The Middle Ages in Rome

This was a time of knights, peasants, kings, and queens.

Muslims, Vikings, and Byzantines approached Europe’s borders. 

The stability of the Roman Empire provided security from the bandits, barbarians, and wild animals. 

Rome’s fall, in 476 CE, buried Europe. 

The city of Rome, from a population of more than one million, shrank to 50.000 people.

(img grafico popolazione romana)

It would be 500 years before Europeans began to build a new world. In the meantime, they lived lives of hardship and fear.

Cities were looted. They were becoming ghost towns that were pillaged for pre-cut stones. Locals fled to villages in the countryside, located on easily defensible hilltops. 

People survived on subsistence agriculture. For warmth, they slept with their animals. A poor harvest was a sentence of death for an isolated village. People were chronically malnourished and devastated by disease. Child mortality rates rose.

(inserisci grafico mortalità infantile medioevo in europa)

Superstitious people had to contend with demons, devils, forest spirits, and the surveillance of an angry god.

The fear of invasions clouded life—Vikings from Scandinavia, Huns from Central Asia, Moors from Spain, and Magyars from Hungary. 

Feudal system during the Middle Ages

A new social and economic system evolved: feudalism. 

Middle-age Europe didn’t have national governments. 

The government was actually in the hands of local kings, nobles, barons, dukes, knights. Those with money kept a small private army.

Feudal nobles were continually feuding. And they hardly lived in luxury. 

Their castles were cold, wet, and dark. Nobles were often illiterate. 

Their lives revolved around war, training for war, hunting, and feasting.

Were all the Middle Ages so terrible?

Not the whole world was in a Dark Age.  

China provided many technological innovations that spurred Europe’s recovery from the Dark Ages: paper, clockwork, windmills, spinning wheels, and gunpowder.

In Central America, the Mayans were building great cities.

The ruler Charlemagne united the core of Europe and orchestrated a mini-Renaissance. 

Meanwhile, on Europe’s fringes, two cultures offered a glimpse of unity, stability, and prosperity that were missing in Europe: Islam & Byzantium.

The New Roman Empire: The Byzantine Empir

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the ancient Roman Empire. 

It remained Christian, Greek-speaking, and thrived for a thousand years.

In the year 330, Constantine moved the Roman Empire’s capital to the new city of Constantinople. In a sense, this was the real end of ancient Rome.

After the capital moved, it quickly took on an Eastern flavor. It’s language, literature, and art were Greek. 

The Church followed Eastern Orthodox, eventually split with the Pope’s Latin Church.

The Byzantine emperors decided to send missionaries to convert more people to Christianity to relieve the Empire’s pressure. 

St Cyril and St Methodius set out to spread the gospel among the Slavs. Cyril even worked out a unique alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet, based on Greek letters but specially adapted to suit how the Slaves and Bulgars spoke.

In Rome, you can find the rest of St Cyril in the beautiful Basilica di San Clemente. As in the 1960s, the Irish Dominican Fathers discovered a small fragment of his relics. Pope Paul VI personally placed this fragment in the Basilica in the hope ‘that the sacred relics of St Cyril might be a cause of union with the See of Rome.’

The end of Byzantium aka The Second Rome

Byzantium remained linked economically to Europe by its sea trade with the city of Venice. Europe’s Crusaders traveled to eastern lands and came home with looted wealth.

When the Muslim Turks finally overran Christian Constantinople in 1453, scholars and artists fled to the west, fueling the Renaissance.

Top Byzantine Sights

  • Churches and Mosaics, Ravenna, Italy
  • St Mark’s Basilica, Vinnie
  • Monreale Cathedral mosaics, Palermo, Sicily

How Rome became centre for Pilgrimages

The Mediterranean economy collapsed as Rome could never be sustained from its resources. The population began to shrink.

Gregory the Great, 590-604, was one of Rome’s most significant figures. He’s the founder of the medieval papacy. 

Gregory was the son of a former city official, and he cared deeply for the people in his town. Instead of building new churches, he organized the papal properties so that they could feed the poor. 

As a pastor, he was moderate, toning down the harsh asceticism of earlier Church leaders and supporting the balanced monastic rule of St Benedict, of whom he was a great admirer.

Gradually the Church began infiltrating the historic center. 

Patrician mansions were converted into monasteries. A hall from the Forum of Vespasian had taken on a new role as a church dedicated to two eastern saints, Cosmas and Damian.  

For a time, pagan temples remained taboo areas, haunted by the malign powers of the pagan gods. 

But in 609, the Pantheon was made into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. 

The city was given new life through its relics and imports, like the Titulus of the True Cross, that you can see in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. 

So began the history of Rome as a center for pilgrimages. 

In 660, a monk from Ireland writes of sharing a hostel with pilgrims from Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and even Russia.

It took some time before Catholic rulers emerged in France, Spain, Ireland, and England. 

A broad Catholic community was gradually consolidating in Europe.

How the Popes asserted their power over the Holy Roman Emperors

A power struggle for ultimate spiritual and temporal jurisdiction between popes and emperors dominated the next three centuries.

In 824, Charlemagne’s grandson Lothar proclaimed in his Constitution Romana that the emperor and pope were to share administrative functions over the city. 

The people of Rome had to swear loyalty to the emperor. The election of a pope had to be confirmed by the emperor.

This went directly against the popes’ view of their role, elaborated from a document. The so-called Donation of Constantine, which indicated to show a transfer of imperial power by Constantine to the pope of his day, Sylvester 

In Rome, in the Chapel of St Sylvester in the convent of the Santi Quattro Coronati, a fresco shows Constantine giving his imperial crown to Sylvester.

