History Files

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 175

Target: 400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.

European Kingdoms

Ancient Italian Peninsula


Umbri (Sabellians) (Italics)
Incorporating the Camertes, Insurbes, Isombri, Sarsinates, & Vilombri

The so-called West Indo-European tribes arrived at the eastern edge of Central Europe around 2500 BC. Their northern group became the proto-Celts of the Urnfield culture while the southern group seemingly migrated westwards and southwards, reaching Illyria and northern Italy. Already divided further into semi-isolated tribes, they became more civilised in habits and technologies due to contact with southern Greeks and Etruscans. In the eleventh to eighth centuries BC, some of those groups in Illyria crossed by sea into the Italian peninsula and settled along the south-eastern coast. Those in the north Italian piedmont gradually migrated southwards to occupy much of the rest of eastern and central Italy. These tribes all formed part of a general group called Italics.

The Umbri were a group of Italics who, during the Iron Age, were located along a broad swathe of the inland spine of upper central Italy, and were neighboured along their entire western flank by the Etruscans, who edged them out of some settlements along the border during the height of their own culture. Etruscans also occupied the north, in a wide arc across to the Adriatic, while the Picentes lived to the east of the Umbrians, along the lower Adriatic coastline, and the Sabini and Vestini were to the south.

The Oscan-Umbrian group of which the Umbri were part are largely accepted as being Indo-Europeans (perhaps proto-Celts) who migrated into the peninsula from the north. Ancient writers thought they were indeed Celts. They settled in communities which were close to a series of hilltops, and while the modern region of Umbria gives some idea of their territory, it penetrates less farther north than they did. They were gradually compressed southwards and eastwards by pressure from the Celts and Etruscans respectively. Their language came from the Oscan-Umbrian group of Indo-European languages (P-Italic), which were widely spoken in Iron Age central and southern Italy before the rise to dominance of Latin (Latin itself was a slightly more distantly related language, coming from the Indo-European Latino-Faliscan group, or Q-Italic).

The name of this people was thought by Pliny the Elder to have been the Ombrii in ancient times, a Greek word which could be extrapolated to mean 'the people of the thunderstorm'. They appeared to have existed mainly as an agricultural society, with few towns, and little recorded history. The early city state culture of western Italy came late to them, but they were fond of Greek and Etruscan imports during the ninth to fourth centuries when these cultures were at their height. They also produced their own form of pottery.

Understandably, considering their size and the broad swathe of territory they occupied, the Umbri were not one single tribe, but were instead divided into a series of smaller tribes that probably formed a confederation along the lines of the later Suevi. Pliny, Ptolemy and other ancient writers name some of them such as the Isombri who were later replaced by the Insurbes (although the name seems to be a direct progression from Isombri rather than a new, replacement name, and is more likely to be a scribal error than a name change), the Vilombri and Sarsinates (or Sarsinatae) and the Camertes, which was the first Umbrian tribe known to the Romans.

'Insurbes' is either a contraction of a longer name containing 'umbri' or a pun of some sort on 'umbri', warping it into a third possibility. As a tribal name, Insurbes sounds very similar to the Gaulish tribe of the Insubres, and swapped adjacent letter or sound positions are very common in proto-Italo-Celtic (as well as many other languages), so subres could become surbes. In Latin there is subruo subruti subrutum: to undermine, overthrow, destroy. This raises the suggestion that Insurbes could mean those who revolted or destroyed. The element 'sub' means 'beneath' or 'under', so 'destroyed' would probably be an extension, with a core meaning of 'from beneath'. There is unlikely to be a direct relationship between the Gaulish and the Umbrian tribes, but it is a notable coincidence that they appear to carry a name that means the same thing: 'in-' plus 'sub-' plus 'umbro', plus the possible pun of insurrection made by removing the 'm'. Did they revolt against the main tribe to form their own independent grouping?

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Geography, Ptolemy, from An Historical Geography of Europe, Norman J G Pounds (Abridged Version), from Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, Vol 3, Issue 1, James Cowles Prichard, and from External Link: The Natural History, Pliny the Elder (John Bostock, Ed).)

c.11th century BC

Pliny mentions a mixed group of Siculi and Liburnians who are expelled from the Adriatic coast by the arrival of the Umbri. This may occur as the Umbri themselves are being ejected from their western territories by the Etruscans, around the seventh century BC, but the later ejection of the Siculi from northern Calabria forces this event back, possibly as early as the eleventh century BC. This would also tie in with the formation of the Sabini, who are held to be a division of the Umbri. Pliny himself believes that the Siculi are the original inhabitants of the southern and eastern sections of Umbri territory. At the same time, the Umbri lose the settlement of Lista to the Latins.

847 BC

FeatureAccording to myth, the Umbrian settlement of Assissi (Roman Asisium) is founded on a spur of Mount Subasio by Dardanus. While entirely unlikely, it suggests a memory of very early Roman influence in the region. Dardanus had been the founder of the Dardanians in the land of the Teucri, close to the city of Troy. One of his descendants had been Aeneas who, according to legend, led his people after the fall of Troy to settle in Latium, around the site of the future city of Rome, where they had only partially blended with the local Latin culture and people.

