Ravenna grew out of the Adriatic marshes, as Venice one day would, built on pilings and tufts of land. It eventually became a major port, and a base for the Roman Empire’s fleet. Julius Caesar gathered his forces at Ravenna as he prepared to cross the Rubicon. Because the city—surrounded by swamps—was so easy to defend, the capital of the Western Empire was moved there from Rome by the emperor Honorius early in the fifth century.
Ravenna was thus the scene of the Roman Empire’s final act, or at least its final act in the West. The man regarded as the last in the long imperial line, Romulus Augustus, spent the few months of his reign, in A.D. 475–476, in Ravenna. He was, in fact, not a man but a boy of thirteen or fourteen. Because he was so young, people gave the name Augustus a diminutive twist—Augustulus, the emperor was called: “little Augustus.” And because he was a usurper, installed by his father, a general named Orestes, people gave the name Romulus a pejorative cast—Momyllus, they said: “little disgrace.” There was time enough in his reign to mint money—barely—but his name was so long it was hard to fit it onto coins. (Zeno, the emperor of the East at the time, did not have this problem.) But then Orestes fell afoul of barbarian mercenaries in his army and was killed. Romulus lost his throne, and a barbarian named Odoacer made himself king of Italy.
I had long been intrigued by Romulus Augustulus, in part because very little is known about him. The best source I’ve come across is a monograph titled “The Last Emperor,” by Geoffrey Nathan, published in the journal Classica et Mediaevalia in 1992. It seems fitting, almost suspicious, that someone with the same name as Rome’s founder, Romulus, should preside over the empire’s end. (Imagine if the demise of America were to occur under a president named George.) I had also long wondered about Ravenna’s surprisingly low profile. I’ve frequently heard friends talk about visiting relatively small cities in Italy—Lucca, Siena, Ferrara, Assisi—but had never heard anyone mention even a toe touch in Ravenna. Was there something wrong with it? In resolving earlier this year to undertake a “Fall of Rome Tour,” I was fully prepared to enter Ravenna and come to a grim understanding: “Oh. I see. The oil refineries.” Or the hog farms. Or the paper mills.
"The Travel Advisory" (September 2006)
Highlights of a "Fall of Rome Tour." By Cullen Murphy
Not to worry! Stepping off the train at Ravenna in June, I was engulfed by the fragrance of honeysuckle, which hung over the entire city, and still seems to linger in my clothes. The ride from Bologna had taken an hour, across flat open country, a Mediterranean East Anglia. The swamps are mostly gone now, the land drained and reclaimed, crisscrossed with channels and weirs. The train had been filled mainly with young people carrying towels and knapsacks. Ravenna’s centro storico is no longer a port—it’s all dry land—but a string of fine beaches lies along what is now the coast, a twenty-minute bus ride away.
That’s not what should bring you to Ravenna, though. The real draw is the sixth-century architecture and mosaics. In its prime, when Ravenna was the capital of the Western Empire and then of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Theodoric (who unseated Odoacer), the city straddled Eastern and Western sensibilities. It’s part Roman, part Byzantine. Its dozen or so major churches and monuments from this period are wonderfully preserved and situated within easy strolls of one another. (And among them is a real surprise: the tomb of Dante, who died here while in exile from Florence.) Strolling is what you want to do. Ravenna has some of the lazy flavor of a Newport or an Annapolis, a compact, residential town of pastel homes and fine small hotels and enticing shops, and the elegant public buildings, Roman and Renaissance, are built to human scale. In June the cafés in and around the Piazza del Popolo had set up televisions outdoors to broadcast the World Cup, and no matter where you walked you were always within earshot of phonic fireworks—the cheers and groans of the crowd.
Romulus Augustulus would certainly have known the octagonal Neonian Baptistery at Ravenna, with its extraordinary ceiling mosaic of John the Baptist pouring water over the head of a naked and beardless Jesus; one wonders if the beardless Romulus, himself recently anointed, saw in the image anything ironic about his circumstances. (The sources do not indicate if he was even remotely self-aware.) He would also have known the small, cross-shaped Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Daughter of one emperor, half sister of another, Galla Placidia played the role of the colored cloth in a game of diplomatic and matrimonial Capture the Flag that ranged over two continents and four decades, ending with her death in A.D. 450. The mausoleum is plain brick on the outside: nothing prepares you for the mosaics on every surface inside, illuminated by windows of translucent marble. On the same property is the Basilica of San Vitale, built a century later and Ravenna’s greatest glory. Mosaics again, but imagine the setting as the interior of a delicate octagonal wedding cake that rises in four pillared layers, narrowing to a brilliant dome.
One of the most charming features of Ravenna is that the English translations on the explanatory text in all the churches and museums seem to come from a single practiced hand, itself a blend of East and West: “The clothing was covered by rich coiffures, closed in silk hairnet with golden threads, and by precious footwear in black leather with baked golden decorations.” And: “After Athalaric’s death Amalasuntha married her cousin Theodahad, who killed her, being inspired from the conservative Gothic wing.” There are shady nooks in parks all over the city, and the book to have with you is Peter Brown’s World of Late Antiquity, a work of historical prose in the high style that explains what the Fall of Rome was and wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t the cataclysm of popular imagination, with fur-clad Teutons putting Rome to the torch. Leadership changed, but for most people in the empire, life in 477 was the same as life in 475.