Book Review: Judith Herrin – Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

Judith Herrin – Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press , 2020).

Less a history of Ravenna, than a history of Europe from about 390 to 813 AD. Herrin’s history ranges from Late Antiquity (Early Christianity in Herrin’s terminology) up to Charlemagne. Ravenna is more of a constant background character in a larger narrative than the star.

Ravenna has a fascinating place in history, and I would have loved to have learned more about the city itself. As the Roman Empire’s focus moved east, the city of Rome lost its luster. Ravenna became something of a second capital city on the Italian peninsula. Emperors would live their entire lives in or near Ravenna, perhaps visiting Rome once or twice in their reign to give a ceremonial appearance before the Senate, which still existed, but had no purpose other than to keep Rome’s remaining wealth squabbling with each other rather than with the Emperor.

But the Empire’s center of gravity continued to move east past Ravenna, to Constantinople. Ravenna never really got its due as the capital of a major empire. First, Diocletian split the Empire into separate Eastern and Western halves in the late third century AD. This would have been Ravenna’s best time to shine, but it was always overshadowed by Constantinople, the Eastern capital. Then the Western half collapsed in 476, and Ravenna slowly descended into obscurity—though as Herrin shows, for this entire period, and for centuries to come, it was still home to fascinating figures and power struggles.

Herrin does not go into great detail about Ravenna’s layout, architecture, daily life and culture, economy, intellectual life, geography, or much else about he city. But she does an excellent job on her narrower focus of monarchs and politics. The amount of times Ravenna changed hands between Romans, Byzantines, Goths, and eventually proto-national dynasties is astounding. Ravenna might rarely have been the center of attention, but it was nearly always part of the action. Most of Herrin’s narrative centers around powerful rulers.

Galla Placidia (d. 437 AD), the daughter of the Gothic emperor Theodosius I and regent to Valentinian III, emerges as a powerful figure at a time when women rulers were extremely rare. She spent part of her early life in the household of the Roman general Stilicho (d. 408), who became a de facto emperor. She was captured by the invader Alaric’s army, and married the Visigothic king Ataulf, becoming their queen. After he was murdered, she eventually married the Roman emperor Constantius II, with whom she had a son, Valentinian III, and served as his regent.

Theoderic the Great (d. 526) was an Ostrogothic king who filled the power vacuum left by the fall of Rome, and fought off the Byzantines, as Eastern Empire had come to be called. As an Arian Christian, he played an outsize role in early Church schisms, which the Arians lost.

Justinian (d. 565) was Byzantine emperor about a generation after Theoderic’s time. He came as close as anyone to reuniting the two halves through his general Valisarius, though he ultimately fell short. He also issued an influential law code in 525, and the Hagia Sophia was built during his reign—though far from Ravenna.

After Justinian’s death, the Lombards (“long beards”), thought to be of Scandinavian origin, took over Northern Italy, including Ravenna. They were in turn displaced by the Merovingian dynasty, which ruled over large pats of what is now France, and then the Carolingian dynasty, which takes its name from its founder Carolus Magnus, which translates from the Latin as “Chuck the Great.” He is today known as Charlemagne.

Charlemagne represents a lot of things. Two of the most important are the power struggle between church and state, and the power dynamics between East and West. Ravenna was home to the Byzantine papacy from 537 to 752, when it moved back to Rome under Stephen III. This represented a shift in the center of gravity from the East back to the West. In 800, the pope crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day in St. Peter’s Basilica—in Rome, not Ravenna. This was another data point for the Western revival. It also marked a shift in power from church back to state.

A third Carolingian theme is European unification. After centuries of squabbling between Romans, Byzantines, barbarians, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and Muslims, Charlemagne centralized power over the whole region in himself. And again, Ravenna did not play a starring role. The main locations for this drama were in Rome and Aachen, Charlemagne’s rising capital to the North that had its own symbolic significance. But Ravenna was right there in the middle, taking it all in.

Herrin’s book might have done with either a different title, or with more attention paid to the city in its title. But it is still an excellent history about a period and a city that do not get enough attention from either historians or their readers.


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