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Aquileia is found to the south-east of the Veneto-Friuli region, between Gorizia and Trieste. 2000 years ago, Aquileia was a large and thriving Roman town - it is now a much quieter place, but contains important ruins and monuments that remain from its heyday.
Unfortunately much of the city was destroyed by Attila in the 5th century then pillaged and used for building materials during later centuries, and there are fewer Roman ruins to be seen than you would expect.
The major highlights in Aquileia include the Roman Forum, the basilica and the Archaeology Museum - the Archaeological Area and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site
The “decumanus maximus” was the main street of the Roman city, on the south side of the forum next to the Basilica. It was a very important route for Aquileia, because it leads from the forum and the city centre to the port. The Forum itself was an important trading centre with many shops, and using this road the merchants could easily access the port to transport their goods.
The aqueduct that supplied water to Aquileia arrived from the north and crossed the forum underground.
The Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia, dedicated to Saints Ermacora and Fortunato, was built in 1031 by Patriarch Poppone on the site of an existing paleo-Christian basilica dating from the time of Bishop Theodore (4th century).
The history of the Basilica is one of continuous renewal: it suffered severe destruction due to the passage of Attila, after which it was rebuilt with three naves, but without apses.
The mosaic floor of the Basilica of Aquileia is an imposing work of 700 square meters, dating from the fourth century AD. In the mosaic floor there is also an inscription that recalls Bishop Theodore, the founder of the Basilica.
The theme of the mosaic is one of the most important examples of "Biblia pauperum" (or "the Bible of the Poor", 'poor' meaning those who could not read and write and therefore could only understand the sacred story with pictures).
The main basilica entrance was probably located in the South Hall where there is a mosaic depicting the achievements of Jonah, while the North Hall was reserved for the catechumens. The south room was richly frescoed and the floor was a mosaic depicting a sea full of fish and the cycle of stories of Jonah. The floor was divided into nine panels and reflected the division of the ceiling into nine bays.
The rest of the room is enriched with decorations in the form of plants and faces, presumably of the commissioners. There is also a figure of the "Good Shepherd" with a deer and a gazelle, the Christian symbol of the soul towards God.
Your visit to Aquileia can continue to the south of the Basilica, along the banks of the river port on the river Natissa. Although no longer navigable you can still see rings for moorings vessels on the western bank.
The Roman Forum of Aquileia was built with a very elongated shape. It is huge and rectangular, measuring nearly 200 meters long and about 80 meters in length. The 'Platea' is the central part of the forum. It is not covered, and presents a large area paved with large flat stones although unfortunately only a small part of the original floor now remains.
Inside the Platea there are no large buildings remaining today, but you can still see traces of the original impressive buildings.
The portico was the covered part of the Forum. It was 6 meters wide and surrounded by the Platea. The portico had a wooden roof, supported on one side by the buildings surrounding the forum, and on the other side by columns. Blocks of stone covered the entire wooden structure of the roof.
Along the length there were originally 50 columns, and about 20 across the width, each about 3 metres apart. The columns holding up the big lintels were decorated with carved garlands of flowers. The columns were about 7 meters high.
Above the lintel were further large slabs of stone, called “plutei” and decorated with garlands supported by cupids and eagles. The smaller slabs of stone, which are located above each column (the "plinths") depicted the faces of deities like Jupiter or Medusa.
Around the “Forum” were located several buildings with different functions (political, religious and commercial purposes), and the shops or “tabernae”.
The building used for popular assemblies was called the 'Comitium' and located on the north side of the Forum. It was a covered building, the outer walls of which were square, although inside it had four very large circular steps; the outer one had a diameter of 30 meters.
The Roman shops, called "tabernae", were found on the east side of the Forum. They were all of equal size, narrow and very long. Their work was interrupted by the burning of Attila in 452 AD, when most of the city was destroyed and all that now remains of these shops are the floors and some parts of the back wall.
The "Forensic Basilica" closes the area to the south of the forum. This large building, according to ancient writers, served as shelter for the merchants during the cold season and poor weather. It was very large, about 80 meters long and 30 wide. The “Forensic Basilica” was also burned by Attila in 452 AD and its remains were then used to build the great walls of the city.
Aquileia archaeology Museum - a brief guide to the highlights
The Archaeological Museum in Aquileia exhibits artefacts of the Roman period that have been found in the territory of Aquileia. On the first floor you can see mosaics from private homes, numerous portraits and statues. The Lapidary Gallery is also very impressive, with a highlight being the tombstone of Lucius Manlius Acidinus (2nd century BC), one of the triumvirate that founded the city in 181 BC.
On the upper floors there is a vast collection of artefacts of the minor arts, such as glass, jewellery, coins, cameos and lamps.The first room shows some very realistic examples of Roman portraiture. In the second room are some funerary statues, which come largely from the necropolis outside the city such as the great statue of Claudius, the "navarch" and a child's head crowned with ivy.
The third room holds funerary reliefs with lively depictions of the occupations practiced by the deceased. The fourth room is devoted to sacred sculptures and copies of Hellenistic originals. Upstairs there is the important collection of cameos (with portraits of the Julio-Claudian dynasty), ambers, a late antique silver helmet, many ceramics, bronzes, and a bronze chandelier with early Christian symbols (fourth century).
The lapidary is located outside where mosaics with scenes depicting "The abduction of Europe", the “Triumph of Neptune” and figures of athletes have been incorporated in the floor. See also history of Aquileia
You can find more local travel ideas in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia guide.