From Castelnuovo we hit the road and drove across Italy to the little city of Ravenna, about 100 miles due south of Venice along the Adriatic coast. With 160,000 people today Ravenna might not seem like much, but it was once the capital of the Roman Empire, or at least the western portion of the Roman Empire. For nearly two hundred years, while the rest of Italy was falling into chaos and destitution, Ravenna – closely linked with the still-prosperous eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople – was having its Golden Age. Today the city is supposed to have the greatest collection of eastern mosaics in the world so we came to see for ourselves.
It’s true. Amazing. Eight of the old buildings – all built in the fifth and sixth centuries so today around 1,500 years old – are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, for obvious reasons when you see them. When we walked into he first one, the Baptistry of the Ariani, we couldn’t believe it. These brilliant, stunning mosaics are 1,500 years old? They precede the Renaissance by a thousand years? It’s small, just a single room, and the mosaics from the walls have all been lost. But the mosaic in the cupola of Christ’s baptism blows you away. And it was free!
(As an aside, one of the great bargains of our travels so far is that for $10 a person you can buy a ticket that lets you into five of the UNESCO sites (two were free and one required a separate ticket). And, just to make it clear that they’re being accommodating, the tickets are good for up to seven days. So take your time, enjoy it, look around. We did, spending parts of four days admiring these ancient mosaics.)
How did all this come to be? Here’s the quick history. Back in 285 AD Emperor Diocletian determined that the Roman Empire was simply too big to be governed effectively from a single location so he divided it into east and west, with co-rulers in charge of their respective spheres. While today the eastern empire is known as Byzantium, the people living there always thought of themselves as Romans, even as they adopted the Greek language and split from the Roman Catholic Church. As the western half of the empire went through it’s long and painful collapse, the east soared under leaders like Constantine, Julian the Apostate, and Justinian.By 402 Rome itself was considered indefensible and as the Visigoths (western Goths) under Alaric moved in, Emperor Honorius – head of the still-limping western empire and considered one of the worst of all the Roman Emperors – moved the capital first to Milan and then to Ravenna. Alaric proceeded to sack Rome in 410, but the emperors continued to rule the western empire from Ravenna until the last of them, Romulus Augustus, was deposed in 476. So for the last 74 years of the (western) Roman Empire, the capital was in Ravenna.
The Germanic general who deposed Romulus Augustus, Odoacer, ruled as King of Italy until the Byzantine Emperor Zeno needed to get another Goth, Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths or western Goths, out of his hair. He suggested that Theodoric invade Ravenna and take the old western empire. Theodoric succeeded in defeating the Visigoths – killing Odoacer with his bare hands, in fact – and ruled Italy from Ravenna for the rest of his life.
His successors weren’t so effective or successful, though, so in 535 Emperor Justinian in Constantinople decided it was time to step back into Italy. He sent his great general Belisarius across the Adriatic to reconquer Italy; by 540 he controlled Ravenna. Thus the city’s Golden Age was reignited, as Ravenna became the seat of the Byzantine Exarch, or governor. There was a lot to clean up as both Odoacer and Theodoric had been Arian Christians, a heresy despised by true Christians. (Arians believed that Christ was created subsequent to God the Father and was thus subordinate to Him. Obviously crazy – who could believe such nonsense? – Arian beliefs were not to be tolerated.)
While the religious battles of sixth century Christians may seem obtuse to us today, they resulted in some great church-building and art in Ravenna. Ultimately the Byzantines held Ravenna, even as the rest of their Italian lands were taken, until the Lombards finally conquered it in 751 and definitively ended Byzantine presence in Italy. For centuries the great churches and mosaics of Ravenna were all but forgotten.
That, then, was Ravenna, a great little find. Oh, and one little note about the marvels of modern technology while admiring ancient art. I like to run, so I headed out one morning for an invigorating five-mile jaunt. I’d scoped out the area and saw that after just a mile or so I’d be out in the country. I go out about 2.5 miles, feeling great on a quiet country road, and turn around to head back. Unfortunately I a missed a turn, got a little lost, and – figuring I knew roughly where to head – kept running. As I neared the five-mile mark I knew I was nowhere near our hotel.
The good news is that I run with my iPhone and, with our SIM cards and data plan, can easily map my location. When I stopped at five miles, then, I pulled out my phone … and saw that I was nearly 2.5 miles from where I was supposed to be. I’d gotten completely turned around. Had I not had the phone and map-making capabilities I’d still be wandering around rural Ravenna.