previous next


VOLATERRAE (Οὐολατέρραι: Eth. Volaterranus: Volterra), one of the most important and powerful of all the Etruscan cities. It was situated on a lofty hill, rising above the valley of the Cecina, about 5 miles N. of that river and 15 from the sea. Strabo has well described its remarkable [p. 2.1319]situation on the summit of a hill, which required a steep ascent of 15 stadia from whatever side it was approached, while the summit itself presented a level surface of considerable extent, bounded on all sides by precipices, and crowned by the walls of the ancient city. (Strab. v. p.223.) The hill on which it stands is, according to modern measurements, more than 1700 English feet in height above the sea, and completely overlooks all the surrounding heights, so that the position of the city is extremely commanding. It is indeed the most striking instance of the kind of position which the Etruscans seem to have generally preferred for their cities.

There can be no doubt of the great antiquity of Volaterrae, nor that it was, from the earliest period of Etruscan history with which we have any acquaintance, one of the twelve principal cities of the Etruscan confederation: this conclusion, to which we should be irresistibly led by the still existing proofs of its ancient greatness, is confirmed by the earliest notice of it that we find in history, where it appears as one of the five Etruscan cities which furnished support to the Latins in their war with Tarquinius Priscus. (Dionys. A. R. 3.51.) But from this time we find no subsequent mention of Volaterrae in history till a much later period. Its remoteness from Rome will indeed sufficiently account for the fact that its name never figures in the long protracted wars of the Romans with the southern Etruscans; but even after the Roman arms had been carried into the heart of Etruria, and the cities of Perusia and Arretium took active part in the wars, we find no mention of Volaterrae. In B.C. 298, however, we are told that the Roman consul L. Scipio was encountered near Volaterrae by the combined forces of the Etruscans (Liv. 10.12), among which there is little doubt that those of the Volaterrans themselves were included, though this is not expressly stated. But we do not again find their name noticed in the extant accounts of these wars, and the terms on which they were finally reduced to submission by the Romans are unknown to us. We learn only that in common with most of the Etruscans they were received on the footing of dependent allies, and they appear among the “socii” who in the Second Punic War came forward to furnish supplies for the fleet of Scipio, B.C. 205. On that occasion the Volaterrans provided materials for shipbuilding as well as corn. (Liv. 28.45.) From this time we hear no more of Volaterrae till the civil wars between Marius and Sulla, when the city espoused the cause of the former, and from its great natural strength became the last stronghold of the Marian party in Etruria, and indeed in Italy. It was besieged by Sulla himself long after every other city in Italy had submitted, and did not surrender till after a siege or rather blockade of two years' duration. (Strab. v. p.223; Liv. Epit. lxxxix.; Cic. pro Rose. Amer. 7, pro Caec. 7.) As a punishment for its obstinacy, its territory was confiscated by the conqueror; but it appears that it was never actually divided, and the citizens who had survived the calamities of the war remained in possession of their lands, as well as of the rights of Roman citizens, which had been doubtless conferred upon them in common with the other Etruscans by the Lex Julia in B.C. 89. (Cic. pro Dom. 30, ad Fays. 13.4, 5, ad Att. 1.19.) It appears that another attempt was made to dispossess them by an agrarian law in the consulship of Cicero, but this calamity was averted from them by the efforts of the great orator, to whom the citizens in consequence became warmly attached (Id. ad Fam. 13.4), and it appears probable that Caesar subsequently confirmed them in the possession both of their lands and municipal privileges. (Ib.

