History of Norcia, Italy


See Norcia guide for highlights and historic monuments

Norcia, called "Nursia" in ancient times, has been the subject of very detailed studies that in recent years have discovered a lot of  Roman inscriptions. It was originally a city of the Umbrians and the Sabines [Italic tribes], but it was also dominated by the Etruscans. According to most reliable studies, Norcia formerly belonged to the so-called "Ager Nursinus" [the territory of Nursia].

Roman elements in Norcia

Despite earthquakes, the city has kept many quoins and other architectural elements (...) The Roman necropolis, called Campo Boario, was recently discovered (1998-1999) in the immediate vicinity of Porta Romana,  northward of the town, during the construction of a parking.[...]" [7].

According to R. Cordella - N. Criniti, the various earthquakes that the city suffered were responsible for the dissolution of some Roman buildings; however, many remains were recently discovered; such as, south of city, the amphitheatre, as evidenced by an honorary stele dedicated to P. Cuzio Aburiano, and dating from the second century AD.

The medieval walls show that their construction dates back to the Republican Age of Rome. Other Roman ruins consist of a mosaic floor, discovered at the end of the 19th century, and numerous drains of Roman times were also used by the medieval town. Another important remain of Roman times is related to the road system, due to the presence of the ancient road that connected Nursia to Spoletum [Spoleto], such as is demonstrated by the discovery of various road stones.

In the archaeological site near the church and monastery of St. Benedict of Norcia agricultural structures and handicrafts have emerged, primarily related to the founders of Norcia, producers of fine bone beds and other products which spread in the early Imperial Age, even outside the territory, such as in Central Italy.

After the Romans

The fall of the Roman Empire coincided with the advent of the Goths, Byzantines and Lombards. The great Roman roads allowed the rapid movement of armies, so the cities were constantly subjected to massacres and lootings. The long and frightening war between the Goths and Byzantines led to a rapid decline of the Umbrian towns, as it caused famines, massacres and plagues without precedent.

Saint Benedict of Norcia

During the Greek-Gothic war there appeared the figure of Benedict of Norcia, the saint who is the pride of the city. Benedict of Norcia was born in 480; therefore, he was a child when the Roman Empire dissolved. He went for his studies in Rome, but the city seemed to him an "abyss of perdition", so he decided to leave the city. He lived for a time in a village near Rome, and then moved to Subiaco, and from there he went to Monte Cassino.

His austere lifestyle won him many followers, and he founded several monasteries, which were subject to the famous "rule" which says "Ora et Labora" [pray and work].

The birth of the Lombard Duchy in Spoleto was almost contemporary to the death of St. Benedict in the hermitage of Monte Cassino.. After his death, which occurred in 547, the Lombards in 581 destroyed his monastery, and the monks fled to Rome.

The same fate was also suffered by Norcia, the diocese of which was erected in the fifth century; in fact, the city was destroyed by the Lombards and it seems that its diocese disappeared, being incorporated by Spoleto.

However, it has been discussed whether in the sixth century the diocese had already been incorporated into that of Spoleto, as happened to other dioceses of the Umbrian valley, such as Trevi, Spello and Bevagna. In reality, it would seem that "the Diocese of Norcia for the moment had not been suppressed. In this period of reorganization of the dioceses in Umbria, Spoleto served as a pole for the south-east of the region [8].

After the year 1000 AD, Norcia became a free commune, and its territory expanded considerably.

Norcia from the Middle Ages

The 14th century was a period of strong fights against neighboring municipalities, but especially against the State of the Church. In the 14th century the walls, still existing today, were also built.

Norcia in 1548 came under the papal legation of Perugia, and with the establishment of the Prefecture, it exercised its jurisdiction over a vast territory.

The 18th century was particularly hard and difficult for Norcia, when the city suffered serious damage from earthquakes. At the end of the 18th century Norcia came under the Napoleonic Empire, and after its collapse Norcia remained in the State of the Church until the unification of Italy in 1861.

