History of Pesaro, Italy

See Pesaro guide for highlights and historic monuments

For historical events in Pesaro, going back to pre-Roman times, there are few sources. According to Pliny the Elder “Formerly, much of the territory was once under the control of the Sikels and the Liburnians". Then they were ousted by the Umbrians, and they by the Etruscans, and finally the latter by the Gauls.

Roman history of Pesaro

Apart from this historical data, in reality the history of Pesaro started in Roman times, although the archaeological remains demonstrate the true antiquity of the site.

Votive stones of Pesaro

Annibale Olivieri (1708-1789) was a scholar of great importance in the history of the city [15]. Around 1737 he found thirteen Votive Stones in his farm, "in an ancient language similar to Etruscan tongue".

The stones were wery well illustrated over 50 years ago by A. De Bellis Franchi, and typically of soft volcanic tuff, bearing sacred inscriptions such as "APOLENEI" [Apollo], "FIDE" [Faith], "IVNONII" [Goddess Juno], "IVNO LOVCINA" [Juno Lucina was goddess of childbirth], "MAT[ER]-MATVTA", and "SALVTE" [the goddess of Health] [16].

The "Mater Matuta" stone desrves special mention. It “belongs to the most archaic of the votive stones of the “lucus” [sacred wood] of Pesaro. The deity mentioned has very ancient origins and was venerated, for example, in the Etruscan shrine at 'Pyrgi' [Santa Severa near Rome] and 'Satricum' [near Anzio, Latium]. The deity was closely related to female sexuality, fertility and procreation, and therefore he was invoked as a guardian of childbirth" [17].

According to recent studies, the area of Pesaro was the seat of the Piceni, as attested in the necropolis of Molaroni and Servici, which developed between the 9th and 7th centuries BC. The Piceni had business relations with the Greeks and after them the Celts, and finally the Gauls, who inhabited the territory of Pisaurum before the Romans.

Roman Pesaro

The first historical data about Pesaro dates back to Roman times. Formerly, Pesaro was not a real city, but a simple "conciliabulum" [18] with administrative functions, but it was not important enough to claim the title of city.

The development of the urban center occurred around 184 BC, when Quintus Fabius Labeo (praetor in 189 BC), Marcus Fulvius Flaccus (Consul 179 BC) and Quintus Fulvius Nobilior (Consul in 153 BC) [19] founded a colony of Roman citizens, who obtained in the territory of Pisaurum six acres of land each [about two hectares], with the possibility to graze cattle and to sell their wares along the Via Flaminia.

About the early years of Pisaurum the ancient sources are few; however, Livy (59 BC-17 AD) [20] stated that, nearly ten years after its foundation, the Censor founded in the city a temple to Jupiter and presumably he started the construction of the Via Flaminia. Other evidence from Roman times is the remains of walls dating back more or less to the time of the founding of the Colony.

However, there was almost certainly a "re-foundation" of the original colony, presumably because of the swamps which made the air unhealthy. Catullus was witnessed to this situation, because he spoke of "moribunda ... Pisauri " [moribund seat of Pisaurum]. In fact M. Zicari wrote: "A certain decadence of the city is attested by the fact that in 43 BC a new colony was founded in the same place, called 'Colonia Iulia Felix Pisaurum'" [21].

However, the city had a secure building development during the imperial age, when Augustus (63 BC-14 AD) made it a major port and a city devoted to commerce, so much so that, according to some scholars, it had about twenty thousand inhabitants.

Towards the end of the Roman Empire, the city suffered considerable problems with the spread of banditry and more around 270 AD with the Barbarian invasions, such as that of the Iuthungi and Alamans - although the city was able to resist through the strengthening of the walls, and later the Iuthungi were defeated by the Emperor Aurelian (215-275 AD) near Pesaro.

After the Romans in Pesaro

The barbarian invasions of the 5th century only marginally touched the city, but it suffered much more serious consequences because of the Gothic-Byzantine War, which saw, according to Procopius of Caesarea (500-562 AD circa), the complete destruction of the walls of Pesaro by order of Vitige (died in 542).

Despite the destruction, Belisarius (500-565 AD) decided to rebuild Pesaro to make it a Byzantine stronghold, which over the years became a Byzantine garrison of increasing strategicy importance, belonging to the so-called "Pentapolis" (the settlements of Ancona, Sinigaglia, Fano, Pesaro, and Rimini).

