Black smoke, white smoke – red blood

In my last post Pope Constantine II won a contentious papal election, in a revolt of the ‘aristocratic party’ against the ‘clerical party’ for control of the Duchy of Italy (the nascent Papal States). But the clerical party, in a daring move, enlisted the help of the despised Lombard King Desiderius to regain the papacy. Desiderius, eager for the chance to have the pope deeply in his debt, ordered the Lombard priest Waldipert to assist papal clericists Christopher and his son Sergius, and sent them all to Spoleto to gather Lombard forces for the counter-revolution.

In Spoleto the clerics gathered a force of soldiery and marched on Rome.1.Liber Pontificalis, n.96, ch.7, p.91. As I mentioned in the previous post, virtually the only source for these events is the vita of Stephen III from the Book of the Popes. I won’t cite this source every time, but you can go read chapters 1 – 22. On 28 July 778, a little more than a year after Constantine’s consecration, the combined Lombard and clerical forces took possession of the Salarian gate. A fair question to ask is, what had the clerical party been doing for the past year? Aside from the plot that brought them to see Desiderius, no one knows. Biding their time, hoping for a miracle, and hatching schemes that never came to fruition are probably fair guesses. But now, in heat of a Roman summer, they were poised to turn the tide, and had yet another trick up their robes.

While the Lombard forces waited on a hill outside the Roman walls, Toto, leader of the aristocratic party that had put Constantine on the throne, launched an attack on these forces of restoration (as he must have seen them), but he was killed in the fighting. Constantine, hearing the news of the death of his patron and protector, and brother, let us not forget, fled the Lateran palace to the sanctuary of a local church. The Roman militia arrived, however, and placed him in custody.

Waldipert, probably acting on standing orders from Desiderius, found a local priest named Philip and quickly had him voted and consecrated pope! His pontificate didn’t last long (it must be one of the shortest on record), but he got a good meal out of it.

And following custom they took him into the Savior’s basilica. There the prayer was said by a bishop in pursuance of ancient custom, and he gave the Peace to everyone and they brought him into the Lateran patriarchate. There too, sitting on the pontifical throne, he again gave the customer Peace; he went aloft and as pontiffs normally do he held a banquet, with some of the church’s chief men and the militia’s chief officers sitting with him.

Christopher, seeing defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory, took a bold and risky step, and publicly proclaimed that he would never again enter the gates of Rome unless Philip was removed. No doubt Christopher knew that Desiderius had some kind of plan in mind for Lombard aggrandizement, but counted on his popularity with the Roman people to seize control of the situation. Philip, probably an unwilling participant from the beginning, scurried back to his monastery, and was never heard from again.

As a side note, Christopher must rank with the greatest schemers of this era, if not all of history. He extracted a (later broken) promise from Toto not to interfere in the papal election, made his own promise (later broken) to the pope to retire to a monastery, evidently pledged some kind of quid pro quo (also broken later) to the Lombard king, made a daring public and undefended stand to force the withdrawal of yet another pope, until finally his party emerged triumphant. Well played, sir, well played.

In Rome the way forward was clear. Christopher gathered together everyone in Rome who mattered, and opened a conclave of sorts to select a new pope. “They deliberated and with absolute and total unanimity they all agreed on holy Stephen.” Stephen was solid member of the clerical party, and with his election the right order of things had been restored. Punishment and cleansing were the next tasks of the day. Unfortunately for Constantine and those who followed him, the mob ruled the streets. That, at least, is what the author of Stephen’s life would like history to believe. The author mentions “plague-ridden instigators of evil” who egged on those “perverted individuals” actually responsible for the violence.

The first victims were Theodore, one of Constantine’s leading counselors, and Passibus, Constantine’s other brother. Both had their eyes gouged out and tongues cut off. Theodore was thrown into a dungeon and later died of thirst. Constantine, however, required public humiliation. “[H]e was brought out into the open; they fixed a huge weight to his feet and made him sit on a horse in a saddle designed for a woman.” The day before Stephen’s consecration Constantine was officially deposed. “Maurianus the subdeacon came forward, removed the stole from his neck, threw it at his feet, and then cut off his papal shoes.”

The mob’s blood lust had not been sated. Forces from Rome, Tuscany, and Campania mustered and marched on the town of Alatri, where they extracted a follower of Toto named Gracilis, brought him to Rome, and then “gouged out his eyes and removed his tongue.” After that the force “went to the Cella Nova monastery where Constantine the intruder into the apostolic see was confined; they forced him out of the monastery, gouged out his eyes and then left him blind in the street.” One more victim remained. Waldipert, despite taking refuge in “God’s mother the ever-virgin St Mary’s church called ad martyres,” and while “he was holding the image of God’s mother,” was taken to “the foul prison called Ferrata.” A few days later they put out his eyes and cut out his tongue, and sent him to a monastery, where he soon died.

While the mob dispensed victor’s justice, Stephen worked to solidify his rule. He sent word to Pepin of his election, and also requested that the king send a dozen bishops to a synod in Rome to discuss the happenings of the last year. By this time Pepin had died, but Charles and Carloman received the papal envoy warmly, and nominated the bishops as requested.

Once everyone was in Rome the synod was convened, and it was time to enact the final, formal denouement to Constantine’s time as pope. The first act of the synod was to put him on trial. Somewhat surprisingly, given his position and physical state (“now eyeless”, as the vita notes), Constantine mounted a vigorous defense.

He professed in front of everyone that he had been pressurized by the people, elected by force and taken under compulsion into the Lateran Patriarchate, owing to those burdens and grievances that lord pope Paul had caused the Roman people. Falling to the ground, with his arms stretched out on the pavement, he wept that he was guilty and had sinned more times than there were sands in the sea, and implored pardon and mercy from that sacerdotal council. They had him lifted up from the ground and that day passed no sentence against him.

The next day, however, Constantine pushed his luck a little too far. The synod did not appreciate his references to previous examples of layman being consecrated to high clerical office, and “they had him buffeted on the neck and ejected him from that church.” Next the bishops turned their attention to reversing all of Constantine’s acts, and demoted all priests and bishops whom he had elevated. After that the council strengthened the canons to ensure that “no layman should ever presume to be promoted to the sacred honor of the pontificate, nor even anyone in orders, unless he had risen through the separate grades and had been made cardinal deacon or priests.” They really were determined to root out any and all evidence of Constantine’s time in office.

In all fairness, Stephen and the bishops did not excuse their own behavior during the past year. Everyone confessed “that all of them had sinned in that they had taken communion from Constantine’s hands. So as a result a penance was imposed on them all.” The nature of the penance is not documented, which is too bad. But we can probably be certain that they didn’t cut out the tongues that had received communion from the ‘intruder’.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Liber Pontificalis, n.96, ch.7, p.91. As I mentioned in the previous post, virtually the only source for these events is the vita of Stephen III from the Book of the Popes. I won’t cite this source every time, but you can go read chapters 1 – 22.

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