Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Arnold of Brescia |
The revolutionary who ruled Rome

Arnold of Brescia is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 101, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Arnold of Brescia wanted the church to give up its properties and adopt poverty, but the advance of Barbarossa ended his rule; he was hanged, unrepentant, then burned

Arnold of Brescia - The revolutionary who ruled Rome

Arnold of Brescia - The revolutionary who ruled Rome
To Arnold of Brescia, briefly the ruler of Rome, the church didn’t need buildings and the clergy should live by begging. But when the pope placed Rome under an interdict, ending all church services, the Roman citizenry deposed Arnold and turned him over to Barbarossa’s army. He was first hanged, then burned. In this sketch Arnold’s body is cremated, and his remains are plucked from the fire for burial. The name of the artist has been lost.

His foes, who were numerous, describe him as fervently self-disciplined, intelligent, and biblically eloquent, yet fractious, vindictive, and malicious. But to Arnold of Brescia himself, he was pursuing an elemental truth. No longer, he charged, was the church the Body of Christ. Riddled with vice and focused on the secular rather than the spiritual, it had lost its way. The church must repent. In so doing, it must surrender its expansive lands, and the clergy must live in poverty as Christ’s apostles had.

Some of these ideas were far from new, having been voiced again and again in the previous seven centuries. The church had usually tolerated, even encouraged, some of them. Indeed, many Christians over the years had tried to implement them. What chiefly made Arnold’s version intolerable, however, was Arnold himself. To him, outright rebellion against established church authority not only was commendable, it was obligatory–even sacramental. Most alarming of all, in pursuit of these doctrines he managed at one point to take over the entire city of Rome and expel the pope.

Arnold was born around 1090 in Brescia, fifty miles east of Milan in the foothills of the Alps. According to one source, at twenty-five he briefly became a pupil of the controversial Peter Abelard (see sidebar, pages 188—189), some five years later was made a priest and an Augustinian monk, and eventually became an abbot. From this office he plotted against the local bishop, who, on returning one day to the city, found its gates locked against him.

Having thus incited the papacy’s ire, Arnold chose this moment to reassociate himself with Abelard. The timing was bad. Abelard was at that moment facing his showdown with the redoubtable Bernard of Clairvaux before a council that would condemn his teaching. Arnold was consequently deposed as abbot, banished to a French monastery, and forbidden to communicate with his teacher, Abelard.

At this he abandoned the monastic life, set up a school, and began to do some teaching on his own, volubly denouncing to a like-minded band of followers the worldly church and the tyrannical Bernard. The school survived about a year before King Louis VII closed it and banished Arnold from France. He fled to Switzerland, where he lived in relative peace until his ever-restless soul led him back into battle.

He headed for Rome, whose rebellious populace had set up a commune and driven Pope Eugene III into French exile. Here was a heaven-sent opportunity to put his ideas into action. Though excommunicated, he became a member of the newly constituted Roman Senate and later the central figure of the city’s rebellion.

Imperial politics, however, began to overtake the local situation. In one of the intermittent armistices between the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the papacy, Frederick agreed to restore the new pope, Adrian IV, to Rome. This meant suppressing the rebellion and getting rid of Arnold, who was by now working on a plan to abolish the whole empire.

Adrian placed Rome under an interdict, denying its citizens all services of the church. That finished Arnold. As the populace capitulated, he fled but was captured and brought before Frederick, who had him hanged and his body burned. He died with a prayer on his lips, refusing the final rites of the church.

This is the end of the Arnold of Brescia category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 101, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Arnold of Brescia from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at