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The Middle Ages were a dark period of Roman history. The city’s influence was severely hindered by the shift of political and economic power towards the north. Rome was also in continual struggles: Within the city the different noble families resorted to true Machiavellian politics in order to gain the seat of power whilst on the international front the church was in continual dispute with the different emperors and rulers of Europe
Medieval Rome lived a convulsive period, lasting almost 1000 years from the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century to the Renaissance in the 15th Century
The Early Middle Ages: Rome tries to regain some of its lost power
Towards the end of the Roman Empire, Rome’s influence and resources were severely hindered. The shift of political and economic power to Constantinople in the East had drained wealth accompanied by significant decline in population and infrastructure. Rome was ruled by ‘Roman’ Emperors who were now in the East. The Pope in Rome was a leader among equals and not yet the single leader of the church (the division of the Christian church between Catholic West and Orthodox East didn’t happen until the year 1054).
From the 6th to the 9th Centuries there were continuous wars and attempts to claim parts of Italy by different embryonic nations. The Pope in Rome sat between various factions playing careful political balancing acts. Around the 9th Century the power base had shifted towards northern Europe as the Franks/Germanic tribes gained power, particularly under Charlemagne.
Charlemagne and the rebirth of Medieval Rome
On Christmas day of the year 800 Charlemagne became a defining figure in Rome’s future throughout the Middle Ages: Pope Leo III pulled a masterful diplomatic stroke by crowning him Holy Roman Emperor.
It created a new ‘Holy Roman’ ruler aligned with the church
It also consolidated the Pope’s personal power as king-making divine authority.
It created a new relationship of political power & religion which stretched across the entire population of Europe.
This relationship lasted 600 years and largely defined the Middle Ages. It only came to an end at the time of the Renaissance, with the Protestant Reformation and reshaped following Rome’s Counter Reformation.
As was to be expected, the position of renewed international importance meant that Rome itself lived continuous power struggles: Different noble families resorted to truly Machiavellian strategies in order to gain the seat of power. Popes were made and duly replaced in very short timescales. On the international front, the church was in continual dispute with the different emperors and rulers of Europe as the Popes played out Leo IIIs legacy.
The Trial of a dead Pope aka Synodus Horrenda!
Just to give an idea of those difficult times it is curious to note a singular event called the Cadaver Trial in the year 896: Pope Stephen VI dug up the remains of Pope Formosus who had been buried 7 months earlier. Stephen succeeded in sitting Formosus on the Papal throne, running a trial, and having Formosus’ papacy declared invalid. Formosus’ 3 blessing fingers were chopped off, skeleton dragged through the streets and dumped in the Tiber. Unluckily for Stephen he too ended up strangled in jail the following year.
The Economy Moves Northwards
Economic development in Europe had moved north and so Medieval Rome, being removed from the routes of commerce, was at a disadvantage with respect to cities such as Florence, Pisa, Milan and Venice.
The failing economy and the unstable system of internal rule governed by local feuds, warlords and clergy brought the population of Rome to exasperation and resulted in more than one revolt. In a couple of occasions the revolutionaries actually managed to set up democratic republican systems which were doomed to last no longer than a handful of years at best. Arnaldo da Brescia in 1143 managed to set up a republic which lasted a whole year and Cola di Rienzo two centuries later in 1347.
In spite of the instability and economic difficulties, Rome continued to have its beauty. It’s role as seat of the Papacy meant that there was a continued inflow of Pilgrims and investments of a religious nature. There are numerous churches adorned with artworks fashioned out of materials plundered from Roman remains. “Cosmatesque mosaics” are chief amongst these – entirely made of re-cut Roman marble and stones.
Numerous Invaders of Medieval Rome
Throughout this period and into the future Rome continued to hold its prestige as “eternal city” – something symbolising everlasting greatness and grandiosity. This was positive but also continued to attract the interest of invaders and looters such as…
the Saracens in the ninth century
the Normans in the eleventh century – rather like the Norman invasions of England around that same period.
Charles V’s infamous looting of Rome in 1527 known as Il sacco di Roma (he later came back to apologise!)
