By the year 846 AD, the Tyrrhenian sea was full of Saracen pirates who raided the increasingly vulnerable coasts of Southern Italy. With Byzantine authority waning, Italian coastlines became vulnerable to corsair raids as local leaders struggled to successfully exert maritime control. Factionalism among local elites also contributed to the weakening of Eastern Roman rule over the entire peninsula while the extinction of the Byzantine exarchate in Ravenna deprived the Byzantine fleet of important strategic harbors in northern Italy. The loss of the major Byzantine fortress of Bari to a band of berber pirates in 847 AD demonstrated the fragility of the Byzantine naval defenses in Italy. Byzantine Duces (military commanders), like the Duke of Naples, became de facto independent while coastal cities like Amalfi and Gaeta formed autonomous states with nominal loyalty to Byzantium and became increasingly wealthy and influential in maritime trade and local politics. Despite this, some of the local aristocratic families like the Anatolii of Gaeta still held good relations with Constantinople, especially because trade relations between Tyrrhenian cities and Constantinople were still highly profitable. Even though increasingly detached from the patriarch and the emperor of Constantinople, the Papal Curia in Rome kept the model of the Late Roman/Byzantine court, with Notarii, Camerarii (treasurers), Vestararii, Exceptores (clerks), Magistri militum and court eunuchs all stationed in the Lateran Palace, the fortified residence of the pope. Alberic II of Rome for example, a member of the powerful Roman family of the Theophylacti and de facto ruler of the city, went as far as to refuse the crowning of Otto I as Holy Roman Emperor and having his own son Ottaviano elected pontiff, thereby taking a heavily Pro-Byzantine and conservative stance which pointed at Rome being ruled by powerful local families in the name of Constantinople.
Roman pontiffs, however, gradually became allies of Carolingian and Ottonian emperors in the North as a way to restore the old Roman Empire (restauratio imperii), increase their autonomy from Constantinople and receive funding from German emperors. Groups of Muslim raiders from North Africa and Southern Spain exploited this complex political situation by establishing bases in Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic islands, threatening the coasts of Italy and mocking the islands’ nominal Frankish rule.
In the year 846 AD, a group of these corsairs, probably coming from Sardinia, landed at Ostia, an ancient port near the city of Rome. Ostia was sacked along with the city of Portus, an urban center from which came the Bishop of Portus, one of the most important ecclesiastical figures of Early Medieval Rome. Emboldened by these quick successes, the pirates marched inland and after having sacked Centumcellae (Civitavecchia), they went for the city of Rome.
At the time, Rome was still defended by the mighty Aurelian walls, built by the Roman emperor of the same name in the 3rd century AD and later restored by pope Hadrian I. It is hard to tell if the pirates actually intended to sack the city, but if this was their intention, they certainly noticed that they wouldn’t have been able to easily take it. This force of Saracen raiders was not merely a pirate incursion, but an organized raiding operation in which professional soldiers from various Muslim potentates participated. As stated by historian Chris Wickham, in addition to its walls, Rome was defended by an urban militia, formed by citizens armed from the city’s Ferrarii (smiths) and selected from the urban Scholae (Corporations). This system of defence dates back to the Late antique/Byzantine period. These militias were led by the “Papal” Superista or Magister Militum, almost always a member of an urban noble family who was also responsible for the security of the Lateran palace. Rome’s Ferrarii, Balistarii (balista makers) and Vaxillarii (flag makers) were mostly quartered in the Regio (city district) of Pigna, near the Pantheon, which in this period was a church. The various Scholae of the city’s militia were led by the Patroni, noblemen and wealthy citizens who were present in each Regio of the city. Cencio Savelli, future pope Honorius III, tells us that the city’s militia also had its own mounted standard bearers, the Draconarii, who participated in Papal processions, in a manner very similar to the Late Roman Draconarii present at the Adventus (arrival) of emperor Constantius in Rome. It is possible, but not certain, that the Campus Agonis (modern day Piazza Navona) was used as a training ground for the militia.
Aware of the difficulty of taking the city, the pirates went on to sack the Basilica of Saint Paul, located outside the city walls. After plundering Saint Paul, they went on to capture Saint Peter’s Basilica, also located outside the walls and near the Burgi (quarters) where foreign pilgrims were often billoted. These pilgrims (Saxons, Angles, Swabians etc.), also organized in Scholae, formed a staunch resistance in front of the Basilica but were ultimately massacred. After having sacked Saint Peter, the pirates fled the city with enormous quantities of gold and silver but while returning to their ships were intercepted by the Duke of Spoleto and nearly annihilated, with survivors managing to reach the ships and then drowning after a great storm. The remaining pirates were killed or captured by the Duke of Naples, Cesaricius, near the castle of Gaeta, with the help of the fleets of Gaeta, Salerno and Amalfi. After the raid, Pope Leo IV fortified the Aurelian walls and built a new set of city defenses around Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Leonine walls, with a force of workers mostly made up of captured pirates and city militia. Pope Leo VIII later built fortifications around Saint Paul’s Basilica.
The almost sack of Rome shows that the Early Medieval Roman population could go from extreme factional violence to unity in a very short time, especially when facing an external enemy. The “romanitas” of the city population was in fact always heavily felt even in the face of extreme violence among city factions. This does not mean however that all Christian potentates were always unanimously opposed to Saracen piracy. The Dukes of Gaeta for example used Saracen Pirates based near the mouth of the river Garigliano as mercenaries against the nearby rival cities of Formia, Salerno and Benevento. Early Medieval popes, seeing the situation, used the condemnation of Saracens as both a way to stem piracy and to improve papal influence by the means of anti-pirate Christian leagues.
The decisive naval actions undertaken by Gaeta, Naples and Amalfi against Saracen pirates in the case of the raid of Rome as well as the battle of Ostia and Garigliano show that these naval powers were becoming increasingly influential in the seas surrounding Italy, gaining prominence due to their relationship with Byzantium. From Byzantine roots, Italian maritime cities like Genoa and Pisa became the powers that decisively defeated Saracen pirate communities of Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic islands.
Another big player in the defeat of Saracen pirates was the Duchy of Spoleto. Since the rift between Rome and Constantinople was opening wider and Byzantine political influence steadily declining, the Duchy of Spoleto rose as one of the main Italian powers. Being one of the last vestiges of the Lombard Kingdom of Italy, the Duchy of Spoleto became an important actor in papal affairs in the latter years of the 9th century, especially with Duke Alberic I, who became de facto ruler of Rome and father of the princeps of Rome Alberic II, whose son later became pope John XII.
The events of the almost sack of Rome are incredibly fascinating, as Early Medieval Rome is virtually unknown to the public. We have very little information about this period due to the scarcity of sources provided to us. Only 50 years after the imperial coronation of Charlemagne in Rome and the end of the brutal factional strifes between supporters of the Lombards and those of the Longobards in the city, we see that the Pope has gained an increasingly influential role in Italian and foreign politics, as we find him organizing alliances between local potentates and supervising important public works in the city. An example of this is pope John X, a strong-willed man who managed to unite Christian powers in Southern Italy under the papal banner, himself embarking on a war galley to fight pirates. Due to the Saracen menace, the maritime cities of Genoa and Pisa forged an unlikely alliance that saw their fleets raid the coasts of North Africa, developing new markets for slave trade with the Middle East.