The C6th Lombard occupation of Italy
Before Gregory the Great acceded to the throne of St Peter as Bishop of Rome in 590, the Italian Peninsula had already been in the hands of Germanic Lombard invaders for three decades. Italy had become severely depopulated by the end of the Gothic War (535-554) when Albion, king of the Lombards, led his people unopposed into the Peninsula. By late 569 they occupied almost all of the northern, central and southern areas of Italy, establishing a Lombard Kingdom later named Regnum Italicum (Kingdom of Italy) that lasted until Charlemagne’s conquest in 774. Their assimilation into the Peninsula took four generations, but in these first years, Rome was driven to the brink of extinction.
During most of this period spanning two centuries, Italy was unequally divided between the kingdom of the Lombards and the exarchate of Ravenna (the military footprint of the Byzantine Empire on Italian soil). On the map of Italy the exarchate occupied very little territory, but it included a significant proportion of wealth, industry, and population, including the most faithful and valuable subjects of Verona, Milan and Padua who had escaped the Barbarian yoke. In theory, a narrow corridor existed between Ravenna and Rome, but in reality, the Lombards were in control, and the Duchy of Rome was compelled to negotiate with neighbouring Lombard dukes for their very survival.
The Duchy of Rome consisted of an area stretching along the coast from Civita Vecchia to Terracina, and down the River Tiber from Ameria and Narni to the port of Ostia on the coast. Within this territory lay the Roman Compagna, a low-lying area surrounding Rome in the Lazio region of central Italy with an area of approximately 2,100 square kilometres (810 sq mi) supplied produce for Rome. During the Ancient Roman period, the Compagna was an important agricultural and residential area, but was abandoned during the Middle Ages owing to a combination of malaria and insufficient water for farming needs.
The remainder of Italy was under the heel of the Lombards; and from the royal seat at Pavia, their kingdom was extended to the east, the north, and the west, as far as the confines of the Avars, the Bavarians, and the Franks of Austrasia and Burgundy. The Duchy of Rome became a small bubble surrounded by hostile invaders.
The rural population under the Lombards
During King Alboin’s invasion of Italy, many of the wealthiest Italians were slain or banished, their lands divided among the strangers, and a tributary obligation imposed under the name of ‘hospitality’, to sustain the Lombard army, amounting to a third part of the fruits of the earth. What seems clear is that under these foreign masters the cultivation of corn, wine and olives degenerated owing to poorer skills and industry of both farmers and slaves.
Appeals to the Emperor
It soon became clear in Rome that the exarch of Ravenna had no intention of providing military or any other means of support for the stricken city. A delegation from Rome made an appeal to Emperor Tiberius (574-582) in Constantinople. “If you are incapable of delivering us from the sword of the Lombards, save us at least from the calamity of famine.” A supply of corn was shipped from Egypt to the Tiber, and the Roman people, calling on the name of the Chief Apostle St. Peter, drove the Lombard barbarians from the city walls. But the relief was short lived and the danger pressing.
In 579, for a second delegation, the bishops and senate collected what remained of their wealth – three thousand pounds of gold – and sent the patrician Pamphronius to lay their gifts, and their dire straits before the Byzantine throne. Gregory, the future Bishop of Rome, was also a member of this party, called away from his life as a monk to serve as the pope’s reluctant nuncio (ambassador) to the Imperial Court.
Pelagius II (579-590), a native of Rome, had ascended the throne of St Peter only a decade after the launch of the Lombard invasion. The Emperor’s attention, however, was already diverted by the Persian war; he gave the gold for the defence of Rome and dismissed the patrician with his best advice: bribe the Lombard chiefs, or buy the support of the kings of Francia. (Canterbury would find itself in much the same position by 11th century in regard to buying-off the Danes).
Tiberius’ successor, the Emperor Maurice (582-602), gave audience to a third deputation of priests and senators. Pelagius II wrote to Gregory, still attending the Byzantine Court, detailing the hardships that Rome was experiencing, and beseeching Maurice to send a relief force. However neither the delegation from Rome, nor Gregory, was able to secure the support they desperately needed. Maurice had already determined to limit his efforts in dealing with the Lombards to intrigue and diplomacy.
