Aulus and Caeles Vibenna were two powerful Etruscan chieftains from Vuci, Italy, who reportedly lived sometime during the Roman regal period, dated around 753-509 BCE in Roman tradition, but sometimes reduced to about 625-500 BCE in more modern estimations. The brothers (reportedly twins) were heroes who were remembered by generations of Etruscans, and their images were immortalized in art as early as the 6th century BCE—so far, a bucchero vase from Veii, a funerary urn from Chiusi, a bronze mirror from Bolsena, an Etruscan red-figure cup, and wall paintings from the François Tomb of Vuci are among several discovered ancient artifacts linked to the Vibenna brothers or their legend.
Etruscans were not the only ones interested in the Vibenna brothers. Much of the scant information that we know about the pair comes from the Romans. The antiquarians Varro and Verrius Flaccus wrote about the Vibenna brother, as did a few historians, including Tacitus. Emperor Claudius, who was a historian before becoming an emperor, reportedly wrote a twenty-three volume history on the Etruscans and personally studied the Vibenna brothers, as well as an equally famous associate of theirs named, Macstrna or Mastarna.
Rome had good reason for its interest in the Vibenna brothers. The tales of Aulus and Caeles were interwoven with Rome’s own folklore and myth. Aulus Vibenna was said to have traveled to Rome and died somewhere in the city. Similarly, Caeles Vibenna (or his friend, Mastarna) also ventured to Rome. The brothers apparently left a huge impact on the Romans, for, according to tradition, two of the Seven Hills of Rome (Palatine, Capitoline, Quirinal, Viminal, Esquiline, Caelian, and Aventine) are named after them.
Caeles (or Caelius) Vibenna’s connection to the hills is the easiest to explain. After scanning the above list of the Seven Hills of Rome, the Caelian Hill may catch the reader’s eye. According to the ancient antiquarians and historians, the similarity between the name of Caeles/Caelius and the Caelian Hill was no coincidence. The Roman historian, Tacitus, summarized the most popular theory about how the Caelian Hill received its name: “the [Caelian] hill was originally called Oak Hill because of its dense growth of oak trees, and was later named ‘Caelian’ after Caeles Vibenna, an Etruscan chief who, for helping Rome, had been granted the hill as a residence by Tarquinius Priscus—or another king” (The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book IV, section 65). Emperor Claudius, drawing from his Etruscan research, presented an alternative theory in a speech to the Senate in 48 CE, where he claimed it was actually Caeles’ lieutenant, Mastarna, who gained great influence in Rome and was responsible for the naming of the Caelian Hill.
Aulus Vibinna’s link to one of the Seven Hills of Rome is a bit more complicated—and much more morbid. According to Roman folklore, when the Temple of Jupiter was being constructed on a certain hill in Rome during the 6th century BCE, the laborers working on the foundation were said to have made a macabre discovery. The Roman historian, Livy, described the scene: “a man’s head with the features intact was discovered by the workmen who were digging the foundation of the temple. This meant without any doubt that on this spot would stand the imperial citadel of the capital city of the world” (The History of Rome,Book I, section 55). Livy curiously withheld the name of the immaculate head, but his contemporaries and predecessors identified it as belonging to a certain Olus, aka Aulus Vibenna. Therefore, as the head of Olus/Aulus had blessed the hill with a good omen, the Romans apparently named the region after the miraculous head. According to tradition, the word ‘head’ (Caput) and the name of the deceased man (Olus) was combined to form the title of the Capitoline Hill (Mons Capitolinus).
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Sabine Hills by Edmund von Wörndle (1827–1906), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.
- The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.