Very little is known about early Medieval Rome, but today we are going to focus on Alberic, an often overlooked figure who is inextricably linked to the history of the city, and who enables us to explore this forgotten and stigmatized era, bringing a new “light” to what many refer to as the “Dark Ages”.
After the Gothic Wars between the Eastern Roman Empire and the flourishing Gothic kingdom of Italy, the Italian peninsula was left in tatters. In the 8th century AD, Italy had become split between the Eastern Romans (governed by the Exarch of Ravenna) and the Lombards, which controlled most of the inland territory. By 800 AD however, the Italian peninsula was regaining prominence in the wider European state of affairs. Within all this, the city of Rome had suffered several sacks and occupations by Eastern Romans, Goths, Saracens and Lombards, but the inhabitants of the city, known for their resilience, had managed to keep the city as a flourishing economic center and as the main destination of European pilgrims. By the 9th century, Rome had gone from an Eastern Roman territory (Ducatus Romanus) to a protectorate of the Carolingian Empire, with the city being filled with monumental churches financed by the alliance between the papacy and the Carolingian emperors. The Roman aristocracy, descendant from the Eastern Roman military elites, found itself in the middle of this new alliance.
As Rome became more autonomous from the Carolingians, the Roman aristocracy tried to detach themselves politically from Charlemagne’s empire. The main representative of this faction, the dominant one in Early Medieval Rome, was a nobleman named Alberic. Born in a palace on the Aventine hill (located where the palace of the Knights of Malta now stands), Alberic was the son of an extremely powerful Roman noblewoman, Marozia (daughter of Theophilact Dux of Rome), and the Duke of Spoleto, Alberic I. Smart, handsome, and talented, Alberic guided Medieval Rome through an able political strategy aimed at appeasing both the Carolingians and the Eastern Romans while pursuing the formation of an independent Signory over the city of Rome. Following the strategy employed by the old roman Emperor Octavian, Alberic gained control over the Eternal city and its surrounding areas. Pursuing a moderate policy towards the other aristocratic factions/parties of Medieval Rome, Alberic also managed to give birth to a sort of “Golden Age” of Medieval Rome, an era during which the Eternal city flourished in terms of military might, economy, religious architecture and diplomatic power.
Having reorganized the roman populace into an efficient city militia (Exercitus Romanus) Alberic, based in what will become the palace of the Colonna, launched a program of “Renovatio Imperii” aimed at strengthening the bond between the Medieval city and the imperial one, giving new importance to city magistrates like the Praefectus Urbi or the naval Praefects. He restored the Aurelian walls, paleochristian basilicas, aqueducts, the Turris Intra Caelos (Castel Sant’Angelo/Hadrian’s Mausoleum), while relegating the Roman Pontiff to a secondary role, though not officially. He created new magistrates for the maintenance of buildings and overseeing fires (Magistri Aedificiorum) based on the ancient roman Vicomagistri. Under Alberic, the Ager Romanus (farmland around Rome) became vital in the feeding of the city, thanks to old papal Domus Cultae (rustic villas and manors) and new ones built by men under his authority. He officially declared himself “Princeps Romanorum” (first of the Romans), the same title that Augustus used, a clear sign of the inspiration of his policies and an attempt at establishing a link between his reign and the imperial past.
With Alberic as a ruler, the Early Medieval monastic communities of Rome also flourished (mostly thanks to his lavish donations, including the palace on the Aventine in which he was born) while pilgrimage to the Civitas Leoniana (where Saint Peter’s basilica is located) boomed. Businesses centered around the pilgrims (Romei) and their stay in Rome also flourished. During his rule, the “middle classes” (mainly artisans, innkeepers, merchants and boatmen) of the city also thrived, very slowly becoming more influential in the city’s administration.
Alberic also managed to increase Rome’s influence on an international level, even refusing the imperial coronation of King Otto I, who needed an official papal ceremony to be declared Holy Roman Emperor. Rome under Alberic and his relative Giorgio de Aventino (commander, or Superista, of the Roman militias) resisted Magryar raids and gained prominence also as the only location for the papal mint, a clear sign of public power in medieval Europe. Alberic’s own coins were even minted with the pope’s visage on them, another clear sign of both his, and Rome’s, importance.
Alberic even managed to make the Roman aristocracy, famous for their militant mentality, elect his son Octavian Pope (as John XII) before dying on August 31st 954 AD, having already built the base for what some historians call “the 11th century renaissance” and the roman aristocratic dominance over the papal throne, which will only be stemmed later In the Middle Ages.
Alberic’s Roman “Golden Age” is proof that this period is a lot more than just “Dark Ages” from both a cultural and economic perspective. Alberic’s career, policies and projects suggests his era was as lively and dynamic as any other “enlightened” period in history, maybe putting away the veil through which so many of us look at the Early Middle Ages. This period requires more study, as it is poorly researched (at least in regard to the Mediterranean world) and it holds hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.