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.

The Holy Sepulchre – sacred to the Knights Templar

Crucifixion site
Site of the crucifixion – photo I took during my visit

In 2012, I visited the church of the Holy Sepulchre several times in the heart of Jerusalem. It’s a church that inspired the construction of Templar places of worship from London to Tomar with its distinctive circular shape. The dome of the Holy Sepulchre also appeared on Templar seals

The Holy Sepulchre was originally built by the Romans after they converted to Christianity in the early fourth century CE. It was, they believed, the site of both the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. How did they arrive at this conclusion?

Well, the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, authorised the demolition of a temple to the goddess Venus in order to venerate the place where Christ died to save the sins of humanity. As the temple came tumbling down, a tomb was revealed. All those present decided that it had to be the resting place of the Messiah.

The first church erected by Constantine was a richly decorated affair with brilliant mosaics and a garden with the rock of Golgotha as its centrepiece. From there, the pilgrim would have entered another open space where a rock cut tomb was exposed to the elements. This church was damaged massively by invading Persians in the seventh century CE and then all but flattened by the volatile Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim in 1009. It’s more than likely that Al-Hakim had the tomb of Jesus hacked to bits.

Holy Sepulchre
Photo I took in the crypt 

The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus began funding of a new church decades later but it was never completed.

In fact, when the crusaders invaded Jerusalem in 1099, the church had no roof. It was left to the newly victorious crusaders to put up a new building that would enclose the site of the crucifixion and the tomb, giving the latter it’s own little chapel. This was consecrated in the mid-12th century. The crypt is possibly the most evocative of the Middle Ages and its walls are covered in carved medieval crosses.

Up until the 19th century, you could have seen the tombs of Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin I, the first rulers of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. But they were removed by Greek monks doing repairs. I assume that the ill feeling of the Greek church towards the Latin crusaders had continued from the 12th century to the 19th!

The tomb of Jesus was excavated in 2016 and it revealed the existence of an older tomb under a marble slab placed on the spot where Jesus was said to have been buried. The slab dated to 1555 when the Franciscans carried out major renovation work.

Ethiopian monkOne oddity of the Holy Sepulchre is that the church is divided up between different Christian denominations. Since the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic have been custodians. In the 19th century, the church was divided up again to include the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox. The relationship between these different groups is often competitive and unfriendly.

Priests riot in 2011

Things got ludicrous in 2011 when priests rioted and beat each other with broom handles in a vicious row over who controlled which bit of the church. When I visited, I saw a Coptic Orthodox priest sitting on the roof. Apparently, there is always a Coptic at that spot staking a claim against the Ethiopians. There is also a ladder that has been propped up against a window since 1852 and nobody has moved it because of similar aggro about who can go where and do what.

The tomb of Jesus
Photo I took within the chapel covering the tomb of Jesus


Paganism in Europe at the time of the Templars

Ancient Roman anti-Christian graffiti depicting Jesus as a crucified donkey

We imagine that at the time of the Knights Templar, the whole of Europe was long converted to Christianity. Well, think again. Paganism was persistent for centuries after the Romans adopted the cross under the Emperor Constantine in the year 313.

When Constantine embraced Christianity, it’s estimated about 10% of the population of the empire were on board with the new religion. Many of those were among the elite with local peasant populations holding fast to the old beliefs.

The first century of legalisation saw Christians at each other’s throats over what their faith really meant. Was Jesus truly human? Was he purely spiritual? Could the son really be equal and co-existent with the father? Was there a god of good and a god of evil? Was Jesus a Jew come to fulfil prophecy and the law or something completely new who spoke to gentile and Jew alike?

Blood was spilt over these questions.

Jupiter – didn’t go quietly

But worse for the new religion was the pagans were not prepared to give up quietly. There’s often the impression given that Romans switched peacefully and totally from paganism to Christianity overnight. Simply not true.

The state had to cajole, coerce and threaten capital punishment to bring over the population across the empire. There were even tax breaks for becoming a priest and career opportunities if you just signed on the dotted line!

By the end of the fourth century, an impatient and pious (some might say bigoted) emperor Theodosius began a full-blown programme of temple demolition to enforce Christianity. And not just any old version of the faith. He and successive emperors were determined to root out both non-orthodox variants of Christianity and to stamp out the still very prevalent paganism.

And pagans were not just ignorant rustics. There were aristocrats in Rome and philosophers in Athens and Alexandria who found Christianity vapid, illogical and vulgar. Conservative opinion wanted to retain allegiance to the gods that had brought victory to Rome. They lobbied the emperor strenuously to retain the statue of Victory in the Roman senate.


So resilient was paganism that by the sixth century after Christ, the emperor Justinian was still trying to stamp out non-belief in his court and empire. He threatened both non-orthodox Christians and pagans with capital punishment. And it was Justinian who shut down the famous Athenian academy that had produced the greatest philosophers humanity has ever known.

