Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin: A Hidden City at the Centre of All Things

When one thinks of going abroad to experience the history and cities of Italy, the great centres of the renaissance period spring to mind: Florence, Venice and Milan amongst others. The “Eternal City” of Rome would also be a prominent member of such a list being the centre of the vast classical empire of antiquity and also as the home of the Catholic Church, cocooned in its own enclave within the city. The skylines and layouts of these settlements are often recognisable from adverts, Bond films or history books: the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the crumbling edifice of the Colosseum, the Piazza del Campo of Sienna. The Italy of our imaginations is still highly influenced by the opinions of Enlightenment figures that saw the period between Classical Rome and the rebirth, or renaissance, of civilisation in fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as a “dark age” that barely matured into a “middle age”. Judith Herrin’s Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe, as a highly readable and accessible work, seeks to challenge this understanding whilst also providing a powerful narrative history of the city and its position as a gateway between the Christian East and West; a crucible of the post-Roman development of Western Europe.

In her first major book in thirty years, Herrin takes the four centuries from the establishment of Ravenna as a capital in the tumultuous final decades of the Western Roman Empire to its relative diminishment but continuing importance under the reign of Charlemagne. Her enthusiasm is undeniable and suffuses her writing: ‘If you have never visited … Ravenna, you have missed an amazing experience, an extraordinary delight, which this book aims to recreate.’ (xxix) It achieves this in a similar style to that of a bus tour-guide that takes the reader through the time and space of the city and its neighbouring port. Talking of the S. Apollinare Nuovo Church, ‘On a sunny day the whole building makes an extraordinary impression, glistening with spectacular bursts of colour between the large windows.’ (105) She recounts how she commandeered a yacht to sail across the Adriatic Sea from Ravenna to Parenzo (modern-day Poreč) simply to see how feasible it was for craftsmen to have travelled by sea to work. She recounts how she followed the routes by which the generals Odoacer and Belisarius invaded Italy. It reminds me keenly of the speeches of Chaucer in the film A Knight’s Tale as he recounts the trails of the eponymous hero.

And yet, the book is more than simply a chronology or detailed layout of a location. Ravenna is used as an anchor that binds an exploration of numerous fields – the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the establishment of Germanic kingdoms, life in an urban setting in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries – and the debate over the supposition of Henri Pirenne that without Muhammad there would no Charlemagne. Herrin’s arguments draw heavily on her earlier works, particularly on her concept of Early Christendom, but the sacrificing of depth in order to engage with such breath inevitably leads to sweeping statements. Very rarely, her writing does stray into conjecture, however possible or probable her comment is.

Basilica di San Vitale, Ravenna.
The Basilica di San Vitale, built in the 6th century, Ravenna. “San Vitale, Ravenna” by sjmcdonough is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Nonetheless Herrin establishes Ravenna as a conduit through which the Christian East and West interacted, and through which Romanness manifest itself between these two spheres. Though ‘more shaped than shaping’, (xxxvi) Ravenna was the base for barbarian kings such as Odoacer and Theodoric that ruled according to Roman custom, the centre of the Byzantine exarchate following Justinian’s reconquests, and played a crucial role in the final decades before the political and theological split between the Latin-West and Rome from Byzantium and the Greek-East. It was through Ravenna that so much of the knowledge of the classics continued to be made accessible and taught in the west. It was to Ravenna that Charlemagne visited and gained inspiration for the creation of his imperial capital at Aachen, not Rome. Ravenna came to symbolise imperium in the west whereas Rome became a centre of Christianity and theological orthodoxy. Establishing the importance of Ravenna in her words, Herrin doubles down with some beautiful pictures of the city’s mosaics and architecture to give colour to the black-and-white of the pages.

Despairing of the great gaps in the primary source material, the book is full of anecdotes which provide an evocative edge to the narrative arc of the book. Herrin states that she ‘… joined a close investigation of life in Ravenna, including legal and medical as well as religious and cosmographical ideas, with the larger panorama of shaping influences to try and overcome some of the gaps caused by such losses.’ (390) She achieves this admirably in a book that is highly informative and discursive yet delightfully enjoyable.


Image credits:

Baptistry of Neon ceiling Mosaic via Wikimedia Commons

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia via Wikimedia Commons