History of Subiaco, Italy

See Subiaco guide for highlights and historic monuments

Subiaco, the ancient "Sublaqueum" and "Sublacus", is located on the right bank of the river Aniene. The territory has been inhabited since prehistoric times because of its strategic importance, because this area was linked with the Abruzzi, the Sabina area and the plain of Latium.

In pre-Roman times the region was inhabited by the Equi, of Osco-Umbrian origin, who lived by hunting, herding and agriculture, and who barricaded themselves in powerful "oppida" [fortified towns] located on the hills. Around the 5th century BC,  the Equi were harshly attacked by the Romans.

Roman period in Subiaco

The wars against the Equi were very long and the Roman conquest was extremely difficult as hostilities only finished at the end of the Second Samnite War (327-304 BC). The Equi were  exterminated and their lands were given to Roman settlers, who founded “Alba Fucens” and “Carseoli.”

After the conquest, the Romans built the “Via Valeria,” due to Censor M. Valerius Maximus, and the area began to be populated by Roman patrician villas, which belonged to some important figures such as Caesar (100-44 BC), Sallust (86-35 BC), Catullus (84-54 BC) and Maecenas (68-8 BC).

Several aqueducts were also constructed such as the Anius Vetus, which began in 272 BC, the Acqua Marcia, the Aqua Claudia and Anius Novus and it is where, above all, Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) built his sumptuous villa, which was mentioned by Pliny the Elder [23-79 AD] (Nat. Hist., III, 12) with the name of "Sublaqueum": “the three noble lakes that gave the name to Sublaqueo".

Subiaco from the 9th century

The first mention of a "Castrum Sublaci" (castle) in medieval documents only dates back to the 9th-10th century. According to the most reliable historical data, the castle of Subiaco was built in the 9th century because of the Saracen incursions, which damaged the unprotected town. On July 2, 927 Pope Leo VII (936-939), at the insistence of the Roman Senator Alberic II (10th century) gave the castle to the monastery of Subiaco, with all its lands and the settlers.

About this diploma, P. Egidi said:

"This donation is a true document of the jurisdiction of the monks on the city, to which the citizens of Subiaco refused to yeld  (...) For these reasons we believe that the castle of Subiaco was built in the late 9th and early 10th century AD, which seems very likely, since in this period the feudal movement began and because of the particular conditions of workers looking for more safety" [7].

Contemporary historians agree with the conclusions of P. Egidi:

"The colonization of the Subiaco Valley in medieval times was sponsored by the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco which, between the 10th and 12th centuries (…) pursued a policy of fortification with Papal approval, (…) and it modeled the late antique and early medieval landscape of the valley, characterized by a scattered rural settlement” [8].

In this regard, Pierre Toubert wrote:

“The case of the Castle of Subiaco is one of the most interesting and best known. Now, let's examine more closely the problem; in 923 the Castle does not seem to exist as a fortified place. The "Register of Subiaco" mentions it only as a locality. Since 937 the castle seems solidly built" [9].

Italia Benedettina

Other important historical data on the Monastery of Subiaco and its diplomatic relations with the Papacy were handed down to us by the "Italia Benedettina":

"Of the twelve monasteries founded by St. Benedict at Subiaco, a few soon disappeared leaving no trace behind, and only later and uncertain traditions indicate the name and the site of them (...) The history of these monasteries, until the 9th century, is shrouded in darkness. S. Gregory the Great (540-604), among the great writers who narrated the life of St. Benedict, also named Onorato, who at the time when he wrote (593 AD), still governed the cell where St. Benedict first lived.

After Onorato were mentioned by chroniclers three abbots: Elias, Stephen and Sergio, without any chronology. This obscurity is due to the fact that, according to chroniclers, all the monasteries built by S. Benedict would have been destroyed twice, by the Lombards in 601 and by the Saracens in 846.

From the time of Pope Leo IV (died 855) there is more frequent and definite historical data about the monastery, confirming that monasticism persisted at Subiaco, except perhaps for momentary interruptions (...) From 967 there is a document that shows the feudal rule of the Abbot of Subiaco having already started, that is a diploma with which Emperor Otto I (912-973) confirmed various concessions of Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) and other sovereigns, and he subtracted from all the goods of the monastery, declaring void any act of dominion made by others.

From 1005 is a bull of Pope John XVIII (died 1009), which marked the beginning of the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church (...) In 1189 Pope Clement III (1130-1191) placed the Monastery of Subiaco under the Pontifical protection. Popes Innocent III [1161-1216] in 1215, Honorius III [1148-1227] in Ì217, and Gregory IX [1141-1241] in 1227 composed the disputes of jurisdiction between the Abbot and the Bishop of Tivoli.

