Friday, February 18, 2011


            Ravenna.  This, strictly speaking, is at best a coda to the Ambrose story, but it is important, so let me explain.  Theodosius had two sons by his first wife and a daughter with his second.  His sons were Arcadius and Honorius.  His daughter was Galla Placidia.  Her mother was Galla, the daughter of the Empress Justina.  Let me pause at Justina for just a moment.  She was a well born Roman whose first husband died trying to wrest at least part of the empire from one of Constantine's three sons.  She then became the second wife of Valentinian, who became emperor, alongside his brother Valens.  She bore him a son, who became Valentinian II and who ruled with his older half brother Gratian.  When Valens was dead, Valentinian I was dead, Gratian was dead, and Valentinian II was still a young boy-emperor, she arranged for her daughter to marry Theodosius, and then she died.  Got it?  Oh, and she was an Arian and Ambrose fought with her pretty much uninterruptedly for about a decade...anyway, she is the wife of a (would be) emperor, the mother of another, and the mother-in-law of another.  She managed to keep herself and her family alive against all the odds.  She was extraordinary...I think.  We don't really know that much about her, other than what folks like Ambrose said, but he was rather horribly biased.  The blunt fact of her survival is testimony to her courage, strength, ingenuity, stamina, cleverness, and political astuteness. 

            Shortly after her death, Valentinian II died, probably a suicide (I am on a train to Vienne, in France, where this took place, so that story is coming).  For a very brief time, then, Theodosius was the single emperor of the whole empire...and the last man to rule both the East and the West.  Then he too died.

            At his funeral, Ambrose addressed himself to the sons and more-so to the powerful men who were figuring out how to carve up the empire amongst themselves.  He insisted that Theodosius had entrusted both of his sons to the great General Stilicho, who had fought with and for Theodosius and who was the last great man standing.  But Stilicho lacked standing in Constantinople and there the court simply took the boy Arcadius and ruled through him.  Stilicho took the younger son, Honorius, and ruled the West.  Galla Placidia went with them, and chaffed at being an imperial pawn.  Her strategies to take charge of her own life were, well, let us say eccentric.  At one point she wrote the chief of the Huns and promised to marry him if he would just come and get her from the stifling court.  He did.  They had a son together, but when the child died, Galla Placidia tried another tac: she married a guy confusingly enough named Constantine.  They had a son who would become Valentinian III.  A very nice young security guard at the national museum of Ravenna must be something of a history buff herself.  Me being the only visitor (yep, again) she chatted merrily with me about Galla...that she was beautiful, that she looked like an Egyptian, that she was crazy and had a certain abnormally intimate relationship with her own brother, Honorius.  She probably was a bit off her rocker, but she was, like her grandmother, a survivor.

            By now back at the court and really, really unhappy, she plotted and had the great Stilicho discredited and killed.  Bad move: he had been the only person between the Empire and the swarms of various belligerent tribes of Goths and Vandals who were busy snatching huge chunks of the West: Germany, France, Northern Africa, Spain, and even parts of Italy.  The court, in desperation, had moved the capital from Milan to, we are in Ravenna.

            Why?  The night I arrived it was damp, dark, and eerily foggy.  At the restaurant that night I mentioned all of this "strange" weather to the waiter (once again I was the only guest, so he had time to visit) he said that this isn't at all strange to locals like him, but normal.  Clue number 1.  It sits near the coast.  The next day I was out looking at the most extraordinary mosaics in some of the most amazing structures I've ever seen--including the so-called Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Constantine III, and Valentinian III.  It is tiny, Greek cross, with ambiguous mosaics and unlabeled sarcophagi and anyway, the record shows that Galla Placidia died in Rome.  Anyway, I really liked it, whatever it was.  Then I digressed from my strict diet of late antiquity to visit the church of St. Francis, where Dante's funeral was, and near which are his three tombs (don't ask: long story).  Anyway, taking a snoop into the ancient crypt I couldn't help but notice a certain looked like that amazing Byzantine water cistern I'd seen in Istanbul.  That is right: the crypt was under water...there were even fish.  Clue number 2...the city sits below sea level.  Much later I poked into the medieval church of St. John the Evangelist.  The great mosaics from the original church, built, according to the plaque, by Galla Placidia and her brother, are mounted on the walls, as the whole church has sunk so deep that the floor has had to be raised at least twice (fortunately it was built with a very high ceiling in the first place).  Clue number three: the whole city is really a bog.

