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Donation of Constantine

Forged document of Emperor Constantine the Great

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Donation of Constantine (Lat. Donatio Constantini).—By this name is understood, since the end of the Middle Ages, a forged document of Emperor Constantine the Great, by which large privileges and rich possessions were conferred on the pope and the Roman Church. In the oldest known (ninth century) manuscript (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, MS. Latin 2777) and in many other manuscripts the document bears the title: “Constitutum domni Constantini imperatoris”. It is addressed by Constantine to Pope Sylvester I (314-35) and consists of two parts. In the first (entitled “Confessio”) the emperor relates how he was instructed in the Christian Faith by Sylvester, makes a full profession of faith, and tells of his baptism in Rome by that pope, and how he was thereby cured of leprosy. In the second part (the “Donatio”) Constantine is made to confer on Sylvester and his successors the following privileges and possessions: the pope, as successor of St. Peter, has the primacy over the four Patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, also over all the bishops in the world. The Lateran basilica at Rome, built by Constantine, shall surpass all churches as their head, similarly the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul shall be endowed with rich possessions. The chief Roman ecclesiastics (clerici cardinales), among whom senators may also be received, shall obtain the same honors and distinctions as the senators. Like the emperor the Roman Church shall have as functionaries cubicularii, ostiarii, and excubitores. The pope shall enjoy the same honorary rights as the emperor, among them the right to wear an imperial crown, a purple cloak and tunic, and in general all imperial insignia or signs of distinction; but as Sylvester refused to put on his head a golden crown, the emperor invested him with the high white cap (phrygium). Constantine, the document continues, rendered to the pope the service of a strator, i.e. he led the horse upon which the pope rode. Moreover, the emperor makes a present to the pope and his successors of the Lateran palace, of Rome and the provinces, districts, and towns of Italy and all the Western regions (tam palatium nostrum, ut prelatum est, quamque Romae urbis et omnes Italiae seu occidentalium regionum provincias loco, et civitates). The document goes on to say that for himself the emperor has established in the East a new capital which bears his name, and thither he removes his government, since it is inconvenient that a secular emperor have power where God has established the residence of the head of the Christian religion. The document concludes with maledictions against all who dare to violate these donations and with the assurance that the emperor has signed them with his own hand and placed them on the tomb of St. Peter.

This document is without doubt a forgery, fabricated somewhere between the years 750 and 850. As early as the fifteenth century its falsity was known and demonstrated. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (De Concordantia, Catholics, III, ii, in the Basle ed. of his Opera, 1565, I) spoke of it as a dictamen apocryphum. Some years later (1440) Lorenzo Valla (De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio, Mainz, 1518) proved the forgery with certainty. Independently of both his predecessors, Reginald Pecocke, Bishop of Chichester (1450-57), reached a similar conclusion in his work, “The Repressor of over much Blaming of the Clergy”, Rolls Series, II, 351-366. Its genuinity was yet occasionally defended, and the document still further used as authentic, until Baronius in his “Annales Ecclesiastici” (ad an. 324) admitted that the “Donatio” was a forgery, where-after it was soon universally admitted to be such. It is so clearly a fabrication that there is no reason to wonder that, with the revival of historical criticism in the fifteenth century, the true character of the document was at once recognized. The forger made use of various authorities, which Grauert and others (see below) have thoroughly investigated. The introduction and the conclusion of the document are imitated from authentic writings of the imperial period, but formulae of other periods are also utilized. In the “Confession” of faith the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is explained at length, afterwards the Fall of man and the Incarnation of Christ. There are also reminiscences of the decrees of the Iconoclast Synod of Constantinople (754) against the veneration of images. The narrative of the conversion and healing of the emperor is based on the apocryphal Acts of Sylvester (Acta or Gesta Sylvestri), yet all the particulars of the “Donatio” narrative do not appear in the hitherto known texts of that legend. The distinctions conferred on the pope and the cardinals of the Roman Church the forger probably invented and described according to certain contemporary rites and the court ceremonial of the Roman and the Byzantine emperors. The author also used the biographies of the popes in the Liber Pontificalis (q.v.), likewise eighth-century letters of the popes, especially in his account of the imperial donations.

