Monte Cassino is a rocky hill about 130 km (80 miles) southeast of Rome, Italy, c. 2 km to the west of the town of Cassino (the Roman Casinum having been on the hill) and 520 m (1,706.04 ft) altitude. St. Benedict of Nursia established his first monastery, the source of the Benedictine Order, here around 529. It was the site of Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. The site has been visited many times by the Popes and other senior clergy, including a visit by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2009. The monastery is one of the few remaining territorial abbeys within the Catholic Church.
According to Gregory the Great's biography of Benedict, Life of Saint Benedict of Nursia, the monastery was constructed on an older pagan site, a temple of Apollo that crowned the hill. The biography records that the area was still largely pagan at the time and Benedict's first act was to smash the sculpture of Apollo and destroy the altar. He then reused the temple, dedicating it to Saint Martin, and built another chapel on the site of the altar dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. Archaeologist Neil Christie notes that it was common in such hagiographies for the protagonist to encounter areas of strong paganism. Once established at Monte Cassino, Benedict never left. There he wrote the Benedictine Rule that became the founding principle for western monasticism. There at Monte Cassino he received a visit from Totila, king of the Ostrogoths, perhaps in 543 (the only remotely secure historical date for Benedict), and there he died.
Monte Cassino became a model for future developments. Unfortunately its protected site has always made it an object of strategic importance. It was sacked or destroyed a number of times. In 584, during the abbacy of Bonitus, the Lombards sacked the Abbey, and the surviving monks fled to Rome, where they remained for more than a century. During this time the body of St Benedict was transferred to Fleury, the modern Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire near Orleans, France. A flourishing period of Monte Cassino followed its re-establishment in 718 by Abbot Petronax, when among the monks were Carloman, son of Charles Martel; Ratchis, predecessor of the great Lombard Duke and King Aistulf; and Paul the Deacon, the historian of the Lombards. In 744, a donation of Gisulf II of Benevento created the Terra Sancti Benedicti, the secular lands of the abbacy, which were subject to the abbot and nobody else save the pope. Thus, the monastery became the capital of a state comprising a compact and strategic region between the Lombard principality of Benevento and the Byzantine city-states of the coast (Naples, Gaeta, and Amalfi). In 883 Saracens sacked and then burned it down, and Abbot Bertharius was killed during the attack. Among the great historians who worked at the monastery, in this period there is Erchempert, whose Historia Langobardorum Beneventanorum is a fundamental chronicle of the ninth-century Mezzogiorno.
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