Sandsone Press Logo

On The Blog

Along the Amber Route: Aquileia

Summer’s lease had not yet expired in Aquileia. The honeyed stone was warmed by the afternoon sun; butterflies flapped between lime trees still unyellowed by autumn, and roses bloomed on the pergolas.

With a population of just 3,500, the pretty modern town was far smaller than its Roman predecessor. According to the poet Ausonius in The Order of Famous Cities, Aquileia was the fourth largest city in Italy (after Rome, Milan and Capua) and the ninth largest in the empire. Its cosmopolitan popu-lation, which may have numbered as many as 50,000, included not only Romans and Greeks but Syrians, Egyptians, Jews and Celts. ‘Blessed Aquileia,’ wrote Martial around the end of the 1st century, ‘You of mine age will be the haven blessed/ If I may choose at last my place of rest.’ In the event, though, the poet retired to his native Spain.

The remains of the Roman city were strewn around the streets and surrounding fields. Besides the forum was a stretch of paved road; part of an amphitheatre; the foundations of various houses; and a large tomb, which was mostly a 20th-century reconstruction but incorporated fragments of original carving, including two stone lions and an exquisite relief of a bull.

The basilica was an impressive Romanesque church with a tall, free-standing campanile and an octagonal baptistry connected to it by an arcade. It would be the highlight of many an Italian town, but the austere beauty of its columned nave and frescoed apse were eclipsed by what lay beneath my feet. In the early 20th century, excavators lifted the floor to reveal a mosaic that carpeted the first basilica on the site, built by the archbishop Theodore soon after Constantine legalised Christian worship in 313. I could see the footings of the original columns, on top of which the later ones had been set. The church was rebuilt several times: in the late 4th century, when the floor was raised and the mosaic covered up; in the 10th, when the frescoes in the apse were painted; and again after an earthquake in the 14th, when the upper part was restored, giving the nave its lancet arches.

From Along the Amber Route by C.J. Schüler

Back to the map.

C.J. Schüler

C.J. Schüler