23 Feb 2010

The origin of Perugia

I don't know about anyone else but I keep on tripping over new questions with apparently no answers and it can be very frustrating when no one else is asking the same questions (or at least not being vocal enough to ask them). Here's an interesting question with no clear answers: What is the etymology of Perugia.

Perugia was originally an Etruscan city founded in Umbrian territory. We know that the Latin name was Perusia and the Etruscan name can be reconstructed as *Φerusina based on Φersnaχs in TLE 363. Now what the dabnammit does it mean? What's its etymology? Where does this name come from? Blank. Unlike many other subjects that yield something of interest, searching online for Perugia's origin gives me either websites with random answers or published texts from the 19th-century with equally random answers. And don't get me started on how useless internet groups can be, full of the usual crackpots and trolls.

All I could find that was even remotely helpful was Antonio Sciarretta's website which displays a fearsomely long list of etymologies for a variety of European toponyms including those in the region of ancient Etruria. Let's examine. According to him the "second part of the name is usually [recognized] as a toponymic formant and compared with the one of Venusia (Lucania), Genusia (Apulia)." (ie. Perusia is to be divided up as *Per-usia). This immediately smells like false parsing to me since one could equally come up with other ad hoc 'toponymic formants' like *-asia and find examples like Ocrasia and Planasia to serve as 'evidence' with far too much ease to suit my skeptical nature. Sciarretta follows this with mention of wild attempts to link the name with birds (Latin parra)[1] and rocks. The only statement here worth considering seems to be the last one when he offers that it's possibly from an Umbrian root *Perus-.

Indeed, I can agree to an Umbrian origin because I myself get the impression of a specifically Italic root here. When we look at the Etruscan name, *Φerusina, and strip away the suffix of appurtenance -na, we're left with the root *Φerusi-. Yet the root has an odd shape for Etruscan. It's not possible to analyse it further since Etruscan roots invariably head the word and this would yield *Φer- with a nonsense suffix *-us(i)-. To add, the letter phi normally starts off foreign names, as seen in many clear Greek loans such as Φamn 'Phaon' (ET AS S.1) and Φersipnai (CIE 5091) or Umbrian ones like Φisie (Φisis [TLE 470] (gen.); cf. Fisius). This also lends to the theory that this is an Umbrian term.

As I find no sensible meaning and source given to this name as yet, I've thought of one possibility that doesn't involve sparrows or stones. In Latin if I'm not mistaken, we have the phrase per rūra 'through the fields' (nb. -s- > -r- in rūra). So could it not be simply that Perusia means just that? When I look at an aerial map of the terrain, I see that Perugia is situated in a patch of relatively flat land situated at the foot of surrounding mountains. Such a meaning then would be perfectly plausible.

[1] Bonfante, I Nomi di Assisi e di Capua, published in Italica, vol. 20 (1943), p.195 (see link).


  1. Interesting and persuasive, although Perugia is actually a hilltop town commanding views over nearby valleys - that said, it would be accessed from neighbouring cities "through the fields," particularly if it was a lesser Etruscan stronghold.

  2. If the beautiful modernday pictures of Perugia are any indication, it has rolling hills cleared of trees, what one would call "fields" in English. I must assume in this case that an Umbrian *rusa would have similar scope, referring to some original clearing, whether artificial or due to early agriculture.

    My hunch so far is that the equivalent Etruscan word was *capa, hence Capua from *capa-va 'fields', cf. Greek καμπή (kampē) (presuming Aegean substrate and rejecting Pokorny's alleged Indo-European root *kam-p-).