The Life and Rule of Cola di Rienzo

Written by on July 22nd, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Medieval, about Italian

|||Ghisalberti, Alberto Maria. The life of Cola di Rienzo. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1975.|||

Cola di Rienzo Then the lords wished to conspire against the Tribune and the Good Estate, but they could not reach an agreement; the thing remained undone. When Cola di Rienzo heard that the plot of the barons had failed because of their discord, he summoned them and sent them the edict. Meanwhile the Tribune preserved justice severely, without mercy; he even beheaded a monk of Sant’Anastasio, an infamous person. In short, one by one, peacefully, unarmed, every man came and swore to the Good Estate. Soon everyone began to approve of these things, and armed conflict began to cease. Life of Cola Di Rienzo, 1:8. p. 44 ff.

The Life of Cola Di Rienzo was written by an anonymous Roman around the year 1350 and documents the rise and fall of a certain Cola who is living in Rome during the early years of the Renaissance. The account is full of praise for Cola, and just like Suetonius’ praise for certain “good” emperors, the chronicler is not shy about his admiration for him. More than once, the anonymous Roman notes the “brilliance” of Cola’s speeches, the meaning of dreams Cola has and the chronicler’s Aristotelian interpretation of those dreams, as well as other more subtle references to prophetic paintings and ancient stories meant to show Cola’s divine mission for Rome’s future.

Cola as a statesman has an insatiable love for republican Rome. We learn from the account how the squalor, moral decadence, violence, and debauchery of the people and clergy had turned medieval Rome into an uninhabitable abomination. Cola is motivated by ancient inscriptions written on monuments about the glory that was old Rome. He sets out early to model his actions on ancient Roman virtues. The ideals of patriotism, nationality, military might, and splendor, along with an attachment to the fact that Rome’s mission in the world was not yet over, directed all of his actions. By gathering plebians, merchants and other “good men” Cola could appeal to those men of the “middle class” because the barons weren’t going to support him, at least not long term, and the lowest class was so taken in, it appears just from the account, by the depredation of Rome that they would not have been much use to him. Nobles and plebs could have a long term interest in the good estate and be much support to Cola.

Broadly speaking, Cola was a megalomaniacal tyrant, whose initial intentions were probably very noble, but who, nonetheless, became a domineering leader for the sake of peace. His strength was his love for nostalgic Rome but his downfall was a great love for himself. As I noted above, he tried the impossible solution of imposing an inorganic idea on an organic society, and hence failed in the long term. There is no doubt that he loved the army and did love Rome, and he went to great pains to help them, but as time went on, and taxes on items such as salt and wine became more “necessary,” he found himself in the situation of being unable to maintain the front of leadership. His unjust removal of Liccardo from office, however, and the subsequent nomination of new men to the captain’s post was too much for the people to take. The people revolted at this action, and in their revolt took the life of Cola.

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

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