A Roman and Medieval Frontier City

Aquileia, Italy

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 Aquileia was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire, one of the liveliest communities of early Latin Christianity, one of the most important ancient ports of the Adriatic Sea, and the starting point of the main commercial, cultural and military routes towards North-Eastern Europe. It was founded by the Romans in 181 B.C., and in the Middle Ages it became a crossroads of religions, the nominal seat of an episcopacy and a patriarchate suppressed only in 1751. The World Heritage Committee has recognised that Aquileia was one of the largest and wealthiest cities of the Roman Empire, and a most complete example of an ancient Roman city in the Mediterranean area, as it is largely intact and still buried, and that the complex of the patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia demonstrates its crucial role in spreading Christianity in Europe in the early Middle Ages. 

Aquileia, The Basilica and the Capitolo Square  
The Aquileia Foundation (, an investee of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, the Friuli Venezia Giulia Region, the Province of Udine, the Municipality of Aquileia and the Archdiocese of Gorizia, was established in spring 2008 for the purpose of preserving and promoting the extraordinary archaeological heritage of Aquileia, which joined UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage List in 1998.

The Basilica

Aquileia’s basilica is an extraordinary architectural design. Its essential lines embody the vision of Poppo (bishop/patriarch 1019–42), who consecrated it in 1031. But its origins stretch back at least to the late 4th c., when the basilica was virtually as big as it is now, apart from the transept and the apse with underlying crypt. Poppo’s restructuring project in the 11th century included the reconstruction of both the facade, with its central two-light window, and the apse, with its stupendous fresco cycle. The internal ten-column colonnades were given new capitals. 
Further work was done after the 1348 earthquake. In 1909, Poppo’s floor was removed down to the level of the presbytery to reveal the mosaic floor from the Constantine complex about a metre below. 

Mosaic Floor

The basilica’s mosaic floor, uncovered between the end of the 19th c. and the first few decades of the 20th, is one of the most spectacular relics from the primitive place of worship, built at Bishop Theodore’s behest immediately after the Edict of Toleration (A.D. 313). The complex comprised two parallel halls (the other one can be seen in the Excavations Crypt), a communicating hall, a roughly elliptical baptistery (closed to the public), and various spaces that may have belonged to the bishop’s residence. Extending over 760 sqm, the mosaic in Theodore’s south hall is the largest mosaic floor in the western Roman Empire. Divided into four spans and dominated by the inscription of Theodore, its allegories and not always easily decipherable imagery offer a practical path to eternal salvation.
Aquileia, Floor mosaic in the basilica   

Crypt of frescoes

Built probably by the start of the 9th c. and converted into its present form in the 11th, the crypt under the basilica’s high altar is divided into a nave and two aisles by the six columns supporting the cross vaults. The walls and the ceiling are completely covered by a majestic fresco cycle, which is likely to be from the late 12th c. 

Excavations crypt

The so-called “Cripta degli scavi” was brought to light by the archaeological investigations around the bell tower. The archaeological area is dominated by the remains of Theodore’s basilica complex (dated after A.D. 313). This comprises the north hall, partly invaded by the bell-tower steps, the middle room and other structures and mosaics from both the place of worship and the bishop’s residence. At a higher level, the remains of the great post-Theodorian basilica can be seen. It was built in the mid-4th century to replace Theodore’s church, flanked by a new baptistery. 
Aquileia, The biblical story of Jonah (Basilica, floor mosaic)    


The outer baptistery dates from the late 4th c., when the southern post-Theodorian basilica was built. Of its original structure, only the lower half survives. The baptistery was square on the outside and octagonal on the inside, with semi-circular niches at the corners. The current font is hexagonal. Steps lead into the basin for immersion baptisms, around which column shafts were built later (9th c.?). 

Südhalle (South room)

The baptistery was flanked by two large symmetrical rectangular rooms that completed the grand basilica complex. They were discovered in 1893 and are referred to by Austrian archaeologists as, respectively, the Nordhalle (north room) and the Südhalle (south room). Both rooms had mosaic floors from the late 4th c. or the early decades of the 5th. Although it was discovered over a hundred years ago, the Südhalle (south room) mosaic has been on public display only since 2011, in the specially built museum. The large mosaic has three separate sections. The magnificent mosaic fragment depicting a peacock, now on the wall in the Südhalle museum, once adorned the apse of the long passage (or narthex) between this room and the basilica. 

