Stephen III (IV), Pope

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Pontificate, Aug. 7, 768 to Jan. 24, 772. A Sicilian by birth, Stephen came to Rome at an early age and became a priest serving in the papal bureaucracy under Popes stephen ii (752757) and paul i (757767). During their pontificates the clerical element governed the Papal State with a strong hand and played a key role in establishing a peace in Italy that met the interests of the papacy, the lombards, and the franks. With the death of Pope Paul I, a crisis developed within the Papal State that placed its very existence in jeopardy.

The crisis began with a disputed election to replace Paul I. Dissatisfied with clerical domination and anxious to have a larger voice in selecting the official who now controlled the Papal State, a faction representing the military aristocracy, led by Duke Toto of Nepi, used force to elevate to the papal office a laymen, Constantine, Toto's brother, who was hastily ordained as deacon to qualify him for the papal office. In the face of what they considered an illegitimate election, the leaders of the clerical party, the primicerius of notaries Christopher and his son Sergius, fled Rome and sought support from the Lombard king, Desiderius. Anxious to gain influence in Rome by controlling the papal office, Desiderius provided troops which allowed Christopher and Sergius to recapture Rome and depose Pope constantine (II) after a pontificate lasting a year. Thereupon, the priest Waldipert, an agent of Desiderius who accompanied the Lombard forces that ousted Constantine, arranged for the election of a certain Philip to the papal office. Christopher soon rallied sufficient support to depose Philip and arrange for the election of Stephen, a representative of the clerical party in Rome.

Stephen III's election was followed by violent measures taken against the faction who had elected Constantine as pope. Among the victims were Constantine himself, who was blinded, and Waldipert, the agent of Desiderius, whose murder made the Lombard king a bitter enemy of Christopher and his party. Stephen remained passive in the face of these atrocities, suggesting that he was under the influence of Christopher and Sergius. One of the new Pope's first acts was to send a letter to pepin iii, king of the Franks, asking him to confirm the Frankish-papal alliance and to send bishops to Rome to participate in a synod that would deal with Constantine. Pepin was dead when the papal message reached Francia, but his successors, carloman and charlemagne, agreed to Stephen's requests. With thirteen Frankish bishops participating the Lateran synod of 769 condemned the election of Constantine and nullified all his acts. Measures were adopted to limit eligibility for the papal office to a restricted number of clerics and to allow only the clergy to participate in papal elections; members of the laity were assigned only a ceremonial role in the election process. Although these provisions marked an immediate victory for the clerical bureaucracy, they failed to take into account the social and political realities in the Papal State and thus deepened the tensions between the clerical bureaucracy and the military aristocracy. The synod also condemned the acts of the council of Hiereia (754), which had reaffirmed the policy of iconoclasm pursued by the imperial government in Constantinople.

Other problems emerged to threaten the security of the Papal State. Papal authority in Ravenna was challenged by a newly elected archbishop anxious to assert his autonomy and extend his control over the territory surrounding Ravenna. He won the support of desideri us, who became increasingly hostile toward Rome after his rebuff when Stephen was elected. More ominous were developments in the Frankish kingdom which put in doubt the Frankish protectorate over the Papal State and Frankish aid in gaining possession of territories which the papacy claimed were owed to St. Peter. Before his death in 768 Pepin III created a kingdom for each of his sons, Carloman and Charlemagne. The new kings soon became rivals. One of the results of that rivalry was a move, perhaps initiated by Desiderius, to form an alliance between the Franks and the Lombards to be sealed by a marriage arrangement that would link the two royal families, a prospect that Desiderius certainly welcomed as a way of undermining the Frankish-papal alliance. When Stephen heard of this possibility, he wrote to Carloman and Charlemagne, bitterly denouncing the Lombards as loathsome, diabolical barbarians unworthy of association with the Franks and reminding the kings that they already had wives who could not be set aside according to canon law. His effort came to naught; in 770 Bertrada, the mother of the Frankish kings, made a journey to Pavia and Rome during which she arranged such an alliance to be sealed by the marriage of Charlemagne to the daughter of Desiderius. Bertrada was able to convince Stephen III that the alliance offered advantages to the Pope, including Desiderius' willingness to restore lands to the Papal State and Charlemagne's support for papal rights in Ravenna. In fact, these conditions were met in early 771, assuring the papacy of continued Frankish protection of the Papal State from the Lombards.

In Rome the formation of the Frankish-Lombard alliance was opposed by Christopher and Sergius, who now sought the support of Carloman as way of sustaining the Frankish presence in Rome. Some evidence suggests that Stephen accepted the Frankish-Lombard alliance because it offered an opportunity to escape domination by Christopher and Sergius. Perhaps as a result of the efforts of the papal chamberlain, Paul Afiarta, an agent of Desiderius, Stephen became convinced that Christopher, Sergius, and Carloman's agent in Rome were conspiring to murder him. As a result the pope met Desiderius in person to initiate actions that resulted in the deposition of their common enemies, Christopher and Sergius. Their fall opened the way for the ascendancy of Paul Afiarta, who aspired to assume the papal office and who seemed to dominate Stephen during the last months of his pontificate. During those same months the scene changed elsewhere. Desiderius, described by the pope only shortly before as "his most excellent son," refused to make any restitutions to the Papal State. His cause suffered a setback when Charlemagne repudiated his Lombard wife, thus breaking the Frankish alliance with the Lombards. When Carloman died in December 771, Charlemagne assumed his kingdom, disregarding the claims of Carloman's sons who, with their mother, sought refuge at the Lombard court. When Stephen III died in January 772, the future of the Republic of St. Peter was far less certain than it had been when he was consecrated pope.

See Also: iconoclasm

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[r. e. sullivan]

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Stephen III (IV), Pope

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