Sack of Rome
Location Rome, Papal States
Date December, 1444
Attacking Army Byzantine Empire (Emperor Georgios III) with about 15,000 men.
Defending Army Papal States (Pope Gilio I) with about 2,600 men.
Result Major victory for Byzantines; Looting of Rome
Casualties Papacy 700, Byzantines 200

The Sack of Rome on 8 December 1444 was a military event carried out by the Greek troops of Georgios III, emperor of the Byzantine Empire, in Rome, then part of the Italian Papal States.


In the 1400's AD, Pope Gilio I instituted a series of attempts to form an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and Genoa against the expanding Byzantine Empire to combat their interests in Western Europe; but neither the doge nor the emperor dared oppose Greek military might. By this point, the Byzantines controlled all territory both north and south of the Papal States. According to the Pope, who had seen the Byzantines take advantage of unrest in Genoa to seize their central Italian territories, he knew it was only a matter of time before tensions between the Papacy and Byzantium rose to open hostility.

The Papal States, unwilling to challenge the power of the Byzantine Greeks, had formed an alliance with the emperor John III. However, they became increasingly alarmed as the Byzantines expanded into Western Europe, subduing Tuscany, annexing Switzerland, and defeating the Austrian emperor in a war. The Papacy backed Genoa against the Greeks during the Italian Wars of the 1400's, but with Genoese defeat, the Popes realized that the Byzantine emperors had their eyes on his sovereign dominion, the Papal States.

For the next few years, the Pope, now surrounded on all sides by Byzantine territory, tried to break the political stranglehold he was caught in while never directly challenging the government in Constantinople. The Pope also played Genoa, the Holy Roman emperor, and the Byzantine Empire against each other. When this failed, he tried to have the emperor Georgios III assassinated. Unfortunately for the Pope, the assassin, a Milanese, was captured. When put to torture he admitted a cardinal near Rome had contacted him for the assassination, Georgios took this as a sign of war. He immediately dissolved his alliance with the Pope and invaded the Papal States.

Battle and Sack

ByzantineKhazaria 20

Georgios III lays siege to Rome; from a sixteenth century Flemish mural.

After invading the Papal States, the emperor first marched southeast to neutralize Pentapolis, and prevent the Pope from being able to coordinate a resistance outside of Rome. The Pope retreated to the capital, and the Byzantine forces reached the walls of the Eternal City by December 11. Georgios III wanted to take the city with some haste, before the Catholic nations of Western Europe could rally to the Papacy's aid.

On December 13, after bombarding Rome for twenty-four hours, the Byzantine troops attacked the land walls. The Papal defenses, although solid, were in fact in bad repair, as allegedly the Pope had entrusted the reconstructing of the walls to two greedy cardinals, who neglected their duties and placed most of the funds in their own pocket. By the time of the siege, the walls of Rome were evidently in such bad shape that the defenders were afraid to mount heavy cannon on them!

Pope Gilio entrusted defense of the city to a knight by the name of Rossi, who was apparently in very high opinion of the clergy of Rome. Rossi lacked nothing in bravery, but was considered by many to be a fool on the battlefield. On the assault of December 13, the Papal forces met the Byzantines with a withering hail of bullets and crossbow bolts, which drove the Greeks back. However, despite some losses, the Byzantines managed to find the weakest points in the wall.

On the night of December 14, a light sprinkling of snow fell on Rome. The citizens, on the verge of preparing for Christmas celebrations, instead huddled in their homes listening to the clamor of battle outside. The knight Rossi was struck down by a stray arrow during the attack. It was by this point clear that the Pope's tiny army could not resist any longer. They fought like heroes, but were inevitably thrown back from the walls. By midnight, Byzantine banners were flying over Rome's walls for the first time in centuries. Rossi's demoralized forces were quickly rallied by Cardinal Giuliano, who was himself a former soldier but probably no more competent than Rossi. By this point, Greek soldiers fighting on the walls had managed to open the gates, and the Byzantine army poured into Rome from three sides. Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, Giuliano gathered together a contingent of mounted knights, along with the Papal Swiss Guard, and retreated to the center of the city. He also advised the Pope to flee, as the Greeks were inside the walls. Gilio took the advice and escaped before the onslaught to a secret chamber in his personal residence, where he would remain a virtual prisoner for the next two days as the Byzantines sacked the ancient city.

At the north gate of Rome, the Byzantines came under fire from the surviving towers, but within half an hour had secured this area and were already storming the cardinals' palaces. Towards the west gate, for a while the Greeks were held in check. About 200 of the Swiss Guard led a determined counterattack, which brought them under a murderous cross-fire and driving them back into the city after especially bloody fighting around this area. It is estimated that nearly half the Byzantine casualties in the battle came from this fight against the Swiss.

Meanwhile, many of Rome's shrines and the prelates' palaces were already being looted. The halls of grand churches, once glittering with Papal ornaments, jeweled crosses, valuable tapestry, and scarlet cloth were laid bare. At St. Peter's Square the last of the fighting was already taking place. Cardinal Giuliano fought on for quite some time, but was eventually felled. His ornamental armor, in fact, only served to mark him out as a target. The Papal knights made a doomed charge into a number of Byzantine spearmen, which bogged them down while the remaining Byzantine infantry poured into the square and cut the defenders to pieces. All of the Pope's troops in St. Peter's Square were killed that day, and no prisoners were taken.

For the next forty-eight hours, the Byzantines thoroughly pillaged the city. Numerous treasures of the church, sacred Papal ornaments, jeweled icons, and ancient Roman works of art were carried back to Constantinople. The Pope formally surrendered on December 16. The Byzantines chose to spare the Pope himself, as even the Emperor Georgios III approached his hiding place yet chose to leave him in peace. Having gained all the fear and loot they, the Greek army encamped outside Rome and celebrated for December 17, then marched away, arriving in Byzantine Tuscany the following night.


The emperor Georgios was merciful to Rome's population, and only sacked the city, avoiding unnecessary murder or rape of the Italian civilians. However, the ferocity of the battle against the Papacy only served to darken his reputation. For the entirety of his reign, Georgios would be known as the 'Merciless Mauler of Rome'.

The Papal States still clung to existence--but the Sack of Rome was a clear warning of Byzantine power. Georgios III had looted the Eternal City, and would take it by force and threatened to place the Pope's head on a pike if the Papacy dared to betray him again. The only reason the Byzantines allowed the Papacy to retain its dominion probably lies in the fact that they were overextended from their recent European conquests and feared the wrath of all the Catholic nations. Had it not been for this happy decision of Georgios, the Papacy would've possibly been wiped from the face of the Earth.

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