Historical Oddities: The Roman Commune

The city of Rome has had a violent and turbulent history. As the center of the Roman Empire, it was always the target of coups and civil wars within the empire. After the fall of the empire, it was a valuable target for the Germanic, Slavic, and other invasions of the European continent. These invasions reduced Rome’s population and importance in the world, as other cities around the Mediterranean and beyond grew as the centers of new powerful states. However, after the Great Schism between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, Rome once again rose to prominence as the center of the Catholic Church, and as the center of the temporal power of the Pope, the Papal States. While most of the focus of study on the conflicts facing the Papacy focus on the struggle between the Pope and the secular rulers of Europe, there was also frequently conflict between the Pope and the citizens of Rome itself. The most successful effort by the Roman populace forced the Pope out of the Eternal City for nearly half a century in the 1100s.

At the time, the city of Rome was beginning to reemerge as a cultural and economic center in the Mediterranean and as a center of pilgrimage for Catholics. At the same time, northern Italian cities such as Genoa Pisa, and Venice were beginning to establish their trading empires across the sea. These mercantile cities and others slowly gained more autonomy within the Holy Roman Empire, or even outright independence as the merchant classes soon replaced the older aristocratic families. In Rome, a similar rebellion soon furnished against both the power of the Pope over the city and the entrenched nobility. In 1143, Giordani Pierleoni, head of a leading banking family in Rome, led a rebellion against the traditional landed aristocracy in the city and against the temporal powers of the Papacy. Pierleoni successfully took over the city, and established the Commune of Rome in the style of the old Roman Republic. A senate with actual authority and power in over 700 years met in Rome in 1144, and elected Pierleoni the first patrician of the Roman Commune. The senate was composed of 56 senators, with four senators elected from each of Rome’s fourteen medieval districts. Pierleoni quickly set up defenses in Rome against an assault by Pope Lucius II in 1145. However, Lucius failed to retake Rome and died in battle during the siege.

Pierleoni’s rule in Rome was short-lived, and he was deposed later in 1145. However, the newly elected Pope, Eugene III, had to remain in the outlying city of Tusculum and only returned to Rome in 1152 after extensive negotiations with the Roman Commune. In order to gain lasting diplomatic and military support, the Roman Commune had sworn allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire. However, the new republic’s existence was frequently in jeopardy, and it was caught up in the power shifts between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor at the time. While the Commune allied with Empire at first, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa led an army against the city in 1167. Barbarossa defeated the Roman army at Tusculum, but a plague prevented the army from continuing onto Rome and the commune continued. The Papacy under Pope Clement III finally recognized the communal government in 1188, beginning the end of the conflict between the city and the Pope. Pope Clement allowed the people of Rome to elect their own magistrates and granted the city almost complete civil autonomy as a vassal of the Papal States, and in 1193 the Roman Commune officially ended and the city returned to being under the authority of the Pope.

Despite this measure, however, other rebellions by Rome against the Papacy continued, most notably the one led by Cola di Rienzo in 1347. Di Rienzo reigned as Tribune of Rome for less than a year, but like his predecessors denounced the temporal power of the Pope and sought a return of the Roman Republic. Di Rienzo’s reign came during the time when the Pope resided in the French town of Avignon. However, his reign was brief and he was ousted by the Papacy and its allies by the end of the year. After the failure of Cola di Rienzo’s republic, Rome would remain in the hands of the Papal States until the unification of Italy in the 19th century.

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