Classis Ravenna – the history of a fascinating city

Classis Ravenna – Museo della Città e del Territorio.

In 2018 the Classis Ravenna museum opened its doors in an old sugar factory (zuccherificio). The factory had been closed down in 1982 and was now given a second life. As the Italian name of the museum – Museo della Città e del Territorio – suggests, Classis Ravenna tells the story of the city of Ravenna and the surrounding area. This story runs from the roots of Ravenna as a pre-Roman settlement in the sixth century BCE all the way to the Middle Ages. The museum is situated in Classe, which was once an independent town with its own walls and splendid monuments, but is now a frazione of Ravenna. Of course Classis Ravenna pays a lot of attention to Classe as well, with a special focus on the basilica of San Severo, demolished two centuries ago. Between Ravenna and Classe was a settlement or suburb called Caesarea, and its history is dealt with by the museum too.

Ravenna in the Roman Empire

Traces of pre-Roman Ravenna usually consist of Etruscan objects that can be dated to the sixth and fifth century BCE. Other traces are Greek and Italian pottery from a few centuries later. Although the traces are evidence that the area was inhabited, Roman authors were unsure about the ethnical background of the inhabitants. Writers such as Strabo, Plinius the Elder and Ptolemaeus mentioned Thessalians from Greece, Umbrians, Sabines and even Celtic Boii. We cannot rule out that several smaller settlements were inhabited by different tribes or peoples. In the third century BCE the Romans entered the stage in what they themselves called Cisalpine Gaul. In 268 BCE they founded the Latin colony of Ariminum (now Rimini) and it was probably not much later that they built a fortification at Ravenna. Archaeological research has brought to light a Roman city wall from the second half of the third century BCE.

Roman mosaic with two boxers, mid-first centry BCE.

Roman Ravenna was founded in a marshy area. It lay just north of a lagoon and was surrounded by the Padenna and Lamone rivers. A canal called the Fossa Amnis or Lamisa cut the settlement in two since the first century BCE at the latest. At the time Ravenna was not yet large and important. In fact, it is mentioned in the sources for the first time in that same first century BCE. In 132 BCE the town was connected to the much more important city of Ariminum by the Via Popilia. Shortly after 49 BCE the inhabitants were granted Roman citizenship and Ravenna itself became a municipium. Gaius Julius Caesar was in Ravenna in the days before he crossed the river Rubicon and started a civil war that brought down the Roman Republic. According to his biographer Suetonius, Caesar visited the theatre and inspected a location where he intended to build a gladiatorial school.[1] The museum has a reconstruction of Ravenna on display that shows a theatre just within and an arena just outside the walls of the town.

It was the emperor Augustus who, during his long reign (27 BCE-14 CE), really managed to put Ravenna on the map. Augustus turned the town into one of Rome’s two fleet bases in Italy (the other was at Misenum in Campania). According to the sixth-century historian Jordanes, who based his account on Cassius Dio (third century), the fleet at Ravenna consisted of 250 ships. These were manned by perhaps as many as 10,000 sailors who were commanded by the praefectus classis. Many sailors must have lived in what would later be called Classe (named after the fleet, the classis), at least from the second century, when we have evidence of urban development. It is assumed that Ravenna had two harbours, one to the northeast of the city and another south of it, by the lagoon. Near the first harbour stood a famous lighthouse, which was mentioned by Plinius the Elder. Ravenna’s fleet base was of considerable military importance, its primary aim being to combat piracy in the Adriatic Sea. Adriatic naval trade simultaneously ensured that the economy of the city flourished.

Sarcophagus of Vibius Protus, freedman of the praefectus classis Vibius Seneca. Third century.

Head of Fortuna, with a crown made of city walls.

