The City of Rome in the Middle Ages

The City of Rome in the Middle Ages

By Gordon McNeil Rushforth

Pegasus: University of Exeter Classical Society Magazine, Vol.25 (1982)

medieval map of rome

Introduction: Let us begin by considering the importance of the idea of Rome in the medieval mind. On the one hand there was the ancient prestige of the City, the capital of the greatest empire the world had known, the seat of a civilisation and art so far above what most of the Middle Ages could attain. They may have known little about the true history of the ancient world, or the meaning of its remains, but the glamour of the past and the legends which grew up combined to form a conception of almost supernatural grandeur which dominated the medieval imagination. On the other hand, Rome was the Holy City of the West, the seat of the visible head of the Catholic Church, the shrine of the princes of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and of more bodies of the saints and more relics than any other place in the world, and so [was] one of the three great pilgrimages, the others being Jerusalem and Compostela.

We may say that, physically and materially, what kept Rome together, and reserved its integrity and Continuity throughout the Dark Ages, was its Walls. Rome in the days of its greatness as capital of the Roman Empire was an unwalled city. Almost at the end of the ancient period, when the barbarian invasions were becoming a real and tangible danger even to Italy and the heart of the Empire, Rome was fortified by Aurelian (271-5), and his walls were restored by Arcadius and Honortus in 402 when the Goths were threatening. These ancient walls once built were never allowed to fall into serious decay and are standing today. Every age has left its mark on them in the form of restorations and renewals, and though they did not give absolute immunity, for Rome has been captured again and again, they as often saved it from invasion and devastation, and formed a protection and shelter behind which it could recover from the storms which from time to time swept over it. They have enabled it to justify its title of the Eternal City.

The next point on which I should like to insist is the immense difference, not only in life and culture and polity, but also in outward appearance, between medieval Rome and ancient Rome on the one hand, and modern Rome on the other. We shall see how, between let us say the 7th and the 14th centuries, the traces of the ancient city were steadily obliterated, so that all that was left to meet the eye was great isolated stacks of ruins, like the Coliseum and the Baths of Diocletion, too vast and solid to be destroyed. On the other hand, the architectural revolution of the Renaissance, continued down to our own days, has largely destroyed the medieval buildings, or altered then past recognition. Medieval remains in Rome are by no means common or obvious. We have to search them out, and still more we have to reconstruct the nature of medieval Rome in imagination by the help of documents. Armellini, the historian of the Roman churches, has said that of all the cities of Italy Rome is the poorest in medieval monuments.

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