In 711 the Arabs (or the Moors, as they were usually called) invaded the Christian Visigoth Kingdom of Spain
and in just eight years they conquered almost all the Iberian peninsula with the exception of some northern mountainous regions.
In 721 they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains and moved into southern France: in 732 they planned an overall invasion of France,
but at the battle of Tours (also known as the battle of Poitiers) they were defeated by Charles, a duke of the Franks, a Germanic tribe which ruled
over northern France, Belgium, Holland and parts of Germany.
Because of his victory, which stopped the Muslim expansion in Europe, Charles became known as Charles Martel (the Hammer) and he gained unconditional authority over the Franks, although he was not their king.
In 736-37 he launched a series of successful campaigns against the Arab strongholds in southern France with the help of Liutprand, king of the Longobards: in this way the Franks entered the Italian political scene; the pope saw them as defenders of Christendom and as defenders of the Roman church from the Longobard and Byzantine ambitions.
Charles Martel had never cared about becoming king, even when the throne had remained vacant for several years, but his son Pippin the Younger (also known as Pippin the Short) who had inherited from his father the actual rule over the Frankish kingdoms decided to assume the title of king. He applied to Pope Zacharias to get papal endorsement of his appointment and based on this he was crowned in 752. It was not such a remarkable event for the history of France, but it was a very significant development in the history of the Roman Church: its bishop and not the (Eastern Roman) Emperor was asked to assign a royal title.
The links between the Franks and the popes became even stronger when Pippin declared war against the Longobards who had threatened the papal possessions around Rome: Pippin forced the Longobards to return to the Pope, rather than to the Byzantine emperor, the city of Ravenna and the nearby region which they had occupied a few years earlier. It was another step in recognizing the pope as the ultimate authority of the Christian world, a role insofar attributed to the Byzantine emperor.
The Longobard king Desiderius tried to contain the Franks' growing threat by marrying his daughter to Charlemagne, Pippin's son, but Charlemagne did not hesitate to repudiate his wife and to invade Italy in 773 to help Pope Hadrian I. By 776 Charlemagne conquered northern Italy and was crowned King of the Longobards.
S. Pietro: epitaph dedicated by Charlemagne to Pope Hadrian I
Charlemagne and Pope Hadrian I developed such a close relationship that at the pope's death in 795 Charlemagne himself dictated an epitaph: the text was most likely edited by his adviser Flaccus Alcuinus (Alcuin of York) or by Theodulf, bishop of Orleans. The epitaph was carefully engraved on a black stone in imitation of some ancient inscriptions and it was placed in S. Pietro. When the old basilica was replaced by the new one, the inscription was relocated in 1618 in the porch built by Maderno for Pope Paul V. Unfortunately it was positioned at a such high level that few notice it and it is very difficult to read it. Charlemagne regarded the pope as a father and wrote the epitaph with tears in his eyes (PATREM LACRIMINIS KARLUS HAEC CARMINA SCRIPSI).
Pope Leo III, the successor of Hadrian I, was deposed in 799 by a group of noble Roman families. He was confined to a monastery
but he managed to escape and he eventually reached Charlemagne in Germany to seek his help.
Charlemagne escorted the pope back to Rome in November 800 and he eventually convinced the Romans
to accept again Leo as their bishop. At the Christmas Mass held in S. Pietro Pope Leo
crowned Charlemagne and gave him the title of Imperator Romanorum. Whether Charlemagne knew
beforehand and had agreed to being appointed emperor is uncertain, whether the pope meant to establish a new Roman empire (the Holy Roman Empire) is uncertain too.
Most likely Pope Leo saw in Charlemagne the new emperor of the only empire he knew, that of Constantinople: in his mind the throne was vacant. Irene, widow of Emperor Leo III, had ruled for years on behalf of her child Constantine VI, but had been ousted from power by her son when he was appointed emperor in 790 at the age of 19. Irene however plotted against her own son and in 797 Constantine was taken prisoner, his eyes were gouged out and he was left to die from his wounds. Irene, who had no other sons, reigned on her own, but the pope regarded her as an usurper.