            So why move the capital of the Roman Empire from Milan to the boggy back water village of Ravenna?  Remember that the reason that the capital had moved to Milan in the first place is because it, like Trier, Aqualiea, and Constantinople, sat at the frontier...where the threat was, the emperor had to be.  But now the threat had overwhelmed the frontiers.  The Roman Empire of the West had to flee, and it chose a remote and inaccessible place...Rome had lost the war and was trying not to (yet) lose the last battle.  By now Rome--the real Rome, the First Rome, had been sacked twice...Augustine hears about it in his home in North Africa and heralds it as the beginning of the end.  Vandals had taken Egypt, cutting off the wheat supply to Rome, the Goths had smashed the aqueducts....the once proud city of 1.2 million people was quickly imploding.  By the time Pope Gregory the Great talks Attila the Hun out of sacking the city yet again, it was about the size of Clinton, Iowa and the great walls, built to protect a much larger urban space, now embraced a huge rural landscape...the forum would finally come to be referred to as the "Cattle Pasture."

            Galla Placidia, her brother, a couple of her husbands, and her son all tried hard to make this place into a respectable Capital.  They used the old models.  The great church of San Vitale (that is right: Ambrose's very martyr) is a hexagon with a double apsed portico lying across the main the baptistery of Constantine at St. John Lateran, like the tomb of his daughter.  But they innovated too.  Their mosaics eschewed the naturalistic and borrowed pagan imagery of other holy places and, with the use of colored glass and a lot of gold, and with figures so stylized that in St. Apollinare Nuovo the procession of dozens of holy women martyrs look dang near identical to one another, they seemed to be abandoning this world in favor of the transcendent world of the mystical spirit.  Let me quote a museum plaque:  the figures look "as though they were shadows in a world without boundaries and beyond time."  Nice, isn't it.

            And yet, they are still Roman mosaics.  The males often still wear togas.  Christ is still beardless.  The celestial paradise is an Italian sheep pasture with plants that a botanist would recognize.  The two great so-called "Arian" (still can't figure out why but does it have something to do with that water-like flow transferring from the Spirit cum dove to Christ?) are classic hexagons.  In both of them, by the way, the body of Christ, obvious even though he is standing waste deep in the waters of the Jordan, is completely nude, like the monumental sculptures of the emperors, and he is accompanied not only by John the Baptist, but by the personification of the River Jordan himself...a river god!  This iconography and architecture were retained by the Gothic kings who took up rule of Italy from Ravenna.

            There is a tricky point to be made here.  While the socio-politics and the economics of these tribal peoples did require sacking and pillaging, in general these folks did not set out to destroy Rome (the idea, I'm talking about, not just the city).  Rather, they wanted it for themselves.  Indeed, they were themselves Christian--Arians (go figure: Ambrose died thinking that he had put that beast down, but the great Gothic Roman and Arian priest Ulfinus had translated the Bible into Gothic, inventing the script himself, and had converted the tribes even while they were on the other side of the Danube.  When they came across, they did so as Arian Christians.  (that Bible, by the way, is one of the many priceless treasures cared for by the Biblica Ambrosiana of Milan).  The Arians of Ravenna, by the way, wouldn't really be done in until the Byzantine emperor (for that is what we can now call the last surviving Roman emperor) re-conquered Ravenna and bits of Italy and North Africa (briefly) and imposed Nicaean Christianity on them.  The local people were only too happy to oblige, they never having been converted by their overlords (it is interesting how often conquers end up converting to the religion of the conquered...the same thing will happen with the Ottomans).  But it is worth noting that these "barbarians" were not pagans at all.

            Yes: the Goths were Christians and they wanted to be Roman...but without the time or the cultural experience to pull it off.  Their strategy?  Well, after sacking (and by the way, sometimes cities could bargain their way out of the sacking part, as did Rome, at least once, by loading up wagons of treasure and delivering it) they simply pulled in the Clarissimi and Illustrii (the great men of the great old families of the empire, who had been seeded throughout the West as far as York and Antioch) and asked them to figure out how to meld Roman Law with Tribal laws.  As often as not, these Clarissimi were Bishops...Nicaean bishops...and church men who had long ago realized that if the Empire could not protect them and they could not serve the Empire, then the next-best-thing is to join the Church and administer their own little piece of the empire themselves, using the infrastructure, organization, labor force, property, and faith of the Church.  Nor were they adverse to serving the courts of the new tribal overlords, as needed.  Ambrose, indeed, seems to be a prototype of this Roman turned Catholic bishop.