The authorship of this document is still wrapped in obscurity. Occasionally, but without sufficient reason, critics have attributed it to the author of the False Decretals (q.v.) or to some Roman ecclesiastic of the eighth century. On the other hand, the time and place of its composition have lately been thoroughly studied by numerous investigators (especially Germans), though no sure and universally accepted conclusion has yet been reached. As to the place of the forgery Baronius (Annales, ad. an. 1081) maintained that it was done in the East by a schismatic Greek; it is, indeed, found in Greek canonical collections. Natalis Alexander opposed this view, and it is no longer held by any recent historian. Many of the recent critical students of the document locate its composition at Rome and attribute the forgery to an ecclesiastic, their chief argument being an intrinsic one: this false document was composed in favor of the popes and of the Roman Church, therefore Rome it-self must have had the chief interest in a forgery executed for a purpose so clearly expressed. Moreover, the sources of the document are chiefly Roman. Nevertheless, the earlier view of Zaccaria and others that the forgery originated in the Frankish Empire has quite recently been ably defended by Hergenrother and Grauert (see below). They call attention to the fact that the “Donatio” appears first in Frankish collections, i, e. in the False Decretals and in the above-mentioned St-Denis manuscript; moreover the earliest certain quotation of it is by Frankish authors in the second half of the ninth century. Finally, this document was never used in the papal chancery until the middle of the eleventh century, nor in general is it referred to in Roman sources until the time of Otto III (983-1002, i.e. in case the famous “Diploma” of this emperor be authentic). The first certain use of it at Rome was by Leo IX in 1054, and it is to be noted that this pope was by birth and training a German, not an Italian. The writers mentioned have shown that the chief aim of the forgery was to prove the justice of the translatio imperii to the Franks, i.e. the transfer of the imperial title at the coronation of Charlemagne in 800; the forgery was, therefore, important mainly for the Frankish Empire. This view is rightly tenable against the opinion of the majority that the forgery originated at Rome.

A still greater divergency of opinion reigns as to the time of its composition. Some have asserted (more recently Martens, Friedrich, and Bayet) that each of its two parts was fabricated at different times. Martens holds that the author executed his forgery at brief intervals; that the “Constitutum” originated after 800 in connection with a letter of Adrian I (778) to Charlemagne wherein the pope acknowledged the imperial position to which the Frankish king by his own efforts and fortune had attained. Friedrich (see below), on the contrary, attempts to prove that the “Constitutum” was composed of two really distinct parts. The gist of the first part, the so-called “Confessio”, appeared between 638 and 653, probably 638-641, while the second, or “Donatio” proper, was written in the reign of Stephen II, between 752 and 757, by Paul, brother and successor of Pope Stephen. According to Bayet the first part of the document was composed in the time of Paul I (757-767); the latter part appeared in or about the year 774. In opposition to these opinions most historians maintain that the document was written at the same time and wholly by one author. But when was it written? Colombier decides for the reign of Pope Conon (686-687), Genelin for the beginning of the eighth century (before 728). But neither of these views is supported by sufficient reasons, and both are certainly untenable. Most investigators accept as the earliest possible date the pontificate of Stephen II (752-757), thus establishing a connection between the forgery and the historical events that led to the origin of the States of the Church and the Western Empire of the Frankish kings. But in what year or period from the above-mentioned pontificate of Stephen II until the reception of the “Constitutum” in the collection of the False Decretals (c. 840-50) was the forgery executed? Nearly every student of this intricate question maintains his own distinct view. It is necessary first to answer a preliminary question: Did Pope Adrian I in his letter to Charlemagne of the year 778 (Codex Carolinus, ed. Jaffe, Ep. lxi) exhibit a knowledge of the “Constitutum”? From a passage of this letter (Sicut temporibus beati Silvestri Romani pontificis a sanctae recordationis piissimo Constantino magno imperatore per eius largitatem sancta Dei Catholica et Apostolica Romana ecclesia elevata et exaltata est et potestatem in his Hesperia partibus largiri dignatus, ita et in his vestris felicissimis temporibus atque nostris sancta Dei ecclesia, id est beati Petri apostoli, germinet atque exultet.) several writers, e.g. Dollinger, Langen, Meyer, and others have concluded that Adrian I was then aware of this forgery, so that it must have appeared before 778. Friedrich assumes in Adrian I a knowledge of the “Constitutum” from his letter to Emperor Constantine VI written in 785 (Mansi, Concil. Coll., XII, 1056). Most historians, however, rightly refrain from asserting that Adrian I made use of this document; from his letters, therefore, the time of its origin cannot be deduced.

