Italy – Narni And Terni

Twelve miles farther up the river Nar, on a hill one thousand feet high (three hundred and thirty-two meters) was the first stronghold of Southern Umbria, Nequinum. It was in 299, eight years after the annexation of Ocriculum, that the Romans sent a colony here, and changed the name of the city to Narnia, from the river. Its strategic importance is evident. It not only commanded the river where it issues from a deep and narrow pass but was at the junction of the Flaminia with the highways into northwest Umbria, to Ameria and Tuder, where Monte Corviano and Monte Santa Croce meet in most picturesque fashion.

The grandiose bridge which here carries the Flaminia, joining the city to the high hillside, was rebuilt by Augustus in the form in which we see it, sadly curtailed as it is. It is a greyhound among bridges, and was famous even in classic times for its boldness and height. The poet Martial sings of it and the Byzantine Procopius, that much traveled courtier and historian of Justinian, says that it was the loftiest he had ever seen. Choisy, the most scientific of modern historians of architecture, praises the ingenious structure of its twisting tunnel vaults, strengthened by numerous parallel ribbings. The widest arch, now fallen, measured thirty-two meters in span and was thirty meters—more than ninety feet—above the river. At present only one of the three smaller arcades is standing, with two-thirds this span. The rest were swept away in the eighth, the eleventh and later centuries. The original length, including the retaining walls, was nearly four hundred and forty feet (one hundred and forty-five meters), and the width only about twenty-five feet (7.96 meters).

If I seem to place some emphasis on this bridge it is not merely on account of its beauty, but because it seems to me even more important in the history of Roman construction than has been supposed. It is universally attributed to Augustus; but I believe that the emperor merely re-stored it. Even our illustration, if examined through a glass, will show two constructive periods, by two quite different methods. The lower half, including all of the piers and the spring of the arches, is built of alternate courses of headers and stretchers. This is the method used throughout the Republican age from the time of the Servian wall to the Tabularium. It is substituted under Augustus by the alternation of headers and stretchers in the same course in all careful work.

It may be argued that in some Augustan works, such as the encircling wall of the forum of Augustus, the earlier method survives and that it could therefore have been used under him in the bridge at Narni. This would be just possible were it not for two other reasons for assigning a pre-Augustan date to this lower section. The first reason is that the upper part is clearly of different construction; that the exact point where this begins is evident, and that this work can hardly be later than Augustus, on account of the primitive character of both masonry and arch voussoirs and molding. The second reason is that the piers have other pre-Augustan characteristics; the absence of breakwater buttresses, and of arched vents to ease the strain in times of flood.’ We may, therefore, consider the Narni bridge as designed, if not at the time of the construction of the Via Flaminia,’ at least not later than the time of Sulla. The fallen masonry shows that the core was of concrete and the blocks of the revetment fastened by iron clamps, leaded. The medieval destruction was due to the bursting of a Roman dam higher up and the sudden rush of pent-up waters through the narrow pass above the bridge: it was not due to any defects in the bridge.

Beyond Narni the Flaminia passes toward Interamna, the modern Terni, which was not a Roman colony but an allied municipality, a federated city. Only four years after the colony of Narnia was founded the Romans at the decisive battle of Sentinum had put an end to Umbrian resistance, and from that time forward the towns of Umbria, of Picenum and Etruria may be considered as all belonging to one of the four categories into which the subjects of Rome were divided: (1) Cities of the ager romanus, (2) Latin colonies, (3) federated cities, (4) municipalities without the rights of suffrage. In Umbria only Narnia and Spoletum were colonies. The first controlled, as we have seen, lower West-ern Umbria, where it opens into the valley of the Tiber. The second was to do the same beyond the pass in Central Umbria. Interamna, as a federated city, came between the large territories of these two colonies though without cutting off’ their communications.

Terni is far from being as picturesque as Narni, and we can see in its low and defenseless site the reason the Romans allowed it to remain an allied city instead of a military colony. It is at a height of only one hundred thirty meters on the right bank of the Nar, at the junction of several highways : of the Flaminia, which went on to Carsulae, of the Salaria, which went up to Reate through Sabina, and of the road over the Somma pass to Spoletum. This made it a great commercial center. The antique remains, however, are quite fragmentary. There is enough left of the walls to show that they were not polygonal, like those of Spoletum, but of large squared blocks of travertine carefully faced. The baths, theater and amphitheater were all quite early. The theater, either of the late Republic or the Augustan age, still existed in fairly complete condition at the Renaissance, and of the amphi-theater there is even now a sufficient stretch to show that its diameter was 96.50 meters, and its arena measured 52.18 meters : its date is later.

The most spectacular sight is, of course, the famous falls of Terni, one of the few grandiose things in which “art has surpassed nature” as the ancients often—too often—were in the habit of boasting. It was in 271 B.C. that Curius Dentatus cut near here in the mountain a passage for the river Velinus, which allowed it to fall from the tableland of Reate (Rieti) in Sabina into the valley of the Nar in a triple cascade of unsurpassed beauty. Incidentally it is not uninteresting to note that the region of Reate and that part of Sabina running southwest from here down toward the sacred city of Cures, has interesting early polygonal remains, comparable to those we have already studied. The country is extremely picturesque but traveling is not easy,—except by automobile,—and barring Rieti itself, the inns are impossible.