            Theodoric emerged from the kind of nasty inter-tribal warfare and scheming that would have impressed any III century Roman usurper as the King of Italy.  He did away with the fiction of the emperor (for a while, chieftains would set up puppet Romans and rule through them).  The Western Roman Empire was no more.  BUT: he ruled from Ravenna...he build great churches in the style and tradition of the Romans.  He had himself interred in a classic Roman mausoleum--it is still there--a hexagonal drum shape on the outside (think Baptistery of St. John Lateran, or the Mausoleum of Helen).  On the first floor the interior is a Greek cross.  On the second floor the (now empty) coffin sits.  It is made out of red porphyry and shaped like a bathtub, complete with sculpted ring "handles" in bas-relief.  Roman...he was buried like a Roman in a Roman tomb in a Roman capital city.  HIs palace, only a sad bit of which remains, was covered with mosaics that look like those of Theodosius' palace in Constantinople.

            We could forgive the Roman administrators like Boethius and Cassiodorus for thinking and acting like Romans.  We can understand how the Romans of the provinces saw it as their Roman duty to become bishops and serve in the new courts of Europe.  Of course these folks were under no illusions.  Rome the city was barely hanging on to its life, and that only because of the enormous prestige it held as being the final residence of the greatest of Apostles: Peter and Paul.  Rome as an idea had never been static...Ambrose as much as any and more than most, was responsible for the transformation of Romanitasa into Christian virtue...and it lived on.  And of course, the empire lived on too...Constantinople would be home to Roman emperors for hundreds of years yet, and for a very good chunk of that time they would even use Latin as the official language of the court.

            Ambrose never lived to see any of this, but I can't help but think that he sensed something of it coming.  He had seen Bononia near death; he had dealt with war refugees from the catastrophe of Hadrianopolis.  He had negotiated with usurpers and fled from usurpers.  He had buried the last Emperor of East and West.  Maybe when he insisted to the court officials of Milan and Constantinople that Theodosius had told him that both of his sons were to be protected and cared for by that great Frankish-Roman general Stilicho, he was making more of a plea than an assertion.  It wouldn't have taken too much prescience to realize that the empire was far too fragile and sick to endure dual regencies of boy kings.

            At the same time, I also wonder how he could have grasped the enormity of the crisis...could he have imagined a non-Roman world?  I just don't think so.  It had been around for 1000 years and had survived many grave crises--a good number of which were self-inflicted.  I do not think that he would have agreed with Augustine, who saw the sack of Rome as a sign that God no longer needed the empire.  Ambrose was too Roman to conceive of a post-Roman reality.  He died, in Milan, still secure in the confidence that Roman Catholicism was ascendant: sanctioned by the State and independent of the State's influence.  He could, and I think he did, die easy. 

            When Stilicho came to visit the dying bishop, the general pleaded with him to use his considerable influence with God to spare his own good self a while longer, as he was so sorely needed.  He said (sorry, I paraphrase from memory) "I have not lived in such a way as to give up living nor to fear dying: the Lord is Good."  Apparently his last words were vintage, at once humorous and commanding.  Regional bishops were gathered around the death bed arguing about who should be the next bishop and the ancient priest Simplician was mentioned--he had been vital to Ambrose's administration.  It was complained that he was too old and Ambrose is said to have remarked: "Old, but Good” thus appointing his own successor.

            In the "Orthodox" baptistery, below the exact same image as seen in the so-called Arian baptistery (except much better executed, and without the water-like substance coming from the dove) there is the repeated image of the "etimasia" an empty throne that will be the seat from which Christ will deliver His Final Judgment on the world.  The seat has been prepared with cushions and garlands as if the arrival of the Judge is eminent...but it is yet empty. 

            Ravenna was the last capital of the Empire of the West.  It is today a small, cold, damp, and sinking city overshadowed by the great port of Ancona to the south.  It is doing o.k, it seems, though reeling as is the whole of Italy in bad government and bad economy.  It is a bit out of the way...a spur track from Bologna is the best way in and out by rail.  It is not what it once was, and it never was as grand as Rome or Constantinople, or even Milan.  But it is extraordinary as an artistic bridge from Rome to Byzantium and a proper coda to the story of Ambrose.

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating step back in history you are making! I am learning a great deal about Rome and other capitals as well as Ambrose. You write with a good sense of place. I will have to go back and read your other entries from the beginning now. The people of St. Andrew's look forward to your return to our small Iowa parish!