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Leo IV (847-855)

Early Life

Pope Leo IV was the son of a man named Radowald (Radwald), a Roman who was of Lombard descent. He is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History around 847 AD. The young boy was educated at the monastery of Blessed Martin in Rome where he grew up and became a devout follower of Christ. Pope Gregory IV later had him transferred to the Lateran Palace and ordained him as cardinal-priest of the Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati on the Caelian Hill. He later had the same church renovated when he became pope and had the relics of the saints buried in the catacombs to be dug up and deposited inside the basilica.

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The sudden death of Sergius II on January 24, 847 left the pope’s throne vacant. The Cardinals hastily elected Leo as pope for fear that no one would lead them during a critical time when Saracen pirates attacked Rome. He became Pope Leo IV, and it was said that he accepted the election with a heavy heart. The Romans met the announcement of his election with jubilation. This annoyed the Frankish emperor Lothair as he was not consulted during the process. Leo VI was consecrated on April 10, 847 AD even without a letter of approval from Lothair nor his son, Louis II.

As Pope

The most important challenge Leo IV faced as a pope was the constant attack of the Saracen pirates. In 848 AD, he decided to counter this with an order to repair the city walls, watchtowers, and gates—a task which he personally supervised by going around on horseback or on foot. As an added precaution, he ordered for two watchtowers to be built on each bank of the Tiber river beside the Gate of Portus so each side could throw a chain to block incoming Saracen ships.

The Frankish king Lothair supported the construction of the fortifications, and he even sent some money to cover the cost of the repairs. Lothair himself suggested the fortification of Rome’s walls to the pope and he also sent additional soldiers to Italy to help defend the people against the Saracen pirates. Pope Leo IV ordered everyone—from the townspeople to the monastery workers—to help in building the fortifications of the city. The various inscriptions on the city’s walls showed that each section was built by different people in the Roman society.

The enclosed portion (which included the Vatican) was called Leonine City after it was finished in 852 AD. It was then blessed by the Pope, and the people celebrated its completion with a procession. It was just as well that they fortified the city walls as even before it was finished, the Saracens had stepped up their attacks in 849 AD. Luckily, the fleet of Amalfi, Naples, and Gaeta arrived in Rome just as the Saracens were preparing to attack the city. The arrival of the combined fleet at the harbor first made the Romans worried, but the commanders explained to Pope Leo IV that they were there to help the people defend the city. The Romans breathed a collective sigh of relief at the timely arrival of the allied fleet as the Saracens sailed into Rome the following night.

“The Battle of Ostia in an 1829 engraving.”

The Romans and their allies successfully defended the city and defeated the Saracens at the Battle of Ostia. A strong wind had separated the Saracen fleet while some of their ships were dashed on the shore; many of the Saracen sailors drowned, and some survivors were executed on the spot or were imprisoned. Others were hanged while some survivors were conscripted to work on the fortifications. The Battle of Ostia was an epic victory for Leo IV and Rome’s allies that it was immortalized later on by the Renaissance artist Raphael as a painting in the Apostolic Palace inside the Vatican.

Pope Leo IV also ordered that the mouth of the Tiber river be fitted with new gates and had the walls near it fortified. The Corsican refugees who were driven out of their homes when the Saracens attacked their island volunteered to serve the pope in exchange for protection. To this end, he gave them land to settle on, as well as cattle and vineyards for their loyalty. Moreover, he ordered the fortification of the Tuscan cities of Horta and Armeria and rebuilt the Centumcellae, the harbor city originally commissioned by Emperor Trajan. All these were done while he had St. Peter’s Basilica and the Lateran Palace restored and redecorated.

The New Kingmaker

In 850, Leo anointed Louis II of Italy (Lothair’s son) and crowned him as emperor. This ceremony was followed by a mass wherein Leo proclaimed Louis II as king of the Franks. The official title the new king preferred was Emperor of the Romans and not the Holy Roman Emperor. Louis departed from Rome after his proclamation. Both men remained on good terms with each for the rest of their reign. One of the most significant changes that occurred between these long-time allies was that the Frankish rulers now had a say in many church issues, such as the consecration of bishops in any town that was under the rule of the emperor.

The king of Wessex traveled to Rome in 853 AD on a pilgrimage with his young son, Alfred, in tow. It was said that Pope Leo IV anointed Alfred as King of Wessex while they stayed in Rome. This was later refuted as the young prince had three elder brothers and a letter from Leo showed that the boy was only anointed as consul. The prince later became the legendary King Alfred the Great who defended Wessex from the Vikings.

Relationship with Constantinople

The church in Rome and in Constantinople continued to drift apart after Pope Leo IV refused to accept a pallium (narrow circular band of cloth worn around the shoulders and usually conferred by a pope to an archbishop) sent by Patriarch Ignatius upon his accession in 846. The supposed sign of goodwill stung Pope Leo IV and worsened the already strained relationship between the two.


Pope Leo IV died in 855 AD, but not before his last days were marred by the accusations that the pope conspired with the Greeks to overthrow the Frankish king Louis II. The charges were hurled against Leo by the magister militum called Daniel, but he was unable to prove them in front of the emperor. Leo was buried in the papal tombs of St. Peter’s Basilica on July 17, 855 AD.

Public Domain,
Gibbon, Edward, and D. M. Low. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960.
Mann, Horace K. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages, Vol. 2. Vol. II. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1906.
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