ravenna, capital of the Roman Empire – 6/1/21

Today's selection -- from Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe by Judith Herrin. As the Roman Empire became increasingly threatened -- and there was need for the emperor to be closer to the military frontier -- the capital, at that point technically the capital of the Western Roman Empire, was moved to a location connected to the Adriatic coast of northern Italy. It remained the capital city of the Western Roman Empire from 402 until the empire collapsed in 476:

"In January 395 the ten-year-old Honorius thus became emperor of the western Roman Empire at the court based in Milan, where his guardian and very successful general (magister militum) Stilicho assumed effective control. With his wife Serena, an imperial princess in her own right, Stilicho had three children, Maria, Eucherius and Thermantia, who were all employed in advantageous marriage alliances. In 398 Maria, then about twelve years old, was married to the young Emperor Honorius, aged thirteen, and Eucherius was betrothed to Galla Plac­idia, integrating the orphaned imperial princess into Stilicho's family plans. It was a typical Roman betrothal of young children, though it did not lead on to marriage and the anticipated birth of a new gen­eration. Nor did Honorius and Maria have any children before she died in about 407/8. Stilicho then persuaded the emperor to marry his second daughter, Thermantia, trying to ensure his own family's place within the ruling dynasty.

"But at the turn of the fourth century Stilicho and the imperial court in Milan received news that Alaric, chieftain of the Visigoths, had rav­aged Greece and was threatening to invade Italy. By 401 he had crossed the Julian Alps (at the far east of the range) and laid siege to Aquileia. He moved on to besiege Milan in the winter of 401-2 as well as cap­turing many cities. Stilicho defeated the Goths in the summer of 402 (although Alaric escaped with most of his cavalry), and then advised Honorius that it might be wise to move the court away from Milan to a safer centre. This was the moment when Ravenna was selected as a suitable residence for the rulers of the western half of the Roman Empire.

"They chose the city of Ravenna partly because it was considered impregnable and partly because of its large port at Classis. The city was well served by river connections to the wide valley of the Po, rich in agricultural produce that could be stored inside the city if it was ever besieged, yet protected by treacherous marshes and lakes. Built in the second century BC on sandbanks that protruded from the sur­rounding waters, Ravenna followed a typical square garrison pattern, the quadrata romana. It was considered a secure city where distin­guished hostages or refugees could be accommodated. Bato of Pannonia, who had been forced to march in Emperor Tiberius' tri­umph, was confined in what was in effect a glorified prison; similarly, the wife of Arminius of the Cherusci brought up her son there. In AD 43 Emperor Claudius constructed a ceremonial entrance to the city, the Golden Gate, dated by his inscription. The monument was demol­ished in the sixteenth century but drawings preserve an idea of its grandeur and a few fragments of the elegant sculptural decoration remain in the National Museum. The area around Classis also housed a school for training gladiators, who were said to benefit from the sea air. As naval challenges declined, the harbour at Classis was gradually adapted for the transport of goods across the Adriatic and throughout the Mediterranean. Shipbuilding, sailmaking and related maritime skills continued to be commemorated on funerary monuments, such as the second-century stele to Publius Longidienus, 'FABR.NAVALIS' (shipbuilder).

"Water-management was clearly necessary in the region where so many tributaries of the Po river descended towards the sea. Two major channels, the Padenna and the Lamisa, flowed around and into the city, creating a wide moat outside the city walls and a series of canals within them. In the sixth century Procopius described this:

This city of Ravenna ... is so situated as not to be easily approached either by ships or by a land army ... A land army cannot approach it at all; for the river Po ... and other navigable rivers together with some marshes, encircle it on all sides and so cause the city to be surrounded by water.

"The Po's heavy silt also meant that the canals and river outlets were regularly blocked, and boatmen on barges stirred up the sediment with their poles as they punted around in the marshes. Visitors commented on the ubiquity of water but the lack of drinkable supplies, which was relieved by Emperor Trajan in the early second century when he ordered the construction of a major aqueduct, 35km long, to bring water from the Apennines. Even so, floods and earthquakes in 393,429, 443 and 467 caused buildings to sink with serious damage.

"The three intimately linked settlements -- Ravenna, Caesarea and Classis -- already commanded the attention of fourth-century emperors as an important location for watching naval and commercial activity in the Adriatic. Indeed, Honorius had visited the city in 399, and in that year, he united the province of Flaminia with neighbouring Picenum, a coastal region to the south. Thus enhanced as the seat of a governor, Ravenna acquired a full array of Roman administrative and cultural buildings, as well as some impressive villas such as the Domus dei Tap­peti di Pietra (house of stone carpets). In the circuit of its old city walls the Golden Gate made a particularly monumental, triumphal entrance that led to the heart of the city past an area associated with Hercules (perhaps a temple), the theatre and other urban facilities. The com­bined settlements were capable of housing and supporting a large additional force, such as the detachment of 4,000 soldiers, sent from Constantinople in the early fifth century, that remained in Ravenna. Like all Roman cities, Ravenna was governed by a local council (curia) of officials elected annually to collect taxation, provide basic services and maintain the city's walls and public buildings, though the council was under the ultimate authority of the commander of the fleet.

"In addition to the governor and the naval commander, the city also had a bishop, whose status was rather lowly in comparison with the established sees of Milan and Aquileia. Severus is the first officially recorded bishop who attended a church council held at Serdica in 343. The earliest references to a Christian presence in the area appear at Classis, which also claimed to house the relics of several early Christian martyrs, notably St Apollinaris who was later identified as the founding bishop of the city. It's quite likely that the earliest bishops resided there, but the episcopal centre was moved to Ravenna as soon as the imperial court was established, and the first cathedral building was probably begun in the early fifth century. Over the winter of 402-3, as this tripartite settlement on the Adriatic coast welcomed the emperor and his court, it took on its new role as the imperial capital of the West."


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author:

Judith Herrin

title:

Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe

publisher:

Princeton University Press

date:

Copyright 2020 Princeton University Press

pages:

9-13
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