In the history of Italy during the last quarter of the first millennium, the cities of Rome, Ravenna, and Venice stand out because of their importance and status, various forms of independence and autonomy, and elements of a shared background. Rome and Ravenna had been important Roman capitals in the late Empire, and all three continued to grow as Byzantine cities, benefiting from prominence following the political reintegration of Italy to the Eastern Roman Empire after 536, and finally, had remained separate from the Lombard territories that made up much of the northern half of the peninsula. Of these cities, West-Harling's monumental work answers the question: How did these major centers of "Byzantine" Italy develop and evolve as they left the political orbit of the Byzantine Empire, and grow within the matrix of medieval Italy?
The question is not an easy one to answer, and this book considers not just the history of these urban spaces, but their residents, institutions, and historical memory. An additional nuance was that these cities had different pasts, and their political arrangements in this period were dominated by different interests and contrasting local power structures (bishops and local elites in Ravenna and Rome, a Doge in Venice). For this reason, the book is expansive in its methodological approaches, using texts, documents, and the evidence of material culture to make its cases. West-Harling also recognizes the different resolutions of the sources and their varying degree of geographic difference – in Rome, for example, the lack of documentary sources outside of the papacy until the tenth century meant that the Liber Pontificalis was the primary sources of the history of that city's aristocracy in the eighth and ninth century, and in Venice the writing of John the Deacon served the same purpose, but in Ravenna on the other hand, charters were central to identifying the local elite and their experiences.
Its organization also reflects the difficulty of this question, dividing the volume into five interconnected themes – history, actors, stages, actions, and memory. Following an introduction, in Chapter 1 West-Harling presents the history of these urban centers from the end of the Byzantine exarchate in 751 through the reign of the German Emperor Otto III, with an eye towards the larger political stakes. These cities and their leaders navigated the end of direct eastern Rome authority, the defeat of the Lombards by the Carolingian Franks, and the imposition, formation, and eventual slow decline of Frankish authority in Italy. The next two large chapters present the urban population of elites and the populi, with a single chapter dedicated to Rome and another combining the situation in Ravenna and Venice, examining the different kinds of elites (typically landholders, churchmen, and abbots, but also merchants and others) and their activities (from patronage to taking roles within the church or civic administrations). Chapter 4, "The Stage", brings into focus the various types of spaces and in each of the cities as reflected in the sources and material culture. Close readings of texts are matched with insights from archaeological reports to illustrate the built environment and its evolution. The following chapter (5) on "Exercising Power" puts actions into these space – from celebrations to civil unrest. These means making sense of where activities took place, as well as the ways in which various spaces were used (in ceremonies or pilgrimages, for example) and controlled as part of larger efforts at legitimation. In chapter 6, West-Harling zooms out to focus on the cultural aspects of memory, to see how an unevenly shared and inherited Roman past was employed in light of new empires, emperors, and people, and how a self-awareness of the Roman past was augmented by these cities' interest in claiming and promoting their Christian pasts.
Rome, Ravenna, and Venice, 750–1000 offers a lot to its readers. As a whole, it is a satisfying and in-depth exploration of an often-unheralded period of Italian history, and beyond the narratives the book presents, it will be equally valuable for consultation on single issues (the populus of Rome, the evolution of Ravenna's episcopal authority, or Venice's urban fabric, for example). It is the also the only work to comprehensively examine these cities together in their "post-Byzantine" evolutions comparatively, most importantly tracing the contours of the parallel development of their aristocracies. Its illustrations and maps, while few in total, are useful starting points, and other elements, like the synchronic table of Doges, bishops, popes and kings on pp. 43–44 are extremely useful, although this table, as well as the other lists do not appear in the table of contents and are otherwise hard to find (although the two genealogies of the major elite families of Rome, the Theophylact/Alberic family, and Ravenna, the Duchi Sergi and Traversara, are listing in front material). The bibliography is prodigious and up to date.
West-Harling's book does not trace a single argument, but rather uses the reconstructions of the past to comparatively address a range of features of these cities, finding similarities, parallels, and differences by carefully following the evidence from the sources. Because of this, it transcends the political history of the civic landscapes of these cities. Instead, it offers readers intensively researched interwoven narratives of Rome, Ravenna, and Venice, as they grappled with the development of the local and large-scale political changes of the last quarter of the first millennium, and looked back to their varied histories, tied together by their experience as cities with Byzantine Italy. In the end, what Rome, Ravenna, and Venice, 750–1000 demonstrates is that each city built its civic memory from different moments, crafting pasts useful to their varied present, one impressively explored in the volume itself.