In 1250 Innocent III declared the monastery immediately subjected to the Holy See, and in 1255 Alexander IV [1199-1261] confirmed to the Abbot oof Subiaco the privilege of using the pontifical insignia. Finally, in 1370, in a bull of pope Urban VI (1318-1389), the monastery was expressly defined as 'Nullius Diocesis'  [belonging to any Diocese, and therefore it was placed not under the jurisdiction of any Bishop].

The present boundaries of the Abbey of Subiaco, however, date back to 1638 when, following an agreement between the Abbot commendatory Antonio Barberini (1607-1671) and the Bishops of Tivoli, Palestrina and Anagni, the jurisdictional boundaries of the monastery were fixed and definitively confirmed by Pope Urban VIII [1568-1644]" [10].

Subiaco from the 15th century

In 1456 John Torquemada (1388-1468) was appointed as commendatory Abbot; in this period there occurred an important event from the cultural point of view, namely the launch of the first printing with movable type in Italy, thanks to some German printers.

The town was then governed as well by Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI [1431-1503]), and here in April 1480 his daughter Lucrezia Borgia (1480-1519) was born. Next Subiaco became a feud of the Colonna and the Barberini, respectively in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Finally, in 1753, with Pope Benedict XIV (1675-1758), the Abbey became part of the Papal States until the unification of Italy in 1861.

Origins of the name Subiaco and the village of the Equi

The ancient name of Subiaco was "Sublaqueum" [from "Sub lacus" = under the Lake].

We can say that the problem of the origins and etymology of Subiaco gave rise to much discussion among scholars from the 19th century. The problem is to determine whether Subiaco could be identified with an ancient "oppidum" [fortified town] of the Equi, or if it was formed later, during the settlement of St. Benedict and the monks of his order.

Identifying Subiaco as the village of the Equi

Nibby explained the problem like this:

"Before Nero we find no mention of this city, and Pliny the Elder was the oldest writer who recalled it, speaking of the Aniene river and of three very beautiful lakes that gave its name to Sublaqueum into the Tiber (…) Since these Lakes were built by Nero, it is impossible that there was a town of the Equi called Sublacum or Sublaquem...

... Also Cluveriius, based on Tacitus, Pliny and Frontinus and other writers, used the word as a synonym of the Villa of Nero at Subiaco (...) So we rightly infer that the Villa was called Subiaco from the lakes Simbruini, since it was located below the lakes. The learned Frontino Fully agrees with these authors " [1].

Identifying Subiaco as the village built by the builders of Nero's villa

According to some supporters of the antiquity of Subiaco, the town was probably founded with the first settlements of the workers who laboured to build the villa of Emperor Nero. Recently, F. di Matteo observed:

"According to popular tradition (still popular among the locals), the first inhabitants were the (Christian) slaves of Subiaco, who built the Imperial villa ... In effect, two small Christian underground vaults were found in Saint Lucia and in other places near Suriva, used during the fourth century, and presumably linked to the village of Pianello and the small church of San Lorenzo." [2].

Here there was found a small settlement, corresponding to the zone "C" of the villa of Emperor Nero, which was mentioned in a donation by a certain Nartius dating back to 369 AD, where the place name of “Sublaco” appears:

“I, Nartius, Roman patrician, an inhabitant of Rome, I build the Church of the Blessed Martyr Lawrence, located in Subiaco] [3].

Too bad that the document in question is a forgery dating from the 11th century:

“The donation of Nartius would (seem) to be made in 369; however, in reality, it is a forgery dating back to the 11th century, but it attests to a deep-rooted historical idea" [3].

Recently, L. Quilici has undergone a stringent analysis of all archaeological and historical assumptions which prove the antiquity of Subiaco, and he concluded that they are altogether non-existent, being the result of inconsistent scientific evidences. The research about the origin of Subiaco as an old "oppidum" of the Equi does not seem sustainable, nor that it would be the town of an ancient settlement of the Christian slaves building the villa of Emperor Nero:

"Even today there is no archaeological document that refers to something; also the recent report on the presence of a wall in polygonal masonry, which would have corroborated the presence of an 'oppidum' of the Equi is inadequate or non-existent. In fact, the walls are not located in Subiaco, but across the river Aniene, and then they are not ancient walls, as they are simply remains of old stone walls" [4].

Quilici also pointed out that similar reports were diffused “without control of the Archaeological Superintendence"

With regard to the Church of San Lorenzo, D. Esposito said: "The Church of San Lorenzo 'maybe' dates back to the 5th century, but it is mentioned only in a bull of 988 subject to the Abbey of Subiaco" [5].

