Aquileia - Oglej
Cities, Towns and Hamlets


Aquileia coordinates:   13° 21' 54.53" E ]

History of Aquileia

Aquileia (also called Aquilegia; Latin: Aqvileja and Aquileja; Friulian: Acuilee / Aquilee / Aquilea; Slovene: Oglej) , is an ancient Roman city in what is now Italy. According to an etymology established among scholars, it seems that the city's name has its roots in "Akilis," a  pre-Roman term of Celtic origin, indicating that the river "[...] which probably gave rise to the name of Aquileia […]”. The basis of the name comes from the term "wara" ("water"), which is precisely the root of Aquileia, from 'Aquilis', the name of a river.

Aquileia is located at the head of the Adriatic at the extreme east end of the plain of Veneto at the northern edge of the lagoons about 10 kilometers from the Adriatic. It was built on the banks of the ancient Akilis, the Natiso River (Italian: Natissa / Natisone; Friulian: Nadison; Slovene: Nadiža), the main tributary of the Torre River and a sub-affluent of the Isonzo River. The river is formed at 415 meters above sea level on the border between Friuli and Slovenia by the confluence of two streams: the Rio Bianco (Slovene: Beli potok) and the Rio Nero (Slovene: Črni potok) which spring from the Punta di Montemaggiore and Gabrovec mountains. Before the river's confluence with the Torre River, it passes through the communes of Pulfero and Cividale del Friuli. In Roman times when Aquileia was founded, the Natiso River was quite wide, spanning 48 meters from one bank to the other, but it has changed somewhat since those times and is no longer navigable.

Harbour of Aquileia which united the waters of the rivers of Natissa (Lat. Natiso) and Del Torre creating a river 48 metres wide.

After the conquest of the entire peninsula of Italy when Roman power extended all the way to the Po valley, the foundation of Aquileia was decided by the Roman Senate in 183 B.C., as described by Livy (Book 39 ch.55):

"Marcus Claudius the consul, having expelled the Gauls from the province, began to scheme for a war with the Histrians, [note below] sending letters to the senate for permission to lead the legions into Histria. [5] This did not please the senate. They were discussing the question of establishing a colony at Aquileia, but it was not generally agreed whether it should be a Latin colony or one of Roman citizens. Finally, the Fathers voted that a Latin colony rather should be founded. [6] The three commissioners elected were Publius Scipio Nasica, Gaius Flaminius, Lucius Manlius Acidinus."

Note: Since the territory of the Veneti had now been tacitly absorbed, the Histrians, living on the peninsula to the south of the modern Trieste, were near neighbours. There seems to be no evidence that they had given the Romans any cause to attack them at this time. [Translation to English from the original Latian and note are by Evan T. Sage.]

Thus, it was decided to make Aquileia colonia - that is, a colony of Latin Law (or a city with its own senate, but depending on foreign policy from Rome) - intended for military purposes and located not far from the site where Gaulish invaders had just attempted to settle.  It was built in 180/1 B.C. as a Roman oppidum (a fortified city) with Latin rights, and was headed by a senatorial committee (triumviri coloniae deducundae) consisting of two men of consular and one of praetorian rank - the consul Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, the triumvirs Caius Flaminius and the ex-praetor Lucius Manlius Acidinus (Livy 39.55.5-6; 40.34.2). These led 3,000 pedites (infantry), mainly from Samnium, who came with their families and were given an allotment of 50 hectares of land in the territory which was divided into centuries. The bulk of the settlers were soon supplemented by native Veneti. In 169 B.C., another 1,500 colonists were settled there, and still another probably in the Augustan period. The colony then served as a frontier fortress at the north-east corner of transpadane Italy and was intended to protect the Veneti, faithful Roman allies, during the Illyrian Wars (229 B.C. and 219 B.C.), as well as to act as an outpost against neighboring Gallic and Istrian barbarians [see above note].


Aquleia was the base of operations against the advances of the hostile Carnici (Carni), who were brought under control in 115 B.C. (CIL I2, p. 177). The city was also the staging point for the wars against the Istri in 178-177 B.C. (Livy, 41.1-5, 9-11; Flor. 1.26) and for the victorious campaigns of the consul C. Sempronius Tuditanus, which permitted the Romans to triumph over the Taurisci, Iapides, and the Liburni in 129 B.C. (Per. Liv. 59; Plin. HN 3.129; App. Ill. 10.30, 1.1, 13.1 pp. 82-83 n. 32; CIL I2, 652).

