Gregory III, Pope, St.
GREGORY III, POPE, ST.
Pontificate: March 18, 731 to Nov. 28, 741. Of Syrian origin, Gregory was ordained to the priesthood before his election as Pope. He was the last Pope who sought confirmation of his election from the emperor in Constantinople or his agent, the exarch of Ravenna; thereafter, the emperor had no role in the process which determined who would serve as the successor to St. Peter. At the time of his election, Gregory III faced a tenuous situation, marked by an aggressive Lombard ruler seeking to dominate Italy and by an emperor attempting to impose his iconoclastic policy at a moment when imperial power in Italy was eroding. At stake for the papacy was the quasi-independent position of Rome and its surrounding territory that Gregory III's predecessors had succeeded in establishing. That position required a protector for the papacy, a role that had long been filled by the Byzantine emperor. But at the moment the emperor's attitude toward Rome was sorely tested by the leadership role taken by Pope gregory ii (715–731) in resisting the attempts of Emperor leo iii (717–741) to impose new taxes and to enforce his policy of iconoclasm. And those same imperial policies had sorely tested the allegiance to the emperor not only of the Pope but also of many of the emperor's subjects in Italy.
Immediately upon assuming office Gregory III moved to reaffirm his predecessor's repudiation of iconoclasm. Perhaps hoping to persuade Emperor Leo III to abandon his iconoclastic policy, Gregory III attempted to establish a dialogue with Leo III by letter. Receiving no response, he summoned a Roman synod which met in 731–732, attended by a large number of bishops from Italy who in a show of solidarity with the Pope condemned iconoclasm and decreed that anyone who destroyed or profaned sacred images would be excommunicated. Leo III responded by sending a fleet to Italy to force the submission of Gregory III, a venture that came to naught when the fleet was wrecked by a storm. Then he confiscated papal patrimonies in Sicily and Calabria and transferred the ecclesiastical province of Illyricum, embracing most of the Balkan Peninsula, Sicily, and southern Italy, from the jurisdiction of the pontiff of Rome to that of the patriarch of Constantinople. The loss of income from the properties in Sicily and Calabria was a major blow to the papacy. But Gregory III apparently found ways of offsetting his losses, since he had the revenue to build and decorate many churches in Rome. Thus he contributed substantially to the effort begun by his predecessor that led to the physical transformation of classical Rome into a medieval Christian city. Although the papal claims on the province of Illyricum became a bone of contention between Rome and Constantinople in the 9th century, there is no evidence that Gregory III saw its loss as a major papal setback. In fact, papal authority was negligible there. Leo III's measures were interpreted by many in Rome as another sign of his tyranny; however, his action more likely represented a move to solidify his position in a place where imperial control was still effective and to abandon Italy, where his power was growing weaker. During the remainder of Gregory III's pontificate there was little interaction between Rome and Constantinople; Rome had gained de facto freedom from imperial control.
During the first part of Gregory III's pontificate papal relations with the lombards were relatively quiet; the agreement of 728 between Pope Gregory II and King liutprand (712–744) served to keep the peace. Gregory remained aware of the Lombard threat, as indicated by his restoration of the walls of Rome and his efforts to regain strategic strongholds seized by the Lombards. In 738 Liutprand seized Ravenna and forced the exarch into exile; Gregory III played an important role in restoring the exarch, an act that Liutprand considered hostile. Liutprand's main objective was the subjugation of the dukes of Spoleto and Benevento, whose efforts to remain independent threatened Liutprand's plans to unify the Lombard kingdom. Gregory III's support of a rebellion of the dukes increased the hostility of the Lombard king. Liutprand's success against the dukes and subsequent march on Rome with the intention of forcing Gregory III to abandon his alliance with dukes prompted the Pope to send an embassy to charles martel in 739, pleading for Frankish intervention to save St. Peter's church and his "special people" (peculiarem populum ). Charles declined to act in defense of Rome, probably because Liutprand was a Frankish ally who at the moment was providing invaluable help to Charles in his effort to check Muslim intrusions into Provence. But Charles did send an embassy to Rome that prompted a second appeal from Gregory III. In his letters to Charles, Gregory spoke in terms that suggested that he and most Romans believed that a Roman political entity had come into existence whose leader could deal with other princes as an independent agent. In the meantime, Liutprand retired from the Roman scene, perhaps because of the intercession of Charles Martel on behalf of the Pope, but more likely because his threat to Rome had convinced the Pope to give up his alliance with the Lombard dukes of Spoleto and Benevento. Peace, albeit tenuous, had been restored in Italy.