As we can see, the historical and archaeological evidences about the antiquity of Subiaco are nonexistent; so, while the town certainly derives its name from "sublaqueum", that is the three lakes which Emperor Nero constructed there for the adornment of his villa, on the other hand it is impossible, according to historical and archaeological evidencee, to say that even the village dates back to those times.

Does Subiaco actually only date from the 7th century - or is it much older?

Therefore it would seem more reasonable to think that the origins of Subiaco date back to the 7th century with the advent of Saint Benedict, and to accept the conclusions of scholars who observe that Subiaco, like other villages, originated from the monastery, which gave the first impetus to the formation of Subiaco.

However, there is a fact that we have to consider, namely that the popular belief that a village was built around the church of San Lorenzo that was first called "Sublaco". This folkloric datum should be given due consideration. It’s true that the document concerning Nartius is a forgery of the 11th century, but it is also true that the church of San Lorenzo is very old.

There is much uncertainty about its dating: D. Esposito says that "maybe" it dates from the fifth century, but "maybe" does not mean "impossible." And it's true up to a certain point that we have no "certain" documents about the antiquity of Subiaco.

Meanwhile, we have a document from 978, which tells us that in 978 AD around the church of San Lorenzo there was a village called Sublaco: “‘Plebe sancti Laurentii qui appellatur in Sublaco” [Parish of St. Laurent situated in Subiaco]. If in the 10th century AD there was a village with this name it is possible that it was much older.

P. Carosi took into consideration the popular datum about the antiquity of the Church of San Lorenzo and the village around it; while recognizing the falsification with regard to Nartius, he reflected on the fact that the only “Lorenzo” to whom we can refer is San Lorenzo Siro:

"Subiaco was part of the Via Valeria. A vague tradition starts the monastic life in the province of Valeria in the second half of the fourth century through the work of Eastern monks who would take refuge in the time of Julian the Apostate and the Arian emperors. The best known name is that of S. Lorenzo Siro, who firs founded a monastery in Turano, in the territory of the Equicoli (not far from the valley of the Aniene river) and then founded Farfa” [6].

P. Carosi also carried some very interesting arguments:

- First. In a document dated 978 in the “Tiburtino Register” the town of Subiaco is mentioned as ‘plebe sancti laurentii qui appellatur in Sublaco’ .

- Second. In the document relative to the patrician Narsius, which dates back to 369 AD, Subiaco is designated as 'curtis' around the Church of St. Lorenzo (…) It is a clear falsification of the late 11th century, but it attests the common belief (…) on the antiquity of the church of San Lorenzo and the village built around the church. And still at Subiaco on the feast of St. Lorenzo there is the annual festival commemorating the foundation of Subiaco.

- Third. Until the time of Abbot John V (1069-1121) the most solemn procession of the year (…) was celebrated in the church of S. Lorenzo, with the assistance of the faithful from all countries of the Abbey.

- Fourth. From various diplomatic privileges of the 11th and 12th centuries we know that baptism was usually conferred in the church of San Lorenzo, although already in the 9th century the most important nucleus of population was grouped in the current Subiaco” [6].

See the Subiaco visitor guide for travel information.


1. See A. Nibby, “Analisi storico-topografico-antiquaria …”, Roma, 1837, Vol. III,  p. 121 ff.

2. See F. di Matteo, “Villa di Nerone a Subiaco”, Roma, 2005,  p. 30

3. See F. di Matteo, p. 32

4. See L. Quilici, “I 'Simbruina Stagna' di Nerone nell'Alta Valle dell'Aniene”, in “Uomo, acqua e paesaggio”, Roma, 1997, p. 109, note 37

5. See D. Esposito, “Tecniche costruttive murarie medievali”, Roma, 1998, p. 23 note 2

6. P. Carosi, “Il primo monastero Benedettino”, Herder, 1956, p. 43 ff.

7. See P. Egidi, “I monasteri di Subiaco”, Roma, 1904, Vol. I, pp. 68-69 e “Atti e memorie della società tiburtina di storia patria”, 1962, p. 75

8. See G.M. Annoscia, “La valle sublacense”, in F.R. Statolla, G.M. Annoscia e S. del Ferro, “Il ruolo delle signorie monastiche nell’articolazione del popolamento del Lazio medievale”, in  “Atti del Convegno Geografie del popolamento. Casi di studio, metodi e teorie” (Grosseto, 24-26 settembre 2008, p. 3 ff.

9. See P. Toubert, “Les structures du Latium médiéval”, École française de Rome, 1973, Vol. I,  p. 408

10. See “L'Italia Benedettina”,  1929, p. 87 ff.