From Byzantine to Ottonian Empires: Venice, Ravenna and Rome

Crypt of S. Zaccaria, Venice

Crypt of S. Zaccaria, Venice

(c) V West-Harling


When the AHRC awarded Chris Wickham and myself a three-year grant for a project to examine the period of Italian history between 750 and 1000 in an area which had not often been looked at as a whole, we devoted ourselves to it. The richest and most politically complex regions in Italy in the earliest middle ages were the Byzantine sections of the peninsula, thanks largely to their continued links with the Byzantine empire. But what happened to them when those links broke? The purpose of this project has been to interpret the way in which the three main cities of Byzantine northern and central Italy (Rome, Ravenna and Venice), dealt with the end of Byzantine rule from 750 onwards, and with their association with the next two imperial presences, the Carolingian in the 9th and the Ottonian in the 10th centuries.

By the beginning of the 9th c., Rome and Ravenna, the two old capitals of Byzantine Italy, and Venice the newcomer taking over some of that role, were struggling to find their place in the world of the new Carolingian Empire, and by the mid-10th c., they again had to position themselves with respect to the reborn western empire of the Ottonians. Their solutions were very different, but how did they get to them? Each city had different continuing political relations with East and West, Ravenna being formally part of the Frankish empire, Rome formally independent but conditioned by Frankish power and Venice notionally still part of Byzantium; but how did these differences play out in practice? How did the city elites justify their positions in ideological terms, and what were the political and social priorities which led them to choose one line over another? Who decided the political choices in the city? Standing behind popes, archbishops or doges were the families which provided the ruling figures. To what extent did different factions fight for control through these imperial choices, and how did internal city politics influence the political and ideological choices which underlie the creation of each city's identity? Finally, did the areas of Italy which had remained under Byzantine control longest and not been conquered by the Lombards in the North and Centre present characteristic elements, which made them different from their counterparts in those areas of Italy which came under Lombard control from the late 6th c. onwards? And if so, what were the differences?

Rome, Ravenna and Venice, came under Byzantine rule in Italy after the 6th-century Justinianic reconquest though at very different stages in their historical evolution and in their outlook, politics and social organisation. Differences between them were considerable. Rome was perceived as first and foremost the city of St Peter and his heir, the Pope, and grew increasingly strong in that incarnation. The Carolingian presence in the city had considerable ideological impact until the end of the 9th c., and for the Ottonians hegemony in Rome was a necessity for the very existence of an emperor. Throughout the period, several views of Rome ran in parallel and in some cases in opposition. Such was that of Rome as city of St Peter, city of Constantine and capital of the Christian Roman Empire, which was how pilgrims and northern European rulers saw it, and res publica Romanorum, associated with the real or imagined past, which is how the Roman aristocratic elite around Prince Alberic, the ruler of the city in the 10th c., defined it.

By contrast, Venice, at first a multiplicity of island centres under the authority of a dux (doge) until its settlement at Rivoalto (Rialto) at the beginning of the 9th c., remained contested between the Carolingians and the Byzantines until 812, when Charlemagne ceded nominal authority to Byzantium. This far-removed Byzantine authority gave Venice a position which the city was to exploit thoroughly in order to support its growing commercial power, on the assumption that it was better to be the subject of a distant and not very deeply involved ruler, than of a closer and potentially more interventionist one. The doges in the 9th c. and 10th cs. continued to steer a course between too close a rapprochement with either the Eastern Empire or the Western, though by its very nature in its day-to-day life Venice was much closer to its Italian, and especially northern Adriatic, roots.

Ravenna, imperial capital of the Late Roman Western Empire, had been the real capital of the Byzantine Empire in 'reconquered' Italy. During the 8th c., it became the see of the second most powerful episcopal authority in the peninsula, the archbishops of Ravenna. By the 10th c. the archbishop was the effective ruler of the city, having extended his power over a large area around Ravenna and over large wealthy monastic houses. The archbishops engaged in international politics, sustained by the considerable interest of the Ottonians in the city, due to Ravenna's old prestige as sedes regia, but also because of the Ottonians' difficulties in controlling Rome itself. Ravenna became once again a de facto imperial capital, which they used as a government centre. With such imperial favour, Ravenna and its local aristocracies were solidly engaged in supporting the imperial associations of the city – as we can see from the only remaining ‘portrait’ of Otto III in Italy at the abbey of Pomposa.

Our study relied on the use of evidence from several disciplines, to understand the interaction between imperial ideology, presence and influence, and the creative response to it by the city elites. The shifts were visible first through the way in which either contemporary or later commentators contributed, through their narratives, to creating the city's past, but also, indirectly, its future, on the basis of their own construction of history. City-specific narratives were for example the Liber Pontificalis and Benedict of Soracte's Chronicle for Rome, Agnellus for Ravenna and John the Deacon for Venice. We also had at our disposal a considerable body of diplomatic sources, capitularies or diplomas, from the Lombards to the Ottonians, and several exceptional series of private charters, for example concerning Roman monasteries, the Roman possessions of the two great abbeys of Farfa and Subiaco, and the archiepiscopal and monastic possessions of Ravenna, all providing information  about people as well as churches and properties, with names, status, titles, family groupings, and patronage, including imperial one. We used hagiography, such as the accounts of the Translation of St Mark's relics, the Vitae of St Romuald or St Alexis, a wealth of papal and other rulers’ letters, and numismatic materials. Archaeological and topographical materials provided crucial information, whether for Rome with the excavations of the last twenty years, Ravenna with those at the site of the abbey of S. Severo in Classe and more recently of the Via Traversari house of the 10th c., and in Venice on both the older excavations at Torcello and the more recent ones, such as that of Ca’Vendramin. Buildings and artifacts such as mosaics, frescoes and ecclesiastical objects in situ were of course essential source material.

How did these materials help us answer our questions? Finding a large number of extremely traditional titles in the Late Antique style among the people involved in transactions in Rome or Ravenna, such as consul et dux or illustrissimus, is a clear indication, as much as the preservation of topographical indications of the kind which situate a property ‘near the arch of Hercules’ in Ravenna or ‘by the Septizodium’ in Rome, of a deliberate cultivation of continuity with the Roman past. Two 9th c. houses excavated in Rome in the Forum of Nerva, of a non-traditional Roman structure, but built at the heart of imperial Rome, are good indicators of the way in which the Roman aristocratic elite of the 9th c. was gradually associating itself with the glories of the imperial city through taking over its topography.

In Venice studying the remaining crypt of one of the oldest ducal monasteries, S. Zaccaria, has been a way of reconstructing, on account of its close parallels with it, what the oldest St Mark’s basilica, long since destroyed, would have looked like. Church dedications such as those to Old Testament ‘saints’, for example St Zacharias or St Simeon the Prophet, highlight Venice’s long-perceived association, not with Byzantium, but with Ravenna, where we find some of them, as indeed we do the mosaic patterns common to the so-called ‘exarchal’ Adriatic art, of the kind remaining from the chapel of S. Tarasio.

The conclusions of our study have been published in part in a volume of conference proceedings held in Oxford in 2014, Tre imperi, tre città: identità, cultura materiale e legittimazione a Venezia, Ravenna e Roma, 750-1000 (2015) but they will appear in full in the volume soon to be published by Oxford University Press under the title of Rome, Ravenna, Venice, 750-1000: city identity in medieval Italy before the communes. We hope that Early Medieval Italy can be seen in a new way as a result.


- Veronica West-Harling

Research Fellow

All Souls College, Oxford