Ravenna (Judith Herrin)

The glittering, imperial city on the Adriatic where East met West

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe, 2020 (allen lane). [Image: Penguin Books]

Ravenna, the city of gilded mosaics, handsome churches and Dante’s tomb, has, in Judith Herrin’s view, for too long had its historical importance overlooked. In Ravenna, Herrin takes us through five centuries of the city’s development from Constantine’s decision to move his capital to Byzantium in 330 to the crowing of the Frankish king Charlemagne in Rome on Christmas Day 800. Shifting allegiances and invading armies made Ravenna first the capital of the Western Roman Empire, then the seat of the Ostrogothic Kingdom under Theodoric, and finally the imperial capital of Byzantium in Italy, ruled via exarchs hand-picked in Constantinople.

Herrin deftly guides the reader through a catalogue of ‘barbarians’ and archbishops, emperors and popes, illustrating the city’s crucial position as the meeting point of East and West, and stressing all the while the local vitality and pride expressed by the Ravennati in their well-protected city and ancient port at Classis. Agnellus, a ninth-century historian, whose Book of the Pontiffs chronicles the history of the city’s archbishops, and Cassiodorus, a scholar and statesman of the fifth century, are the two principle literary sources that run throughout Herrin’s narrative, but inscriptions, buildings, monuments, fragmented papyri and coins are also touchstones from which Ravenna’s strategic importance is explored.  

Mosaic ceiling at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Petar Milošević]

Much that is familiar – San Vitale, the imperial mosaic panels, Theodoric’s mausoleum – are presented here not from the Constantinopolitan perspective but of that of the clerics, civil administrators and writers of Ravenna, with emphasis placed on the diffuse traditions its rulers drew upon during different periods: Gothic and Greek, Arian and Catholic, barbarian and Roman. Galla Placidia, half-sister to the Emperor Honorious, is the figure that dominates the first third of the book. Captured by the Visigoths during their siege of Rome, Placidia was married to the chieftain Ataulf; after his murder, she was returned to Ravenna and married the general Constantius, at the demand of her brother Honorious. On her brother’s death, she ruled as regent in Ravenna for her young son Valentinian, sponsoring building in the city and running the government. The sumptuous tomb that bears her name in Ravenna today is not her final resting place (she was buried in Rome) but it remains a fitting tribute to a woman who did much to enhance Ravenna’s status and keep the Western Roman Empire alive.    

These disparate influences culminated in the long shadow that Ravenna exerted on the Frankish king Charlemagne, whose cathedral at Aachen is modelled on San Vitale with its octagonal dome and spolia from Ravenna itself. But Ravenna’s influence on Charlemagne was more profound than architectural borrowing: for Charlemagne, Ravenna’s history as an imperial capital with a former Germanic ruler (Theodoric), who ruled swathes of land justly and efficiently, was a blueprint for Charlemagne’s vast empire north and south of the Alps. Charlemagne’s decision to remove a bronze equestrian statue of Theodoric from Ravenna and take it to his palace at Aachen is a heartfelt compliment from one ‘barbarian’ ruler to another.

One of the most striking aspects of Ravenna is its emphasis on the decline of the Roman Empire in the West being not just a whirlwind of violence and destruction, but also a process of assimilation and adoption. If we omit the Vandal sack of Rome in 455, most incursions onto the Italian peninsula in the first millennium were in fact looking to absorb Roman power for themselves rather than destroy it. Particularly appealing to such non-Romans was Roman law and civil administration. The Ostrogothic king Theodoric’s invasion is best seen in this light. Theodoric grew up in the imperial splendour of Constantinople as a hostage. After imbibing the court culture of the East, Theodoric led his people into Italy and seized Ravenna in 493. This multilingual, Arian king then ruled Ravenna and most of Italy for three decades, promoting religious toleration, learning and building construction. Far from crushing Roman power, Theodoric stepped in to carry its mantle, and blend it with Gothic rule.

The fate of Theodoric’s depiction in mosaic at Sant’Apollinare in the city is a wonderful example of the great waves of continuity and change that engulfed Ravenna. After Theodoric’s death, and his entombment in the domed tower that still stands, the Eastern Emperor Justinian ordered the general Belisarius in 533 to bring the Ostrogoths to heel. After Belisarius took Ravenna in 540, the incredible mosaic portraits of Theodoric that lined the walls of Sant’Apollinare were altered to remove the figures of Theodoric and his court. In their place, a gold wall of mosaic brick or curtains were inserted in an attempt to erase the memory of the Ostrogothic – and non-Catholic – ruler. This was just one part of the whitewash; more explicitly, under the aegis of the new rulers from Constantinople, San Vitale was erected, with mosaics in the presbytery depicting Justinian and the Empress Theodora. Neither ever visited the city, but their stern countenances and commanding presence so close to the altar of the new church left no room for doubt as to the ultimate authority in Ravenna.

Mosaic panel at San Vitale, Ravenna, erected shortly after the capture of Ravenna by Belisarius in 540. The Empress Theodora presents her gift to the church, followed by a retinue of women in lavish dress. [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Peter Culos]

Given that Ravenna was a confluence of different faiths, leaders and loyalties over the years, it sustained a remarkable peace that allowed a flourishing of building projects that reflected a vigorous civic pride. But one can’t help shake the feeling that despite Ravenna’s strategic importance, the real action is taking place elsewhere. Ravenna was more often the place through which power was exercised from external forces – from Constantinople first, and later Rome — rather than an independent fount of authority itself. This means that it never obtained the power the great cities of the Mediterranean wielded without subordination to other forces. This doesn’t mean that Ravenna was supine, or lacked confidence, however; indeed, rivalry between Ravenna and Rome runs throughout the book, particularly in the seventh and eighth centuries, when Roman bishops were bolder in asserting their authority over independent churches. For much of early Christendom, Ravenna was in far better shape than Rome, but it was the Caput Mundi, with its Apostolic link and ancient heritage, that emerged the greater city.

In Ravenna, Herrin illustrates how the city was the portal in which the East met the West, and vice versa. In this way, Herrin shows how Ravenna was a key part of a vast network of cities in Italy, Europe and North Africa that were ultimately subordinate to Constantinople. Later, the growing power of Roman popes and Constantinople’s preoccupation with the threat posed by Islam saw Ravenna’s status as imperial outpost gradually diminish. The Lombard seizure of Ravenna in 751 and the papal alliance with the Franks slowly brought down the curtain on a magnificent period in the city’s history. For Herrin, part of the reason for Ravenna’s lack of recognition is that it peaked too soon. Records and writing vanished, resulting in ‘a great deal of losing and forgetting’ alongside ‘physical dismantling, which is also a form of forgetting’.

Despite such losses, Ravenna combines what is left to compile a biography worthy of the city’s erstwhile glory. Herrin charts not just the fate of a vital city in Italy amid the collapsing scenery of the Roman Empire in the West, but also the gradual fading of the ancient world and the growth of new Christian forms of authority. It demonstrates the role Ravenna played in sustaining Roman power in Italy, the glorious buildings and artworks it produced as it did so, and the powerful pull it had on Charlemagne and his own empire over the Alps in the dawning medieval world. Herrin writes with clarity and affection about a place she believes has been buried under the behemoths of Florence, Venice and Rome and unjustly marginalised, given its former prestige and importance. Her exquisite scholarly eye, careful scrutiny of artefacts and patient unpacking of sources breathe new life into a city that was the fulcrum of East and West in the formative centuries of modern Europe.


Review of Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe (2020) by Judith Herrin.

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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