Key to Umbria

Persecution of Christians (64-311)

The first significant persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire seems to have occurred was 64 AD, when the Emperor Nero blamed the new sect for starting a fire that destroyed much of Rome in that year.  According to tradition, SS Peter and Paul were martyred at this time.

Christians suffered sporadic and localized persecution thereafter, but the only other systematic programme of persecution seems to have been that of 303-11, under the Emperor Diocletian.  He ordered the destruction of Christian buildings and property and denied to Christians the legal protections enjoyed by Roman citizens.  Christians were arrested, tortured and forced to gladiatorial contests.

In the period 286-93, Diocletian ruled jointly with the Emperor Maximian.  They appointed two junior emperors in 293, and from this point until 312 (see below) the empire was a Tetrarchy.  The Emperor Galerius, who became the senior emperor in 305, maintained the persecution until he approached death in 311.  He then issued an edict of toleration, which granted Christians the right to practice their religion, though it did not restore any property to them.

Christian Catacombs

While most Romans were cremated, Jews and Christians generally preferred subterranean interment, probably because they looked forward to bodily resurrection.  The soft tufa of Rome was particularly suitable for this form of burial, and it seems to have become the norm for Christians there by the 3rd century.  The catacombs were established outside the city limits, along the main roads.  St Jerome’s account of a visit that he made to the Roman catacombs in ca. 354 suggests that this form of burial had by that time fallen into disuse.  

Some of the earliest Christian remains in Umbria are found in the catacomb of Villa San Faustino near Massa Martana, which seems to have been in use from the 2nd to the 5th century. 

Emperor Constantine I (3o6-37)

Constantine was the son of the Emperor Constantius I (305-6), who was one of the four tetrarchs who ruled the Roman Empire.  When Constantius I died at York in 306, his soldiers proclaimed Constantine as his successor, while the people of Rome supported his rival Maxentius.  Constantine marched on Rome in 312 and was famously victorious at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.  He then entered Rome as the Emperor Constantine I, the undisputed emperor in the west.

Before the battle, Constantine I had a vision that led him to believe that he and his men were fighting under the protection of the Christian God.  When he entered Rome after the battle, he declined to offer the sacrifices that traditionally formed part of victory celebrations.  In 313, Constantine I and Licinius (his co-emperor in the east until 324) issued what came to be known as the Edict of Milan, which reaffirmed  religious toleration throughout the empire and restored confiscated property to the Christians. 

In 320, Licinus revoked the Edict of Milan in the east, precipitating a civil war from which Constantine I emerged (in 325) as the sole emperor.  Soon after, he established a new, Christian capital at Byzantium (Constantinople). 


This heresy, which was probably the most significant in the history of Christianity, was first propounded by Arius, a priest from Alexandria in the early 4th century.  He deduced that, since God was the father of Christ, there had been a time when Christ had not existed.  In short, while Christ should be worshipped, He was less than God. 

This concept, which smacked of polytheism, caused uproar, and the Constantine I convened the Council of Nicea in 325 to decide on the matter.  The council declared Arianism to be heresy, insisting that God and Christ are of the same substance.  This unequivocal judgement did not really reflect the range of opinions expressed at the Council, and it did not put the matter to rest (see below).


Constantine I built important Christian churches on the periphery of Rome, but it remained at heart a pagan city.  The creation of the rival capital at Byzantium probably alienated the Senate and the rest of the still pagan nobility of Rome.  In 326, when Constantine I returned to Rome to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his accession, he added to this alienation by refusing the traditional sacrifice to Jupiter. 

Nevertheless, Constantine I tolerated paganism.  One example of this is the so-called Rescript of Constantine, which he probably issued in 326 when he stopped at Spoleto en route for Rome.  The Rescript was in two parts:

  1. It referred to the "ancient practice" whereby the priests of “Tuscia et Umbia” presided over annual ritual games at were held alternately at Volsinii and Hispellum (respectively Orvieto and Spello).  It absolved the Umbrian priest from making the difficult journey to Volsinii in future, and the games were presumably held separately at each location thereafter.  

