Previous page Page 4 of 6 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Republican Rome
Build-up to empire
Christian Rome
Papal Rome
     Leo the Great
     Gregory the Great
     Popes and Franks
     The secular side
     Ruins and a republic

Cultural Rome
Political Rome

Bookmark and Share
Leo the Great: AD 440-461

The first pope to indicate the real potential of the papacy is Leo I, who has an unusual span of twenty-one years in office. He uses his time well, not only in the papal duty of restraining heretics but also in rehearsing other roles to be played by Rome.

These include defining Catholic orthodoxy (his epistle called Tome is widely accepted by his contemporaries in this context), and the assertion of the pope's authority over other bishops by the power of the keys, granted by Jesus to Peter and supposedly passed on to his successors: 'I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. What you forbid on earth shall be forbidden in heaven, and what you allow on earth shall be allowed in heaven.'


With the collapse of imperial authority in the western empire, as Visigoths, Vandals and Huns move around almost at will, the papacy finds itself well placed to take a lead in temporal affairs. Ambrose in Milan has already demonstrated how a bishop can exert spiritual authority over an emperor. Leo confronts two dangerous men on a more purely diplomatic basis.

During Leo's pontificate Rome is threatened by Attila the Hun (in 452) and Gaiseric the Vandal (455). He negotiates with both, and is traditionally credited with persuading Attila to turn back short of Rome and with convincing Gaiseric that the city should not be utterly destroyed. Whatever the exact truth of his achievement, his actions predict a broader role for the papacy.


Gregory the Great: AD 590-604

Gregory I, in the late 6th century, reveals in a similar way the future direction of Rome and of the papacy. It can be seen in two significant events. In 592, two years after his election as pope, the Lombards are at the gates of Rome; Gregory accepts papal responsibility for the city, negotiates with the barbarians and persuades them to withdraw (admittedly at the price of an annual tribute). Four years later, in 596, he despatches a mission of forty men to England. Like Gregory himself, until his election as pope, these missionaries are monks.

A temporal ruler of Rome, using monastic establishments to spread spiritual rule throughout Europe - the pattern for the medieval papacy is in place.


Popes and Franks: 753-772

In 753 the pope, Stephen II, makes an unusual journey north of the Alps. He visits the Frankish king, Pepin III, to seek his help against the Lombards who have recently taken the city of Ravenna and who now pose a similar threat to Rome. The pope anoints Pepin at the abbey of St Denis, near Paris, together with his two young sons Charles and Carloman. Pepin duly invades northern Italy in 754, and again in 756.

He is able to drive the Lombards from the territory belonging to Ravenna. But he does not restore it to its rightful owner, the Byzantine emperor. Instead, perhaps believing the fiction revealed in the forged Donation of Constantine, he hands over large areas of central Italy to the pope and his successors.


The land given to pope Stephen in 756, in the so-called Donation of Pepin, makes the papacy a temporal power. This territory is the origin of the Papal States, over which the popes continue to rule until their incorporation in the new kingdom of Italy in 1870. The story of Rome, for the next eleven centuries, becomes almost entirely the story of the papacy.

In the short term the temporal rule of the popes is shaky. Within a few years the Lombards again invade their territory. In 772 a new pope appeals for help to a new Frankish king. Adrian I enlists the support of Charlemagne. This time the Lombards have conclusively met their match. In 774 Charlemagne adds their kingdom to his own.


Secular Rome: 12th - 15th century

The popes and the papal curia are the main power in Rome, but the city does also have a secular identity. In the late Middle Ages, when other European towns are finding a measure of self-government as communes, a similar movement develops in Rome.

An uprising for civic independence takes place in 1143, specifically invoking the senate of Rome's great secular past. It is called renovatio senatus ('renewal of the senate'). The councillors elected in this year call themselves senators - a title later reserved for the head of the council.


This movement is soon appropriated by the papacy. Popes win the right to appoint the senator, and even select themselves for the post. Economic power in this city resides with the papacy, as well as political and spiritual power, for a large slice of Rome's income comes from pilgrims.

Boniface VIII displays commercial genius when he endorses the first Jubilee or Holy Year in 1300. The round number of the date, reinforced by the pope's promise of plenary indulgences, brings visitors and profit to the city on an unprecedented scale. (The idea proves so excellent that Jubilees are held in Rome every 50 years until the late 15th century, when the interval is reduced to 25 years).


The Rome of Boniface VIII, in the late 13th century, is dominated by a few extremely powerful families. Prominent among them are the Colonna and the Orsini. After Boniface's pontificate his own clan, the Caetani, becomes their equal. Papal wealth is the origin of nearly all these great dynasties.

Nepotism (from the Latin nepos, 'nephew') is a word later coined to describe a specifically papal vice, the granting of favours to nephews. This is the only way for a pope to enrich his family, since in principle he should have no sons (a nicety which does not inhibit some of the Renaissance pontiffs).


The great families of Rome provide many of the cardinals at the top of the church's hierarchy, and among these cardinals each family has from time to time a pope. In this way the papacy is intertwined with the secular life of Rome. It is therefore all the more damaging to the city's prospects, a few years after the death of Boniface VIII, when the pope and the curia move in 1309 to Avignon.

It will be more than a century before Rome has an undisputed pope in residence again. But the family name of Martin V, the pope who returns to the city in 1420, is reassuringly familiar to the Romans. He is a Colonna.


Ruins and a republic: 14th century

Rome without the popes is a sorry place. The great families live in their fortified strongholds while decay and anarchy set in around them. Goats graze the grass which sprouts from the steps of St Peter's.

A contemporary author points out the contrast between the present day and the Ancient ruins of Rome. But the ruins, so evocative of past grandeur, are also the seeds of something new. Decaying Rome implies on one level the collapse of the Middle Ages. It is also the inspiration of the Renaissance.


In 1341, in a ceremony on the Capitol, Petrarch is crowned poet laureate in an echo of the Roman empire. Six years later, at another gathering on the Capitol, Rome acquires a tribune - in the tradition of the Roman republic.

The tribune is Cola da Rienzo. A friend of Petrarch, and much impressed by the laureate ceremony, he dreams of restoring Rome to her ancient greatness. To this end he wins leadership of the popular party in the city and eventually has himself declared tribune with virtually dicatorial powers. He announces grandly that all Italians are now Roman citizens, as in the days of ancient Rome.


Italians in other parts of the peninsula fail to notice the honour conferred upon them, and by the end of 1347 even the Romans are tired of their tribune. He flees from Rome, but returns for a few months in 1354 when the pope in Avignon - rather strangely - appoints him senator of the city. Before the end of the year he is hacked to death by a Roman mob.

The story of Cola di Rienzo teeters on the verge of tragicomedy, but his view of ancient Rome as the blueprint of civilization is a foretaste of the Renaissance. And the popes, returning in the following century, will make Rome the greatest of Renaissance cities.


Previous page Page 4 of 6 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF ROME