Boncompagno da Signa (1168?-1240?) was an important Italian scholar who wrote several treatises and other works as he moved around between cities such as Ancona, Bologna and Venice. His account of the siege of Ancona, which he wrote around 1201, is his only work of history. Although he was not present at the siege, he questioned eyewitnesses and presents information not found in other sources. He clearly takes the side of the Anconitians in this conflict, to the point where some observers have found this text to be more a panegyric than a true historical account.
The siege of Ancona takes place within the larger struggle for the control of Italy, which put Pope Alexander III, and his allies the Byzantine empire, under the rule of Manuel Komnenos, against the Holy Roman Empire and its emperor Frederick Barbarossa. In 1171, Frederick’s chancellor, archbishop Christian of Mainz, was given the command of an army to conquer Italian cities which supported Alexander, including the city of Ancona, which had previously allied itself with the Byzantine empire. The Germans were assisted by the Venetians, who had been long rivals with Ancona over the domination of Adriatic, and other Italian towns who had their own reasons to fight Ancona. The siege probably started in March of 1173, not May as Boncompagno suggests, and ended in October of the same year when armies under William of Marchisella from Ferrara and Aldruda Frangipane, countess of Bertinoro arrived to help Ancona and forced Christian of Mainz to retreat. The section below details the first events of this siege.
CHAPTER III: Beginning of the account of the siege by the Chancellor
When Frederick, who later lost his life in the River Saliph not far from Antioch, was emperor of the Romans, a Chancellor called Christian (but only in name), who was also the archbishop occupying the throne of Mainz, entered Italy with the army of the emperor, laying waste many castles, towns and villages in several regions; for he lived, like a kite, from plunder, and, like a crow, on carrion, as he sought after the property of anyone that he could find. When, however, he saw that the Anconitans were closely attached to the Greek empire, and that he could not have complete dominion in the March, if he could not break the strength of the city of Ancona, he arranged with the Venetians, who had always hated Ancona with a certain special hatred, that, at the end of the month of May (sic), when food is beginning to be scarce, they should enter the port of the Anconitans with ships and galleys, laying a siege manfully to the city on the seaward side, and that he himself should also come with the imperial army and with the surrounding cities to the same destination, promising them to destroy the city and to share the goods of the citizens among them. The Venetians also came to this destination, and entering the port with a strong force they placed ships and galleys for a siege in such a way that no one from the city dared to go to sea, since the Anconitans were not able to oppose them, on account of their great numbers. For the realm of Venice is said to be based on water, and so the doge of that city wears a golden circlet on his head, and because of the majesty of the waters he seems to possess the insignia of a king.
In fact, they placed a ship which had once belonged to Romano Mairano in the middle of the harbour. On account of its size it was hyperbolically called the Whole World by many, since, as it was reported, nowhere had a greater one ever been seen. For it was almost a castle, under the shadow and defence of which all the ships and the galleys seemed to be placed. In this ship indeed they also positioned siege engines and catapults and various different types of war engine, with which the maximum damage was inflicted upon the city from that direction each day. The Chancellor on the other hand positioned his army close to the city, destroying everywhere trees, vines, olive groves and everything which was likely to be useful to the citizens. The men of Osimo came to the siege, who always plot against the heel of the Anconitans, together with many men of the March; and in this way the limbs tried to cut off the head. For it often happens that many are eager to do what leads them afterwards into destruction and servitude, as the Lombards did, who destroyed Milan once out of envy, and as a result were held in the chains of slavery before its rebuilding. My belief leads me to conclude that I do not think that Italy could become tributary to anyone, unless this were to proceed from the ill-will and malice of the Italians; for it is contained in the laws that `Italy is not a province, but the mistress of the provinces.’ What more? Everyone, from the border of Apulia to Rimini, came to the siege. There were many Tuscans there, and men of Spoleto, men of the Romagna, and others, of whom it is difficult to make mention.
A time of shortage had preceded this, and so there was little food in the city; but the citizens hoped to gather in the harvest soon and buy from others, since cities which are situated on harbours are scarcely able to have enough grain and supplies of foodstuffs from their own labour, when most of those who dwell in them are sailors and merchants. Also many Anconitans were absent, who, for the sake of business, were in Alexandria, and in the city of Constantinople, and in Romania. The struggle took place continually, at sea as much as on land”, nor could the citizens rest even for an hour, since their besiegers were very numerous, and they came to battle in successive waves; but the warriors inside the city were obliged to wage war continually, nor could they have succour from another source. But however weary they were, they resisted each fresh attack so successfully that the attackers always brought back to their camp a sad cry of `alas!’
