Ideology and Identity in sixth-century Ravenna


‘under his well- disposed rule very many cities were renovated, the most fortified castles were built, palaces worthy of admiration arose, and the ancient wonders were excelled by his great works.’

The quote above was made by the Roman writer and statesman Cassiodorus in the sixth century. However, Cassiodorus was not talking nostalgically or about a past Roman Emperor. Instead, he was referring to a contemporary figure, the ‘barbarian’ and Ostrogothic King Theodoric. A person who Cassiodorus worked closely with during the first part of the sixth century. During his reign, Italy was experiencing a building programme of a scale that had not been seen since the reign of the Emperor Honorius. The chronicle Excerptum Valesianum II describes how ‘at Ticinum he built a palace, baths, and an amphitheatre, besides new city walls’ and that ‘he also built baths and a palace at Verona’ alongside restoring the aqueduct there. Italy, according to the written sources, was therefore experiencing a period of urban rebuilding in the sixth century.

The centre of all this activity was Ravenna, a city in the modern-day region of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy.  The Emperor Honorius moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Milan to Ravenna in 402, with it remaining a prominent political centre until its capture by the Lombards in the eighth century. As such, it was one of the most important cities in Ostrogothic Italy, including under the reign of Theodoric, and it was here that his extensive construction plans would be implemented most intensely. Many of these buildings would have had practical functions, the restoration of the aqueduct at Ravenna likely would have been of benefit to the city and one could imagine the Arian Baptistery he built being used for religious activities. However, the aim of this article is to explore the ideological aspect of Theodoric’s building programme and in particular relate it to his attempts to manage Roman and Gothic identity in this period.

Ideology in Ostrogothic Italy

The Late Antique and Early Medieval periods have often acted as nexus points for discussion about identity and ethnicity. This is probably because the modern historical profession emerged out of an era when the ethnic nationalisms of the nineteenth century were often appealing to the Early Medieval past to explain their origins following the supposed collapse of the Roman Empire.  The scholarship of this period essentially explained the ethnic groups of these periods as unchanging and based on a series of qualities, such as biological descent and language. Of course, this was not only a gross oversimplification of identity, but also of the fall of the Roman Empire, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Ostrogothic Italy.

Starting with the scholarship of Wenskus and Wofram, as part of the post-war reaction, ethnicity became to be seen as something continuously changing and more flexible. In a book entitled People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554, Patrick Amory suggested that identity in sixth-century Italy was foremost an ideological construct and one which Theodoric aimed to control. Amory did this by examining a range of written sources, such as the Variae or letters of Cassiodorus and the legal document called the Edictum Theodorici. His conclusion was that the Ostrogothic king was trying to promote an ideology called civilitas. In most contexts, this refers to the Roman idea of a divinely ordained society being brought into being by its norms of education and written law. However, to Theodoric it had a special meaning, that Goths and Romans were mutually harmonious parts of society. The Goths were seen as fulfilling the military needs of society, whereas Romans had a civilian role.

It must be held that not all modern scholars are not as flexible as Amory when it comes to discussing ethnic identity. Peter Heather believes that Gothic identity existed prior to their conquest of Italy in 493, in contrast to Amory’s view that they were a diverse and polyethnic assemblage of people prior to the ideological machinations of Theodoric’s administration in Italy. Nevertheless, by examining Theodoric’s building programme and in particular Ravenna, it becomes clearer that identity in sixth-century Italy was at least altered, if not created, by the Ostrogothic king.

Roman Symbolism in Ostrogothic Ravenna

The first part of this task involved managing the ideology of ‘Romaness’ which was still continuously felt across the Italian peninsular.  Indeed, the literary evidence for Theodoric’s building programmes heavily emphasise them as having the purpose of imitating and improving on the Romans. The Excerptum Valesianum II describes how ‘at Ravenna he repaired the aqueduct which Emperor Trajan had constructed, and thus brought water into the city after’. In a letter found in the Variae and to the Urban Prefect Agapitus, Theodoric states ‘I am going to build a great Basilica of Hercules at Ravenna, for I wish my age to match preceding ones in the beauty of its buildings’.

