Season Three, Episode Two: The Donation
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Pope Stephen II, unlike all of the other members of his entourage, was at peace with the slow pace of their progress through the Alps in the winter. Sure, the conditions were cold and the provisions were meager, but ever since he had been able to wrest himself away from the domineering and overly-confident Lombard king, Aistulf, Stephen had needed time to consider his next move. He was acting in defiance of Constantinople and was in danger of losing all of the Church’s territory in Italy, to include Rome, to the Lombards. He needed to consider how best to conduct his next meeting, his first face-to-face encounter with the new Frankish king, the man his predecessor, Pope Zacharias, had agreed to let take the crown despite it already being placed firmly and unequivocally on another’s head. Just as Zacharias had done what needed to be done in order to survive, now Stephen found himself needing to do the same. But he wasn’t headed north empty-handed; no, he had a secret weapon. He just needed to figure out exactly how to deploy it.
Looking back, Stephen II had done all of the “right” things so far in his Papacy, and they didn’t seem to be getting him anywhere. When he tried to act as a subject of Constantinople - because, for all intents and purposes, that’s what he was - Stephen was given little tangible support and plenty of useless advice from the Emperor. He could understand why this was so to an extent: the Empire was a huge landmass, and the Lombards were far from the only problem for Emperor Constantine V to have to contend with. More locally for Constantine, Umayyad forces were a persistent existential threat. They had placed Constantinople under siege in 718, and while the capital had ultimately overcome the Muslim forces and dealt them a significant counter strike even, that didn’t mean they had been neutralized. Caliphate forces could return at any time, and the same could also be said for the Bulgars. That latter group had been going toe-to-toe with the Eastern Romans since the 7th century, with neither side fully winning or fully losing. With two existential threats constantly harassing Constantinople, and various holdings to administer over tremendously long distances, it became obvious to Stephen that he wasn’t going to get help from the East, even if the Emperor had wanted to.
And the Emperor didn’t really want to. The last Emperor, Leo III, and the current one, Constantine V, had been heavy into the idea of iconoclasm, of removing venerated objects from churches. Iconoclasm had never sat well with the Christians in the West, leading to surprisingly bitter battles between the Pope and the Emperor. Bitter and awkward: The Papacy was growing stronger and more assertive, claiming their position as the highest servant of God on Earth, but they were still technically subjects of the Emperor. So to whom did they owe a higher allegiance: God or Constantinople? Well, with Constantinople unable to muster forces to either compel the Popes into compliance or to protect Rome from its enemies - or to even protect its own holdings, given that Ravenna had fallen to the Lombards in 751 - the answer was becoming more and more clear by the day. But, as with so many break-ups, plans needed to be put in place before Pope Stephen II could sever his ties. Luckily for him, he had his brother Paul on hand with whom to collude.
Paul was shrewd, and constantly on hand with one scheme or another to help his brother out. In recent years he had been among the first to not only realize the dwindling power of the East, but to do something about it. Paul reinvigorated the Cult of Sylvester, a group dedicated to the aggrandizement of the mid-4th century Pope credited with the conversion of that greatest Roman Emperor: Constantine. And he had been doing marvelous research along those same lines, because just before Stephen left for the north, Paul presented him with an amazing new discovery, the 400-year-old original writings confirming the great Emperor’s donation to Sylvester and the Church: The Donation of Constantine! The text of the Donation was nearly unbelievable: In it, Constantine was said to have contracted leprosy, but was miraculously cured by Sylvester. In exchange for this miracle, when leaving for his new, eponymous capital, the Emperor left the pope control of the imperial palace in Rome and all of the regions of the Western Roman Empire. Not just temporarily, but for all time. The Donation meant that the Pope was not a subject of the Eastern Romans, but a sovereign in his own right and with the ability to name his own Emperor in the West. The fact that Paul had come into possession of this document just as Stephen was preparing to head to Francia was nothing short of a miracle.
So now, as Stephen rode on in the snow and the cold, he placed his hand on the bag holding these precious sheets of paper and felt their reassuring bulk under his hand. Unlike Zacharias, who capitulated to the idea of allowing the Frankish usurper to overthrow his divinely appointed king in exchange for protection from the Lombards - protection that had yet to come - Stephen was headed over the pass with a document that had the power to confirm the Papacy’s choice of a secular leader, to solidify Pépin’s hold on the crown, and to raise that king to unimaginable new levels.
