Black smoke, white smoke – revolution

Usurper, interloper, anti-pope: these are some of the epithets used to describe Constantine II, who held the papal seat for just over a year. Getting him into the papal shoes involved a march on Rome with a mass of peasants to force the issue, and a threatened beat down of a bishop. Overturning his election resulted in one of the bloodiest purges in papal history. Let’s dig in.

The death of Paul I on 26 June 767 marked the culmination of decades of ‘career popes.’ These were men who had joined the ranks of the religious orders at a young age, climbed the ladder of Lateran1.The Lateran Palace was the home of popes for a thousand years, and the base of papal power during that time. positions their entire lives, before their peers elected them to the supreme office. These popes followed a more or less common policy regarding theological questions and relations between the Papal States and foreign entities. They distrusted the Lombards, sought Frankish assistance in return for the bestowal of kingship, and sought to separate themselves from the authority of the Byzantine empire to the east. For the sake of convenience, and to align with current scholarly verbiage, let’s call them the ‘clerical party.’

But these clerics were not the only power in Rome and surrounding areas. Earthly power and authority, as was true throughout Europe, was held by a nobility such as dukes and counts. We’ll call them the ‘aristocratic party.’ “During the first seven decades of the eighth century, in Rome, the clerical and military orders had usually worked together harmoniously, not only because their domestic interests converged, but also because they faced common external threats.” But the papacy was the jewel in the crown. “The clerical bureaucracy, with the pope at its head, was larger, wealthier, and more sophisticated than anything that the military aristocracy could, or in fact did, erect to confront it.”2.Noble, The Republic of St Peter, p.113.

Paul’s reign carried (sadly) unspecified seeds of conflict between the aristocratic and clerical parties. This conflict finally boiled over at his demise, and ended with mobs in the street, torture and death.

We have only one source for what occurred, the Liber Pontificalis and its Life of Stephen III, who succeeded Constantine. The author didn’t want to honor Constantine or imply that his time as pope were at all legitimate, so the story of Constantine was included as a prequel of sorts to his successor. Those scholars who have analyzed the work have not found fault with the essential narrative it describes, and so I am going to rely on them. All of the direct quotes are from the vita, chapters 1 – 22, so I haven’t bothered to include specific citations for every quote.

Evidently Paul’s rule was not an easy one for the Duchy of Rome and the region it controlled. A certain Toto, duke of the town of Nepi, had gone so far as to enter Rome with the intention of killing Paul, but was dissuaded from doing so by Christopher, the most senior of the men who surrounded the pope. Paul died soon after in any event,3.Another of the oddly convenient deaths that seem to follow important men in the eighth century. but Toto’s aims were not limited to the elimination of a troublesome pope – he wanted to make sure no pope like that would trouble he and his comrades ever again.

Christopher had extracted a promise from Toto that he would not kill Paul (a promise Toto seems to have kept), and nor would he interfere in the papal election or allow “rustics” into the streets (a promise Toto broke). He “gathered a sizable army and a band of peasants from Nepi itself and the other cities of Tuscia” and brought them into Rome. Acting from his house in the city, he had his brother Constantine, a layman, acclaimed pope by the mob. He then found a bishop to administer the prayers to formally make Constantine first a cleric, then a subdeacon, then a deacon, and finally pope.4.Bishop George of Palestrina begged Toto not to compel him to perform these rites, so the duke’s men began to “threaten him violently.” Faced with a beating (or worse) he complied. But fate was not kind; later in the vita the chronicler notes that George’s right hand soon withered, and then he also withered and died. The clerical party did not like it, but between force of arms and by all the proper rites Constantine was now pope, and he fulfilled the papal office for more than a year.

Constantine immediately attempted to shore up his position with allies near and far. He wrote two letters to Pepin, king of the Franks, but received no responses. On the face of it this is odd, because it was Pope Zachary who opened the door in 751 for Pepin’s coronation as king, and Pope Stephen II who actually came to Francia to anoint and crown him in 754. There could be several reasons for Pepin’s silence. There was no reason for Pepin to involve himself in papal politics, particularly something as messy as a contested election. He was also, as we have noted at length, bogged down in the last phase of a war which had ground on for more than seven years. His silence was probably a result of several factors.

Christopher and his son Sergius, leaders of the clerical party, were also busy, and hatched a plot most daring and bold. They begged Constantine to allow them to remove themselves from the scene, and retire to a monastery. Constantine, no doubt pleased at the prospect of two of his most fervent and powerful opponents removing themselves from the field, granted his permission. He could not have imagined their actual destination.

Father and son did indeed reach the monastery they told the pope about, but from there made for duke Theodicius of Spoleto, in Lombard territory! The Lombards and the popes had been skirmishing for control of various parts of Italy for a long time. For the sake of clerical control of the papacy Christopher was willing to put aside decades of enmity, and reach across the aisle to their bitterest enemies. And it worked. Theodicius sent them along to the Lombard King Desiderius, who must have been shocked to see the two men on his doorstep. The possibility that the next pope might owe him the office must have been enormously tantalizing, and he was keen to strike while this wholly unexpected opportunity presented itself. He appointed a personal envoy to the Christopher and Sergius, a priest named Waldipert, and sent them all back to Spoleto to prepare an expedition to march on Rome.

How did this counter-revolution play out? With betrayal, beatings, and blood. More next time!

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The Lateran Palace was the home of popes for a thousand years, and the base of papal power during that time.
2. Noble, The Republic of St Peter, p.113.
3. Another of the oddly convenient deaths that seem to follow important men in the eighth century.
4. Bishop George of Palestrina begged Toto not to compel him to perform these rites, so the duke’s men began to “threaten him violently.” Faced with a beating (or worse) he complied. But fate was not kind; later in the vita the chronicler notes that George’s right hand soon withered, and then he also withered and died.

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