Meanwhile, Gregory III continued expanding papal ties with the world north of the Alps. Already noted was his interaction with Charles Martel, a step in establishing closer relationship with the kingdom of the Franks. He became involved in ecclesiastical affairs in England when he responded favorably to a request by Bishop egbert of york to restore that see to the metropolitan status that had originally been awarded it by Pope Gregory I (590–604). He continued to follow closely the missionary work of boniface in Germany. On the basis of reports of Boniface's successes in Hesse and Thuringia and his continued requests for guidance, in 732 Gregory III elevated Boniface to archiepiscopal status without a fixed see but closely linked to Rome; Boniface was instructed to proceed with the establishment of bishoprics in Germany and to appoint qualified clerics to serve as bishops in the new sees. Boniface gave his immediate attention to establishing an episcopal structure in Bavaria to which Gregory III gave his approval, and then he continued his organizational work by establishing episcopal sees in Hesse and Thuringia. As his work progressed, the Pope provided his legate with letters soliciting support for his work and providing guidance on a wide range of disciplinary, liturgical, and theological matters pertaining to the establishment of Christian life among the partially Christianized and newly converted peoples in Bavarian, Hesse, and Thuringia. On occasion, Boniface responded by reminding his spiritual mentor of rumors about religious matters in Rome that needed correction. In 737 at the Pope's command Boniface visited Rome for the third time, and then returned north armed with papal letters to various parties urging support for his work and with instructions to continue organizing the lands in which he had been working. By the time this phase of his career was completed in the early 740s, Boniface was ready to move into a new realm that would involve the papacy, the reform of the Frankish church along lines that promised to increase papal influence in the Frankish realm.
Gregory III died in 741, a year that also witnessed the deaths of Emperor Leo III and Charles Martel. New leaders would now continue to transform the power structure in Italy, which had changed considerably during the pontificate of Gregory III. It was marked especially by his exploration of new ways to replace the eastern Roman emperor as protector of the Pope and the territories he controlled against the Lombards.
Feast: Nov. 28.
Bibliography: Le Liber Pontificalis, ed. l. duchesne, 3 v., 2nd ed. (Paris 1955–1957) 1: 415–425, English translation in The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis). The Ancient Biographies of Nine Popes from AD 715 to AD 817, tr. with intro. by r. davis (Liverpool 1992) 17–28. Regesta Pontificum Romanorum ab condita ecclesia ad annum post Christum MCXCVIII, ed. p. jaffÉ, 2 v. (2d ed. Leipzig 1885–1888) 1:257–262. p. conte, Regesto delle lettere dei papi del secolo VIII: saggi (Milan 1984) 200–207. Codex Carolinus, Epp. 1–2, ed. w. gundlach, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae: Epistolae Merowingici et Karolini aevi (Berlin 1892; repr. 1994) 475–479. Epistolae Langobardicae collectae, Epp. 12–17, ibid., 702–709. Die Briefe des heiligen Bonifatius und Lullus (S. Bonifatii et Lulli epistolae), ed. m. tangl, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae Selectae 1 (Berlin 1916; reprinted, 1989), English translation as The Letters of St. Boniface, tr. e. emerton (New York 2000). Vita sancti Bonifatii archiepiscopi Moguntini, ed. w. levison, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Sriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum 57 (Hannover and Leipzig 1905; repr. 1999), English translation as "Willibald, The Life of Saint Boniface," tr. c. h talbot, in Soldiers of Christ. Saints and Saints' Lives from Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, ed. t. f. x. noble and t. head (University Park, Penn. 1985) 107–140.
[r. e. sullivan]