The first two major tribes to share Umbria were the Umbri and the Etruscans. Although the Etruscans have received more press, the Umbri settled the region first, as far back as 1000 BC. The river Tiber (Tevere in Italian) mostly divided the two: Umbri on the east, 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.
Things seriously changed in Umbria around 300 BC. Soldiers from a little upstart village to the south called Rome came knocking. In 295 BC, Rome conquered the Etruscans, and their lands – including Umbria – fell under Roman rule.
Despite the legendary Roman plundering and pillaging, things weren’t totally bad. The Romans 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 spur ran 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 a whole host of barbarians led to an economic and cultural decline. Starvation and disease were rampant. 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 favour rule by either the pope or the Holy Roman Empire, creating a split between Guelphs (papal supporters) and Ghibellines (champions of 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 (Benedict of Norcia for one, 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, born in one of its most famous towns – St Francis of Assisi – cemented Umbria’s reputation as a centre for spirituality, which continues to this day.
Historians of Umbrian culture like to say that time stopped in 1540. The pope installed a salt tax, resulting in a Salt War that led to a standstill in Umbrian culture, which means the Renaissance didn’t flourish here like it did in neighbouring Tuscany, but it also preserved the medieval hearts of most Umbrian towns. To this day, Umbria still retains much of its ancient history, and time seems to move a little slower, even for visitors.