Milan - Origins and Foundation of the City

- the Insubrian Celtic Gauls, the Romans, Medieval times, Habsburg Spain, the Napoleonic Era, the Austrian Habsburgs

Milan's Legend of Belloveso and the Half-hairy Sow Boar:

the legendary Scrofa Semilanuta, a half-hairy sow boar that indicated the spot for the founding of Milan
Image Credit:

There is...
"... a legend about the foundation of the city (of Milan). According to this legend (which partially draws from Livy's writings), the founder of Milan was a Gaul prince named Belloveso. Belloveso reached the Po Valley following a vision he had had in a dream, where a goddess showed him the place where the city would rise. In this dream, he saw a sow with unusually long wool on the front half of its body." (Scrofa semilanuta in

Bellovesso "passed the Alps through the Taurine Gorges (probably the Montgenevre Pass), after defeating the Etruscans near the Ticino River. There he met a population of Insubrians who allowed the newcomers an allocation in a clearing between some rivers to the south. Belloveso saw the place indicated by a sow boar that had the distinction of having very long hair in the front of its body (scrofa semilanuta), the same animal that appeared on his shield. The Celtic leader thought he recognized the sign of the will of God and decided to build his city in that place..." (Bellovesso in

The "scrofa semilanuta" has become one of the traditional symbols of Milan.

The ancient historian, Polybius wrote that Mediolanum had "the most commanding position in the territory of the Insubres". The settlement of these Celtic Gauls was in fact very strategic: "located in the middle of important roads (in the middle of the plain)".

And then the Romans came:

Marcus Claudius Marcellus, general and leading consul of the Roman Republic, claimed fame for his killing of the king of the northern Italian Celtic Gauls in the campaign that gained Milan-Mediolanum for Rome - book cover of biography by J. McCall
Marcus Claudius Marcellus - depicted on the cover of this book by Jeremiah McCall, the only biography of this Roman hero and leader - was the Roman leader and general, elected in 222 BC as co-Consul of the Roman Republic, famed for gaining northern Italy for Rome from the population of Celtic Gauls there, including their main settlement at Mediolanum-Milan, and killing his adversary the king of those Gauls with his very own own spear. He is probably the most successful Roman Consul prior to Julius Caesar; elected an incredible and unmatched five separate times to the position - "Yet for all the consideration the Romans gave to their hero Marcellus, there exists no modern biography of him."

"In the fourth and final year of the war (against the Gauls in northern Italy), (Marcus Claudius) Marcellus was elected consul with Cn. Cornelius Scipio Calvus... (The Romans again) invaded Insubrian lands up to the Po River, just as the previous consuls had done. From here, the Gauls sent 10,000 men across the Po and attacked Clastidium
(modern day Casteggio, south of Milan, just across the river from Pavia), a Roman stronghold, to divert the Roman attacks. This battlefield was the stage for Marcellus’ confrontation with the Gallic king, Viridomarus, which cemented his place in history... The two engaged in combat... Marcellus extracted the armor from his fallen foe, upon which he pronounced it as the "spolia opima"... the most prestigious and honorable prize that a general can earn... Following the battle between Marcellus and the king of the Gauls, the outnumbered Romans broke the siege of Clastidium, won the battle and proceeded to push the Gallic army all the way back to their primary headquarters of Mediolanum. Here, the Romans defeated the Gauls, who surrendered themselves to the Romans." (Marcus Claudius Marcellus in

That Wikipedia article continues: "Polybius... states that much of the overall success in the Gallic War belongs to Marcellus’ colleague, Scipio..."

Polybius, the ancient historian, wrote: "Acerrae... fell into the hands of the Romans: the Gauls having evacuated it, and retired to Mediolanum, which is the most commanding position in the territory of the Insubres. Gnaeus (Cornelius Scipio Calvus) followed them closely, and suddenly appeared at Mediolanum. The Gauls at first did not stir; but upon his starting on his return march to Acerrae, they sallied out, and having boldly attacked his rear... The Celts... before long turned and fled to the neighbouring mountains. Gnaeus followed them, wasting the country as he went, and took Mediolanum by assault. At this the chiefs of the Insubres, despairing of safety, made a complete and absolute submission to Rome."

It is accounts like these that cause some reviewers of this biography of Marcus Claudius Marcellus to say: "Although the author sometimes seems to have some sympathy for his subject, I did not manage to share it, possibly because Marcellus appeared to me as a bit of a scheming self-centered politician ready to do just about anything for glory..."

Despite having taken Mediolanum in 222 BC, the Roman Walls around Milan were not built until some centuries later during the times of Julius Caesar in the mid 1st century. (SEE the article on the Lost Path of the Roman Walls of Milan.) Again, a couple of centuries passed, before an extension to the walls was made to the northwest after the capital of the Western Roman Empire was changed from Rome to Milan in 286 AD after Maximian was named by Diocletian as co-emperor the previous year - Maximian made his court in Mediolanum. Milan, after first becoming Roman, was made the capital of the Western Roman Empire after several centuries of expansion to Spain, Greece, Turkey, North Africa and France, and then even more to Germany, Britain and more of the Middle East. The capital of the Eastern Empire was at that time in Nicomedia / Izmit Turkey.

There are still a handful of towers and some wall ruins that remain in Milan from these Roman times of around 2,000 years ago.

Mura Milano, wall of Milan in the Roman Empire period
Roman Walls at their greatest extent after Milan was made capital of the Western Roman Empire. Image Credit: Mura Milano (Milan Wall) in

More major walls around Milan would not be built until almost a thousand years later after the Romans, during the 12th century (Milan's Medieval Walls - SEE the article on the Cerchia dei Navigli encircling Milan's Centro Storico along its Medieval Walls) at a time of repeated military campaigns across the northern half of Italy by the feared Barbarossa (see Frederick's Italian expeditions), who was the German holder of the title of "Holy Roman Emperor".

And then after a subsequent period of some 400 years, the last major walls around Milan were built in the 16th century after Milan became part of the empire ruled by the Habsburgs in Spain (now called Milan's Spanish Walls - SEE the article on the Spanish Walls and Milan's Inner Ring Road); although better looking triumphal gates were added almost 300 years later in the early 19th century during Milan's Napoleonic era (Porta Ticinese, which was known as Porta Marengo at that time, and Porta Nuova), and also in the Austrian Habsburg period immediately after that (Porta Garibaldi, and the last major gate to be rebuilt, Porta Venezia). This leaves Porta Romana as the only major gate standing from the time of Spanish Habsburg rule in the 16th century who were responsible for the Spanish Walls - and the Medieval gates of Porta Ticinese and Porta Nuova also remain standing further to the centre along the Cerchia dei Navigli, while also having their later equivalents standing further out on the Inner Ring Road.


Popular Articles

Milan - tram routes through central downtown

City Transport System Network in Milan, and Buying Tickets for the Metro, Trams & Buses

Milan's best & biggest shopping centres and shopping malls - some easily reached from the centre of Milan, the big malls outside Milan