Stephen II (III), Pope

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Pontificate, March 26, 752 to April 26, 757. Stephen II was a descendant of Roman nobility who prior to his election to the papacy entered the clerical ranks and served in the papal administration. His social status and his service in papal governance marked the convergence of the interests in controlling the papal office held by two groups which had grown increasingly powerful in Rome during the century prior to 752: the landed aristocracy which dominated the military establishment and the civil administration of the duchy of Rome and the clerical officials directing the papal administration. As a consequence of the resourcefulness of Stephen's immediate predecessors in both religious and secular affairs and of the increasing inability of the imperial government in Constantinople to exercise effective political authority in Italy and to enforce its policy of iconoclasm, the papacy had by mid-eighth century established de facto control over Rome and its environs and was able to assert considerable influence in central and southern Italy beyond Rome. However, as imperial power in Italy deteriorated, the aggressiveness of the Lombards increased, reaching a climax just before Stephen was elected when King Aistulf (749756), driven by an ambition to unite Italy under lombard rule, seized Ravenna and other key imperial cities and threatened to establish his authority over Rome itself.

Immediately after his election Stephen persuaded Aistulf to agree to a 40-year truce, but the Lombard king soon resumed his aggression. Stephen continued his diplomatic efforts to restrain Aistulf and sought aid from Emperor constantine v. When those measures proved fruitless, he took a fateful step: he initiated measures intended to persuade pepin iii, king of the Franks, to come to the aid of St. Peter and his people. Earlier, Pope grego ry iii (731741) had unsuccessfully appealed to the Franks, but now things had changed. Not only had papal influences in Francia expanded, chiefly through papal support of boniface in his missionary and reforming activities, but also Pepin was indebted to the papacy because of Pope zacharias's approval in 751 for Pepin to deprive the merovingian dynasty of the Frankish throne and to bestow the crown on his own family, the carolin gians. As a consequence of the king's favorable response to the Pope's appeal, Stephen, accompanied by a Frankish escort, was able to depart Rome in October 753 for a trip to the Frankish kingdom. The party stopped briefly in Pavia for one more fruitless effort to make peace with Aistulf.

In January 754 Stephen met Pepin at Ponthion and began a series of negotiations extending over several months. The exact details of these proceedings have been subject to considerable disagreement. At Ponthion Pepin promised under oath to accede to Stephen's request for protection and to restore territories that rightly belonged to St. Peter. That promise was part of an alliance of friendship, peace, and love entered into by pope and king, creating bonds deeply rooted in religious convictions. After their initial meeting Stephen went to the abbey of st. denis to spend the winter. Pepin tried unsuccessfully through a series of diplomatic exchanges to persuade Aistulf to concede territories claimed by the pope, making it increasingly obvious that a military campaign would be necessary. Before undertaking such a campaign Pepin had to win the support of significant numbers of Frankish magnates who were reluctant to abandon the longstanding friendship between the Lombards and the Franks and uneasy about any move that would enhance the power of their new king and his family. But Pepin won the day, perhaps helped by the presence of the pope to remind the nobles of the plight of St. Peter. At a general assembly held at Quierzy in April 754 the Frankish magnates approved the Italian campaign. On that occasion Pepin also spelled out in detail the territories claimed by the pope. That list, involving most of central and southern Italy and embracing both Lombard and imperial territory, must surely have been compiled with the advice of Stephen. Perhaps Stephen's thinking about what belonged to the papacy was influenced by a famous forgery, the Donation of Constantine, which came into existence in Rome about this time. In July 754 the final actions in shaping the Frankish-papal alliance unfolded at the abbey of St. Denis. Stephen solidified Pepin's claim to the Frankish throne by anointing him, his queen, and his sons and by forbidding anyone except a member of Carolingian family from ever wearing the Frankish crown. He also bestowed on Pepin and his sons an enigmatic title, patricius Romanorum, apparently intended to provide the legal basis for Pepin's protectorate over St. Peter and his people.

In 755 Pepin led his army into Italy and easily defeated Aistulf. A peace treaty involving the papacy, the Franks, and the Lombards was arranged requiring Aistulf to surrender to the pope territories he had recently seized. Hardly had Pepin departed Italy when Aistulf resumed his attacks on territories claimed by the Pope and threatening Rome itself. Stephen wrote letters to Pepin and to the Frankish clergy, magnates, and army, pleading with them to fulfill their promise to protect the papacy; one of these letters purported to have been written by St. Peter himself. The result was a second Frankish campaign in 756 in which Aistulf was again defeated. During the course of that campaign Pepin was approached by a legate of the emperor in Constantinople demanding the return to their rightful owner of the territories which Aistulf had seized from the empire, a plea that the king rebuffed on the grounds that he could not alienate what belonged to the church of St. Peter, out of love for whom he was acting. Instead, as part of treaty ending the campaign, Pepin commissioned a Frankish agent to oversee the surrender of numerous cities and territories in the Exarchate of Ravenna, the Pentapolis, and Emilia. These territories were then granted in perpetuity to St. Peter in a document that came to be called the Donation of Pepin. Although not embracing all that Pepin had promised at Quierzy in 754, the new acquistions, when added to the Duchy of Rome, constituted the core of an entity often referred to as the "Republic of the Romans" belonging to St. Peter and directed by his vicar, the pope. An independent Papal State destined to endure until the nineteenth century had come into existence.

Stephen had still one more opportunity to strengthen the papal position against the Lombards. When Aistulf died in December 756, a dispute arose over succession to the Lombard throne. Stephen played a decisive role in settling the succession in favor of desiderius, who in return promised to restore still more territory to the Republic of St. Peter. The pope's death in April 757 marked the end of remarkable pontificate. By his skillful diplomacy Stephen II forged an alliance with the ascending Carolingian dynasty willing to act as protector of the Republic of St. Peter and to support its acquisition of territorial possessions sufficient to allow its survival as an independent state. In the immediate setting that success saved the papacy and Rome from absorption into the Lombard kingdom. In a larger sense that alliance in effect severed the bonds that had long linked the papacy to the eastern Roman Empire and cast its lot with the western European Christian community in the process of formation.

See Also: donation of constantine.

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[r. e. sullivan]

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Stephen II (III), Pope

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