The struggle intensified when the Carolingian house disintegrated. Otto of Saxony came to Rome in 962 to be crowned by the pope, and he imposed a pope of his choosing. 

The conflicts which followed were bitter but slowly followed the growth of papal power. 

A council held in the Lateran in 1059 reserved the election of a new pope to the cardinals. This procedure is still followed today. 

This removed the process from the direct influence of the emperors and Rome’s powerful families, unless – as was often to happen – they had cardinals of their own. 

Simultaneously, the papacy increased its control over the disorder of properties, ancient duchies, and cities in central Italy, the so-called Patrimony of St Peter.

In 1122, the Concordat of Worms was an agreement between Pope Calixtus II and Emperor Henry V. This was a recognition of the pope’s spiritual supremacy even over earthly rulers. 

Commune of Rome: the People vs. the Pope

In Rome, the memories of an ancient republic based on the Capitoline Hill had never vanished. 

They were taken up by an expanding class of professionals, lawyers attached to papal administration, artisans, and agricultural entrepreneurs who instigated a popular revolt against the supremacy of the popes and the noble families in 1143. 

The insurgents “assembled on the Capitol, and, desiring to renew the ancient dignity of the city again, set up the senate.” 

They appealed to the emperors, who refused to support them. Still, their persistence eventually led to the popes according to recognize a communal government.

In 1188, the city representative was given the right to make peace and war and receive a share in papal revenues. 

The peak of the power of the popes

The most outstanding pope of the period, Innocent III (1198-1216), managed to achieve control over the appointment of the senatore, the chief executive of the city, whom he usually chose from a leading noble family.

He consolidated the papacy with a vastly improved bureaucracy in the curia or papal court. 

He built a few churches but many public buildings.

Including the Ospedale di Santo Spirito for orphans and the sick, after he had been disturbed by a dream in which fishers dredged up dead children’s bodies from the Tiber.

From Rome, Innocent reached throughout Europe, claiming the right to arbitrate in disputed imperial elections, combat heresy with force, and launch crusades (the notorious Fourth Crusade, which sacked Constantinople in 1204, took place in his reign). 

This was the peak of the medieval papacy. 

The 13th century saw the arrival of the Franciscans and the Dominicans. In Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome has one of its very few Gothic churches, modeled on the Dominican Church in Florence, Santa Maria Novella. 

When the Franciscans took over and rebuilt the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline hill from 1250, they chose the more traditional Romanesque style.

The Art of the Middle Ages in Rome

The end of the 13th century saw an outbreak of new cultural and artistic activity, fostered by the popes and cardinals. 

Many of Rome’s churches were opulently redecorated. Tombs became more glorious and all the accouterments of clerical life more gorgeous. 

Artists, including Cimabue and Giotto, were drawn southwards to Rome. 

The Great new apse mosaic of the Coronation of the Virgin in Santa Maria Maggiore by Jacopo Torriti is perhaps the finest survivor from these years, culminating in pope’s Boniface VIII announcement that 1300 would be the first Holy Year.

An estimated two million pilgrims converged in the city from throughout Christian Europe, bringing the right amounts of offerings with them.

All that glitters is not gold

Despite the improved spiritual and temporal power of the papacy, it was still vulnerable to outside forces. 

The return of the papacy to Rome, from the Babylonian Captivity, was marked by the crippling dispute of the Great Schism. It was not until 1420 that papal control was resumed in Rome. 

Rome, without a pope, was like a son without his father. 

Rome in the popes’ absence reduced at one point to a mere 20.000 inhabitants. Florence had 90.000 and Venice 100.000 inhabitants at the same time.

The city was divided by the dominance of warring local families.

The Colonna lorded it over the Quirinal and Esquiline hills. 

The Corsi on the Capitoline hill.

The Frangipani on the Palatine, with control of both the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus. 

The Pierleoni was dominant on the Isola Tiberina and in Trastevere. 

The ruins of ancient Rome, such as still stood, were converted into fortresses and palaces. Simultaneously, a mass of towers acted as symbols of prestige and the readiness to defend territory. 

You can visit the 13th-century Torre Delle Milizie near Trajan’s market. It is a surviving example. 

The Revolution of Cola di Rienzo

Frustration with aristocratic infighting led to the most exciting event of the 14th century. Cola di Rienzo directed the popular revolution in 1347. 

This man was a crazy opportunist of low birth. He was claiming even to be the illegitimate son of an emperor. 

He traveled to Avignon to persuade the pope. The papal authority needed to be exercised through himself as a representative of the people against the city’s nobility. 

In Rome, he took over the Capitol and, in a wild but inspiring speech, declared himself “Illustrious Redeemer of the Holy Roman Republic.” 

For a short period, Cola was triumphant. However, he was unstable. He made extreme claims that he was restoring the Roman Empire on behalf of himself. The pope started to change his mind. 

Despite a victory of his troops over the forces raised by the nobility, his increasingly arrogant behavior and a declaration by the embarrassed pope that he was a heretic led to his support slipping away. 

He was eventually beaten to death by the mob in 1354. However, this bizarre episode showed that ancient memories of the Roman Republic still lingered in the city: they were to reappear, in less dramatic form, in years to come.


During much of the Dark Ages, Europe was a scattered and chaotic compost pile of barbarian tribes from which the modern nations We known today would sprout.

Quietly, the seeds of modern Europe were planted. By the end of the Dark Ages, tribes were becoming nations.

The Franks were becoming France, the Saxons settled Germany, and Angle-land was on its way to becoming England.

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