Gregory, his own relations with Maurice deteriorating, and his ability to make a difference in Constantinople diminishing, returned to Rome. (Gibbon: Fall, Chapter XLV: State Of Italy Under The Lombards —Part II)
Pope Gregory and the struggle for Rome
The Bishop of Rome was by now one of the leading religious figures in the entire Byzantine Empire, and effectively more powerful locally than either the remaining senators or local Byzantine officials such as the exarchs. In practice, local power in the city devolved to the Pope and, over the next few decades, both much of the remaining possessions of the senatorial aristocracy and the local Byzantine administration in Rome were absorbed by the Church.
The challenges, however, were enormous. By 590, when Gregory was elected Bishop of Rome, the sources of public and private wealth were exhausted; fear and insecurity were rife in Rome’s narrow streets, choked as they were with rubbish and humanity. And the city was only thirty years into a two-hundred-year -long stranglehold.
In describing the distress of Roman aristocrats and farmers alike, who had fled their outlying villas and farms for the safety of the city, historian Edward Gibbon envisaged that:
“they shut or opened their gates with a trembling hand, beheld from the walls the flames of their houses, and heard the lamentations of their brethren, who were coupled together like dogs, and dragged away into distant slavery beyond the sea and the mountains. Such incessant alarms must annihilate the pleasures and interrupt the labours of a rural life; and the Campagna of Rome was speedily reduced to the state of a dreary wilderness, in which the land is barren, the waters are impure, and the air is infectious. Curiosity and ambition no longer attracted the nations.” (Gibbon: Fall, Chapter XLV: State Of Italy Under The Lombards.—Part II)
The aqueducts of Rome
The continual war that raged around Rome in the 530s and 540s had left the city in a state of total disrepair. Aqueducts damaged in conflict with the Ostrogoth warloard Vitiges in the fifth century AD were never repaired. Only the Aqua Virgo aqueduct continued to flow, ending at the Septa Julia in the Campus of Mars. The Tiber remained the principal source of water. However, as the Cloaca Maxima, the city sewer, emptied into the Tiber below the Palatine Bridge, clean water needed to be drawn further upstream.
Districts within Rome without a water supply, particularly on the hilltops, were abandoned, and the city’s shrinking population mostly concentrated, unsurprisingly, around the busiest quarter, the Campus Martius, and Trastevere across the Tiber. The whole inhabited area of the city was now contained between the Forum Boarium to the south (near the Palatine bridge), the present day Corso to the east, and to the north, the Via Recta ((Via Dei Coronari).
The Boarium was Rome’s oldest forum, located on level ground near the Tiber, between the Capitoline, Palatine and Aventine hills. Rome’s first bridges were built here, and the Boarium was known as the gateway to Rome (Port Tibernius). In earlier times the forum was the centre of intense commercial activity, and by the end of the Roman Empire, the Boarium was still crowded with shops.
To add to the misery of those who sought shelter within the walls of Rome, flooding wreaked terrible havoc, pouring mud and debris into the valleys between the hills of Rome. The inundations of 570 and 589 would come within yards of Gregory’s own monastery, swamping the ruins of the abandoned Circus Maximus below the Palatine, driving out the poor and destitute sheltering near the Palatine Bridge.
Pestilence-driven disease broke out from stagnation after each deluge, the contagion so rapid that during one procession, forty people died in an hour. A legend tells of an angel seen, while the newly elected Pope Gregory was passing in procession by Hadrian’s Tomb, to hover over the building and to sheathe his flaming sword as a sign that the pestilence was about to cease.
The frequent occurrence of famine in Rome points to the inattention of the emperor to a distant province, and the city became viewed from the distant imperial terraces of Constantinople as expendable as the lost cities of ancient Thebes, Babylon and Carthage.
Governing Rome in Late Antiquity
While the pope was the most significant figure in Rome by Late Antiquity, his was not the only key role. Emperor Augustus (reigned 27 BC – 14 AD) reformed the office of Urban Prefect (Praefectus Urbi) for more effective government of Rome to counterbalance the enormous power of the Praetorian Guard in the city of Rome, and also to create a city police force.
Augustus granted his Praefectus Urbi all the powers needed to maintain order within the city. This extended beyond Rome itself to the ports of Ostia and the Portus Romanus, and to a zone of one hundred Roman miles (c. 140 km) around the city. The Prefect was in effect the mayor of Rome and held full responsibility for the city’s supply of grain from North Africa and Sicily. The grain dole was particularly important, and when grain supplies failed to materialise, riots often broke out. The role of Prefect also included the oversight of the drainage of the Tiber and the maintenance of the city’s sewers and water supply system, as well as superintending all guilds and corporations.
