Judith Herrin on Ravenna

Judith Herrin on Ravenna

By Judith Herrin

At the end of the fourth century, as the power of Rome faded and Constantinople became the seat of empire, a new capital city was rising in the West. Here, in Ravenna on the coast of Italy, Arian Goths and Catholic Romans competed to produce an unrivaled concentration of buildings and astonishing mosaics. For three centuries, the city attracted scholars, lawyers, craftsmen, and religious luminaries, becoming a true cultural and political capital. Bringing this extraordinary history marvelously to life, Judith Herrin rewrites the history of East and West in the Mediterranean world before the rise of Islam and shows how, thanks to Byzantine influence, Ravenna played a crucial role in the development of medieval Christendom.

Why did you decide to write about Ravenna?

JH: As I describe in the introduction, I went there as a teenager. When I returned much later as a historian, I was aghast that no guidebooks explained why Ravenna has such unrivalled mosaics. They are not just magnificent, they are very early, including the only contemporary images of the Emperor and Empress, Justinian and Theodora, created in around 540. I thought it would be easy to tackle this challenge. Instead it led me to a new history of early Europe and took ten years!

Why do you think that yours is the first full history of the city?

JH: For two reasons. What has been written is dominated by art historians. This is because we can see the mosaics preserved in the churches but there are few records of the rulers who created them. 

Second, Ravenna developed within the united world of the Mediterranean. Until about 650 there wasn’t a ‘West’ and an ‘East’, there was one Roman empire ruled from Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) that had lost the old western provinces of Spain and Britain to the Goths and other tribes but consolidated richer eastern territories. Until now, putting it very crudely, western historians don’t study what they see as eastern history, and historians of Byzantium don’t study the Latin world. Together, in effect, modern scholars have back-projected this division onto the early centuries. Ravenna poses a difficulty for both and no one studies it properly. 

During the process of writing, what did you discover that surprised you, perhaps because it hadn’t been published before. 

JH: Two extraordinary men who lived and worked in Ravenna astonished me: the first is the doctor, Agnellus, who taught medicine from Greek texts translated into Latin and brought this knowledge to Italy; and second, the Cosmographer, who wrote an account of the world which measured accurately the distance of cities around the Mediterranean that became a source for all later maps. We don’t even know his name, he is simply called the Anonymous Cosmographer of Ravenna.

People still flock to see the spectacular mosaics in Ravenna. What is it about them that most tourists don’t see or don’t understand (which your book will explain)?

JH: The competitive history that created them. For example, an amazing empress, Galla Placidia (who had been kidnapped and forcibly married to a Gothic prince and returned to Rome after he was assassinated), was the first great builder in Ravenna where her son was the western emperor. She was also the first ruler to put her image in a church. Later, when Theodoric the Goth ruled from Ravenna, he put his image in his own beautiful basilica covered with beautiful religious mosaics. Then, orthodox Christians put up the famous images of Justinian and Theodora. Theodoric’s was considered heretical and covered over and Galla’s was destroyed so we are left with just these two. They are the product of a unique history of invasions and cohabiting but competing Christian traditions, which also led to the creation of two wonderfully contrasting baptisteries. Without knowing this, tourists look at Ravenna as if it was like Pompei, an amazing survival.

What is it about the history you have uncovered that makes it, as you describe, the first ‘truly European city’?   

JH: Well, most Roman cities were rather homogeneous. From the moment Ravenna was selected to be the capital of the Western empire, however, it hosted different languages and cultures. I think this feature of combining traditions—Greek, Roman, Germanic, Christian—is very distinctive and characteristic of what we now call Europe. Also it was created with a spirit of innovation. Charlemagne recognised this character on the three occasions when he visited Ravenna. The man dubbed ‘Father of Europe’ removed columns and marble and a massive equestrian statue and took them over the Alps to decorate his new Christian capital in Aachen—where he modelled his church on Ravenna’s San Vitale. And both France and Germany lay claim to Charlemagne.

Should the reader think about ‘East’ and ‘West’ differently after reading your book?

JH: Yes, I hope that readers will grasp the very significant influence of Constantinople and what is now thought of as the East Roman Empire of Byzantium as being central to the development of what became ‘the West’ right through the period 400–800 and beyond. Most of us from the ‘West’ have treated the ‘East’ as ‘the Other’ in a way that is quite mistaken.  

This historical period is often seen as one of decline. How does ‘Ravenna’ challenge that idea? 

JH: Until now the period up to 800 is generally called ‘Late Antiquity’, as if it consisted of centuries of backward-looking decline from Roman greatness. I show that it should be seen as ‘Early Christendom’, a confused and contested period full of energy and creativity that laid the foundations for what we call the medieval world. The builder of the cathedral church of Ravenna said, “Yield, old name, yield to newness”. It’s quite a modern spirit.

Is there a single story or anecdote in the book that best shows the city as a meeting place?

JH: The story of Abbot John who travelled from Ravenna to Constantinople by sea to consult the emperor and supposedly flew back miraculously with his imperial approval. It reveals the central position of the city that was considered the real capital of the Roman world by people we now think of as being in ‘the West’. Perhaps the greatest example is Theoderic himself. A Goth brought up as a hostage in the Byzantine court who then became the leader of his people, besieged Constantinople until Emperor Zeno gave him permission to invade and settle in Italy, who then conquered Ravenna and made it the capital of a huge kingdom, extending from southern France to the western Balkans as well as all of Italy. There you have it in one man: a Goth, who speaks Greek, issues laws in Latin, promotes the Arian definition of Christianity, and tolerates Jews. 

Does your book overturn some historical truisms? What will the reader see differently after reading it?    

JH: I hope readers will see Ravenna in a new light—as the precocious cultural centre of early Christendom that rooted the history of Europe in a combination of distinctive traditions, as well as the generator of unequalled artistic achievements. It was the forerunner of Venice. It inspired Charlemagne’s imperial capital at Aachen. In the work of the Cosmographer we also have an account of how Ravenna understood the known world—from India to the Azores, the Baltic to the Nile. He even tells us that there is an island off to the north known as Britain “that is in Europe”. And at the centre of his world there was, in his words, “Nobelissima Ravenna”, most noble Ravenna. Now I hope my book will reveal that it’s a city that is part of our history as well as the home of justly famous mosaics.


Judith Herrin is professor emeritus in the Department of Classics at King’s College London. Her books include Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval EmpireWomen in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium, and The Formation of Christendom (all Princeton). She lives in Oxford, England.