The area around Bologna was settled perhaps as early as 1000 BC by the people of the Villanovan culture, who occupied much of north-central Italy; Villanova di Castelnaso itself, with the site that gives these people a name, is just outside the city.
The Villanovans, once believed to be an Italic people who were conquered by the Etruscans, are now generally accepted simply as an earlier phase of Etruscan culture, before its great economic expansion of the 8th and 7th centuries BC brought it into the mainstream of Mediterranean civilization and opened it to influences from the Greek world.
The Etruscans homeland, however, was not here but in what is now Tuscany and northern Lazio. They expanded over the Apennines sometime in the 6th century, and founded the town of Velzna, or Felsina (Bologna) c. 510 BC, over what had been a Villanovan settlement. The finds on display in the city's Museo Civico Archeologico are sufficient testament to the wealth and sophistication of Etruscan Velzna in the century that followed. Even though the city and the rest of the settlements in the Po valley were only frontier outposts, they developed cultural traditions and styles of art quite different from those of Tuscany.
The Etruscan world was a collection of city-states, organized in religiously based confederations, and Velzna may have been the chief town of a dodecapolis, or league of twelve cities, similar to that of Tuscany. Velzna grew quickly and grew fat from trade with the other towns of Italy and Greece, but its good fortune was not to last.
In the 4th century everything seemed to go wrong for the Etruscans. While the main cities south of the Apennines were getting battered in trade wars against the Greeks, and beginning to feel the threat from the new power of Rome, the Po valley cities found themselves overwhelmed by invaders from the north, the Celts. The Celtic Boii tribe conquered the region around Velzna c. 350, and gave the city its new name Bononia. (The Boii also gave their name to Bohemia, whence they had originally come.)
The Celts cared more for poetry, hospitality and other people’s cattle than for cities and commerce, and Bononia languished under their control. In the Punic Wars, the Boii and the rest of the Celts sided with Carthage against Rome. Hannibal’s army wintered at Bononia in 217. After the Roman victory the Celts of Cisalpine Gaul were doomed. Bononia succumbed to the legions in 189, and was soon after refounded as a Latin colony.
For the next six centuries this town had almost nothing to say for itself. With its prime location, at the intersection of the Via Emilia and the Via Cassia, the main road to Venetia and central Europe, Bononia grew into a prosperous though undistinguished municipium, and variously enjoyed the benefits or suffered the vicissitudes of the Roman state.
If little is known about the city in this era, it is only because the centre has been continuously occupied through all the centuries since. Even now, central Bologna does not care to change much, and opportunities for archaeological excavations are few. A bit of the old Via Emilia, complete with wagon ruts in the stone paving, is visible on the pedestrian underpass beneath Via Rizzoli, and the Roman theatre has been located on Via Carbonesi, almost entirely covered with buildings.
On any map, you can see clearly the extent of Roman Bononia in the grid of rectilinear streets between the Two Towers and Via Nazario Sauro, Via Riva di Reno and Via Farini. In the troubles that accompanied the decline and fall of the Empire, the area west of Via Galliera seems to have been abandoned, and sometime after 300 AD a defensive wall was built around the shrunken town. The town’s most important patron saint, St Petronius, was a 5th-century bishop who assumed control of the city and did good work keeping things together in hard times.
Like Romagna, and unlike all of Emilia to the west, Bononia was never conquered by the Lombards when they overran Italy in the 570s, and the city remained under the rule of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna until the Lombard King Liutprand finally seized it in 727. They in turn lost it to Charlemagne in 774. There is evidence that the city was thriving even in these depths of the Dark Ages – it was one of the few cities to expand its walls, if only slightly. In the curving streets between the Torre Asinella and Piazza Rossini you can trace on the map the course of an unusual semicircular addition, most likely made in the 8th century.
Next: Bologna: 1000-1505
Images by: LACMA, Public Domain