Being pope in the eighth and ninth centuries was no picnic. His Holiness was often at the mercy of grasping Roman aristocrats or murderous mobs, such as the rabble who in 799 tried to blind Leo II and tear out his tongue. The Lombard’s loomed as a constant threat from the north. And as far as the Byzantine emperor and the Frankish king were concerned, the Vicar of Christ was just another bishop of a vassal state to be controlled and manipulated. These were Dark Ages indeed.
Out of this chaotic era emerged a remarkable forged document, known as the Donation of Constantine, designed to prop up the papacy and bestow upon it unprecedented power and supremacy. It was supposedly written in the fourth century by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, as a solemn legal bequest to Pope Sylvester I and his successors. The Donation was divided into two parts. In the first part, entitled “Confessio,” Constantine, or rather the guy impersonating him on paper, recounted how he was instructed in the Christian faith by Pope Sylvester, and how he was miraculously cured of leprosy at his baptism (a legend widely believed when the forgery was produced sometime between 750 and 850). The “emperor” also made a full profession of faith in the “Confessio.”
The second part of the forgery, called “Donatio,” Constantine supposedly made the pope all-powerful, setting him above all other bishops and churches throughout the world and giving Sylvester “all the perogatives of our supreme imperial position and the glory of our authority.” That included the right to wear the imperial crown, “which we have transferred from our own head.” The pope turned down that particular honor, according to the Donation, but he did allow the emperor to hold the bridle of his horse and perform “the office of groom for him.” Finally, “to correspond to our own empire and so that the supreme pontifical authority may not be dishonored” by a temporal ruler in Rome. “Constantine” supposedly gave the pope and his successors not only that city, “but all the provinces, districts, and cities of Italy and the Western regions.” (In 330, Constantine had moved the imperial capital east from Rome to the city that bore his name, Constantinople, now Istanbul, thus giving the Donation a touch of historic credibility.)
Historians are uncertain who authored the fake document. Because of its obvious benefits to the papacy, many believe it originated in Rome. Others, however, think the Donation may have been produced by the Franks – an attempt to buttress the papacy, then under protection of King Pepin and his successor Charlemagne, against the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople and his claims to the papal states. Whatever the case, Constantine’s “donation” was for centuries believed to be genuine. And though the popes did not enjoy any immediate benefits from the forgery – they were still murdered, maimed, and deposed with alarming regularity – it did serve as part of the foundation upon which later medieval popes reigned with imperial power and grandeur.
The fraud was finally exposed in 1440 by Lorenzo Valla in his Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine. Valla showed with devastating precision just how preposterous the Donation really was, citing its historical anachronisms and other glaring errors. Valla also noted that the temporal claims derived from the document had made the popes not leaders of the faithful, but oppressors of Christians – “so far from giving food and bread to eh household of God . . . they devoured us as food . . . the Pope himself makes ware on peaceable people, and sows discord among states and princes.”
Valla’s lesson was apparently lost on Pope Clement VII, who less than a century later had Raphael decorate his staterooms with frescos glorifying the Donation of Constantine and the supremacy of Rome. During the same reign, the city was sacked by Emperor Charles V. And no wards put in a dead emperor’s mouth could save it.
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