The biggest, fakest donation ever

O Constantine, what evil did you sire,
not by your conversion, but by the dower
that the first wealthy Father got from you!1.Dante, The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa, canto 19, lines 115-117, p.244.

Such was Dante’s lament as he surveyed the ditch of the Simonists, head down in flaming pits. He believed that the corruption and greed of the 14th century church could be laid at the feet of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who, in a grand gesture of piety in 335, donated (there’s that word again) all of Italy to the church and the popes that would lead her. That wealth, Dante believed, created a culture of ecclesiastical greed that had infected and weakened the church in his own time.

The pledge in question is called the Donation of Constantine, for that emperor who converted to Christianity in 317 AD. He later moved the capital of the empire to the ancient city of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. The Donation is a document of some 4700 words, in twenty chapters, and it is written in the first person, allegedly by Constantine himself. In the first eleven chapters the author lays out the foundations of Christian theology, and relates the miraculous healing of “a mighty and foul leprosy” that led to his conversion. Pope Sylvester, the man who led him through his experience, is addressed frequently, as are “all his successors, the pontiffs who are about to sit upon the chair of Saint Peter until the end of time…”2.Donation of Constantine, in Carolingian Civilization, A Reader, ch.1, p.14.

The second half of the Donation describes the gifts of property and authority that the emperor granted the church, in order that she might continue her good and essential work in the world. The church’s spiritual authority is established: “And we ordain and decree that he [the pope] shall have the supremacy as well over the four chief seats – Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Jerusalem – as also over all the churches of God in the whole world.”, p.18. Of course, a pope must have a seat of power: “…to Saint Sylvester, our father and the chief pontiff and universal pope of the city of Rome, and to all the succeeding pontiffs, who until the end of the world shall sit on the seat of Saint Peter, we concede and, by this present, do confer, our imperial Lateran Palace.”4.c.14, pp.19-20. The popes lived and worked in the Lateran palace until it was gutted by fires in the 14th century.

It is not until chapter 17 that we get to the idea that has exercised historians and incensed Dante.

Behold that, in imitation of our own power, so that the supreme pontificate might not deteriorate, but rather be adorned with even more power and glory than the dignity of an earthly government, we are handing over to that blessed pontiff, our father Sylvester, the universal pope, our palace, the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts and cities of Italy or of the western regions. We are relinquishing them, by our inviolable gift, to the power and sway of himself and his successors. We do decree this by our sacred charter and imperial constitution, that it shall be so arranged, and do concede that these [properties and rights] shall lawfully remain with the holy Roman, p.21.

If only all real estate transactions were this simple. In three sentences Constantine gave the papacy all of Italy. With the land, of course, came all of the wealth, income, and military might that went with it. Now that’s a donation! So how was it that by the eighth century pope Stephen found himself buying his own land back from the Lombards and begging for Frankish assistance?

Because there was no Donation of Constantine! While allegedly written in the fourth century, it is never mentioned in the eighth century sources, even when having this document would have been most helpful. For example, when trying to convince your new friends the Franks of the rightness of your cause. The Royal Annals don’t mention the Donation, nor does Fredegar’s Continuator. (Although J.M. Wallace-Hedrill does remark “the Continuator says nothing about Stephen II’s subsequent re-anointing of the king in Saint-Denis (28 July), nor of his producing, at about this time, the famous forgery known as the Donation of Constantine, to justify his claims in Italy.”6.Fredegar, n.5, p.104. Wallace-Hedrill doesn’t explain why he thinks the document was presented to Pepin at this time.) Both of these sources spend some good amount of time talking about the negotiations between Pepin and Stephen, and you would think that one of them would at least have mentioned it.

Even more damning is the silence of the Liber Pontificalis. King Pepin, before whom such a document would certainly have been laid, is mentioned more than a dozen times. How could the memorialist of the papacy itself fail to mention something like the Donation? Yet there is no mention of the document, or even Emperor Constantine, in any of the lives of the eighth century popes.

Pepin’s campaigns against the Lombards, while succesful, as we have seen in earlier posts, did not bear easy fruit, and the popes constantly fretted that promises and treaty obligations were not being met. A stream of papal letters implored Pepin, and later his sons Charles and Carloman, to ensure the fulfillment all that had been promised by “the abominable people of the Lombards.” Those letters, however, also fail to mention the Donation. It is not until 778, writing in a similar vein, does Pope Hadrian say to Charles, “And just as, in the times of the blessed Roman pontiff Silvester, God’s holy, catholic and apostolic Roman church was raised up and exalted by and through the bounty of, the most pious Constantine of holy memory, great emperor, who deigned to bestow power in these western regions upon it…”7.King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, Caroline Code, 17, p.287.

The authenticity of the of Donation was suspected centuries ago. In the fifteenth century Lorenzo Valla published a critique of the Donation.8.Valla’s critique, in the original and English, as well as the Donation itself, are available at The text has been subjected to numerous analyses in the last hundred years, primarily by German scholars, but Thomas Noble has also looked at the question.

As to the date, “There is gradually emerging a consensus that the famous forgery was fabricated between the pontificates of Stephen II and Hadrian. It seems clear that the text was written in the Lateran by a Roman cleric. … Thus, a date between the early 750s and 771.”9.Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.135, and n.173. As to the purpose of the document, “Ordinarily it is argued that the famous forgery was produced to legitimize papal usurpation in Italy. This argument is not compelling,” and in fact, “the document was almost totally devoid of practical significance or application in the time of its fabrication.”10.Ibid, pp.136-137. Well, if not for that, then what?

“Constantine’s supposed orthodoxy was being sharply contrasted with the heresy, that is with the iconoclasm, of recent emperors. Also the pope’s unfettered right to define and control the dogmas of the catholica fides was asserted in very strong language. One cannot help but see in this an affirmation of the pope’s right, indeed duty, to condemn the iconoclasm of the Byzantine Church.”11.Ibid. There is a small of echo of Noble’s assertion (which he does not note, for whatever that might mean) in the text of the Donation itself. In chapter 8 Constantine relates a dream he had of Peter and Paul, and “we began to ask that same most blessed pope whether he had some clear image [a painting] of those apostles, so that, from that likeness, we might learn if they were those whom the revelation had shown to us.”12.Donation of Constantine, in Carolingian Civilization, A Reader, ch.8, p.17.

To me it seems a clear jab at Constantinople, during the height of the Iconoclast Controversy, pointing out how images could have helped convert Constantine. Even when crafting a forged document for the ages, no one can resist getting a good dig in.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Dante, The Inferno, trans. Mark Musa, canto 19, lines 115-117, p.244.
2. Donation of Constantine, in Carolingian Civilization, A Reader, ch.1, p.14.
3. ch.12, p.18.
4. c.14, pp.19-20.
5. ch.17, p.21.
6. Fredegar, n.5, p.104.
7. King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, Caroline Code, 17, p.287.
8. Valla’s critique, in the original and English, as well as the Donation itself, are available at
9. Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.135, and n.173.
10. Ibid, pp.136-137.
11. Ibid.
12. Donation of Constantine, in Carolingian Civilization, A Reader, ch.8, p.17.

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