The Donation of Constantine

This is the section entitled "An Astounding Document" in Chapter 2, "The Quest for Absolute Power", in Peter de Rosa's Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy (Bantam Press, Corgi edition, 1999, pp. 63-61). It tells the story of one of the greatest hoaxes ever committed, a monumental fraud whose effects have endured for over 1500 years to the present day.

Stephen III became pontiff in the year 752 after his predecessor Stephen II had lasted only four days, the shortest reign recorded. The new pontiff had been practically brought up in the papal court. He knew the pope was not merely a religious leader but, as a loyal vassal of the emperor, a civil governor, too, with extensve territories under his command.

The secularization of the church, started by Constantine, was well under way. He had seen the potential of the hierarchy as a governing class. They were as well organized as his own civil service, which they slowly replaced in the courts and in diplomacy. When, in the year 330, the emperor took his entourage to Constantinople, on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzanatium, the bishops of Rome became more and more involved in civil affairs. Two popes in particular are numbered among the greatest men who ever lived. Leo the Great (440-61), by an act of great daring, saved Rome from Attila the Hun. Gregory the Great (590-604) was effectively the civil leader as well as Patriarch of the West. With this dual role thrust upon them, there was an inevitable growth in bureaucracy. They worked heroically, but Christian simplicity was never again to be seen in Christian Rome.

When the Lombards, a barbarian tribe from the Baltic, settled in Italy after the year 568, the papacy had no peace. The newcomers took over most of the north. Gradually converted, the Lombards were never trusted by the Holy See. When the bond between popes and their leige lords, the emperors, weakened, the pontiffs had to forge a fresh military alliance if they were to hold on to Rome and the surrounding territories. It would perhaps have been better had they surrendered them, but to great landowners that has always been unthinkable.

One year into his pontificate, Stephen III travelled north in winter to see Pepin, king of the Franks. Never before had a pope sought aid from a Western sovereign; it was to be the first of many requests for military aid. In robes of black, his hair covered in ashes, the pope knelt at the king's feet, imploring him to use his armies to save the affairs of St Peter and St Paul and the community of Rome. There, at the Abbey of St Denis, he annointed Pepin and his son, Charlemagne, as 'patricians of the Romans'.

It was most likely at this meeting that Stephen showed his royal host a document of great antiquity. Dusty and crumbling, it had been preserved for centuries in the papal archives. Dated 30 March 315, it was called 'The Donation of Constantine'. It was a deed or gift from the first Christian emperor to Pope Sylvester.

The Donation tells the moving story of how Constantine contracted leprosy all over his body. Pagan priests erected a font on the Capitol and tried to persuade him to fill it with the blood of little children. While the blood was warm, Constantine should bathe in it and be healed. Many children were herded together with their weeping mothers. The emperor, touched by their tears, sent them home loaded with gifts. That night, he had a dream. Peter and Paul told him to contact Pope Sylvester, then in hiding on Mount Soracte. The pope would show him the true 'pool of piety'. Once he recovered his health, he was to restore Christian churches throughout the world, give up praying to idols and worship the true God. Constantine did as he was told. 'When I was at the bottom of the [baptismal] font,' he said, 'I saw a hand from heaven touching me.' He came from his baptism healed. Sylvester preached to him the Trinity and repeated Jesus' words to Peter: 'Thou art Peter ... and I will give to thee the Keys of the Kingdom.' Convinced he had been healed by the power of the Apostle, Constantine, in the name of the Senate and the entire Roman people, gave a gift to the Vicar of God's Son and to all his successors:

Inasmuch as our imperial power is earthly, we have decreed that it shall venerate and honour his [Peter's] most holy Roman Church and that the sacred See of Blessed Peter shall be gloriously exalted even above our Empire and earthly throne. ... He shall rule over the four principal Sees, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Jerusalem, as over all churches of God in all the world. ...

Finally, lo, we convey to Sylvester, universal Pope, both our palace and likewise all provinces and palaces and districts of the city of Rome and Italy and of the regions of the west.

Constantine also gave a hitherto unheard of explanation as to why he had taken himself to the East. He wished that Rome, where the Christian religion was founded by the Emperor of Heaven (Christ), should have no rival on earth. Pagan Rome had abdicated in favour of Christian Rome.