By the sixth century the office of Prefect had grown in power as the imperial court left the city for Constantinople, so that the prefects were no longer under the emperor’s direct supervision. The role survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire and continued under the Ostrogothic Kingdom and well after the Byzantine reconquest. The last mention of the Roman Urban Prefect occurs as late as 879.
This office was traditionally held by a leading member of the Italian senatorial aristocracy. Gregory was appointed as Prefect of Rome before his selection as papal nuncio to the Byzantine court. While Gregory lamented the demise of the senate, and with it a patrician class of leadership, he nevertheless became the driving force, and during his papacy Gregory alone could be said to speak for Rome.
The survival of Rome depended on the closest cooperation between church, state, and military. In taking control of food supplies to the city and organising the distribution of alms, Gregory would have worked closely with his successor in the post of Prefect of Rome. The Vatican, located in this period within the Lateran Palace, could provide an efficient administration for this civil office (the former reception hall of the Prefect in the Forum had been turned into the church of SS. Cosma e Daminao by 550).
Maintaining law and order was central to governing Rome. The major anxieties of her citizens did not revolve primarily around employment and income – the demand for goods, trades and urban services would continue – but rather around the issues of chronic food scarcity and safety. A large proportion of refugees with no obvious means of support lived cheek by jowl in insula (blocks of flats) alongside local residents, both slave and free, as well as growing numbers of pilgrims to and through the city, foreign traders from around the Mediterranean.
Mobs and gangs roaming the streets searching for food and valuables could threaten public order and undermine the fair distribution of alms. To maintain law and order in such a volatile context, there was a need for policing Rome by day, and for watchmen by night. Their duties included apprehending thieves and robbers and capturing runaway slaves. Both groups, police and Vigiles, had responsibility for controlling the outbreak of fires, and were placed under the single command of the Prefect. The police and night watchmen also had another function, to provide an auxiliary force for the garrison in times of siege.
In the midst of all this, the Church in Rome played a vital part in sustaining the morale of the people. While pilgrims from far countries trod rural pathways to sacred sites beyond the city walls, within Rome religious processions regularly
took to the streets between the ancient churches of S. John in Lateran, S. Maria Maggiore, SS Cosma and Damiano, S. Croce in Gerusalemme, S. Clemente, S. Maria in Trestavere, and S. Maria in Aracoeli. These offered both a public spectacle as well as a means to enter into a regular pattern of urban life and worship for refugees and citizens alike. These processions filled a significant gap after the collapse of civic and imperial events that previously had taken place in the Forum and streets, the Colosseum, theatres, and the Circus Maximus.
Pilgrims to Rome
The Holy City might have been erased from the memory of history except for the skill and energy of Gregory as pope, and the widely-held belief that Rome was, by divine providence, the last resting place of the two great apostles of the Christian faith, St Peter and St Paul.
Gregory made special provision for pilgrims to Rome who came despite the difficulties, and in ever-growing numbers. The churches of the saints and martyres, particularly Peter, Paul, Agnese, Laurentius, and Sebastianus (iwhich included catacombs associated with St Peter and St Paul) ringed the walls of the city. A guide for pilgrims and a circuit began to take shape, drawing Franks, Lombards, Bavarians and ascetic Irish peregrini to the Holy City. Pathways and roads interconnecting all these sites made it unnecessary to return to the city after each visit. A lucrative trade in relics also sprang up, providing income for shrine custodians, monks and clergy at each holy place, but also providing income for food-sellers, guides, tradesmen, sellers of bogus relics and cures, hoteliers and the like.
The central focus, however, was always St Peters basilica outside the city and beyond the Tiber, erected by Constantine beside a large Egyptian obelisk that once stood at the centre of the Nero’s Circus, and in front of which the Apostle was crucified. To accommodate the growing number of pilgrims, Pope Gregory provided access to St Peter’s tomb by means of a sunken, ring-shaped crypt circling the rear of the shrine. The first popes were also buried near the body of St. Peter. Two grottos, the Grotte Vecchie and the Grotte Nuove, containing subterranean chapels and galleries, cover the site of this ancient Christian cemetery. In 604 Gregory the Great was also buried there.