Most of the recent writers on the subject assume the origin of the “Donatio” between 752 and 795. Among them, some decide for the pontificate of Stephen II (752-757) on the hypothesis that the author of the forgery wished to substantiate thereby the claims of this pope in his negotiations with Pepin (Dollinger, Hauck, Friedrich, Bohmer). Others lower the date of the forgery to the time of Paul I (757-767), and base their opinion on the political events in Italy under this pope, or on the fact that he had a special veneration for St. Sylvester, and that the “Donatio” had especially in view the honor of this saint (Scheffer-Boichorst, Mayer). Others again locate its origin in the pontificate of Adrian I (772-795), on the hypothesis that this pope hoped thereby to extend the secular authority of the Roman Church over a great part of Italy and to create in this way a powerful ecclesiastical State under papal government (Langen, Loening). A smaller group of writers, however, remove the forgery to some date after 800, i.e. after the coronation of Charlemagne as emperor. Among these, Martens and Weiland assign the document to the last years of the reign of Charlemagne, or the first years of Louis the Pious, i.e. somewhere between 800 and 840. They argue that the chief purpose of the forgery was to bestow on the Western ruler the imperial power, or that the “Constitutum” was meant to indicate what the new emperor, as successor of Constantine the Great, might have conferred on the Roman Church. Those writers also who seek the forger in the Frankish Empire maintain that the document was written in the ninth century, e.g. especially Hergenrother and Grauert. The latter opines that the “Constitutum” originated in the monastery of St-Denis, at Paris, shortly before or about the same time as the False Decretals, i.e. between 840 and 850.

Closely connected with the date of the forgery is the other question concerning the primary purpose of the forger of the “Donatio”. Here, too, there exists a great variety of opinions. Most of the writers who locate at Rome itself the origin of the forgery maintain that it was intended principally to support the claims of the popes to secular power in Italy; they differ, however, as to the extent of the said claims. According to Dollinger the “Constitutum” was destined to aid in the creation of a united Italy under papal government. Others would limit the papal claims to those districts which Stephen II sought to obtain from Pepin, or to isolated territories which, then or later, the popes desired to acquire. In general, this class of historians seeks to connect the forgery with the historical events and political movements of that time in Italy (Mayer, Langen, Friedrich, Loening, and others). Several of these writers lay more stress on the elevation of the papacy than on the donation of territories.

Occasionally it is maintained that the forger sought to secure for the pope a kind of higher secular power, something akin to imperial supremacy as against the Frankish Government, then solidly established in Italy. Again, some of this class limit to Italy the expression occidentalium regionum provincias, but most of them understand it to mean the whole former Western Empire. This is the attitude of Weiland, for whom the chief object of the forgery is the increase of papal power over the imperial, and the establishment of a kind of imperial supremacy of the pope over the whole West. For this reason also he lowers the date of the “Constitutum” no further than the end of the reign of Charlemagne (814). As a matter of fact, however, in this document Sylvester does indeed obtain from Constantine imperial rank and the emblems of imperial dignity, but not the real imperial supremacy. Martens therefore sees in the forgery an effort to elevate the papacy in general; all alleged prerogatives of the pope and of Roman ecclesiastics, all gifts of landed possessions, and rights of secular government are meant to promote and confirm this elevation, and from it all the new Emperor Charlemagne ought to draw practical conclusions for his behavior in relation to the pope. Scheffer-Boichorst holds a singular opinion, namely that the forger intended primarily the glorification of Sylvester and Constantine, and only in a secondary way a defense of the papal claims to territorial possessions. Grauert, for whom the forger is a Frankish subject, shares the view of Hergenrother, i.e. the forger had in mind a defense of the new Western Empire from the attacks of the Byzantines. Therefore it was highly important for him to establish the legitimacy of the newly founded empire, and this purpose was especially aided by all that the document alleges concerning the elevation of the pope. From the foregoing it will be seen that the last word of historical research in this matter still remains to be said. Important questions concerning the sources of the forgery, the place and time of its origin, the tendency of the forger, yet await their solution. New researches will probably pay still greater attention to textual criticism, especially that of the first part or “Confession” of faith.

