From ancient Roman colony to bishop’s residence
The Romans founded the co lony of Aquileia in 18 1 B.C. on a site already settle d by Celts and Gaul s. To counter t he arriva l and the settl ement of abo ut 12,000 persons originating from the D anub e region, the Roman Senat e decid e d to send a first c onti ngent of 3 ,000 famili e s of s ett lers to protect its Eastern border.
The Latin colony prevented invas ions and became the starting point for new Roman conquest and expeditio ns in what are today the regions of Carinthia and Southern Germany. In 89 B.C., Aquileia grew to the rank of municipium, marking the city’s importance and definitive development. Emperor Julius Caesar and Octavianus Augustus successively stayed there and, in 32 B.C., the latter proclaimed it capital of the X Regio Venetia et Histria. At the time, Aquileia’s population reached a peak of 120,000 residents.
One of the most important fluvial ports of the Western Empire, the city became the main trading link between the Danube region and the Adriatic Sea. Within its walls, skills in shaping marble, terracotta and the production of building materials as well as glass crafts flourished. Jupiter’s temple and the forum that overlooked the Capitol were at the centre of a bustling social life, whereas the main entertainment places were the circus and the public baths. For over three centuries, Aquileia remained a prosperous and culturally vibrant centre.
During this period, Aquileia also turned into a major religious reference point, the meeting point of spiritual influences originating from the Middle East, Alexandria in Egypt, and Northern Europe. In the third century, Aquileia became a bishopric and at the beginning of the fourth century, bishop Theodorus ordered the construction of the first cathedral. Traces of the original building can still be seen inside the Romanesque Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, built between 1021-1031 by patriarch Poppone. The church was rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1348.
A unique archeological reserve
Aquileia’s political, religious and economic importance came to an end as a result of the repeated barbarian invasions that began in the fifth century. Attila’s Huns completely destroyed the city in 452, forcing the clergy and the remaining survivors to flee to Grado and nearby islands along the coast.
The past glory of the city is still visible today. The National Archeological Museum, which opened its doors in 1882, keeps extraordinary artifacts dating from the second century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. The floor mosaics in the Lapidarius outside the museum and the ones inside the cathedral are particularly valuable. The remains of the fluvial port, the forum, the sepulchres and the dwellings of well-to-do Roman patricians complete the archeological itinerary.
Aquileia is nowadays an international centre for the study and the history of mosaic art. During their visits, Pope John Paul II’s in 1992, and Benedict XVI’s in May 2011, both recalled the town’s ancient history and its role as a beacon of Christianity. Their words have prompted the arrival at Aquileia of throngs of tourists and pilgrims.
Commemorating Aquileia’s Roman past
Celebrating traditions, history and culture, Tempora Aquileia and A tavola con gli antichi romani (Eating with Ancient Romans) are two interesting yearly events that take place in Aquileia during the summer months.
Started in 1988, A tavola con gli antichi romani aims to rediscover local culinary traditions, which mainly hail from the Roman culture. Several events are organised in restaurants of Aquileia and other neighbouring towns like Palmanova, Torviscosa and Grado. Each menu carefully follows recipes found in Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria, a classic work of ancient Roman gastronomy, paired with wines from local producers. During the evening, waiters dressed as Romans serve patrons and the settings include flowers, drapes, music and oil lanterns – contributing to the full immersion in an ancient Roman atmosphere.
Tempora Aquileia is essentially a historical commemoration of Roman Aquileia. During two to three days, around the end of May, the town recreates the lifestyle as it was during Roman times, with a military camp, a market, sketches of daily life, jousts, banquets and dances. The event is attended by tourists and by people from across the region.
Aquileia is easily reached by car through the Palmanova highway, from the Trieste airport or by bus. A bicycle path connecting Grado to Aquileia was recently opened. Stretching along the lagoon, it constitutes one of the touristic highlights of the region.