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