His­tor­i­cal Trea­sures

The TV pro­ducer Turned his­to­rian Talks ravenna, The over­looked cap­i­tal of The late ro­man em­pire

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The Vin­dolanda tablets

Q. What’s The ge­n­e­sis for your new book un­der­stand­ing ravenna?

a. I wrote the book out of cu­rios­ity. I had vis­ited Ravenna back in my stu­dent years and ad­mired its late Ro­man and Byzan­tine churches, mon­u­ments and mo­saics. Then, when I came back a few years ago and looked at them again, I thought “This beau­ti­ful art and ar­chi­tec­ture dates from the era of the fall of the Western Ro­man Em­pire and the con­quest of Italy by the Ostro­goths. Work of this scale and qual­ity would have needed con­ti­nu­ity of com­mit­ment and sta­bil­ity. How was that achieved in this tur­bu­lent era?” I started look­ing into the sub­ject and be­came even more in­trigued. Ravenna was the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of the Western Ro­man Em­pire for half a cen­tury. Why was that? What had hap­pened to Rome? The eight UN­ESCO World Her­itage sites – the churches and mon­u­ments which sur­vive to­day – were con­structed un­der three dif­fer­ent and op­posed regimes – the Western em­pire, the Ostro­goths, and the Eastern em­pire un­der Jus­tinian. Two of the finest churches were com­pleted dur­ing a de­struc­tive civil war. How did that come about? The book took shape as I found an­swers to the ques­tions.

Q. What is it That fas­ci­nates you about Th­his an­cient city?

a. Apart from the mag­nif­i­cent 5th and 6th cen­tury churches, bap­tis­ter­ies, chapels and mau­soleums, with their glo­ri­ous mo­saic dec­o­ra­tions, you mean?

Well, an­other fas­ci­nat­ing fea­ture is that, al­though to­day it is 12 kilo­me­tres from the sea, Ravenna was on the coast back in Ro­man times and was a ma­jor port. The em­peror Au­gus­tus chose it as the head­quar­ters for Rome’s Adri­atic fleet.

You can still visit the old port to­day be­cause it is now an in­land ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site. The ar­chae­ol­o­gists have recre­ated a map of an­cient Ravenna which shows it sur­rounded by la­goons and marshes. For that rea­son, it was an ex­cel­lent de­fen­sive site – dif­fi­cult to cap­ture from in­land and easy to sup­ply from the sea. This largely ex­plains why it be­came the Western em­pire’s im­pe­rial cap­i­tal. The Western Ro­man em­peror Hono­rius (395-423 CE) was no sol­dier and his mil­i­tary com­man­der, Stili­cho, wanted to keep him se­cure from cap­ture by the in­vad­ing Goths. While Rome and Mi­lan were at­tacked and sacked, Ravenna was a safe haven. The Ostro­goth king Theodoric and Jus­tinian’s gen­eral, Belis­ar­ius, only man­aged to cap­ture it by sub­terfuge.

Q. Why do you Think ravenna is over­looked in com­par­i­son To so many other ro­man cities?

a. Its an­cient mon­u­ments date from the tail-end of the Western em­pire and im­por­tantly, from its suc­ces­sor regimes so, if the heart of your in­ter­est is the hey­day of the Ro­man Re­pub­lic and the first cen­tury of the Ro­man Em­pire, you would go else­where. How­ever for the pe­riod we now call Late An­tiq­uity Ravenna is cen­tre-stage.

Four of its eight UN­ESCO World Her­itage sites were ac­tu­ally built dur­ing the reign of Theodoric the Ostro­goth (493-526 CE) and even the two ma­jor churches con­se­crated after Jus­tinian’s re­con­quest of Italy were started un­der the Ostro­goths. This his­tor­i­cal pe­riod is less well­known among tourists with an in­ter­est in the Ro­mans – I hope my book will make it more fa­mil­iar.

Q. What role did ravenna play in The rise of chris­tian­ity in The Western ro­man em­pire?

a. Like Ro­man cities else­where,

Ravenna ex­pe­ri­enced a blos­som­ing of church-build­ing dur­ing the 5th cen­tury now that Chris­tian­ity had be­come the of­fi­cial re­li­gion of the em­pire. As pa­gan­ism was sup­pressed, large num­bers of Ro­mans con­verted and, as well as new churches, this re­quired new bap­tis­ter­ies – with fonts big enough for adult im­mer­sion. As the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of the Western em­pire, Ravenna’s build­ing pro­gramme en­joyed the sup­port of the im­pe­rial fam­ily, in par­tic­u­lar of Galla Placidia, who was the sis­ter of Hono­rius and the mother of his suc­ces­sor Valen­tinian III.

The Ostro­goths were Arian heretics who be­lieved that Christ was sub­or­di­nate to God so they built their own Arian churches, also with beau­ti­ful mo­saics, but al­lowed the or­tho­dox bish­ops of Ravenna to carry on build­ing as well. Un­der Jus­tinian, Ravenna again en­joyed im­pe­rial favour and its bish­ops be­came arch­bish­ops.

Q. how did ravenna’s for­tunes change When it fell un­der The aegis of The eastern ro­man em­pire?

a. Es­sen­tially, there were three phases. The first be­gan in 540 CE when Belis­ar­ius cap­tured Ravenna from the Ostro­goths by de­ceit.

The Eastern Ro­man Em­pire re­tained its hold on Ravenna and con­tin­ued to hold it but the Ostro­goths found a new leader and fought the Eastern em­pire for con­trol of Italy for an­other decade, re­cap­tur­ing Rome more than once.

Dur­ing this pe­riod Ravenna was an is­land of rel­a­tive peace and sta­bil­ity amid a deeply de­struc­tive Ital­ian civil war. Then, after the Ostro­goths were fi­nally ex­pelled in 552, Ravenna con­sol­i­dated its role as the Eastern em­pire’s provin­cial cap­i­tal of Italy.

When Jus­tinian died in 565, he be­lieved that he had re­united the old Ro­man em­pire – as in­deed he had, briefly. How­ever, three years later the Lom­bards in­vaded Italy and steadily ex­tended their power.

By the end of the 6th cen­tury they oc­cu­pied two-thirds of Italy.

Ravenna now be­came the cap­i­tal of a shrink­ing prov­ince which the Eastern em­pire no longer had the re­sources to re­con­quer.

The em­per­ors in Con­stantino­ple faced much greater threats nearer home and Ravenna’s gover­nors were pro­moted to be­come exarchs, with both mil­i­tary and civil au­thor­ity to rule semi in­de­pen­dently. The Eastern Ro­man Em­pire be­came what we now know as the Byzan­tine Em­pire, leav­ing Ravenna to have a quite dif­fer­ent Medieval his­tory. But that wil be the sub­ject for an­other book – by some­one else!

“The eastern ro­man em­pire re­tained its hold on ravenna

Former tele­vi­sion pro­ducer and Cam­bridge his­tory grad­u­ate, Michael Starks is a trav­eller and writer with an in­ter­est in the an­cient Mediter­ranean. His pre­vi­ous work in­cludes The Trav­eller’s His­tory of The Hun­dred Years’ War in France.

This mo­saic in the Basil­ica of San Vi­tale shows Em­peror Jus­tinian I and his at­ten­dants. Jus­tinian I briefly united the Western Ro­man Em­pire and Eastern Ro­man (Byzan­tine) Em­pire in the 6th cen­tury

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