The Pantheon: A witness of the changes in Medieval Rome
The history of the Pantheon is an interesting example of Rome’s situation and the relationship of powers between East and West: In the early 7th Century the Emperor Phocas came on visit and donated the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV. The Pope duly had it converted into a Christian church. In return, the Pope made the last addition to the Roman Forum with a Column in honour of Phocas, which can still be seen. Some 60 years later in 663AD Emperor Constantinus III also came to visit but this time it was to remove and take away the Pantheon’s gold-plated bronze brickwork, only to have it stolen on the way to Constantinople.
During the later centuries the Pantheon was at some point also used as a fortress. In the 11th century it had a period where it was used as main church for an anti-pope as part of the tug of war between Emperors and Popes.
The Chaos of the 13th and 14th Centuries
As testimony of this dark period the landscape of Rome is littered with the remains of medieval fortifications which were used to defend local baronies. Castel St. Angelo is an easy example which can be visited by tourists: Once the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian, it was converted to Papal fortress with Frescoes by Raphael!
Another good example is the theatre of Marcellus begun by Julius Caesar and completed by emperor Augustus by the Tiber. In the 13th century the Savelli family used the theatre as a fortress which they later transformed into a palace. The two floors of living quarters built directly on top of the arches and columns of the ancient roman theatre are easily noted even today.
Some further examples include the tomb of Cecilia Metella on the Appian way and the Pantheon, mentioned above.
In 1300 the Pope proclaimed the first holy year which, similarly to Gregory the Great’s missions some 800 years earlier, brought a great influx of pilgrims to the city of Rome and a much needed, although temporary, injection of life.
The Pope is removed to France for 100 years, and came back just in time for the Renaissance
This happy event was followed by yet more infighting amongst the local noble families, all of which desired the wealth and power afforded by the seat of St. Peter. An unusually vicious squabble for supremacy (“Papal hegemony”) between Pope Boniface VIII and the French king ended up in tears for the Papacy. The Pope was deposed and replaced by Clement V – the first French Pope (1305-1314). The Papal seat was then removed from Rome to Avignon in France. This period is known as the “Babilonian captivity” in reference to a similar captivity of the Jews in Babilon and lasted almost a century.
The removal of the Pope left Rome without a political or spiritual leader for the first time since its foundation by Romulus “Ab Urbe Condita” back in 753BC. This period was perhaps the worst eclipse the city has ever known: Rome was by now geographically removed from commercial routes which developed to the north, it was left with little if any political strength and was now divorced from its spiritual importance. This loss of power is also visible by the distinct lack of works of art during this period.
Not surprisingly this sudden vacuum in power brought about a series of internal struggles. Cola di Rienzo has already been mentioned as having attempted to lead a popular republic in 1347. The failure of his policies lead to his being thrown out by the same people who had elected him, he was then excommunicated, arrested as a heretic and taken to Avignon in chains. He was subsequently charged with going back to Rome in order to restore Papal command. He entered Rome in great pomp, made himself unpopular and was finally killed whilst trying to flee during riots at the Capitoline hill. Apparently he tried to hide among the crowd and flee but someone recognised the ring on his finger.
On the Papal front it is not surprising that the Roman nobility and Catholicism in general was unhappy to have been subjected to French rule and to have had power removed from Rome. It wasn’t long before an anti-Pope was elected. In 1377 Gregory XI returned to Rome but by now the great schism had generated various claimants to the Papal throne. The wound was only healed through a council (1414-1418) which in 1417 elected Martin V of the Colonna family as sole heir of St.Peter. During this period short period art, commerce, the number of inhabitants and palaces touched its lowest ebb as roads and other civil infrastructure were left abandoned and in disrepair.
In spite of these the Machiavellian intrigues the Middle Ages did in fact leave the city with some prestigious works of art and architecture, such as frescos and the famous “Cosmateque”mosaics which decorate several churches of that period.
Martin V (1417 – 1431) not only heralded the end to a great division in the church but also the beginning of Rome’s Renaissance.