The United States has had (as of December, 2014) 44 presidents. Impressive. There have been about 52 kings and queens of England, dating back to the late 10th century. Very impressive, although of course the power of the current monarch is but the palest shadow of the authority that the scepter once commanded. Other European monarchies continue to perform ceremonial duties across the continent, but parliamentary democracy holds sway, right?
Almost. There is one holdout, an absolute monarch who answers to no one but God, makes his own laws, and has ruled without much change or challenge for almost two thousand years. The pope, head of the Roman Catholic Church, rules without peer in Vatican City, nestled in Rome, Italy. Beginning with Peter, apostle of Christ, there have been 266 popes. Now that is impressive.
The pope had a three-fold role in the eighth century. Like today, he was the spiritual leader of the followers of the Western Church, a spiritual role, as well as the head of the hierarchy of that church, a role that is both spiritual and temporal. His third role is one that we don’t see much in the modern era, that of a landed prince, a maker of treaties and a mediator of the powers arrayed around and against him. The eighth century saw a transition in this last role, as the orientation of the papacy moved from east to north.
When the century opened the pope had been a creature of Byzantium. Appointed by Byzantine Emperor, usually from a Byzantine province, and beholden to the Emperor’s emissary in Italy. Around mid-century the papacy successfully broke from Byzantium and became more connected to Europe. Weaving throughout this transition are the Lombards, the Germanic tribe who, when they settled in northern Italy in the fifth century, provided the urgent impetus for the papacy to become more Euro-centric.
After the Roman emperors moved out of Rome in the fourth century, Italy became a province in the new empire. By the seventh century the emperor, based in Constantinople, ruled Italy through an official called an exarch, who was based in the city of Ravenna, on the Adriatic. The lands over which the exarch ruled were known as the Exarchate of Ravenna. The exarch didn’t rule over all of Italy, however. The papacy commanded on lands around Rome. But more important were the Lombards, who had settled in northern Italy. The conflict between Rome, the exarch, and the Lombards drove the politics of the region until achieving a resolution of sorts in the mid-eighth century.
The pope was the least powerful of the three factions. The papacy, as an institution, apparently realized that its future lay in an alliance with the great kings across the Alps, the Franks. This effort culminated in the coronation of Pepin le Bref in 751, a favor no doubt hastened by the Lombard defeat of the Exarchate in that same year. In return for this papal sanction of the Merovingian overthrow, Pepin agreed to come to the pope’s aid in his continuing conflicts with the Lombards. The alliance was further deepened when the pope went north in 754 to re-anoint Pepin, Queen Bertrada, and their children, Carloman and Charles.
One of the favors that Pepin bestowed in return was a document known as the Donation of Pepin. The king promised the pope certain lands in central Italy that would be handed over once the Franks had defeated the Lombards. With this done in 756, the Franks and the popes continued to strengthen and extend their relationship.
Charles ruled as king after Pepin died (for a few years as “co-king” with his younger brother Carloman), and enjoyed good relations with the popes. The good relations culminated in the most famous event of the age when Pope Leo III came north and crowned Charles as Emperor on Christmas day in the year 800.