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Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

by Judith Herrin

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In this book the author has not come to bemoan the Fall of Rome, but to elaborate on the Rise of Christendom, as she focuses on topics alluded to in the subtitle, seeing as Ravenna remained a vibrant center of urban life and culture when the lights were largely going out all over the Western Roman Empire. That Ravenna remains somewhat obscure, other than as a place that used to be important, is a commentary on how it was usually the agent of some other polity; had the Gothic emperor Theodoric fathered a long-lived dynasty matters might have been different. Still, just as Theodoric took notes from his time in Byzantium, Charlemagne took notes on Ravenna, in the process of creating his own imperial image. ( )
  Shrike58 | May 23, 2021 |
With books, as with most endeavors, managing expectations is key. The problem with Ravenna is that most of its history – unlike that of Rome or Constantinople – is about what happened to or in Ravenna; although in 410 it became the capital of the western Roman empire, by then most of the action had moved eastward to Constantinople, and the impact of Ravenna on the world outside of itself was very limited. The remarkable churches, monuments and spectacular mosaics that have been preserved and restored – are the real testament to what happened in Ravenna. Unfortunately, the only other records are those of a not totally reliable 9th century historian and a series of mainly legal documents. We can know who was there; the Visigoth leader Theodoric, who became the Western Roman emperor; Belisarius, Emperor Justinian’s famed general who recaptured large parts of Italy and North Africa for the empire; the Lombards and, finally, Charlemagne and the Franks. But, other than their presence in Ravenna, and the testament of their buildings and monuments, we don’t know much about what they did there; the author thus resorts to far too many speculative or presumptive assertions about who must have seen or have heard or have done what there. In fact, for many of Ravenna’s illuminati, their most significant acts took place in Rome or Constantinople or elsewhere. Swathed in the swamps of the delta of the river Po, Ravenna sat like a bejeweled remnant of the ancient world, eventually swaying with the tides of history that went on around and outside of it.

A book with the subtitle "Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe" is thus necessarily somewhat aspirational. It does provide a good refresher on the history of the late empire and early Byzantium, but in order to be true to her subject, the author has to give equal billing to the less than enthralling details - which are often all that her sources provide - of "Living in Ravenna". Thus, the author interrupts the story of Belisarius' campaign to give a list of land sales, with the names of all the individuals involved and their professions or ranks and their relationships to each other, the Latin denominations of the land areas, and the amounts of money that were paid. Each chapter includes a similar excursus into the annals of the city and, even though each one refers to a different period, there is a certain monotonous similarity to them. In contrast, two whole chapters devoted - one to the surviving transcripts of lectures on the medicine of the ancient world by a 6th century Ravenna doctor, the other to the work of an “anonymous Cosmographer” of Ravenna – are quite interesting. The author emphasizes the continuing presence of Greek language and culture in Ravenna, both religious and secular. To the extent that this was also true of other Byzantine enclaves in Italy – Naples, Sicily and Sardinia – Ravenna was one of, but not necessarily the only, cultural fulcrum between East and West, between the Greek and Latin worlds.

The historical perspective is novel and, at times, illuminating; viewed from Ravenna, late antiquity and the early mediaeval does look different from the usual focus on Byzantium or Francia. The remaining western parts of the old Roman empire were less directly affected than the east, by the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, and they were increasingly left to their own devices, as Constantinople – having to deal with the constant Muslim threat as well as other local problems, such as the Bulgarians - was less able either to exercise its authority in the West or provide military support there against the continuing attempts of the Lombard kings and dukes to expand their territories in Italy. The author provides a detailed and vivid account of the triangular “love hate” relationship – depending on which emperor, Pope or archbishop was in charge – that developed between Constantinople, Rome and Ravenna. The mid 8th century imperial policy of iconoclasm was a clear watershed, that put Rome and Ravenna into the same camp, in defending and perpetuating the use of religious images. She also documents the way in which Rome, under the Popes, gradually slipped its ties to the authority of Constantinople, and became an autonomous Christian power center, effectively knitting together a Western Christendom out of the separate – but by then all Catholic Christian – players. This process culminated in 800 with the crowning of Charlemagne in Rome as the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

In her summing up, the author admits that perhaps the most significant way that Ravenna contributed to the West was, not as an actor like Rome or Constantinople, but in the way that it was acted upon by other players. Over the 400 years covered by this account, Ravenna was a conduit for the passage of religious and cultural movements from the East which influenced the formation of the Christian West. Ravenna was a source not just of ideas, but of material culture too; over the course of his several visits to the city, Charlemagne helped himself to marble from Ravenna’s buildings, a monumental statue of King Theodoric and the design for his palace church in Aachen – an octagonal plan with a dome on top like Ravenna’s church of San Vitale - introducing an Eastern novelty into northern Europe. Charlemagne’s successors too continued to plunder Ravenna’s artistic and architectural heritage. Perhaps the point the author is making is that, to understand the impact of Ravenna, you have to imagine how the rest of Europe would would have looked like without it. ( )
  maimonedes | Feb 18, 2021 |
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