Siena in Antiquity
At 322 metres above sea level, Siena is right in the heart of Tuscany. But the true origin of this magnificent city is still uncertain. A number of historians refer to an ancient Etruscan settlement known as Sena, which stood on the borders between the lands governed by Volterra, Arezzo and Chiusi. When this settlement was conquered by the Romans under Augustus, it took on the name of Sena Iulia.
The origin of the name Siena is probably Etruscan and could derive from the name of a family, the Saina. It was quite common for patrician families to take on the name of their place of origin, as with the Tarchna/Tarquinia or the Velzna/Volsinii. A number of references to the name Saena appear in Latin texts, associated with eminent men such as the consul Saenius Lucii Filius (32 B.C.), or the senator L. Saenius. The Greek geographer Tolomeus indicates that the city was known as Saìna.
According to some legends, Siena was founded by the Galli Senoni. Other legends trace the founding of the city back to a young Roman named Senius, one of the children of Rhemus who was forced to flee the rage of his uncle Romulus along with another of his siblings, Ascanius. These two brothers are believed to have left Rome with a statue of the she-wolf and, after finding refuge on a hill above the river Tressa, built a fortress known as Castel Senio, or Castelvecchio – reputed to be the first nucleus around which the city developed over the millennia. This is the reason why the emblem of Siena remains to this day the she-wolf of Rome.
The diocese of Siena probably dates back to the reigns of Gratian and Theodosius, following the conversion of the area by Ansanus, a young martyr who is the city’s main patron saint.
As from the 10th century, Siena underwent a period of flourishing financial and political development, chiefly due to its strategic position along the Via Romea, or Via Francigena, which in the wake of the Longobard invasions became the safest route from northern Italy into Rome. In 994 Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury, mentions Siena as Seocine, including it as one of the 80 stops on his way back to the Channel from Rome. At this time the city had grown out of its initial nucleus of Castelvecchio, placed high on a hill. Beneath this ancient settlement a number of hamlets had formed into three-pronged star shape, which is still visible today within the old city walls.
Although little documentation has survived from this period, it is certain that the financial and social development of Siena took place before it rose to artistic and architectural prominence. It remains remarkable that such a small city, set in unfavourable countryside and with a number of powerful neighbours including Florence, should have risen to such heights of grandeur and accumulated such considerable wealth.