Aquileia, The Forum  


Aquileia’s basilica bell tower, 73 m high, soars majestically over the Friulian plain. It was built by Patriarch Poppo probably at the same time as the basilica or shortly thereafter. Originally, it was a simple tower with a bell-chamber and a low hipped roof. Over time, steps were added to reinforce the base (14th c.), and in the first half of the 16th century, under the patriarchs of the Venetian Grimani family, the bell-chamber was redone. 

Capitoline Square

This square was the hub of Aquileian life in the Middle Ages. Delimited by the imposing masses of the basilica, the baptistery and the bell tower, the square occupied the former site of the bishop’s palace and the four-sided portico from the post-Theodorian basilica to the north (from the second half of the 4th c.). Its essential lines have been recreated in the recent renovation of the area (2008–2009) using white stone slabs.  

Patriarchate Square

To the south of the basilica complex extends the grassy expanse that is “Piazza Patriarcato”. Significant relics of an imposing Roman public building (originally 66 x 90 m) stood here until the mid-18th c. Erected around the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the building served as a warehouse, primarily for the victuals, intended not only for the city but also to supply the army that patrolled the empire’s Danubian border. 


The forum, the heartbeat of the city’s political, administrative and social life, was a square whose first phase of construction dates from as early as the 2nd c. B.C. In the first half of the 1st century A.D., it acquired the appearance that can still be discerned today, with the surrounding arcades on at least three sides. To the east and west, numerous workshops opened to the portico; to the south, the civil basilica occupied the square’s full width. We know very little about the north side, except that it had a circular construction with steps, which has been identified as the Comitium, a place for popular meetings in the Republican era.

Cossar Zone

The archaeological area in the Cossar Zone features the remains of at least two or three dwellings that came to light in the 1950s. They are now being studied by the University of Padua. Near the south-eastern corner of the Republican walls, the archaeological area falls within one of Roman Aquileia’s southern blocks, delimited by a north-south road, whose basoli stone paving has survived here, and a parallel road discovered to the west (not currently visible). The remains of the houses’ walls and floors are from various periods between the 1st and the 4th centuries a.d. The southern sector contains numerous mosaics from the last decades of the 1st century b.c. or the beginning of the 1st century a.d. The central area is entirely occupied by a house called “domus of Titus Macrus” dating from the early 1st century a.d.

River Port

This is one of the best-preserved surviving Roman ports, along the old course of the river Natisone/Torre, which skirted the ancient city to the east and was almost 50 m wide here. The structures were excavated in the 1930s. They spanned over 300 m in length along the right bank of the river, backing onto the eastern flank of the Republican city walls. Built over an older construction, the river port was completely restructured at the beginning of the 1st c. A.D., with a new complex of wharfs and a long building behind that opened onto the river. 

Via Sacra

The so-called “Via Sacra” (Holy Way) is an evocative archaeological walk that extends from the river port to the basilica area, under shady cypresses. Created in the 1930s using the earth excavated at the port, the route aimed to establish a link between the Roman antiquities, the 1915–18 war cemetery and the basilica complex, with its remarkable Paleochristian relics.

Burial Ground

The only part of the necropolis that can currently be visited in Aquileia comprises five burial enclosures laid out along a secondary road leading out of the city. Of different lengths but equal depth, they belonged to different Aquileian families (Statius, anonymous, Julius, Trebius and Cestius). 
Aquileia, Roman necropolis    

National Archaeological Museum

The National Archaeological Museum in Aquileia was opened in 1882 in the house it still occupies, the Villa Cassis‐Faraone. The exhibits range over three floors and twelve rooms, continuing in the Lapidary galleries (1898). Part of the warehouses is also open to the public, with new displays such as the section on Via Annia (the main road from the Veneto), which was opened in 2011. 

Early Christian Museum

The building that has housed Aquileia’s Early Christian Museum since 1961 is the last structural alteration made in fifteen centuries to a Christian place of worship built at the end of the 4th c. outside the city walls. Visitors can view the religious building and its mosaics along with displays of Christian burial inscriptions from various parts of Aquileia. 

Heroes’ Cemetery 

Behind the apse of the Basilica, bordered by the medieval city walls, is the cemetery of the soldiers who fell in the First World War. Established at the beginning of the 1920s, the cemetery contains the bodies of hundreds of Italian soldiers who died on the Karst front. Along the cemetery’s boundary wall, surrounded by laurels and cypresses, is the tomb of Ten Unknown Soldiers, who were buried here on 4th November, 1921. The body of the eleventh soldier, chosen by Mrs. Maria Bergamas, representing all Italian mothers who had lost a son during the First World War, was transported by train from Aquileia to Rome and buried the same day at the Vittoriano monument. Maria Bergamas (1867–1952) is herself buried at the foot of the monument of the Ten Unknown Soldiers.