Roman Aquileia: the impenetrable city-fortress, a sentry of the Alps

Review by Carolynn Roncaglia

In AD 452, Attila the Hun led his forces over the eastern Alps into Italy. Straightaway they besieged the city of Aquileia, which for more than 600 years had guarded the way into Roman Italy from the north-east. Attila’s forces sacked the city and slaughtered or enslaved its defenders. The city that they burned was one of the most important and populous cities in Roman Italy. It was the emporium of the Adriatic, and it was there that trade routes between the Mediterranean, Italy, the Balkans, and central Europe intersected. Emperors made their residence there, and bishops embellished the city with fine churches. After the 452 sacking, Aquileia faced decline. Surviving inhabitants fled to the nearby island of Grado and those of the Venetian lagoon, and the diminished city suffered another sack by the Lombards in 568. Today, Aquileia survives as a small town – and UNESCO World Heritage Site – just off the rail line between Venice and Trieste. Since the 19th century, researchers at the site have brought forth a steady stream of scholarship, much of it found in the publications of the Centro di Antichità Altoadriatiche. Anglophone scholarship, however, has touched on Aquileia only rarely.

Natale Barca’s Roman Aquileia: the impenetrable city-fortress, a sentry of the Alps is a rare monograph in English on this important city. The book chronicles its history from the city’s foundation as a Latin colony in 181 BC to its destruction by Attila in AD 452. Barca writes here for a general audience, with developments at Aquileia contextualised by discussions of broader events in Roman history. For example, Caesar’s use of the city as a winter base during the Gallic Wars is accompanied by an outline of these wars. Barca’s book also provides brief biographies of the historical figures who passed through Aquileia. We meet people ranging from Republican-era consuls to Late Antique bishops. Other cities in the western Balkans and northern Italy receive short profiles, too. For example, in a section describing Attila’s sacking of northern Italian cities, Barca adds brief sketches of Roman Verona, Padua, and Brescia. In the most vivid passage of the book, even a ship doomed to sink off Grado receives a short biography.

The narrative proceeds chronologically, and over the course of the book’s ten chapters Barca makes the convincing case for Aquileia’s importance as a base for Roman military operations. Roman consuls of the Middle Republic moved through the city to wage the Illyrian and Istrian wars. From Aquileia, Augustus launched campaigns in the Alps and Dalmatia, and the city was key to Marcus Aurelius’ wars against the Marcomanni. In the civil wars of the 3rd and 4th century, Aquileia once again played a central role. Just as Aquileia provided a springboard for Roman expansion north and east, the city was, from its Republican beginnings, defensive in purpose. Guarding entry into Italy across the eastern Alps, Aquileia protected entry from the Balkans into Roman Italy, at least until 452.

One of the book’s main virtues, which the preface undersells, is its look at Aquileia’s neighbouring cities, particularly the city of Trieste, itself even more neglected than Aquileia in Anglophone scholarship. Barca makes it clear how the events that shaped Aquileia’s urban fabric also shaped that of Trieste, and attention is paid as well to the small sites lining the road between Aquileia and Trieste, so that the reader is treated to a regional portrait as much as a civic one.

There are a few factual and copy-editing errors that may confuse the reader – for example, Corcyra Nigra (Korcˇula) is mistaken for Corcyra (Corfu) – and, given the breadth of material covered, an index would be most welcome. These points are, however, much outweighed by Roman Aquileia’s considerable virtues: an ambitious scope, studies of regional sites, accessibility to a general audience, and a balanced synthesis of Aquileia’s archaeology with political, economic, and religious history.

Roman Aquileia: the impenetrable city-fortress, a sentry of the Alps
Natale Barca
Oxbow, £38
ISBN 978-1789257748