Certainly, the advent of the Franks and the Lombards threw the town into a deep crisis. It was for a long time disputed between the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna and the Lombards. In 752 AD Pesaro was taken by the Lombards, who held it until Pepin the Short (714-768 AD), who in 774 AD gave it to the State of the Church.

Pesaro in the Middle Ages

Pesaro has had an illustrious history, part of the great Italian Signorie, and although nominally it belonged to the State of the Church, the city had an indipendent history.

Towards the end of the 12th century it was ruled as a free commune. Pesaro was ruled by some of the most prestigious Italian noble families, such as the Malatesta, Sforza and Della Rovere, who gave a great impetus to the artistic development of the city. Carlo Malatesta (born 1390) died in 1438, and after a few years Galeazzo Malatesta (1385-1452), considering himself unable to govern the Principality,  sold it for twenty thousand gold florins to Count Francesco Sforza (1401-1466), who invested his brother Alexander (1409-1473).

The Sforza dynasty were fiercely opposed by Pope Eugenius IV (1383-1447), but some years later Pope Nicholas V (1397-1455) granted the investiture of Pesaro to Alexander Sforza for seven hundred anf fifty florins. The  Sforza’s governance had a break under Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503), when his son Cesare Borgia (1475-1507) occupied the Duchy.

From the 16th century onwards

The rule of the Sforza family in Pesaro ended in the 16th century. Pope Julius II (1443-1513) granted the city to his nephew Francesco Maria della Rovere (1490-1538), the Duke of Urbino. The rule of the Della Rovere was interrupted with the election of Pope Leo X (1475-1521), belonging to the Medici family of Florence, who granted the Duchy to Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492).

After the death of Leo X,  the Duchy returned to the Della Rovere. Under the rule of the Della Rovere Pesaro built its famous silk factories, which were erected under Guidobaldo della Rovere (1514-1574), and its fortifications and port. With the death of Francesco Maria II della Rovere (1549-1631) without heirs in 1631, Urbino and Pesaro returned to the Holy See and Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644) sent Lorenzo Campeggi (1474-1539), Bishop of Senigallia, to Pesaro with the title of Governor-General of the city.

The period of greatest cultural fervor for the city coincided with the domain of the Della Rovere. In the early years of their government in the city new public and private buildings were built, and the construction of new and more secure city walls began.

In 1799, during the Napoleonic period, Pesaro passed under the control of the French Empire, and finally it was joined to the kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Early history and etymology of Pesaro and the Foglia river

The history of the origins of Pesaro [Latin "Pisaurum"] is indistinguishable from that of its etymology, that the ancient chroniclers told like this:

"We believe that the city of Pesaro is very old; some believe that it had been inhabited by the Sikels and the Liburni, some by the Umbrians, and then it was conquered by the Etruscans.

Some thought it had been founded in year 4809 of the world (390 BC) by Furius Camillus, as we read in Servius, Book 6, in the commentary on Virgil. Servius told the story this way:

"The Gauls, led by Brennus, after they defeated the Roman legions on the river Allia, destroyed Rome as far as the Tarpeian Rock on which the capitol stood, and for whose salvation they received an immense amount of gold. Then Furius Camillus was created dictator, and ran after the Gauls. And after defeating them, they gave back the gold and the insignia. Here he placed the insignia and founded a city which was called Pisaurum, because here Camillo weighed the gold. Pisaurum is also called Isaurum" [1].

T. Diplovatazio handed down to us the most ancient and rooted etymology of Pesaro, which, according to Servius (4th century), derives from the Latin verb "pensare" [= weigh] with reference to the “cursed gold”, with which the Romans paid Brenno, in order that he raised the siege of Rome and then recovered by Marcus Furius Camillus (446 – 365 BC), who "weighed" it. For this reason, Pesaro, according to an established tradition, was called "Pensaurum" [from "pensum" = weight].

Incidentally, we note that "Pensaurum" was a name that endured for a long time, because, as I. Zicàri said, Pensaurum was a very common form of the city name until the 15th century [2]. Diplovatazio also asserted that "G. B. Passeri with discernment derived the name from the Greek "Pisca" [= swamp] and "oros" [= mountain], so Pesaro meant "the city among the swamps in the mountains."

In fact, he observed that the river 'Pisaurus', now called 'Foglia', once emptied into an area of marshes, and the sea, penetrating into the earth more than today, made it an unhealthy environment." [3].

However, as we shall see, the question of the name of Pesaro is very complex. We start from an incontrovertible fact, that is "Pisaurum" is the Roman name of Pesaro and it is connected with the river "Pisaurus" (= Foglia). According to studies by U. Agnati [4], the city derived its name from pre-Roman data, that is the river, known in Latin as "Pisaurus."