Norcia, birthplace of Vespasia

Norcia seems to have been the birthplace of "Vespasia", mother of Emperor Vespasian. Already in the early 19th century, C. Cavedoni told that Camillo Amici, Apostolic Delegate of Spoleto, on the basis of a passage of Suetonius (70-126 AD), mentioned a place situated:

"on the summit of a high and almost inaccessible mountain, six miles from Norcia. Reaching the summit of the mountain, were found the remains of some monuments mentioned by Suetonius, that is the 'place where were located the beautiful ruins of the buildings belonged to the family of Vespasian, a wonderful example of its greatness and antiquity" [4].

Contemporary studies confirm that Vespasian was born in Nursia:

"The origin of the ‘Vespasii’ from Nursia (…) is attested by Suetonius and to the same author we own also our knowledge about the possessions of this family in the area (...) Emperor Vespasian, that perhaps here was born and where his mother family lived for generations, spent his childhood here. Certainly, however, the monarch remained very attached to his roots and memories of child, returning regularly for his summer holidays...

... About the maternal grandfather of Vespasian, who was "Praefectus castrorum" [Camp Prefect] in 15 AD, we are aware of an inscription recently found in Norcia, while his mother's name, Vespasia Polla, has been preserved in an inscription found in Spoleto (CIL (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum), 11, 4778). She married T. Flavius Sabinus from Rieti and from their union were born two sons, one of whom was homonymous of his father and was 'Consul suffectus’ [that is the Consul who replaced the ‘consul ordinarius’ [regular consul] if he was unable] in 45 AD, while the second was T. Flavius Vespasianus, the future Emperor" [5].

Moreover, we have important evidence of the presence of the ‘Vespasii’ from Norcia on the sixth milestone from Norcia on the way to Spoleto (Suet. Vesp. 1, 3), where we find ‘Vespasiae’, today called ‘Forca Vespia’"[6].

Origins of the name Norcia

The etymology of the name derives from the Etruscan Goddess "Nurtia", the Goddess of Fortune:

"The Latin name of Norcia was 'Nursia', an Umbrian-Sabine city already praised by Pliny (23-79 AD) and Columella (4-70 AD) for its truffles. Now it seems very difficult to separate the name of Nursia, from that of 'Nortia', or 'Nersia’, so named by the Etruscans with reference to their goddess Fortuna, wich became synonymous of 'Mother Earth', from where the truffles are extracted" [1].

Feliciano Patrizi Forti added:

"Those who recognize that Norcia was founded by Enotrius, that is, by the Etruscans, say the name derived from 'Norsa,' the Goddess of Fortune, who was worshiped in Etruria, and they corroborate their hypothesis with the authoritative opinion of Titus Livius  [59 BC-17 AD], who wrote: "In templo Nortiae Etruscae Deae" [In the temple of Nortia, the Etruscan Goddess]. Papias [first third of the 2nd century] also, talking about the people of Nursia ("Nursini"), wrote that "The people of Nursia, who worship the Goddess of Fortune" [2].

In addition, from the linguistic point of view, we know that:

"the Umbrian language was common to Sabine and it was permeated by the Latin language. The union of the Italic peoples under the rule of Rome took place through the Etruscans, the Umbrians and the Sabines. To the Umbrian-Sabine race (Nursia and Reate [Rieti]) belonged Vespasian (9-79 AD), who organized the Roman Empire with greater authority, declined because of the licentiousness of morals of Nero [37-68 AD]" [3].

See the Norcia travel guide if planning a visit.

References

1. See A. de Gubernatis, “Roma e l'Oriente nella storia, nella leggenda e nella visione”, Società editrice Dante Alighieri,  1899, p. 34

2. See Feliciano Patrizi Forti, “Delle memorie storiche di   Norcia”, 1968, p. 10

3. See A. Fabbi, “Antichità umbre: Natura, storia, arte” , 1971, p. 13

4. See C. Cavedoni, “Scavi”, in “Bulletin de l'Institut de correspondance archéologique”, Roma,  1839, p. 152

5. See Alexandra Stalinski, “Il ritrovamento di Valle Fuino presso Cascia: analisi storico-culturale intorno ad un deposito votivo in alta Sabina”, Quasar, 2001, p. 46

6. See R. Cordella - N. Criniti, p. 59

7. See R. Cordella - N. Criniti, “La Sabina settentrionale: Norcia, Cascia e Valnerina romane”, in"Ager Veleias", 2007,   pp. 5-6

8. See “Bollettino della Deputazione di storia patria per l'Umbria”, 2005, p.  47