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If you've just landed here out of the blue from a search engine, this is merely a brief article from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica: you'll find a lot of information on Umbria — 710 pages and 2000 photographs — by going on to the main page. To get the most out of this site, use the navigation bars at the bottom of each page.

An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.


Umbria (Ὀμβρική), the name of an ancient and a modern district of Italy.

1. The ancient district was bounded in the period of the Roman supremacy by the Ager Gallicus (in a line with Ravenna) on the N., by Etruria (the Tiber) on the W., by the Sabine territory on the S. and by Picenum on the E. The Via Flaminia passed up through it from Ocriculum to Ariminum; along it lay the important towns of Narnia (Narni), Carsulae, Mevania (Bevagna), Forum Flaminii, Nuceria Camellaria (Nocera) and Forum Sempronii; and on the Adriatic coast Fanum Fortunae (Fano) and Pisaurum (Pesaro). To the east lay Interamna (Terni), Spoletium (Spoleto), Fulginium (Foligno — on a branch of the Via Flaminia which left the main road at Varina and rejoined it at Forum Flaminii) and the important town of Camerinum on the side of the Apennines towards Picenum. On the side towards Etruria lay Ameria (Amelia) and Tuder (Todi), both on the direct road from Rome to Perusia, Iguvium, which occupied a very advantageous position close to the main pass through the Apennines, and Hispellum (Spello). Not far off was Assisium (Assisi), whilst far to the north in the mountains lay Sarsina.​a Under the empire it formed the sixth region of Italy. In earlier times it embraced a far larger area. Herodotus (IV.49) describes it as extending to the Alps, and the περίοδος ascribed to Scylax (a treatise which embodies material of the 4th century B.C. or earlier) makes Umbria conterminous with Samnium.​b Furthermore, place-names of undoubted Umbrian origin abound in Etruria and are also found in the Po valley. Thus in the early days of Italian history Umbria may be taken as having extended over the greater part of northern and central Italy.

The name Umbria is derived from the Umbri, one of the chief constituent stocks of the Italian nation. The origin and ethnic affinities of the Umbrians are still in some degree a matter of dispute, but their language proves them to have been an Aryan people closely allied with the Oscans and in a remoter degree with the Latins. Archaeological considerations further show with approximate certainty that the Umbri are to be identified with the creators of the Terramara (q.v.), and probably also of the Villanova (q.v.), 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. From the time and starting-point of their migrations, as well as from their type of culture, it may be provisionally inferred that the Umbrians were cognate with the Achaeans of prehistoric Greece. Pliny's statement (III.13, 19) that they were the most ancient race of Italy may certainly be rejected.

The process by which the Umbrians were deprived of their predominance in upper and central Italy and restricted to their confines of historic times cannot be traced in any detail. A tradition declares that their easternmost territory in the region of Ancona was wrested from them by the Picentes, a branch of the Sabine stock. It may also be conjectured that they were partly displaced in the valley of the Po by the Gaulish tribes which began to pour across the Alps from about 500 B.C. But their chief enemies were undoubtedly the Etruscans. These invaders, whose encroachments can be determined by archaeological evidence as proceeding from the western seaboard towards the north and east, and as lasting from about 700 to 500 B.C., eventually drove the Umbrians into that upland tract athwart the Apennines to which the name of Umbria belonged in historical times. In the course of this struggle the Etruscans are said to have captured 200 Umbrian towns. Nevertheless the Umbrian element of population does not seem to have been eradicated in the conquered districts. Strabo records a tradition that the Umbrians recovered their ground in the plain of the Po at the expense of the Etruscans, and states that the colonies subsequently founded in this region by the Romans contained large Umbrian contingents. In Etruria proper the persistence of the Umbrian stock is indicated by the survival of numerous Umbrian place-names, and by the record of Umbrian soldiers taking part in Etruscan enterprises, e.g. the  p577 attack on Cumae in 524 B.C. Indeed it is not unlikely that the bulk of the population in Etruria continued to be of Umbrian origin, and that the Romanization of this country was facilitated by the partial absorption of the Etruscan conquerors into the Umbrian multitude.

Against the Romans the Umbrians never fought any wars of importance, a fact which may be explained partly by the remoteness of their position, but chiefly by the common hostility of the two nations to the Etruscans. After the downfall of the Etruscan power they made a belated attempt to aid their Samnite kinsmen in their decisive struggle against Rome (308 B.C.); but their communications with Samnium were impeded by the foundation of a great Roman fortress at Narnia (298 B.C.), and at the great battle of Sentinum (295 B.C.), which was fought in their own territory, the Umbrians are not reported to have lent the Samnites any substantial help. It is perhaps on account of this defection that in 200 B.C. they received from the Romans a portion of the Ager Gallicus reconquered from the Senonian Gauls. They offered no opposition to the construction of the Via Flaminia through the heart of their country, and in the Second Punic War withheld all assistance from Hannibal. In the Social War (90‑89 B.C.), they joined the rebels tardily and were among the first to make their peace with Rome. Henceforth the Umbrians no longer played an independent part in Italian history.