Stephen’s job now, with the Donation in hand, was not merely to survive, but to create a new power in the West, a power capable of standing up to all of the Church’s enemies. The Donation would place the Pope in the position of selecting this ruler and imbuing him with authority that no other leader had held since the time the Roman Emperors had still lived in Rome. Stephen’s job was to make sure that in making this new ruler he extracted every bit of power and reform that he could for the Papacy, to make sure that he and his self-selected Emperor would - together - rule the West. And with the Donation in hand, there wouldn’t be a power on Earth who could stop them.
Stephen II had left Rome a beggar, but he was going to return a ruler.
This is Thugs and Miracles.
Season 3, Episode 2: The Donation
Alright, welcome back! As always, I’m Benjamin Bernier, and this week we’re going to look at what may have been the greatest forgery in the history of the world... or at least, one of the most impactful. You see, the Donation of Constantine, for all of its discussion of curing the Emperor of leprosy and how he was just so grateful for this miracle that he left the entirety of the Western Empire to the Papacy, wouldn’t have been worth the vellum it was written on if it hadn’t been for one thing: People believed it, and they believed it because the Papacy backed it. According to Devis Valenti:
“Around the mid-eighth century, especially during the pontificate of Stephen II (752-757) and Paul I (757-767) was notably promoted the cult of St Sylvester, responsible, according to the hagiographic tradition handed down by the Actus Sylvestri, for the conversion of Emperor Constantine. The story was used by the popes eminently for two purposes: as support for the struggle against eastern iconoclasm and, especially, as an instrument of legitimation of the temporal power of the Church of Rome.”
We know now that, while the popes liked the use of the document as a way to legitimize their standing, the whole thing was bogus. Without turning this entire episode into a medieval conspiracy show, suffice it to say that the Donation was debunked in 1440 by a guy named Lorenzo Valla, who essentially outed the document by showing that the Latin used in the document was not 4th century vernacular. People resisted this finding for a little while - mainly those who had a lot to lose as a result of the discovery - but it was finally accepted as fact by most everyone, to include the Catholic Church itself. Of course, don’t forget that Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire fell to Mehmed II and the Ottomans in 1453, a fact that may have made it easier for the Church to give in about the forgery considering that too much time had gone by and the main group aggrieved by the Donation - the Eastern Romans - no longer existed. They could give an Erkel-like “Did I do that?” and shrug their shoulders, blame bad acts committed centuries earlier, and then tell everyone that it was really probably better to just look forward and not dwell. But all of that is still 700 years in the future; in 754, people weren’t looking at the document for how well it held to the language conventions of the 4th century. They were looking at how the document could serve them here and now, and they were willing to accept the Donation on “faith.”
Now, for the Pope, it was relatively clear why Stephen II would accept the Donation without too many questions. A document that provided the Papacy with worldwide spiritual power and Western Empire-wide temporal power was the answer to everything plaguing the Pope at that moment. Now, I have no evidence to prove that Stephen II was the author of the Donation of Constantine, nor can I prove that he commissioned it (and, in all fairness, no one has been able to pinpoint where or when the document originated), but I will say that it’s pretty ironic that Stephen II and his brother, the future Pope Paul I, were advocating the Cult of Sylvester at roughly the same time a document claiming the transmission of an entire Empire from the sitting Emperor to Sylvester came into existence... maybe it’s just me, but it all seems just a little too perfect. Seriously, listen to how specific the Donation gets; this is from the text of the document as translated in 1910:
“In imitation of our own [Emperor Constantine’s] power, in order that for that cause the supreme pontificate may not deteriorate, but may rather be adorned with power and glory even more than is the dignity of an earthly rule: behold we - giving over to the oft-mentioned most blessed pontiff, our father Sylvester the universal pope, as well our palace, as has been said, as also the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts and cities of Italy or of the western regions; and relinquishing them, by our inviolable gift, to the power and sway of himself or the pontiffs his successors - do decree, by this our godlike charter and imperial constitution, that it shall be (so) arranged; and do concede that they... shall lawfully remain with the holy Roman church.
“Wherefore we have perceived it to be fitting that our empire and the power of our kingdom should be transferred and changed to the regions of the East... for, where the supremacy of priests and the head of the Christian religion has been established by a heavenly ruler, it is not just that there an earthly ruler should have jurisdiction.
“We decree, moreover, that all these things which, through this our imperial charter and through other godlike commands, we have established and confirmed, shall remain uninjured and unshaken until the end of the world.”
Again, that’s pretty perfect, right? Not only does the Emperor give up the West, he also gives it in perpetuity to the Papacy and chooses to leave Rome because “it is not just that there an earthly ruler should have jurisdiction.” If this were truly the case, then the Popes were not really subjects of the Eastern Roman Emperor. And that meant they didn’t have to listen to his rulings or put up with his iconoclasm because, per the Donation, he had no legal standing in Italy. That also meant that the Pope could make anyone he wanted, anyone in the whole world, a patricius of Rome, a de facto guardian of the faith. And that brings us to Pépin.
