The reign of Caesar Augustus is most closely associated with shepherds, wise men and the babe in the manger, but it was also the period when the port city of Acquilea in what is now Friuli Venezia Giulia began a spectacular rise that eventually ranked it as one of the most important trading and strategic cities of the Roman Empire. While I was in Friuli visiting winegrowers (Sandi Skerk and I Clivi), I couldn’t resist going to see it.
The Roman Senate established it as a colony in 181 BCE with the arrival of 3,000 families, mostly from what is now Campania. The population eventually peaked at around 100,000.The city was a critical connection point between the Mediterranean Basin and lands converging at the tip of the Adriatic Sea from the north, east and west. When the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 AD, the Patriarch of Acquilea began building a basilica that has since been destroyed and rebuilt most recently in the late 14th century in Gothic style.
Even if your travel mantra is “I’ve seen enough Italian churches!”, this one is different because of 8,000 square feet of fourth century mosaics, among the most important early Christian mosaics in the western world. (Flip through the virtual tour.)
This woman appears bringing grapes. Pliny the Elder referred to outstanding wine called “Pucinum”, made on the Istrian peninsula, just across the bay from Acquilea.
Wine along with olive oil were two of the main products traded out of the port, which was actually 10 kilometers inland.
The industrious Romans built an extensive canal system to solve that problem. There were docks, ramps and warehouses, which were fascinating to see.
The long walk along the port, lined with cypress trees leads back to the main part of town where ruins of the Roman Forum and the Roman houses are.
And further on…the basilica.
It’s astounding to think of how developed the Roman city of Acquilea was when Atilla the Hun came roaring in and razed the city to the ground in 452. People fled to the fort at Grado on the other side of the bay.
Now it’s a popular summer resort about a fifteen minute drive from Acquilea with boat moorings on the bay side and a long beach on the other.
Atilla was followed by Ostrogoths and Lombards during the Dark Ages. Things settled down by the Middle Ages. The Patriarch Poppo, who ruled in the early eleventh century is largely credited with the basic structure of the basilica.
Among the medieval carvings inside, I discovered references to grapes and agriculture: here a trowel and grapes above a dragon.
In researching this article, I found out that Cato wrote De Agri Cultura, his treatise on agriculture and viticulture in 160 BCE after the Punic Wars and that it is the oldest surviving piece of Latin prose. The roots of grape growing and wine making run deep in Italy, and going to Acquilea reminded me of that again.
If you’re interested in advice for traveling off the beaten track in Italy, contact Eleanor.