Aquilea (Italy)

Aquileia's early Christian mosaics and the ancient Roman archaeological site

Birgit Stegbauer


If you're on the way to the beach of Grado, why don't you stop off at Aquileia? Nowadays it is a village with a population of about 3500 people, but in ancient Roman times it was Italy's 4th largest city, after Rome, Milan and Capua, with an estimated population of 200,000 inhabitants. The patriarchal basilica - with its mosaics dating from the late 4th century - and the ancient Roman archaeological site are sites of World Cultural Heritage.

Founded in 181 BC as a military city, its advantageous geographical location between what is now Italy, the Balkan Peninsula and the Alpe-Adria-Region helped Aquileia develop into a leading metropolis of the ancient Roman Empire. Also, in Aquileia Christianity replaced the pagan religion early on and the town played a decisive role in the spread of Christianity into central Europe. Consequently the city became seat of an archbishop during the 4th century AC and it was even appointed the seat of a patriarch in 560 AD.

However, the urban development came to a halt during the turmoil of the Migration Period. Aquileia suffered repeated raids and devastation, especially when the Huns, led by Attila, attacked the city in 452 AD. At the end of the late Roman Period Aquileia was a marauded, depopulated site. The patriarch, seeking shelter in Grado, was forced to deal with a rival patriarch who claimed not only the title but also the dominions. The rivalry between the two patriarchs - one in Grado, the other one in Aquileia - went on until 1445, when the title and all territories were transferred to the archbishop of Venice. Aquileia never recovered from that loss and dwindled into a little village with a house of God completely out of proportion with its current state.

This same patriarchal basilica may only have been sanctified in 1031, under patriarch Poppo I, but it foundations were laid on those of a pre-existing basilica from the late 4th century AC. Miraculously the floor mosaics of this predecessor, excavated in 1909, were completely preserved. Over a surface of 750 square metres growing tendrils and interweaving lines unfold, interspersed with depictions of figures, like the 'Good Shepherd' and 'Jonah and the Whale', or the four seasons or portraits of donors. In the left nave is an entrance to the Cripta degli Scavi, where yet more floor mosaics from an ancient Roman patrician house from the first century AD and a still earlier basilica from the early part of the 4th century can be seen.

The only visible reminders of Aquileia's ancient Roman prominence is the 'Via Sacra' with the remains of the ancient Roman Forum and parts of the inland port on the silted up river Aquilis (Grado was its sea port) plus a burial site. The excellent Museo Archeologico Nazionale houses finds from excavations carried out so far. The majority of the ancient Roman Aquileia is intact but is awaiting excavation and scientific analysis.

Aquileia's English website is here


Historical information in English here


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