Composed probably by Paul the Deacon towards the end of the eighth century, but attributed by some scholars to Paulinus of Aquileia, this city’s fate is one often imagined for towns of the Empire: barbarian attack (in this case by Attila), brutal destruction and physical decay, with the abandonment of all things great and Roman. Aquileia now hosts a small town, but is chiefly a large, open-air archaeological site, with remains of many of the destroyed edifices described in the poem exposed (fig. 33). It is a failed town, comparable to sites such as Luni, Pollenzo, Falerii Novi and Paestum. Yet, numerically, such cases of total Roman urban loss are relatively few: far more evident are the thriving and ever-expanding modern Italian towns and cities overlying and part incorporating Roman predecessors – with ‘continuity’ reflected in the great depth of stratigraphy, often 6-10m below the modern road level. (See, for example, the useful city reviews in Archeologia Urbana in Lombardia 1984 and, for Tuscany, papers in Gelichi 1998.)

Continuity can in fact be fully recognized in another town poem, the Versus de Verona (‘In Praise of Verona’ – trans. Godman 1985: 180-87; Hyde 1966; cf. Harrison 1993b: 114-15), slightly later in date than the Destruction of Aquileia. Its words detail clearly the survival and indeed functionality of much of the Roman urban fabric in an early medieval setting:

Old monuments, many of bewildering construction and size (such as the amphitheatre, here transformed into a mystical labyrinth), still dominate Verona and are revered as part of the urban heritage. This dominance is even depicted in a rare early image of the cityscape, the Iconografia Rateriana, dating from the eleventh century, but perhaps based on an earlier original. The Iconografia portrays both Roman secular and early medieval Christian structures together, yet interestingly labels only the former, bar one church – almost as if it is designed to complement the Versus (Ward-Perkins 1984: 219-20, 225-8; Bertelli 1999: 142-3. Arslan 1943: 38 notes the association with bishop Raterius, exiled in 968, with tradition claiming the work was commissioned to help him recall his city. An eighteenth-century copy exists; a depicted belltower suggests an eleventh-or twelfth-century precursor).