  2. It re-named Hispellum as ‘Hispellum Flavia Constans’ and gave it the right to construct a grand temple in honour of the imperial family (the Gens Flavia).  However, it specified that the temple must not be ‘polluted by the deceits of any contagious superstition’ (which presumably meant pagan cultic acts such as animal sacrifices).

Christianity after Constantine I (337 - 410)

Arianism in the Empire

The dispute over the Arian heresy erupted into the open after the death of Constantine I in 337.  Indeed, his son, the Emperor Constantius II (who ruled in the east from 337 and became sole emperor in 350) set out to reverse the orthodoxy established at Nicea.  Matters came to a head when he exiled Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria, who fled to Rome in 339, where he received protection from Pope Julius I (337-52).

The Emperor Constans I (who ruled in the west from 337  until his murder in 350) and Julius II convened the Council of Serdica (Sofia) in 342 in order to resolve the controversy.  When Julius II insisted that Athanasius should attend, most of the bishops from the east withdrew, while those from the west pressed on to an anti-Arian conclusion.  An Italian bishop called Facundinus was among those who subscribed to the findings of the Council: this was probably St Facundinus, Bishop of “Taino” (Gualdo Tadino).  If this is correct, Gualdo Tadino is the first documented diocese in Umbria. 

Thus, the Council of Serdica achieved nothing.  War was averted when Constantius II and Constans agreed to pursue their respective policies in their respective territories: Athanasius was finally allowed to return to Alexandria in 345.

In 353, Pope Liberius (352-66) sent Bishop Vincent of Capua to Constantius II at Arles in an attempt at reconciliation.  This backfired when Constantius convened a Council there and bullied those attending, including the hapless Vincent, into condemning Athanasius.  There was a very similar outcome at the Council of Milan (355).  Liberius wrote to Bishop Caecilianus of Spoleto ahead of this second council, warning him not to be corrupted by the example of Vincent of Capua.  (This letter is the earliest surviving documentation of a bishop of Spoleto).  Caecilianus seems to have attended the council and, despite Liberius’ exhortation, to have succumbed like all but one of the attendees to imperial pressure. 

Constantius II now ordered Liberius to Milan.  When Liberius refused he was arrested and taken there by force.   When he refused to condemn Athanasius, he was exiled and replaced by an anti-pope, Felix.   Liberius later relented and was allowed to return to Rome in 358 on condition that he ruled jointly with Felix.  This tension in Rome only eased after the death of Felix in 365 and of Liberius a year later.

This period was also a tumultuous one in the east.  In 361, the Emperor Julian I (360-3) issued a decree allowing the exiled bishops of the "Galileans" (his derogatory name for Christians) to return to their "towns and provinces", which had the (probably intended) consequence of fomenting trouble.  His successor, the Emperor Valens (364-78) revived the Arian policy of Constantius II, and many Arian bishops found themselves once more in exile.  The policy changed again under the  anti-Arian Emperor Theodosius I (379-95), who convened the Council of Constantinople (381) in order to agree what became known as the Nicene creed.

Arianism among the Barbarians

The continuation of Arianism after the Council of Constantinople (381) owed much to Ulfilas, who had been appointed bishop to the barbarian Goths settled north of the Danube in ca. 340.  He had invented an alphabet so that the language of the Goths could be written, and had then proceeded to translate the Bible into this language even before St Jerome had begun its translation into Latin.  Ufilas had subscribed to a mild form of Arianism, and this became the national religion of the Germanic tribes that were to invade the empire in the following century. 

Papal Primacy

Rome inevitably declined in importance when Constantine I established a new, Christian capital at Byzantium (Constantinople) in 325.  The Arian controversy had seriously weakened papal authority in the east.  In the west, the political capital had moved to Milan in 286 and to Ravenna in 402, and the importance of the bishops of both of these cities grew as the importance of the bishops of Rome declined. 

Pope Damasus I (366-84) was one of the first popes to react to these circumstances by asserting the primacy of the papacy as a matter of dogma.  He was first pope to claim that Rome's primacy rested solely on St Peter, and the first to refer to the Roman church as "the Apostolic See".  This position was by no means universally accepted: it was, for example, opposed by  St Ambrose, who became Bishop of Milan in 374 upon the death of his Arian predecessor.

Cult of Saints

Damasus I adapted the catacombs of Rome as places of pilgrimage, restoring the works of art on the walls and renewing the epitaphs over the graves of the martyrs.

St Ambrose also used the cult of saints to establish his authority and to provide support for his anti-Arian agenda:

  1. In 386, St Ambrose discovered the relics of SS Gervase and Protase and translated them to the new basilica that he had built in the city.  The broadly contemporary biography of St Ambrose by the deacon Paulinus reports that “by the beneficent works of the martyrs [i.e. miracles worked by the relics], the faith of the Catholic Church increased, so did the heresy or the Arians decrease”.

  2. In 392, Bishop Eusebius of Bologna discovered the relics of SS  Vitalis and Agricola (4th November).  St Ambrose attended the translation of the relics at Bologna and. according to the Roman Martyrology, deposited relics under consecrated altars.  Paulinus records that St Ambrose built a church in Florence for some of the relics.

  3. In 395, St Ambrose discovered the relics of SS Nazarius and Celsus in a garden in Milan and translated them to the Basilica of the Apostles there.

Bishop Spes of Spoleto followed in this tradition when he discovered the relics of St Vitalis in the church of San Lorenzo, Terzo della Pieve(outside Spoleto) and erected an alter there in honour of the saint.  (Spes is the second documented Bishop of Spoleto: an inscription from SS Apostoli, Spoleto records his burial there after he had been bishop for 32 years.  Modern scholars believe that he was a contemporary of St Ambrose.)

Altar of Victory

The Emperor Julian I (361-3), who was a nephew of Constantine I, is known as ‘the Apostate’ because he rejected the Christianity of his youth and became the last Pagan emperor.  The traditional Roman religious practices were certainly not dead by the time of his accession, and he gave them particular impetus by restoring the Altar of Victory to the Senate.  Julian did not proscribe Christianity, but he removed many of the privileges that the Christian Church had enjoyed under his predecessors.  He passed an edict in 361 that permitted all deposed bishops to return to their sees, which had the (probably foreseen) consequence of reigniting the Arian debate. 

Julian I appointed Lucius Turcius Apronianus  (the Corrector of Tuscia et Umbria in 342 AD) as Prefect of Rome in 363-4.  Ammianus Marcellinus (‘Histories’, 26:3) described hi as an ardent persecutor of sorcerors (by whhich he meant Christians) Christians, whom he blamed for the fact that he had lost an eye.

The western Emperor Gratian (375-83) finally prohibited pagan worship at Rome.  He removed the Altar of Victory from the Senate once more, and refused to wear the insignia of the Pontifex Maximus.  Nevertheless, paganism survived in Rome, and the pagan nobility still deified Gratian after his death. 

St Ambrose dissuaded the Emperor Valentinan II from allowing the restoration of the Altar of Victory in 384, but it was temporarily reinstated in 392-4.  The Emperor Theodosius I probably destroyed it shortly thereafter.

End of the Western Empire (410 - 76)

Sack of Rome (410)

The events that led to the first sack of Rome by the Gothic King Alaric I began with the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395, after which the Empire was divided between his two sons:

  1. the Emperor Arcadius (395-408) ruled in the east; and

  2. the Emperor Honorius (395-423), who was only 12 when his father died, ruled in the west, initially with his future father-in-law Stilicho as regent.

Stilicho defeated an attempted invasion by Alaric I in 402. 

