• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Byzantine Rome Part IV: The Fall of Byzantine Rome


Church of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura


Imperial confirmation of papal elections was formally requested until AD 731. At the Emperor’s behest the pope had to drop everything and visit his temporal lord, though this was usually commuted to requiring the presence of a legate in his stead. More importantly in general terms, Rome remained embroiled in imperial theological disputes with major stakes in every contest.

In a way, it was surprising the popes acknowledged Eastern Roman sovereignty for as long as they did given it supplied so little protection twinned with an excess of interference. Exarchs dabbled with papal elections and Pope Martin I, refractory on a question of dogma (whether it was one or two energies that worked through Christ), was arrested in 650 and shipped off for trial in Constantinople. Such loyalty is testament to the strength of the ideals that glued the city to an empire that had, to an extent, left it behind.

Santo Stefano rotondo


To make things worse, sanitary conditions were poor. In 680, the bubonic plague broke out: a mosaic in S. Pietro in Vincoli (which shows Saint Sebastian as the protector from pests) has been linked to this epidemic. The only light at the end of a dark tunnel (involving Persian and subsequently Islamic conquests of the Levant and N. Africa, and later the triumph of iconoclasm) was the fact cultivated Byzantine refugees fled to Italy.

These refugees produced Pope Theodore I (elected in 642), the son of a bishop from Jerusalem. A generation later (678-741), a series of Byzantine popes occupied the See of St Peer. In sum, eleven of thirteen were of Byzantine descent. However, just as Germans were civilised by Romans before becoming part of a civil war dynamic that brought the western half of the empire to its knees, so the Byzantines weaponised the papacy, making it a powerful player against the pentarchy to the extent that the conciliar nature of orthodox Christianity began to break down.


San Pietro in Vincoli


Byzantine infiltration was relentless. By 645, a group of monks from the lavra of St Sabbas in the Judaean Hill had settled on the Little Aventine in a mansion that had once belonged to Gregory the Great. Its reception hall was converted into an oratory (its walls survive on the façade of the medieval church of S. Saba). At Tre Fontane, a monastic congregation from Anatolia established itself by 641, bringing along the head of the Persian martyr Anastasius. Other congregations who migrated included Nestorians from Syria or Mesopotamia (soon dissolved as heretics) and two monasteries settled by Byzantines who were expelled for an unknown reason from an unknown location.

Alongside relics, the Byzantines brought their feasts and customs. They brought the head of St George in 682 (deposited in the Lateran in 740), the manger of Christ installed at S. Maria Maggiore) and the three feasts of the Virgin (nativity, annunciation and dormition) introduced by Pope Sergius I (as well as the Agnus Dei as an antiphonal song). They also kickstarted the transfer of relics within the West, with John IV bringing the remains of the martyrs of Salona (Dalmatia) to the Lateran and Theodore I transferring the martyrs Primus and Felicianus from their catacomb on the Via Nomentano to Sto. Stefano Rotondo.

Sant Agnese Fuori le Mura Apse


Icons, too, from the early seventh century became a common feature in Rome. The few that survive are impressive: the Virgin and Child from the Pantheon; the mosaic icon of St Sebastian at S. Pietro in Vincoli; the colossal painting of the Virgin at S. Francesca Romana (probably originally from S. Maria Antiqua, which was supplanted by Francesca when Maria was buried by a landslide); the Virgin flanked by angels from S. Maria in Trastevere.

There were two main waves of Byzantine refugees. The first at the climax of the iconoclastic pogroms c. 754, the second after their recrudescence in 816 (under Pope John VII whose father, Plato, after a long civil and naval career in the imperial service had become curator palatii). Both were received with open arms. In the 750s they were allowed to take over a monastery as prestigious as Gregory the Great’s on the Celian Hill (Q: were the Benedictines forced out then or before?) And in 761 Byzantine monks staffed the convent founded by Popes Stephen II and Paul I in their family mansion at S. Silvestro in Capite.

Crypt of S. Crisogono


The reality was that Rome sometimes confronted but mostly assimilated the waves of culture that emanated from Constantinople. Sadly, much remains unclear, mainly due to a lack of evidence. No more than a dozen mosaics, murals and icons survive that can be safely dated. Not a single building remains from the period between S. Agnese fuori le mura (625-38) and S. Angelo in Pescheria (755). Meaning questions about style and development are largely moot, especially as distinguishing between “local” Roman and “Byzantine” i.e. universal Roman, norms is largely a mug’s game.

