The Donation of Constantine – a medieval forgery

A 13th C. fresco of Sylvester and Constantine,...

A 13th C. fresco of Sylvester and Constantine

It’s one of the most incredible and audacious forgeries of the medieval church – and nobody doubts it was completely made up.  A letter from the Emperor Constantine to his bishop of Rome, Silvester, granting the city to the church in perpetuity. Could you imagine a Roman emperor – even a Christian one – having agreed to hand over the eternal city to its bishop? Unlikely.

But in the Middle Ages, the shadow of classical antiquity hung over the era. In order to legitimise papal power, it was felt that a document was required that had been signed, sealed and delivered by the emperor himself. So a rather elaborate story was concocted whereby Constantine had contracted leprosy and pope Silvester cured him. Grateful for being healed, Constantine obligingly handed over Rome to the pope.

This was believed to have happened round about the year 315 – in the later Roman imperial period. Constantine had founded a new capital for the empire in what’s now modern Istanbul.  In the letter, he hands over the old imperial capital to Silvester with these words:

“…we convey our imperial Lateran Palace, which is superior to and excels all palaces in the whole world, and further the diadem, which is the crown of our head, and the mitre, as also the superhumeral, that is, the stole which usually surrounds our imperial neck, and the purple cloak and the scarlet tunic and all the imperial robes, also the rank of commanders of the imperial cavalry…”

With a complete absence of Christian modesty, the document goes on to say that clergymen of the Catholic church should have the same dignity as senators and other imperial officers even down to being “adorned” in the same way. The Pontifical Crown should be similarly splendid. God forbid the pope should look second rate in his finery.

And Constantine bequeathed the western empire, in effect, to the stewardship of the pontiff. The most telling sentence is that which describes Constantine as moving his capital to the east “for it is not right that an earthly emperor should have authority there (in Rome), where the rule of priests and the head of the Christian religion have been established by the emperor of Heaven…”

The cynicism of this document is still breathtaking today. It was most probably composed during the reign of Charlemagne in the late 700s AD and was a plea for the newly created papal states to be fully recognised by the then most powerful ruler in western Europe.

It was also a statement of the bishop of Rome’s pre-eminence over the rival patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria. The last three had rather obligingly fallen in to the hands of the invading Arab/Muslim armies thereby removing those competitors for the title of Christian leader.

By the time the Templars came on to the scene in the 12th century, the pope was the undisputed top dog brandishing his fake document – that was surprisingly well accepted by that time. However, as classical scholarship revived in the later Middle Ages voices within and outside the church began to realise it was not genuine. There’s even a joke about it in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

3 Comments on “The Donation of Constantine – a medieval forgery

  1. Pingback: Constantinople - glorious capital of the Byzantine empire! - The Templar Knight

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