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The Roman Presence in Norcia


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Ask an inhabitant of Norcia for the most important vestige of Roman presence in town, she'll probably say this statue of Vespasia Polla, a woman of Norcia, mother of the emperor Vespasian (to translate the inscription beneath it).

True, not many small towns can boast of such a statue: but then neither can Norcia. This attractive niche in the courtyard of the Castellina, the fort that houses the local museum, is not Roman of course, nor is the inscription; but most importantly, the statue you see here is in fact an adult woman's head assembled onto the body from a different and smaller statue of a male, maybe a child. (You can measure the height of the whole to be only a six and a quarter heads; in situ this hybrid person looks even odder.) Vespasia was from Nursia,a but this statue is only partly her, if that.

The town's rôle in Roman history is secure, though, and there is no shortage of remains.


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[ 3/2/01: 1 page, 1 photo ]

The church of S. Lorenzo is the oldest in town, possibly dating back to the 4c. It is undergoing slow restoration and I have therefore been unable to see the interior yet, but a tour of its outside walls is a mini-course in Latin epigraphy.


Note on Vespasia:

a "Polla, born to an honorable family of Nursia, was the daughter of Vespasius Pollio, three times military tribune and prefect of the camps, and her brother was a senator with praetorian rank. Indeed, a place near the sixth milestone from Nursia as you go towards Spoletium, on the top of a mountain, is called Vespasiae: quite a few monuments of the Vespasii can still be seen there, a signal witness to the eminence and antiquity of the family."

(Suetonius: Life of Vespasian, ch. 1, my translation)

The villa of the Vespasii has not been found. The Laterza guide to Umbria and the Marche calls it "variamente localizzata", yet it shouldn't be all that hard to find. Given the landscape of river gorges, any Roman road westwards out of Norcia must have been much the same as today's S.S. 396/320. Assuming Suetonius made no mistake and our manuscript tradition is good, the 6th milestone must have been at or near the hamlet of Biselli; and this large compound of buildings should be in the general area, very possibly under Biselli itself.

For those interested in a bit of prospection, the 1:25,000 I.G.M. map of the area is Folio 132 III N.E. Norcia; for an account of a stab a friend and I had at it ourselves, with photos of what may well be in fact Roman ruins, see the Sept. 1, 2000 entry of my diary.


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Site updated: 2 Mar 01