Medieval Rome

Medieval Rome: Stability and Crisis of a City, 900-1150
Chris Wickham
Oxford University Press  536pp  £35

One of the most resilient clichés in the historiography on medieval Italy is the one according to which, when it comes to urban history, Rome cannot be studied alongside, let alone compared with, any other city of the peninsula. This is because, due to its status of ‘papal city’, Rome is considered to be too different from the other Italian centres. Atypical in its essence, Rome would be, in a word, unique. The outcome of this is what we can call a papal grand narrative, one in which the history of Rome is isolated from the rest of Italy and intertwined with the history of the papacy. This cliché about the atypicality of Rome as a medieval city has an equally resilient corollary. Historians have long assumed that the relationship between the Romans and their bishops (let us not forget that this is what the popes ultimately were and still are) was also unique. Far from being, as their colleagues in Italy and in the rest of Europe were, a major focal point of civic identity and devotion, the bishops of Rome would have conflicted with their flock and almost invariably looked at their city as a burden that hindered their ambitions of universality.

In this new, inspiring book Wickham acknowledges that, as for all clichés, the general assumptions that he challenges contain some truth. Rome was indeed, in many ways, atypical: it was bigger, richer and politically more complex than any other city in medieval Italy. And it was at least in part because its bishop was no ordinary bishop. At the same time, the popes had an often rather conflictual relationship with Rome and the Romans. However, Wickham puts these undeniable specificities alongside those economic, social, cultural characteristics that made Rome and its citizens very similar to the rest of Italy. The result of such an approach is a masterly example of comparative history, in which similarities and differences between Rome and other Italian cities are carefully weighed and interpreted.

Rome’s political and economic control of its hinterland, the so-called Agro Romano (the 20 odd kilometres outside the walls), was greater than that of any other Italian town and this allowed the city’s economy to grow stronger and faster than anywhere else. On the contrary, outside the Agro Romano, Rome’s influence developed in ways that are quite similar to many other cities.  

With regard to the city’s elites, Roman aristocratic families were individually less wealthy than their Italian counterparts, both before and after the general reshuffle between ‘old’ and ‘new’ families that took place in the mid-11th century. However, they were more numerous and their collective wealth was, therefore, greater, and their structures more complex than elsewhere in the peninsula. As other Italian families, Roman aristocrats also benefitted, politically and economically, from their connections with their bishop; in this they were typical. But the popes were themselves engaged in a political project of much greater momentum than were their fellow Italian bishops and this adds, thanks to Wickham’s analysis, complexity to the typicality. 

The crisis which originated towards the end of the 11th century, from the Reform of the Church, produced changes which were strikingly similar to, and glaringly different from, those of other Italian cities. As elsewhere, Rome saw the birth of the city commune but, uniquely, it also saw the birth of another, parallel form of government, the papal Curia.  This is indeed a true difference from the rest of Italy, but one that does not put Rome at odds with an interpretative model that sees the relationships between elites and bishops as one of the keys to understanding the development of urban society in medieval Italy. This difference serves to enrich that model, nuance it and interpret it. 

Italian cities are all similar to each other and all different from one another. We should not be intimidated by this apparent contradiction, Wickham tells us, because this is simply what Italy is: a collage of differences. Having finally added Rome to the collage, thus making it, at once, so much more colourful and intelligible, is one of the many merits of this marvellous book.

Antonio Sennis is Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at University College London.

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