In general, a consensus reigns that Eastern Romans forced their Italian cousins to express themselves in stiff gestures, outsized eyes and flat figures lined up in abstract non-space; an art in which movement is absent, bodies are overly linear (often delineated in black), faces are dematerialised and draperies simplified. This is seen at Lorenzo fuori le mura in the mosaic of the apse arch (now forming the chancel of the rebuilt basilica), the extant mosaic at S. Teodoro, the figures in the apse vault at S. Agnese fuori le mura, the two saints flanking the Jerusalem Cross in Pope Theodore’s mosaic at Sto. Stefano Rotondo, and in the chapel of St Venanzio (installed off the Lateran Baptistery by Pope John IV) where a cycle of mosaics including his portrait was donated by Pope Theodore.

Madonna della Clemenza


Yet what’s most obvious – especially from the paintings preserved at S. Maria Antiqua – is that developments (a word loaded with an evolutionary logic that’s rarely applicable to art) – rarely run on a single track. What we choose to call Hellenistic, Romanising, Classical, Illusionistic, Pseudoclassical or Byzantine is more of a language game (dependent on colourful adjectives) than a reality. Traditional scholarship tends to prize realism over the abstract formulae that Byzantines believed captured the important essences of revelatory folk (people who aided God’s grace) without explaining (or at least acknowledging) these prejudices.

Rant aside, between 741-53 Pope Zacharias restored, enlarged and decorated with mosaics, marble and murals parts of the papal palace at the Lateran that he found neglected and dilapidated. Chroniclers recount how its new triclinium, murals in the oratory of S. Silvestro, bronze doors and mosaics made it resemble nothing so much as the Great Palace of Constantinople. Indeed, the imperial palace on the hill above S. Maria Antiqua would have undoubtedly possessed similar features.

Other Byzantine features in Rome include the murals of the annular crypt of S. Crisogono; murals from the oratory, now buried, below St Saba (now in its convent); and the chapel flanking the chancel of S. Maria Antiqua, donated by the primicerius Theodotus.

Abazzia tre Fontane


Despite this cultural pollination (or because of it, considering the Byzantines seem to have weaponised the papacy against the emperor), by the eighth century the papacy had begun to appreciate its own weight and gravitas. So much so, in fact, that in 729 Pope Gregory II could warn the emperor that

“The whole West has its eyes on us… We go to the most distant lands to seek those who desire baptism… and their princes wish to receive it from none but us.”

Perhaps more meaningful than the rhetoric, however, was the fact local militias rose to supplant a largely nominal Byzantine military presence. So much is obvious from the fact that as early as 649/650 the militia sent to arrest Pope Martin resisted for months. And when, thirty years later, another militia was sent to arrest Pope Sergius it mutinied and rescued him instead. Indeed, by the end of the seventh century, several of these forces conspired to protect Rome against an (admittedly rebellious) exarch in Ravenna.

By 726 the breach was undeniable. Rome’s resistance to Leo III’s decrees led to reprisals in the form of successive attempts to assassinate the ruling pope and heavy taxes on the papacy’s ecclesiastical holdings in S. Italy and Sicily. Yet the military successes of the Langobards (long beards) led to a series of odd situations. When these barbarian latecomers took Ravenna and besieged Rome in 753, Pope Stephen II managed to have the siege lifted and the Byzantines performed a quick volte face, appealing to him (presumably in his capacity as the highest legitimate Byzantine agent in the field) to obtain the return of their possessions to Constantinople.

For the first time in the secular sphere the imperial request was denied. Instead, Stephen turned to Pepin the Short who agreed to become Church’s protector (from the Langobards) and in turn became a “Patrician of the Romans,” a title illegally coined and bestowed by the Pope (the prerogative of an emperor) in analogy to that borne by the Byzantine viceroy. As such the Frankish leader conquered the Langobard lands and ceded them to the papacy.

Yet the pope never returned the territories to the empire of which he had so recently been a chief agent (indeed, institutionally an agent since the papacy’s inception). The legal position of these lands expediently remained “undefined” in the knowledge that if any Roman law was applied only Constantinople would be the winner. So instead the papacy severed its formal imperial connections (cultural affairs are a different matter) and became a "sovereign" Western power. Wed by its past to the universalist claims of Romanitas, its future became bound to a new identity; a Germanic pawn in the Great Game of the Mediterranean; one in which the schizophrenic Rome nationalised the Church and St Peter (with effects that would result in the real Great Schism of 1204) and attempted to split its heritage from the state (Roman Empire) it had once generated.

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