The gateway city

A bridge between the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, a hinge between the Roman East and the Western kingdoms, Ravenna was more than a capital: a political entity at the crossroads of several worlds.

A bridge between the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages, a hinge between the Roman East and the Western kingdoms, Ravenna was more than a capital: a political entity at the crossroads of several worlds.

It is a happy initiative that the editions Passs composs had to publish a translation of the book that Judith Herrin dedicated to Ravenna between the IVe and the IXe century, published by Penguin Press in 2020. This is a beautiful edition, pleasantly translated, superbly illustrated with color plates, with notes and indexes. The three-page selective bibliography appears to be its only weakness, because the sources are sometimes incompletely referenced.

This sum of more than 500 pages fills an editorial gap in France that has become glaring for anyone interested in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, a period in which historians place the origins of Europe. Ravenna holds a prominent and original place there, which deserved such a monograph, under the sign of long duration (no less than five centuries).

An original mix

Let's put the basket and the headband straight away the stomach chosen by the editor, When the West was born from the ruins of the Roman Empire: it is outdated in the errors it conveys. The West already existed before and the Roman Empire did not end in ruins. Ravenna is a bridge between the late Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages. Its original mix between Ostrogothic Italy, Byzantine extension, Lombard intervention and Carolingian tutelage, draws a multi-century European melting pot.

From this point of view, the author skillfully combines the two historiographical polarities which often tempt Anglo-Saxon historians: was Ravenna of late Antiquity a sarcophagus of Romanity or the crucible of a new world?? A simplistic bipolarization is not appropriate, because the two terms are not exclusive of each other. It is as a persistent Romano-Byzantine cultural center that it nourished the Ostrogothic, Lombard and Frankish imprints. As Rome had previously digested the Hellenic cultural heritage.

The plan adopted by Judith Herrin, a distinguished British Byzantinist, is chronological. He therefore draws a clear, classic line, which sometimes makes his book seem like a manual. The merit is that Ravenna is studied and told in its successive contexts. It is not just a city, which is capital, but a political entity at the crossroads of several worlds. The perpetuation of its link with Constantinople made it a Romano-Byzantine remnant in the West of the Romano-barbarian kingdoms. This is evidenced by the wealth of monumental remains preserved in the city today.

Golden Age of Theodoric

In 402-403, the Roman emperor Honorius decided to move the imperial residence from Milan, a vulnerable capital, threatened by the Goths. He chose Ravenna, reputed to be impregnable between the Adriatic Sea and the southern marshes of the P delta. The western emperors resided there during the Ve century, then ceding power to Odoacer and the Ostrogothic kings, from 476 until the middle of the VIe century.

Theodoric l'Amale ruled Ravenna as rex over Italy and southern Gaul from 490 to his death in 526. Emperor Anastasius refused to give him the imperial insignia he requested. This reign of thirty-six years, of almost Augustan longevity, corresponds to a form of the golden age of Ravenna. The coinage of Thodoric, his adventus Rome in 500, its use of masters of the Roman Offices such as Boce and Cassiodorus, its diplomatic relations, its religious policy and its support for the arts make it an avatar of a Roman emperor.

It is true that Thodoric had been, between the ages of eight and eighteen, a hostage in Constantinople, where he had acquired the foundations of paideia Greco-Roman. Its said major,Edictum Theuderici, attempts to establish legal complementarity between Romans and Goths. His activity, his correspondence, are known to us through the Variety of Cassiodorus, who also wrote his request a History of the Gothspartially transmitted by Jordans.

It remains to define the contours of his reign. Let us recall that, for Marc Redeyllet (1981), it was a failed attempt at principate; for Massimiliano Vitiello (2006), it was only a patina of Romanity; for Viola Gheller (2017),identity Gothic cannot be reduced to Arianism, while Judith Herrin makes Theodoric a Arian king. We see, things must be drawn with fine lines, with nuances, without giving in to simplifications.