Although the founding of Aquileia was dictated by military considerations, it was also intended to create peaceful agricultural and commercial conditions. The discovery of the gold fields near the modern Klagenfurt in 150 B.C. (Strabo IV. 208) brought it into notice, and it soon became a place of importance, not only owing to its strategic position, but as a centre of trade. Among the goods that it traded through its great river port were wine, oil, furs, iron, and slaves. It was also the southern terminus of the amber route, dating from prehistory, and this prized product from the Baltic was worked by Aquileian craftsmen for sale throughout the Empire. High-quality glassware became an important manufacture following the establishment of a workshop there in the first century A.D. by the celebrated Phoenician craftsman Ennion. It also had, in later times at least, considerable brickfields.

In 90 B.C., Aquileia was elevated from a colonia to the status of a municipium (CIL V, 968), and its citizens were afforded full rights of Roman citizenship. It then became a part of Italy in 48 B.C. when Julius Caesar extended the borders of Italy as far as Formio (the Risano river). The citizens of Aquileia were enrolled in the tribus Velina, so called from the homonymous lake in Sabine territory, near Rieti. Inscriptions attest the existence of a senatus (CIL V, 961, 875, 8288, 8313), of duoviri (CIL V, 971), of quattuorviri, decuriones, and aediles (CIL V, 1015), of praetores and praefecti iure dicundo (CIL V, 949, 953, 961, 8291), of praefecti aedilicia potestate (CIL V, 749), and of quaestores (CIL V, 8293, 8298) and patroni. Other offices were priestly, among which were: pontifices (CIL V, 1015), augures (CIL V, 1016), haruspices (S.I., 197), sacerdotes (CIL V, 786, 8218; S.I., 210), flamines (CIL V, 8293), and seviri augustales, who were grouped into collegia, occasionally with their patronus (CIL V, 1012).

According to Strabone (Strabo), Under the reign of Augustus, the Taurisci and the lapides (Giapidi) agaub attacked and plundered Aquileia in 52 B.C., under the reign of Augustus (Strab, 4.6.10); App. Ill. 18.1). That was followed by a long period of peace and prosperity arising from its commerce.  Augustus visited Aquileia during the Pannonian wars in 12-10 B.C. and the city was the birthplace of Tiberius's son by Julia, in the latter year. Many Roman emperors, including Constantine and Marcus Aurelius spent time there, and Aquileia quickly became a multi-cultural centre with Italians, Celts, Greeks, Egyptians and Jews all coming there to trade. Syrians established a profitable glasswork trade there and the region exported metal from Noricum, along with its famous Pucinum wine. It is estimated that by the end of the 1st century B.C. its population had reached over 200,000.

In the Republican period, it was a customs station where the portorium was collected (Cic. Pro Font. 1.2) and where two stationes of the 3rd century A.D. are attested (Ann. édpigr. 1934, n. 234). Aquileia's wealth resulted in the town being endowed with many magnificent public buildings and opulently decorated private residences of its rich merchants. Aquileia had an imperial palace in which the emperors after the time of Diocletian frequently resided. Of especial importance was the construction in the second decade of the 4th century of a basilica by Bishop Theodorus, following the sanctioning of public worship by the Edict of Milan in 313. It also was the seat of an Imperial mint between 284 and 425 A.D., the coins of which are very numerous. Ausonius enumerated it as ninth among the great cities of the world, placing Rome, Mediolanum and Capua before it, and called it "moenibus et portu celeberrima."

Commerce profited from a good highway network and from a large harbor at the mouth of the river, which allowed the transport of merchandise manufactured on site. Aquileia was the central point of three most important roads, the Via Postumia starting from Genoa, Via Annia from Padua, and  Via Popilia which started from Rimini. The roads comprising the network were:

  • (CIL V, 8313)
  • Via Annia (CIL V, 7992) constructed in 131 B.C.
  • Via Julia Augusta, so-called, which ran north and passed through Tricesimum and Julium Carnicum (It. Ant., ed. Cuntz, 279-80)
  • the road which passed over the valley of Natisone and through Forum Iuli and thence to Virunum
  • the road which crossed the valleys of Isonzo and Vipacco in the direction of Æmona
  • and the road toward Tergeste, which is probably to be identified with the Via Gemina (CIL V, 7989)

