History of Siena
History of Siena

Ultimate Siena Italy History Travel Guide

Siena is one of the most beautiful medieval cities in Italy. Located in the enchanting Tuscan landscape, its foundation is more or less legendary, and there are many hypotheses related to it. According to mythology, the city was founded by Senio, the son of Remus, who was the brother of Romulus, founder of Rome.
The legend narrates that Senio, together with his brother Ascanio, would have fled Rome due to prosecutions from their uncle, Romulus. Finding refuge in the Tuscan area, Senio founded the new city, which we today call Siena.

Another legend describes the founding of Siena in a slightly different location and narrates that it was Brenno, head of the Senoni tribe, who would have founded the original Siena on the place of today’s Brenna.

Despite these captivating legends, archaeological evidence related to the most ancient period of Siena’s history is unfortunately limited. Apart from sporadic artifacts scattered throughout the city and surrounding area, it is believed that the oldest parts of the city are now deeply buried below the new urban center, whose uninterrupted living continuity doesn’t allow for excessive archaeological research.
What is certain though is that Siena has a long and rich history that is well worth exploring.


Although the history of Siena is ancient, evidence of the Protovillanovan and the Villanovan Era is rather limited. Most historians agree that the name derives from the Etruscan noble Saina, as it is attested epigraphically in Perugia, Montalcino, and Chiusi.

The Etruscan presence in Siena is also attested by numerous archaeological finds. Some of the most notable artifacts are located in Piazza del Mercato, where some bronze fibulae attributable to the eighth century BC have been found.

Palazzo Salimbeni also holds multiple pieces of Buccheri, typical black-painted Etruscan pottery referable to a period between the sixth and first century BC.
Recent excavations carried out in the area of Santa Maria Della Scala, on the southern slope of the Duomo hill, evidence the remains of a large hut with masonry foundation that also contains black pottery and other ceramics dating back to the seventh century BC.

Evidence suggests that Siena was subsequently occupied by the Greeks. From the Hellenistic period, there is also evidence of a necropolis, a group of hypogeum tombs with square chambers that contained black Volterran ceramics, crude pottery, and other types of ceramics attributable to an era between the fourth and second centuries BC.

This is not the only burial site identified in the region. Other necropolises also contain ceramics, coins, urns, precious metal objects, terracotta, and painted olla objects attributable to various eras between the fourth and second centuries BC. All these testimonies suggest that the territory of Siena, even during its most recent Etruscan period, was not a real urban formation but rather a gathering of establishments that served the surrounding agricultural areas.

The first true settlement was only established during the Roman era, known as Saena Julia, and it served the role of a military outpost. Its location is highly relevant because the city formed in an area that was scarcely inhabited but strategically positioned, wedged exactly in the middle of a triangle formed by Arezzo, Volterra, and Chiusi.

This position for the Roman military outpost wasn’t randomly chosen, but carefully planned in such a way that it could benefit the Roman Empire. It is easy to understand, therefore, how the Romans gained control over the entire Etruscan territory so rapidly, despite the significant military power of the Etruscans.
The first known historical document mentioning Saena Julia dates back to 70 AD and bears the signature of Publius Cornelius Tacitus who, in his fourth book of the Historiae, reports that a Roman Senator had been ridiculed with a fake funeral during his official visit to Saena Julia, a small military colony in Tuscia.
While the Roman Senate decided to punish the main culprits and demand greater respect for authority, Siena obtained its Roman citizenship only twenty years later, when it was recognized as a municipium.

Nevertheless, Siena didn’t prosper under Roman rule. It was not located near any major roads, so it lacked opportunities for trade. Due to its rather “insular” status, Christianity also arrived late in Siena, only in the fourth century AD.


While Siena didn’t enjoy much prosperity under the Romans, the situation changed for the better after the arrival of the Lombards who invaded Siena and its surrounding territory. The arrival of the Lombards in the region was not casual. The Byzantines were using the old Roman roads Via Aurelia and Via Cassia as access ways for their raids in the Lombard territory. As such, the Lombards had to reroute much of their trade between the northern territories and Rome along a more secure road passing through Siena.

Becoming a trading post rather than a military one, Siena started to prosper. At the same time, pilgrims passing to and from Rome provided a valuable source of income for centuries.

The oldest aristocratic families were born in Siena after the Lombards surrendered to Charlemagne in 774.

With the arrival of the French and marriages between their nobles and existing local ones, the passage of the Franks left an important legacy that can still be seen in the abbeys that were founded throughout the territory.

Feudal power was about to come to an end, however, and with the death of Countess Matilda in 1115, the border territory of the March of Tuscany – which had been under the control of her family, the Canossa, up to that point – broke up into several autonomous regions. Ultimately, this marked the beginning of the Republic of Siena.

The Republic founded in the twelfth century lasted until the sixteenth. The first centuries can be defined as the golden age of Siena, during which the city flourished as an important banking power. From 1125 to 1348, the city evolved and gained most of its characteristic medieval buildings. In 1240, the prestigious University of Siena was founded.

