The activities of Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) when he was proconsul in Transpadane were very intense, and we know that Cividale, the ancient “Forum Iulii”, was founded by the great Roman leader, along with other cities such as Concordia in the same area of Friuli.
Ancient Cividale - Forum Iulii
Unfortunately we do not have much evidence of “Forum Iulii” in ancient times. Pliny the Elder [23-79 AD]  was very dismissive about the the region (the “X Regio Augustea”) and spoke only briefly of “Forum Iulii” and its surroundings, saying that they were places “Quos scrupolosius dicere non attineat” (“not of scrupulous concern”).
Even Ptolemy (100-175 AD), the great geographer of the ancient world, was quick to mention Cividale, simply quoting a Roman colony that he called, in Greek, "Foros Isulios”. For more detailed information on "Forum Iulii", which was situated at the point where today we find Cividale, on the right bank of the river Natisone, one must wait for the Lombard period.
The city was located in an area that was directly connected with the valleys of Isonzo and Idria, and therefore close to the mountain passes of the Julian Alps. The geographical position coincided with an occupation of populations since the Neolithic era. In pre-Roman times, the area was probably inhabited by Celtic peoples, who came into contact with Rome around the third century BC.
Origins of the name Cividale (and Forum Iulii)
Initially some scholars had thought these people were called the "Iulii", the name by which Cividale had been founded by Augustus (63 BC-14 AD), but studies have also shown that the founder of Cividale was Julius Caesar who, during his proconsulship, strengthened some strategic points of the territory with various "Castra" ("fortified cities") in order to curb the barbarian incursions .
Cividale was thus called "Iulii" in honor of "Julius" Caesar; but as regards the first part of the name, "Forum", we remember that Caesar, giving the title to his new city, wanted, somehow, to emphasize the “legal” importance of it.
The title of "Forum" for a city meant a sort of "promotion", as the Romans recognized that in it there was a large influx of people, especially on market days. During these days the Court worked, and the Governor of the Province gave audience to the people - in Latin "Forum agere" means "to hold hearing."
Hence the etymology of "Forum Iulii” is clear, meaning “city where "Iulius (Caesar) held (court) hearings".
In the Middle Ages Cividale was instead called simply "Civitas", meaning "city". Cividale was then briefly called "The City", meaning that it was “the most important city” or “the city of all cities.” The modern name, "Civi-dale," derives from the fact that, from the 9th century, it also took the name of "Civitas Austriae", "City of Austria", hence the current name.
Entering the Lombard period
While the information about the ancient age is scarce, since the Lombard conquest of Cividale, we possess substantial historical data because Cividale was the native land of Paul the Deacon (720-799), who gives us very interesting information about his home town, of which he was very fond. During the Lombard period, Cividale:
"[...] followed then to Aquileia, as Paul Deacon says, and it became the center of all the ancient 'Venetia'. Perhaps in Cividale, for some time, there was also the Arian Bishop, while the Catholics depended on the Patriarch of Aquileia [...]" .
In the fifth century AD, then, after the invasions of the Avars and the destruction of Aquileia by the Huns, Cividale increased its number of citizens and its strategic importance. When the Lombards arrived in the 7th century AD it was the first capital of the Lombard duchy of Italy and headed by the Duke Gisulf, grandson of Alboin (530-572).
It was also at this time that it changed its name “Forum Iulii” to “Civitas”, which later became “Cividale”.
Cividale became a bishopric in 737 and the “caput Venetiae”(“Capital of Venetia”), inheriting the title from Aquileia. Under the dominion of the Franks, Cividale was a duchy and then a "marca", meaning that it was the head of a vast region. The Duke of Friuli Berengar I (845-924) also became king of Italy (888-924) and then emperor in 915.
From the 12th century Cividale was an independent municipality and a center with an important market, and the greatest political and commercial center of the whole of Friuli. Emperor Charles IV (1316-1378) opened the University in 1353 .
In 1238 the Patriarchs had moved to Udine and therefore there were rivalries and struggles with this city. In 1419, during the war with Venice to drive out the Hungarian King Sigismund (1387-1437), there was a siege and Cividale surrendered to Venice.
From the 16th century onwards in Cividale
In the 16th century the town was fought over between the Empire and Venice (July 1509). Cividale was besieged by the imperial troops of the Duke of Brunswick, but the citizens managed to break the siege, forcing the German army to flee. After the war Cividale was under the Venetian rule. With the Peace of Worms (1530), Cividale lost the Castle of Tolmin, and the mercury mines of Idria.
Under Venetian rule Cividale was a great center of learning.
In 1797, with the Treaty of Campoformio between Napoleon (1769-1821) and Austria, Cividale passed to the Habsburg Empire, to which, after the brief period when it was part of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, the Congress of Vienna (1815) was confirmed.
Between 1848 and 1866 there was the presence of a vibrant “Risorgimento” movement, and in 1866, after the Third War of Independence, it was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy with the Veneto and Friuli regions.
If visiting, see our Cividale travel guide.
1. “Naturalis Historia”, III, 23, 130-131
2. See Pier Saverio Leicht, “Forum Iulii”, in “Memorie Storiche Forogiuliesi”, 30, 2, 1934: 107-108
3. See G. Fogolari, “Cividale del Friuli”, Italian Institute of Graphic Arts, 1908:14, 40