RavennaPosted: June 21, 2021
Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe
by Judith Herrin
Princeton University Press (October 27, 2020), 577 pages
Kindle edition $9.88, Amazon hardcover $25.62
This is an impressive volume. And given the price of the Kindle edition for a 577 page book, it is one great value for your reading pleasure. The author covers pretty much the entire period of late antiquity, a period she prefers to call early Christianity. Her narrative begins in the year 390 and ends in 813.
As a classics major in college I was in an environment where professors considered this period inferior to the classical era, so it wasn’t really covered. I believe the offering on Late Antiquity was the first course I took from the Great Courses that I listened to in audio format. (I had watched a DVD series previously.) That was a long time ago, however, and I remember little from it.
To provide some context, Constantine the Great died in 337, so this book covers a period well after the split of the Roman empire into east and west, when the eastern empire, ruled from Constantinople, held sway. The focus on Ravenna is because of its strategic location in northeast Italy and because it was for many years the seat of government for the western empire.
Herrin delivers a lot of interesting material. She explains that while some barbarians wanted to fight Rome, others actually wanted to be recognized as Roman citizens. She gives extensive attention to the many women who played a key role in governing. For example, Galla Placidia became empress when her half brother died without an heir. She discusses how most Goths were Arian Christians, not pagans, something glossed over in many accounts.
The author describes how the Goth ruler Odoacer sent the imperial insignias back to Constantinople, saying, in essence, the west no longer needed an emperor. She explains how the Goth Theoderic grew up at the court in Constantinople as a sort of well-treated royal hostage. When he came of age and returned to his own lands he sought approval from the emperor in Constantinople before invading the west.
The author is British, but Princeton University Press published the book. Interestingly, British spelling prevails. One annoyance is that in the Kindle edition many words that should be hyphenated are run together. I suspect that’s not the case in the print edition.
The book is well-written, and Herrin moves things along nicely. At certain points I thought I had read enough of the era, but the author kept me engaged and I stayed with it to the end. I’m glad I did.