When the Greek historian Strabo visited Ravenna at the beginning of the first century, he found a kind of Roman Venice: a city built on piles and intersected by canals.[2] There is little doubt that Ravenna’s population grew considerably during the first couple of centuries of the Roman Empire. Augustus himself had a channel dug alongside the city that was called the Fossa Augusta and served as an important commercial connection with the river Po. The city walls from the Republican era quickly fell into disuse now that Italy was considered safe. They were partially demolished and otherwise neglected, and soon the settlement extended well beyond the walls. In the year 42 a former gate was converted into a triumphal arch for the emperor Claudius (41-54); this Porta Aurea was demolished in 1582 by the French. Under the emperor Trajanus (98-117) an aqueduct was constructed in Ravenna to provide the city with clean water. Ravenna no doubt had baths as well, and perhaps a circus.

Inside the museum, many objects can be admired that paint a picture of Ravenna at the time of the Roman Empire. An object from the late Republican era is, for instance, an (unfortunately damaged) mosaic featuring two naked boxers (mid-first century BCE; see above). One plausible interpretation is that we are looking at a boxing match from the story of the Argonauts. The standing boxer, who is clearly the victor, could very well be the Argonaut Pollux, and the defeated boxer on his knees the Bithynian king Amycus (the letters CVS are just legible). The museum uses a projector to show visitors what the mosaic may have looked like when it was still intact. Of a later date are (a copy of) a marble relief depicting the emperor Augustus (image below) and the marble head of the goddess Fortuna (image on the right). The relief was part of a monument that is often compared to the Ara Pacis in Rome. It presumably dates from the reign of the aforementioned emperor Claudius, while the head of Fortuna dates from the next century. It was found in Classe and used to be in a temple there.

Relief with the emperor Augustus on the right (copy).

Tombstone of the optio Capitus.

For obvious reasons there is a lot of attention for Ravenna’s past as a naval base and maritime trading centre. On the tombstone of the optio Capitus we can for instance see the equipment of a soldier from the fleet. This Capitus served on a warship (liburna) called the Aurata. Next there is the tombstone of Publius Longidienus from the first century that features the deceased building a ship. In Antiquity, trading goods were usually transported in amphorae, which were the shipping containers of that era. It should not come as a surprise that Classis Ravenna possesses a sizeable collection of amphorae.

Ravenna as capital of the Western Roman Empire

Ravenna’s Golden Age came to an end in the third century. Its demise can be attributed to several factors, including the general misery known as the Crisis of the Third Century. This crisis can be summarised as: internal instability, external threats and invasions, and devastating plagues. The fleet at Ravenna did not disappear entirely, but was drastically reduced in size and lost its importance. A lack of maintenance caused the lagoon and harbours to silt up. As a consequence, Ravenna became a provincial backwater. However, it still had great potential, and salvation came in the year 402, when the Western Roman emperor Honorius (395-423) moved the capital of the Western Roman Empire from Milan to Ravenna. There were multiple reasons to turn Ravenna into the sedes imperii or imperial residence. The city was probably considered to be more defensible because it was surrounded by swamps and could very well be supplied by sea. It furthermore commanded a favourable position on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, which meant that it provided excellent connections with Constantinople, where the much more powerful emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire resided. This emperor was – at least initially – Honorius’ elder brother Arcadius (395-408).

Scale model of the imperial palace.

A third reason may have been that Ravenna was seen as the ideal tabula rasa for founding a new Christian city, much like Constantine the Great (306-337) had done at Byzantium/Constantinople. Moving the imperial seat to Ravenna certainly led to a building boom. The city was again provided with city walls (although it is unclear when exactly), which had a total length of 4.5 kilometres and surrounded an area of 166 hectares. These were much longer than the previous walls from the Republican era, which had enclosed an area of just 33 hectares, although it was already noted above that the city had grown well beyond these walls in the early Imperial age. Now that Ravenna had become an imperial residence, it of course got a palace and its own mint. The cathedral of the city, the Basilica Ursiana, may even have been built before the emperors moved to their new capital. Honorius himself had a church built in Caesarea, dedicated to Saint Lawrence. This San Lorenzo was demolished in 1553. Honorius’ half-sister Galla Placidia was responsible for the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, which still stands. And so does the mausoleum that was named after Galla (but that never contained her body).

Porphyry statue of an emperor (copy).

