BMCR 2007.05.24

Identité civique et Christianisme: Aquilée du IIIe au VIe siècle

, Identité civique et christianisme : Aquilée du IIIe au VIe siècle. Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d'Athènes et de Rome ; 324. Rome: École française de Rome, 2005. 458 pages, ii pages of plates : illustrations, map ; 25 cm.. ISBN 2728307350 €53.00.

Claire Sotinel’s monograph begins evocatively, and elegiacally, with an early medieval lament for Aquileia: Ad flendos tuos, Aquileia, cineres/Non mihi ulle sufficient lacrimae ( Versus de destructione Aquileiae numquam restaurandae, MGH Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini, 1, p. 142). The pathos of this account, which speaks eloquently of the faded glories of the city, draws attention, as S. notes, to the position of Aquileia in modern scholarship: as far more marginal and little-known than its substantial importance in Late Antiquity would seem to demand. Of course the feeling of geographical marginality in modern-day Italy here plays a role: the one-time provincial capital lies two bus rides away from Trieste, close to the border with Slovenia. Its beautiful mosaics, well kept museum and other substantial remains receive far fewer visitors than lesser sites closer to the beaten track. In terms of scholarship, the city has been often left to its own specialists. Recently, English language readers could access something of the rich literary remains of the city as part of Mark Humphries’ broader examination of the Christianisation of Northern Italy.1 S.’s account of the city would therefore be welcome in any case, but we can especially welcome such a thorough and incisive monograph.

S. is quick to warn that a ‘total’ history of Aquileia is not going to be possible (p. 4) and yet her book represents a rare attempt to produce a fully rounded urban history. S.’s knowledge of Aquileia is thorough indeed, covering both its archaeological remains (a knowledge gained in part through participation in the excavations of the French School at Rome) and its literary sources (antique and medieval). This sound background enables S. to write a full account of the story of Aquileia in Late Antiquity: a story of great urban transformation. This is a story with its ups and downs, a story that takes us through the crisis and indeed the end of the city, with its ultimate transfer to Grado. One of S.’s key themes, as the title suggests, is the question of civic identity, and its fate amidst this period of upheaval. Her argument is clear and persuasive: ultimately Aquileia’s civic identity is subsumed by its Christian identity. This is not a simple process, however; in fact, S. argues convincingly that it is ultimately only set in stead by the political, military and economic crisis that engulfed Northern Italy in Late Antiquity. It is obvious that S.’s book has a role to play in several broader debates about the transformations of Late Antiquity: the fate of the cities and the nature and pace of Christianisation.

The layout of the book is broadly chronological, with the first three chapters focusing on the fourth century, the next three taking us as far as the Lombard invasion of Italy in the sixth. The subjects of these chapters can be further broken down as follows: Chapter One looks at the development of Aquileia’s civic identity in Late Antiquity, an identity in which Christianity is irrelevant. Chapter Two, by contrast, looks at the emergence of the city’s Christian communities, and Chapter Three examines the development of the Aquileian church in the midst of the Arian crisis. Chapter Four moves on to the Theodosian period, one of change, when Aquileia loses its prestigious function as imperial residence. Chapter Five deals with the ‘long’ fifth century, from the first Visigothic incursions to establishment of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Theodoric. Chapter Six, finally, covers the period from Byzantine rule to the Lombard invasion. After the Conclusion three appendices deal with conciliar material. The chronological structure (and detailed discussion therein) enables the reader easily to select the most relevant material for his or her purposes, although the book as a whole presents an important new picture of the city and its place in historiography. A more detailed summary of the chapters of the book follows.

The first chapter looks at Aquileia’s apogee in the fourth century, the period when a basically middle-ranking city was promoted to provincial capital, and even home of an imperial residence (according to Pan. Lat. 7.6). The first half of the fourth century in particular was a key period for building activity, a period which saw a veritable transformation of the urban landscape. Church building, in the form of two linked intra-mural basilicas, forming a recognisable monumental complex, is part of this wider building activity. Nonetheless, S. argues, this complex did not really change the image of the city, which retained its classical form, focused on the newly renovated forum, surrounded by a considerably enlarged circuit of walls.

