Home > Books, Late Antiquity > A Study of the City of Ravenna

A Study of the City of Ravenna

Over the past decade or so, there has been a new wave of scholarship on the Late Antique city. These works have ranged from W. Liebeschuetz, Decline and Fall of the Roman City (Oxford 2001) or A. Wharton, Refiguring the Post-Classical City (Cambridge 1995) to a myriad of specific city studies: Haas on Alexandria, Hall on Beirut, Rothaus on Corinth, Curran on Rome, et c. It’s clear that the late ancient city has remained a source of fascination for scholars and the increased quantity of archaeological evidence available has allowed even more robust and synthetic works that have significantly revised our view of urban life in Late Antiquity

Deborah M. Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge 2010) fits into this tradition by focusing on one the best studied cities in the Late Antique world. The monumental efforts of F.W. Deichmann to document the architecture and history of the city of Ravenna formed a solid foundation of Deliyannis’ book which, if nothing else, summarized many of the conclusions from Deichmann’s numerous German tomes in English. In fact, the strength of this book is the massive amount of summary description of the major monuments in the city. At the same time, Deliyannis’ familiarity with the literary sources for the city, particularly, the Liber Pontificalis of Agnellus which she has translated, provided a critical textual basis for many of her conclusions.


In short, Deliyannis argued that Ravenna was uniquely positioned between East and West both politically and culturally. Nowhere is this more clear than in Its status as both a capital and a more marginal city over its long post-antique history. The result of these influences was the blend local and Mediterranean wide trends that produced a unique synthesis of Late Antique culture. The influences of the East in the Adriatic is an area of growing interest especially as we have come to recognize that the aftershocks of the various theological, ecclesiological, and Christological controversies in the East had a significant impact on Imperial authority in regions like the Balkans which fell under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Papacy, but the political influence of the emperor in Constantinople.

While Deliyannis’ book does a brilliant job bringing to light the architectural history of the city, it is disappointing that she seemed so much less interested in subjecting the people of the city of Ravenna to the same scrutiny. The was no effort in the book to consider substantially everyday life in the city. The absence of any discussion of the economy of Ravenna was particularly striking. Aside from a few comments on the presence of kilns, the vaguely described ebb and flow of imported pottery, and the tendency to re-use bricks in the construction of churches, there is no sense for how Ravenna fit into the trans-Mediterranean economic networks which so many scholars of Late Antiquity have scrutinized.

There was also almost no discussion of the local economy. Particularly striking was the absence of any discussion of the hinterland of Ravenna and its port at Classe. To be fair, Deliyannis makes clear that the marshy territories to the west of the city apparently contributed to its defense and apparently the city did not suffer from lack of water. She does not, however, discuss how the city was fed or even (and perhaps more interesting) whether the marshy land around the city provided any economic advantage to the inhabitants. This is disappointing because so much attention in recent times has focused on the relationship between cities and their hinterlands. In fact, recent work has focused almost as much on the hinterlands of Late Roman cities as on their urban cores (see, for example, David Pettegrew’s work on the near-hinterland of Corinth or Michael Decker’s recent book on the Late Antique hinterland of major Levantine cities).

Finally, it also stood out that Deliyannis did relatively little to place the city of Ravenna explicitly into the recent conversations on the urban fabric of Late Antiquity. How does the unique urban history of the city of Ravenna compare to other Late Roman cities both in Italy and elsewhere? And how does the city of Ravenna for all its unique characteristics, inform how we understand the regional politics of Italy, the Balkans, or even the Late Antique Mediterranean? This broader perspective would have added considerable significance to this already valuable contribution to the history of a city.

Categories: Books, Late Antiquity
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