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History of Spoleto, Italy

See Spoleto guide for highlights and historic monuments

The origins of Spoleto, located along the slopes of the hill Saint Elias, date back to the late Bronze Age, as shown by some remains of the necropolis, found in the perimeter of the city.

In the 5th and 4th centuries BC the Umbrians occupied the territory, and the city became a "castrum" (Fortress), with the construction of the so-called “Cyclopean walls”, made of huge blocks of polygonal limestone.

Spoleto in Roman times

In 241 BC Spoleto became a colony, and it was raised by the Romans, due to its loyalty, to the rank of “Municipium”. In fact, Spoleto showed loyalty to Rome especially during the Second Punic War, opposing the army of Hannibal (247-182 BC), who was advancing to Rome after defeating the Romans at the Battle of Lake Trasimeno.

Cicero (106-43 BC) called Spoleto "strong and illustrious" (Severus Minervius, see below).

There are many ruins that testify to the Roman presence in the city, like the Arch of Drusus (38-9 BC) and Germanicus (16 BC-19 AD), Roman Theatre (first century AD) and a house attributed to Vespasia Polla (born in 15 c. BC-first century AD), mother of Emperor Vespasian (9-79 AD).

In the fourth century AD Spoleto became an Episcopal seat, as is evidenced by the basilica of San Salvatore, one of the oldest churches in the city.

After the Romans

After the fall of Roman Empire, the Lombards conquered Spoleto, which became the capital of the largest and most powerful of the duchies of Median Italy. Then after the Lombard rule, the duchy passed to the Franks, under whose rule it began a gradual decline and in 1155, according to tradition, Spoleto was destroyed by Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190).

In the Municipality Age, the city was fought over between the Empire and the Church State, to which it was later subject under the papacy of Innocent III (1160 ca.-1216) in 1198 and, finally, in 1247. During this period of domination by the Church State a second wider circle of walls was built, in which the medieval urban structure was developed, which gave it the appearance of a fortress.

Transformed into a Municipality, Spoleto was torn apart inside by the fratricidal conflict between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, until, with the action of Cardinal Albornoz (1310-1367), the disputes were sedated and, thanks to the powerful prelate, it had also a significant increase in fortifications, because Cardinal Albornoz commissioned Gattaponi (1300-1383), a famous military engineer, to build the “Albornoz Fortress”, which became the seat of the city governors.

At the end of the 15th century Sploeto was ruled by a famous exponent of the powerful Borgia Family, or Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519), daughter of Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) and sister of Cesare Borgia (1475-1507).

During the Napoleonic period, Spoleto was taken from the direct dominion of the Pope and governed as a republic closely linked to the French, assuming a role of some importance as chief town of the Trasimeno Department. After the Restoration it was restored to the Church State until the “Risorgimento” period, which saw the city very engaged in the struggle for the unification of Italy.

It entered into the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Today the city is a major tourist centre, of high cultural value and open to initiatives that have become known it internationally.

Origins of the name: etymology of Spoletium-Spoletum

As Regards the etymology of “Spoletium-Spoletum”, we can say that we are still in a situation of waiting. We begin with a hypothesis proposed in the 18th century by Minervius Severus, who said that the city's name derived from the Latin word “Spolia” (“Spolia” are the spoils of war). Also interesting is the difference that he established between "Spolet-i-um" and “Spol-e-tum,” saying that "Spoletum", without the "i" is a bad error:

“[...] Many claim that Spoleto derives from the fact that they "shared the spoils of the enemy in war." Others, however, think that 'Spoletium' means almost 'Glad (‘Laetum’) to have snatched the spoils from the enemies’ (“Spoliis-Laetum”)  [Italian "Spoleto"]). Many then say 'Spol-e-tum' and not 'Spolet-i-um', and they say "Spoleto-a-ni" and not "Spolet-i-ni", a gross mistake: 'Spoletum', in fact, is a city in Spain, in the Diocese of Toledo, where a council 'spoletanum' was held, and 'Spalatum' is a town in Dalmatia...

...But the Greeks, who were the masters of all of us in everything, say 'Spolet-i-um' and not 'Spol-e-tum', such as, for example, Strabo (58-25 ca. BC), Ptolemy (90-168 ca. AD), Athenaeus [flourished from the second and beginning of the third century] and others") [1].

Apart from the naive etymology proposed, Severus Minervius was very keen to establish the relations of linguistic similarity between "Spoleto" and “Spalat”, Dalmatia, identifying in these two cities a common root; which is true, as demonstrated by contemporary studies. In fact, Dengler writes that they are two names of Illyrian origin, for which he considers correct "the conjecture that 'Spalat' and 'Spoleto' were used by related groups of Illyrian-speakers" [2].

Today scholars seem inclined to accept the hypothesis that "Spoletium" has its roots in the Etruscan name "spur", which means "city". A. Morigi writes:

"[...] The antiquarian tradition is to read the place-name as the sum of the Greek terms 'Spao' ('to separate') and 'lithos' ('stone'), to suggest 'separated cliff' from behind Monteluco of Colle Sant'Elsa. A second option would coincide with a Etruscan root ‘Spur’ and the corresponding locative 'spur-ethi', to emphasize the 'urban circle' [...]" [3]. E.A. Gutkind writes: [...] The name of ancient Spoletium has been derived from the word 'spur' [...] [4].

The hypothesis of an Etruscan origin of the name of Spoleto would seem, therefore, widely accepted, but with some exceptions. S. Bocci writes: "[...] the hypothesis of an original Etruscan presence in the territory, based on a possible etymology of the name of city (from the Etruscan 'spur', 'city') is not substantiated by the archaeological documentation [...]" [5].

All things considered, however, most scholars seem to accept the origin of Spoleto from the Etruscan root "spur", and we can say that, until now, this is the only scientific data, although conjectural, which we have.

See also our Spoleto travel guide for information about the modern town.


1. See "Severi Minervi “De Rebus Gestis atque Antiquiis Monumentis Spoleti”. “De Origine et nomine Spoletinae Urbis” [Severus Minervius," The Principal facts and Ancient Monuments of Spoleto”. “About the Origin and Name of the Town of Spoleto”]. The manuscript of Minervius was published by Achille Sansi, "Unpublished Historical Documents", Foligno, 1879, p. 15

2. See R.E. Dengler, "Classics and the Classical Tradition", Pennsylvania State University, 1973, p. 115

3. See A. Morigi, "Spoleto Romana: Topography and Urban Planning", Archaeopress, 2003, p. 6

4. Vedi E.A. Gutkind, “International History of City Development: Urban development in southern Europe: Italy and Greece”, Free Press of Glencoe, 1964, p. 374

5. See S. Bocci, " Umbria in the 'Bellum Gothicum' of Procopius", "Italian Institute for Ancient History", 1996, p. 64, footnote 5