Volaterrae, however, certainly received a colony under the Triumvirate (Lib. Col. p. 214), but does not appear to have retained the title of a Colonia: it is expressly included by Pliny among the municipal towns of Etruria. (Plin. Nat. 3.5. s. 8; Ptol. 3.1.48.) We find no mention of the name in history under the Roman Empire; but it is certain that the city continued to exist; and it appears again, after the fall of the Western Empire, as a place of importance during the wars of the Goths with Narses (Agath. B. G. 1.11). It continued to subsist throughout the middle ages, and still retains the title of a city and its episcopal see; though it has little more than 4000 inhabitants, and occupies only a small portion of the area of the ancient city. The latter is clearly marked out, having comprised the whole level surface of the hill, a very irregular space, above a mile and a half in length and more than 1000 yards in its greatest breadth: the whole circuit of the ancient walls is above three miles and a quarter. Very large portions of these walls are still visible, and these massive fortifications are incontestably the finest specimens of the kind now existing in Etruria: they resemble in their general style of construction those of Faesulae and Cortona, but are composed of a different material, a soft, arenaceous limestone, which composes the whole summit of the hill on which Volterra stands. This stone, however, like the macigno of Fiesole and Cortona, lends itself readily to the horizontal structure, and is wholly distinct from the hard Apennine limestone of which the polygonal walls of Cosa and other cities are composed. These walls may be traced, at intervals, all round the brow of the hill, following the broken and irregular outlines of its summit, and frequently taking advantage of projecting points to form bold salient angles and outworks. Two of the ancient gates are still preserved; of which the one called the Porta all‘ Arco still serves as the principal entrance to the city. It is of very massive construction, but regularly built, and surmounted by an arch of perfectly regular form and structure, adorned with three sculptured heads, projecting in relief from the keystone and two of the principal voussoirs. The antiquity of this arch has been a subject of much dispute among antiquarians; some maintaining it to be a specimen of genuine Etruscan architecture, others ascribing it to the Roman period. The arguments in favour of the latter view seem on the whole to preponderate; though there is no reason to doubt that the Etruscans were acquainted with the true principles of the construction of the arch. (Dennis's Etruria, vol. ii. pp. 146--150; Micali, Antichi Popoli Italiani, vol. iii. pp. 4, 5.1) The other gate, on the N. side of the Etruscan walls, now known as the Porta di Diana or Portone, is of similar plan and construction to the Porta all‘ Arco; but the arch is wanting.

No other remains of ancient edifices are now extant on the site of Volaterrae, except some portions of Thermae, of Roman date and little interest; but the sepulchres which have been excavated on all sides of the city, but particularly on the N. slope of the hill, have yielded a rich harvest of Etruscan antiquities [p. 2.1320]Among these the most conspicuous are the sepulchral urns, or rather chests, for ashes, resembling small sarcophagi, and generally formed of alabaster, a material which is quarried in the immediate neighbourhood. Many of them are adorned with sculptures and bas-reliefs, some of them purely Etruscan in character, others taken from the Greek mythology, and there is no doubt that many of them belong to a period long after the fall of Etruscan independence. The inscriptions are for the most part merely sepulchral, and of little interest; but those of one family are remarkable as preserving to us the original Etruscan form (Ceicna) of the well-known family of the Caecinae, who figure frequently in Roman history [CAECINA Biogr. Dict.]. Indeed, the first of this family of whom we have any knowledge--the Aulus Caecina defended by Cicero in B.C. 69--was himself a native of Volaterrae (Cic. pro Caec. 7). His son was the author of a work on the “Etruscan discipline,” which is frequently referred to as a valuable source of information in regard to that department of antiquities (Cic. Fam. 6.6; Plin. i. Arg. Lib. ii; Senec. Nat. Quaest. 2.39).

There is no doubt that Volaterrae in the days of its independence possessed an extensive territory. Strabo.distinctly tells us (v. p. 223) that its territory extended down to the sea-coast, where the town of VADA or as it was called for distinction's sake, VADA VOLATERRANA constituted its sea-port. It was not indeed a harbour or port in the strict sense of the word; but a mere roadstead, where the shoals, from which it derived its name, afforded a good anchorage and some shelter to shipping. Hence it was, in the Roman times, a frequented station for vessels proceeding along the coast of Etruria (Cic. pro Quinct. 6: Plin. Nat. 3.5. s. 8; Itin. Marit. p. 501); and Rutilius, in particular, has left us an exact description of the locality (Rutil. Itin. 1.453--462). The site is still marked by a mediaeval tower on the coast, called Torre di Vada.

The coins of Volaterrae are numerous, and belong to the class called Aes Grave, from their large size and weight; but they are distinguished from all other Etruscan coins of this class by their having the name of the city in full; whence we learn that the Etruscan form of the name was FELATHRI, or VELATHRI, as on the one of which a figure is annexed.



1 The gate itself is figured by Micali, pl. 7, 8; and by Abeken, Mittel-Italien, pl. 2, fig. 4.

hide References (8 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (8):
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 6.6
    • Cicero, On his House, 30
    • Cicero, For Publius Quinctius, 6
    • Cicero, For Aulus Caecina, 7
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 3.5
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 28, 45
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 10, 12
    • Claudius Ptolemy, Tetrabiblos, 3.1
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: