Narbonne (; Occitan: Narbona, ; ) is a commune in southern France in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. It lies from Paris in the Aude department, of which it is a sub-prefecture. Once a prosperous port, and a major city in Roman times, it is now located about from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It is marginally the largest commune in Aude, although the prefecture is the slightly smaller commune of Carcassonne.
Narbonne was established in Gaul in 118 BC, as . It was located on the Via Domitia, the first Roman road in Gaul, built at the time of the foundation of the colony, and connecting Italy to Spain. Geographically, Narbonne was therefore located at a very important crossroads because it was situated where the Via Domitia connected to the Via Aquitania, which led toward the Atlantic through Toulouse and Bordeaux. In addition, it was crossed by the Aude River. Surviving members of Julius Caesar's Legio X Equestris were given lands in the area that today is called Narbonne.
Politically, Narbonne gained importance as a competitor to Massalia (Marseille). Julius Caesar settled veterans from his 10th Legion there and attempted to develop its port while Marseille was revolting against Roman control. Among the amenities of Narbonne, its rosemary-flower honey was famous among Romans.
Later, the province of Transalpine Gaul was renamed Gallia Narbonensis after the city, which became its capital. Seat of a powerful administration, the city enjoyed economic and architectural expansion. At that point, the city is thought to have had 30,000–50,000 and may have had as many as 100,000.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, Narbonne was home to an important Jewish exegetical school, which played a pivotal role in the growth and development of the Zarphatic (Judæo-French) and Shuadit (Judæo-Provençal) languages. Jews had settled in Narbonne from about the 5th century, with a community that had risen to approximately 2000 in the 12th century. At this time, Narbonne was frequently mentioned in Talmudic works in connection with its scholars. One source, Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo, gives them an importance similar to the exilarchs of Babylon. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the community went through a series of ups and downs before settling into extended decline.
Narbonne loses its river and port
Narbonne itself fell into a slow decline in the 14th century, for a variety of reasons. One was due to a change in the course of the Aude River, which caused increased silting of the navigational access. The river, known as the Atax in ancient times, had always had two main courses which split close to Salelles; one fork going south through Narbonne and then to the sea close to the Clappe Massif, the other heading east to the etang at Vendres close to the current mouth of the river well to the east of the city. The Romans had improved the navigability of the river by building a dam near Salelles and also by canalising the river as it passed through its marshy delta to the sea (then as now the canal was known as the Robine.) A major flood in 1320 swept the dam away. The Aude river had a long history of overflowing its banks. When it was a bustling port, the distance from the coast was approximately , but at that time the access to the sea was deep enough when the river was in full spate which made communication between port and city unreliable. However, goods could easily be transported by land and in shallow barges from the ports (there were several: a main port and forward ports for larger vessels; indeed the navigability from the sea into the etang and then into the river had been a perennial problem!)
Narbonne Cathedral, dedicated to Saints Justus and Pastor, provides stark evidence of Narbonne's sudden and dramatic change of fortunes when one sees at the rear of the structure the enormously ambitious building programme frozen in time, for the cathedral—still one of the tallest in France—was never finished. The reasons are many, but the most important is that the completed cathedral would have required demolishing the city wall. The 14th century also brought the plague and a host of reasons for retaining the 5th-century (pre-Visigothic) walls.
Yet the choir, side chapels, sacristy, and courtyard remain intact, and the cathedral, although no longer the seat of a bishop or archbishop, remains the primary place of worship for the Roman Catholic population of the city, and is a major tourist attraction.
Building of the Canal de la Robine
From the sixteenth century, eager to maintain a link to important trade, the people of Narbonne began costly work to the vestiges of the Aude River's access to the sea so that it would remain navigable to a limited draft vessel and also serve as a link with the Royal Canal. This major undertaking resulted in the construction of the Canal de la Robine, which was finally linked with the Canal du Midi (then known as the Royal Canal) via the Canal de Jonction in 1776. In the 19th century, the canal system in the south of France came into competition with an expanding rail network, but kept some importance due to the flourishing wine trade.
Hence, despite its decline from Roman times, Narbonne managed to hold on to its vital but limited importance as a trading route, particularly in more recent centuries.