Aquileia: Remains of a Roman city

Remains of the forum of Aquileia.

Modern Aquileia is just a small and pleasant town of some 3.500 inhabitants in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of Northeast Italy. Ancient Aquileia, however, was a large and prosperous city with a population that is estimated to have exceeded 100.000 souls. Founded in the year 181 BCE, Aquileia occupied a strategic location near the Julian Alps. It was frequently attacked, both by Roman generals and foreign invaders, and ultimately sacked on at least two occasions in the fifth and sixth century. Although the local authorities and population frequently fled to the nearby port of Ad Aquas Gradatas or Gradus (modern Grado), they usually returned when the ravaging hordes had left, and Aquileia continued to exist. However, its glory days were clearly over. Tourists that visit Aquileia today can fortunately still admire some remains of the Roman city that give a clear indication of its former greatness and wealth. These remains can be found on at least three locations in the open air, but especially in the local archaeological museum.

Early history

In 186 BCE, a group of Celts crossed the Alps using one of the eastern passes. They tried to settle in the region where the Veneti lived, the people that would give Venice its name centuries later. Overpopulation in their homeland seems to have been the primary motivation for this migration. The Roman historian Livius asserts that the group comprised 12.000 armed men, and if we count women and children, who must have been present as well, the group must have been of significant size.[1] Always wary of Celtic settlement near their borders, the Romans were alarmed and sent envoys to the Celtic homeland on the other side of the Alps to learn about the Celts’ intentions. When it was reported to them that the group had acted on its own initiative, the Romans decided to expel them. The Celts had already begun building a settlement near what was later to become Aquileia, but the Romans prevented them for continuing the work, disarmed the warriors and confiscated the Celts’ possessions. The tribesmen complained to the Senate, but although their possessions were returned, they were told to leave Italy and stay out.

Relief showing the founding of Aquileia. A plough drawn by oxen is used to mark out the borders of the new colony (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia).

It should be noted that up until then, the regions now known as the Veneto and Friuli had not been formally part of the Roman province of Gallia Cisalpina, which mostly comprised the southern part of the Po Valley. The Romans do seem to have been on friendly terms with the native Veneti. The result of the Celtic migration was that this part of the Italian peninsula was now claimed and annexed by the Roman Republic and used as a staging point for the invasion of Histria (the Istrian peninsula in present-day Croatia). After some discussion, it was decided to found a Latin colony here and call it Aquileia. In 181 BCE, 3.000 infantrymen and an unknown number of horsemen, presumably with their families, were settled here and Aquileia was formally founded.[2] The three officials (triumviri) appointed to supervise the founding were Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica[3], Gaius Flaminius[4] and Lucius Manlius Acidinus[5]. Acidinus’ name is preserved on a limestone table that is kept in Aquileia’s archaeological museum.

Remains of a residential area.

The new colony almost immediately found itself under attack from the neighbouring Histri, who understandably considered the founding to constitute a hostile act. The Romans quickly retaliated: already in 178 BCE, we find the consul Aulus Manlius Vulso setting out from the colony to attack the Histri. A further 1.500 families were sent north to reinforce the Latin colony in 169 BCE and the settlement rapidly grew in size.[6] The next few decades, Aquileia frequently had to endure attacks from neighbouring peoples until the region was finally pacified around the turn of the century. In 90 BCE, the city was given the status of a municipium and its inhabitants became Roman citizens. The city was arguably of great military and strategic importance. When in 59-58 BCE the famous Gaius Julius Caesar was given a five year command as proconsul of Illyria, Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, three of his five legions were stationed at Aquileia.[7]

Aquileia under the Roman Empire

Aquileia reached its zenith under the Roman Empire. Especially in the second century, it must have been a large city with a population of well over 100.000. Even in the fourth century it was still ranked as the ninth most important city of the Roman Empire by the Roman poet Ausonius (ca. 310-395) in his poem Ordo Urbium Nobilium.[8] The city was a major commercial centre. Although itself not a coastal city, Aquileia was connected to the northern Adriatic coast through the river canals of the Natisone and Ausa (note that the course of these rivers has changed over the centuries). Ships sailing to the port of Gradus could enter the river Natisone there and then proceed upstream to Aquileia. The remains of the city’s river port are still visible today. Aquileia furthermore controlled the land route through the Julian Alps and was therefore a crossroads of the major trade routes that ran through these mountains, to and from the provinces of Noricum, Pannonia and Dalmatia. The city was near the end of the Amber route (Via Sucinaria) and several of the famous Roman roads – the Via Postumia, the Via Gemina and the Via Flavia – connected it to other important cities.

Huge floor mosaic in the residential area.

Portrait of an athlete from the Baths of Aquileia (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia).

The city’s strategic location meant that it became a target for the Germanic Marcomanni, who invaded Northern Italy in the 160s. They besieged Aquileia and defeated and killed the praetorian prefect Furius Victorinus who had been sent north to stop them. Even though the Roman relief force was virtually annihilated, Aquileia seems to have withstood the siege. It was later to become the emperor Marcus Aurelius’ (161-180) first base of operations when the Romans counterattacked and drove the invaders out. Aquileia found itself under siege again in 238, when the emperor Maximinus Thrax attacked it. The emperor had been deposed by the Senate, but refused to accept his fate and marched his army from Sirmium in the Balkans across the Alps into Italy. Aquileia proved to be too tough a nut to crack. It was defended by the former consuls Crispinus and Menophilus. Men, women and children put up some determined resistance, with the amusing, though usually unreliable Historia Augusta adding that the women donated their hair to make bowstrings.[9] When the siege came to nothing, Maximinus’ soldiers rebelled and killed their emperor.