As far as the evidence at hand permits us to judge, the forged “Constitutum” was first made known in the Frankish Empire. The oldest extant manuscript of it, certainly from the ninth century, was written in the Frankish Empire. In the second half of that century the document is expressly mentioned by three Frankish writers. Ado, Bishop of Vienne, speaks of it in his Chronicle (De sex tatibus mundi, ad an. 306, in P.L., CXXIII, 92); Aeneas, Bishop of Paris, refers to it in defense of the Roman primacy (Adversus Gracos, c. ccix, op. cit., CXXI, 758); Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, mentions the donation of Rome to the pope by Constantine the Great according to the “Constitutum” (De ordine palatii, c. xiii, op. cit., CXXV, 998). The document obtained wider circulation by its incorporation with the False Decretals (840-850, or more specifically between 847 and 852; Hinschius, Decretales Pseudo-Isidorian, Leipzig, 1863, p. 249). At Rome no use was made of the document during the ninth and the tenth centuries, not even amid the conflicts and difficulties of Nicholas I with Constantinople, when it might have served as a welcome argument for the claims of the pope. The first pope who used it in an official act and relied upon it, was Leo IX; in a letter of 1054 to Michael Crularius. Patriarch of Constantinople, he cites the “Donatio to show that the Holy See possessed both an earthly and a heavenly imperium, the royal priesthood. Thenceforth the “Donatio” acquires more importance and is more frequently used as evidence in the ecclesiastical and political conflicts between the papacy and the secular power. Anselm of Lucca and Cardinal Deusdedit inserted it in their collections of canons. Gratian, it is true, excluded it from his “Decretum”, but it was soon added to it as “Palea”. The ecclesiastical writers in defense of the papacy during the conflicts of the early part of the twelfth century quoted it as authoritative (Hugo of Fleury, De regia potestate et ecclesiastics, dignitate, II; Placidus of Nonantula, De honore ecclesiae, cc. lvii, xci, cli; Disputatio vel defensio Paschalis paper; Honorius Augustodunensis, De summa gloriae, c. xvii; cf. Mon. Germ. Hist., Libelli de lite, II, 456, 591, 614, 635; III, 71).

St. Peter Damian also relied on it in his writings against the antipope Cadalous of Parma (Disceptatio synodalis, in Libelli de lite, I, 88). Gregory VII himself never quoted this document in his long warfare for ecclesiastical liberty against the secular power. But Urban II made use of it in 1091 to support his claims on the island of Corsica. Later popes (Innocent III, Gregory IX, Innocent IV) took its authenticity for granted (Innocent III, Sermo de sancto Silvestro, in P.L., CCXVII, 481 sqq.; Raynaldus, Annales, ad an. 1236, n. 24; Potthast, Regesta, no. 11,848), and ecclesiastical writers often adduced its evidence in favor of the papacy. The medieval adversaries of the popes, on the other hand, never denied the validity of this appeal to the pretended donation of Constantine, but endeavored to show that the legal deductions drawn from it were founded on false interpretations. The authenticity of the document, as already stated, was doubted by no one before the fifteenth century. It was known to the Greeks in the second half of the twelfth century, when it appears in the collection of Theodore Balsamon (1169 sqq.); later on another Greek canonist, Matthaeus Blastares (about 1335), admitted it into his collection. It appears also in other Greek works. Moreover, it was highly esteemed in the Greek East. The Greeks claimed, it is well known, for the Bishop of New Rome (Constantinople) the same honorary rights as those enjoyed by the Bishop of Old Rome. But now, by virtue of this document, they claimed for the Byzantine clergy also the privileges and prerogatives granted to the pope and the Roman ecclesiastics. In the West, long after its authenticity was disputed in the fifteenth century, its validity was still upheld by the majority of canonists and jurists who continued throughout the sixteenth century to quote it as authentic. And though Baronius and later historians acknowledged it to be a forgery, they endeavored to marshal other authorities in defense of its content, especially as regards the imperial donations. In later times even this was abandoned, so that now the whole “Constitutum”, both in form and content, is rightly considered in all senses a forgery. See False Decretals; Pope Saint Sylvester I; States of the Church; Temporal Power.


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