Aquileia: Remains of a Roman city (part 2)

Remains of the river port and walls of Aquileia.

In the summer of 2017 we visited Aquileia, once a prosperous Roman city with perhaps over 100,000 inhabitants. In the fourth century, the Roman poet Ausonius (ca. 310-395) placed the city ninth on his list of the most important cities of the Roman Empire. That fourth century was a turbulent time for Aquileia, and so was the century preceding it. Twice the city was besieged – unsuccessfully – and once a battle was fought in the vicinity. The net result was the death of two emperors and a whole lot of anonymous soldiers and citizens. The remains of Roman Aquileia can often be found in the streets, and in a previous post I have already written about that extensively. However, not long after our 2017 visit we discovered that there were quite a few Roman remains that we had apparently missed. This was one of the reasons why we returned to Aquileia in the summer of 2022. From the splendid basilica of Santa Maria Assunta a road runs along the east side of ancient Aquileia, the side where hundreds of years ago the river port of the city was situated.

Along the Via Antica

The aforementioned road is called the Via Antica, which is probably a modern name. The development of Aquileia’s river port presumably started as early as the Republican era (the city was founded in 181 BCE as a Latin colony). However, most structures that have been excavated date from the first half of the first century, the time of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Aquileia itself was not a seaside city; the rivers Natisone and Ausa, and a series of canals, connected it to the port of Gradus on the Adriatic Sea. If you follow the Via Antica, you will notice a small stream on your right hand. In Antiquity the waterway connection on this side of Aquileia must have been about 48 metres wide, so that it could accommodate the dozens of ships sailing to and from the city. At least three paved roads, running east to west and parallel to the decumanus maximus, connected the docks with the city forum. One of these roads was sponsored by a certain Aratria Galla. Aquileia was a walled city, and behind the walls there were several warehouses to store the various commodities.

Walls of Aquileia.

In the third century the walls of Aquileia were strengthened. This operation was no doubt linked to an imminent attack on the city by the rather uncouth emperor Maximinus Thrax (235-238), who was locked in a power struggle with a number of emperors appointed by the Senate. In 238 Maximinus began the siege of Aquileia, after an attack by his vanguard had failed. The siege did not go well either. Led by two former (suffect) consuls, Crispinus and Menophilus, the citizens of Aquileia put up some spirited resistance and quickly drove the besiegers to despair. In May Maximinus was murdered by his own soldiers; Aquileia was saved.

Statue of Constantine II as Caesar, Capitol, Rome.

The second emperor who lost his life near Aquileia was Constantine II. Together with his brothers Constantius and Constans, he had split the Roman Empire into three upon the death of their father Constantine the Great in 337. Constantius had been given the eastern provinces and Thrace, Constans got the rest of the Balkans, North Africa and Italy, and Constantine II Gaul, Spain and Britannia. Not long after the division the brothers began fighting among themselves, which led to Constantine II (the eldest brother) launching a campaign against Constans (the youngest brother). In 340 Constantine invaded Italy, but in the vicinity of Aquileia he was ambushed by troops loyal to his little brother. The ambush was a great success, and Constantine was killed in the melee. At the time of his death he was just 24 years old. Ten years later Constans was killed in Gaul when he was cornered by the usurper Magnus Magnentius. Of the three sons of Constantine the Great only Constantius was left alive now.

Julianus against Constantius

Constantius had a cousin named Julianus. He was a son of Julius Constantius, who was one of Constantine the Great’s half-brothers. When Constantine had died, Constantine II, Constantius and Constans had massacred a large part of the imperial family to secure their own succession and protect their position of power. Julius Constantius had been one of the victims, but his young sons Gallus and Julianus were spared. The boys would later even marry daughters of the great Constantine and be promoted to caesar (junior emperor). Julianus was sent to Gaul and won great glory there by thoroughly defeating the Germanic Alemanni at Argentoratum (Strasbourg) in 357. After the victory he was proclaimed augustus by his troops, who bestowed upon him the same rank as his older cousin. However, Julianus decided not to accept this honour, as it would inevitably lead to an armed conflict with Constantius.