By Blisaire Charlemagne

In the middle of VIe century, the Justinian reconquests affected the whole of Italy. In 540, Blisarius entered Ravenna, while the conquest of Italy only ended in 554, after a ruinous war against the Goths. Justinian had remarkable churches built there, equipped with superb mosaics (including that of Saint-Vital), and established Ravenna as the capital of the covered Italian provinces. It should be noted that Archbishop Maximian, contemporary of Justinian, had the names of the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople removed from the prayers of the Ravenna churches, thus marking an autonomy which only officially became autocephaly in 666, by a decision of the Emperor Constant. II.

A new period began in 568 with a Lombard offensive in Italy, led by Albon, while a prefect of the Praetorium had been installed in Ravenna by the emperor. The Lombards did not seize Ravenna until 751, remaining there until 774, when they were defeated by Charlemagne. From the end of VIe century 751, Ravenna, like Carthage, experienced the particular regime of the exarchate. The emperor of Constantinople appointed exarchs, high-ranking soldiers and patricians, at the head of the city. We know of eighteen between 590 and 751, all of Constantinopolitan origin, receiving their orders and carrying them out in Greek in a Latin city.

The book ends with a very interesting part on the relationship between Charlemagne and Ravenna in the middle of the VIIIe and at the beginning of IXe century. In the middle of VIIIe, the intervention of the Franks of King Ppin in Italy, at the request of Pope Tienne, resulted in the exarchate of Ravenna being transferred to the papal domains. The old functions of the exarch were then held by the bishop. Winner of the Lombards in 774 and wearing their royal crown, Charlemagne was recognized as master of Ravenna. He went there in 787 and then returned twice. He visited the churches there, admired its monuments, which inspired the Palatine Chapel of Aachen. Shortly after 801, he had the gilded bronze equestrian statue of Theodoric transferred to Aix. The latter was his model, not Justinian.

Knowing his debt to Ravenna, Charlemagne bequeathed the city many riches in his will. Making Ravenna his own, Charlemagne replaced, as new emperor, those of Constantinople. It was one of the pieces of his reestablishment of the Western Roman Empire.

Bridgehead of the Eastern Empire in the West

One of the main threads of the work is the religious question, the persistent conflict between the Catholic Ravenna bishops, supported by the emperors of Constantinople, and the Homens (moderate Arians) favored by the Ostrogothic royalty. It is also the rivalry between the bishops of Ravenna and those of Rome.

Even if Theodoric had Pope John I arresteder died in captivity and condemned to death Boce, who was Catholic, we are far from the persecutions orchestrated in Africa by the Vandal king Hunric in the 480s. Still, it is less a question here of religion than of politics. Judith Herrin's book thus appears, more than muted, as an ecclesiastical history and a Western history of the Byzantine Empire which does not only focus on Ravenna.

However, we cannot blame him for focusing on contexts, which are explanatory and clarifying. It is true that Agnellus's book on the city's church is a major source of our knowledge. The bishops play a major role, from Maximian (VIe century) Martin (early IXe) via Damien, Flix, Serge and Lon (VIIIe).

Honorius had chosen Ravenna rather than the largest city in northern Italy, Aquile, and his successors remained there for an obsessive reason: to have a militarily impregnable imperial capital. It was therefore a fallback option where the opening was less from Italy than from Constantinople via the Adriatic route. As a result, the original position of Ravenna was maintained and developed, beyond a simple Roman relic, as a hinge between the Roman East and the kingdoms of the West. A bridgehead of the Eastern Empire in the West, particularly in the century of Justinian, as Carthage was for a time in Africa. It should be noted, however, that no emperor traveled to Ravenna.

Like Rome, whose Portus had become land, Ravenna saw its coastline move away, gradually losing contact with the sea. The disappearance of Ravenna in Europe after the IXe century corresponds to that of the East in the West, of the Greek in Italy, of the Arian currents surviving in the face of Catholicism. Exploiting multiple sources, including papyri reporting on daily life, Judith Herrin's book cleverly highlights the fabulous heritage from Ravenna. Pleasant to read, it is particularly useful and welcome, and not only among historians.