History of Perugia, Italy

See Perugia guide for highlights and historic monuments

“Happy the man who with mind open to the influences of Nature, journeys on a bright day from Cortona to Perugia”, as George Dennis started his poetic study about Perugia. But first a look at the history of the town...

Perugia origins

On the origins of Perugia tradition is not only uncertain, but it has also paved the way for an enormous amount of interpretation, especially from the etymological point of view. There are two principal assumptions about the origins.

On the one hand there is the serious possibility that the city was founded by the Umbrians. In this sense there is the unequivocal evidence of Cato (234-149 BC), who, in his "Origines," said clearly that it was the Umbrians of Sarsina [the "Sarsinates" ] who founded Perugia: "Sarsinates qui Perusiam condiderunt".

The tradition that attributed the foundation of Perugia to the "Sarsinates" was also attested by Servius (4th century AD) in his commentary on the “Aeneid” when he said "Sarsinates qui Perusiae consederant" [The Sarsinates who settled in Perugia].

In this sense, G. Dennis said: “The Sarsinates were an ancient Umbrian tribe, who inhabited the Apennines" [1]. Hence he concludes that Perugia was built long before the Trojan war, because the Umbrians, when driven out of Etruria by the Pelasgi tribe built Sarsina beyond the Apennines.

Servius seems to hint that Perugia was founded before Sarsina. He ('Aen.', X, 196) records another tradition, that it was built by Aules, the father or brother of Ocnus, who founded Mantua, as Virgil tells us (Aen., X, 200)” [2]. Then, according to the tradition handed down by Servius, the Etruscan Aules founded Perugia.

The name of "Aules" is attested in Perugia in the famous tomb known as the "Palazzone" which reproduces a Roman “Domus” [house], divided into ten rooms. The Etruscan inscription on the tomb mentions the owner as belonging to the noble family of the "Velimna".

In the "Palazzone" there are four "cubicula" [bedrooms], and in the "tablinium" are the burial urns of seven family members. The most important refers to "Arnth Velimnas Aules", stretched on the "kline" (bed). Behind him there is the entrance to Hades, with two 'Lase', that is 'demons, or creatures of a world without hope" [3].

Demonstrating Etruscan origins

"Aulus" was the praenomen (first name) of the Latin poet Persius Flaccus (34-62 AD) from Volterra: "Aulus" thus reveals an Etruscan origin. With regard to Aules of Perugia, C. Shaw explained that “the oldest definitely Etruscan monument found within a few miles of Perugia is a rectangular slab of sandstone discovered at Monte Gualandro on the north of Lake Trasimene.

This stone was evidently the cover of a sepulchral ditch, though no other remains of the tomb have been found. Representations of two warriors in the act of fighting are scratched on the stele in a marked archaic manner. The figures have long, sloping eyes, long hair hanging down their necks, are bearded, and are vithout clothing, except for helmets. Each carries a shield and a lance in the left hand, and a dagger in the right. One of the shields is decorated with spiral lines, but the other has scratched within it a large hexagon with six double pointed petals between the center and the outside edge of the hexagon.

Even a casual observer at once notices the similarity of this slab to the famous stele found at Vetulonia, depicting the warrior 'Aules Phelusken.' We know that the stele of Vetulonia is Etruscan, for the name of the hero in written on it in Etruscan character. In both stones the general portrayal of the warriors is the same; the shields cover the body in the same manner; and the shield of Aules Phelusken is identical with the one from Monte Gualandro” [4].

History of Perugia

What is certain is that the destruction of Perugia was one of the bloodiest episodes suffered by the Etruscans, as evidenced by the verses of Propertius, who spoke of the “eversosque focos antiquae gentis Etruscae” ["destroyed homes of the ancient Etruscans].

Among other things we have the evidence of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus [71-135 AD](Augustus, 15, 1) about the cruelties of Augustus against Perugia, when the survivors ran in crowds to ask for mercy. But the Emperor answered with two words: "Moriendum esse" [We all have to die]".

