On this date in 1354, Cola di Rienzi (or Rienzo) was slain by a miserly Roman mob — rather a lynching than an execution, but by any name the tragic end to one of history’s most amazing political careers.*
“Almost the only man,” in the estimation of his admiring biographer Edward Bulwer-Lytton,** “who ever rose from the rank of a citizen to a power equal to that of monarchs without a single act of violence or treachery.”
So magnetic was that era’s revival of classical learning that young Rienzi’s plebeian parents found a way on an innkeeper’s wages to immerse the boy in Cicero, Seneca, and the rest. As Gibbon put it, “the gift of a liberal education, which they painfully bestowed, was the cause of his glory and untimely end.” (Surely this is an object lesson for present-day families contemplating the daunting cost of university education.)
And the oratorical gifts he thereby developed found ready exercise lamenting Rome’s medieval degradation.
This View of the Campo Vaccino actually dates to 1636, but you get the idea. “Campo Vaccino”: that’s “cow pasture,” also known (to you, me, and Julius Caesar) as the Roman Forum.
Rome had bled away the grandeur of its imperial past without recovering the liberty of its populace. A haughty and dissolute aristocracy tyrannized the brackish city: a brawl between rival factions took Rienzi’s own brother’s life, with no prospect of justice.
Rienzi vows to obtain justice for his murdered brother, depicted in a pre-Raphaelite painting by the young William Holman Hunt.
Added to this civic humiliation (though only fortuitous for Rienzi’s political opportunity), the papacy itself had decamped for its captivity in Avignon.
What to do?
How about — overthrow the bastards?
Astonishingly, for Rienzi, to dare was to do: on Pentecost in 1347, he rallied a Roman mob and proclaimed the Republic re-established — taking for himself the ancient honorific of Tribune and the real power of an autocrat. The nobility routed in disarray, or else submitted to the sudden new authority.
For the balance of the year, Rienzi’s word was law in Rome, and as a messianic, popular dictator he cleared woods of bandits, imposed the death penalty for (all) murderers, and beat the aristocracy’s re-invasion with a citizen militia. He audaciously began to resume the primacy of the caput mundi: as “Tribune”, Rienzi summoned delegations from the other Italian cities, and presumed to arbitrate the disputes of neighboring kingdoms. Audacity veered into delirium as he pressed demands on the likes of the Holy Roman Emperor. He acquired a taste for fine wine and good clothes.
“Never perhaps has the energy and effect of a single mind been more remarkably felt than in the sudden, though transient, reformation of Rome by the tribune Rienzi,” Gibbon marveled. “A den of robbers was converted to the discipline of a camp or convent: patient to hear, swift to redress, inexorable to punish, his tribunal was always accessible to the poor and stranger; nor could birth, or dignity, or the immunities of the church, protect the offender or his accomplices.”
But almost as soon as Rienzi’s republic began, the man fell: another invasion found the Roman in the street deaf to the alarm bells, and Rienzi fled.
“He was a dreamer rather than a man of action,” is the charge of the Catholic encyclopedia; excitable, injudicious, spendthrift, and prey to the “Asiatic” emoluments of his station.
This career alone would merit a remembrance, but Rienzi had a second act.
Richard Wagner’s first hit opera — though hard to come by in the wild nowadays — was Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (synopsis), from a libretto based on Bulwer-Lytton’s homage.
After a long spell in exile, he was captured by the Holy Roman Emperor and transferred to the papacy, where he remained comfortably imprisoned for a couple of years. When the pontiff’s hat changed heads to Innocent VI, the latter freed the illustrious ex-Tribune and dispatched him back to Rome under the title of Senator — intending him a catspaw to re-assert the supremacy the papacy had abandoned by moving away.
Within weeks of arrival in 1354, Rienzi again made himself master of the city.
And within months thereafter, he had fallen again — to his death.
He is charged in this last term with severity (the execution of a high-born freebooter, Fra Monreale, in particular), with avarice and abuse of power and once more with political incompetence.
Gibbon claims that Rienzi “contracted the habits of intemperance and cruelty: adversity had chilled his enthusiasm, without fortifying his reason or virtue; and that youthful hope, that lively assurance, which is the pledge of success, was now succeeded by the cold impotence of distrust and despair.” We incline to prefer Bulwer-Lytton’s more generous estimation of a man who with no resource save his own brilliance twice recovered to his low-born person the tattered remnants of the purple and dared against a thousand mighty antagonists to lift it on the standard of the Gracchi. Flaws, and they fatal, he possessed in abundance: but greatness even more.
At any rate, all the scolds upon Rienzi’s imperfections were so much froth in 1354. He certainly did not succumb to the greater virtue of the polis, but merely to its shortsighted refusal to bear a levy:
it was from a gabelle on wine and salt that he fell. To preserve Rome from the tyrants it was necessary to maintain an armed force; to pay the force a tax was necessary; the tax was imposed — and the multitude joined with the tyrants, and their cry was, “Perish the traitor who has made the gabelle!” This was their only charge — this the only crime that their passions and their fury could cite against him.
Rienzi’s eloquence, so often his decisive weapon, failed to move the shortsighted mob that besieged him, and he was hauled to a platform in the Capitol where public executions had been performed at his behest. “A whole hour, without voice or motion, he stood amidst the multitude half naked and half dead: their rage was hushed into curiosity and wonder: the last feelings of reverence and compassion yet struggled in his favour; and they might have prevailed, if a bold assassin had not plunged a dagger in his breast.” (Gibbon)
If this amazing character’s contradictions seem difficult to reconcile and his actions sometimes perplexing, Bulwer-Lytton argues in Rienzi’s defense that we must view him as a complex man ultimately fired not by political ambition but by religious zealotry. One thinks of Savonarola, the prim monk who mastered Florence and perished in flames, save for the essential detail: Rienzi’s loss “was bitterly regretted … for centuries afterwards, whenever that wretched and degenerate populace dreamed of glory or sighed for justice, they recalled the bright vision of their own victim, and deplored the fate of Cola di Rienzi.”
Statue of Rienzi in Rome. (cc) image from ZeroOne.
* And surely in keeping with the time-honored way for Roman chiefs to fall.
** We’ve encountered Bulwer-Lytton glancingly in these pages; his novel Zanoni climaxes with the beheading of its fictional title character in one of the last carts of the French Revolution’s Terror, and he wrote a novel (savaged by Thackeray) about executed intellectual Eugene Aram. The “biography” in question for this piece is actually a work of historical fiction, Rienzi, Last of the Roman Tribunes; the quoted sections are from Bulwer-Lytton’s (non-fiction) afterword.