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Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

by Judith Herrin

(London Times)

As every school child used to know, the western Roman Empire ended with a whimper in the autumn of 476. In a cruel irony, the last emperor was called Romulus, after the founder of the city. But he was a mere boy, presiding over an enfeebled, impoverished husk. Centuries later, the illustrators of children’s textbooks loved to show him kneeling at the feet of the Germanic chieftain Odoacer, as a symbol of how far Rome had fallen. Yet this scene took place not in Rome, but the imperial capital: Ravenna.

Best known for the magnificent mosaics in its Byzantine churches, the north Italian city had been chosen as the west’s new capital in 402, largely because its misty marshland setting made it easier to defend. After Romulus’s forced abdication, it became the capital of Odoacer’s kingdom of Italy, then the capital of the Gothic king Theodoric the Great, then the headquarters of Byzantine rule in the west. Today it is a bit of a backwater, apart from its monuments.

But for 400 years, argues the historian Judith Herrin, Ravenna was the “crucible of Europe”. It was here, she says, that past met future, and classical Rome became medieval Christendom. The city’s mosaic-makers used a classical technique, but they depicted a new Christian order. Clerics produced splendid illustrated Bibles with bilingual texts, in Latin and Gothic. And although Ravenna hosted circus games and chariot races, they were sponsored by a Germanic Christian king, not a Roman emperor. So it was, says Herrin, that Ravenna became “the first European city”.

An emerita professor at King’s College London, Herrin uses her account of Ravenna’s rise and fall to explore the period we call the Dark Ages. In the popular imagination this was an era of disaster, when barbarians tore down the achievements of centuries. But as Herrin shows, each of Ravenna’s ancient monuments tells a more complicated tale.

Take, for instance, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a Unesco world heritage site. Born in about 388 to the emperor Theodosius the Great, Galla Placidia was taken hostage by the Goths as a girl and married a Gothic chieftain. When her husband died she was sold to her brother, Honorius, now emperor, for “600,000 measures of grain”. Back she came to Ravenna, where her life took another strange twist.

Honorius, it transpired, was rather too pleased to see his sister. In one chronicler’s words, “their immoderate pleasure in each other and their constant kissing on the mouth caused many people to entertain shameful suspicions”. After various plots and counterplots, Galla Placidia was exiled to Constantinople. But after Honorius died she returned to Ravenna again, installed her infant son on the imperial throne and effectively ran the western empire for 25 years. It was then that she built the “mausoleum”, actually a chapel, that bears her name.

An impressive woman, you might think. But Galla Placidia, as Herrin wryly remarks, “appears to have been a terrible mother”. She was so high-handed that in 449 her daughter Honoria secretly begged Attila the Hun, of all people, to come and rescue her.

Although Herrin is inevitably hamstrung by the lack of sources, she has a nice eye for colourful details. The Lombard king Alboin, who invaded northern Italy in 569, killed the leader of the rival Gepids and converted his skull into a golden goblet. Alboin forced his wife Rosamund to use it too, which was a bit insensitive because the Gepid king had been her father. She got her own back by hiring a hitman.

Then there is my favourite character, the Byzantine emperor Justinian II, who ruled at the turn of the 8th century. Kicked out of Constantinople because of his greed and cruelty, Justinian fled to the Black Sea, did a deal with the Bulgars and reclaimed his throne after a ten-year absence. As a mark of disgrace his nose had been cut off, so he wore a prosthetic gold one instead. However, his second reign was no more successful than his first. Eventually Justinian’s generals rebelled and his head was cut off. The head ended up in Ravenna. It is not clear, sadly, whether it still had its golden nose.

Herrin’s book is often formidably demanding. The index boasts no fewer than 14 Theodores, as well as five Theodosiuses, three Theodoras, a Theoderic, a Theodoret and a Theodorus. But it is worth reading for the sheer weirdness of the details: the bizarre schisms about the nature of Christ; the furious punch-ups between rival Ravenna gangs; the wild passions of the chariot races; the deadly feuds about the sanctity of icons.

Above all, though, the book is absolutely gorgeous, with magnificent colour reproductions of Ravenna’s churches and mosaics. Relics of an age that seems almost impossibly remote, they are the foundations on which modern Europe stands.

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