Eventually, most of western and southern Europe, north Africa and the near Middle East converted – until the arrival of Islam changed the religious dynamic again. But pockets of pagans continued to worship old gods – not least in the Baltics and what is now Russia.

ironlordIron Lord is a Russian movie that depicts Christian conversion in Russia as the Prince of Rostov takes on a pagan cult based around a violent bear!  He kills the bear and the tribe converts.  They convert to what one pagan calls the ‘Greek God’ – namely the version of Christianity that was being promoted by the Byzantine empire, what we now call the eastern orthodox church.

But astonishingly, in the early 13th century, the ‘Old Prussians’ of what is now northern Poland and the Baltic state of Lithuania had still not converted.  Indeed they held out so vigorously that the papacy mounted a full crusade against them, spearheaded by the Teutonic knights – an order not entirely dissimilar to the Templars.

The Teutonic Knights also turned their attention to the Russians, who had adopted the Byzantine version of Christianity, much to the pope’s disgust. However – the knights came a cropper in what is called the Battle of the Ice where the Russians let the ice do the talking.

So, in spite of what you might have thought before, it took nearly a thousand years from the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to finally bring Europe under Christian domination.  And not everybody bowed willingly to the cross.

Christ’s bloodline makes its last stand


constantineIn AD 314, the Roman emperor Constantine issued an edict declaring that Christianity would now be tolerated – a sharp contrast to the persecutions of Christians that had taken place in the last years of his predecessor, the emperor Diocletian.  Constantine was never actually baptised until he was on his deathbed and even then by an Arian Christian bishop, a subset of Christianity regarded as false by the mainstream orthdox church.

His legalisation of Christianity threw up more problems than it solved.  In fact, more Christians would kill each other in the next hundred years in various power and doctrinal struggles than were ever fed to lions by pagan Romans. Arians versus Catholics, Donatists versus those who accepted imperial tolerance, Nestorians, Monophysites and you name it….every shade of conflict you could imagine.

On the surface, Christians would divide over the nature of Christ and the Trinity.  But under the surface, much of this conflict was to do with who exactly would benefit from imperial patronage – as money previously channeled in to pagan temples now flowed in to church coffers.  And on top of this, priests favored by the imperial authorities received tax breaks and access to public money.

The strangest conflict would be the climax of a long running feud between the church in Jerusalem and the bishop of Rome – with his shrill claims to be the true leader of Christianity.  Note that in the first centuries of legally operating, Rome did not command the automatic loyalty and obedience of Christians.  It had to compete with Constantinople, Antioch and especially Alexandria.  Jerusalem also claimed a special place at the heart of the religion.

Pope-Sylvester-IPope Sylvester, first legal bishop of Rome, demanded loyalty to his appointed bishops and deacons but one story runs that in Jerusalem, they did not want to kneel to ‘Greek’ bishops.  Instead, many Christians were still loyal to ‘desposyni’ – descendants of Christ.

According to the Irish priest and some time amateur historian Malachi Martin, a group of these desposyni angrily confronted Pope Sylvester demanding he remove the bishops appointed in Jerusalem and recognise their authority.  They wanted the reinstatement of Jewish law and as descendants of Jesus and his siblings – they insisted on leading the church in the east.

Now, there is some scepticism about the work of Malachi Martin but instead of attacking him, I’m more inclined to think that these kinds of disputes would have arisen and there were likely to be plenty of charlatans and ecclesiastical chancers claiming to be a direct descendant of Jesus.  Why not?  There were imperial handouts going and claiming to be part of the bloodline of Jesus was as good a way as any of getting your hands on some riches.

It didn’t succeed and the desposyni seem to fade from the historical record.

Sun worship versus Christians

Could we have all ended up worshiping the Invincible Sun if the Roman emperor Constantine had opted for Sol Invictus instead of Christianity?

In the early third century AD, the teenage emperor Elegabalus introduced the Syrian sun worship religion to Rome and brought a sacred rock to the city from the Middle East, similar to the meteorite we can see today in Mecca that pre-dates Islam as an object of veneration.  When he was assassinated, the rock was sent back and sun worship set aside, though not forgotten.

Sun worship made an energetic comeback later in that century with Aurelian – the emperor who reunited a fractured Roman empire – constructing a major temple to Sol Invictus in Rome.  It could be argued this was a drift towards monotheism that made it easier for Christianity to sweep away the old polytheistic faith of ancient Rome.

Constantine is best known for embracing Christianity but he seems to have hedged his bets for most of his reign.  I have coins of Constantine that clearly mention Sol Invictus and his arch in Rome references the cult.  He also instituted the day ‘Sunday’ – which ironically became the main day of worship for Christians.

References to the ‘light’ and other sun worship terms and imagery seeped in to Christianity, which at the same time fought a stringent rearguard action against Sol Invictus and similar so-called ‘pagan’ cults.  Historian Ramsay McMullen has clearly evidenced that Christianity had huge difficulty crushing non-Christian religions for more than four hundred years after Constantine.

By the time our beloved Templars came on the scene – there were still curious variants of Christianity, as well as the mainstream Catholic church, where pagan influences like sun worship were still very evident.  Now, the influences are still there – just we don’t notice them anymore.


Top Ten Martyred Saints!

