There are two obvious sources of what I call “Christian Rome”: Rome became officially Christian and began to lose its political importance, wealth, population, and security at the same time. How these changes are related is a difficult and heated question.
After the Christianization of Rome in the fourth century and the fall of Rome in the fifth, the Bishops of Rome, who much later came to be called “popes,” struggled to increase both their ecclesiastical influence—that is, their supremacy over the body of Christians as Christians—and their political influence in and around Rome. My pod summarizes their successes and failures, the evidence of which is visible in the art and architecture of Rome.
One obvious but still remarkable feature of Christian Rome is how thoroughly its art and architecture is stamped with a Christian character. Its main buildings are Churches and convents, and the subjects of its art are almost entirely drawn from the Old and New Testaments or the lives of Saints, Martyrs, or Christian leaders. Its principal symbols are crosses, palm branches, halos, the Alpha and Omega, the hand of God, and so forth. I stress this point by noting an exception to it, Raphael’s fresco, “The School of Athens,” which stands out for the tribute it pays to human wisdom, independent of any claim to divine inspiration. It helps to mark the changes brought to Rome and the West by the Italian Renaissance. We will see this still more clearly when we pay a visit to the Vatican Museums.
The church has a cross on top, of course, but the Column of Trajan, on the left, does not have Trajan on top. Instead, Pope Sixtus V had St. Peter placed in this lofty position.
The Triumph of Christianity, on the ceiling of the Room of Constantine. As Christian images went up, the pagans took a tumble (photo by Blake Buchannan)
Another feature of Christian Rome is the persistence of political weakness. After Rome fell, it suffered a succession of severe political challenges that lasted centuries and centuries. Visitors should be sensitive to the evidence of these that remains in Rome today, such as the presence of walls and fortification not only on the perimeter of the city, to protect against outsiders, but also in the heart of the city, to protect against neighbors.
My pod reviews different kinds of discord and offers examples. Here is a quick summary:
- Two major examples of religious discord: first, there was the Great Schism of 1054, when Orthodox Christians made it clear they rejected the pope’s authority. Later came the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, when many Roman Catholics became Protestants, and Europe suffered through a period of religious wars.
- Threats to Rome from foreign tribes or nations, including Germanic tribes from the fifth to the eighth centuries, Islamic forces (“Saracens”) in the ninth century, the (German) Holy Roman Emperors for the next several centuries, and then the French (especially under Charles of Anjou, Philip the Fair, Louis XII, and Charles VIII). The most dramatic single such event was the Sack of Rome” of 1527. The sack turned into a brutal period of rape and pillage that lasted 8 months, and, at least according to commonly cited figures, Rome’s population fell from about 55,000 to 10,000.
- Conflicts between ambitious popes and their families, including the attack of the family of Hadrian I on his successor, Leo III, and the almost unbelievable events surrounding the time when Formosus was pope and Marozia was active. The about forty antipopes are evidence of such quarrels, of which the Western Schism, from 1378 to 1417, when there were first two and then three antipopes, marked an especially dark period for the Holy See.
- Another kind of conflict involved attacks on the papacy as a corrupt monarchy. The Protestant Reformation launched such an attack on Christian grounds, while Arnold of Brescia in the 12th century and Cola di Rienzo in the 14th did so while appealing to the principles of the ancient Roman Republic.
- And then there were times when the popes were chased out of Rome and waited decades before returning, so that several other towns have had the honor of playing host to the pope and his court. These include Viterbo, Orvieto, Anagni, Perugia, and, most notably, Avignon, where popes resided from 1309 to 1377.
True enough, there were moments when the popes exercised remarkable power. Examples include Urban II’s call for the First Crusade, which set Europe in motion; Pope Gregory VII’s excommunication of Henry IV, which led him to beg for forgiveness; and Innocent III’s successful use of interdict to bring King John of England to his knees. But I see these as exceptions, not the rule.
The population statistics for Rome help to support this picture of political weakness. While they are far from precise, they still suggest a remarkable picture. The population of Ancient Rome grew to over a million, and then dropped to well under 50,000 by the eighth century, which means a drop to 5% or less of its former total. There is an even more pronounced difference between the size of the Roman army and the armies that a pope might have at his disposal. As “moral monarchs” go, he was often noteworthy, but moral authority sometimes needs a supplement, as we will have occasion to consider when we look more closely at one of Michelangelo’s great patrons, Julius II, the “Warrior Pope.”