King Pepin was impressed. The document proved that the pope was successor to Peter and Constantine. The emperor had even acted as Sylvester's groom, inspiring many emperors and kings to imitate his humility at papal coronations in the centuries that followed.

When Pepin took to the field and routed the Lombards he handed back to the pope all the lands that were rightly his by the Donation.

It was a surprising development of the gospels. Jesus possessed nothing but the clothes he stood up in. His chief disciples now not only had enormous territories to which they became excessively attached; they needed military alliances to keep them.

The Donation continued to be influential. For example, the only English pope, Adrian IV, appealed to it when gave Ireland to Henry II of England. Adrian was formerly Nicholas Breakspear, the son of a priest.

When Henry began the long and tragic occupation of Ireland in 1171, the Irish episcopate, assembled at Cashel, recognized him and his successors as lawful kings of Ireland. To this, the new pope, Alexander III, set his seal of approval, but not before insisting that he received his annual penny per household [subsequently known as "Peter's pence"]. This was the papacy's price for handing over this most Catholic and Celtic of lands to the Norman English.

What makes it harder to bear is that the Donation was a forgery.

The Donation was a fabrication, probably concocted by a Lateran priest just before Stephen III visited King Pepin. Such was the state of scholarship at that time, no one saw through it, though a schoolboy could do so today. It was not until a papal aide, Lorenzo Valla, took it apart line by line in 1440 that it was proved to be a fraud.

Valla showed that the pope at the alleged time of the Donation was not Sylvester but Miltiades. The text refers to 'Constantinople' whereas Constantine's city in the East still retained its original name of Byzantium. The Donation was written not in classical Latin but in a later bastardized form. Also, explanations are given, say, of Constantine's regalia, which would not have been needed in the fourth century but were necessary in the eighth. In a hundred irrefutable ways, Valla shot the document to pieces. He did so with trepidation, knowing that many Roman prelates would be out for his blood.

Because I have attacked not the dead but the living, not merely any ruler but the highest ruler, namely, the Supreme Pontiff against whose excommuncation the sword of no prince can afford protection. ... The Pope has no right to bind me for defending the truth. ... When there are many who will endure death for the defence of an earthly fatherland, should I not incur danger for the sake of my heavenly home?

It was not until 1517 that Valla's book was published. It was the critical year when Luther attacked indulgences. A copy of it came into Luther's hands, and he saw for the first time that many of his earlier beliefs about the papacy were founded on forgeries like the Donation.

Though every independent scholar was won over by Valla's arguments, Rome did not concede; she went on asserting the Donation's authenticity for centuries.

This was a pity in that the truth about it was far more incredible than the tissue of lies it contained.

The story of Constantine's leprosy and subsequent baptismal cure was a pious fifth-century invention. The fable is perpetuated in the baptistry of St John Lateran in Rome. An inscription relates how the emperor was baptized there by Pope Sylvester.

These are the facts: Constantine was a soldier at a time when shedding blood was unacceptable to the church. This may be why he delayed his baptism until he was on the point of death and he had no strength left to commit sin or kill anyone else. Not long before, his mother Helena had died, aged over eighty. Only then was the emperor enrolled among the catechumens [persons receiving instruction in the principles of the Christian religion with a view to baptism], not in the church's headquarters but in distant Helenopolis, in the East. He was taken to the Villa Achyronia near Nicomedia. He was baptized there not by the pope, not even by a Catholic bishop or priest, but by a heretical Arian bishop named Eusebius. He died on the last day of the Whitsun holiday in the year 337.

This throws a murky light on many of the most significant events in the church's early history.

When Constantine called bishops his beloved brethren and styled himself 'Bishop of Rome', which popes later appropriated, he was not a Christian, not even a catechumen. Yet no one remotely approached his stature and authority. Even the Bishop of Rome — not to be called 'the pope' for many centuries — was, in comparison, a nonentity. In civic terms, he was a vassal of the emperor; in spiritual terms, he was, compared with Constantine, a second-class bishop, with a title of honour over most other bishops because he held the Apostolic See where Peter and Paul and worked and lay buried. As Burckhardt stresses in The Age of Constantine, the emperor's title of ecumenical bishop 'was not merely a manner of speaking; actually the Church had no other central point'. Not the pope but he, like Charlemagne later, was the head of the church, its source of unity, before whom the Bishop of Rome had to prostrate himself and pledge his loyalty. All bishops agreed that he was 'the inspired oracle, the apostle of Church wisdom'.