The city was rebuilt in Roman times under the name of "Augusta Perusia", to which was later added "Vibia Colonia." The noun 'Vibia Colonia,' which we read on the "Porta Marzia", comes from the elevation of the city to the status of 'Colonia Vibia Augusta Perusia', which took place between 251 and 253 AD by Gaius Vibius Trebonianus Gallus (206-253), a native of Perugia and Emperor from 251 to 253.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, in 545 Totila (? - 552), king of the Goths, invaded Italy then in 549 the Goths conquered Perugia, which fell after a long siege and was sacked. Then it was ruled by the Byzantines under Narses (478-573), who in 552 left it under the control of the Byzantine Empire. In 568 the Lombards seized Perugia, and they ruled it as a dukedome.

In the 11th Century Perugia became a free commune, siding with the Guelphs and the Papacy. This gave it the opportunity for a more easy conquest of the territories and surrounding towns. Around 1183 Perugia succeeded in subduing Gubbio.

With its expansion Perugia then occupied Città della Pieve and the area of Lake Trasimeno in 1184. Perugia became a very powerful city, and its substantial autonomy was confirmed by Henry VI (1165-1197), who granted the city the election of consuls.

The first podestà of the city was elected in 1195 [13]. Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the municipal institutions suffered a political crisis and the city became a Signoria, with the domination by Biordo Michelotti (1352-1398), Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1347-1402), Duke of Milan, who started a strong and expansionist policy, and Braccio Fortebraccio (1368-1424).

Afterwards, until 1450 Perugia was governed by the Baglioni family before moving permanently under the dominion of the Papal States. After that time, Perugia was governed by papal legates, which greatly limited the autonomy of the city. In fact, municipal magistrates were deprived of any real political significance, since they were under the control of the papal legates.

Later, after the Napoleonic period, the city entered into the Kingdom of Italy.

Origins and etymology or Perugia

With regard to etymology, many scholars of the 19th century suggested various hypotheses, which F. Inghirami summed up: "The ancient epigraphic monuments found in Perugia hand down to us the ancient Etruscan name of the city, that is 'Aperusen' (Vermiglioli), like its Greek name 'Perousia ', and the Latin ' Perusia'.

But L.A. Lanzi said that the Greek word can be divided into 'Peras ousa', which means "border", an appropriate name for Perugia and perhaps derived from the topography of the ancient city, that was located on the border of Etruria and Umbria.

The word "pereiousia" was also proposed, which means" abundance", a name that the Romans gave to some colonies because of the fertility of the soil (...) Vermiglioli then assumed that the Greek settlers had given the new city a name slightly different than some of their cities in Greece, such as "Peiresia", a city of Magnesia on Mount Phyllis.

Since Peiresia in Greece was located on top of a mountain, he suggested that we could apply the same concept to Perugia. [5].

A detailed history of the coins of Peithesa - a diversion!

There is also an opinion that the name of Perugia derived from the term "Peithesa", as engraved on a few bronze coins found in the territory of Perugia. On one side of the coin there was depicted an owl, and on other side the head of Mercury. In reality, not everyone agreed that Peithesa = Perugia; in fact, many scholars supposed that the term was referring to other cities such as Arezzo, Pisa and Todi.

On this coin there appeared the little owl (Latin "noctua"] and a Mercury head [caput Mercurii] and in this regard Barbera wrote: “The name ‘Peithesa’ has nothing to do with the city of Perugia (...) since, if this city in Latin is called 'Perusia' and in Greek 'Perousìa', the Etruscans would have said more or less 'P-E-R-U-S-A', as rightly observed Luigi Lanzi (...)

In fact the legend of this Etruscan coin is based on the simple Arabic-Semitic name of the animal depicted here, that is the little owl (…) The little owl, owl and barn owl were called by a term indicating the whole family of the predatory nocturnal birds, that is 'peiièsa'. This designation not only agrees with the figure of the nocturnal bird of prey [the little owl], but also with the other figure, depicting the head of Mercury, who was the God of thieves, also known as nocturnal robbers [11].

If Barbera had hit the mark, the famous term that has caused so much discussion was probably not referring either to the Etruscan name of Perugia nor to a minter nor to a family name, but only to the nocturnal animal depicted on the coin [the little owl] and to the symbolism of the figure of Mercury, God of thieves.

