Key to Umbria: Norcia

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Sabine Norcia

Sabine people probably settled on a site near modern Norcia in the Iron Age, and it became their northern capital. 

  1. The remains of a village and a necropolis that were in use in the 9th - 7th centuries BC  were unearthed in 1999 in Campo Boario outside Porta Romana (the site of the truffle market).

  2. A vast necropolis that showed evidence of increased prosperity in the region from the late 6th century BC was excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the nearby plain of Santa Scolastica. 

  3. A fortified sanctuary with votive offerings in the 5th-3rd centuries BC was excavated in 1875 at Forca d' Ancarano, north of Norcia.

However, the site that was to become Roman Nursia seems to have been abandoned in the early Iron Age, presumably in favour of  more easily defensible locations.

Roman Nursia

In 290 BC, after the third Samnite War, Manius Curius Dentatus conquered the Sabines.   According to Simone Sisani (referenced below, 2007, at p. 148):

  1. “... the resurgence in use of the necropolis of Santa Scolastica from the early 3rd century BC cannot be separated from viritane settlement  following the [Roman] conquest of the Sabina” (my translation).

He suggested that the settlers, like their Sabine neighbours, initially exhibited a diverse pattern of habitation, but that the site of modern Norcia was urbanised in the late 2nd century BC as a Roman praefectura.  Its first walls date to this time (and the medieval replacement follows the original route). 

Nursia sent troops to aid Scipio Africanus in the war to conquer Carthage in 202 BC. 

The city became a municipium administered by octoviri before the Social Wars. 

Perusine War (41-40 BC)

It seems to have been at the heart of the Sabine revolt against the Octavian confiscations of 42 BC, and he routed the Sabine garrison that was camped outside the city.  Lucius Antonius' colleague, Titisienus Gallus helped the city to withstand the subsequent siege, but it suffered considerably when Octavian emerged victorious.  Thus, Cassius Dio:

  1. “[Octavian] made an expedition against Nursia, among the Sabines, and routed the garrison encamped before it, but was repulsed from the city by Tisienus Gallus [an ally of Lucius Antoninus].  Accordingly he went over into Umbria and laid siege to Sentinum, but failed to capture it.  For Lucius meanwhile ... had suddenly marched against [Sentinum] himself, [and taken possession of it].  So, on ascertaining this, [Octavian] left Quintus Salvidienus Rufus to look after the people of Sentinum, and himself set out for Rome.  ...  Meanwhile, as soon as [Octavian] had left Sentinum and Gaius Furnius, the defender of the walls, had issued forth and pursued him a long distance, Rufus unexpectedly attacked the citizens inside and, capturing the town, plundered and burned it.  The inhabitants of Nursia [then] came to terms without having suffered any ill treatment; when, however, after burying those who had fallen in the battle they had had with [Octavian], they inscribed on their tombs that they had died contending for their liberty, they were punished by an enormous fine, so that they abandoned their city and at the same time all their territory” (‘Roman History’, 48: 13: 2-6).

According to Strabo, who was writing at the end of the 1st century BC, the Sabines:

  1. “... have but few cities and even these have been brought low on account of the continual wars; they are Amiternum, and Reate ...”, (‘The Geography’, 5: 3: 1). 

It seems odd that Strabo made no reference to Nursia in his description (quoted above) of the Sabine centres of the late 1st century BC.  However, this might reflect the fact that, according to Cassius Dio, the people of Nursia chose the losing side in the Perusine War (41-0 BC), and were subsequently:

  1. “... punished by an enormous fine, so that they abandoned their city and ... all their territory” (‘Roman History’, 48: 13: 5-6).

If so, we might reasonably assume that Nursia was repopulated thereafter.

Under the administrative reorganisation of the Emperor Augustus, Nursia became the most northerly city of Region IV, Sabini et Samnium.  Major changes in the city and its surrounding areas occurred at about this time, and this might be indicative of an influx of settlers from Rome: in particular, extant funerary chambers in the area fell into disuse and monumental tombs began to be used for burials. 

Recently, aerial photography has made it possible to identify the main public buildings of the Romanised city, including an amphitheatre just outside the walls near Porta del Colle (or di Meggiano).  A subterranean passage near Porta Massari, the Cryptoportico Romano (late 1st century BC) that was discovered in 1912 and excavated in 1987-8 seems to link with another broadly contemporary structure under the disused church of the Madonna del Rosario just to the south of the city walls.  This suggests that the Roman city extended to the south beyond the present city walls.  Other important archeological remains from this period can be seen in the crypt of San Benedetto.  A Roman necropolis in Campo Boario, which was adjacent to the Iron Age finds mentioned above, was in use in the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD.

Read more:

S. Sisani (Ed.), “Nursia e l'Ager Nursinus: un Distretto Sabino dalla Praefectura al Municipium”, (2013) Rome, includes:

  1. S. Sisani, “Da Curio Dentato a Vespasio Pollione: Conquista e Romanizzazione del Distretto Nursino”, at pp. 9-16

  2. S. Sisani, “Le Strutture Istiuzionale dalla Praefectura al Municipium”, at pp. 113-5

S. Sisani,  “Fenomenologia della Conquista: La Romanizzazione dell' Umbria tra il IV sec. a. C. e la Guerra Sociale”, (2007) Rome

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