Seminary XLVIII: plus ça change, plus c’est la Rome chose

The penultimate (I almost typed punultimate, but I’m afraid I probably have more than one left) gathering in this year’s Cambridge Late Antique Network Seminars took place on the 12th May, and Chris Wickham drove direct from giving one paper in Oxford to give us a different one in Cambridge, in the course of things proving that Cambridge’s tidal one-way system is a form of gatekeeping the University would never have stooped as low as. Anyway, your humble correspondent may have had too little sleep and too much tea so I’ll try and stick to the reportage. The title of the paper was “Social Change (and Complexity) in Early Medieval Rome, 700-1000″.

The paper was divided into three parts, and the first of those went on ceremonial. The focus was on the elaborate adventus ceremonies that Rome mounted for incoming emperors, something which needed doing fairly rarely, and so was always exceptional, but nonetheless had a background going back to the late Empire, and which had been progressively updated to incorporate new social orders like the ex-Byzantine militia (whoever they actually were) in the old hierarchy.1 Rome was in this respect open to change as long as it could package it firstly as antique and secondly as unique; nowhere else went to the same level of elaboration over these things except perhaps Constantinople, one of the few cities bigger than Rome in any of the Empire, let alone the West where it was unrivalled. (This was really the only part of the paper which really went back to 700; most of the focus was on the tenth century, which was of course fine with me.)

Ruins in the Foro di Nerva, Rome

Ruins in the Foro di Nerva, Rome

This led to questions of how such a city supported itself, which are unusually complex because inside, say, 20 miles of the centre, there was no visible peasant landholding. This doesn’t preclude agriculture, of which there obviously was some even within the old city walls, but it must have been tenant farming because all, to an incredible degree of exclusion, of the land visible in the tenth-century charters was Church-owned and had been as far back as can be seen in the record. This doesn’t mean it was full of churchmen because almost all of it was leased out to aristocrats, including for example the Foro di Nerva above, on which in the ninth century private housing was built. Other previously-public spaces developed workshops, housing, gardens, and so on, apparently built for profit, but the land remained the church’s, and there was apparently no guarantee of heredity when the time came for the leases to be renewed, though since most of these leases were made for three lives, a certain amount of future planning was possible. Nonetheless, when laymen give land to the Church in these records, it is land that they had leased; land that they owned was all much further away. Yet they lived in Rome, and leased land to do so, land on which they tried to turn a profit but which they did not own. The rents were tiny, so what the Church got from this was something that Chris had yet to resolve; one assumes, protection and a clientèle but I got the impression that Chris would have preferred an economic rationale, and as he observed, since these arrangements last for generations and are often seen at renewal, they must have been economically viable because otherwise all the leasing churches would have gone bankrupt.

Anyway, Chris’s general point was that there is a lot of change in Rome, especially in the tenth century, a lot of it at the high political level but also a growing change in the development of the economy, artisanal titles becoming more and more visible in charters as the year 1000 approaches, various sorts of associations of clerics and laymen joining the existing ones (often seen through the ceremonial by which they articulated their links to the old and current orders). Despite this, the social structure of the city, most of all focussed on the pope but below him mediated through dozens of links between Church and churches and aristocrats of various grades, with a pre-eminent family (the Theophylacti, family of the Patrician Alberic) not diminishing that variety, stayed more or less the same. The long-term nature of the lease situation and its apparent inherent stability left the aristocrats, who were getting profit from the lands and the social capital of a Roman presence, and the churches who were getting, well, we don’t really know but they kept doing it so there must have been a reason, with no reason to alter things. In the end, Chris suggested, it was Henry IV and Gregory VII who spoiled this equilibrium by really really messing with the ability to maintain this lay-ecclesiastical property-sharing; reform undid Rome’s social networks.

Pope Gregory VII depicted deposing King Henry IV of the Germans, 1054 (unknown source)

Pope Gregory VII depicted deposing King Henry IV of the Germans, 1054 (unknown source)

That bit sounds a bit glib, but I’m fine with the implication that the tenth century is pretty stable. I’ve seen a few of the relevant charters, however, and the impression I got is that it’s not just the economy that’s elaborating.2 Or maybe it is, but landholders are transacting more, or being recorded more, scribes who used to only be seen working for the pope are seen doing private jobs, this is when at least one of the texts of the papal formulary and general order of practice known as the Liber Diurnus is probably created, and in general Rome is taking part in a much wider economic phenomenon visible all around the Western Mediterranean in which at least, after some hard centuries, the economy is beginning to kick out a genuine surplus.3 An awful lot of the change that’s supposed to happen around 1000 firstly comes from this new availability of surplus, and therefore the resources with which to do things differently, and secondly, is largely seen (because of the nature of our sources) in terms of elaboration and increased preservation of documents. That last makes it hard to tell what’s new and what was already there but just invisible, but as Chris said, in the few places where documents go back further than this period, they don’t show the same concerns and, although formulas changing can obscure or reveal a lot, they also represent a change in social practice that has made the old ones less useful. This is an old argument associated indelibly with the name Barthélemy, though it should as I’ve argued be associated instead with its resolution by Bedos-Rezak, and I won’t do it again here. But it did seem to me that Rome was here partaking of a wider pattern from which its indubitable distinctiveness shouldn’t be allowed to separate it. The wind was blowing on Rome and on, I don’t know, Aigüatèbia de Conflent alike.

