History of Narni, Italy

See Narni guide for highlights and historic monuments

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was a great 16th century traveler, and in the course of his travels he visited Narni. As you see he also raised questions that have long intrigued historians:

“We slept at Narni, ten miles, Narnia in Latin, a small town belonging to the Holy See, built on the summit of a rock, at the foot of which runs the river Negra, Nar in Latin. One part of the town looks over a very beautiful plain, where this river is seen making an infinite variety of complicated twisting and turnings. In the public square there is a very fine fountain.

I went to look at the church, where I saw some tapestry, in which the writing, both prose and poetry, is in the ancient French language. Could not learn whence this tapestry came ; all I collected from my inquiries on the subject was that the people here seem to have an hereditary attachment to our nation. The tapestry in question represents the Passion, and occupies the whole of one side of the nave.

Having read in Pliny an account of a particular sort of earth here which, he says, is softened by heat and dried by rain, I asked the people about it, but they had never heard of any thing of the sort.” [1]

Before answering Montaigne's question we must expand our knowledge of the ancient town of Narni...

Roman history of Narni

The Romans, were keen to conquer the fortified site of Nequinum, the town that originally stood here before the Roman era, and an attack was launched against the city pratically by surprise. This was because:

"the siege of the ‘oppidum Nequinum’ in 300 BC was not caused by any act of war in the territory (...) The attack therefore constituted a veritable act of conquest by the Romans, dictated by the sole purpose of founding the Latin colony of Narnia, a Roman military bulwark of control in central-southern Umbria (...) Conquered treacherously in 299 BC, Nequinum fell, and in the same year the colony was founded, "which, as stated by Livy,""was founded precisely to combat the Umbrians]" [8].

Narnia at first resisted very well against a siege by Consul Appuleius, but it was later conquered by consul M. Fulvius Petinus. The relationships of Narni with Rome across the centuries were not always peaceful; in fact, another important episode in ancient history of Narni:

"was its refusal, along with twelve other colonies to send aid to Rome for the wars against Carthage. After the social war Narni became a Municipium, and it was inscribed to the ‘Papiria’ tribe. We have information about many estates in the area belonging to well-known Roman figures; Cicero (106-43 BC) refferred to a villa of Milo in the territory of 'Ocriculum', and then Pliny (23-79 AD) recalled his mother-in-law's possessions belonging to Pompea Celerina in the territories of Narni, Carsulae and Ocriculum" [9].

After the Romans

Historical information about Narni is still not very abundant after the fall of the Roman Empire. We know that towards the end of the 5th century it was conquered by the Goths and later by the Byzantines, since the city was crossed by the Flaminia Road:

"The Flaminia Road from Rome entered Umbria at Ocriculum; then it went to Narni, and Carsulae and Mevania, reaching Forum Flaminii; crossed the Apennines, it continued to Forum Sempronii at Fanum Fortunae, then it went to Ariminum in the Cisalpine Gaul. After Augustus, Umbria and Etruria, or Tuscia, formed a single province, called 'Provincia Tusciae et Umbriae' [province of Tuscia and Umbria]” [10].

Gothic Troops were stationed in Narni, Norcia, Perugia, Assisi and Todi between 536 and 540. Belisarius (500-565 AD) restored the Byzantine Empire in the area sending Bessa to seize Narni and Kostantinos to repossess Narni, Spoleto and Perugia [11].

Narses (478-574), in 552-553, after having lost the fortresses of Narni, Spoleto and Perugia, recaptured them, and he also ordered the restoration of the walls of Spoleto destroyed by the Goths,  recovering the defensive and strategic points of the region.

With regard to the appearance of Christianity in Narni, it prevailed relatively late in the town because of the long persistence of the pagan cults. G. Binazzi stresses that:

"among the inhabitants of Narnia, lovers of traditional [pagan] religion were still numerous, which seems to be confirmed in the "Vita Sancti Iuvenalis" [Life of St. Juvenal] (...) where the saint, arrived from Africa in 369 AD and found a pagan town " [12].

Among the oldest names of Christianity referred to in Narni, St. Juvenal (late fourth century AD) stands out:

"Narni has some ancient inscriptions, among them one dating back to the 4th-century AD {CIL, XI, 2, 4160-9). About St. Juvenal (fourth century) St. Gregory's Dialogues spoke of a bishop of Narni, named Juvenal (Iuvenalis), a martyr whose tomb was in that city.

The Life of Pope Vigilius in the 'Liber Pontificalis' narrated that Belisarius ‘built near the town of Tuscia the monastery of St. Juvenal". A Life of St. Juvenal (BHL, 4614) was written by a Bishop named Maximus, who told (...) that Juvenal was African and that he was the first bishop of Narni. Maximus said that he was buried near “Porta Superiore”  of Narni on the Flaminia Road at 55 miles from Rome (...)" [13].

Narni in the Middle Ages

In the early Middle Ages the history of Narni is the history of its conflict with the State of the Church. As  R. Morghen wrote:

"the history of Narni in the early Middle ages is an important chapter (…) because of the relationships of the 'civitas Narniensis' [the city of Narni] with Rome (...) It is clear that the history of Narni was conditioned by the political powers that dominated central Italy, where the Papacy, with its universal affirmation of religious authority, was realizing the first structures of its temporal power" [14].