Walls of Aquileia.

Three years later that conflict broke out anyway. Constantius demanded four complete regiments of auxiliaries and hundreds of other soldiers from Julianus for his upcoming war against the Persians. Julianus was perplexed, and his troops were furious. In 360 they again proclaimed their general augustus, and this time Julianus accepted.[1] With a force of just 23,000 men, which he had split into three separate columns, the freshly appointed emperor left Gaul. He rapidly advanced on Sirmium (Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia) and subsequently reached Naissus (Niš, also in Serbia). Then, however, serious problems arose. The emperor had forced two of Constantius’ legions stationed in Sirmium and a cohort of archers to surrender. He had initially added the units to his own army, but did not fully trust the men. Julianus had therefore decided to send them to Gaul, which had been vulnerable to Germanic incursions ever since his army had left. But the men had little appetite for adventures there. On their way to Gaul they captured Aquileia, described by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus as “a well-situated and prosperous city, surrounded by strong walls”.[2]

Roman forum of Aquileia.

In the meantime, Julianus had received the wonderful news that Constantius had suddenly died in Mopsuestia (in present-day Turkey) at the tender age of 44. The death of his adversary allowed him to quickly occupy Constantinople, the city founded by Constantine the Great himself. He also sent a general named Immo (perhaps of Germanic stock) and a strong army to Aquileia, which had by now been brought in full state of defence. The inhabitants had sided with the rebels, according to Ammianus Marcellinus out of fear for Constantius. When negotiations failed to produce any results, Immo ordered his men to storm the city. The defenders fought back hard and soon forced the attackers to turn tail and run. Ammianus claims that the siege was made more complicated by the river Natisone. The besiegers then devised a clever plan that involved placing wooden towers onto ships. The towers were used to pepper the defenders on the walls with missiles, while at the same time other soldiers landed near the walls and tried to tear these down. There was nothing wrong with the plan, but it was a dismal failure nonetheless, as the defenders used flaming arrows to take out the towers. These quickly caught fire and collapsed into the river.

The next couple of days the attackers tried several other tactics. They cut Aquileia’s water supply and even diverted the river Natisone.[3] But it was all in vain, as the troops of Constantius and the inhabitants continued to offer stiff resistance. This did not change until Julianus sent his magister peditum Agilo to the city. Agilo, an Alemannic general, shouted to the citizens of Aquileia that Constantius had died. The Aquileians initially did not believe him, but after he had been allowed into the city under safe conduct and had sworn that he had told the truth, the city decided to surrender. The gates were opened, the leader of the rebellion was extradited and then executed together with a number of magistrates. Two semi-circular towers, the remains of which are still visible, date from the siege of Aquileia by the troops of Julianus.


Reconstructed Roman mausoleum.

Once we have arrived at the end of the Via Antica we turn left into the Via Gemina. In Antiquity the House of the dancing putti (La casa dei Putti danzanti) stood here, a Roman house that dates from the beginning of the fourth century. Excavations have been carried out in the street since 2005, but as far as I know the mosaics that have been uncovered cannot be admired by the general public yet. We therefore continue our walk and turn left at the end of the street. We are now in the Via Giulia Augusta, where we find the Roman forum of Aquileia that I discussed in my previous post about the city (see the image above). South of the forum the scarce remains of the aforementioned road of Aratria Galla are still visible.

About one hundred metres further down the road we stumble upon a Roman mausoleum, also known as the Mausoleo di Candia. The monument is a rather speculative reconstruction, which partially consists of fragments found outside Aquileia in 1891. It was not until 1956 that these fragments were combined with modern materials to create the monument we see today, which reaches a height of seventeen metres. The original monument dated from the age of the emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE). It must have been built for a high-ranking magistrate, but unfortunately we do not know his name. The design of the monument strongly reminded me of a similar monument that I had seen several years previously in the French village of Faverolles.


[1] Adrian Goldsworthy, The men who won the Roman Empire, p. 402.

[2] Ammianus, Book 21.11 (translation).

[3] Ammianus, Book 22.12.

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