At the time of the beginning of the siege, the Anconitans gathered an army, which the Chancellor defeated in a battle on the plain, in which very many were captured and killed, and because of this they believed that they were losing their city. After the loss of this battle, they had sufficient food for no more than eight days, and hunger began to grow to such a degree that not enough bread could be found, for a bezant, to suffice for a single person to eat. A denarius was given for five single beans, and a fistful of spelt or barley could not be had for twelve. Eggs were sought, to serve as plasters for wounds, but at that time not a dozen could be found in the entire city. But previously, it is said, nine denarii were given for one egg, and twenty solidi were given for a small her. And at that time chickens, and the flesh of pigs and cattle, were so scarce that none could be found in the city for sale. The pestilence of famine began to appear there, because it is correctly said to be a famine at a time when a price is offered, and no one who has anything for sale can be found.
The Chancellor learned of these things from certain people; so he assembled his army and ordered battle to be joined, declaring that the citizens were so exhausted because of the famine that they could scarcely bear arms. He therefore ordered war trumpets to be sounded, drums to be struck and the army to be arrayed in battle formation; and in this way he approached the walls of the city with all his men, shouting loudly. The citizens, seeing this, and ringing their bells, left the city with a great clamour, and bravely began joining battle with them, and though they were famished and oppressed by starvation, they fought as bravely as if they were refreshed with the most delicate foods. In the battle all of them were so confused that they were unable to distinguish themselves from the enemy, and they could hardly see one another on account of the volume of dust that darkened the air. The ears of all, moreover, on account of the clangour of war-trumpets, the neighing of horses, and the voices of the fighting men, were so dulled, that no one could understand clearly what was being said.
But while the battle was continuing without a break in this way, a part of the Chancellor’s army approached the Venetians, and boarded their galleys together with them, and the Venetians approached close enough to enter the houses of some of the citizens. But when the Anconitan councillors heard this, they sent to the seaward side only those who had houses very close to the harbour. And on that day God granted victory to the Anconitans, because those who went to the seaward side put the Venetians to flight and they recovered the galleys, which they had earlier lost, most successfully; and the rest of them drove back the army of the Chancellor as far as its siege engines; and then someone threw a small cask full of resin and pitch in front of a heap of timber; but no one dared to bring fire, because the place was in the midst of the combatants. At this moment, however, there came forward a widow by the name of Stamira, who held an axe with both hands, and she split the cask, and then she ran and lit a torch and held it among the timber beams, in full view of everyone until the fire could exercise its own force. And so the siege engines and catapults were burnt, through the bravery of this female warrior, whom the cruelty of battle and the fury of men fighting could not frighten. Very many on both sides were killed and wounded there, but the besiegers gained nothing, only loss and dishonour. But that battle benefited the Anconitans greatly, because they carried back many corpses of the horses which had been killed, into the city, and did not even throw away the intestines. With the battle over, the Chancellor stood with his army a little further off than before, nor did he permit battle to be joined, believing that he could conquer the city through its famine and lack of means.
CHAPTER IV: Commendation of a certain priest
In addition, the following memorable deed must not be passed over in silence: a priest named John, a canonical of Ancona, while he sat one day near the sea, began thinking in his heart, whether he could do something for the honour of the city, and the inconvenience of the enemy; for he was a man of courage, brave and audacious. So he went to the harbour and took off his tunic, remaining only in his hose. Then both the citizens and the Venetians began to marvel at him, because it was not the time for swimming, especially since there was a strong wind in the harbour. However, he swiftly entered the sea, swimming along with a two-edged axe in his hand; and began to sever the great cable, which was tied at one end to the prow of the ship belonging to Romano Mairano, and at the other to the anchor, which the sailors had let down into the harbour.
The men who were on the ship, seeing what the Presbyter was doing, began firing at him with their bows and crossbows; and others shouted at him, hurling great rocks. He, however, in the manner of a merganser, which, with folded wings makes for the depths of the sea, would swiftly submerge himself in the water, then reappear like a dolphin afterwards, and thus severed the cable with successive blows, so that the individual strands failed, and placed all the sailors in danger of death, because the wind was so strong that it was harming a great number on the land. The priest then returned to the city by swimming, and he mocked them greatly. The ship yawed around in the harbour, until the wind died down; and had not the harbour been so safe, it would certainly have perished The sailors, nevertheless, on account of their fear, threw many useful items into the sea. And the Anconitans, seeing the courage of the priest, and the tempestuous raging of the waves, joined battle with the Venetians, bravely driving seven galleys away from the more secure part of the harbour, which the ferocity of the winds drove onto the shore, where they were at once shattered; and so the Venetians sustained no small harm to their persons and property.
This selection is from Boncompagno da Signa, The History of the Siege of Ancona, ed. and trans. by Andrew F. Stone; Archivio del Litorale Adriatico VI (Filippi Editore, 2002). We thank Andrew F. Stone for his permission to republish this section. Those interested in purchasing the entire book can contact Professor John Melville Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org