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Mark Johnson in particular has tried to emphasise the Roman side of the Theodoric’s building programme. It is true, that it is the most visible aspect when it comes to the decoration of his constructions. The only building that survives from Theodoric’s palace complex is the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (above left) and in its inner façade there is a rectangular fragment of a mosaic (above right). The figure is adorned with signs that suggest an Imperial status, with a diadem and nimbus (halo) and is clad in tunic and mantle. The inscription above names him as Emperor Justinian, a later conqueror of Italy. However, the scholar Giuseppe Bovini has shown that this inscription was actually added in a nineteenth-century restoration by Felice Kibel and that it is likely an image of Theodoric, with it bearing no resemblance to other images of Justinian. There are other panels within the chapel which appeal to Roman myth, such as Bellephron slaying the Chimera.  In Theodoric we therefore have someone consistently using the imagery of Rome throughout his buildings.

From the evidence so far, it would seem Theodoric was mostly concerned with promoting Roman culture, or at least using it to boost his own reputation over an interest in Gothic identity. The only direct and also highly debated piece of evidence that suggests ‘Germanic’ influence in a construction of Theodoric, is in his mausoleum.  Near the top of this building is a decorative piece of metalwork, which Ian Wood calls ‘unquestionably of Germanic influence’.

However, the key thing to remember here is that while Theodoric certainly promoted ‘Romaness’ through his constructions, he did not necessarily do so at the expense of Gothic identity. This needs to be viewed in the context of the large degree of continuity, in terms of culture and administration, that existed from the Late Roman Empire to the Ostrogothic kingdom. Appealing to the Roman past was not antiquarianism, but a realisation of the current political situation and how he had to use its current vocabulary while managing his kingdom. By using it, especially Imperial and religious symbolism, he showed himself in vain to previous rulers and to be a worthy continuator of Roman civilitas and order. This ideology utilising civilitas was now expanded, under Theodoric, to help manage his barbarian followers, who had settled under the label ‘Goth’.  As the writer of Excerptum Valesianum II states ‘For whatever he did was good. He so governed two races at the same time, Romans and Goths’.

Arianism, Religion and Ideology

If Theodoric was eager to use Roman ideology in his buildings, he did not aim for it to overwhelm Gothic identity. This is most evident when examining religion in sixth-century Ravenna. Theodoric himself and most of his barbarian followers followed the creed of Arianism. This was a branch of Christianity that suggested that Jesus Christ was the Son of God created at a separate time to the Father; contradicting Nicene Christianity, including the Catholicism of most Romans present in Italy, which states the Son of God is equal and coeternal to the Father. Theodoric was mostly tolerant of both branches of Christianity, at least until a period of increased paranoia towards the end of his reign, fitting in to his policy of managing Romans and Goths as equals.

The Arian Baptistery (below left) is the best example of this. This was the first church built by Theodoric after his conquest of Italy in 493 and is in many ways similar to the Catholic Baptistery of Neon (below right) that was already present in the city. The images below show how they have a similar octagonal shape and likewise they share a depiction of the Apostles surrounding a baptismal scene towards the ceiling. By building this baptistery, Theodoric was trying to build a church for his Arian followers which was equal to the Baptistery of Neon. However, of pivotal importance is how he did not in anyway to try and make it superior to the Catholic one.

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This is especially true when it is considered that the other evidence we have suggests Theodoric certainly had the resources to do so, or at least improve the baptistery at a later date. In fact, Mark Johnson describes the baptistery as a deliberate attempt to breach differences between Arians and Catholics, Goths and Romans respectively. There is certainly no outrageous Arian imagery found in the baptistery that would have caused obvious ill will for any Catholics. Therefore, while Goths or Arians and Romans or Catholics may have been distinct parts of society in Theodoric’s vision, they were certainly not contradictory, and this is emphasised in how he tried to make the Arian Bapistery harmonious with the Catholic one.