Now, Pépin had been in contact with Pope Zacharias well before Stephen II came calling in 754. In fact, the Popes had been asking for Frankish help with the Lombards as far back as at least 739, when Pope Gregory III sent a letter to Charles Martel with an urgent request. Well, urgent or not, The Hammer didn’t intercede in Italian affairs. Now Pépin was a little more inclined to do so, but he still needed some pretty big concessions to take that sort of risk, hence the Papal blessing in 751 for him to overthrow the Merovingian Dynasty. Even then, however, as we talked about at length last episode, Pépin still didn’t come southeast over the Alps, thus leading Stephen II, the latest Pope, on his fateful trip northwest over the mountains. He was going to get Pépin to intercede against the Lombards, or die trying. Which, he actually almost did; according to Russell Chamberlin:
“In the chapel of the royal villa later that same day, 6 January. It was Epiphany, one of the Church's great feast-days, and Pippin must of have been astonished to find Pope Stephen dressed in sackcloth and with his head liberally garnished with ashes. Throwing himself to the ground, Stephen babbled tearfully of the nefandissimi Langobardi, the 'most evil Lombards', the 'stinking Lombards', the Lombards who were the spawn of the devil and who had occupied the territories of the Holy Church in Italy... ‘The blessed Pope with tears besought the most Christian King that by treaties of peace he would arrange the cause of St. Peter and the republic of the Romans.'”
Now fortunately for Pépin, he was able to stall for time because, as I said a moment ago, the Pope was about to fall ill. How much of this was truly illness and how much of this was Stephen playing for time is debatable in our opinion, but it worked at the moment to take Pépin off of the hot seat and to give the Pope more time to craft a deal to his liking. Continuing from Chamberlin:
“Happily for Pippin, the privations of the journey and [Stephen’s] own anxieties, together with the rigours of a northern winter, wholly incapacitated the elderly pope. Pippin placed him under the care of Charles's old tutor, Fulrad, and throughout the winter and early spring Stephen was an invalid, at one point his very life being despaired of. During the slow weeks of his convalescence the papal and royal parties hammered out a bargain which would affect the history of Europe until the nineteenth century.”
Again, it’s all just so... convenient. Miraculously so, one may say. Seriously, Stephen II is beginning to make me think that he may be one of the great performance artists of all time: he was a writer and an actor, a politician and a man of God, a damsel in distress yet at the same time a man wanting to lay claim to an Empire. At a minimum, you have to kind of admire his range. But he was only the head of the group that had made the winter passage over the mountains; we’re told “he was accompanied by no less than two bishops, four presbyters, an archdeacon, two deacons as well as high officials of the Lateran court.” While Stephen lay ill, this group of Church leaders worked side-by-side with Pépin and his officials to craft an agreement that, once and for all, appealed to the Frankish king and truly brought him into the fray against the “stinking Lombards.” Stephen II miraculously returned to health by the spring, and as we discussed last week, he and Pépin rode back into Italy.
So what, in total, did Pépin get for his side of the bargain? First and foremost would be the second coronation and the Papal anointment in St. Denis; there could be no stronger proof of this new alliance between the Pope and the King than this. Next on the list would have been the dual coronation of Pépin’s children and wife, thereby ensuring his succession was set in place and sanctioned by God; this act would have effectively ensured that no “Merovingian” found in a monastery years down the line could appear at the head of an army and attempt to reclaim the crown by birthright. It also gave legitimacy to Pépin’s rule, insofar as there were still those in his Kingdom who grumbled about the 751 coup and its overall legality.
Next on the list, we’re actually going to redact something that was said last week. When speaking about the title of patricius, I had said that it was essentially little more than an honorific akin to a modern-day mayor giving someone the “keys to the city.” Well, it still was an honorific, but the title carried more prestige than we had given it credit for. Going back to Chamberlin one last time this week:
“This was no idle honour and empty title. Over the centuries most of the great offices of the empire had become shadowy or wholly forgotten, consigned into the lumber of history: quaestors and aediles, consuls, senators and the rest either subsumed into the nascent papacy or turned into archaicisms. But he who held the office of Patrician was not only a citizen of the actual city of Rome, as opposed to a citizen of the empire, but head of Rome's nobility — in effect, the secular lord of the ancient city... In accepting the title for himself and his sons - which he promptly did - Pippin had advanced from the status of a palace official to that of king and then to that of Roman aristocrat in just four years.”
