The city boasts over 3,500 years of history, having initially been settled by the Villanovians and later becoming one of the most important Etruscan cities of the dodecapolis, growing to over 20,000 inhabitants in the 4th century B.C. It was during this period of great power and development that the Etruscans built a 7-km ring of walls around the city; visitors can still appreciate their engineering and architectural insight in the original Etruscan gate to these walls, the Porta all'Arco.
In the late 3rd century B.C. Volterra fell under Roman rule, bringing the Etruscan era to an end. The city thrived under Roman rule, with the construction of extensive aqueducts and numerous public buildings. What remains today are the Baths of St. Felix, the Baths of Vallebuona and the monumental open-air Roman Theater built in stone in honor of the Emperor Augustus.
Volterra experienced a period of rebirth from the 12th century onward as it exploited its strategic location and the numerous natural resources in the lands it held. As the city's financial interests grew, so did its political power and influence, and Volterra became one of Tuscany's first Medieval city-states. Perhaps the most poignant reminder of the prominence of Volterra during this period is the Palazzo dei Priori, Tuscany's first town hall building, which was built in the first half of the 13th century.
During the Middle Ages the city walls were rebuilt to better defend against the certain danger of attack from neighboring enemies (these are the walls still in use today) and numerous house-towers (like those of San Gimignano) homes and public buildings were erected, giving the town the intimate Medieval configuration that is still evident today.
Volterra was a rich and powerful town during the Renaissance, its prosperity deriving from the salt, alum and copper mines which marked the surrounding territory. Salt was one of the most valued trading commodities and became even more valuable in Tuscany when the nearby Papal States levied an exorbitant tax on its trade. Textiles were the source of wealth of the growing merchant classes and alum was necessary for the dyeing process of these textiles. The abundance of these resources and the political stability that reigned in Volterra made it one of the dominant Tuscan cities.
But its independence did not last long. In 1472 Lorenzo the Magnificent ordered his notorious general Federico da Montefeltro to brutally sack the city and established Florentine rule. In the following years the Florentines built their colossal Medici Fortress on the top plateau for defensive reasons and also as a symbol of their dominance over Volterra.
With the loss of its independence to Florence Volterra passed a period of relative obscurity, though the local alabaster trade has . A positive consequence of this decline in power and consequent lack of civic constructions, however, is that the city still retains aspects from each period of it's long and rich history and was never blighted by rampant industrialization.
Today Volterra is a vibrant town of 12,000 inhabitants who still go about their life much as usual - for good and for bad, change comes hard in walled cities!