The city saw more fighting in the fourth century. In 312, it was taken, apparently without a struggle, by Constantine the Great before he marched south and defeated his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. After Constantine’s death, his three sons became joint emperors and almost immediately began fighting among themselves. Constantine II was killed in a skirmish outside Aquileia against forces loyal to his younger brother Constans in 340. In 388, the Spanish usurper Magnus Maximus was defeated in battle by the legitimate eastern emperor Theodosius I. The battle took place in present-day Croatia and the defeated rebel afterwards fled to Aquileia, where he surrendered to Theodosius’ forces. Although he begged for his life, Maximus was nevertheless executed.

The Goth, the Hun and the Longobard

Mosaic of the Nereid Klymene riding a triton, from the Baths of Aquileia (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia).

So although it saw plenty of violence, Aquileia seems to have survived it all more or less unscathed. In the middle of the fifth century, Alaric and the Visigoths appeared in Italy. In 401, Aquileia was certainly attacked, but it may have withstood Alaric’s forces. But then the Huns swept down the Po Valley and everything changed. Although he had been checked at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains the previous year, Attila the Hun returned with a vengeance in 452, invaded Italy and sacked Aquileia. The people of Aquileia had bravely defended their city and the siege was by no means easy for the Huns. At one point, they even seem to have pondered giving up the siege altogether. According to legend, the Hunnic king then noticed a flight of storks leaving Aquileia with their young. Attila interpreted this as a sign that Aquileia was about to fall. The king gathered his soldiers, told them about the good omen and encouraged them to double their efforts to take the city. And as John Julius Norwich so poignantly points out, “a day or two later the ninth greatest metropolis in the Roman Empire was little more than an empty shell”.

There can indeed be no doubt that Aquileia’s fate was terrible. In fact, when I visited the town in July 2017, the archaeological museum had a special exhibition which compared the fate of Aquileia to that of Palmyra after it had been taken by Islamic State. Now that comparison is hardly fair. Attila may have virtually wiped Aquileia off the face of the earth, but he was not a religious fanatic and he certainly did not destroy splendid works of art because he considered them blasphemous (nor did he sell any artefacts on the black market). And what is more, Attila’s atrocities did not spell the end for Aquileia. The survivors of the siege had fled to Gradus in the lagoon, but when the Huns had left, they seem to have returned some years later, led by their bishop Nicetas (ca. 454-485).

Mosaic of Europa abducted by Zeus in the guise of a white bull (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia).

Houses were rebuilt, prisoners ransomed and life at Aquileia continued, although it cannot have been as splendid as it used to be. Then, in 568, there was another invasion in Italy, this time by a Germanic people known as the Longobards. Aquileia was taken and sacked a second time. This was too much for the Aquileians and they fled to Gradus again. Among the refugees was the patriarch of Aquileia, a man named Paulinus (ca. 557–569). Because of religious controversies and disagreements, the former patriarch of Aquileia in 606 became the patriarch of Grado (later effectively ruling from Venice), with a rival patriarch set up in ‘old’ Aquileia. The exact nature of the quarrel – resulting from the Schism of the Three Chapters – need not bother us here, but suffice to say that the rift between Aquileia and its former port was now total.

Interestingly, much of Aquileia’s rich history is simply out on the streets. One enters the town by literally driving through the ancient city’s forum. Just across the Via Giulia Augusta there is an archaeological area with the remains of a residential area. Large sections of mosaics remain (see above), which are evidence that this was a neighbourhood where upper class citizens lived before the invasions of the fifth and sixth century changed their lives for good. Aquileia’s small archaeological museum (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia), with a huge lapidarium in the extensive gardens behind the museum, offers further insight into life in Aquileia in the Roman era. There was once a circus and a palace, there were several basilicas, a theatre, an arena and baths (thermae). The city was a multicultural hotspot, with traders coming from all over the Roman world. In the third century, the most popular deity seems to have been Belenus, a sun god of Celtic origin which Herodianus equated with Apollo.[10] The city had a sizeable Jewish community and later a significant Christian community as well.

Relief on the tomb of a soldier from the 3rd or 4th century. He carries two javelins, a flat oval shield and a sword on the left side (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Aquileia).

It should be noted that upon Christianity becoming an accepted religion in 313, Jews and pagans were increasingly under pressure to convert, which many ultimately did. As a result, the most striking monument of Aquileia in Late Antiquity is the floor of its cathedral, which was laid in mosaic in ca. 320 (the current cathedral itself is much younger, and will be discussed separately). We can be fairly certain of the age of the mosaics, because Theodorus, who was bishop of Aquileia from ca. 308 until 319 is mentioned in a dedicatory text that is part of the floor (the text may have been added slightly later, after the bishop’s death, when the basilica was completed). We are fortunate that not even Attila’s fury has been able to destroy this wonderful fourth century monument.

Most sources used for this post are mentioned in the footnotes. Additional sources that I used are John Man, ‘Attila. A Barbarian King and the Fall of Rome’, John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’ and Adrian Goldsworthy, ‘The Fall of the West’.

Notes

[1] See Livius 39.22 and 39.54-39.55.

[2] Livius 40.34.

[3] Consul in 191 BCE. Nasica was awarded a triumph for his great victory over the Boii.

[4] Consul in 187 BCE. Flaminius was the son of the consul killed in the Battle of Lake Trasimene in 217 BCE.

[5] Consul in 179 BCE.

[6] Livius 43.17.

[7] De Bello Gallico 1.10.

[8] Rome, Constantinople and Carthage were ranked 1, 2 and 3 by Ausonius.

[9] Historia Augusta, The Two Maximini 33;

[10] Herodianus, The Roman Histories VIII.3.