History of Saturnia, Italy

See Saturnia guide for highlights and historic monuments

History and etymology of Saturnia

Historical sources, archaeological prehistoric and Etruscan remains show that Saturnia is a very ancient city. It is situated at a height of 300 meters above sea level, in the valley of the River Albegna and is well-defended by steep faces.

From the urban point of view, what remains of the ancient city dates from the third century BC, that is the period coinciding with the Romanization of the territory, and the  works constructed since 183, when Saturnia became a Roman colony on the “Via Clodia”, a road linking the city with all the coastal and inland localities of Tuscany.

According to Michelucci, the city's history can be divided into three phases [1]:

  • the oldest dates back to the Etruscan period, which was interrupted by the Roman conquest;
  • a second phase was the establishment of the city as a sub-prefecture;
  • the third period dates from 183, when Saturnia became a Roman colony, of which it retains clear traces in the walls

The early development of Saturnia in the 4th century BC was linked to its strategic importance against the expansionist policy of Rome, and the alliance of Italic peoples, the Celts and the Etruscans.

The archaeological remains show almost complete annihilation of the city at this time, while the acquisition of the title of 'sub-prefecture' was a formal act linked to the administration of the territory after the Roman conquest rather than an honorary title.

There are still some parts of the ancient walls, embedded in those built by Siena in the 14th century, next to "Porta Romana" near the Clodia Road. The city became a Roman colony under the consuls Quintus Fabius Labeo (praetor in 180 BC), Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (217-154 BC) and Gaius Afranius Stellio (praetor in 185 BC). This was a serious crisis for the ancient Etruscan settlement, which was reduced to a mere village with severe depopulation [2].

In fact, the Roman conquest of the city had serious consequences: "Saturnia, like other cities, seems literally shaken, and at the end of the conflict, the city required a new foundation" [3].

The re-foundation of the city coincided with the war between Gaius Marius (157-86 BC) and Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BC), and the deliberate policy of the reconstruction of Sulla after the Civil War. The city in those years became a junction for the cattle market, but it was no longer able to rise to the level of development seen in Etruscan times. However, Saturnia was a prosperous  province of the Roman Empire [3].

Saturnia in the Roman period and Dark Ages

The Clodia Road, as we said above, was a Roman road of exceptional importance which linked Saturnia with the most important Tuscan cities. In the 6th century it marked the boundary between the "Tuscia Langobardorum" [Tuscany of the Lombards] and the "Tuscia Romanorum" (Tuscany of the Byzantines).

In the Province of Grosseto in Paleo-Christian times there were two Bishoprics, Roselle and Saturnia, but the Bishopric of Saturnia  was  abandoned in the second half of the 6th century AD. At this time, with the advent of the Lombards, Roselle continued to have its own Bishop, while Saturnia, which resisted the Lombards relying on the help of the Byzantines, was destroyed towards the 590 and its northern territory was occupied by the Lombards of Lucca.

As Paul the Deacon [Paulus Diaconus, 720-799 AD] tells us, the city was not rebuilt, since he recorded it as a heap of ruins. The territory was merged with the Diocese of Statonia, whose Bishops had meanwhile moved to Sovana [15].

At first, it seems sure that these lands were entrusted by the Lombards to the Abbey of San Benedetto del Monte Amiata, but later on Otto I (912-973 AD) withdrew these possessions from the Abbey to entrust them to the Counts of Aldobrandeschi, of Lombard origin, who had settled in Lucca. The bitter fighting that raged between Siena and the Aldobrandeschi involved the destruction of the city walls by Siena.

However, as shown by the archives of Siena, "Maestro Luca Bartolo da Bagnacavallo had the task of rebuilding the walls of Saturnia"

Saturnia enters the Middle Ages

In the second half of the 15th century the Republic of Siena also promoted the colonization of the countryside through a series of measures aimed at attracting the population of nearly deserted areas such as Saturnia. The Community of Saturnia was thus reconstituted, as attested by financial measures taken by the Captain of the people and the ‘Vessilliferi’ of the City of Siena in order to rebuild the walls of Saturnia, 1461.

Later the city was a stronghold of the Ximenes d'Aragona and the Panciatichi family. In fact, in 1593 the Grand Duke Ferdinand I granted Saturnia as a fief to Sebastiano Ximenes d’Aragona (1568-1633) with the title of marquis [17].

To the present

In the early decades of the 19th century the Grand Duchy of Tuscany began reclamation works and the important area of Saturnia underwent a new development. Today the city is an important tourist destination, known for its thermal baths, the important archaeological remains of Etruscan and Roman times, and for its extraordinary landscapes.