That’s a pretty good progression! With all of that done, there was still one more thing for Pépin to do, one last item which, when it would be announced after the battles against the Lombards, would take the Frankish king one more step in his career progression. It would have him walking in the footsteps of giants, and it would place him in direct competition with the other main Christian power in Europe at that time: the Emperor in Constantinople. And this thing was almost certainly agreed upon at these meetings in 754, even though the final subduing of the Lombards at this time wouldn’t occur until 756. According to historian Richard Winston:
“This time, therefore, Pepin made sure that the Lombards formally surrendered Ravenna and the other cities they had taken. He then disposed of these cities by deeding them to the pope and his successors forever. Representatives of the Roman emperor protested that the cities were not his to give, since they belonged to the Exarchate; but Pepin ignored these objections... In any case, there was nothing the emperor could do about it; he continued to maintain friendly diplomatic relations with Pepin. This deed, the famous Donation of Pepin, created the States of the Church which made the papacy a powerful temporal force in European affairs for over a thousand years and which kept Italy divided until 1870.”
So... there is a bit to unpack here! First off, Pepin’s gift to the Church was no doubt inspired by the Donation of Constantine. As a general rule, Frankish rulers up until this time tended to consider Constantine to be the paragon of the Roman emperors. Clovis had built his Church of the Holy Apostles in the early 6th century to emulate Constantine’s church of the same name built in the 4th century in Constantinople, and much had been made of the similarity of the stories surrounding the conversions of both of those men. Now it was Pépin’s turn to have a Constantine moment, choosing to imitate the Roman’s Donation rather than constructing a church. Pépin also stepped up to a new league of competition when he told the Eastern Roman representatives, in no uncertain terms, that he would not be returning their lands and cities. This had to have been perceived as a slight, but the Byzantines hadn’t even been able to fend off the Lombards in Italy; they certainly weren’t going to overpower the Franks, at least not at that moment. By making such a bold move and yet forcing Constantinople to maintain friendly diplomatic relations, Pépin was establishing himself as a true power player at the highest levels. On the career progression scale that we mentioned earlier, Pépin was now emulating a great emperor and telling the current one to shut up and color. He was never officially crowned Emperor himself, but Pépin’s actions certainly have a very Emperor-like - or perhaps, emperor-in-training - type of feel about them.
CONCLUSION: Alright, with everything we’ve talked about, I want to finish today’s episode with just a small bit of real-talk, because for all of the pragmatic reasons that both Pépin and Pope Stephen II took part in the shenanigans that we just got done talking about, we have to remember: They perpetuated one of the biggest lies in history for their own benefit! Pretty much every source I’ve come across, whether they agree on the exact timeline of events or not, will say something about the False Donation of Constantine that goes something like:
“The Donation of Constantine is the largest and most powerful forgery in world history.”
What’s crazy to me is that most historians such as Johannes Fried, who supplied that snippet I just read, are pretty good about hedging their bets, language-wise. In the research, most topics I’ve come across will include words like “maybe,” “perhaps,” or “likely.” But in the current case, historians seem content to pull out those softening words and phrases and simply stick with “The Donation of Constantine is the largest and most powerful forgery in world history.” Seriously, think of what this document is going to do. Again from Fried:
“Disputed until modern times, this document was the fuel of religious war, used by both the reformation, as well as the counter-reformation.”
And this had to be somewhat expected, right? I mean, the Pope can’t just pull out a document offering him dominion over the entire Western Roman Empire and expect that it’s going to be a one-time use only item, like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in Monopoly. No, this forgery started its life with the power to shape empires and provide legal cover to coups. It was definitely going to get pulled out again and again by future leaders to cover up their bad ideas or to give cover to their more shameful impulses.
And now, we here at the show know that it’s a bad idea to try and superimpose our current day’s morality and ethics on earlier times, because every time and place is a little different, but I can’t help but dwell on Stephen II and Paul I and wonder what must have been going through their minds. Don’t get me wrong now, Pépin used this entire situation to his advantage as well, but Pépin was a secular king. Simply by virtue of the Pope’s position as the leader of a religious institution, his inclusion in this entire affair is that much more shocking, to us at least. And maybe that’s us being naïve. Maybe the Pope brothers of Stephen and Paul put their heads together and decided that the ends justified the means, that there simply was no other way to handle their situation than to dupe the system. And they may have even been right.
