Seminary LXIV: when in Ravenna do as the Romans do

The last of last term’s seminar reports, and probably the last substantive post before I try and fly the Atlantic with only a commercial airliner to help me, ‘is presented herewith, I mean thusly‘. The occasion was Andrea Augenti, presenting at the last Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the term with the title, “Rome and Ravenna from late Antiquity to the Early Middle ages: an archæological perspective”. He first set out something of a stand against political archæology, something to which Rome has frequently fallen victim. (I don’t just mean the way they recently found Romulus’s grave here, or whatever it was, or the kind of anti-medieval Classicism discussed by Charlotte Roueché at Ephesus (I do know that’s not in Rome, but the same agendas have been at work) but rather more substantial things: did you know, for example, that Mussolini had one of the of the seven hills of Rome cut through to link his government buildings to the old Imperial Fora? The further we get from World War II the harder it gets to believe that Mussolini was actually real.)

Archaeological map of the Ravenna area

Archaeological map of the Ravenna area

With this much clear, Dr Augenti proceeded by comparing Rome and its sibling capital Ravenna, on three scores: palaces, churches and houses. There are some obvious ways in which any comparison is unfair, of course: yes, both cities were capitals of Italy at one or other point, but this doesn’t alter the fact that Rome is far larger, 1200ha to Ravenna’s 166ha if you’re comparing the area within walls. It’s not so bad if you remember, as we were urged to, that Ravenna at its peak should also include the port of Classe and the populated suburban area that linked that to the actual city, giving it an area of more like 350ha, but the two aren’t really at the same level however you cut it. Despite that, they show some definite parallel trends in evolution.

Reconstruction of the Forum of Nerva as constructed (in the reign of Nerva)

Reconstruction of the Forum of Nerva as constructed (in the reign of Nerva)

On the score of palaces, for example, similar things happened in both cities after the Ostrogothic takeover: while a number of palaces and public buildings in particular locations—in Rome, the Palatine—remained operational, a number of others were converted to other uses: some became necropoloi, some were broken into private housing or just left to fall into ruin. The Forum of Nerva above, famously because it’s been dug fairly recently, was filled in with fairly large-scale town-houses in wood, with garden plots and a road for their owners to reach them on. This is much harder to get reconstruction images of… Similarly, in Ravenna, the most important buildings continue as royal residences, but others are effectively given up to private use or disuse.

The current state of the Forum of Nerva, partly reconstructed

The current state of the Forum of Nerva, partly reconstructed (but to when?)

As for churches, here again there is parity in quality while Rome continued to have the edge in quantity, naturally enough. Both cities saw a spread of church-building after the toleration of Christianity, unsurprisingly, and in the fifth and sixth centuries also, perhaps because of the existence of two Christian sects running in parallel for much of that time. Then that all stopped, and there was very little building of churches until the tenth century, which is as we know when it was at generally. But there is a big difference: the churches from the fifth and sixth centuries are huge temple-like affairs, but from the tenth they are tiny private Eigenkirchen.* Much changed about monumentality and the expression of piety in this time. This change is, however, one that Rome and Ravenna shared.

Third-century stele of Valeria Maria, from San Vitale di Ravenna

Third-century stele of Valeria Maria, from San Vitale di Ravenna, now in the Mueso Arcivescovile

The big difference arises in housing, although not straight away. Both cities experienced a long period at the beginning of the early Middle Ages in which rebuilding or adapting was far more common than building anew. In Rome, new construction began again in the seventh century, but Ravenna had by that time been hit by Lombards and was no longer a capital of any kind; it was instead resuming its previous existence as a middling entrepôt and bishopric, rejoining the urban ‘main sequence‘ while Rome continued as a supergiant. This was the point at which Ravenna dislimned once more into three settlements. It’s not however that there was no building at all going on here. Indeed, that may not even be the case in several other cities which seem to fit this pattern, because eighth-century contexts at Ravenna carefully excavated have thrown up a particular kind of domestic building, a sort of rectangular house with a central partition running most of the way across it, like a capital E with the right-hand side closed over (in some font where the middle limb doesn’t reach the far side, which I now realise isn’t what I’m composing this in). These crop up a lot, but have not been dated this early before; so the digging at Ravenna may explain a lot and cause a few periods of apparent stagnation in other cities’ archæological records to fill up. Nonetheless, they’re scrappy, basic, and wooden, and in both Rome and Ravenna found in the harbour districts overlying previously industrial facilities. Change, again.

The mosaic of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora in San Vitale di Ravenna

The mosaic of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora in San Vitale di Ravenna, in which a city under threat from the Lombards makes a statement about its loyalties

As you can probably tell even from this dry write-up, this was a paper full of information and not without humour, but all humour was put aside for the conclusion, in which Dr Augenti took to task perspectives in which the changes visible in the archæogical records of these two cities are viewed as decline. It’s probably easiest just to copy my notes here:

Decline prob. irreversible…. But whose decline anyway? This is just a similarity index for our own times, isn’t it? Better? For whom? why don’t they build grand if that’s so great? Times change, priorities change; best to keep all past as a foreign land. They build what they need, and we need to understand, inc. the bits that ‘decline’ as well as ‘progress’.

Dr Augenti apologised for his poor English, which was quite unnecessary as he was perfectly understandable, but if any proof of that were needed it would have been found in the current of heartfelt agreement that murmured around the room in response to this speech. The Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, by long tradition, does not applaud at the end of papers; occasionally visitors who don’t know this start clapping anyway. This time it was the regulars. This man speaks the truth, or so at least many of us felt. It was a good paper to close a term’s program with.


* The description of the large sixth century churches led to one particularly good sidetrack. Apparently Ravenna has a number of enthusiastic amateur archæologists, but the crown among these goes to a man who sets out to locate sites armed only with his copy of Agnellus of Ravenna’s Liber pontificalis and a metal dowsing rod. Dr Augenti was understandably sceptical when this man claimed to have found an unlocated church which would have been the largest in Ravenna in Agnellus’s time, and therefore somewhat astonished when that was exactly what the ground-penetrating radar revealed. It has now been dug, although it was badly ploughed up, and the dowser’s convictions amply borne out. I’m not sure if we need more or less of that sort of outcome…

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