Etruscan origins of the name Aurini

While the archaeological remains of Saturnia refer almost exclusively to Roman times, literary texts give a faint idea of its Etruscan roots, which have been found with difficulty after a long analysis of what the Roman literary tradition handed down to us. In this regard, we start from a passage of Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) on which scholars have long focused:

“Saturnini qui ante Aurini vocabantur”, that is “in ancient times the inhabitants of Saturnia were called Aurini."

Therefore, according to Pliny, in ancient times Saturnia was called Aurinia, and its inhabitants were called "Aurini." Which seems very strange, because "Aurinia" and "Aurini" are Roman words, and from the historical and logical point of view it is difficult to accept the fact that a site of Etruscan origin had a Latin name. This was emphasized by S. Ferri as early as 1951:

"From the archaeological point of view the ethnic name ‘Aurini’ (and consequently ‘Aurinia’, postulated as the former name of Saturnia) clashes with the historical and ethnographic evidence. It is difficult to admit a Latin name in respect of a city which pre-dates Roman times, and (…) it is also impossible to think that there were two Latin names in chronological order: the name change requires an ethnological transformation" [4].

The problem is of great importance, and the contradiction would seem insurmountable. However, by intuition, S. Ferri proposed an amendment to the text of Pliny in relation to the expression "ante Aurini" in Pliny's quote. According to S. Ferri, 'ante Aurini' resulted from a mistake of the copyists - in fact the manuscripts show the words attached to each other; in this case, the manuscripts were written like this: "anteaurini."

Implementing the modern use of spaces for word separation, there are two possible results: either "ante Aurini" (a misreading) or "'ante-a' Urini" (the correct reading). As Ferri explained, "The codices ‘Vossianus A’ and ‘Leidensis Lipsii F2’ had the variant “ante Aurini vocabantur” (...) All others, including the ‘Ottimo Riccardiano’, had ‘antea Urini vocabantur’ [5]. The variant “ante Aurini” met with a favourable response among linguists because it was easier.

There is no doubt that with the expression "antea Urini," we get the name of the inhabitants of Urina [=Urini] and also that of the Etruscan city [=Urina], of which there are numerous traces in some inscriptions. On the other hand, the city of "Urina" was sought unsuccessfully in various parts of Italy.

As Carlo Battisti wrote, the toponym "Urina", antecedent of that of Saturnia, is attested by the inscriptions of which Pliny spoke  (Nat. Dist, III, 52): 'Saturnini qui antea Urini vocabantur” [6].

This hypothesis is now accepted by all scholars; however, if the epigraphic and literary sources spoke of an Etruscan town called "Urina", at the same time there was the problem of establishing with certainty the site of this city, and many scholars thought it referred to Nola.

The problem has been tackled recently by C. Berrendonner - M. Munzi, who have come to interesting conclusions:

"[...] The identification of Urina is problematic. The only confirmation of the linguistic form 'urina' appeared on some coins in the area of Nola in Campania. Philipp, basing himself on Marcus Velleius Paterculus (19 BC-31 AD), believes that Urina should be the name of the city founded by the Etruscans in the place where Nola was built.

The meaning of Nola should be 'new town' and it implies implicitly that the city had a different name in Etruscan times (...) A passage in Pliny’s ‘Natural history’ [7], however, suggests a different identification for the City of Urina, but still in connection with the Etruscans. Urina may therefore be identified with Saturnia. The toponym ‘Urina’ could be interpreted according to the root '-ver' [= water] and refers to the presence of water sources" [8].

The hypothesis of a convergence of Saturnia-Urina has been accepted by many scholars: "The well-known amendment of the passage in Pliny's ‘Natural History’ ( III, 52) as to the name of Saturnia and the absence of the gentilitial name in the territory of Vulci could move the balance of power in favor of the city on the river Albegna, left at the beginning of the fifth century BC" [9].

With regard to the etymology of "Urina", while Berrendonner - M. Munzi think that the name Urina was referring to water, M. Ceccherelli and G. Semeraro believe that it means "city". In fact, M. Ceccherelli remarked: "Hyria is derived from the 'Akkadian-Sumerian' uru ', [city, village], which perhaps corresponds to Uri or Urina" [10].

It is also confirmed by G. Semeraro, who wrote: "We know that Hyria refers to the Sumeric-Akkadian" term Uru "(city, 'Stadt'), Ugaritic 'r’, Heb. 'ir’ (...) Urina -> Saturnia. Pliny (3, 52) informs us that the inhabitants of Saturnia (‘Saturnini’) were first called Urini (…) and Urinia (…) which means 'urbs' [city] (...) We are sure that 'ur' is the oldest basis and means 'walls' (= fortified city)." [11].

