaning of "Vettona" with some very important considerations by F. L. Lazzaroni, according to whom the suffix "-ona" and "-onia" belongs to an "adjectival suffix suggesting an Etruscan sense of belonging.” In this sense, "Vett-ona," with the final ending "-ona", suggests a sense of belonging, so that the name means "city belonging to the "Vetuni"or "Vetuna".

"The suffix '-u', '-una' of the gentilial names is clearly the same adjectival suffix that appears in some toponyms, many of which  derived from (...) proper names or they were identical to those" [9].

See also the Bettona travel guide.


1.  “Vettona , nunc Italice Bettona , in Umbría , Municipium olim fuit. Eius meminit Plinius. Memoratur et in aliis lapidibus”]. These were the concise remarks about Bettona by L. A. Muratori (1672-1750)

2. See C. Tarquini, “Origini italiche ...”, in “La civiltà  cattolica”, Rome, 1857, Vol. VI, p. 588

3. See S. Sisani, “'Dirimens Tiberis'? I confini tra Etruria e Umbria”, in “Mercator placidissimus: the Tiber Valley in antiquity: new research in the upper and middle river valley”, Rome, 27-28 February 2004”, Quasar, 2008,  p. 52

4. See M. Bonghi Jovino, “Gli Etruschi di Tarquinia”, 1986, p. 37

5. See Bonamente, pp. 203-204 and G. Cultrera, , “Bettona”, in  “Atti della Regia Accademia dei Lincei”, “Notizie degli scavi di antichità”, Roma, 1916,  pp. 3-29

6. See G. Bianconi, “Bettona Umbro-Etrusca”, in  “Arte e Storia” (Nuova Serie), 1896, p. 77

7. See S . Stopponi, “La media valle del Tevere fra Etruschi ed Umbri”, in "Mercator placidissimus: the Tiber valley in Antiquity: new research in the upper and middle river valley”, Rome, 27-28 February 2004," Quasars, 2008, pp. 23-24

8. See S. Marchesini, “Prosopographia  etrusca” , Rome,  2007, p. 80

9. See F.L. Lazzeroni, “Per la storia dei sostantivi derivati in -on- nelle lingue classiche”, in “Studi e. Saggi Linguistici”,1963, No. 3, pp.. 1-48, pp. 7, 45

11. See P. Camerieri-D. Manconi, “Le centuriazioni della Valle Umbra da Spoleto a Perugia”, in “Bollettino di Archeologia”, XVII International Congress of Classical Archaeology, Roma 22-26 Sept. 2008,  p. 17

12. “Cités et enceintes de l'Ombrie antique”, Rome, 1990

13. “Su Bettona preromana ...”, in “Annali della facoltà di Lettere di Perugia”,1987-1988, XXV, pp.. 234-244

14. See C. Rivera, “Per la storia dei precursori di S. Benedetto nella provincia Valeria”, in “Convegno storico di Montecassino”, Rome 1932, pp. 25-35

15. See A. Czortek, “La cristianizzazione dell’Alta Valle del Tevere e l’origine della diocesi di Città di Castello (secoli V-VII)” in “Bollettino della Deputazione di storia patria per l'Umbria”, 2005, II, p. 38