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Celtic Origins, Romans, and the Empire (600 B.C to 397 A.D)

Scrofa Semilanuta - © Comune di Milano

History tells us that Mediolanum (Milan), the Latinized form of Medhelanon, meaning "sanctuary", was founded by the Insubri Celts in 590 B.C. According to Titus Livy’s comments, the city was founded around 600 B.C. by Belloveso, chief of the Celtic tribe. Legend has it that Bellovaso found a mythological animal known as the “half-woolly sow” (in medio lanae) which became the symbol of Gallic Milan until the end of the 4th century.


Curiosity: The emblem of the “half-woolly sow” or scrofa semilanuta can still be seen today on a bas relief brought to light in 1233 during the excavations of Palazzo della Ragione and later inserted into the wall of the second arch of the same building in via Mercanti.

After having been the most important city of the Insubri Gauls, Milan was conquered by the Romans in 222 B.C. Due to its strategic position on the northern borders of the Empire, the city took on great importance for the Caesar’s military operations in Gaul (from 58 B.C to 50 B.C.). Later it would become a crossroads for trade; riding a wave of economic development it became elevated first to the role of municipium, and later Imperial colony.
When Diocletian decided to divide the Empire in half choosing the Eastern half for himself, Milan became the residence of Maximian, ruler of the Western Roman Empire.
The construction of the second city walls, roughly four and a half kilometers long and unfurling at today’s Foro Bonaparte, date back to his reign.


Curiosity: Imperial Milan had a triumphal way flanked by large porticoed colonnades emerging from Porta Romana and continuing towards Rome, ending (at the area of today’s “Crocetta”) with an enormous triumphal arch (much larger than the Arch of Constantine in the Roman Forum).

After the abdication of Maximian (in 306 A.D.) on the same day in which Diocletian also abdicated, there were series of wars of sucession, during which there was a succession of three emperors in just a few short years: first Severo, who prepared the expedition against Maxentius, then Maxentius himself in war against Constantine, and finally Constantine, victor of the war against Maxentius.


Curiosity: In 313 A.D. the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan (Edict of Constantine), ending the persecutions against Christians and making Milan one of the most important Christian Centres of Western Europe. 


Saint Ambrose (374-397 A.D.) is the city’s patron saint. The celebration of Saint Ambrose is held on the 7th of December, the date in which he was consecrated Bishop in 374. The Basilica bearing his name was dedicated in his honour. In Milanese dialect he is called sant'Ambroeus (classic handwriting) or sant'Ambrös (both spelled "sant'ambrœs"), and the adjective “Ambrosiano” has became a synonym for “Milanese”. During the period of his bishopric, Milan became the fulcrum of the Western Church and Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
Adored by the population for his strong character and sense of justice, Bishop Ambrose fought against rampant paganism and Arian heresy, gaining a growing authority within the Empire. He died in Milan in 397, leaving Simpliciano as his successor.
Ambrose commissioned the building (aside from a Basilica in the area of the churchyard of the present-day Duomo for which the Duomo can be considered a new facade) of four Basilicas on the four sides of the city, as if to form a protective square. These are the present-day S. Nazaro, S. Simpliciano, in the south-west the Basilica Martyrum (where the bishop was buried and which became Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio) and lastly S.Dionigi.


Curiosity: According to the Ambrosian rite, in use even in the period before Saint Ambrose, who revised it in detail, the Church of Milan has a liturgy that is different from the Roman one. In the Diocese of Milan Advent begins on the 11th of November and lasts for six weeks, while in the Roman rite it begins on the 26th of November and lasts four weeks. Lent does not begin on Ash Wednesday but on the Sunday after. And the Carnival of the Ambrosian Rite comes to Milan after the rest of Italy has ended their celebrations. It is during the Ambrosian Carnival that the so-called “sabato grasso” is celebrated.
One of the traditional masks is that of Meneghino, who appeared in the 1600s as a character from comedies in local dialect by Carlo Maria Maggi,  later joined by the Cecca. The duo was often used as a good-luck charm in the houses of the Milanese. 


Curiosity/2: the 7th of December, day of the Patron saint of Milan, is also the opening of the Opera Season of Teatro La Scala.