Presumably, integrating these two proposals, Urina means "fortified town on the river [=water]".

Interesting evidence of the ancient town of Urina is provided by the presence of a powerful family in Etruria, the "Gens Urinate", attested as being in Etruria in Volterra, Siena, Chiusi and Perugia. The "Gens Urinate" was therefore an aristocratic family, whose nomen [gentililial name] derived from the mythical city of Urina.

C. Berrendonner and M. Munzi, in their scholarly essay about the 'Urinate' (also attested in Rome as "Urinatius") observed: "We know that the ending in '-ate'  among the Etruscans distinguished the gentililial names; for this reason, ‘Urinate’ referred to the city of Urina" [12].

Origins of the name Saturnia

In addition, S. Ferri has pointed out that, as in other examples in Etruscan territory, Urina had three names, "Urina", "Urna" and "Ura", and that the name "Saturnia", instead of being of Roman origin, seems to be a name of probable Etruscan formation" derived from the Etruscan word "Satre": "In fact, the name of the Etruscan divinities 'Satre', which appears on the liver of Piacenza as Satres explains the Latin name Saturnus-Saeturnus (…)" [13].

However, with regard to the etymology of Saturnia, the position of the scholars are very wide apart, and for this reason it is impossible to find a point of convergence between those who believe that the name is of Etruscan or Roman origin. Just a year before G. De Sanctis denied this possibility:

"We must reject the derivation of the name of an alleged Etruscan god called Satre (...) In our opinion it is surely the old traditional etymology of Saturn, which derives from the Latin words' Satus', ‘ satio’ [ from ‘sero’=to sow; in fact, Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture].”

On the contrary, H. S. Versnel pointed out that “the origins of the God and his name are lost in the haze of prehistory. Etymologies which connect the name with Latin 'sero-satus' are linguistically untenable. Connections with the Etruscan 'Satre' deserve more serious consideration.

More distant relations with a great Phrygian god 'Satre' have been suggested. But even if Etruscan influences could be ascertained, the fixed position of the festival in the oldest festive calendar and the occurrence of the name in the ancient 'Carmen Saliare' seem to suggest an Italo-Roman origin of the god. The Romans themselves regarded Saturn as the original ruler of the Capitolium, which, as they asserted, was called 'Mons Saturnius' in ancient times” [14].

See also Saturnia for our city travel guide.


1. See P. Rendini, “L'urbanistica di Saturnia”, in “Città e monumenti dell'Italia antica”, Roma, 1999, pp. 97-116

2. See E. Fentress, “Saturnia, la città”, in “Paesaggi Dell'Etruria”, Roma, 2002, pp. 123-124 and “La Centuriazione”, in “I paesaggi dell'Etruria...”,  pp. 124-125

3. Rendini, p. 113

4. See S. Ferri, “Esigenze archeologiche e ricostruzione del testo”, in “Studi classici e orientali”, 1951, pp. 69-76

5. Ferri, 1951, p. 70

6. See C. Battisti, “Due premesse inaccettabili per l'esame di questioni nazionali altoatesine”, Firenze, 1960, p. 88

7. 'Saturnini (...) antea Urini vocabantur'

8. See C. Berrendonner-M. Munzi, “La gens urinate”, in “Mélanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Antiquité” T. 110, N°2. 1998. pp. 647-662; pp. 647-648).

9. See “Rassegna bibliografica”, in “Studi etruschi”, 1986, p. 309

10. See I. M. Ceccherelli, “Alle fonti della civiltà: viaggio storico linguistico attraverso i secoli”, Il Fauno, 1986,  p. 314

11. See G. Semeraro,  “Le origini della cultura europea”,  Olschki, 1984, Part II, p. 804

12. C. Berrendonner- M. Munzi, p. 647

13. S. Ferri, “Leoni anatolici e leoni romanici et al ...”, in “Studi classici e orientali”, 1961, no X, pp. 244 ff.

14. See H. S. Versnel, “Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion”, Brill, 1994, p. 138

15. See B. Burattini, “Il cristianesimo nella Maremma grossetana”, in “Guida  agli edifici sacri della Maremma ...”, 1996,  pp. 112-138

16. See “Archivio dei rogiti di Ser Pietro dell'Oca dal 1484 al 1487” and G. Milanesi, “Documenti per la storia dell'arte senese”,  Siena, 1854, Vol II, p. 405

17. See G. Cecchini, “Saturnia. L'opera di colonizzazione senese nel secolo XIV”,  in “Studi in onore di A. Fanfani”, II, Milano, Giuffrè, 1962, pp. 301-365 and. 358-363