Recently in the media there has been a great deal of talk about the Leonine Walls due to what some see as the hypocrisy on the part of the papacy, and I definitely do not want to cast judgments on either the President of the United States or the Vicar of Christ because frankly both are way above my pay-grade. However, I do want to seize this opportunity to discuss a fascinating tale while there may still be some interest out there over the advent of the Leonine Walls.
Disaster Strikes Christendom
If there was ever a century you did not want to be roaming around Christendom, the ninth century was it. Europe was under constant attack from the Vikings out of the North, the Magyars in the East, and the Saracens in the South. In today’s narrative we shall focus on the barbarous Saracen.
Since the days of the Resurrection and the early Church the largest contingent of Christians lived in the East as well as long the southern shore of the Mediterranean, however, by the 8th Century and early part of the 9th Century these lands had all been conquered by the armies of Islam. These armies were the Saracen armies which helps us delineate them from the heinous Turkish army, which would be coming to the world shortly.
In any event these Saracens raped, pillaged, and murdered their way through Christian lands without encountering much resistance. The remnant of the Roman Empire in Constantinople could barely keep control of the Anatolian Peninsula let alone send armies to confront the blood thirsty Saracens in North Africa, and the Frankish Kingdom with the heir of Charlemagne on the throne was busy dealing with the threats from the Vikings and Magyars. So when in 846 Rome was sacked by the Muslim hordes it was a shock, but not an unexpected shock.
Rome is Sacked
Paschal I was pope some twenty years before the sack of Rome, but he saw the writing on the wall. The Saracens had captured most of southern Italy and had complete control over Sicily, so this pious pope had all the churches’ relics hidden in the Roman walls. When the invaders did arrive in 846 they were mostly marauders or pirates based out of Sicily. Their intention was not to remain in Rome indefinitely but to pillage as much as they could before returning to their base camp. Tradition gives credit to a Benedictine monk with organizing the resistance to the pirates, and by his efforts the Saracens never breached the Aurelian walls which guard the inner city.
However, the destruction to the city outside the walls was immense especially to the Basilica of St. Peter. A small band of Franks and Lombards fortified the basilica as best they could and held out to the last man, however, eventually they were overcome and butchered for their bravery. Many of the shrine’s relics had not been brought inside the walls, and the Saracens had a field day. They committed numerous sacrileges to the vestments and vessels, and caused structural damage to the church itself. The doors had silver in them so the pirates removed them as well as the copper cast of St. Peter over his tomb.
A New Pope and A New Battle
Well, after the death of Pope Sergius II the Benedictine monk who had rallied the people of Rome was elected Leo IV on April 10, 847. He was determined do all in his power to avoid the disaster of the previous year. He had the ancient Aurelian walls guarding the inner city reinforced, and he began a building project of walls across the Tiber to guard the sacred site of St. Peter’s tomb. These walls still bear his name and have stood now near 1165 years.
Pope Leo IV immediately began to forge alliances with the other Italian kingdoms and in 849 his diplomacy paid off. The Saracens were gearing up for another go at Rome. Leo collected as many Italian ships as he could at Ostia. He said Mass with the Italian soldiers and sailors, blessed their ships, and sent them out as a last defense of Rome. It was a great victory for the Christians, and they took many Muslim prisoners. These prisoners were brought back to Rome and as punishment for their crimes they were forced to help build the Leonine Wall which they finally completed in 852, and Leo IV eventually became Pope Saint Leo IV for his extremely holy life and his incredible leadership as the Vicar of Christ in an incredibly turbulent time in Church history.
The Leonine Walls that surround the Vatican can still be seen today, and if you are ever in Rome to visit that Holy City make sure to visit to the walls and remember the sacrifice of those who came before us.