The territory that had been settled by the Umbri was focussed along a stretch of the mountainous Apennines which form a spine down the middle of Italy

c.800 BC

Etruscan civilisation begins to flourish and eventually achieves regional dominance in a near-seamless break, thanks to which the previous Villanova culture is gradually subsumed. The Etruscans also take over a large number of Umbrian settlements along their eastern border (three hundred, according to Pliny the Elder), notably the city of Curtun (Roman Corito, modern Cortona), which is probably of Umbrian origin.

Despite this loss of territory to the west, the Umbri also thrive, founding large numbers of settlements over the subsequent three or four hundred years. One settlement that reveals archaeological traces of Umbrian habitation in the eighth century BC is Camars (modern Chiusi). The Umbri are forced out of Camars after an attack by 'Pelasgians' (probably meaning Etruscans, as some ancients think that the two are related). The Etruscans found an important city on the site which they name Clevsin. The dispossessed Umbri cross the Apennines to found a new settlement at Cameria (or Camerta, modern Camerino).

With the beginning of the Italian Iron Age, signs of territorial variation begin to emerge, although the gradual differentiation between a western area, an eastern area, and an Alpine area will only acquire more consistency in the seventh century BC. This is the Golasecca I A period.

7th century BC

The Umbri are forced out of their settlement at the modern site of Perugia (now the capital of Umbria) by the Etruscans (although some sources ascribe this event to the fifth century BC). The area is settled by Etruscans and an important settlement named Perusna is created which is home to the female lauchum, Sarina (who probably flourishes during the seventh century).

c.650 - 550 BC

Umbrian graves excavated in 1997 can be dated to this period. An ancient necropolis with at least thirty-six burials is discovered in the modern city of Terni, north of Rome. The graves contain an equal mix of men and women, along with a couple of children, and grave good include Etruscan bronze bowls, and Etruscan bucchero and Sabine-Faliscan pottery. Women at this time are often buried with spindle whorls, rocchetti (small, spool-shaped terracotta objects thought to be used in weaving or as stamping devices), and fibulae. One woman's grave also contains a loom weight, an iron spindle, and a clay block. The clay may be for treating wool before making yarn. The male burials contain iron weapons indicating the ranks of individual warriors: a lance or javelin alone signifies a soldier of lower rank; a sword, a lance, and two javelins, someone of higher rank. The men appear to be quite tall for the period, the tallest being about 1.7 metres.

Map of the Etruscans
This map shows the greatest extent of Etruscan influence in Italy, during the seventh to fifth centuries BC, including the Campania region to the south (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.500 BC

From about this time and for the subsequent two centuries or so, the Umbri construct rural sanctuaries in which they can make offerings to the gods. They also create votive shapes in the form of gods or animals to include with their offerings.

c.400 - 391 BC

Following the route set by Bellovesus and the Bituriges around 600 BC, other bodies of Celts have gradually invaded northern Italy, probably due to overpopulation in Gaul and the promise of fertile territory just waiting to be captured. The first of these is the Cenomani around 400 BC, followed by the Libui and Saluvii. Then the Boii and Lingones cross the Pennine Alps and, as all the country between the Po and the Alps is occupied, they cross the Po on rafts and expel not only the Etruscans but the Umbri as well. However, they remain north of the Apennines. Then in 391 BC the Senones, the last to come, occupy the country from the River Utis (or Utens) to the Aesis (near Ancona, which marks the border between the Picentes and the Umbri in Italy).

310 BC

Following the end of the Golasecca culture within the Italian Iron Age, and while embroiled in the Second Samnite War against the powerful Samnite people of central Italy, Rome makes its first notable contact with the Umbri.

3rd/2nd C BC

The Iguvine Tablets are composed in the native Umbrian alphabet during a period covering the third to first centuries BC. They describe the Umbrian religious rituals involving animal sacrifice, although the last of them are composed in Latin, revealing the spread and domination of this language during this period. Subsequently lost either during or after the Roman imperial period, they are rediscovered by a farmer in 1444 at Gubbio in Italy. Today they reside in the Museo Civico in Gubbio.

299 - 241 BC

Latin colonies are founded in Umbrian territory by Rome, starting in 299 BC with the conquest of the city of Nequinum, which Rome renames Narni. Further colonies are founded in 268 BC, and 241 BC.

260 BC

The Roman conquest of Umbria is complete. During this century, and possibly not long after this date, some Umbri are given either full Roman citizenship, or limited citizenship which gives them the right to vote. Up to 40,000 Romans are settled in the region, greatly increasing the pace of Latinisation of the Umbri.

Umbrian Terni
The sixth or fifth century grave goods found in the Umbrian settlement of Terni included pottery both native and imported from the Etruscans and Greeks

218 - 202 BC

The Second Punic War is fought against Carthage. Rome is aided by its Etruscan, Frentani, Picene, and Umbrian forces, but Italy is invaded by Hannibal Barca and a Roman army is massacred at the Battle of Cannae, killing 60,000.

91 - 89 BC

The Marsi fight the Social War against Rome in which Rome's allies strive for, and are eventually granted, citizenship. The Frentani, Latins and Umbri are also granted citizenship, although the latter play only a minor role in the war, joining the rebels late and agreeing terms with Rome early on. Thereafter, they are gradually absorbed within Roman Italy and lose their individual identity.

Images and text copyright © all contributors mentioned on this page. An original king list page for the History Files.