Aquileia was probably connected by road with Bononia (Bologna) in 173 (or 175) B.C., and subsequently with Genua (Genova) in 148 B.C. by the Via Postumia which ran through Cremona, Bedriacum and Altinum, joining the via Postumia (first-mentioned road) at Concordia, while the construction of the Via Popilia from Ariminum (Rimini) to Ad Portum near Altinum in 132 B.C. improved the communications still further. It was the starting-point of several important roads leading to the north-eastern portion of the empire - the Via Iulia Augusta by Iulium Carnicum to Veldidena (mod. Wilten, near Innsbruck), from which branched off the road into Noricum, leading by Virunum (Klagenfurt) to Lauricum (Lorch) on the Danube, the road into Pannonia, leading to Æmona / Emona (Laibach, now Ljubljana), and Sirmium (Mitrowitz, now Sremska Mitrovica), the road to Tarsatica near Fiume (Rijeka) and Siscia (Sissek), and that to Tergeste (Trieste) and the Istrian coast.

After its beginnings as a frontier fortress, because of its strategic location, Aquileia evolved into a naval station and grew to be one of the most important cities in Roman Italy. In the Age of Augustus (63 B.C.-14 A.D.), it became the seat of the corrector Venetiarum et Histriae (capital of “X Regio Venetia et Histria”, the tenth region of Rome). Imposing buildings in public places were constructed there, including a forum, amphitheatre, circus, theatre and several small and large “thermae” (now attractions for tourists). The long period of peace in Aquileia, however, was interrupted by two barbarian sieges, one from the north-east by the Quad[i] and Marcoman[ni] in 169 A.D. (Amm. Marc. 29.6:1; Lucian Alex. 48) and the other by Maximinus of Thrace in 238 A.D. (Herodian 7.2-3; Jul. Capitol. Maxim. duo 21-23; id. Epitome 25; Eutrop. 9.1; Oros. 7.19.2; Zonar. 12.16).  After the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. introduced religious tolerance, Aquileia also became an important centre of early Christianity, and its bishop (patriarch) was a powerful figure.

However, from the middle of the 3rd century A.D. until the end of the Roman Empire, Aquileia was a participant in the struggles among the emperors, then came the fatal blow in 452 A.D., when Aquileia was sacked and burned by the Huns, led by Attila, on their way down to Italy. The city's local residents built frantic defenses against them, protective walls with any marbles and sculptures that came to hand. The survivors clustered in a drastically reduced settlement around the Basilica, in the area of the small present-day town, which occupies only a fraction of the Roman city. From this point on, Aquileia was devastated by continuous invasions. After destruction by the Lombards one hundred years after the huns, the patriarch and most of the remaining population packed up and moved to the relative safety of the lagoon island town of Grado a few miles away.

Aquileia's mercantile role was assumed later by Venice, which provided a similar trading link between central Europe and the Mediterranean, but the city retained its spiritual significance. The city slowly recovered and only in the 9th century A.D. did it regain any real importance when it became the seat of a patriarchate whose territory extended westwards as far as Como and embraced a large area of modern Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia.

The early center of Christianity, the Patriarchal State of Aquileia in the Holy Roman Empire, played an important part in history, particularly in that of the Holy See and northern Italy, and a number of Church Councils of Aquileia were held there. It lasted from 1077 - when the patriarch Sigeard of Belstein received the ducal title of Friuli from German king Henry IV, an act traditionally regarded as the birth of the state of Aquileia, or the Patrie dal Friûl - to 1445 after the defeated patriarch Ludovico Trevisan at the Council of Florence had acquiesced in the loss of his ancient temporal estate in return for an annual salary of 5,000 ducats allowed him from the Venetian treasury after which only Venetians were allowed to hold the title of Patriarch of Aquileia. The Episcopal Patriarchate of Aquileia survived until 1751 when the Pope divided the patriarchate into two archdioceses; one at Udine, with Venetian Friuli for its territory, the other at Gorizia, with jurisdiction over Austrian Friuli. Of the ancient patriarchate, once so proud and influential, there remained but the parish church of Aquileia. It was made immediately subject to the Apostolic See and to its rector was granted the right of using episcopal insignia seven times in the year. The great Basilican Complex still serves as its spiritual centre.