The barbarian threat continued and, in 404, Honorius moved his capital from Milan to Ravenna, which was more easily defended and could be reached from Constantinople by sea.  Via Flaminia provided a vital link between Ravenna and Rome, but this was probably something of a double-edged sword for the cities of Umbria.  

When Stilicho paid a huge bribe to Alaric in 4o8, Honorius, suspecting treachery, executed him.  Many of his soldiers consequently defected to Alaric I, who  now laid sieged Rome.  The weakness of the imperial authorities thrust Pope Innocent I (401-17) into temporal policy: during the siege, he led a delegation to Ravenna in an attempt to negotiate a truce between Honorius and Alaric I.  Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful and he was unable to prevent the sack of Rome in 410.  This momentous event reverberated throughout the Empire.  Fortunately, Alaric I died shortly after, and his troops marched off again for Gaul. 

There is little evidence that Umbria suffered particularly badly at this time, although Alaric I destroyed Vicus Martis and its neighbour CarsulaeTadinum (Gualdo Tadino) and Nuceria (Nocera) may also have received the unwelcome attention of the Goths during their march back to Gaul.

Papal Schism (418)

Pope Zosimus, the successor of Innocent I, died within a year of his election.  In 418, two men, Boniface and Eulalius, were elected to the papacy by their rival supporters, precipitating a papal schism.  Honorius summoned both to attend a council in Spoleto to resolve the conflict.  Meanwhile, he ordered Bishop Achilleus of Spoleto to officiate at the Easter celebrations in Rome.  In the event, Eulalius refused to leave Rome and his supporters demonstrated in the streets when Achilleus arrived.  The imperial authorities had to drive Eulalius from Rome by force, prompting the furious Honorius to depose him and leaving his rival as the undisputed Pope Boniface I (418-22).

Papal Primacy (422)

The primacy of the papacy came into question in 422, when the eastern Emperor Theodosius II (408-50) placed the province of Illyricum under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of  Constantinople.  Boniface I persuaded Honorius to support him, and it was probably for this reason that Theodosius II repealed the offending decree. 

The letters of Boniface I that set out his rights emphasised the dogma of the Petrine succession, and Bishop Achilleus drew heavily upon them for the celebrated verse that he had inscribed in his new church of San Pietro, Spoleto.

Vandals and Huns

The Emperor Valentian III (425-55) was only six years old when he became emperor in the west, and Italy was ruled in effect by the magister militum, Aetius.  He found himself squeezed by Vandals to the south and Huns to the north:

  1. Valentian III was forced to recognise the Vandal Genseric (or Gaiseric) as king of much of North Africa in 429.  After a decade of relative stability, Genseric took Carthage and much of the Italian fleet there in 439, followed by Sicily and other islands in the western Mediterranean.  Valentian III made another peace with him in 442, but this did little to remove the threat of a naval invasion of Italy (see below).

  2. Valentian III initially had good relations with the powerful Attila, who became sole King of the Huns in 445.   However, this accord ended in 450, when his sister Honoria declared herself to be engaged to marry Attila and he in turn demanded half of the western empire by way of dowry.  Attila duly marched over the Alps in 452, laying waste to a number of northern cities, including Aquileia and Milan.  The Prefect of Rome led a delegation that met him near Mantua and persuaded him to withdraw. 

  3. Valentian III murdered Aetius in Rome in 454 and was murdered in turn by barbarian followers of Aetius.  A Roman noble, Petronius Maximus seized power and forced marriage upon Licinia Eudoxia, Valentinian’s widow.  King Genseric invaded Rome soon after, perhaps at Eudoxia’s instigation.  Petronius Maximus was killed in the panic that ensued and Genseric’s troops sacked the city for two weeks, before withdrawing.

These invasions were symptomatic of the rapid deterioration of the western Empire, which was also ravaged by disease and famine.

There is little evidence of particular damage in Umbria during these invasions, although the chronicles of Spello claim that Attila attacked their city in 450.

