Before AD 850
It is possible to only roughly, reconstruct the territory of Ravenna before the Roman occupation settlements . It was definitely similar to Chioggia and the Venice lagoon and to the territories at the north of the river Po’s delta. The first urban settlement was probably built on a series of dunes, connected to the mainland in the south, by a narrow strip of land that became later the Via Popilia.
During antiquity, the fundamental feature of Ravenna’s landscape was that it was surrounded by water and accessible from the sea. The Emperor Augustus chose it as the seat of the upper Adriatic fleet (classis in latin), which was deployed to enforce military control and control of trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Emperor carried out important hydraulic engineering projects: a canal was dug to connect the Po River to the sea south of Ravenna. Here he founded the port of Classe Fig. 1, which according to Pliny the Elder could accommodate up to 250 triremes and 10 000 sailors. Fig. 2 Augustus also deserves credit for the road that joined Ravenna to Classe and Rimini. Rimini was linked to Rome by the via Flaminia in around 220. Emperor Trajan built a 70 km long aqueduct at the beginning of the 2nd century. In the 5th century the port of Classe became unusable because the lagoon had gradually silted up as a result of river floods. During the Early Middle Ages, the territory underwent major transformations which contributed to the city’s decline: the branches of the Po flowing into Ravenna dried up, stagnant water surrounded the city, the coastline moved further away (now the sea lies at a distance of 8.5 km from the city centre) and the port system shrunk considerably. By then, Ravenna was surrounded by swamps and marshes. 1 2 3
Ravenna has always been inhabited by Italic people. Strabo tells us that Ravenna was founded by the Thessalians, Pliny called it “sabinorum oppidum”. While at the Po’s Valley there were human settlements of some importance, Spina, Adria and Ravenna became commercial harbours. Neither the Etruscans nor the Gauls really managed to get hold of the Ravenna lagoon. This area kept its distance also during the conquest of the Po’s Valley which has been started by the Romans in the 3rd century BC. This was not only because it was inhabited by the Umbrians, supporters of the Romans against the Gauls, but also because this territory did not lend itself to the agricultural colonization.
When the Romans founded the via Emilia in the 2nd century BC, Ravenna consisted of houses built on piles on a series of small islands in a marshy lagoon. The Romans ignored it during their conquest of the Po River Delta, but later accepted it into the Roman Republic as a federated town in 89 BC. From 31 BC, the fleet’s presence stimulated the inland economy and caused the built-up area of Ravenna to expand. In late antiquity and during the Early Middle Ages, Ravenna was one of the fundamental hubs of the Italian urban network.
New urban growth and additions occurred when the capital of the Western Roman Empire was moved from Milan to Ravenna in 402, at the initiative of Honorius: the city walls reached a length of 4.5 km and enclosed 180 hectares, and would not further in size until the 19th century. Early Christian churches multiplied Fig. 3 as well as urban domus paved with mosaics. Between 493 and 526 Ravenna was home to the splendid court of Theodoric: a Goth quarter was built in the eastern part of the city. The Arian Christianity of the sovereigns gave rise to a duplication of places of worship. At that time Ravenna was the largest city in Italy. With the settlement of Byzantines under Justinian, some Arian places of worship were adapted to the new orthodox tenets; others, like the Basilica of San Vitale – containing the famous mosaic portraying Justinian and his wife Theodora – were newly built. The need for symbolic representation once again enriched the city with palaces, churches and monuments Fig. 4, which we unfortunately know little about. After the Byzantines were driven out by the Longobards in 751, the dispersion of the city’s cultural heritage began, turning it into “a quarry of worked marble”: the spolia taken by Charlemagne to Aachen are a famous example. 4 5 6 7 8
1 Storia di Ravenna, Vol. I-V, Venezia, 1990-1996
2 Malmberg, S., ‘Ravenna naval base, Commercial hube, Capital city’, in Höghammar, K. and Lindhagen, A. (eds), Ancient Ports: the Geography of Connections, Uppsala, 2012
3 Augenti, A. and Bertelli, C. (eds), Felix Ravenna. La croce, la spada, la vela: l’alto Adriatico fra V e VI secolo (Ravenna, 09/03/2007-07/10/2007), Milano, 2007
4 Storia di Ravenna, Vol. I-V, Venezia, 1990-1996
5 Ravenna patrimonio dell’umanità, Forlí, 1997
6 Bovini, G. and Frattini Gaddoni, W., Ravenna: arte e storia, Ravenna, 1999
7 Bovini, G., Ravenna città d’arte, Ravenna, 1966
8 Deliyannis, D.M., Ravenna in Late Antiquity, Cambridge, 2010