The Road from Ravenna

In the footsteps of the last Roman emperor

The Road From Ravenna

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.

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.

Not for Romulus Augustulus, though. His life was spared, but he was exiled to the far coast, to modern Naples. As far as Professor Nathan can tell, Romulus left Ravenna with his mother, and probably a large retinue. The natural way to go would have been to take the great Via Flaminia—roughly the path of the current Strada Statale 3—south to Rome, and continue from there to Naples on the oldest of Rome’s major roads, the Via Appia, which even then had been in place for 700 years.

Had Romulus Augustulus been to Rome before? We don’t know. Because their capitals lay elsewhere, many of the later emperors spent little or no time in the Eternal City. (Diocletian had been emperor for twenty years before he visited Rome.) The first sight of the city, with its massive wall, would have impressed even a jaded teenager. Rome (like other cities in the empire) was not fully fortified until late in the third century A.D., when the security situation, in the form of barbarian incursions, turned ominous. Starting in 270 the emperor Aurelian encircled Rome with a wall; it is as much as thirteen feet thick and thirty-five feet high, and runs for more than twelve miles. Most of it is still intact.

The Aurelian Wall greeted Alaric the Visigoth when he approached Rome with his forces, in A.D. 408. Breaching it was beyond the barbarians’ capabilities. Cities really were safe behind their walls, though they might have to endure what Alaric had in store—a protracted siege. Partly to see how Rome may have looked to the Visigoths, and partly in the spirit of Sir Edmund Hillary (Quia est!), I decided to walk the whole perimeter of the wall. Given the weather (Rome can make you wilt in a day) and the fact that I served as my own Tenzing Norgay, I conducted the assault over the course of three very long mornings. The first took me past the Via Salaria. Alaric finally entered through this gate, in 410, after the Romans had had enough and agreed to let the Visigoths in for a relatively controlled sack, lasting three days. (When the Romans asked what they could keep for themselves, Alaric replied: “Your lives.”) Rome was sacked once more, in 455, now by the Vandals, and again it opened itself up for controlled pillage, this time for two weeks. A vulnerable feature were the eleven aqueducts leading into the city, hard to miss on their high arches and easily cut. But one of the eleven, the Aqua Virgo, was almost entirely underground, and flows to this day. Its terminus is the Trevi Fountain; you can see (and hear) part of the ancient aqueduct below the Sala Trevi cinema in an alley nearby.

The last leg—in every sense—of my circumambulation took in the Porta San Sebastiano, where the Via Appia begins its 350-mile journey to the heel of Italy’s boot. Parts of the Via Appia Antica are closed to traffic on Sundays, and the stretch running south from the Tomb of Cecilia Metella, lined with crumbling graves and tall umbrella pines, and parallel to an aqueduct, is one of the finer archaeological walks in the world.

One hundred and twenty miles along that journey, on the Bay of Naples, stood the great estates of Lucullus, the general and statesman of the late republican period—estates described by Plutarch and supporting a way of life so opulent as to give rise to our own term lucullan. Modern Naples is dense, hardscrabble, chaotic, and unrelaxing, but redeemed by what’s around it (Pompeii, Vesuvius, the coastal towns). In imperial days the bay area was a vacation spot for wealthy Romans. The naturalist Pliny the Elder had a villa here, in what is now the beach town of Miseno; it was from Miseno that he sailed to get closer to the eruption of Vesuvius. (Very bad idea.) You can still walk the sprawling remains of the emperors’ villa on a hillside at Baiae, nearby; and you’ll be virtually alone when you do. (For reading, bring Robert Harris’s excellent historical novel Pompeii.) But no domains rivaled those of Lucullus. Gardens cascaded luxuriantly down terraces to the shore. Sluice gates brought the renewing sea into teeming fish ponds. Offshore follies floated on the waves. The quality and plenitude of food and drink were renowned, and served not merely to impress others. Once, when Lucullus was dining alone, a servant prepared a simple meal and was told by his master to go back and bring forth a sumptuous repast, as if there were guests: “Did you not know that tonight Lucullus is dining with Lucullus?”

In some diminished manner the Lucullan estate must have still been extant in 476, because Romulus Augustulus apparently passed the rest of his days there. The site is occupied now by the medieval fortress Castel dell’Ovo, on a headland, nearly an island, that effectively separates the tourist waterfront of Naples to the north from the gritty seaport to the south. Castel dell’ Ovo means “Castle of the Egg” (or, as they call it in Ravenna, “Acropolis of the Female Gamete”). According to legend, the poet Virgil placed a sacred egg in a secret room underneath, and said that if the egg ever broke, Naples would be destroyed. Looking at Naples today, it’s hard to say whether the egg is intact.

The Lucullan villa at some point gave way to a monastery, enshrining the bones of Saint Severinus; circumstantial evidence suggests that Romulus and his mother may have founded it. If this is the same “Romulus” to whom the Ostrogothic king Theodoric wrote in 510, then Romulus Augustulus lived for a good long while after being removed from his throne. He didn’t have to worry about money: in a rare act, the barbarians who kicked him out gave him a large annual pension.

Sitting across from the Castel dell’Ovo in the breeze late one afternoon, eating a granita al limone, I wondered what Romulus Augustulus thought about during his thirty-five years on the Bay of Naples. I know what I would have been thinking: I’d sooner lose an empire than Ravenna.