Medieval Rome

Medieval Rome building, palazzo colonna
Medieval Rome building, palazzo colonna

Medieval Rome lacked the structured government that was the norm in other Italian cities. The presence of the pope and the attending church bureaucracy meant a sometimes-uneasy relationship between the church and the state. What organized government that existed was centered on the senate.

The number of senators fluctuated from as few as one to as many as 56. The length of a senatorial term was equally flexible. An 1188 treaty signed by Pope Clement III between the city of Rome and the papacy provided official papal recognition of the senate in exchange for senatorial allegiance to the pope.

The pope also promised some financial support to the senate and aid in the maintenance of the city’s defensive walls. The papal signor appointed by the pope, who usually represented the interests of one or more Roman families, ruled Rome.


Rome was divided into a series of neighborhoods that were associated with a particular craft. These neighborhoods were also associated with noble families who dominated the area with their family-controlled towers. The towers were defensive structures where families would retreat during times of conflict.

The 13th century in Rome was a period especially noted for the tower wars between prominent noble families as they fought for control of the city. Often these wars were an outcome of the rivalry between the Guelf, or papal party, and those who supported the Ghibelline, or Imperial party. Two of the most prominent families of this era were the Orsini (Guelf) and Colonna (Ghibelline) families.

Orsini family legend dates their arrival in Rome to 425. They claimed to be descended from a lost boy who was nursed by a bear; orso is the Italian word for “bear,” the symbol of the Orsini family. The Orsini’s claimed Pope Stephen II, Pope Paul I, St. Benedict, St. Scholastica, and the brothers S.S. John and Paul as part of their family lineage.

In contrast the Colonna family did not subscribe to as ancient or colorful family legend regarding their origins. Records indicate the first individual to use the name of Colonna was Pietro de Colonna (1064–1118), yet the origin of the name remains a mystery.

Family lore draws some connection to the Italian word for column with the story that early in the 13th century, Cardinal Giovanni Colonna returned from the east with the very column used during the scourging of Christ and placed the column in the Santa Prassede.

Orsini dominance of Rome lasted from the middle of the 12th century until late in the 13th century. Family dominance of Rome, whether by the Orsini or Colonna, was typically won through membership in the college of cardinals or the papacy, which led to the granting of prosperous fiefs to other family members.

The rise of the Colonna family to predominance and the beginning of a back-and-forth battle between the two families can be dated to the election of Nicholas IV (1288–92), a Colonna supporter, to the papacy.

The rise and fall of family fortunes were largely tied to control of the papacy and papal curia. The battle between the Orsini and Colonna families took a particularly vicious turn when the Colonna family supported the attack on Boniface VIII in September 1303 at Anagni, while the Orsini family continued their pro-Guelf tendencies and supported him.

Boniface responded by destroying Colonna holdings in and around Rome. Fortunes were often in the balance even when the occupant of the papal throne was from neither family. The Orsini would attempt to enlist the support of the pope against their Colonna rivals, such as being granted the use of papal troops against the Colonna by Sixtus IV.

The result of this aggressive pursuit of the papacy was 22 cardinals and three popes for the Orsini family between 1144 and 1562 versus 11 cardinals and one pope for the Colonna family. In the end both families were named as princes entitled to attend to the papal throne.

Yet the rivalry among noble families was not so intense that rivals removed one key tool for advancement from consideration—marriage. Saint Margherita Colonna (d. 1280) was the product of a Colonna-Orsini marriage. Lorenzo de’ Medici (Florence) and his son Piero both took Orsini wives. Family ties and rivalries dominated medieval Rome, her government, and her daily life.