Ye Olde Roman Antics

Rome in the fourteenth century was a bag of weasels. You didn’t want to be in it or near it if you wanted a quiet life. The whole Italian peninsula at the time might be termed ‘disunited’ but Rome was like someone who would amputate his own hands unless heavily sedated. Maybe there was left-over lead in the pipes, maybe papal potency was a bit too potent—whatever the reason, the ancient city had more than her fair share of ‘vivid personalities’.

This much I have gathered from The End of the Middle Age by Eleanor Constance Lodge (a great book for novices like me who want a smooth introduction to that era). Lodge enjoys herself describing the inhabitants of that Eternal Asylum, so I will let her introduce them in her own words (all the quotes below are from her unless stated otherwise).


Lodge became the first woman to receive a D.Litt. from Oxford University in 1928.


The Shy, Retiring Hermit: Celestine V (Pope from 5 July 1294-13 December 1294)


Most of Rome’s conflict came down two or three noble families who were continually vying for power and making life difficult for everyone. The main culprits, the Orsini and the Colonna, were especially interested in securing  the Papal seat so they could use it (quite improperly) to their own advantage. Nicholas IV (Pope from 1288-1292), for example, represented the Colonna family, which enraged their rivals..

“So disastrous were these disputes that on the death of Nicholas two years passed before a successor was fixed upon, and then a wholly new departure was made, in the choice of a holy hermit of obscure birth, who had spent his life in solitude and self-torment after the fashion of the saints of those days: a strange preparation for the public position to which he was now exalted. Already worn out, both in body and mind, by the life he had led, the Hermit protested in vain that he was unfit for the office. But the Cardinals felt that they had been divinely guided in their choice, and he was inaugurated as Celestine V., and grand Papal robes placed above his own coarse dress of sackcloth. It did not require more than a few weeks to show the Cardinals what a mistake they had made. The new Pope was totally ignorant and lacking in sense or dignity. He fell into the unscrupulous hands of Charles of Anjou, whom he believed to be a friend, and was easily duped by all who surrounded him. He gave away any dignity, created any office for which he was asked; indeed he could easily be persuaded to bestow the same post over and over again. One of the Cardinals, the ambitious Benedetto Gaetani, had peculiar influence over Celestine and is supposed to have been largely responsible for inducing him to lay down his unwelcome dignity. Kumour, indeed, says that he resorted to the unworthy trick of terrifying him in the night through a hole in the wall, and thus making him believe that a messenger from God was urging him to leave the world. Certain it is that the Pope after five months could bear no more, announced his abdication to the Conclave, and fled back with haste to his old cave in the mountains.”


The Utter Bastard: Boniface VIII (Pope 24 December 1294-11 October 1303)


Remember that ambitious cardinal Benedetto Gaetani, the one who encouraged poor Celestine to give it all up for a nice life in the caves? Well, he became the next pope as Boniface VIII. He soon made himself comfortable in the role and started making enemies everywhere he went. He was pro-Guelf in the Guelf vs. Ghibelline conflict (which is too complicated to get into) and that led to the following incident:

‘Whilst performing the Ash-Wednesday ceremony of scattering ashes on the heads of penitents to remind them of their end, he flung them into the eyes of a personal rival, exclaiming: “Ghibelline, remember that you are  but dust, and that with the other Ghibellines your fellows you will return to dust.”

Not only did he incur the wrath of the Colonna family, who’d backed Celestine, but he insulted the Holy Roman Emperor by grabbing temporal power for himself, a highly unusual move to say the least:

‘When Albert of Austria became Emperor in the place of Adolf of Nassau, Boniface refused to recognise him, and put the crown on his own head as a sign of his control over the Imperial election. ” It is I who am Caesar, I who am Emperor, I who will defend the rights of the Empire,” he is reported to have cried.

He also unanimously decided all by himself that England and France would no longer receive tax from clergy. And to cap it all off, he threw a giant party for himself. Even in on his big day he couldn’t help being a big bastard:

‘In 1300 a grand jubilee was held at Rome, and pilgrims of all ranks flocked to the city, where Boniface was to be seen enthroned in state, with two swords carried before him as signs that he possessed both spiritual and temporal power. He laid down law to Kings and peoples, and displayed his haughty pride to the full: it is even said that he kicked one of the ambassadors of the King of Germany in the face, as he was stooping down to kiss the mule, on which the Head of the Church was riding.‘ 

Pope Boniface gets a special mention from Dante Alighieri, who he’d exiled from Florence.  The poet had sound personal reasons for visualizing the Pope in Hell but at the same time he was faced with the problem that His Holiness was still very much alive and kicking (as it were) at the time of writing (1300), which meant (a) he couldn’t be in Hell yet and it would be unrealistic and (b) Boniface might react badly to such a characterization.  Dante solves this little conundrum quite neatly, as will be seen.

In L’Inferno Canto 19, Virgil is leading Dante into the Simony section and they see a  former pope, Nicholas III, buried head-first in a rock. Nicholas, his eyesight thus impaired, hears Dante and mistakes him for the current Pope, who he knows is due in some time soon:

Ed el grido: Se’ tu già costì ritto,
se’ tu già costì ritto, Bonifazio?
Di parecchi anni mi mentì lo scritto.”  (Inf. 19.52-54)

And he cried out: “Are you already standing,
already standing there, o Boniface?
The book has lied to me by several years.”

