Origins and Birth of the Republic of Amalfi
There are several legends regarding the origins of Amalfi. The most popular is that it was founded by a group of Roman families in the time of Emperor Constantine, trying to make their way to Constantinople. While navigating the Ionian Sea, they were surprised by a violent storm and forced to run aground on a shore near Ragusa in Dalmatia. They stayed for a brief period and then returned to the sea, travelling on to make land between Palinuro and Pisciotto. Here they would settle a coastal village, naming it after the river that flowed there, Melphes (today the town of Melfi).
However, they were frequently threatened by the incursions of the Vandals, and within a few years they were forced to flee further north. They remained in this area, continuing to explore, and settling a number of towns. One of these they called Amalphia (“A-Melphes”) in memory of the abandoned village of Melphes – hence today’s town of Amalfi.
Over the fifth century, many Romans from the cities of Campania took refuge in the Lattari Mountains, fleeing a series of Germanic barbarian invasions. Some in turn settled in the small fishing village of Amalfi, transforming it into a city. The first written documentation of the city comes from 533, during the war between the Goths and the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire. With the victory of the Byzantine General Narsete over Teia, the Ostrogothic King of Italy, the city came under the rule of the Byzantine emperor, who granted the governance of the area to the duke of Naples.
In 596, Amalfi was appointed its first bishop. The bishop’s seat brought considerable wealth and provided to the defence of the city, allowing Amalfi to grow into a city-state in its own right. With this a powerful aristocracy of landowners emerged, eventually taking political power from the bishop.
Because of its position, along the southern borders of the Byzantine Duchy of Naples, the city served as an important defensive outpost and refuge against the incursions of the Lombard Duchy of Benevento. Eventually though, in 836, aided by the betrayal of a few local families, Sicard the Duke of Benevento would conquer the city and deport the inhabitants to Salerno.
The Amalfitan people, however, would reorganise themselves to rise up only a few years later. Taking advantage of the internal divisions of the Lombard court that led to the assassination of Duke Sicard in 839, the people were able to successfully regain the city on September 1, 839. This newly autonomous republic would assert its power until the end of the 11th century.
At first, the Amalfi Republic was administered by two perfects elected annually. Eventually though, from 958, the republic would be ruled by dukes (doges) in a regime that became a ducal monarchy. Although formally the Byzantine emperors would approve the election of dukes, in reality the city was a free one, with its own laws, its own magistrates, and its own currency.
As an independent entity, the Amalfi State would grow in power and prestige, rivalling the other great powers of Pisa, Genoa, and Venice to follow. With a single main street winding upwards, and tiny alleyways that duck under and through its buildings, Amalfi may seem an unlikely rival to Venice. However, the state’s territory included more than just the tiny city of Amalfi. It was formed by a host of towns along the coast stretching from Catera to Positano and in the chain of Lattari Mountains, as well as the island of Capri and the small archipelago of Sirenuse. In short, the whole southern shore of the Sorrentine Peninsula, from Positano to the great monastery of the Santissima Trinità at La Cava, founded in 1025, was ‘Amalfi’.
Amalfi’s power was based on its powerful maritime presence, both military and commercial. From its earliest days, its military fleet had a series of great victories. Famously, in a naval battle off Ostia in 849, helped Pope Leo IV to defeat powerful Saracen navies and thereby prevent the sacking of Rome. For centuries, this event was regarded as the salvation of Rome; Christianity had been ‘defended’ from the Muslim Arabs.
However, there were times when the ruler of Amalfi found it beneficial to ally with the Saracens for defence and commercial interests. This alliance was unstable and fleeting though, ending after a violent battler in 1915, with the Saracens permanently banished from the Amalfitan territory.
Eventually, Amalfi merchants were able to wrestle away the trade monopoly in the Mediterranean from the Arabas. While the Republics of Pisa, Genoa, and Venice were still emerging, the Amalfitans became the first Italians to successfully establish extensive trade networks throughout the Mediterranean basin.
Amalfi’s trade passed through Italy, Arab North Africa, and the Byzantine Empire. In the first phase, Amalfi merchants traded timber, grain from its neighbours, salt from Sardinia, and slaves from the interior for gold dinars minted in Egypt and Syria. In the second phase, the merchants then used the gold to buy Byzantine silks, spices, precious stones, fabrics, and luxury goods. They resold these in the third phase, mostly in Italy, as far as Ravenna.
To aid the trade, the Amalfitans established mercantile colonies in Southern Italy, Northern Africa and the Middle East (in Turkey, Syria, and Egypt) in the 10th century. Their largest such colony, known as Bisanzio, was the first to be created in Constantinople, due to its strong economic ties with the Byzantine Empire. It had its own private harbour, churches, monasteries, and hospitals, all administered under the law of Amalfi.
Amalfi also left a lasting imprint further east, in the territory of the Fatimid Caliphate. This included the establishment of Christian outposts in Jerusalem, despite the city offering little commercial advantage. These outposts made it possible for the Benedictine monks to provide care for the pilgrims who in growing numbers set out from Europe – often by way of the ports of southern Italy – for the Holy Land.
An important contribution to the commercial success of Amalfi was its codification of maritime law, the Tabula de Amalpha (Amalfi tables), that was widely used by the Christian maritime nations of the time. These laws regulated the relations between shipmaster and shipmate, and between sailors and merchants. They remained in force throughout the Middle Ages.
The Merchants of Amalfi were also advanced in that they were using gold coins as early as the 9th century, while most of Italy still worked in a barter economy. Amalfi’s gold coins were created out of the melted-down profits of their trade in Africa. Resembling those of the Arabs, they reflected Amalfi’s closeness to mid-eastern cultures. The coins spread far, used through the Greek empire, Africa, and the Lombard kingdoms.
The Fall of Amalfi
With the inhabitants of Amalfi greatly enriched by its trade, it was not long before enemy powers contemplated conquering it. Eventually, in 1073, Amalfi would lose its independence, conquered by the Norman adventure Robert Guiscard, who took the title of “duke of the Amaliftans”. With this, Amalfi became one of the principal posts of the Normans, who were encamped in the south of Italy.
Amalfi successfully revolted in 1096, reverting to an independent republic, but this was put down in 1101. It revolted again in 1130 but was finally subdued and annexed by King Roger II of Sicily in 1131.
By this point, the balance of power in the Mediterranean was shifting to the Republics of Pisa and Genoa, both of which were eagerly expanding their territory. Pisan mercenaries, originally hired by the Amalfi to defend against Norman incursions, horrendously sacked the city in 1135. The city never recovered from this defeat and was subsequently completely taken over by the Pisans in 1137. From then on, the city rapidly declined in importance, soon replaced in its role as the main commercial hub of Campania by the Duchy of Naples.
Tour of the Amalfi Coast
On Odyssey Traveller’s small group tours of Southern Italy, you can experience the stunning views of the dazzling Amalfi coast landscape, where pastel villages tumble into azure blue seas. On a number of tours, we experience the awesomely stunning coastal scenery of the Amalfi Riviera, where beautiful villages such as Positano and Amalfi cling to the dramatic steep cliffs above the Gulf of Salerno. Amalfi Coast tour experiences include our:
Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.
Articles about Italy published by Odyssey Traveller
External articles to assist you on your visit to Italy