Nowadays Aquileia is a small and rather unimportant town in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of north-east Italy, in the Province of Udine, with a current population of about 3,000, this straggling settlement once was a significant Roman city and capital of a region with perhaps as many as 200,000 residents.

That the town still had some significance is evident in the preservation of its main basilica and the addition of Renaissance finery to the building's trappings. But nothing that remains could compare with the vanished city. Aquileia today is an evocative site; where scattered housing and fields now cover the site of once-busy urban streets. Although it is off Italy's main tourist routes, this is an important archaeological site with UNESCO World Heritage status.

Archeological Zone

The vast archaeological zone of Aquileia has undergone much suffering in the course of its history. From the outset of its intense life, which spanned more than seven centuries, there was a series of reconstructions and modifications. Later, as a result of the numerous sieges, the citizens were obliged more than once to demolish monuments in order to erect fortifications. Finally, as a result of earthquakes and the long centuries of being abandoned, the city became a quarry for construction materials. The archaeological excavations undertaken since the last century have permitted the identification of the essential elements of the ancient city. Yet, little more than the foundations have been preserved.

The direction of the Republican walls has been determined. At the beginning, they were nearly square, but as time went on they were enlarged toward the North to connect with the harbor. They were of fine Roman brick and in some sections had a bossed foundation. Two gates have been brought to light, one with an inner court and the other of the Augustan type with round towers. The late walls are composed of two larger, exterior circuits. Walls of the patriarchal period indicate a settlement in that period roughly half the size of the preceding one.

The excavations have isolated elements of the most ancient phase of the harbor as described by Strabo (5.1.8). The section which is today visible is probably datable to the Claudian period and is composed of a pier more than 300 m long, with a double loading platform and accompanying moorings. Large storehouses are connected to the harbor by ramps. This complex is on the right bank of the river; the left bank, although dammed, was not equally equipped. The bridges and the entire inner highway network have been discovered. The highway system is composed of paved roads, many stretches of which were provided with porticos. The roads separated insulae of various sizes where dwellings, decorated with splendid mosaics, have been brought to light. Some of the mosaics are in the local museum and some have been preserved in situ.

The partially excavated forum, at the center of the city, is decorated with large columns and fine capitals and sculptures. However, there is a plan from the end of the 2nd century A.D. on the basis of which it is supposed that the forum of the Republican period should be sought elsewhere. The structures, such as temples, which can be definitely identified are mysteriously few; inscriptions, however, attest to the worship of more than 30 divinities, including those common to the entire Roman world and those which were characteristically of local origin, such as Belenus, Timavus, Liber, etc. In the course of the excavations, large horrea have been discovered in the South-east section of the city, three bath complexes, some kilns, the amphitheater, and the circus. The theater has not yet been found. Even the imperial palace, which certainly existed, given the frequent visits of emperors to Aquileia, is no more than a subject for conjecture.

The rich necropolis set off along the sides of the roads outside the city was many kilometers in length. There are areas of tombs, marked off by stones which indicate the owner and the measurements, along with ostentatious relief monuments and inscriptions. One burial area may be seen in situ; the monuments of the other areas have been transferred to the local museum. Cinerary urns and sarcophagi have supplied fine objects of glass, amber, ivory, gold, and bronze, as well as jewels and lamps of countless types.

The Early Christian and patriarchal periods have left important traces of monuments as well as of funerary objects. In the patriarchal basilica, part of which dates from the period after Attila, there is preserved the largest figured mosaic pavement from antiquity. In the Cripta degli Scavi, next to the basilica, mosaics on three levels and from different periods are visible. The lowest levels belong to a Roman house of the Augustan period. In the district of Monastero di Aquileia there is another large Early Christian church. Its mosaic pavement is now in the Museo Paleocristiano.

Archaeological materials from Aquileia may also be found in the museums at Trieste, Udine, and Vienna; however, the Museo Archeologico at Aquileia contains the majority. In 1961, the materials of late antiquity were transferred to the Museo Paleocristiano.

See also:


  • 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Google Maps
  • The Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites. Stillwell, Richard. MacDonald, William L. McAlister, Marian Holland. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press. 1976.
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Created: Sunday, October 10, 2011; Last updated: Saturday November 19, 2016
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