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Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe.


Judith Herrin

402 AD, after invading tribes broke through the Alpine frontiers of Italy and threatened the imperial government in Milan, the young Emperor Honorius made the momentous decision to move his capital to a small, easy defendable city in the Po estuary – Ravenna. From then until 751 AD, Ravenna was first the capital of the Western Roman Empire, then that of the immense kingdom of Theoderic the Goth and finally the centre of Byzantine power in Italy. In this engrossing account Judith Herrin explains how scholars, lawyers, doctors, craftsmen, cosmologists and religious luminaries were drawn to Ravenna where they created a cultural and political capital that dominated northern Italy and the Adriatic.

As she traces the lives of Ravenna’s rulers, chroniclers and inhabitants, Herrin shows how the city became the meeting place of Greek, Latin, Christian and barbarian cultures and the pivot between East and West. The book offers a fresh account of the waning of Rome, the Gothic and Lombard invasions, the rise of Islam and the devastating divisions within Christianity. It argues that the fifth to eighth centuries should not be perceived as a time of decline from antiquity but rather, thanks to Byzantium, as one of great creativity – the period of ‘Early Christendom’.

Ravenna is one of the most magical places to visit. The mosaics just glow in its churches and mausoleums as if they were made yesterday. The people portrayed are full of character, their animals and birds, their flowers, their clothes.

Now this new history gives a new insight to the crucial role Ravenna played in Early Christendom, the rise of Byzantium. But more it tells the reader of the life of Ravenna, its rulers, their laws, their religion and their religious disputes. And their lawyers, they seem to have been a very litiginous lot. And they also had an awful lot of slaves to smooth their lives.

Fascinating and readable.