The material prosperity of Umbria, in spite of its unfavourable position for commercial intercourse, was relatively great, owing to the fertility of the numerous small valleys which intersect the Apennine system in this region. The chief products of the soil were olives, vines and spelt; the uplands harboured the choicest boars of Italy. In Pliny's time there still existed in Umbria 49 independent communities, and the abundance of inscriptions and the high proportion of recruits furnished to the imperial army attest its continued populousness. Among its most famous natives were the poets Plautus (b. at Sarsina) and Propertius (b. at Assisi).​c

Of the Umbrians' political and municipal organization little is known. In addition to the city (tota) they seem to have had a larger territorial division in the tribus (trifu, acc.) as we gather from Livy (XXXI.2, "per Umbriam quam tribum Sapiniam vocant"; cf. XXXIII.37) and from the Eugubine Tables ("trifor Tarsinates", VI.B.54). Ancient authors describe the Umbrians as leading effeminate lives, and as closely resembling their Etruscan enemies in their habits (Theopompus, Fragm. 142; Pseudo-Scymnus, 366‑368). It is almost certain that each race influenced and modified the other to a large extent. There is conclusive proof of strong Etruscan influences in Umbria. For instance, they undoubtedly borrowed their alphabet and the art of writing from the Etruscans. Their writing ran from right to left. The alphabet consisted of nineteen letters. It had no separate symbols for O, G, Q; the aspirates and X were wanting; likewise the Etruscan f (8). It also had a symbol peculiar to itself for expressing the sound of palatal k when followed by either e or i. The fact that it is only in towns on the side next Etruria, e.g. Tuder and Iguvium, that a coinage is found indicates that they borrowed the art of minting from that quarter. The Umbrians counted their day from noon to noon. But whether they borrowed this likewise from the Etruscans we do not know (Pliny II.79). In their measuring of land they employed the vorsus, a measure common to them and the Oscans (Frontinus, De Limit. p30), 3⅓ of which went to the Roman iugerum.

See Strabo bk. V; T. E. Peet, The Stone and Bronze Ages of Italy and Sicily (Oxford, 1909), pp492‑510; B. V. Head, Historia numorum (Oxford, 1887); H. Nissen, Italische Landeskunde;º Bücheler, Umbrica (1883); R. S. Conway, Italic Dialects.

[M. O. B. C.]

The modern territorial division is situated in the middle of the peninsula, between Tuscany and the Marches on the N and E, and Rome and the Abruzzi on the S and W, and comprising the one province of Perugia, with an area of 3748 sq. m.; pop. (1901), 675,352.​d Umbria and the two provinces of Ancona and Pesaro and Urbino taken together form an area slightly more extensive than that of the sixth region of Augustus. The surface is mountainous, but affords good pasture, and there are numerous fertile valleys. Many treasures of art and architecture are preserved, and Umbria is in this respect one of the most interesting regions of Italy (see Perugia). Modern Umbria formed down to 1860 a part of the States of the Church.

Two main lines of railway run through the territory. That from Florence to Rome skirts the borders of the province on the west, running north and south, while the Rome-Ancona runs across the province from north-east to south-west. The cross communication is given by three branch lines. In the north a narrow gauge line from Arezzo to Fossato passes through Gubbio.​e Perugia, the capital of the province, stands on the line from Terontola to Foligno, while on the extreme south a line passing through Rieti and Aquila, and ultimately reaching Sulmona, starts from Terni on the Rome-Ancona.

[T. As.]

Thayer's Notes:

a In Plautus' time, Sarsina was not in Umbria. See my note to "Birthplace of Plautus and Temple of Jupiter Apenninus" in Notes and Queries No. 217.

b ps.‑Scylax, Περίπλους 16; in which the only city of Umbria mentioned is the Adriatic port of Ancona, nowhere near the modern region.

c Plautus is indeed very widely said to have been born at Sarsina — but the place, though it would later be attached to the Roman Regio VI Umbria, is near Forlì, in the modern region of Emilia-Romagna, some 30 km N of the northern edge of today's Umbria; furthermore, careful consideration of the source of the belief, already prevalent in Varro's time, makes it very doubtful anyway.

Propertius, on the other hand, was definitely from somewhere in the centre of the modern region, since he says so himself; but Assisi is only one of three, maybe even four candidates, and not to my mind the most likely: see my note to the Encyclopedia Britannica article "Mevania".

d Since 1911, there have been a few changes, even in conservative Umbria. The province is now an autonomous region divided in 1927 into 2 provinces, Perugia and Terni. The area around Rieti, which in 1911 was part of Umbria, now forms the province of Rieti in the Lazio, and other smaller territorial adjustments have been made, decreasing the area slightly from the figure given in the article to 8456 km2 (3265 sq. mi.). The population in 2010 was 904,000: the low rate of increase over the last century is due to the loss of the province of Rieti, and partly to war; but mostly to rural exodus, the exhaustion of Umbrian mines and the emigration of miners and their families (mostly to the Benelux countries and to the United States), and low birthrates in the second half of the 20c.

e Of the five railway lines mentioned, only four are still running. The narrow gauge line from Fossato di Vico to Arezzo in Tuscany is now history, torn up just after the Second World War.

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Page updated: 5 Dec 20