Diocletian – last Roman emperor to persecute the Christians

The Templars loved to worship saints who had given up their lives in name of Christ so here’s a list of top ten martyred saints the knights would have known and possible revered. Many of them were martyred during the reigns of two Roman emperors – Trajan Decius and Diocletian. As a rule, the Romans didn’t ban religions outright. The only criteria for clamping down was disloyalty to the state and sedition.


But as the empire, under increasing attack from stronger enemies, became more unstable – it sought greater unity. These two emperors demanded pledges of loyalty from all citizens and while some Christians went along with this and made the dutiful sacrifice to the emperors at a local temple, others did not. Under the emperor Diocletian in particular, this resulted in a nasty end. Ironically, Diocletian was the last pagan emperor with his successor Constantine embracing Christianity.

  • 14
    Saint Agatha – in some accounts her breasts were cut off, which she carries on a tray in many paintings!

    AGATHA – died 251 CE – during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius who had outlawed Christianity, Agatha was tortured very brutally including being rolled over broken tiles, cut in various places and burning coals applied to her flesh. The incorrupt body was apparently sent to Constantinople centuries later but then parts of Agatha ended up in Catania.

  • ALBAN – died 304 CE (disputed) – an Englishman and a pagan by birth. He hid a priest from the Roman authorities and then to protect him, dressed as the priest when soldiers arrived at his house. The local governor new Alban and asked him to return to the state religion. He refused. After being scourged he was taken to be beheaded but supportive crowds blocked the way and a river had to be crossed. Alban caused the waters to part so he could be martyred for Christ. The executioner was so impressed that he converted on the spot. Both men were then beheaded.
  • EUPLIUS – died 304 CE – like so many of the early martyred saints, this is another one under the reign of Diocletian. He was found reading the gospels and was led to the place of execution with the sacred texts hung round his neck. He had been brutally tortured and beheading was apparently a sweet release.
  • FEBRONIA – early fourth century – like many other young female martyrs of this time, she was said to be exceedingly beautiful and a virgin. She refused to renounce her faith and was roasted on a gridiron, had her teeth knocked out and breasts cut off. Then she was executed. Out of remorse, the uncle of the local Roman prefect was said to have dashed his own brains out.
  • GENESIUS – died 285 CE – yet another Diocletian purge victim. This time starting out in life as a pagan comedian who mocked the Christians but then suddenly realising the error of his ways, converted. The praetorian prefect Plautian reacted by having Genesius stretched on a rack and torn at with hooks before the inevitable beheading.
  • GORDIUS – early fourth century – a Roman soldier who became a Christian. In the town of Caesaria, he was told there were to be games in honour of the god Mars. When Gordius showed up, both pagans and Christians were queueing up for the festivities and entertainment in the arena. So he began insulting Mars and was dragged before the governor who offered him riches to recant. But he wouldn’t. So it was off to the torturer and when that didn’t work, he was burned to death.
  • 6a013485f24774970c019b008c4770970c-800wi
    Lucy and her eyes

    LUCY – died 304 CE – one of the most revered female saints from very early on in the church’s history. Martyred at Syracuse in Sicily, she was reputed to have either gouged out her own eyes to put off a potential suitor (bit extreme!) or they were gouged out by the Romans during her torture. As a result, she is patron saint to the blind.

  • POLYCARP – died 155 – the Knights Templar believed they had the head of Saint Polycarp. He was said to have been a disciple of the apostle Saint John. Polycarp was made bishop of Smyrna before John was banished to the island of Patmos, from where he wrote the Book of Revelation. It’s claimed he was martyred during a persecution by the emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. That is the emperor played by the actor Richard Harris in the movie Gladiator.
  • QUIRINUS – early fourth century – Diocletian abdicated as emperor but his co-emperor Galerius continued the policy of purging Christians. Quirinus was a bishop who was ordered to sacrifice to Jupiter and refused. He was tied to a millstone and chucked in the river. But miraculously, the millstone and Quirinus floated to the top and he continued to preach for a while to the huge crowds. Then he sank and died.
  • VITALIS – first or second century – an early Christian martyr. A similar tale to the above with a refusal to renounce Christ and accept the state gods leading to his execution. What distinguishes this story is that his wife Valeria was then set upon by the pagans and died of her injuries. She was subsequently canonised too. One of the statues in St Peter’s square in Rome is of Vitalis and the Byzantines built a octagonal basilica to him at Ravenna that can still be seen today. It includes a mosaic of the emperor Justinian, a Christian and a Roman ruler.

Couple of things to note.

Many Christians did not wish to be martyred and so sacrificed to the gods. This caused an early division within Christianity where some of the faithful refused to associate with those who had chickened out of martyrdom. These die-hard Christians were called Donatists and held sway in parts of north Africa. Their view did not prevail and even though the martyrs were lauded, those Christians who had chosen the path of compromise prevailed.

Also – just to reiterate that the Roman state was largely disinterested in theology.  It was more focussed on the correct practice of religion and loyalty to the emperor than what the Christians actually stood for. There is an enduring myth that when Rome became Christian, slavery, brutal capital punishment and the games disappeared. They did not. Christians and pagans shared many social values including the holding of slaves and the need for executions to maintain order. In fact, Christians introduced new capital crimes related to moral failing – for example executing slaves who assisted their owners in committing adultery.