Wednesday, December 2, 2015

When Muslims Sacked Rome

9th century Saracens*

"The Sacking of Rome Was Not Done By Muslims, Eh?"

In a recent rambling interview on the Papal plane, Pope Francis made a somewhat oblique point about "the sacking of Rome," implying that Rome was not sacked by Muslims but rather by Christians or Christian fundamentalists, "religious people without values" or (seemingly their opposite) people "who believe in the absolute truth." Read that part of the interview to try to puzzle out what he really meant or was trying to say. Good luck.

Actually, of course, Rome has been threatened, occupied, attacked, raided, plundered and sacked numerous times since its founding, by Pagans (Gauls), Barbarians (Huns), quasi-Christian Barbarians (Goths and Vandals), mainstream Catholics (Normans) a mutinous mix of Catholics and some Protestants (the armies of Charles V) and Frenchmen (Napoleon). But as we'll see below, it was also sacked by Muslims. In a future post I will discuss the non-Muslim incidents in more detail. But if there's any general lesson to be learned from all of them, it's certainly not that "fundamentalism" or "religious fundamentalism" is a prime cause of mass violence (including the sacking of cities). Indeed on the above list, it's hard to say which group was "fundamentalist" if any of them were, or even whether that category makes any real historical or analytical sense.

But back to the Muslims, or "Saracens" as they were often called. In 846 a force of perhaps 10,000 of them sailed up the Tiber and sacked Rome. Or perhaps I should say, most historians up to the present have called it a "sack". Recently, some have proposed that it was more of a "raid". Supporting the use of the latter term, it's true that the Saracens did not enter the walled part of the city, probably because they didn't quite have the numbers. On the other hand--supporting the generally accepted designation of "sack"--the raiders plundered and desecrated the tombs of St. Paul and St. Peter, among others, two of the richest and most important religious sites in Christendom. Unfortunately, at that time the Vatican Hill lay just outside the ancient walls.

While the Muslim sack of Rome stunned Christians, it didn't come out of nowhere. In the previous two-hundred years, Muslims had overrun the largely Christian Middle-East, Christian North Africa and Spain, and had made it as far as central France before they were halted at Tours. In the Mediterranean they had taken Cyprus, Rhodes and Crete, and they would soon conquer and begin a two-hundred year occupation of Malta and Sicily. And of course, many other coastal and inland cities in France, Italy, and Greece had been attacked or raided, Rome merely being the most spectacular example. Saracen pirates even set up patrols in Alpine passes, ready to capture and enslave Roman pilgrims.

Above: Charlemagne is crowned Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III at St. Peter's Basilica, Christmas day, A.D. 800.** Sandro Magister writes:
That night, the basilica of St. Peter gleamed with breathtaking brilliance. A few years earlier, Leo III’s predecessor, pope Hadrian I, had covered the entire floor of the sanctuary with plates of silver; he had covered the walls with gold plates and enclosed it all with a balustrade of gold weighing 1,328 pounds. He had remade the sanctuary gates with silver, and had placed on the iconostasis six images also made of silver, representing Christ, Mary, the archangels Gabriel and Michael, and saints Andrew and John. Finally, in order to make this splendor visible to all, he had ordered the assembly of a candelabrum in the form of a huge cross, on which 1,365 candles burned. 
But less than half a century later, none of this remained. And what happened remains generally unknown among Christians today. 
What happened is that in 846 some Muslim Arabs arrived in a fleet at the mouth of the Tiber, made their way to Rome, sacked the city, and carried away from the basilica of St. Peter all of the gold and silver it contained.
Here is a modern account of the 9th century Muslim attack, from Before the Normans: Southern Italy in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries by Barbara M. Kreutz:
846: The Arab Sack of Rome 
Everywhere from Rome south there must have been a sense now of the Arabs closing in, moving to take over the whole of the central Mediterranean. The Byzantine hold on Sicily was crumbling. . . And then within Campania (Naples), at roughly the same time, both Radelchis of Benevento and Sikenolf of Salerno hire Arab mercenaries to fight in their civil wars. 
. . . In August 846, Arab raiders arrived at Ostia and Portus, with what was said to be eleven thousand men and five hundred horses in seventy-three ships. These raiders seem to have had no connection with the Beneventan and Salernitan mercenaries. They had set sail from Camania, however; a Naples source reported that the Aghlabid leaders in Sicily had sent this huge force direct from palermo and that the attackers had begun their operation by capturing the "castellum" at Misenum, site of the imperial Roman naval base at the outer tip of the Bay of Naples. 
This time, the raiders' target seemed unquestionably to be the Holy City itself. In a desperate attempt to hold them off, a makeshift army of Saxons, Fisians, and Franks was recruited from student and pilgrim hostels at Rome and dispatched toward Ostia, accompanied by some sort of Roman militia. For two or three days, this motley collection of amateur warriors ranged around the countryside but encountered few Arabs; the raiders kept out of sight, biding their time. Something, however, alarmed the Roman detachment and suddenly they rushed back to their city and the relative safety of the Aurelian walls, leaving behind the Saxons, Frisians, and Franks. The Arabs then struck. The hapless foreign recruits were slaughtered, and the raiders raced unimpeded up along the Tiber to Rome. 
They were heading toward extraordinary treasures, as they seem to have known. Over the past half-century, rejoicing in the stability now seemingly guaranteed by the Carolingian presence in Italy, successive popes had been enthusiastically engaged in embellishing Rome's churches. Many of the most impressive of these churches, certainly including St. Peter's and the basilicas dedicated to St. Paul and St. Lawrence, were outside the Aurelian walls and thus easy targets for the raiders. And these, like all of Rome's churches, were now filled to overflowing with rich liturgical vessels and with jeweled reliquaries housing all of the relics recently amassed. It is no wonder that the raiders were said to have desecrated all the very holiest shrines, even the high altar over St. Peter's grave. European contemporaries cited this desecration as a calculated demonstration of Muslim contempt for Christianity. But probably the raiders' actions only proved that they had done sound intelligence work and knew exactly where to look for the most valuable treasures. . . 
The 846 raid on Rome had wide-ranging repercussions. Not only did it appall Western Europe; it was also to affect southern Italy in many ways, in both the short and long terms. There was an immediate reaction in Carolingian circles. This was, after all, the first time that the Holy City had been attacked since the days of Alaric and Gaiseric in the fifth century, and they at least had respected shrines and churches. A genuinely horrified Emperor Lothar quickly arranged for troops to be sent south. He also ordered a levy, throughout the empire, to fund walls with which Pope Leo IV could surround St. Peter's and the papal enclave--the Leonine walls. The army was led by Lothar's twenty-two-year-old son, the future Louis II; he was to help shore up Rome's defenses, but clearly he was also instructed to see what else could be done to ensure that nothing like this ever happened again.
Next: Who else sacked Rome?

*From the "Madrid Skylitzes" by John Skylitzes, Sicily, 12th century.
**Coronation of Charlemagne, by Friedrich Kaulbach, 1861:


  1. Seriously, do we expect this Pope to know anything about history? I mean, we know what he knows about the environment and economics...

  2. I always wondered why the Islamic conquest were successfull in Spain, Portugal (Al Andalus), Hungary, Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Mughal India, but not in Italy. But Muslims did conquer southern Italy, starting from Malta and the Emirate of Sicily, they reached all the way to Naples, Rome and even Turin!!!