However, a problem arose, in the sense that, according to Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39-65 AD), the river was also called "Isaurus." Therefore, we do not know if the river’s name was "Isaurus" or "Pisaurus." This question about the double name of Pesaro, "Isaurum" or "Pisaurum", was already posed in the 18th century by G. Colucci, who wrote:

"It seems appropriate to speak of the river which gave Pisaurum its name, that is the river Foglia [Latin 'Pisaurus'], which in ancient times, according to Lucan, was named ‘Isaurus’ (...) The evidence of Lucan should prevail (...) However, I agree with Cluverio, who affirmed that Lucan (...) said 'Isaurum' instead of 'Pisaurum', but its true name was "Pisaurus" (...). Furthermore, we have the evidence of Pliny the Elder [23-79 AD], who, speaking of Pesaro and its river, wrote: "Pisaurum cum amne" [= Pesaro with the homonym river] (...) which meant that the city's name was the same as that of the river" [5].

Moreover, some years ago, a stele was found [St Nicholas in Valmanente] in which the word "Isairon" ["Polem Isairon" = City of Isauro] appeared. We quote here part of the inscription: "Mimnis edut caarestades | rotnem uvlin partenus | ‘polem isairon’".

Some scholars suggested that the pre-Latin name of the city would have been "Isaurum" and that the ancient name of river Foglia was "Isaurus." But there is the fact that the Latin tradition handed us down the name of the city as "Pisaurum", with the initial “P". According to some scholars, the "P" corresponds to the Greek 'epì' (= near, on, "extra urbem Pisaurum").

For this reason "Pisaurum" would mean "the city on the river or near the river Isaurus."

Then some scholars suggested that the city would have imposed its name on the river "Isaurus", which, therefore, should have also been called "Pisaurus." But this difference in names between the city "Pisaurum" and the river "Isaurus" did not convince Professor Scevola Mariotti, who was in open disagreement with this theory, declaring it "unacceptable":

"According to V. Pisani, the original name of the river would be 'Isaurus' and then, from 'Pisaurum' (= town on Isaurus), the name was also given to the river, which would be called 'Pisaurus'. This solution is unacceptable, because the pair Pisaurum - Pisaurus strays from other similar pairs of cities - rivers, such as ‘Ariminum [Rimini] - Ariminus’[Marecchia river]" [6].

S. Mariotti was absolutely contrary to the hypothesis of M. Durante, who “idly asserted the existence of another name ('Isaurum') for the city." M. Durante had argued that:

"we may think that Isaurus was the oldest name of the river, and that it was overwhelmed by that of the city, that is 'Pisaurum'"). Amiternum (according to Marcus Terentius Varro (107-27 BC) [7] is ‘the city built around the river Aterno’, so Pisaurum could be ‘the city situated on the river Isaurus’; in this case the 'P' would be the initial Greek preposition 'epì' with the zero-grade of the first syllable, as in Sanskrit 'pi', Lithuanian 'pi' and Greek 'Piezo', from 'pi-sedio' [8].

With regard to the interpretation of the stele, it should also be noted that some critics do not agree with the interpretation of "Isairon" as the name of Pesaro. For example, P. Baldi said that, in general, the inscription is “unintelligible” and that "Isairon" means "sacred":

“The Novilara stele contains only a few possibly recognizable words (e.g. 'minis' (= Lat. 'men-', 'mind, remember'; 'polem' =Greek (acc.) 'polin'=city; 'isairon'=Greek 'ieròs' [=sacred], 'mightly') but is otherwise unintelligible” [9].

With regard to the etymology, scholars seem to agree that in the name "Pisaurum" (and “Isaurum”) there is the presence of "-auro," of Indo-European origin, meaning "water": "The name consists of a compound with an element ‘auro’, certainly of Indo-European origin and meaning 'water'" [10].

With regard to "Pis"[aurum], G. Manzelli speculates that:

"the town derived its name from the river ‘Pis-aurus’-‘Isaurus’ [=Foglia] (as attested in Lucan and Vibius Sequestre, a geographer of the fifth century BC), with ‘pi’ [= on] , from the Indo-European 'epi' / 'opi' ... in analogy with other Illyrian toponyms, with 'epi' [= on] studied by H. Krahe" [11].

G. Semeraro is also of the same opinion: "The name of Pisaurus or Isaurus (Foglia), at the mouth of the river on which rises Pesaro, … means ‘mouth of the river’ and corresponds to the Akkadian ‘Pium’ (=mouth, 'Mund')" [12].

