Attila so hated Aquileia he wanted everyone there dead and its buildings completely and utterly destroyed, its name lost and all memory of it obliterated. He almost succeeded.
The few people who survived his onslaught, if not used as slaves, fled in horror to mountain villages and encampments in the marshy lagoons not far away. From the survivors who ran into the marshes, we were gifted great Venice.
The buildings were completely wrecked, not that they were in the fair state they once held when the Romans first developed Aquileia into a rich and bustling seaport – the Venice-and-Trieste of its time. Others had attacked Aquileia before. The city was still important at the end of Empire; the Christians had their Patriarch there, almost as influential as Rome and Constantinople. The Emperor would visit also, to stay in the palace that in time would become part of the fabric of the church.
The legend is that Attila, as a young boy and held as hostage by the Romans for the good behavior of his father, was held in Aquileia. He hated his imprisonment, learned everything he could about Roman ways, then later set on its obliteration.
What you can see now are the grimly few pickings of a city that once housed possibly 100,000 people – a very big city in ancient times. Most wondrous is the port area, where they pooled the incoming rivers so that large sea going vessels could be steered in and berthed. You can see how Aquileia’s fate changed, as they built stone towers on the wharf to keep assailants at bay. The palace is now a green field with two scant columns as markers. The Forum is neatly dissected by today’s main road.
Most interesting is the old cathedral, one of the oldest basilicas in Europe. Its main floor is made of the mosaics taken from Roman era villas nearby. Just a little younger is the nearby convent of St Maria, the museum housed in one of the oldest Christian churches in Europe. One of the very few things to survive Attila – you can still see burn marks in a corner of the floor.
Aquileia is easy to get to if you are near Venice or Rome. It is worth the visit, simply to walk about and imagine what was, and how easily lost. Oh yes, and there’s a really great pasticceria called Mosaico that specializes in home made cakes, jams and chocolate confections just by the cathedral. You have to stop for that!
Article, photograph © Carl Ottersen