Ravenna is a city in northern Italy that was the last capital of the Western Roman Empire. Subsequent to the fall of the western empire Ravenna served as the capital of the Arian Ostrogothic kingdom. In the sixth century during the resurgence of the Roman Empire into Italy under Justinian I, Ravenna served as the seat of Justinian’s Exarchate in Italy. During this period the new Church of San Vitale was the symbol of Orthodox Christian presence amidst the Arians in Ravenna.
The origins of Ravenna are uncertain. The city began as a settlement on several small islands in a lagoon off the Adriatic Sea. It grew in importance as a federated town in the Roman empire and then as a base for the Roman imperial fleet. In time the harbor silted up and the city became landlocked. During the Christian era, Ravenna prospered. After Constantine I moved the capital of the Empire to Constantinople, Rome remained the capital of the Western part of the empire. As the Western empire became vulnerable to Gothic forces and Rome was sacked, the capital was moved to other cities. Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402 when the Emperor Honorius moved the imperial capital to escape Alaric and his Visigoths. Ravenna was also selected because its harbor was convenient for communication and trade with Constantinople.
During the reign of Theodosius II, Ravenna and Christianity flourished. With the fall of the Western Empire, Ravenna entered into a period of Ostrogothic control, becoming, in 493, the capital of Theodoric’s Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy. The Ostrogothics were Arians, but at the time they coexisted with the Orthodox. The Arian presence in Ravenna is witnessed by a number of Arian religious structures, including the Church of San Apollinare Nuovo and the Arian Baptistry.
When Justinian came to the throne of the Eastern empire he began efforts to expand his Orthodox realm (commonly called Byzantium) back into the formerly Western parts of the empire. In 540, Ravenna was taken by Justinian’s forces under the General Belisarius and became the seat of Justinian’s governor (exarch) as the Exarchate of Ravenna.
During this time Orthodox Christianity flourished. Byzantine architecture was in fashion. The principal remaining example of this Orthodox presence in Ravenna is the Church of St. Vitale. This octagonal church, dating from 548, was built under the sponsorship of Justinian I and his wife, Theodora, who both are memorialized in mosaics on the North and South walls of the apse of the church.
Under Constantinople the archbishop of Ravenna was granted autocephaly, a privilege that the see continued to hold even after the area returned under the bishop of Rome. Ravenna remained under Eastern Roman (Byzantine) rule until 751.
Today, Ravenna, in the heart of the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, is remembered for the many Christian monuments, both Orthodox and Arian, from its Byzantine fifth and sixth centuries.
Ravenna's remaining fifth- and sixth-century architecture provides visual images of the effect of the theological issues during the "Arian Controversies" of the time. In the mosaics, the Arian Ostrogoths tended to treat Christ more humanisticly and naturalistically, whereas the Orthodox imagery is more symbolic with a transcendental spirit.