Gregory and the poor
The city’s depopulation was constant and noticeable, reducing to perhaps 30,000 people or less during the last decade of the sixth century. Even so, the number of citizens, refugees and pilgrims to the holy places still exceeded the ability to provide a subsistence level of support. Despite much vacant land both inside and
outside the city walls, most of their precarious food was supplied from the harvests of Sicily or Egypt, landed at the port at Ostia, and transported on the Tiber to warehouses that once served Rome’s huge mercantile hub. Here floating mills in the Tiber ground what little grain there was for residents of the city.
The Church of Rome held many possessions in Italy, Sicily, and also in more distant provinces. The Church’s agents, who were commonly sub-deacons, had also acquired a civil, and sometimes criminal, jurisdiction over their tenants and husbandmen, as in the Roman Campagna. Gregory, as the successor of St. Peter, administered his patrimony like a watchful and moderate landlord. In his use of wealth, Gregory acted as a faithful steward of both the Church and the poor. His correspondence is filled with instructions and practical advice: to abstain from time wasting lawsuits; to use just and true weights and measures; to be merciful to those unable to pay on due date. The rent and the produce of these estates were shipped to Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber, at Gregory’s own expense.
In 552, the Byzantine general, Narses, had conquered Rome for the Emperor and became the first of the exarchs who ruled Italy from Ravenna. However, under Byzantine rule commerce declined, and the Roman senate and consuls ceased to function. As a worthless gesture to Rome, the exarch of Ravenna installed corrupt officials to administer Ravenna’s affairs in the empty halls of the Palatine, and billeted a garrison of troops on the Quirinal Hill, until the Lombard invasion in 569 led to their withdrawal.
The lack of response from Ravenna continued under succeeding exarchates, so that with no hope of relief or support from the Eastern Empire, Gregory began to emancipate Rome from the control of the exarchs. Soon he exercised greater power in Rome than the imperial governors.
Gregory made the relief of the poor one of his highest priorities. Almsgiving was hugely important in Rome at the end of the sixth century, not least for the monks at Gregory’s own monastery of St Andrew. Almsgiving was an expression of personal belief and commitment for monks as part of giving everything to God, holding no possessions as their own, and sharing a common life together – money, goods, work, food, prayer, and good works. But also, in the last decades of the sixth century, Rome was inundated with refugees desperately seeking safety and material support.
Gregory, as Bishop of Rome, used the church’s still considerable if shrinking resources to set up food distribution stations and other essential services. In response to the overwhelming needs of the people, he developed a highly effective system of almsgiving for supplying food and goods to the poor. Each parish (a district in the city) had a diaconium, or office of deacon, who had the use of a building to which the poor could come for support. Gregory requiring his clergy to actively seek out and provide practical relief for needy persons, and he reprimanded them if they failed to do so.
Gregory also ensured that large quantities of supplies were shipped from papal estates to Rome for distribution by the diaconia, so that wine, oil, meat, fish and cheese were regularly given away as alms for the poor. These estates probably included papal lands in Roman Compagna, where a third of the produce went to the Lombards as a compulsory ‘hospitality’ tax.
Gregory, while still a member of his St Andrew’s community until 590, daily hosted a dozen people for lunch from amongst those poorest and in greatest need, taking their meal at a dining table that once belonged to his family. On a much larger scale, a small army of charitable volunteers and monks set out every morning with food that the monasteries had prepared. As Gregory’s own monastic foundation was closest to the Palatine Bridge, the monks of St Andrew’s would have been active in this area of the city at the very least.
Almsgiving and preparation for the mission to England
Almsgiving may very likely have played a role in preparing Augustine and his monks for the arduous challenges that lay ahead for their mission to Canterbury. It is widely held that Augustine was the Prior of St Andrew’s monastery – the next most responsible person in a monastic community after the Abbot – when Gregory placed the mission to England in his hands. Augustine would at the least be involved in the daily food distributions, but even more likely, be directly involved in the organisation of charitable giving across Rome. His effectiveness in marshalling an army of food distributors across the city may well have led Pope Gregory to select Augustine to lead his mission to Anglo-Saxon England in the summer of 596.
Rome: the Eternal City Part 2, BBC