However, tensions with nearby rival Florence also increased during this time, with Siena building the walled town of Monteriggioni in a strategic position as a line of defense against Florence. The two neighbors were caught up in the Guelf and Ghibelline conflict with Florence’s forces characterized as anti-imperial, or Guelf, while Siena was pro-imperial, or Ghibelline. The highest point of the Republic of Siena was in 1260 when Sienese forces defeated Florence during the Battle of Montaperti. Unfortunately, the tide would turn with the Papacy eventually imposing sanctions on the Ghibellines, and this would push Siena to become Guelf.

Before the Black Death in 1348, the city was home to over 50,000 people. The situation changed drastically after the Plague and during the Italian wars that involved the Republic of Siena in conflicts with Florence, as well as conflicts between the French and Spanish troops for their supremacy in Italy. Nevertheless, during the period following the Black Death, Siena was able to build breathtaking churches and other public buildings as well as nurture a religious atmosphere that culminated with two local saints: Bernardino and Catherine. Additionally, the first bank in the world was founded in Siena during this time.

Ruled by Pandolfo Petrucci towards the end of the fifteenth century, Siena managed to skillfully maneuver the first periods of war. However, with Petrucci’s death, the Republic entered a phase characterized by infighting and loss of commercial competitiveness, which strongly weakened the position of Siena.
As a result, the Spanish Empire made the first attempt to establish a permanent protectorate in the territory in 1540, with the establishment of a stable garrison. This attempt provoked quite a bit of tension and eventually caused a true uprising on July 26, 1552, consequent to the construction of the fortified citadel.

Siena opened its gates to the French armies, besieging the Spaniards in the fortress until their expulsion following a conflict mediation conducted by the Medici. In February 1553, the Spaniards resumed hostilities under the command of the viceroy of Naples, Garcia Alvarez de Toledo y Osorio. However, the Ottoman invasion forced the viceroy to retire, allowing the French to take over command.

In 1554, Charles V offered the command to Cosimo de Medici, supplying him with a mighty army consisting of various Spaniard, German, and Hungarian contingents. The army jumped at the opportunity to attack their long-standing rival, besieging Siena and sacking the countryside.

The army of Siena, commanded by Piero Strozzi, resisted for a long time and it even managed to inflict harsh defeats on the imperial coalition, such as the annihilation of part of the opposing army in the Battle of Chiusi. Nevertheless, Siena was eventually overwhelmed by the superiority of the Medici, who forced the city to surrender to Spain on April 17, 1555.

Negotiations established the surrender of the republic to the imperial power; showing mercy for the people of Siena though, the new rulers demonstrated general forgiveness and gave the possibility to leave the city to anyone who wished to do so.

Obviously, this opportunity was seized by the army which reached Val d’Orcia and organized an extreme defense of the Republic of Siena now located in Montalcino.

In 1557, the Spanish sold Siena to Cosimo de Medici and in 1569 Pope Pius IV issued a special papal bull that conferred Cosimo the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany. This title, obviously superior to the previous ducal title, made Cosimo the bearer of sovereign dignity and gave him the power over all controlled territories.

This new organization marked the formation of the Duchy of Tuscany, formally constituted by the Duchy of Florence and the Duchy of Siena. Both states were granted autonomous administrative magistracies, who responded to the regional sovereigns but who could manage their territories in any way they found fit.
These changes made Siena one of the most sought-after destinations as well as a key location of the Grand Tour between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nevertheless, these two centuries weren’t particularly favorable and brought no special cultural or social improvement in Siena.

The beginning of the nineteenth century arrived with the first Napoleonic War and a first French occupation. During this time, Siena became the protagonist of the anti-Jacobin movement, alongside Arezzo. The city was also involved in struggles during the second Napoleonic campaign.

During the movement for the unification of Italy, known as Risorgimento, Siena participated in all wars and offered numerous volunteers to the troops fighting for the establishment of the Italian Kingdom.

In fact, in 1859, Siena was the first city in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany that voted in favor of annexation to the Kingdom of Italy. During the following decades and especially following the two World Wars, Siena experienced a true revival thanks to manufacturing, agriculture, and the growth of the University. Today, Siena thrives as an important cultural center thanks to its wealth of medieval art and architecture.


Siena might have been founded only by the Romans, but ancient remains evidence the existence of primitive populations and emerging civilizations in the territory since prehistoric times. The area is scattered with necropolises that hold evidence of the Etruscan origins of these people.

Collections currently housed at the Department of Archaeology and History at the University of Siena include numerous artifacts discovered during excavations in various areas of the city. Furthermore, the department has also created numerous replicas of primitive villages and dwellings. This heritage includes thematic collections related to the production of ceramics from the prehistoric period to the Renaissance.

The Archaeological Museum of Siena also houses important collections of prehistoric and historical remains.

There are few open-air archaeological sites in Siena, mainly due to the development of the city on top of the existing Roman one. Nevertheless, the historical importance of the territory is undeniable, and the collections housed in the museums are well worth discovering.