Chapter Three aims to provide, rather than a traditional history of the church of Aquileia, ‘une analyse de l’insertion de la communauté chrétienne dans la cité’ (p. 65). There is a good deal of literary source material here (conciliar acts, hagiographical traditions, episcopal lists etc.), though this material is far from unproblematic. The archaeological remains of late antique Aquileia are famous, particularly the mosaics, but again, far from transparent when it comes to interpretation. The epigraphic testimony, meanwhile, is somewhat disappointing, and in interesting contrast to the literary sources. The overall picture given by the evidence, it is argued, is that of an interesting disjunction or paradox between the official visibility of the Christian community, achieved by the ecclesiastical building complex, and the public reaction, suggesting, for S., the slowness of local elites to convert.

The role of Aquileia in the Arian crisis forms the subject of the next chapter, and S. is properly sensible and sceptical in the face of traditionally apologetic interpretations. The Council of Aquileia of 380 is discussed in the context of the local situation, as an aspect of the internal history of the North Italian church. When looked at outside the prism provided by Ambrose of Milan it is possible to see a far more nuanced situation than the picture of unanimity traditionally presented. While the Council was still, S. concludes, an important step in Ambrose’s project to unite the churches of Italy, this project was not yet fully achieved.

Chapter Four aims fully to integrate the ‘Roman’ and ‘ecclesiastical’ histories of Aquileia, focusing on the Theodosian period. Nonetheless, much of what follows is purely ecclesiastical. At this time there is considerable rebuilding of the episcopal complex while we have contemporary evidence for what S. considers the elaboration and diffusion of a Christian culture in the sermons of Bishop Chromatius. Chromatius, working together with other northern Italian bishops, can be seen as working to construct an intellectual and religious patrimony for the Christians of Aquileia. Nonetheless, the evidence still suggests that the position of the Church within the city as a whole is still ‘discreet’, even at the start of the fifth century.

The long fifth century, the subject of Chapter Five, is presented as the key period of metamorphosis. After the death of Theodosius, while the prospects for Italy as a whole went rapidly downhill, Aquileia was particularly vulnerable. Nonetheless, the city makes its penultimate appearance in late antique political history, when it is used as a residence by Valentinian III and his mother in 425. Traditional historiography posits the end of Aquileia shortly afterwards, in 452 with its destruction by Attila, and its ‘transfer’ to Grado. The actual situation, S. argues, is not so simple: archaeological excavations of Aquileia always proceeded on the simple basis that nothing in the city could be post 452, and hence traditional datings are suspect in the extreme. While the precise process remains unclear, S. argues not for the disappearance of the city, but rather for profound change. As part of this change, although the city centre was abandoned and the urban territory shrank, economic activities were redistributed, rather than ceasing, and Christian building in fact continued (not just in Grado). What we should instead see, S. argues, is a transformation of urbanism, whereby the Christian churches came to replace the forum as the key site of representation for both city and individuals.

The final chapter looks at renewal for Aquileia during the Byzantine period. The complexities of the ‘Three Chapters’ controversy are analysed in its local context, and seen as key, ultimately, in the final transformation of Aquileia’s civic identity. By the mid sixth century, it is argued, the Aquileian church was finally in a position to represent the entire urban community. The importance of the See of Aquileia was recognised with the granting of the title of ‘patriarch’, even if this meant no real, significant change in status. This moment was short lived, however, for it was with the Lombard invasion of Italy that the true end of Aquileia came about, with the abandonment of the site in favour of Grado, a process still not fully understood. Henceforth Aquileia would become nothing more than a memory, with a history and tradition ripe for reinvention.