The Conquests of Justinian and Revising Ravenna

If Theodoric’s policy was one of conciliation and using the ideology of civilitas to manage his kingdom, that of Justinian was aggressive and sought to fully destroy and replace Gothic identity in Ravenna. Justinian became Eastern Roman Emperor in 527 and is most known for his attempts to conquer large parts of the former Western Roman Empire, including Italy. These are often called ‘reconquests’ by historians, but this term is only partially correct. As shown Roman symbolism and identity still persisted in the West well up to Justinian’s invasions, even if it had altered under the Ostrogoths. Nevertheless, Justinian was forced to justify his invasions, and this was done by the means of promoting an ideology that made it look like he was a reconqueror of the Western Empire.

ravenna 6One way he did this was by trying to disestablish continuity between the Late Roman Empire and the current Ostrogothic kingdom. With the conquest and occupation of Ravenna in 440 we see this manifested in a number of ways.  The Church of San Vitale was begun by Bishop Ecclesius in 525, but was not completed and consecrated until 457 or 458 under Eastern Roman rule. It contains a number of potent images, most notably its mosaics of Justinian and the Empress Theodora (right). Present are some of the obvious signs of Imperial regalia, but emphasis must also be placed on the figures in the background. These include Bishop Maximian and unnamed official dignitaries and soldiers of the guard in the mosaic of Justinian. Furthermore, in the image of Theodora we see more official dignitaries and a crowd of court ladies. It is therefore clear that in both these panels civic, military and religious duties alike are all held under one Roman and Imperial banner in contrast to Theodoric’s ideology of a bipartite society and there is no doubt this was deliberate on Justinian’s part.

While Justinian created new images in order to deconstruct Theodoric’s ideology, he also sought to do this by removing or altering Ostrogothic images. In Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, which was consecrated as a Catholic church by Arcbishop Agnellus between 555 and 556, there is a panel representing the Palace of Theodoric (below) which once contained a figure of the Ostrogothic king. Also difficult to spot and also amusingly are three hands of other figures that were not removed. The alteration of this mosaic was therefore done with the purpose of dissociating Theodoric not only with the place, but also the symbolism found within it. It was therefore part of Justinian’s wider attempts in Ravenna to alter and ultimately destabilise the presence of Gothic identity in his newly conquered territories.

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Ravenna can not only be seen as a microcosm for how identity was expressed in sixth-century Italy, but also as a window into the wider problems concerned with discussing issues of ethnicity and identity. First and foremost a study of this era backs up the assumption held by most scholarship, that ethnicity is flexible, malleable and not unchanging and inherent. However, it also provides us with some further nuances. Theodoric’s civilitas ideology of a harmonious society containing both Goths and Romans, shows that the promotion of a particular identity is not necessarily exclusionary to others and that the coexistence of multiple identities can still be used together politically. Nevertheless, we are also reminded by the conquests of Justinian that the opposite is often true, that in a lot of cases it is still possible to try and erase a particular ethnicity or identity. Perhaps, the lesson we can therefore learn by looking at the complexity of identity in sixth-century Ravenna is that we should be wary of how our preconceived notions of the way identity operates while studying the past and subsequently try to avoid generalisation.

Written by Liam Greenacre 


Primary Sources:

Cassiodorus, Variae translated by Thomas Hodgkin at Accessed 19/06/2018.

Excerptum Valesianum II edited by Bill Thayer at*.html. Accessed 19/06/2018.

Secondary Sources:

Amory, Patrick. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy, 489-554. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Bovini, Giuseppe. Ravenna: Art and History. New York: Abrams, 1973.

Heather, Peter. “Merely an Ideology? Gothic Identity in Ostrogothic Italy.” In The Ostrogoths from the Migration Period to the Sixth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, edited by Sam Barnish and Federico Marazzi, 31-80. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2007.

Johnson, Mark J. “Arts and Architecture.” In A Companion to Ostrogothic Italy, edited by Johnathan Arnold, Shane Bjornlie and Kristina Sessa, 350-389. Leiden: Brill, 2016.

Johnson, Mark J. “Toward a History of Theoderic’s Building Program.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 42 (1988): 73-96.

Wood, Ian. “Theoderic’s Monuments in Ravenna.” In The Ostrogoths from the Migration Period to the Sixth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, edited by Sam Barnish and Federico Marazzi, 249-278. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2007.