Here, in the pile of rubble left where such a haughty villa once stood, was dramatic illustration of how profoundly Italy had slumped from her one-time greatness into impotence and poverty.
– Millennium, Tom Holland
This was ninth-century Italy, a few centuries removed from the greatness of Empire. But it wasn’t just impotence and poverty – if only it was merely these. Across vast swaths of Italian countryside, nothing of value remained – the bones picked almost clean, as Holland puts it. But Pope John VIII put it more directly at the time:
“Behold, the towns, castles, and estates perish – stripped of inhabitants.”
The Saracen slave trade was in full swing, operating on a “near-industrial scale.” Great flotillas of ships, tens-of-thousands of captives loaded for transports to the markets of Africa. The word Saracen had become synonymous with Muslim during these centuries, more specifically describing Muslim Arabs.
Something about Pope John VIII: much of his papacy was devoted to halting and reversing Muslim gains in southern Italy. Unable to gain assistance from the Franks or Byzantines, he strengthened the defenses of Rome.
He was also unable to generate meaningful support from Christians in southern Italy, these Christians having formed alliances with the Muslim invaders and slave traders. Things didn’t end well for John:
Article from LewRockwell