History tells us that the Etruscans were traders and pirates, which, among other things in the Ancient World, was not such a bad thing. If the interpretation of Barbera is right, it is therefore possible that "Peiièsa" could actually refer to the characteristics of the Etruscans, linked to trade, the sea and piracy, and most likely, as it has been observed, perhaps it referred to an Etruscan family of merchants who minted this coin in an unknown city.

However, Professor Massimo Pittau has recently published an article, in which he elaborates on the etymology of Perugia. He identifies some similarities between the name of the Etruscan king Porsena, the etymology of which refers to the concept of "great figure" = "Prince", and the Etruscan ethnics of Perugia, which would be "Persenax" [=Perusian]). M. Pittau concludes that the etymology of Perugia presumably means the "city of the Prince" [12].

Until the very interesting speech of M. Pittau, the only certain etymology, attested by two thousand years, was "Augusta Perusia" = "the new city of Augustus," precisely because Emperor Augustus (63 BC-14 AD) re-established the city after he himself destroyed it during the "Bellum Perusinum" (41 BC).

The latest idea (now accepted by many scholars) suggests that the term "Peithesa" should be interpreted as the name of a minter (Cristofani) or as a family name and not as a city name. Of this opinion are M. Cristofani [6] and H. W. Becker [7]: “An interesting small set of undated coins have as their legend the name of 'Peithesa'.

Opposing opinions to the identification of "Peithesa" with Perugia were expressed also by A. Sambon: “The city of Peithesa has not yet been identified. Millingen suggested attributing the coins with the legend 'Peithesa' to Umbria, pointing out that they were found near Todi, and he confined himself to this attribution". [10]

This name is certainly related to the family name 'Peithe' that is attested in the areas of Chiusi and Siena. 'Peithesa' is a combination of this family name and the morpheme '-si' indicating possession. It is thought that someone of the Peithe family was responsible for the production of this series, probably during the First Punic War. The city on whose behalf Peithe minted these coins (perhaps serving as magistrates) is not marked [8].

In conclusion, these days the Etruscan name of Perugia is still unknown: "The modern toponym of Perugia derives from ‘Augusta Perusia’, but we do not know the Etruscan name, although it has been assumed, on the basis of an Etruscan coin of Republica Age, that it may have been 'Peiresa' or ‘Peithesa’ [9].

See also Perugia for a travel guide to the town.


1. Polyb. II. 21, 7; Strabo, V, p. 227; Plin. III, 19; Festus v. Ploti.; Cluver (II, p. 577)

2. See G. Dennis, “The cities and cemeteries of Etruria”, J. Murray, London, 1848, Vol. II, p. 468 footnote 1

3. See V. Melani-F. Nicosia, “Itinerari etruschi”, 1985 , p. 246, 326

4. See C. Shaw, “Etruscan Perugia”, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1939, p. 6

5. See F. Inghirami, “Storia della Toscana”, 1841, Vol II, pp. 69-70

6. “Etruschi. Una nuova immagine”, Florence, 2000, p. 200), F. Catalli (“Monete etrusche”, Roma, Istituto Poligrafico e Zecca dello Stato, 1990

7. “Production, consumption and society in North Etruria during the archaic and classical periods: The world of Lars Porsenna”, 2007, p. 284

8. See H. W. Becker, “Production, consumption and society in North Etruria...”, 2007, p. 143

9. See C. Dal Maso-A. Venditti, “Le città degli Etruschi”, Bonechi, 1984, p. 147

10. See A. Sambon, "Les monnaies antiques de l'Italie ...", ovens, 1967, p. 33

11. See G.M. Barbera, “Etimologie etrusche”, 1957, p. 62

12. See M. Pittau, “L'etimologia del nome della città etrusca di Perugia”, in “Accademia sarda di storia, cultura e lingua”, July 2001

13. See G. Belelli, “L'istituto del podestà a Perugia”, in “Perugia nel secolo XIII” 1936, pp. 26-27