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Medieval Rome


Between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages there is certain continuity, especially as far as the rural population, made up of the 90 percent of the total population, is concerned. Also Roman law, the Latin language, and the Christian religion provided a great amount of continuity. Yet there were also broad changes. Political structure changed and cities declined, inland areas lost the veneer of Roman culture, building collapsed, local populations revived indigenous Celtic art forms, and even Latin lost its dominance in favour of the spreading of new languages, such as Proven?al, French, Spanish, and Catalan. The transition was gradual but steady and eventually led to the identification and affirmation of the different cultures of medieval Europe.

For much of the 5th century civic life in Rome went on almost as normal. The population had surely began to diminish, but was still substantial and there was an immense amount of new buildings erected by the local aristocracy and the papacy: palatial town houses, large churches, and other ecclesiastical structures (monasteries, oratories, hostels) including some extraordinary projects such as that of S. Stefano Rotondo. During the reign of Teodorico many Roman erections underwent a notably renovation and improvement. The Ostrogoths got on well with the local aristocracy and were obviously keen to maintain the image of old Rome, but unfortunately the Byzantine emperors of the East could not leave as well alone. The eastern emperor Justinian (527-65) tried to reconquer Italy and reunify the empire through his general, Belisarius, who entered the city of Rome in 536. But the Ostrogoths came back on the offensive with Totila as king they recaptured Rome in 546. In the meanwhile the Lombards (Germanic peoples who coming from Pannonia) were migrating in force to northern Italy, carving out a kingdom and several duchies. Italy was fragmenting, devolving into separate enclaves, Rome among them. Nominally the city came under the jurisdiction of the Byzantine exarchy at Ravenna, attested by 584, but practically the popes took over more and more of the secular administration and authority, finding a powerful leader especially in Gregory the Great. Rome was on the way to becoming a papal state.
Though seat of the papacy, condition that assured to the city a certain number of inhabitants, the population of Rome, that in the 4th century was estimated at about 500,000, soon underwent a precipitous decline. During the Middle Age, the built-up area shrank until Romans settlement was confined to the shore of the Tiber, where water was available. Only one of the ancient aqueducts was still operating. The decline was momentarily arrested under Pope Gregory I (590-604), whose pontificate signed the first step towards the temporal power of the Church. His work of conversation did not follow a despotic design, and eventually contributed to improve the contacts between Rome and the barbaric peoples. His papacy marked the foundation of medieval Rome, although not much is known about the city in this period since little archeological evidence has survived. For a while Italy underwent a period of peace but soon became a battleground again. In the 6th century, the possession of the city was still disputed by Goths and Byzantines. But in the 7th century Rome passed under the temporary protection of the popes, who ruled the city up until the 19th century, period in which the history of the papacy is intricately connected with the history of Rome.
When Pope Stephen III was threatened by the Lombards, he appealed for help to Pepin, king of the Franks. He defeated the barbars and granted the Pope a portion of Lombard territory (754), marking the beginning of the temporal power of the popes over the States of the Church. The 25th of December 800, Pepin's son, Charlemagne, was crowned by Leo III in Saint Peter's as Augustus and Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire survived until the abdication of Francis II of Austria in 1806. The walls of the Leonine City, built to defend the Borgo and St Peter's, date from the 9th century.
The strength of the papacy increased under Pope Nicholas I (858-67) but with his death the prestige of the popes declined and the German emperors took an active part in the papal elections throughout the 10th and early 11th centuries. Gregory VII (1073-85), helped by some Roman noble families, reasserted papal authority, but turned out to be unable to prevent the Norman Robert Guiscard from conquering Sicily and devasting Rome in 1084.
The city fortunes began to improve in the 11th century, during a general renewal of the social life and religious reformations. After the popular rebellion that broke out in 1143, a new institution was founded in Rome. Following the wave of the other cities, Rome rebelled to the popes and constituted the Commune of Rome. During the 12th century the administrative position of the Commune was strengthened thanks to the its spiritual and political guide, Arnaldo da Brescia. Worried by the new phenomenon of the city-states, Pope Hadrian IV (1154-1159) turned to Federico Barbarossa for help. Federico, once crown as emperor by the pope, organized two campaigns to re-establish the papal domination. But after some terrific battles the commune rights were legally recognized by the Peace of Constance (25 June 1183).
During the splendid pontificate of Innocence III (d. 1216) Rome became the capital of the western Christian world, and the influence of the Empire in the Italian peninsula dwindled. In Rome, the Church extended its control over every aspect of the life, social, religious, economic, and political. In the belief that the political power had to be subdued to the spiritual one, Innocence III began to extend the territorial dominions of the Church not only over Rome, but also over those regions around Latium that would have formally formed the Pontifical State. In 1205 the Commune of Rome acknowledged the pope the right to replace the Senate for the election of the senator, that is the person in charge to govern the city. The theocratic program of Innocence III was successfully followed by Bonifacius VIII, who took advantage of the battles among local administrators to reinforce the temporal power of the Church. He proclaimed the first jubelee in 1300, which brought thousands of pilgrims to Rome from all over Europe, and provided a large income for the papal coffers. With his bull Unam Sanctam (1302), the pope reasserted unequivocably thetemporal power of the papacy. But these theocratic principles were obviously in contrast with the new laic orientation of the communes and the new national monarchies. As result, the papal seat was moved to Avignon, in France, sealing the momentary decadence of the papacy.
By the middle of the 14th century the power of the Church was in crises. The Roman state was disintegrating and dividing into many little independent states under the rule of wealthy men. In Rome the situation was particularly bad because the lack of the pope generated a political insecurity that eventually led to a chaotic anarchism. The city and its countryside were devasted by wars between rival roman aristocratic families including the Colonna, the Orsini, and the Caetani. The need for a peaceful reunification was becoming particularly urgent and felt mostly by poor people. Leaded by Cola di Rienzo, a popular rebellion deposed the Senate and formed the so called government of the thirteen boni homines, made up by the representatives of each corporation. This popular government was aimed to oppose to the Roman nobles and restore the peace in the city. That is why in 1343 Cola di Rienzo was sent to Avignon to expose to Pope Clemens VI the critic situation of Rome. The favour of the Pope, who confered him with an important political position of 'tribune', and of the Roman people allowed him to lead victoriously his battle against the nobles and became 'tribune' of the Holy Roman Republic in 1347. Worried by the new Roman government, that turned out to have a strong popular mark, the pope intervened in order to depose the tribune and restore his power over Rome. This marked the failure of the patriotic, but utopian, attempt to revive the ancient power and glory of the Imperial City. In 1354 Cola di Rienzo was captured and eventually murdered during a rebellion leaded by the noble Roman families. In 1378 Gregory XI was persuaded by St Catherine of Siena to return to Rome, and the Commune, while acknowledging the papal overlordship, at the same time attempted to retain its authority. Between 1378 and 1417, during the Great Schism, various popes fought over the chair of Saint Peter, while the city suffered both phisically and socially. The population was reduced to some 20,000 inhabitants. The ruins of ancient Rome were used as pastureland, and plundered for use as building material or for lime.


Do you want to read more about the Roma's History? Here the links to the other sections:

The Republican Rome
The Roman Empire
Rome in the Middle Age
The Renaissance
Baroque Rome
The Risorgimento
Modern Rome
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