Judith Herrin’s Ravenna, on the late capital of the Western Roman Empire, gives a fascinating account of the transition to medieval Christendom, finds Chris Bambery

Judith Herrin, Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe (Allen Lane 2020), 537pp.

While spoilt for choice, Ravenna would be on my list of places to visit in Italy. For long it was something of a backwater, which helped preserve the architectural riches of which the city boasts. Among many jewels, the city is home to San Vitale church with its mosaic of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, just outside the city walls; the mausoleum of the Gothic king, Theodoric, plus his church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, with its wonderful mosaics (those in San Vitale were designed to outdo them); and the earlier mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a Roman empress who ruled the city until her death in 450CE.

By now you might be wondering how, in a relatively short period, Ravenna was run by the Romans, by which I mean the Western Empire, the Goths, and the Eastern Empire based in Constantinople (today Istanbul). The Empire had been divided in 395CE in order to make it easier to govern and defend from mounting incursions by ‘barbarians’. The name suggests these were uncivilised peoples. In fact, they had close connections with Rome, sharing much of its culture, with many serving in its armies, and wanting to settle within its territory.

Judith Herrin’s Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe brings to life both the city and the string of fascinating characters who not just ruled it but lived and made a living there. Herrin shows how the city became the meeting place of Greek, Latin, Christian and other cultures and the pivot between East and West. She argues that the fifth to eighth centuries should not be perceived as a time of decline from antiquity but as one in which, thanks in large part to Constantinople, the notion of Christendom would develop, central to the formation of a separate Western Europe.

From 284 to 402CE Milan had been the western imperial capital, because necessity dictated the emperor and his generals be based in the north of the Italian peninsula to counter the growing number of incursions from across the Alps. The Senatorial aristocracy remained in Rome, sidelined from the administration of the Western Empire. The city was also home to the Bishop of Rome, an important Christian leader but one among a number. The book charts how subsequent bishops would establish themselves as ‘Pope’ (the term originally just meant ‘bishop’), leader of the western Church, separated from its Eastern rival.

A new imperial capital

In 402CE the great Roman general, Stilicho, himself of ‘barbarian’ origin, defeated a Goth army, which had besieged Milan. Having survived that, Stilicho persuaded Emperor Honorius to move his capital to Ravenna on the Adriatic coast in the south of the River Po delta. Surrounded by marshes and waterways it was very defensible, complete with its massive walls. The city also had an excellent harbour at Classe. By now the imperial road network had fallen into disrepair and had become difficult and dangerous. From Ravenna it was easier to sail to Constantinople than to travel overland to Rome. Herrin charts how the city retained its links with the Eastern Empire and its elite owned lands in Sicily, supplier of wheat, and across the Adriatic to Istria and Dalmatia, which supplied timber and much else. They controlled large estates there also.

In 405CE the Vandals had crossed the River Rhine, the imperial frontier, moving into France, then Spain and by 429CE, North Africa, quickly taking over today’s Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The Western Emperor had failed to act. It was a crucial mistake. North Africa supplied Rome with its wheat and much else, but the taxes of these rich provinces were crucial to maintaining the Empire and its armies. Without both, the Western Empire effectively disintegrated.

Italy was itself a battle ground between imperial forces, by now largely made up of ‘barbarians’, and invaders such as the Huns, repulsed before Ravenna and bought off from taking Rome by its Bishop, and the Goths. In 476CE a Gothic general in Roman service, Odoacer, took Ravenna (which was never impregnable) and made himself King of Italy – not Emperor – seeking Constantinople’s recognition. He was accepted by the city’s elite, desperate for stability, and things seemed to continue in the old way. But the Goths, while maintaining Roman-style governance, also maintained their own laws for themselves and their own separate form of Christianity, Arianism.

Then in 489 another large Gothic force entered Italy from the east led by Theodoric, who had grown up in Constantinople. He had been sent there as a hostage for his father’s good behaviour and had served as a general for the Eastern Emperor. However, Theodoric wanted a new home for his people and had crossed the Balkans to find it in Italy, defeating Odoacer and then besieging him in Ravenna for three years. The two men agreed to become joint rulers of Italy but Theodoric had his rival assassinated and took up home in his new capital, Ravenna, seeking and getting grudging recognition from the Eastern Emperor.

Theodoric built majestic buildings, such as his palace-church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and encouraged art and learning. He is clearly something of a hero to Herrin who argues that ‘Theodoric’s rule … transformed the fifth-century period of Roman collapse into a new period of early Christendom under the aegis of Constantinople’ (p.115). Arians and Catholics lived and worshipped side by side in Ravenna with an unusual degree of toleration.

Re-conquered by the eastern Empire

By the time of his death in 526CE the great Eastern Emperor, Justinian, was out to destroy Arianism, which he regarded as heretical, and to gain control of the Western Mediterranean, including Italy and North Africa. His great general, Belisarius, was his tool. In 540CE, having taken Sicily and advanced up the west coast, taking Naples and then Rome, he tricked the Gothic king into giving up Ravenna, which now became the centre of Byzantine rule in Italy (I shall use this term now for the Eastern Empire).

The city would stay under Byzantine control for the next two centuries, secure against new invaders from the north, the Lombards, maintaining its maritime trade across the Adriatic and with Sicily, Egypt and Constantinople. It became ruled by a Byzantine military figure, an Exarch, but in reality, with its own military, religious and civilian institutions, it was a prototype for the later Italian city republics.

Ravenna was an object of envy for the Bishops of Rome, and at loggerheads with Constantinople. If you are wondering at Herrin’s claim the city was the ‘Crucible of Europe’ what she does is chart how events in Italy and further afield led to the demise of hopes of rebuilding a Mediterranean based empire and instead there arose a new Western European concept of Christendom.

The first gamechanger was the rise of Islam and the rapid conquest of today’s Middle East and North Africa. That destroyed Constantinople’s supply of Egyptian wheat and removed its wealthiest provinces with their substantial taxes. The Eastern Empire was now essentially a Greek empire reduced to today’s Turkey, today’s Greece and some territory in the Balkans.

The second gamechanger came in 753CE when Pope Stephen II entered into alliance with the powerful King of the Franks, who ruled what is today northern and eastern France and the Rhineland, and asked for military help against the Lombards. Charlemagne would lead a Frankish army, defeating the Lombards, taking control of northern Italy and recognising Papal control of the centre, including Ravenna. In 800CE Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in St Peters as ‘Emperor of the Romans’.

Charlemagne’s new empire would run into the sands after his death. Power in Western Europe was increasingly becoming decentralised and localised with kings having to recognise the effective control of major local landowners who controlled their peasants through serfdom. However, this new feudal Europe identified itself as Christendom under the religious leadership of the Pope.

Charlemagne would visit Ravenna and use San Vitale as the model for his palace chapel in Aachen, carrying off pillars and other material there. For Herrin this marks the end of Ravenna as a centre of power and of a fading classical order.

Ravenna itself would turn in on itself, while its harbour silted up. A new force to the north was emerging, the Republic of Venice, which would replace Ravenna as the trading hub of Western Europe and the east. But that’s another story. In 1878 Oscar Wilde wrote ‘Ravenna’, celebrating the city’s rich history, and lamenting its decline, ‘in ruined loveliness thou liest dead’.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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