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.

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Gregory II: the schism begins

The pontificate of pope Gregory II marked the beginning of the end of the old “Byzantine papacy,” and the start of a new, western-facing papacy. Gregory opposed the Byzantine emperor on new taxes, inaugurated a muscular regional policy to oppose Lombard expansionism, and implacably fought the eastern empire’s policy of Iconoclasm. The popes that succeeded Gregory continued his policies, eventually culminating the coronation of Pepin the Short and the establishment of the ‘Papal States’ that continued until the 20th century. Let’s take a look.

Gregory II (his original name is not known) was born to a noble Roman family in 669. After holding a number of ecclesiastical posts he was elected pope on 19 May 715, and held the papacy until his death on 11 February 731. He is first notable to history for his work with Boniface, the English monk who proselytized among the Germans. During this period the papacy became increasingly concerned with converting German lands.1.Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.32. Boniface, then named Wynfrith, first worked among the Frisians, then traveled to Rome in 717. Wynfrith impressed Gregory, who renamed him Boniface and sent him to Germany.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.32.

Franks and Byzantines, but not Charlemagne

After last week’s overview of the Byzantine empire, let’s now look at what the Byzantines meant to the Franks and the rest of western Europe. Strictly for the sake of convenience, we’ll take it up to 768, when Charlemagne ascended to the Frankish throne.

First, the obvious: this is the Dark Ages, and there’s not a lot of primary evidence. This is best exemplified by a scholar of the Carolingian economy: “Our information on goods imported through Venice or other Italian ports from the eastern Mediterranean into western Europe in the Carolingian period is nearly non-existent.”1.Verhulst, Carolingian Economy, p.107. Nice. But we do have some records to review.

Italy was the nexus between east and west, as it had been in the heyday of the Roman empire. Most of what we know is through the context of theology and relations between Rome and Constantinople. During the “Twenty Years of Anarchy” through which the eastern empire suffered in the first decade of the eighth century there was little of note going on between Greece and Italy. Once the empire stabilized, the papacy was alarmed to the see emerge the first dictates of the Iconoclast Controversy. Along with Charlemagne and the Battle of Poitiers, this is a subject about which even non-specialists may have heard.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Verhulst, Carolingian Economy, p.107.