(translation found here)    

So just in case Boniface raised any objections, Dante could just say it wasn’t him who said it, it was Nicholas III and take it up with him when you get there.

Anyway, Boniface ended up dying in 1303 in less than ideal circumstances, so Dante was probably pleased about that.


The death of Boniface in a 15th-century version of Boccaccio’s De Casibus. It reflects the (disproved) rumor that Boniface had gnawed his own hands off.


The Hero:  John of Bohemia (10 August 1296-26 August 1346)


John of Bohemia wasn’t crazy but he was pretty interesting. His father, Emperor Henry VII, had tried to patch things up in Italy but had failed completely and died in Siena at the age of 40. Hopes therefore turned to his son John, who certainly looked the part:

‘Handsome and chivalrous, devoted to tournaments and all knightly exercises, he was no less famous in actual warfare and able to hold his own in court or camp. Elegant and polished in dress and manners, he was curiously out of place in half-civilised Bohemia, over which his father had given him the rule. Indeed, unless kept there by revolts amongst his turbulent nobles, he spent little time in his own dominions, but wandered about like a true knight-errant, seeking for wrongs to redress or weak causes to champion. He had aided Lewis the Bavarian at the Battle of Miihldorf, which secured him his Empire. He had made firm friendship with the King of France, a country which particularly attracted him. He had headed a Crusade against the heathen in Lithuania. He was delighted now to find new occupation for his arms, and to endeavour to continue a work in Italy which his father had died in attempting. It was a regular saying at the time, that no one could hope to carry anything through, ” without the help of God and the King of Bohemia”.’

His efforts in Italy were doomed to fail, but he carried on hero-ing regardless.

‘John withdrew to spend the remainder of his restless life in continuous fighting, sometimes in his own interest, sometimes in that of others. It was in a second crusade in Lithuania that he lost his eyesight, partly owing to the climate, partly owing to the ignorant treatment of his doctors. The King could not bear his misfortune to be noticed, and would not let it in any way hinder his incessant travels and career of adventure, which he continued, until at last he lost his life at Crecy, fighting for his friend Philip VI.’


The Revolutionary Cola di Rienzo (1313-1354)

Photo: Di Lalupa – Opera propria, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27774256


‘Rienzi was an inveterate opponent of the aristocrats, by whom his own brother had been ruthlessly murdered, and full of sympathy for the poor and the oppressed. His speeches before the Pope excited much notice and admiration. All through this he had evidently the true orator’s gift of swaying men by a word, an almost miraculous power of influence and attraction. The Pope honoured him with an official post in Rome, and on his return from Avignon, Rienzi set himself heart and soul to prepare the way for a democratic revolution. Little by little he won over the people. He excited their minds by speeches and allegorical pictures which showed Rome in shame and distress from which popular effort alone could raise her. To avert suspicion until his schemes were ripe, he played the buffoon before the Orsini and the Colonna, so that they never dreamed of his real character and power. When the time came he struck boldly and with promptitude. On Whitsunday, 1347, having spent the previous night in prayer and preparation, he headed a procession to the Capitol, where he had summoned a meeting of the people to consider the passing of new laws and measures of government; there he swayed the crowd by his eloquence, and proclaimed an edict of reform and retribution. With one accord the assembly hailed him as their ruler, and gave Tribune full power over the laws and government of the Roman Republic. This revolution was accomplished without the shedding of one drop of blood: struck as by a spell, the old Senators fled and many nobles hastened from the city where their power had been undermined.’

The rest is not so good. The nobles objected, the Pope denounced him as a heretic and a criminal and he was driven out of Rome. He became a hermit for a while then offered ‘visionary services’ to Emperor Charles IV, who didn’t know what to do with him and sent him to the Pope in Avignon, where he was put in prison.

‘Clement died in 1352 and two years later the new pope, Innocent VI, sent Cola to Rome on a mission to restore papal authority in the city. Arriving at the beginning of August and resuming his career as dictator, he found himself opposed by the nobles and desperately short of money.

‘Cola was always highly excitable and now, according to his contemporary biographer, he had become hysterically volatile, laughing one moment and crying the next. To raise money, he levied taxes on wine and salt, which was not popular, and began arresting well-to-do citizens and demanding a ransom for their release. He failed to pay his soldiers, which proved to be a mistake when an angry mob, some of them in the pay of the Colonnas, gathered outside his palace on the morning of October 8th and began hurling stones and bawling for his death. Cola now found himself with no bodyguard. Putting his helmet and body armour on, he went out onto the upper balcony and gestured for silence. He was a magical orator and might well have calmed the crowd down, but they refused to give him the opportunity, grunting noisily like pigs to drown his voice, throwing stones, setting the building’s gates on fire and shouting for his death.

‘Cola saw it was hopeless and went back inside. He took off his armour, hastily cut his beard, blackened his face with soot and, pretending to be a rustic from outside the city, mingled with the crowd and joined them in bellowing for his own death. He was recognized, however, seized and dragged to the steps of the Capitol. There after a long, grim pause–perhaps to wait for orders? — one man stabbed Cola in the stomach, another in the head and then one after another stabbed him until he was riddled like a sieve. Joking merrily, his assassins dragged the body to the Piazzo San Marcello, near the Colonna palace, where they hung it up for two days while boys threw stones at it. Then on the orders of the Colonnas a fire was made and the corpse was burned to ashes. ‘Because he was so fat,’ his biographer says, ‘he burnt easily and freely’. He was in his early forties.’






Leave a Reply