In spite of the fact that Ravenna was now home to the imperial court and was provided with many splendid monuments, the number of inhabitants will not have exceeded 10,000. Around 450, Valentinianus III (425-455), the son of Galla, moved the imperial seat back to Rome again, the ancient capital of the Roman Empire, the residence of the popes and the place where both his mother and his uncle Honorius had found their final resting places (the latter in a mausoleum next to Old Saint Peter’s). In the museum we find a (replica of a) porphyry statue of an emperor from this period. One possibility is that the statue represented Honorius, but since it is unfortunately headless, it can no longer be identified. Another interesting object is a reconstruction of the imperial palace of Ravenna (see the image above), which stood south of the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo. The palace was a converted Roman villa which was initially situated outside the city walls, but because of the construction of new walls suddenly found itself in the centre of Ravenna. Elements of the palace that are certain are the large inner court, an audience hall and a triclinium or dining hall.

Ravenna: ‘barbarians’ and ‘Byzantines’

In 476 the commander of the Germanic foederati, one Odoacer, deposed the last Western Roman emperor, the boy Romulus Augustulus. He proclaimed himself King of Italy and set the imperial regalia back to the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno in Constantinople. Odoacer ruled over Italy until 489, when the Ostrogothic king Theoderic invaded the Italian peninsula with Zeno’s blessing. In 490 Odoacer entrenched himself in Ravenna, which was subsequently besieged by Theoderic for three years. In 493 the two kings made a deal: Odoacer and Theoderic would jointly rule over Italy. The latter, however, quickly tore up the agreement. During a banquet in the palace he supposedly killed his adversary with his own hands.

Although the murder of Odoacer was an act of barbarism, Theoderic proved to be a just and tolerant ruler. He took up residence in the former imperial palace in Ravenna (already mentioned above) and made the city his capital. Unlike his Roman predecessors Theoderic hardly interfered with affairs in Rome, which he largely left to the Senate and pope. He visited the Eternal City just once, in 500. Buildings in Ravenna, on the other hand, were thoroughly restored (including Trajanus’ aqueduct), and the city was lavishly provided with new monuments. Under Theoderic Ravenna got its own Arian cathedral and an Arian baptistery. After all, the Ostrogoths did not adhere to the official Christian doctrine about the nature of Christ. On the contrary, they followed the teachings of the heretic Arius. The aforementioned church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was also built during Theoderic’s reign, and initially it was an Arian church. Lastly, outside the walls the mausoleum of the great king arose. Originally it must have stood practically by the sea, but nowadays the shores of the Adriatic Sea are some eight kilometres further to the east, the result of fifteen centuries of sedimentation.

Floor mosaic from the palace of Theoderic.

The museum possesses a beautiful mosaic from Theoderic’s palace. It dates from the beginning of the sixth century and embellished a room in the south wing. Various kinds of marble were used to lay the mosaic, and it is still almost completely intact. That is more than can be said of Theoderic’s palace. Although there is still an edifice next to the Sant’Apollinare that is called the Palazzo di Teodorico in Italian, this is most likely the façade of the church of San Salvatore from the eighth century.

Palazzo di Teodorico.

Fragment of a mosaic with the name of Saint Severus.

After Theoderic’s death in 526 things quickly went downhill for the Ostrogoths in Italy, who made up just 5-10 percent of the population and whose presence, partly because of their Arian beliefs, was ever less tolerated. In 535 the new Eastern Roman emperor Justinianus (527-565) launched a military operation to recapture Italy. This so-called ‘Gothic war’ formally lasted until 554, but already in 540 the Eastern Romans or ‘Byzantines’ under their general Belisarius managed to take Ravenna. Some ten years later the first exarchos was appointed, the civil and military governor of the Eastern Roman territories in Italy, of which Ravenna became the capital. The exarchs settled in Theoderic’s old palace, and the Exarchate of Ravenna lasted until 751, when Ravenna was taken by the Longobards. During Justinianus’ reign two of the most important churches in Ravenna were built and consecrated. These were the church of San Vitale in Ravenna itself in 547 and the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in 549. In 553 the bishop of Ravenna was promoted to archbishop.

