Donation of Constantine

views updated May 29 2018


A spurious document, called also the Constitutum Constantini, composed most likely in the early 50s of the 8th century. It relies heavily on a genuine composition of the late 5th century, the so-called Legenda s. Silvestri. The Donation purports to be a constitutional grant of the Emperor constantine i, by which he handed over to Pope sylvster i imperial power, dignity and emblems, the lateran palace, and rulership over Rome and "all provinces, localities and towns in Italy and the Western hemisphere." The grant was supposedly the Emperor's reward for the gift of Baptism and for his miraculous recovery from leprosy. Because the Emperor considered it inappropriate to reside in the same city with the successor of St. Peter, he removed his residence to constantino ple, which thereby became the urbs regia of the empire.

Composition and Application. The model upon which this forgery drew had already described the conversion of Constantine in vivid terms, and it enjoyed great popularity. What the forger in the 8th century did was to mold the contents of this novelistic product into something approaching a constitutional document. The oldest surviving "copy" of the forgery is preserved in Paris (Bib. Nat. Lat. 2777) and is indubitably of 8th-century origin. This spurious grant was very influential throughout the medieval period and served the papacy as a basis for a number of its claims. It was used first against the lombards by stephen ii in his negotiations with King pepin in 754. While the authenticity of this grant was only rarely impugnedas far as is known, only otto iii called the document outright what it wasits validity was often questioned, especially by civil lawyers in the Italian universities. They maintained that Constantine had acted ultra vires by making such vast donations and grants. Indirectly the Donation stimulated the emergence of the thesis of inalienability, according to which no ruler was entitled to give away any of his essential governmental functions or any lands entrusted to him. This thesis gained great importance in the medieval kingdoms. The spurious nature of the grant was not exposed until the 15th century, when quite independently nicholas of cusa and Lorenzo valla proved that it was a fabrication.

Place and Purpose. While with great likelihood the Donation can be assigned to the pontificate of Stephen II, the place of composition is not certain. But there are strong indications that it was fabricated in the papal chancery, the head of which was Christophorus. Many adverse judgments have been made on this document; but, like all medieval forgeries, it should be seen from the contemporary point of view and in its historic context. By the time of its composition the relations between the papacy and the byzantine empire had reached the breaking point. The latter had not acknowledged the primacy of the pope, and in the immediately preceding decades imperial legislation favoring iconoclasm had gravely concerned the West, especially the papacy. Papal resistance to this legislation only brought forth further threatening measures on the part of Constantinople, which, in one way or another, went back to the Council of chalce don (ch. 17, 28). According to ch. 17, the ecclesiastical status of a city is determined by its civil status. The application of this chapter entailed a diminution of the status of Rome and, therefore, of the pope, because the capital of the Empire, the urbs regia, was that city in which the emperor and his government resided. The author of the Donation wished to show how, in actual fact, Constantinople had become the urbs regia. In so doing the forger utilized the Legenda s. Silvestri, where this theme had already been touched upon. He presented the transfer of the government from Rome to Constantinople as a thing to which Sylvester had agreed.

Althoughaccording to the DonationConstantine had offered the imperial crown to Sylvester, the latter refused to wear it. It is clearly implied that if he had so wished, Sylvester could have worn it, and that therefore Constantinople had become the urbs regia through the volition and acquiescence of the Pope himself. Consequently, the Pope could withdraw this permission and retransfer the crown from Constantinople to Rome: for the seat of the imperial government was where the imperial crown was kept. There can be no doubt that this was the forger's principal aim. The forgery was directed exclusively against Byzantium, although by virtue of its comprehensiveness and vagueness it could be used in the West, as in fact it was. The forger dealt with no less a problem than that of legitimate rulership in the Roman-Christian world, i.e., of the roman empire. The seat of the Empire was at Constantinople, whose orthodoxy, however, was in more than one way suspect. In "demonstrating" the historical changes ideologically, the author was compelled to constitute the pope a proper ruler in the West. And since no ruler could exist without governmental machinery, emblems, and territorial possessions, these too were granted, but were only a subsidiary feature of the document.

Clearly, for the exercise of governmental functions by the papacy, the constitutional and institutional enactments were of great value, because they supplied the regal function of the pope and made him a true king and priest. The Donation was a construction whose obvious weakness was that it presented the regal function of the pope as derived from an imperial grant. When the full potentialities of the pope as the vicar of christ were elaborated, the Donation could be dispensed with, as was done in fact by innocent iii.

Bibliography: Editions. c. b. coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity (New York 1914). c. mirbt, Quellen zur Geschichte des Papsttums (4th ed. Tübingen 1924). Edition of the Legenda s. Silvestri in b. mombrizio, Sanctuarium seu vitae sanctorum, 2 v. (Paris 1910) 2:508531. Literature. g. lÄhr, Die konstantinische Schenkung in der abendländischen Literatur (Berlin 1926). w. levison, "Konstantinische Schenkung und Silvesterlegende," Miscellanea Francesco Ehrle, 5 v. (Rome 1924) 2:181225. w. ullmann, Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages (2d ed. London 1962) 7486. d. maffei, "Cino da Pistoia e il Constitutum Constantini," Annali d'Università di Macerata 24 (1961) 95115. h. m. klinkenberg, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 1957-65) 6:483484. s. williams, "The Oldest Text of the Constitutum Constantini," Traditio 20 (1964) 448461.

[w. ullmann]

Donation of Constantine

views updated Jun 11 2018

Donation of Constantine. A spurious document designed to strengthen the authority of the church and of Rome, purporting to report how Constantine conferred on Pope Sylvester I (314–35) the primacy over other sees and secular rule in the W. Empire.