Pope Leo I (440-61)

The eastern Emperor Marcian (450-7) faced a major religious crisis almost immediately after his accession: an aged Byzantine monk called Eutyches produced a version of the old Christological heresy that became known as Monophysitism.  This was of great political importance, since the heretical position had deep roots in some parts of the eastern Empire, notably in Egypt and Syria.  Pope Leo I had written to “Flavian, bishop of Constantinople” in 449, at Flavian’s request, denouncing Eutyches’ heresy.  The new Emperor seized on this as the basis of the case that would be made at a council, the Council of Chalcedon, in 451.  Leo’s ‘Tome’ had the desired effect and, after only a few weeks’ deliberation, the Council condemned Monophysitism without reservation.   This seems to have defused the situation, although the controversy over the divine and human nature of Christ was by no means at an end.

Much had been made of Leo’s Petrine authority during the discussions at Chalcedon, and the acts of the Council duly proclaimed that “Peter has spoken thus through Leo”.  It is odd, therefore that the Council also passed a canon that gave the archbishop of Constantinople complete authority over the Church in the east:

  1. “... the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city.  [We now give] equal privileges to the most holy throne of New Rome ... the metropolitans of the [eastern] dioceses should be ordained by the archbishop of Constantinople, after the proper elections have been held according to custom and have been reported to him” (Canon 28).

This was the start of a long process of separation that culminated in the schism of 1054.

As the weakness of Valentinian III became evident, Leo I emerged as the main source of stability in the west:

  1. He seems to have been a member of the delegation that met Attila outside Mantua in 452 and persuaded him to withdraw.

  2. He interceded with King Genseric during the sack of Rome in 455, and seems to have been able to avert some of the threatened violence.

Valentian III (who was in desperate need of papal support and was soon to be murdered) issued a decree in 454 that asserted:

  1. “Since the primacy of the Apostolic See is established by the merit of St. Peter (who is the chief among the bishops), by the majesty of the city of Rome, and finally by the authority of a holy council, no one, without inexcusable presumption, may attempt anything against the authority of that see.  Peace will be secured among the churches if every one recognise his ruler”.

When Leo I died in 461, he became the first pope to be buried in (old) St Peter’s Basilica.

End Game

After the murder of Valentian III and the death of Petronius Maximus, a series of Roman nobles seized power.  The last of whom was Orestes, the magister militum, who seized Ravenna in 475 and installed his young son as the Emperor Romulus Augustus.

By this time, the imperial army in Italy was almost entirely made up of Goths who were organised in units along tribal lines.  They were badly paid, hungry for land and increasingly disillusioned with the ability of their political masters.   In 476, Odoacer, the leader of one of the units of Goths, seized power, killed Orestes and deposed Romulus Augustus.  He then dispensed with the fiction of an imperial title in the west sent the imperial insignia to the eastern Emperor Zeno.  He thus became the effective ruler of Italy, albeit that Zeno, his acknowledged overlord, gave only the most reluctant acquiescence to the new arrangement.

Christianity in Umbria (410 - 76)

Paganism certainly survived in Umbria into the 5th century.  For example, according to Zosimus:

  1. “... Pompeianus, the prefect [of Rome], accidentally met with some persons who had come to Rome from Tuscany, and who related that a town called Narnia [translated wrongly in this text as Neveia] had delivered itself from extreme danger: the Barbarians [marching towards Rome in 410] had been repulsed from it by storms of thunder and lightning, which were caused by the devotion of its inhabitants to the gods, in the ancient mode of worship” (‘Historia Nova’ Book 5, search on ‘Pompeianus’).

Nevertheless, Christianity was beginning to take hold, and to develop an institutional framework based on bishops and dioceses.

Gualdo Tadino

As noted above, an Italian bishop called Facundinus was among those who subscribed to the findings of the Council of Serdica (Sofia) in 342, which condemned the Arian heresy.  If this was probably St Facundinus, Bishop of “Taino” (Gualdo Tadino), then Gualdo Tadino is the first documented diocese in Umbria. 


