Aquileia was founded by the Romans as a colony in 181 BCE, during battles with the Illyrian tribes. The city was located on the Natisa River, south of the Julian Alps, several kilometres north of the lagoons. It had an important military significance at the very beginning of its existence – it was a fortress protecting the Pre-Alpine Gaul from the east, and, if necessary, enabling the support of the Venetians – solid Roman allies. The colony was granted the Latin law by the triumvirs: Publius Cornelius Scipio Nazyka, Caius Flaminius and Lucius Manilius Acidinus. Soon after its founding, it probably had approx. 20 thousand. inhabitants, most of whom were Latins.
Aquileia quickly gained economic importance – it was in this city that the famous amber route leading to Italy from the Baltic countries ended. Trade was also favoured by the rapid expansion of the road system in this region – around 173 BCE Aquileia was connected with Bologna, in 148 BCE with Genoa (via Via Postumia), and in the first year of our era through Via Gemina with Emona and Via Flavia with Pula. The network of main roads was reinforced by local roads. The economic importance of the colony grew steadily – it was favoured by gold mining in the vicinity of Virunum, as well as grapevine cultivation in the region of Aquileia itself. The rapid development of the city meant that in 90 BCE it received the status of a municipality.
Aquileia’s growth continued even after the city was sacked during the reign of Octavian Augustus. Even new branches of trade developed – iron, glass products and imported oils, which was also influenced by the constantly thickening road network, which facilitated the exchange of goods. In addition, Augustus himself visited the city, and the later ruler of Rome was also born there Tiberius.
Aquila owes another period of rapid development to Marcus Aurelius. The last of the five good emperors made it the main base in wars against the barbarians in the North and East. Soon the city’s population exceeded 100,000. In 193, it hosted the great Septimius Severus, and in the following century it found itself on the front line of the civil war – the army of Maximinus Thracus fell under its walls, which interrupted his march against Italy defended by the forces of Pupien and Balbin and the Senate who supported them. Aquila, well-stocked, lasted until Maksymin Trak was killed by his own soldiers and the struggle was over.
Despite numerous turbulences in the history of the Roman Empire, Aquileia remained an important administrative, military and commercial centre. During the Dominate period, the city was visited more and more often by the Lords of the World, thanks to which it was enriched with an imperial palace. In the 4th century, the mint was established in Aquileia.
A city in Christian times
Until the 4th century, Aquileia was the centre of traditional Roman religion, but other cults were also professed and tolerated – the Jewish minority enjoyed religious freedom, the legionaries worshipped Mithra, and – at least in an earlier period – Celtic cults were also present. The balance was disturbed by Constantine, who visited Aquileia many times and, like in other places of the Empire, favoured an expansive new religion. A Christian bishopric was established in the city, and then an archbishopric. It hosted several synods, the most famous of which took place in 381. At the end of the 4th century, it was listed as the 9th largest city in the Empire. The dark events of this century did not bypass the region – Constantine II was killed near Aquila.
The town had an amphitheatre, circus, theatre, thermal baths, a large south-oriented basilica and a magnificent forum, among others.
Aquileia at the beginning of the 5th century
The difficult beginnings of the 5th century severely affected Aquileia, and it was fortunate for the city that it had been surrounded by walls for centuries. Visigoths under the command of Alaric besieged it in November 401, but failed to break the defence and withdrew from the city. Alaric, however, returned to the walls of Aquileia in 408 during his march to Rome.
The events of the first decade of the 5th century caused some of the city’s inhabitants to flee to the nearby lagoons.
Huns after the battle of the Catalaunian Plains
As the scales of victory in the battle of the Catalaunian Plains began to tilt in favour of the Romans and their Allies, and the Visigoths nearly managed to kill Attila himself, he locked himself in a camp, fortified by forming a circle of wagons, ready for the final battle.
Aetius, however, dissuaded the allies from intending to completely annihilate the Huns and allowed them to flee, wanting to keep these barbarians as a safeguard in the event of a conflict with the Visigoths, which he believed would have to occur sooner or later. However, this decision turned out to be tragic.
