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When I'm reading more about the late Roman Empire most of the time I read that the Roman emperors resided in Ravenna instead of Rome itself.

Was there a reason why the emperors of the late Roman empire left Rome or didn't reside there?

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Because it was controlled by bands of murderous, marauding barbarians? –  Tyler Durden May 26 at 15:32
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@TylerDurden You've got the cause and effect transposed... –  Felix Goldberg May 27 at 11:08

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

When the pressure on the frontiers became heavy, the Emperor had to spend increasing time away from Rome on the frontiers. Even in the heady days of Marcus Aurelius and Trajan the emperor had to be on the front line for increasing periods. Other Emperors made long tours to see and administer the provinces (Hadrian, Caracalla).

Things got even worse when pressure was on several fronts at once in the crisis of the third century. Then, there was a need for more than one emperor leading rapid response armies in order to repel invasions. Rome was too distant, so working administrative centers started to grow in the Balkans, on the Rhine, and in Syria.

This became formalized even more under Diocletian, when 4 emperors were manning the frontiers at once. After Constantine and his sons, it was rare for there not to be 2 emperors at once, based in cities like Milan, Mainz, or Antioch.

With this requirement, visiting Rome became a luxury that was often unaffordable. With the Emperors becoming tough soldiers rather than elite aristocrats, such visits that happened became more uncomfortable for both sides.

The move to Ravenna happened very late, when the Emperors had become more or less puppets to generals. Stilicho moved the emperor from Milan to Ravenna when invading Gots under Alaric and Radagaisus threatened it around 405 AD. One danger this added was that the court now felt safe and was less motivated to defend the rest of the country proper, leading to the sack of Rome itself in 410 AD.

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Wikipedia has the cursory answer

The transfer was made partly for defensive purposes: Ravenna was surrounded by swamps and marshes, and was perceived to be easily defensible (although in fact the city fell to opposing forces numerous times in its history); it is also likely that the move to Ravenna was due to the city's port and good sea-borne connections to the Eastern Roman Empire.

A full answer would have to address a few more issues

  • Rome was irrelevant. The Roman Senate continued to behave as though it had some function in ruling the Empire, but the Emperors were increasingly autocrats.

  • During the Year of the Five Emperors, and Crisis of the Third Century, the legitimacy of the Emperor effectively changed from the consent of the Senate to the backing of the Legions. Some Emperors continued to go through the forms of requesting Senatorial approval, but it wasn't required.

  • Diocletian was insulted by the lack of respect shown to him in Rome (I think this is accepted, but not fully proven). He and his successors saw no reason to go back to a town that didn't realize that the Emperor's visit was a privilege granted to Rome, not the other way around.

  • @FelixGoldberg is quite right to point out that the Emperor frequently resided elsewhere for his entire reign; vote up his comment

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It's worth adding that many emperors effectively resided elsewhere during the whole 4th century, starting indeed with Diocletianus. For example, in Mediolanum (Milan) which was better strategically placed for overseeing the defence of the northern frontiers. –  Felix Goldberg May 27 at 11:10

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