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RAVENNA by Judith Herrin


Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

by Judith Herrin

Pub Date: Oct. 27th, 2020
ISBN: 978-0-691-15343-8
Publisher: Princeton Univ.

The early life and times of an Italian city that sometimes threatened to overshadow Rome.

Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast near Venice and Bologna, served as an outpost in the days of the Roman Republic. When Visigoths and other outlanders descended on Rome, Ravenna seemed a promising stronghold, “partly because it was considered impregnable and partly because of its large port,” as emerita professor of classics Herrin writes. After the fall of Rome, it steadily gained importance, first as a center of Gothic power and then as a tributary city of Byzantium and an entrepôt with strong ties to the Eastern Roman empire. “This strength,” Herrin observes, “was rooted in its threefold combination of Roman law and military prowess, Greek education and culture and Christian belief and morality.” She examines each of these pillars in turn. Roman power steadily declined over the centuries until Alaric stormed the gates in 410 C.E., but Ravenna remembered the lessons of its rule, eventually establishing colonies of its own in many parts of the former empire, especially in Sicily. More powerful than any other institution was the church, so strong that rivalries with the papal headquarters in Rome were not uncommon. Of particular interest to students of early Christian history is Ravenna’s emergence as a node of Arian worship—though, Herrin writes, eventually that “heresy” would be suppressed at the order of Byzantine Emperor Justin, “a symptom of the much greater intolerance that would later result in outright persecution of minorities.” The bonds with the Eastern Roman Empire would eventually break, but the centuries of affiliation explain why even today so many people travel to Ravenna to see Byzantine art, so widely destroyed elsewhere. Even in later medieval times, adds the author, “the mosaicked churches of Ravenna…continued to inspire transalpine visitors as they became monastic centres, ensuring their preservation while all around the palaces of secular power crumbled.”

Aficionados of early medieval history—and of course Ravenna itself—will learn much from Herrin’s work.