Naiad Huns for Italy
As late as September 451, the Huns invaded and ravaged Illiicum, and their invasion of the Eastern Empire became real.
Year 452, however, brought the final break of the alliance between Rome and the Visigoths – Torismund struck the Rhône and Loire valleys, defeated the Alans and took Orléans, which had been kept with such difficulty a year earlier. The news of these events soon reached Attila.
Battle for Aquila
When the leader of the Huns learned about the plight of the Empire, he understood that this was his moment – he again demanded from Valentinian the third hand of Honoria. When he was refused again, the Huns crossed the Julian Alps and crashed into Italy – and the ultimate goal would be Rome itself.
Aetius was aware of the new threat, but his involvement in heavy battles with the Goths meant that there was no question of going against the Huns. Instead, the chief decided to strengthen the defence of Aquileia with the best troops in order to block the invaders and bind their forces in order to gain time to deal with enemies in Gaul and prepare the defence of Italy. The hordes of the Huns and their allies stood at Aquileia and began a siege. The city was fortified, and the fortifications were additionally partially secured by the river Natisa. The walls were defended by selected Roman troops sent by Aetius. The city, however, could not count on any further help – it was doomed to its own strength.
The Romans defended themselves heroically, which meant that the siege lasted many months, during which the Huns made no significant progress, causing a ferment in the besieging army. The warriors began to demand that they leave the walls and end the burdensome siege.
According to Jordanes, Attila, while walking along the fortifications of Aquileia, was looking for a way to raise the morale of his hordes and persuade the warriors to continue their efforts to capture the fortress. At that time, he noticed white storks flying away from the city with their young, carrying them to a distant village. Jordanes, in his History of Gothic, even quoted the words that Attila was to say to his people: “Look at the behaviour of the birds. Anticipating future events, they leave the city, doomed to perish, flee from the fortress over which the threat of collapse is hanging. Do not take this for divination, a doubtful sign! Sensing what was going to happen, they change their habits out of fear of the coming storm”. Such translations were enough to pour new enthusiasm and energy into the warriors.
Attila was a seasoned commander and he knew his people, he knew that his regained enthusiasm could fade away quickly, so he had to act quickly. He decided to launch an assault as soon as possible. With this in mind, he ordered the construction of numerous siege and throwing machines, which confirms that the Huns knew modern siege techniques (they also showed them during the sieges of other cities in northern Italy, including Milan).
Final assault, fall and destruction of Aquileia
Under the hail of missiles, the Huns launched an assault on the walls of Aquileia. Even the select Roman soldiers were unable to successfully face the hordes of barbarians. Thanks to the use of numerous siege machines, Attila’s barbarian warriors broke the walls and burst into the city.
A truly Dantean scene took place in Aquileia. The Huns vented their fury, compounded by the defeat in the Catalaunian fields a year earlier and the long-lasting siege that had to take its toll on the steppe warriors. Plundered, raped and murdered. I will give the floor again to Jordanes, whose story accurately reflects the horror of the events: “they invade the city, loot it, loot it and devastate it so cruelly that they barely leave traces of a crowd on the surface of the earth.”
After the capture and destruction of Aquileia, the Huns ravage northern Italy, conquer and plunder cities, and murder the population. After all, it’s also raining Milan.
The plague decimating the ranks and Martian’s attack in the Balkans, however, forced Attila to abandon further actions in Italy, especially forcing the Po. Rome was saved, at least temporarily.
That part of the people of Aquileia and all of Roman Venetia, who escaped the wrath and fury of the barbarian Huns, take refuge in a lagoon where, protected by water, they establish a new settlement, known to us as Venice. The year 452 is considered to be the legendary beginning of the city.
However, at least some of the inhabitants return to Aquileia and try to lift the city from the rubble. However, the final blow will be struck in the 6th century by the Lombards, the inhabitants will again flee to the lagoon, founding Grado, and Aquileia will never regain its former importance, although it will survive to our times.
In 1998, Aquila was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.