These observations by R. Morghen are very important. We must assume that around the 9th century, the "Patrimonium Sancti Petri" (Patrimony of St. Peter), that is the future State of the Church, began to form which from Latium enlarged its aims to include Sabina, the Abbey of Farfa, and Narni. In this context, the Papacy had to confront numerous "local powers".

The Abbey of Farfa, for example, was an "Imperial" Abbey that depended on the Emperor and was protected by the Imperial privileges that absolutely delivered it from the dominion of the Pope The Popes fought fiercely against this and other "independent" abbeys, to subject them to the local Bishops, who in turn depended on the Papacy.

Other "local powers" which were opposed to the formation of the "Patrimonium Sancti Petri" were made by the Papal Roman nobility, such as the powerful noble families, like that of Teofilatto (first half of the 10th century). Teofilatto was the first Papal "Patronus" [defender of the Pontifical throne]).

These families, while presenting themself as "vicars" and "patrons" of the Pope, in reality desired essentially to increase their estates at the expense of the "Patrimonium Sancti Petri". In this policy of great feudal families Narni played a leading role. In fact, Narni was a "stronghold" of the Crescenzi [15], a family determined to subjugate the Papacy.

The "Princeps" Alberico I (died 924) emerged as "defender" of the Pope, and particularly distinguished himself in the war against the Saracens. It is in this context that we understand the (failed) attack of Alberico against the Abbey of Farfa.

Narni was still involved in this history of convulsive struggles between the Papacy and the great feudal families in 878, when Adalbert I of Tuscany (855 - c.915), adversary to the Papacy, attacked the city, stealing the body of St. Juvenal from Narni:

"The wrath of Adalbert I uncovered the tombs of S. Cassius, S. Fausta and St. Juvenal to bring the three bodies of saints in Tuscany" [16] also "But in 878 Adalbert I, Margrave of Tuscany, violated the 'cella memoriae' to move to Lucca the sacred bodies of St. Juvenal, St. Cassius and St. Fausta" [17].

Later, between the "local powers" struggling against the Papal domain, there were other cities like Narni, jealous of their independence and unwilling to submit to the State of the Church and even to the Emperor. So, for example, Narni was for a long time an independent Commune, and in 1242 it joined an alliance with Perugia to oppose to Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250).

However,  in the end even Narni entered into the sphere of domination of the State of the Church, and it was ruled by Imperial Vicars, who ruled the city with numerous abuses and pressuring it with taxes. This provoked a strong discontent that led to rebellion. Most serious was the rebellion of 1375 against the Papal Vicar Gerard, who was expelled from the city.

The situation was resolved after a long time when in 1377 the rebellion subsided thanks to the Bishop Luca of Narni [18]. But the decisive action was implemented by Cardinal Albornoz (1310-1367), to whom  the construction of the fortress [Rocca] of Narni was also due.

Invasion and decline in the 16th century

In the 16th century Narni suffered severe damage during the Sack of Rome in 1527. About this event, the sources speak of a total devastation of Narni and a decimation of the population, and finally the destruction of buildings:

“The places of the Campagna (...) beheld with horror the approach of these hordes. With the courage of despair, little Narni, the ancestral home of Gattamelata, put cowardly Rome to shame. Men and women defended the walls: but the Germans under Schertlin and Antoni of Feldkirchen attacked them on July 17, and the unlucky fortress was destroyed by fire and sword.

The brutal landsknecht Schertlin calmly writes: 'We made the attack with 2000 soldiers without fring a shot, conquered the town and castle by the grace of God, and put to death 1000 persons in it; women and men'” [19].

At this time virtually all the documents of the City were destroyed, which for the local and national history was an irreparable loss. What is certain is that this event deeply marked the city, which went into decline. Narni was visited in 1530 by the Italian geographer Leandro Alberti (1479-1552), who said that it was empty of inhabitants, with only three small taverns frequented by travellers.

From the 17th century in Narni

In the 17th century Narni did not enjoy an economic situation of prosperity, because of: “the mismanagement of the Bishop Romolo Cesi (1566-1578)" [20].

With the advent of Napoleon (1769-1821) in Italy, Umbria was united, between 1798 and 1799 in the Roman Republic, then coming back after the Congress of Vienna (1815) to the State of the Church.

Before the unification of Italy  in 1861 Narni was a decaying agricultural town. In the last decades of the 19th century the area's economy changed in the wake of industrial facilities that were built in the valley.

Origins of the name of Narni and Nequinum

As Montaigne rightly said, Narni was called "Narnia" in Latin. However, this ancient Umbrian-Sabine town, before being conquered by the Romans, had another name; in fact it was called "Nequinum."

The Romans struggled to win this proud Umbrian town, and succeeded only after a long siege and thanks to a betrayal and fraud:

"The Romans opened a road, that later would become the Flaminia Road, which would allow them to circumvent the area of Cimino and attack the interior of Etruria" [2].