Charlemagne did not make any actual attempt to claim the throne of Constantinople (apart from a probable attempt to marry Irene) and he eventually reached an agreement with Irene's successor on using a slightly different title which avoided frictions between the two powers.
While the immediate effects of Charlemagne's coronation were limited, their long-ranging impact was a major one for the history of Rome, which returned after centuries to have a political role, through the acts of its bishop, whose appointment was no longer subject to the endorsement of the Byzantine emperor. Charlemagne was regarded by the Roman church as a new Constantine and his statue faces that of the ancient emperor in the porch of S. Pietro.
S. Prassede: mosaic in Cappella di S. Zenone: (left to right) Teodora (the pope's mother),
S. Prassede, the Virgin Mary and S. Pudenziana
Under the protective umbrella of Charlemagne and for a few years after his death in 814, Rome
enjoyed a period of peace and of economic development. Pope Leo III in order to substantiate the new
role of the pope through an appropriate lifestyle improved his Lateran residence by building
two banqueting halls one of which named Triclinium (banqueting hall in Latin) was embellished
with mosaics portraying Charlemagne and the pope (click here for a detail of these mosaics).
Pope Paschal I (817-24) decorated with mosaics S. Cecilia, S. Maria in Domnica and S. Prassede. In this church the pope built a chapel (dedicated to a rather obscure martyr) where he buried his mother. The whole chapel is decorated with mosaics based on an extremely vivid contrast of colours (the image used as background for this page shows another detail of the chapel mosaics).
In 732 Charles Martel had stopped the Muslim expansion in continental Europe,
but not in the Mediterranean where the Arabs occupied Crete in 826 and
then began the conquest of Sicily (still a Byzantine possession). It took them eighty years to complete
their conquest because Taormina, the last Byzantine stronghold fell into their hands only in 902,
but before achieving their final goal they started to raid
the coasts of southern Italy. They were called Saracens, a word most likely meaning easterners,
a reference to their point of origin.
In 846 Saracen pirates landed at Ostia and from there moved towards Rome; they were not numerous enough to be able to seize Rome, but they sacked S. Pietro, which was not protected by the city walls.
The whole authority of the Pope rested on him being the successor of St Peter and
Pope Leo IV swiftly acted so that the tomb of the first bishop of Rome could not be violated a second time.
Between 847 and 853 walls were erected to protect the basilica and the
various hospices for the pilgrims which existed next to it. It was the first urban development Rome
saw after many centuries: it also showed that the pope started to take initiatives which were typical of a sovereign.
The protection of Rome from the Saracens was pursued also by Pope John VIII (872-882) who turned the area around S. Paolo fuori le mura into a fortified burg (Giovannipoli).
The popes for centuries were appointed with the
formal endorsement of the Byzantine emperors: Pope Leo III had interrupted
that practice which was replaced by a less formal agreement expressed by Charlemagne and his successors.
The popes of the first half of the IXth century relied very much on the support of the heirs of Charlemagne.
The continuous dynastic quarrels however weakened the power of the various
Carolingian kings among whom the possessions of Charlemagne had been split.
Towards the end of the IXth century and for a long period afterwards
the election of the pope was heavily influenced by Roman families, who did not hesitate to commit all sorts of
crimes to ensure their candidate was appointed. This period is called Saeculum Ferri or Obscurum
to mean a regression towards a very primitive state.
In this context two episodes stand out: the legendary appointment of a woman (Papessa Giovanni) and the trial of Pope Formosus (891-96), whose corpse was exhumed by his successor, charged with heresy, sentenced to death, mutilated and finally thrown in the Tiber.
Pope John X (914-28) managed to contain the requests of the Roman families and at the same time to form a coalition with the towns of Naples and Amalfi to eradicate the Saracens from their permanent settlement south of Terracina. In 915 he personally took part in the battle which put an end to the threat of a Saracen invasion, although not to that of sporadic raids. In 928 Pope John X was deposed, jailed in Veroli and eventually killed at the instigation of a powerful woman, Marozia who in 931 managed the election to the pontificate of her own son. For the next twenty years the popes were puppets in the hands of Marozia and after her death of her other son Albericus, who obtained for himself the title of Princeps Romanorum. He was so powerful that in 954, feeling he was close to death, he forced the Roman clergy to promise that the new pope would be his son Octavian who became Pope John XII.
