Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe: Judith Herrin

At the end of the fourth century, as the power of Rome faded and Constantinople became the seat of empire, a new capital city was rising in the West. Here, in Ravenna on the coast of Italy, Arian Goths and Catholic Romans competed to produce an unrivaled concentration of buildings and astonishing mosaics. For three centuries, the city attracted scholars, lawyers, craftsmen, and religious luminaries, becoming a true cultural and political capital. Bringing this extraordinary history marvelously to life, Judith Herrin rewrites the history of East and West in the Mediterranean world before the rise of Islam and shows how, thanks to Byzantine influence, Ravenna played a crucial role in the development of medieval Christendom.

Drawing on deep, original research, Herrin tells the personal stories of Ravenna while setting them in a sweeping synthesis of Mediterranean and Christian history. She narrates the lives of the Empress Galla Placidia and the Gothic king Theoderic and describes the achievements of an amazing cosmographer and a doctor who revived Greek medical knowledge in Italy, demolishing the idea that the West just descended into the medieval “Dark Ages.”

Beautifully illustrated and drawing on the latest archaeological findings, this monumental book provides a bold new interpretation of Ravenna’s lasting influence on the culture of Europe and the West.


A sweeping and engrossing history . . . an accessible narrative that brings to life the men and women who created the city during this period and who fashioned its hybrid Christian culture of Latin, Greek and Gothic elements. The narrative is periodically elevated by discussions of the city’s most famous attractions and its glorious churches, brilliantly illustrated in the book’s 62 color plates. It is also enlivened by recurring digressions on daily life in the city at each phase in its history.—Anthony Kaldellis, Wall Street Journal

[E]minently worth reading. The colour plates are so sumptuous that the Ravenna mosaics fairly glow on the page. History teaches us that it is on the margins that the greatest change often occurs. Ravenna was on such a margin. Now, perhaps for the first time, the city emerges triumphant from the shadow of the so-called Dark Ages.—Ian Thomson, The Spectator

Bold. . . . elegantly argue[d].– “New Yorker”

Judith Herrin explains in her lively, startling book, Ravenna really did deserve ‘the most noble’ title bestowed by this anonymous admirer. From its origins as a refuge in a dying empire, it went on to host kings and prelates, physicians and lawyers–and ultimately help shape Europe.– “The Economist”

[Ravenna] is absolutely gorgeous, with magnificent colour reproductions of Ravenna’s churches and mosaics. Relics of an age that seems almost impossibly remote, they are the foundations on which modern Europe stands.—Dominic Sandbrook, The Times

Beautifully illustrated, impeccably researched and accessibly presented, it traces Ravenna’s career as the capital of the Roman empire in the west. . . . Buildings are also brought to life alongside the people who built and used them. . . . It is this linking of tangible remains and historical record that is the book’s great strength.—Jonathan Harris, BBC History Magazine

Herrin tells the changing story of Ravenna as it unfolds from the end of the fourth century to the ninth in a series of short, accessible sections with the aid of luscious illustrations.—Averil Cameron, History Today

Judith Herrin’s book [Ravenna] explains by recounting the city’s life from 402, when it became the capital of the Roman Empire in the West, to 751, when the Lombards took over. The story is not, she emphasises, one of decline, but of rebirth, for Ravenna established what European Christendom could become. . . . By the time we can easily visit Ravenna the city again it should be with the advantage of having read Ravenna the book.—Christopher Howse, The Telegraph

The book is absolutely gorgeous, with magnificent colour reproductions of Ravenna’s churches and mosaics. Relics of an age that seems almost impossibly remote, they are the foundations on which modern Europe stands.—Dominic Sandbrook, Sunday Times

Aficionados of early medieval history–and of course Ravenna itself–will learn much from Herrin’s work.– “Kirkus Reviews”


“This brilliant biography of Ravenna is essential reading for anyone who would understand the transformation of the Roman world.”―Patrick Geary, author of The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe

About the Author

Judith Herrin is professor emeritus in the Department of Classics at King’s College London. Her books include Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium, and The Formation of Christendom (all Princeton). She lives in Oxford, England.

Product details

  • Publisher : Princeton University Press (October 27, 2020)
  • Language: : English
  • Hardcover : 528 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 0691153434
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0691153438
  • Item Weight : 2.15 pounds
  • Dimensions : 6.25 x 2 x 9.25 inches

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