It is entirely likely that St Valentine was the first bishop of Terni, and that he was the victim of judicial murder at the hands of the Urban Prefect Furius Placidus in Rome in 347.  He was buried at the later site of the church of San Valentino, outside Terni, where a Christian cemetery had developed by 366.

An inscription (CIL XI 4340, catalogued by Gianfranco Binazzi, referenced below, as entry 29, pp. 47-8) from the cemetery at San Valentino [now in the Museo Archeologico ??] commemorates the otherwise unknown Bishop Homobonus.  It reads:

....v(ir) (enerabilis) Homobonus epsic(opus) qui s[edit]

[annos ...], mensis VII, dies XXVIII i[n pace]

According to Coarelli and Sisani (referenced below, p. 147, entry 147), the inscription dates to ca. 400.

Bishop Pretestato (Praetextatus) of Terni attended a synod in Rome convened by Pope Hilarius in 465.  An epitaph from the cemetery at San Valentino, which dated to 468, might have commemorated a bishop.  If so, this could well  have been Bishop Praetextatus.


Three bishops of Spoleto have already appeared in the account above:

  1. Caecilianus, with whom Pope Liberius corresponded ahead of the Council of Milan in 355 AD, exhorting him to remain true to the anti-Arian position;

  2. Spes, who held the post for 32 years prior to his death - he was probably a contemporary of Pope Damasus I and St Ambrose, and was similarly devoted to the cult of saints; and

  3. Achilleus, who played a prominent rôle in the resolution of the papal schism in 418.

It seems likely that Spoleto’s well-organised Christian community was one of the earliest to develop in Umbria, and that Spoleto was the most important of the Umbrian diocese at this time.


The chronological data in the legend of St Juvenal (BHL 4614)  suggests that he was consecrated as the first bishop of Narni in 364-71.  It purports to have been written by St Juvenal’s successor, Bishop Maximus, who also built a basilica over St Juvenal’s  grave: he apparently held the bishopric for some 40 years (371-411).    He was mentioned in a bull (1069) of Alexander II, alongside SS Juvenal and Cassius (below), as one of the three bishops of Narni who were considered to be saints. 

Unfortunately, the earliest known version of BHL 4614 probably dates to the early 9th century.  However, Gregory I had referred to a cult site for St Juvenal in the 6th century.  This might well have been Maximus’ basilica, in which later that bishops Pancratius and Cassius were probably buried (in 493 and 558 respectively).  On that basis, it is at least possible that Juvenal and Maximus were historical figures.


Pope Innocent I sent a copy of a decretal to Bishop Decentius of Gubbio in 416 (analysed by Vincenzo Monachino, referenced below).  In it, he referred to Decentius’ predecessors, which suggests that Gubbio had been a diocese for some decades.  An early Christian inscription (4th or 5th century) that was found in 1785 near San Giovanni Battista (now in the sacristy of the Duomo) records that the Archdeacon Aemilianus had been responsible for the construction of the ‘basilica sanctorum apostolorum’, which could have related to the original episcopal church of the city.  




Bishop Ilario (Hilarius) of Amelia attended a synod in Rome convened by Pope Hilarius in 465. 


Bishop Gaudentio of Bettona (Guadentius vettonensis) attended a synod in Rome convened by Pope Hilarius in 465.

Città di Castello

Bishop Eubodio of Città di Castello Eubodio (Eubodius, tifernas) of Città di Castello attended a synod in Rome convened by Pope Hilarius in 465.

Read more:

E. d’Angelo, “Narni e i Suoi Santi”, (2013) Spoleto

F. Coarelli and S. Sisani, “Museo Comunale di Terni. Raccolta Archeologica: Sezione Romana” (2008) Milan

V. Monachino, “Lettera di Innocenzo I a Decenzio, Vescovo di Gubbio”, in 

  1. Ricerche sull’ Umbria Tardo-Antica e Preromanica: Atti del II Convegno di Studi Umbri (Gubbio, 1964)”, (1965) Perugia, pp. 211-34

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