The lack of a strong administration of the city of Rome started a process which
in the course of the following centuries led to a partition of the city itself among a number of powerful families. The Palatine, where the
Byzantine officers had resided for centuries, lost its importance in favour of the Lateran, the usual
residence of the popes.
Albericus had a sort of personal court on the southern corner of the Aventine: he fortified it with walls and towers to protect himself from his enemies in the city.
Pope John XII was only 18 at the time of his election and his behaviour was far from meeting the minimal
moral requirements of his office, to the point that his opponents called him the new
Caligula. In an attempt to expand the Papal State John XII stirred a
conflict with the feudal lords of northern Italy and sought the help of Otto, Duke of the Saxons and King of the Germans.
In 962 Otto came to Rome and was crowned by Pope John XII
emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nations, a title which lasted until 1806 (see my pages on Vienna, the city of the last Roman emperors).
The new emperor signed a document (Privilegium Ottonianum) in which he guaranteed
the independence of the Papal State. Relations between the pope and the emperor soon deteriorated and in a
matter of months Otto returned to Rome and convened a synod of bishops that deposed John who fled to Corsica from where
he managed to incite a revolt against the new pope. Pope John XII returned to Rome where he died three months later: according to the tradition he was thrown out of the window
by a jealous husband who had discovered him in bed with his wife.
Otto had no difficulties in imposing the appointment of popes whom he liked; he obtained the power of vetoing a certain candidate from being elected pope, a privilege which he transmitted to his successors.
His son Otto II, who had married a Byzantine princess, maintained a strong control over the actions of the popes, but he died in 983 at the age of 28, leaving a heir (Otto III), just three years old.
In the vacuum of power which followed the death of Otto II, a Roman family, the Crescenzi profited and in 997 rebelled against Pope Gregory V, cousin of the emperor and first German pope. Gregory fled to his cousin who in 998 marched with an army towards Rome. The Crescenzi tried to resist in Castel Sant'Angelo, but in vain; eventually their leader was beheaded and their faction crushed.
Otto set his residence in Rome and probably under the influence of his mother, he adopted elaborate Byzantine court ceremonies. At the death of his cousin he engineered the election of one of his advisers who became pope Sylvester II, a choice of name which established a link with Pope Sylvester I who allegedly had received from Constantine the donation of the city of Rome. Otto saw himself as a new Constantine.
S. Gregorio Magno al Celio: fresco (attributed to Pomarancio) portraying S. Romualdo prescribing a
penitence (to walk barefooted to a distant sanctuary in Gargano) to Otto III
Otto III and Sylvester II lived in the very last years of the first millennium: the year 1000 was thought to be the end of the world and many tried to purge themselves of their sins. The young emperor who had imposed or tolerated blinding, mutilation and other extreme and cruel punishments sought the advice of leading religious figures. He made several pilgrimages and he built S. Bartolomeo all'Isola. Pope Sylvester II is associated with a gruesome tradition according to which his bones could not rest in peace because he had made an agreement with Evil (read the inscription on his tomb).
The following links show works of art portraying characters and events
mentioned in this page:
The Coronation of Charlemagne by Raphael (1517) in the Vatican Palace - Rome.
The Trial of Pope Formosus by Jean Paul Laurens (1870).
The Coronation of Otto III Xth century miniature.
Otto III and St. Nilus a fresco by Domenichino at Grottaferrata.
Next page: Part II: Medieval Rome
III - The Investiture Controversy
Previous pages: Part I: Ancient Rome:
I - The Foundation and the Early Days of Rome
II - The Early Republican Period
III - The Romans Meet the Elephants
IV - Expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea
V - Pompey and Caesar
VI - Augustus
VII - From Tiberius to Nero
VIII - The Flavian Dynasty
IX - From Nerva to Marcus Aurelius
X - A Century of Turmoil (180-285)
XI - From Diocletian to Constantine
XII - The End of Ancient Rome
Part II: Medieval Rome:
I - Byzantine Rome