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


Volsinii, an ancient town of Etruria, Italy. The older Volsinii occupied in all probability the isolated tufa rock, so strongly defended by nature, upon which in Roman times stood the town which Procopius (B. G. II.11 seq.) calls Οὐρβιβεντός (Urbs Vetus, the modern Orvieto). This conjecture, first made by O. Müller, has been generally accepted by modern archaeologists; and it is a strong point in its favour that the bishop of Orvieto in 595 signs himself episcopus civitatis Bulsiniensis (Gregor. Magn. Registr. V.57a; cf. II.11, VI.27).​a It had, and needed, no outer walls, being surrounded on all sides except the SW by abrupt tufa cliffs; but a massive wall found by excavation on the SW side of the town may have belonged to the acropolis. No remains of antiquity are to be seen within the city;​b but at the foot of the hill on the N a large Etruscan necropolis was found in 1874, dating from the 5th century B.C. The tombs, constructed of blocks of stone and arranged in rows divided by passages (like houses in a town), often had the name of the deceased on the façade. Many painted vases, &c., were found; some of the best are in the Museo Civico at Orvieto. Tombs with paintings have also been found to the W of the town on the way to Bolsena.

Volsinii was reputed the richest of the twelve cities of Etruria. Wars between Volsinii and Rome are mentioned in 392, 308 and 294 B.C., and in 265‑64 B.C. the Romans assisted the inhabitants against their former slaves, who had successfully asserted themselves against their masters and took the town. Fulvius Flaccus gained a triumph for his victory, and it was probably then that the statue of Vertumnus which stood in the Vicus Tuscus at Rome was brought from Volsinii. Zonaras states that the city was destroyed and removed elsewhere, though the old site continued apparently to be inhabited, to judge from the inscriptions found there. The new city was certainly situated on the hills on the NE bank of the Lake of Bolsena (Lacus Volsiniensis), 12 m. WSW of Orvieto, where many remains of antiquity have been found, on and above the site of the modern Bolsena (q.v.). These remains consist of Etruscan tombs, the sacred enclosure of the goddess Nortia, with votive objects and coins ranging from the beginning of the 3rd century B.C. to the middle of the 3rd century A.D., remains of Roman houses, &c., and an amphitheatre of the imperial period (E. Gabrici in Monumenti dei Lincei, XVI, 1906, 169 sqq., and in Notizie degli Scavi, 1906, 59 sqq.).

The history of the new Volsinii is somewhat scanty. Sejanus, the favourite of Tiberius, and Musonius Rufus the Stoic were natives of the place. The earliest dated inscription from the cemetery of S. Christina (discovered with its subterranean church in 1880‑81) belongs to A.D. 376 and the first known bishop of Volsinii to A.D. 499. In the next century, however, the see was transferred to Orvieto. Etruscan tombs have been found on the Isola Bisentina, in the lake; and on the west bank was the town of Visentium, Roman inscriptions belonging to which have been found. The site is marked by a medieval castle bearing the name Bisenzo.

See E. Bormann in Corp. Inscr. Latin. XI, 1888, pp423 sqq.; Notizie degli Scavi, passim; G. Dennis, op. cit. (II.18 sqq.).

[T. As.]

Thayer's Notes:

a Orvieto is in fact probably not the best candidate, and a century after this article was written, the Etruscan town has still not been identified. At any rate, this particular argument is weak: ecclesiastical authorities are notoriously conservative in the naming of sees, often maintaining the name of the former see after it has been transferred. Further on in this very article, we read "In the next century, however, the see was transferred to Orvieto". From where?

The logical candidate is of course Bolsena, from its name alone; but see also some evidence of a statistical nature based on a Roman milestone now in Orvieto. See also George Dennis's chapters on Volsinii and Orvieto, passim: he may be an even older writer, but the points he makes are still good.

b Leaving aside the hundreds of semi-artificial caves, holes, and tunnels with which the butte of Orvieto is riddled, many of them very possibly first dug by Etruscans but quite impossible to date and subsequently much altered down thru the Middle Ages and even closer to our own time, there are also the scant remains of a stone platform, excavated in 1828, on which, or so we are now assured, there stood an Etruscan temple: it is given on maps of the city as the Tempio del Belvedere.

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Page updated: 14 Apr 09