In this sense, Livy (59 BC-17 AD) was particularly generous with information about Narni, because the town interested the Romans as a route for their penetration into the territory of the Etruscans. Livy told us of the conquest of Narni like this (Book X):

“[...] Meanwhile, after much time had been lost in the tedious siege of Nequinum, two of the towns men, whose houses were contiguous to the wall, having formed a subterraneous passage, came by that private way to the Roman-advanced guards; and being conducted thence to the consul, offered to give admittance to a body of armed men within the works and walls. The proposal was thought to be such as ought neither to be rejected, nor yet assented to without caution.

With one of these men, the other being detained as an hostage, two spies were sent through the mine, and certain information being received from them of the practicability of the design, three hundred men in arms guided by the deserter entered the city, and seized by night the nearest gate, which being broke open, the Roman consul and his army took possession of the city without any opposition. In this manner Nequinum came under the dominion of the Roman people. [...]” [3].

As we can see, Livy said that Nequinum was called Narnia by the Romans. As explained by G. Semeraro, from the etymological point of view, the name had to do with the rivers, and therefore, apparently, there was no real reason to change its name: "Narnia, Narni, on the River Nar and Norcia have the same basis equivalent to the Akkadian term 'narum’ and to the Semitic 'nahar' (river).

The ancient name of Narni, 'Nequinum' (Plin., III, 113), derives from the Akkadian name 'naqù-ini' meaning ''water gushing out from the spring" [4]. The equation Nahar = River is also confirmed by all the contemporary language studies: "The root of 'N (k) r' (...) has given rise to not frequent but uniformly distributed toponyms in Italy (...) In Semitic, Hebrew and Arabic languages (…) the term 'Nahar' means exactly the river" [5].

But, as we know, the Romans were very superstitious, and they carefully avoided the ominous names. S. P. Oakley points out that “since the name of the site [Nequinum] reminded the Romans of the ill-omened adjective 'nequam' [ in Greek “nekedes"], that is "to be of no value", they renamed it Narnia” [6].

The Latin term “nequam” was very well explained by W. M. Lindsay: “The indeclinable Adj. 'ne-quam' may be a colloquial compound of 'quam', as the Adverb 'ne-quaquam' is 'quaquam', so that 'nequam' would literally mean 'a no-how” [7].

Today Narni is a very beautiful city, which has not only a natural scenery of great charm, but which can offer tourists  an artistic heritage of inestimable value. See Narni for a detailed travel guide.


1. See “Montaigne's Journey into Italy”, in “The works of Michael de Montaigne, comprising his essays, letters, and journey through Germany and Italy”, edited by W. Hazlitt, 1853, p. 586

2. See M. Sordi, “Roma e i Sanniti nel IV secolo a. C.” [“Rome and the Samnites in the fourth century BC”], 1969, p. 98

3. vedi “Livy,” Translated  by G. Baker, London, 1833,  Vol. III,  p. 160

4. See G. Semeraro, “Le origini della cultura europea” , Olschki, 1984, part II, p. 621

5. See C. Beretta, “I nomi dei fiumi, dei monti, dei siti: strutture linguistiche preistoriche”[" The names of rivers, mountains, site: prehistoric linguistic structures "], Hoepli, 2003, p. 108

6. See S.P. Oakley, “A Commentary on Livy, Books VI-X: Volume IV: Book X, Libro 10”, Oxford University Press, 2008,   p. 137

7. See W. M. Lindsay, “The Latin Language”, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 571

8. See S. Sisani, “Fenomenologia della conquista: la romanizzazione dell'Umbria tra il IV secolo BC e la guerra sociale”, Quasar 2007, p. 39

9. See “La diocesi di Amelia, Narni e Otricoli”,  edited by G. Bertelli, 1985, p. 46

10. See Lanzoni, “Le diocesi d'Italia dalle origini al principio del secolo VII”, 1927, p. 400

11. See “La diocesi di Amelia, Narni e Otricoli”, edited by G. Bertelli, 1985,  p. 48

12. See G. Bizazzi, “La sopravvivenza dei culti tradizionali nell'Italia tardo-antica e alto-medievale”, Morlacchi, 2008, p. 45

13. See “La diocesi di Amelia, Narni e Otricoli”, edited by G. Bertelli, 1985, p. 49

14. See R. Morghen, “L'epigrafe del vescovo Cassio e la 'Narnienses civitas' nell'Alto Medioevo”, in “Tradizione religiosa nella civiltà dell'Occidente cristiano” , 1979, pp. 34-35

15. Morghen, p. 43

16. See A. Simonetti, “Adalberto I Marchese di Toscana e il saccheggio di Narni nell'878”, in “Bollettino della Regia deputazione di storia patria per l'Umbria”,1901, VII , pp.. 112 ff.

17. See “Bollettino d'Arte”,  1958, p. 218

18. See M. Antonelli, “La dominazione Pontificia ...”, in “Archivio della società romana sii Storia Patria”,  Rome, 1908, p. 145

19. See F. Gregorovius-A. Hamilton, “History of the City of Rome in the Middle Ages”, Cambridge University Press, 2010 [This edition first published 1902], pp. 613-614 footnote 1

20. See “Le Diocesi d'Italia”, 2008, Vol III, p. 806