To be fair, there’s plenty of debate about when and where the actual forgery was penned. Johannes Fried, who I mentioned earlier, believes it didn’t come out until much later, post- Charlemagne even, which, if true, would give Stephen and his brother Paul a pass on this topic. The fact is, however, that no one knows the answer to this topic for sure, and even if the forgery wasn’t complete in Stephen II’s papacy, that doesn’t mean that the notion of a large donation to Sylvester wasn’t an idea, or that drafts of the final product hadn’t been started. For us, it’s just too many “miracles” happening at once, what with Stephen and Paul spurring on the Cult of Sylvester at precisely this moment and with Pépin making a Constantine-like donation of his own to the Pope in the form of the Papal States. And if the forgery had been completed, well, it was almost too perfect insofar as it provided a solution to every problem the pope was having in the year 754.
Finally, and we’ll be the first to admit that this is ad hominem speculation, but add to everything that we’ve already said that Stephen comes across as a wily and charismatic showman: crossing the Alps was an inherently dramatic gesture, and once in France he managed to nearly die, anoint a new king in an elaborate ceremony, and take both of Pépin’s boys, Charles and Carloman, as his spiritual children - a fact that he was more than happy to include in his letters to that new King. Speaking of letters, Stephen’s talents definitely extended to writing. According once again to Winston:
“During the whole of the following year 755 Pope Stephen bombarded the Frankish court with letters that ranged in tone from pleas to imperious demands. He launched a campaign of atrocity stories worthy of the best modern propagandists. In violation of their promise the Lombards had surrendered none of the stolen cities, he wrote; they were burning churches, raping nuns, smashing images, stealing vestments and digging up the bones of saints. They were ravaging the countryside and besieging the city of St. Peter itself.”
Later, Winston notes that Stephen was “delighted” when he found out that the Lombard king was killed while out on a hunt (and this reminds us of our ongoing public service announcements to royalty to please #FearTheDeer). Totaled up, we’re left with an image of Stephen as an over-the-top, charismatic religious leader with a novelistic pen and a hatred of his enemies strong enough for him to openly celebrate their deaths. We’re not saying that this makes him the author of the Donation of Constantine, but given his troubles with the Lombards and the Eastern Roman Empire, and the fact that a legal document “signed” by the greatest Emperor in Roman history would go an unbelievably long way in helping him out of his predicament, well... I’ll leave today by saying that if actual empirical evidence is ever found conclusively linking Stephen II to the Donation, we’ll be among the least surprised people out there.
OUTRO: Alright, that is all for today’s episode! Thank you for tuning in, and happy holidays: Merry Christmas, joyeux Noël, frohe Weihnachten, happy Saturnalia, and happy solstice to everyone listening! We truly hope that the next ten days are a pleasant and happy time for you and your family, and that you get all of the gifts you’ve been wishing for this year, whatever they may be!
Before we go, we want to remind you as always that notes on this episode, the completed Merovingian monarchy tree and the sprouts of the new Carolingian tree, our Instagram feed, an updated podcast recommendation page and a bunch of other cool stuff is available online at ThugsAndMiracles.com; check out the site and make sure you sign up for the newsletter! As far as those recommendations go, given the time of year, if you haven’t listened to Sebastian Major and Our Fake History’s Episode 101: Who is the Real Santa Claus, let me just say that you are missing out! The link to that episode will be in the show notes and his show is listed on the site’s Recommendation page.
If you want to get in touch with us, you can write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on most of the major social media platforms. We’ve had some amazing conversations recently with people from all over the world making research recommendations or suggestions or helping us choose which picture of Pépin is the best, or just generally being really supportive, and honestly, we love it! And yes, if you’re listening to this Rina, a.k.a. The Traveling Historian on Instagram, we will definitely be in touch to discuss Aachen and Charlemagne in much more detail! Finally, as we were talking about at the start of the episode, you can send us a line and/or a donation through Patreon. A donation in any amount would be an amazing, heart-warming event for us here at the show that will definitely get our attention, and we want to thank Tom Jurenka and Mary for being among the first to join the ranks of our supporters; thank you so much, you are amazing!
Okay, we appreciate everything that all of you do to help keep us growing, whether it’s through Patreon, by leaving a review on your podcatcher of choice, by sending us messages through the socials, or simply by enjoying each episode. Have a happy holidays, and be on the lookout on New Year’s Day for a little surprise in your feed coming your way courtesy of myself and Dirk Hoffman-Becking over at the History of the Germans podcast. We wanted to ring in the New Year properly and nerdily, and we think we have found just the way, so look to unwrap that small gift in your podcatcher on the 1st.
Alright, again, my name is Benjamin Bernier. Be good - or be , it’s your choice! - but either way be safe, and we will talk to you again in just 10 days with Episode Three, Season Three of Thugs and Miracles.