The building used as the Senate House in medieval Rome, next to the Temple of Vespasian, from Wikimedia Commons

The building used as the Senate House in medieval Rome, next to the Temple of Vespasian, from Wikimedia Commons

The other thing that I wanted to remark on was the behaviour of the `aristocrats’. For Chris’s purposes anyone not farming their own food is an aristocrat, and I thought that in a society as stratified as Rome that didn’t break things down enough. Some of these guys, the Theophylacti for example, were really important people who could make most of the city follow their bidding (no-one can make all of Rome follow their bidding, not since Octavian if then), and some were just struggling people we’d call knights anywhere else, and to imply that they’re all supported by the same system and that that doesn’t change, while acknowledging that they are also changing the face of Rome’s public spaces and embroiled, as we can tell from Liutprand of Cremona, in all kinds of power politics, seems like a disjunction to me. These are people involved in political change and economic agency, and I felt that the link between the fierce competition and change at that level, and the apparent stasis of the social structure, needed exploration. But then, we know so little about what these people did. It’s always amazed me how little work there is on Alberic. A guy starts calling himself Prince of Rome and ruling the city alongside the pope! Apparently no-one can oust him. He can almost ignore the kings! And yet somehow Pierre Toubert seems to be the only person who’s thought him worth writing about in the last century (and I confess, I haven’t read that writing).4 Am I missing something or is that badly out of synch with what people would find interesting anywhere else? So it’s easy to understand why such a story is not yet told, and the story that Chris was telling at system level was equally new to me and equally fascinating, but I did feel that there were these two halves to the story which will only make sense together, and now I’m hoping someone will do the other one.


1. Much of what Chris was saying will, I expect, emerge in his own work in the not-too-distant future, but two references of resort were Pierre Toubert’s Les structures du Latium médiéval : Le Latium méridional et la Sabine du IXe siècle à la fin du XIIe siècle (Rome 1973) and Roberto Meneghini & Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, Roma nell’Altomedioevo: topografia e urbanistica della città dal V al X secolo (Roma 2004).

2. The Roman charters with which I’m familiar are mainly edited in L. Allodi & G. Levi (edd.), Il Regesto Sublacense del Secolo XI, Bibliotheca della Reale Società Romana di Storia Patria (Roma 1885) & L. M. Hartmann (ed.), Ecclesiae S. Mariae in Via Lata Tabularium. Partem vetustoriem quae complectitur chartas inde ab anno 921 usque ad a. 1045 (Wien 1895), both of which give a giddying impression of social complexity.

3. The Liber Diurnus is something of a controversy; its function, date and importance are all long disputed. The two most recent contributions to the debate I’ve seen are Hans Hubert Anton, “Der Liber Diurnus in angeblichen und verfälschten Papstprivilegien des früheren Mittelalters” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Teil III: diplomatische Fälschungen (I), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Schriften) XXXIII.3 (Hannover 1988), pp. 115-142, and Hans-Henning Kortüm, Zur papstliche Urkundensprache im frühen Mittelalter: die päpstlichen Privilegien 896-1046, Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters 17 (Sigmaringen 1995), pp. 312-318, but I’m sure there’s more since I was up with this stuff. As for the economy, I don’t think the tenth-century growth is widely enough appreciated. It’s somewhat dwarfed by the economic take-off of the eleventh and twelfth centuries but this take-off run unleashes an awful lot of social development and change. The only decent comparative treatment I know arises in a conference volume, La Croissance agricole du haut moyen âge : chronologie, modalités, géographie. Dixième Journées Internationales d’Histoire, 9, 10, 11, Septembre 1988, Flaran Vol. 10 (Auch 1990).

4. Toubert, Latium, and idem, “Une révision : le principat d’Albéric de Rome (932-954)” in idem, Études sur l’Italie médiévale (IXe-XIVe s.), Collected Studies 46 (London: Variorum 1976), V.

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3 responses to “Seminary XLVIII: plus ça change, plus c’est la Rome chose

  1. “Am I missing something or is that badly out of synch with what people would find interesting anywhere else?”

    No, you’re not. Northern historians would be all over this under the rubric ‘count and bishop compete for control of the city.’ But this is Rome, which is a) considered always and forever different, and b) in Italy, so the scenario is more difficult to tuck away into a tidy ‘decline of royal power’ narrative.

    • There must be something that’s been done about the Roman nobility, but I wouldn’t know where to find it. Not that I’ve looked of course; I imagine any of the approximately four dozen conference volumes that seem to have come out on Rome in the last decade would be a good starting point…

  2. Pingback: Seminary LXVII: don’t call it corruption, call it a cash-rich political system « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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