To the end of his life, Constantine, while building magnificent churches in Palestine and elsewhere, was erecting equally magnificent pagan temples in Constantinople. This was clearly understood as part of the first settlement of 'the Roman Question'. The emperor was a sacred person, Pontifex Maximus, another title that the pope was later to assume. It followed that the emperor, and he alone, had authority to convoke religious assemblies like the Council of Arles in the year 314. As one contemporary bishop put it: 'The Church was part of the State. The Church was born into the Empire, not the Empire into the Church.' It was, therefore, Constantine, not the Bishop of Rome, who dictated the time and place of church synods and even how the votes were cast. Without his approval, they could not pass into law; he alone was legislator of the Empire.

It is another paradox of history that it was Constantine, a pagan, who invented the idea of a council of all Christian communities. Only in this way, his genius told him, would the church's faith be formulated incontestably and for ever. No bishop of the time would have asked the Bishop of Rome to decide thorny questions of belief.

After defeating Licinius in the east in 321, Constantine called the First General Council of the Church. It met in 325 in Bithynia, in a place calld Nicaea, meaning 'Victory'. It was probably the most important Christian assembly in history. Arianism, a heresy that subordinated the Son to the Father, had spread all over the world. Controversy was not merely bitter, it was bloody. It was against the emperor's interests to have Christians fighting one another; they were meant to be the stabilizing force of Empire. He was dismayed to find that, after he had freed them from persecution, they were tearing each other to bits over the Holy Trinity.

At Nicaea, the Founding Father of Ecumenical Councils gathered 300 bishops, having laid on free transport. All but half a dozen were from the East. Sylvester, Bishop of Rome, did not attend; he sent two presbyters instead. Without a shred of doubt, Sylvester had no part in calling the Council or any say in running it. A pagan emperor had complete control. He held it in the big hall of his palace. According to the historian Eusebius, he was tall and slender, full of grace and majesty. To make his presence felt, he opened proceedings 'stiff with purple, gold and precious stones'.

It was soon clear that a majority of bishops were in favour of the Arian position. Constantine had no known theological preferences but he rose from his gold throne to end the discussion. Maybe he simply wanted to show he was in charge. He proposed what came to be call 'the orthodox view' of God's Son being 'of one substance' with the Father. All dissident bishops caved in, except for two whom Constantine promptly deposed and sent packing. Afterwards, he wrote to Alexandria where Arians still had a foothold: 'What has pleased three hundred bishops is nothing other than the will of God.'

The outcome was not what he had hoped. The Arian 'heresy' went on for generations. So did the complete immersion of the state in church affairs. Ecclesiastical politics replaced the priorities of the Gospel. Religion was unimportant, the church was all-important. The result, Burckhardt said, was a 'Church rapidly distintegrating in victory'.

The cost of Constantine's 'conversion' to Christianity was the loss of innocence. His cynical use of Christ, in which everyone, including the Bishop of Rome, acquiesced, meant a profound falsification of the Gospel message and the injection of standards alien to it. From then on, Catholicism flourished to the detriment of Christianity and of Jesus who wanted no part in the world of power and politics, who preferred to be crucified rather than to impose his views on anyone.

By the time Stephen III became pope, the church was thoroughly converted to the Roman Empire. From the Donation, it is plain that the Bishop of Rome looked like Constantine, lived like him, dressed like him, inhabited his palaces, ruled over his lands, had exactly the same imperial outlook. The pope, too, wanted to lord it over church and state.

Only seven hundred years after Peter died, popes had become obsessed with power and possessions. The pontiff strode the earth, a figure of worldliness and unworldliness. He, literally, wanted the best of both worlds, but certain Roman emperors kept a check on his ambition.

Copyright 1988 Peter de Rosa

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