THE RETREAT UPON RAVENNA
When Honorius left Milan on the approach of Alaric he went to Ravenna. Why?
Gibbon, whom every writer since has followed without question, tells us, in one of his most scornful passages, that “the emperor Honorius was distinguished, above his subjects, by the pre-eminence of fear, as well as of rank. The pride and luxury in which he was educated had not allowed him to suspect that there existed on the earth any power presumptuous enough to invade the repose of the successor of Augustus. The acts of flattery concealed the impending danger till Alaric approached the palace of Milan. But when the sound of war had awakened the young emperor, instead of flying to arms with the spirit, or even the rashness, of his age, he eagerly listened to those timid counsellors who proposed to convey his sacred person and his faithful attendants to some secure and distant station in the provinces of Gaul.... The recent danger to which the person of the emperor had been exposed in the defenceless palace of Milan urged him to seek a retreat in some inaccessible fortress of Italy, where he might securely remain while the open country was covered by a deluge of barbarians.”
No historian of Ravenna, and certainly no writer upon the fall of the empire, has cared to understand what Ravenna was. Gibbon complains that he lacks “a local antiquarian and a good topographical map;” yet it is not so much the lack of local knowledge that leads him unreservedly to censure Honorius for his retreat upon Ravenna, as the fact that he has not perhaps really grasped what Ravenna was, what was her relation to Italy and Cisalpine Gaul, and especially how she stood to the sea, and what part that sea played in the geography and strategy of the empire.
For my part I shall maintain that, whatever may be the truth as to the private character of Honorius, which would indeed be difficult to defend, he was wisely advised by those counsellors who conceived his retreat from Milan to Ravenna; that this retreat was not a mere flight, but a consummate and well thought out strategical and political move, and that any other would have been for the worse and would probably have involved the West in an utter destruction.
Cisalpine Gaul, at this crisis, as always both before and since, was the great and proper defence of Italy; not the Alps nor the Apennines but Cisalpine Gaul broke the barbarians, and, in so far as it could be materially saved, saved Italy and our civilisation, of which Rome was the soul. There Stilicho met Alaric and broke his first and worst enthusiasm; there Leo the Great turned back Attila; there the fiercest terror of the Lombard tide spent itself.
Now, as we have seen, Cisalpine Gaul, in its relation to Italy, was best held and contained from Ravenna, which commanded, whenever it was in danger, the narrow pass between them. Therefore the retreat of Honorius upon Ravenna was a consummate strategical act, well advised and such as we might expect from “the successor of Augustus.” Its results were momentous and entirely fortunate for Italy, and indeed, when the truth about Ravenna is once grasped, any other move would appear to have been craven and ridiculous.