It is the history of interpretation and memory that follows that S. has painstakingly and insightfully unpicked. What becomes clear in S.’s erudite account is that the history of Aquileia has been alternately distorted, misunderstood and neglected for several reasons, most importantly, geographical and historiographical. An important merit of S.’s account is that it clearly lays bare these resulting interpretations (and misinterpretations), while moving constructively towards a new account.

As has already been suggested, the geographical ‘marginality’ of Aquileia plays a key role in the city’s history and afterlife: though it is important to realise just how contingent this ‘marginality’ in fact was. For much of the imperial period the city in fact had a strategically important position, due to all-important contacts with the east. These eastern connections were of course significant in terms of the history of Aquileian Christianity, in terms of both contacts and traditions. In political, military and economic terms much of the strategic importance of Aquileia was lost with the abandonment of Noricum. Aquileia was of course both a winner and a loser in the process by which various cities of northern Italy rose and fell in relative importance and imperial favour: the rise of Ravenna, for instance, was of course bad for Aquileia. The overall picture of Aquileia, it has to be admitted, despite S.’s eloquent advocacy, is of an urban centre that was both marginal and isolated for much of the time.

The historiographical marginality of Aquileia, S. shows very clearly, is also crucial. She demonstrates how the history of Aquileia in Late Antiquity has been profoundly distorted by early medieval historiography, that is, the historiography of the ecclesiastical tradition. The construction of the ‘Three Chapters’ controversy in this historiography is particularly central here and S.’s argument is that for this tradition it was easier (but fallacious!) to construct a story of the ‘death’ of Aquileia rather than deal with the complexities and problems of this schism.

S.’s attempt to integrate ‘secular’ and ‘ecclesiastical’ history is entirely laudable, but an uphill struggle. The problem is the sources do not encourage or even allow such a project, for most of the time: it is almost impossible to reconstruct a substantial non-church based history for Aquileia in the fifth and sixth centuries, when archaeology, as well as literature, is so reticent on matters extra-ecclesial. This is of course is significant in itself, in illustrating the all-important process by which Aquileia’s ecclesiastical identity became linked, and ultimately identical with, that of the city as a whole. Moreover, S.’s account consistently goes beyond the scope and methodology of traditional ecclesiastical history, in providing an integrated account of the development of the Christian community within the city.

Inevitably, this study leads the reader to think about larger debates, the first being the question of Christianisation. S.’s account of Aquileia’s Christianisation largely fits the broader pattern of Northern Italy, as she herself notes. Equally importantly, this monograph takes a stand in the debate about the fate of cities in Late Antiquity, and the biggest question of all, that of the ‘transformation’ of Roman world. To a considerable extent, S. is firmly in the ‘transformation’ rather than the ‘catastrophe’ camp, but nonetheless does not hide from stressing the profound effect of the traumas of the fifth and sixth centuries. The case study provided by Aquileia certainly provides some interesting and important insights for the historian of Late Antiquity.

This is a rich and often subtly argued book and this reviewer has few caveats. Inevitably, a monograph which covers two hundred years of history and aims to look at Aquileia in the most total form possible has much to do — perhaps too much at times. Individual sources occasionally suffer from this scope and ambition, some of which could have been pressed harder: for instance the sermons of Chromatius and the striking mosaics and other aspects of the material legacy of Aquileia. Finally, it must be noted that the illustrations in this book are not really sufficient: for those who are not experts the single, minimal archaeological plan provided is not enough. (It is extremely difficult to work out from this the inter-relationship of buildings and complexes mentioned, for instance, even the location of the forum in relation to the main episcopal complex). Moreover, though obviously the reader (and probably the author) would always like more illustrations and the publishers fewer, considering how well Aquileia is known for its mosaics, the lack of illustrations of these is particularly disappointing.

Overall this is a useful and important book which will be doubtless provide the standard work on Aquileia for years to come, while providing an insightful example of how much can be achieved through the integration of ‘ecclesiastical’ and ‘urban’ history.


1. M. Humphries, Communities of the Blessed: Social Environment and Religious Change in Northern Italy, A.D. 200-400 (Oxford, 1999).