With regard to the modern name of the river, called "Foglia", the assumptions are significantly varied. Already in the 17th century Fra' V. M. Cimarelli bequeathed to us an unlikely etymology, for which the name would derive from a "witch" who lived in this area when he wrote "The name of River Foglia presumably derived from the name of a famous sorceress who lived for many years on the banks of the River".

More recently (and more likely) A. Carile considered an interesting hypothesis, shared by many scholars: "The territory was divided in half by the River Foglia, whose medieval name was 'Follea', presumably derived from the presence of 'folles', that is of water bellows along its course" [13].

In conclusion, we can say that, with regard to the ancient city and river names [=Pisaurum-Pisaurus], the competent critics agree on the validity of the pair "Pisaurum" [city] and "Pisaurus" [River].

With regard to Isaurus, recentlly it has been speculated that the name could be a form that is attested in more recent times: "For our river could be attested the form 'Isaurus', which came after the 'Pisaurus' form, and it had an unexpected good fortune because it is attested in the modern toponym ‘Belforte all’Isauro’, in the upper valley of the Foglia river" [14].

With overall regard to the etymology, it seems that "Pisaurum" can be interpreted as the "city on the river." With regard to the etymology of the river Foglia, the interpretation by A. Carile seems valid, but the situation is fluid, because it has been observed that "Foglia" [=Leaf] may actually refer to the fact that the river is located in a wooded area, rich in "leaves.".

See the Pesaro travel guide if you are visiting the town.


1. See T. Diplovatazio, [born 1498] “Chronicon Pisauri”, in “ Archivio storico Marchigiano”, 1879, Vol. I,  p. 91

2. See I. Zicàri, “Pisaurum-Pensaurum. Nota a Serv., 'Ad Aen.', VI, 825, in “Studia Oliveriana”, 1964, XII, pp. 55-59

3. See T. Diplovatazio," Chronicon Pisauri ", p. 91 note 4

4. “Per la storia romana della provincia di Pesaro e Urbino”, Roma, 1999, p. 110 ff.

5. See G. Colucci, “Delle antichità picene”, 1790, Tomo VIII, pp. 40-41

6. See S. Mariotti, “Studi di filologia classica”, 2000, p. 571

7. “De Lingua Latina,” V, 28

8. See M. Durante, “Il nome di Pesaro e l'accento iniziale in Illirico”, in “Annali dell'Istituto Orientale di Napoli”, sez. linguistica, 1959, n. 1,  p. 36

9. See P. Baldi, “The Foundations of Latin”,  Mouton de Gruyter, 1999,   p. 152

10. See S. Mariotti, in" Studia Oliveriana ", 1969, 17, pp. 30-35

11. See G. Manzelli, “Lessicalizzazione di sintagmi preposizionali: nomi di luogo”, in “Archivio Glottologico Italiano”, 1993, pp. 26-52, p. 33

12. See G. Semeraro, “Le origini della cultura europea”, 1984, Vol. II, p. 750

13. See A. Carile, “Pesaro nel Medioevo”, in “Pesaro tra Medioevo e Rinascimento”, edited by M. R. Valazzi, 1990, Vol. II, p. 3

14. See L. Braccesi, “Lineamenti di storia pesarese in età antica”, in  “Pesaro nell'antichità: storia e monumenti”, edited by M. R. Valazzi, Marsilio, 1984,  p. 2

15. See A. Olivieri, “Marmora Pisaurensia Notis Illustrata”, Pisauri, MDCCXXXVIII [1738]”

16. On the Votive Stones, See A. De Bellis Franchi, “I Cippi Pesaresi. CIL. I2, 368-381”, in “Atti e Memorie dell'Accademia Toscana di Scienze e Lettere”, Firenze, Olschki, MCMLXV [1965], Vol. XXX, pp. 3-28

17. See A. Trevisiol, “Fonti letterarie ed epigrafiche per la storia romana di Pesaro e Urbino”, Roma, 1999, p. 97

18. With regard to the meaning of “conciliabulum”, "Festus defined it as a place where people were gathered in an assembly (‘Concilium’ ) [See D. J. Gargola, "Lands, Lows and Gods", The University of Carolina Press, 1995, p. 111

19. See  39, 44, 11

20. Livy, “The History of Rome”, (41, 27, 11-12)

21. See M. Zicari, “Moribunda ab sede Pisauri”, in “Studia Oliveriana”, 1955, p. 63 nota 2