The museum dedicates a lot of space to a church that was built in Classe a little later and that can be considered the last great monument of Ravenna from Late Antiquity. This church was the San Severo, dedicated to the first bishop of Ravenna who can be seen as a historical figure.[3] The San Severo stood just within the walls of Classe. It was built by the archbishops Peter III (570-578) and John II (578-595), and consecrated in 582. Previously a Roman villa stood on this spot, and the history of this building possibly goes back to the first century BCE. The villa had private baths, parts of which have been uncovered. In the fourth or fifth century a chapel was built here in which the body of Severus was interred. When the San Severo was built in the sixth century this chapel was preserved. The museum has a scale model of the basilica that shows the chapel quite well. It had an apse oriented towards the west (the apse of the basilica was oriented towards the east).

Scale model of the basilica of San Severo.

In the ninth century a Benedictine convent was built next to the San Severo. In 967 the Holy Roman emperor Otto I stayed here during a visit to Ravenna. The Benedictine monks were replaced by Cistercians in the thirteenth century, but in the fifteenth century the convent was dissolved. Then in 1820 the San Severo itself, which had been reduced to a ruin, was demolished. Thanks to several excavations between 1964 and 2016 we now have a good idea of what the church must have looked like. Apart from the aforementioned scale model, we can also admire the remains of floor mosaics in the museum. A mosaic with an image of a duck is particularly beautiful.

Floor mosaic from the basilica of San Severo. Sixth century.

The end of Ravenna

In 568 the Germanic Longobards under their king Alboin invaded Italy. The peninsula had hardly recovered from the Gothic war and the plague that had ravaged the country since 543. Until his death in 572 Alboin managed to overrun large swaths of Italy, with the Eastern Romans clinging on to the coastal areas and cities such as Naples, Ravenna and Rome. Although Ravenna remained in Roman hands, Classe was sacked by the Longobards around 579. It was probably the Germanic threat that had already led to the construction of a palisade around Caesarea, which had previously been unprotected.

Reconstruction of Ravenna at the time of the emperor Justinianus (527-565).

Around the turn of the century the warring parties reached a stalemate that would last the better part of two centuries. It was not until 751 that the Longobards, under their king Aistulf, finally managed to conquer Ravenna, after having destroyed Classe some thirty years previously. The Longobards were, however, unable to enjoy their success for long. Pope Stephanus II (752-757) had by now turned to Pepin the Short, the king of the mighty Franks. Pepin proved to be more than happy to answer the call for aid. In 755 Ravenna passed into the hands of the Holy Father. The city would never again serve as the capital or residence of an important ruler.

This is about the point where Classis Ravenna – Museo della Città e del Territorio breaks off the story of Ravenna. It is also the moment when the visitor, enriched with all the knowledge he or she has gained, will want to go and explore Ravenna, to see what is left from the Roman, Gothic and Byzantine eras. Fortunately, a lot has been preserved, especially when it comes to religious buildings from the fifth and sixth centuries. On the other hand, much has disappeared as well. I am not just referring to architecture, but also to the old geography of the city. The lagoon, for instance, dried up a long time ago and visitors will not find a trace of the Padenna and Lamone rivers either. Where once the Fossa Augusta flowed (which disappeared in Theoderic’s age), we now find the long Via di Roma. And as was already mentioned above in this post, the sea is now some eight kilometres further to the east. In about the year 1000, Ravenna was no longer a coastal city. Fortunately we still have this museum, which shows us how things were in the past.


  • Deborah Mauskopf Deliyannis, Ravenna in Late Antiquity;
  • Website Classis Ravenna;
  • Website Ravenna Turismo.


[1] Suetonius, Julius Caesar 31.

[2] Strabo, Geographika 5.1.

[3] Severus was active in the 340s. According to tradition Apollinaris had been the first bishop of Ravenna. He was said to have been a follower of Saint Peter and to have been martyred between 69 and 79. In reality Ravenna’s Christian community probably dates from the late second century.


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