Donations that don’t fit in the Pope’s donation box

In the course of the eighth century the Roman Catholic church received several ‘donations’ of land in Italy. These donations expanded not just the landholdings of the nascent Papal States, but the very conception of the pope as a secular ruler. As the eighth century opened there were three great political factions, whose dealings and interactions formed the foundation of our concerns.

The Byzantine emperor, who was in Constantinople, controlled smallish areas of Italian land, primarily along the Adriatic and Mediterranean coastlines. The capital of the emperor’s holdings was at Ravenna, and his representative there was called the exarch. The pope, a nominal subject of the emperor, ruled over Rome and some associated lands. The lands of the emperor and pope formed a bloc that started near Venice, included the cities of the Pentapolis and Revenna, a land bridge across the Apennines mountains, and Rome and its ports. Byzantine territory also included the heel and toe of the Italian boot, as well as Sicily. But the bulk of Italy was in the hands of the Lombards, who controlled most of the valley of the Po river, including the major cities of Milan and Pavia, the Lombard capital. To the east of the Byzantine lands (across the Byzantine ‘bridge’ between Rome and Ravenna), lay the duchy of Spoleto, while southeast of Spoleto and Rome was the duchy of Benevento. Those two duchies, while Lombard, exercised almost complete independence from the king in Pavia.

The geopolitical situation was obviously fraught with opportunities for gain and loss on all sides. The Lombards itched for more territory. The emperor and the exarch were fearful of territorial encroachments by the Lombards and ecclesiastical dissent and discord by the pope. The pope feared Lombard expansion, and was resentful of imperial edicts that did not respect the will of the Roman people.

Into this tangled web entered Liutprand, who in 712 became king of the Lombards. His recalcitrant dukes in Spoleto and Benevento itched to take advantage of the precarious situation, and in 717 the starting gun fired. First out of the blocks was the Beneventon Duke Romuald. “[T]he Lombards, though pretending peace, seized the Castrum of Cumae… The holy pontiff urged and advised the Lombards to return it… he was even willing to give them many gifts to get them to restore it. But in their haughtiness they would endure neither to hear his advice nor to return it.”1.Liber Pontificalis, 91, ch.7, p.7. Cumae was on the road from Rome to Naples, and its seizure cut that vital link.

“Then the Lombards seized the Castrum of Narni.”2.Liber Pontificalis, 91, ch.13, p.9. Here enters Duke Faraold of Spoleto, who took that possession from the Duchy of Rome, which was situated on the land bridge between Rome and the Pentapolis. Finally, to the north, “Liutprand king of the Lombards in a general campaign proceeded to Ravenna and besieged it for some days, and seizing the Castrum of Classe they took many captives and removed untold wealth.”3.ibid. Paul the Deacon also speaks of the conquest. “At this time king Liutprand besieged Ravenna and took Classis and destroyed it.”4.History of the Lombards, bk.VI, ch.XLIX, p.289.

While all three rulers launched near simultaneous land grabs, it seems unlikely that this was a coordinated Lombard attack. “Liutprand had next to no power in the southern duchies and could neither have caused nor prevented the actions of the dukes.”5.Noble, Republic of St Peter, p.25. Coordinated or not, Pope Gregory II had to respond.

Gregory was not concerned with Classe, which was the emperor’s problem, and in fact it was not returned to the Exarchate, but stayed with Liutprand. But Cumae was returned to Pope Gregory II. “[T]he way in which this was accomplished was rich with implications for the future.”6.ibid, p.26. The pope threatened and pleaded, but also took direct action.

[He]supplied leadership by devoting himself to advising the duke and people of Naples, writing to them every day how they were to act. Obeying his instruction they adopted a plan and entered the walls of that Castrum by force in the quiet of the night… they killed about 300 Lombards including their gastald, and they captured more than 500 and took them to Naples. In this way the managed to get the Castrum back; even so the hope pope paid the 70 lb of gold he had promised for its ransom.”7.Liber Pontificalis, 91, ch.7, p.7.

Interestingly this combination of combat and ransom payment was termed a “donation” by the church, and “the recovered public land was now treated by the pope as part of the patrimony of the church.”8.Liber Pontificalis, 91, n.28, p.7.

In 727 another piece of Roman territory was taken by Liutprand, that of Sutri, which is about 25 miles northwest of Rome. The Lombards held the town for 140 days before again succumbing to a combination of pleas and gold. “But the pontiff wrote unremittingly to the king of the Lombards to urge him – though he also had to give many figts and all but strip himself of his entire wealth. So the king restored it and presented it by issuing a donation to the blessed apostles Peter and Paul.”9.Liber Pontificalis, 91, ch.21, p.14.

Narni, which had been taken by Liutprand in 717, remained with the Lombards for several decades, but in 742 Liutprand was waging war against the dukes of Spoleto and Benevento. Pope Zacharias saw an opportunity in the upheaval, and in a series of meetings with King Liutprand arranged to have some papal territories returned to Rome. “He [Liutprand] confirmed these arrangements by a donation, in the Saviour’s oratory, built in the his name inside St Peter’s church. And in the title of donation to St Peter prince of the apostles, he regranted the patrimony of Sabina, which had been stolen nearly 30 years ago, those of Narni too…”10.Liber Pontificalis, 93, ch.8-9 p.38.

You may well be asking yourself, as I did, why call these clearly extortionate outcomes “donations.” The key is to remember that it is the church calling them donations, and not the Lombard king who received so much gold to return territories he had conquered from the church. As noted at the beginning of this post, the church was in a precarious position, and had to put the best possible spin on outcomes that she could barely affect. Calling land that had been stolen, and then blackmailed to get back, a donation enabled the church to proclaim to the Lombards, the Franks, and the Byzantines that she was carving an independent place for herself in the world, and that others were glad to contribute to her rise.

Next time we’ll look at the largest ‘donation’ of the eighth century, the donation of Pepin.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1, 7. Liber Pontificalis, 91, ch.7, p.7.
2. Liber Pontificalis, 91, ch.13, p.9.
3. ibid.
4. History of the Lombards, bk.VI, ch.XLIX, p.289.
5. Noble, Republic of St Peter, p.25.
6. ibid, p.26.
8. Liber Pontificalis, 91, n.28, p.7.
9. Liber Pontificalis, 91, ch.21, p.14.
10. Liber Pontificalis, 93, ch.8-9 p.38.

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