The history of Umbria overlaps somewhat with it’s better known neighbor Tuscany in the eras of the Etruscans and the Romans, but it has also forged it’s own footprints in Italian history throughout the ages. The first two major groups to share Umbria were the Umbri and the Etruscans. Although the Etruscans are better known, the Umbri settled the region first, it is said as far back as 672 BC, which is the date of origin of the town of Terni, which was then called Interamna. At that time, the language was Umbrian, a relative of Latin and Oscan. Archaeological evidence shows that the Umbri can be identified with the creators of the Terramara, and probably also of the Villanovan culture in northern and central Italy, who at the beginning of the Bronze Age displaced the original Ligurian population by an invasion from the north-east. The Apennine civilization occupied Umbria’s hills and mountains and lived off agriculture and animals. There are many remnants left behind from this time including decorated vases, and many tools of stone, bone and metal.
The Etruscans were chief enemies of the Umbri, and the Etruscan invasion went from the western seaboard towards the north and east (lasting from about 700 to 500 BC), eventually driving the Umbrians towards the Apenninic uplands and capturing 300 Umbrian towns. The river Tiber, Tevere in Italian, mostly divided the two populations with the Umbri on the east, and the Etruscan on the west. The Umbri tribe flourished early on in eastern towns such as Spoleto, Gubbio, Città di Castello and Assisi. Etruscans established towns we know today as Perugia, Orvieto and Città della Pieve, eventually creating 12 powerful city-states. Traces of this past can still be seen in the excellent Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia. What little is known about the Umbri from this time comes from the famous Eugubine Tablets in Gubbio. These seven bronze slabs were written in the 2nd century BC in the Umbrian language. They describer religious rites as well as the political system of that time.
Things seriously changed in Umbria around 300 BC when soldiers from Rome arrived. In 295 BC, Rome conquered the Etruscans, and all of their lands, including Umbria, fell under Roman rule. Despite the legendary Roman plundering and pillaging, the Romans actually had a positive influence on Umbria as they initiated public works that are still visible to this day. Emperor Gaius Flaminius built the Via Flaminia in 220 BC, a road which connected Rome to Ancona and the Adriatic Sea, and passed through towns such as Narni, Terni, Spoleto and Foligno, all of which are still littered with Roman ruins. A minor road branched off to Perugia, whose prominence as the capital of Umbria was growing. In 90 BC, Umbrians were granted full Roman citizenship and, for a handful of centuries, the region thrived.
After Rome fell, invasions by Saracens, Goths, Lombards, Byzantines and the barbarians led to an economic and cultural decline in Umbria. Starvation and disease were rampant, and Umbrians retreated to fortified medieval hill towns such as Gubbio and Todi. Conditions were perfect for the new Roman cult of Christianity to flourish. The church of Sant’Angelo in Perugia, built over a former pagan temple around the 5th and 6th centuries AD, is one of Italy’s oldest extant churches outside of Rome.
The political power gap during the Middle Ages was quickly filled by the Lombard Duchy of Spoleto from the 6th to the 13th centuries, until Umbria became a papal territory. Prominent Umbrian families tended to favor rule by either the pope or the Holy Roman Empire, creating a split between Guelphs, or papal supporters, and Ghibellines, those who followed the emperors. Spoleto and Todi became Ghibelline cities while Perugia and Orvieto, which both benefited initially from Papal rule, became Guelph cities. The remnants of the conflict still dot Umbria today in the form of the rocca, or Papal fortress, examples of which can be seen in Perugia, Assisi and Narni.
Many important saints, such as Benedict of Norcia who became the patron of Europe, had put Umbria on the mystical map, but it was in the 13th century when Umbria’s most famous son, St Francis of Assisi was born, that cemented Umbria’s reputation as a centre for spirituality, which continues to this day.
The province of Umbria was created in 1861 as part of a unified region. At that time Umbria included the current provinces of Terni and Perugia as well as Rieti. At this time though, the economic situation of the region was in grave danger as agriculture was languishing and farmers were forced to move to other areas to feed their families. During the industrial revolution, Umbria began to rebuild once the railway line was built linking Rome, Terni, and Foligno in 1866. World War Two followed this slight economic growth and many industries were bombed resulting in in a slow postwar recovery.
Historians of Umbrian culture like to say that time stopped in 1544 when the pope installed a salt tax, resulting in a Salt War that caused a standstill in Umbrian culture. It is felt because of this, that the Renaissance didn’t flourish in Umbria like it did in neighboring Tuscany. To this day, Umbria still retains much of its ancient history as seen when visiting its many hill towns spread across the region, and time seems to move a little slower here in Umbria, even for visitors.
Online Sources of Umbrian History: