Pageant of the Popes, by John Farrow, , at sacred-texts.com
The new pope (Gregory II) had been papal librarian and he quickly showed he was not unworthy of the great name he carried. Realizing the menace of the Saracens he arranged the city for defense, rebuilding and manning the ancient walls to make them capable of withstanding a sustained siege. Occupation with the many details such a task must have necessitated did not prevent him from receiving and listening to a zealous monk from England, Winfred. Impressed with the latter's plans and abilities he made him a bishop with the new name of Boniface and despatched him to Germany where in his own generation the consecrated missionary was to achieve a magnificent and permanent success. Multitudes were converted. Scattered and disorganized Christians were brought back to discipline. Sees were apportioned and an organized hierarchy established.
But while this progress of the Church was being accomplished new troubles loomed again from the direction of Constantinople. Temporal power had, because of the Byzantine negligence, been forced upon the Popes but up to this time, because of a loyalty to the ancient Roman name, they still tendered a nominal allegiance to the distant Emperors. This gracious fealty had been, with monotonous
repetition, singularly ill repaid by a succession, with few exceptions, of irresponsible tyrants who insisted upon intruding upon theological affairs; a province in which the Popes would brook no interference. Instead of affording Rome adequate and consistent military protection the Imperial troops had been used, as has been seen, several times in effort to force submission in realms far beyond temporal boundaries. Such efforts had always failed. Nevertheless, not learning any lessons from the past, the Emperor of this time, Leo III, otherwise an able statesman, had seen fit to create the situation which was to sever the historic union between the Eternal City and the Byzantine capital. An Edict, signed by him and therefore the law, was issued condemning the veneration of images. A wave of indignation swept through the Empire as orders were received to put to axe and fire the sacred and revered statues of Christ, the pictures of His Mother, and the likenesses of the Saints. The Pope made immediate and vigorous protest. "If you send troops for the destruction of the images of St. Peter, look to it," he warned. The Emperor's answer was to order the deposition of the pontiff, who retorted with a sentence of excommunication. Troops were assembled and under the command of the Exarch Paul, marched to arrest the Pope.
The alarm was given in Rome and the citizens gathered at the walls to resist the invaders. Help arrived from an unexpected quarter. The Lombards, former aggressors against Rome, drove off the Exarch. These warlike people were now orthodox Catholics and their King, Luitprand, was quick, with a great display of devotion, to kneel before Gregory and to dedicate his sword and his crown at the Altar of St. Peter's. The Pope accepted the elaborate manifestations of friendship with a wary eye, knowing full well that the Lombards now possessed both North and South
[paragraph continues] Italy and that "protection" from them would probably mean subjection and complete dominance. Far better a distant tyrant than a local despot, he reasoned: and so, frowning on attempted rebellions against Leo, he made truce and entered upon negotiations with the Exarch. But the Emperor continued to be obstinate and rashly hostile. And his terms were unbearable. The symbols of the Saviour were to be levelled to the ground, portraits of the Virgin were to be defaced, monuments of St. Peter were to be broken, and heavy indemnities were to be paid. These outrages he demanded. There could be no alternative for the Pope. Independence was forced upon himand hovering by, staring eagerly at the walls of Rome, waiting for the prize they had for long past coveted, were the Lombards.
For Gregory II the situation was solved by death but for his successor, the Syrian-born Gregory III, the anxious problem remained. Then opportunely enough came heartening news from Gaul. Not content with subjugating Spain the Saracens had with consummate daring invaded France and had marched victoriously as far as Tours. There they were met by a determined army headed by Charles Martel, leader of the Franks. The armies clashed and at first it seemed as though the Saracen story of triumph was not to be interrupted; but on the seventh day of the desperate battle the tide turned and the invaders were put to ignominious and bloody rout. The Cross had triumphed over the Crescent of Islam and all Christendom breathed the easier. It had been a momentous and decisive battle for without the genius of Charles Martel and the valor of his troops the Mohammedan march, unhalted, would have conquered all Europe and, as Gibbon says "the Arabian fleet might well have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of
the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed."
To the Frankish hero the pope despatched an embassy which carried significantly symbolical gifts, the keys of the tombs of the Apostles. With courtesy and respect the busy soldier, still campaigning, received the papal envoys, accepted the gifts, assured the bearers of his friendliness to the donor, and to repay their visit sent an Ambassador, bearing the same sentiments, to Rome. More at this time he could not do, for war with both his northern neighbours and the Moors were keeping his energies and his armies fully occupied. But even his gesture of friendliness seems to have carried some emphasis in Italy. The Lombards, who had been warring in the vicinity of Ravenna, desisted and subsided into an uneasy and impermanent peace.
It is a glorious characteristic of Church history that at her most perilous times, when danger and crisis threaten to engulf the existence of the Holy See, the continuity of missionary activity is not interrupted. Conquerors might prowl the streets of Rome, marauders might sack and endanger the structure of St. Peter's, antagonisms and evils of a subtler variety might bring scandal and discord, those whom she has invested with extraordinary powers might betray their trust, but the work of her propagandists goes serenely and staunchly on. Defeat, either spiritual or temporal, might sometimes darken her story but always, somewhere in the distance, there is a new victory brightening that same eventful tale.
It was so at this time. While the pontiffs were worrying for their existence in Italy, Boniface was winning all Germany to the Church. In 737 he visited Rome and delivered a report of his astounding success, an imposing record of souls gained, of churches and monasteries built and endowed,
of bishops consecrated and abbots installed. The great missionary now wanted to resign these activities, feeling they could be well sustained by those whom he had trained. He wished to commence again in newer and less pleasant fields but the Pope, gently refusing this request, conferred upon him the honors of increased authority and sent him back as Legate to deal with and rule the episcopacy he had created.
When Gregory II died he was succeeded by the popular deacon Zachary whose talents for persuasion and conciliation were certainly not the least amongst his many abilities. It was 741 and once again the Lombards, under the same clever King, Luitprand, were making ready to invade the Roman provinces. The papal ally, the Duke of Spoleto, had already shown his unreliability and the time and circumstances seemed propitious for the Lombard schemes. But, with the memory to inspire him of how Leo had stayed the Huns, Zachary did not wait for hostilities to commence. He went to meet the advancing King. Deeply impressed was the ambitious and warlike monarch with the courage, dignity and eloquence of the pontiff. And as he had once declared his friendship and orthodoxy to Gregory, so now he solemnly made the same assurances to Zachary. His troops were halted, and as further proof of the new cordiality four cities which in the past had been taken from the Romans were returned to their jurisdiction. It was a victory for the Pope's diplomacy; and that his influence with Luitprand was no temporary mood is evidenced a year later when the Lombards were determined to give battle at Ravenna to the Byzantine Exarch. The latter made frantic appeal to Rome. Once again Zachary spoke and once again the magic of his words brought peace where bloodshed had seemed inevitable. Soon after this incident Luitprand died and with his successor, Ratchis,
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The story opens with Peter.
the Pope was to have no difficulties. Persuasions against violence were not needed by this gentle prince who had so little taste for the ambitions and pleasures of this world that he eventually renounced his rank and, taking monastic vows, became a simple monk.
Even Constantinople seems to have capitulated to the charm of Zachary. The decree forbidding the worship of images was no longer enforced. Papal envoys were honourably received by the new Emperor and to supplement St. Peter's patrimony came a Byzantine gift, two Italian villages and the surrounding territories. Nor did distance stay the harmony. With the industrious Boniface acting as his Legate, discipline, without rebellion, was strengthened among the Frankish bishops and ecclesiastics. Pepin, worthy son of Charles Martel, was now the leader of the Franks and from him an embassy, consisting of Bishop Burkard of Wurzburg and his chaplain, came to Rome with an unprecedented and historic request.
Pepin wanted the Pope's approval to be crowned King of the Franks. For three generations his family had successfully led the Frankish peoples and had virtually exercised all the prerogatives of Kingship save the royal title itself, a privilege still vested in the insignificant descendants of Clovis. The last of this once proud but now debased family was Childeric III, an unhappy weakling whom Pepin without trouble or fear could have disposed of in any manner he wished. But instead of violence he wisely preferred to seek the sanction of a higher authority. Yet who was of a higher rank than a King? Who could wield the power of bestowing or transferring crowns? Pepin found his answer in the person of the Vicar of Christ. "Whosoever has the power is the King" was the Pope's decision. Childeric, unprotesting, was then tonsured and ushered from the turmoil of a world which despised him
to the peace of a monastery where even if he was no longer a monarch he at least found honorable seclusion and a welcome tranquillity. And Pepin, kneeling in solemn ceremony before Boniface was, by authority of the Pope, consecrated King of the Franks.
The five-year reign of the next Pope, Stephen II, who succeeded Zachary in 752 was not to be so peaceful for once again the Lombards, with the ascension of a new King, Aistulf, were threatening to engulf Rome. Stephen tried to negotiate with Aistulf but the obstinate King insisted that Rome was to be his capital and that the papacy was to be under his temporal authority. The ancient city rose to arms at this arrogant challenge and the citizens swore to suffer death rather than to submit to an usurper. In desperation the pontiff, who had already sent envoys to beg assistance of Pepin, personally undertook the hazardous journey to Gaul. His arduous efforts and eloquent entreaties were not in vain. The Frankish King did not disappoint him, an army was sent across the Alps and quickly the Lombards made treaty to respect the papal dominions.
With gratitude in his heart and actions the happy pontiff then presided at a second coronation of Pepin, this time adding to the Kingly title the hereditary dignity of Patrician of Rome. But the perverse and stubborn Lombards were not yet dissuaded from their king's ambitions, for no sooner had the Frankish troops left Italy than once again they deployed throughout the papal territory. A second French expedition rewarded this treachery with the severe defeat it deserved and this time Pepin was determined his work should remain permanent. The protection of the Holy See which had been so neglected by the Eastern Emperors was now solemnly undertaken by him and its temporal sovereignty assured. Nor was it an empty honour for the warrior King in a magnanimous gesture
placed on the tomb of St. Peter's the keys and deeds of some twenty-two towns and provinces which his troops had recaptured from the Lombards. The Papal States were now a fact. And thus, in the form of a gift, a tremendous burden of responsibility and complication was added to the Church.
A dangerous precedent dominated the next election when Stephen's brother, Paul I, was chosen for succession. But happily, kinship with august rank and fraternal favors had neither magnified the pride, dwarfed the character, nor lessened the abilities of the new Pope. In the uneasy infancy of the newly acquired status of the Papal States, there were many vexations, both external and domestic, to give him sore distress. The very power that had made possible their being dwelt across the Alps; a distance far enough to allow hope to remain alive in the breasts of the resentful Lombards. Still brooding in sullen defeat these incorrigible people never neglected an opportunity to harass the unfortunate Romans. Each time a new prince succeeded to their leadership he was haunted by the ambitious and unfulfilled dreams of his fathers. Desiderius was now their King and he proposed to the Byzantine Emperor that they should form a military alliance to crush the papal sovereignty and regime and divide the lost territories. Once again the power of Pepin's name was invoked by the anxious Romans and the scheme failed. But the ten years of his reign were a series of ceaseless worries for the Pope, a train of negotiations, threats and treaties, punctuated by appeals for Frankish intervention. Within Rome itself the pontiff was forced to be a martinet and to exercise with drastic measures a severe authority. Abuse of privilege and of rank was now common in both civil and ecclesiastical circles. There were all the machinations of politics, the maneuverings of diplomacy which accompany
the responsibilities of temporal power, the intrigues inevitable to human nature when rich prizes are to be gained. And there were rich prizes. New territories to be governed and revenues to be collected. Then too, there was the greatest of all prizes, the papal office itself, this supreme rank that could create kings or depose them. Such a prize could not fail to attract the stratagems and plots of the unscrupulous. In 767 when Paul was stricken to his deathbed the solemnity that should have enveloped Rome at such a time was broken by an unruly and bloody seizure of the Lateran by Toto, the villainous and unprincipled Duke of Nepi. It was his soldiers who kept the death watch and no sooner had the pontiff expired than their rude shouts proclaimed as next Pope one of their own number, the Duke's brother, Constantine. A bishop was compelled to ordain the soldier there and then and a few days later the rascal was put through a ceremony of consecration.
But the outrage was not allowed to stand. Another powerful noble, Prince Christopher, who had been close to the persons and confidences of the last pontiffs and who was bitterly opposed to Toto, fled and enlisted the support of the Lombards, always ready on any pretext to march on Rome. By guile and not by battle they secured an easy and prompt entrance to the City. Toto suffered immediate death, but for Constantine, discovered cringing in a chapel, it was not so easy. His punishment began with the slow destruction of his eyes by hot branding-irons.
The disorder and scandal were slow to cease. When Christopher arrived in Rome he discovered that during the tumult the Lombards had announced a pope of their own choosing. This was an aged and bewildered Abbot named Philip but before he could be consecrated, Christopher, who was as ambitious as Toto, had him thrust back to his monastery and at the same time announced
the invalidity of both his and Constantine's election. All Rome, prelates and clergy, nobles and citizens, now gathered in the forum and unanimously voted for Christopher's candidate, Stephen III, a pious and learned monk but undoubtedly subjected to the determined will of his sponsor. One of his first acts was to convene a Council before which the unfortunate eyeless Constantine was dragged, berated, and sentenced to life imprisonment in a monastery cell. And to prevent the recurrence of a similar crime a law was enacted declaring that in future the papal elections were to be confined to the ecclesiastical province. The Bishop of Rome has always been chosen, not by the whole Church, but by the church in Rome; up to this point the Roman laity had had some kind of say in the matter. This new decree of the year 769 reduced their part to acclamation only.
This same year had witnessed the accession of Pepin's sons, Charlemagne and Carloman, to the joint occupancy of the Frankish throne. Carloman was to die within a few years, leaving Charlemagne possessor of a title which was to change from King to Emperor. To him, Desiderius, the Lombard King, now turned, realizing that if his ambitions in Italy were to be achieved he must first gain the friendship of the Franks. A match was arranged between his daughter and Charlemagne. When the news arrived in Rome there was consternation and apprehension. The Pope protested vigorously and with good reason for not only might the new alliance endanger the independence of the Holy See but it was alleged that Charlemagne had contracted a previous wife whom he was divorcing with celerity but not with validity. So declared the canonists. But pontifical opposition did not prevent the solemnization of the new marriage. It was however doomed to an
early failure and soon an annulment was declared because of the sterility of the Frankish princess.
Stephen was only to officiate for three years and the last year was marked with as much violence as had characterized the first. In 771 Desiderius, exercising his privileges as a Christian pilgrim, but carefully escorted by his troops, journeyed to Rome to perform his devotional duties at the tomb of the Apostles. But Prince Christopher, whose will was still law to the Pope, was alarmed and fortified the city against him. Then followed a rapid succession of incidents as astounding as they were shameful. There were revolt and treachery amongst the Romans, weary of the injustices and presumptions of Christopher and his equally arrogant son, Sergius. Even the Pope, perhaps swayed by the same emotions, made no effort to protect or defend in any way his ex-patron when, at the conclusion of the disgraceful episode, both Christopher and Sergius were seized by the Lombard executioners and subjected to the same dreadful punishment as had been given Constantine. Their eyes were torn out and then they were hurled to the dungeons. Stephen meekly submitted to the protection of the Lombard king from whom death liberated him on the 3rd of February, 772.
Of an entirely different mould was Adrian I. Here was a pontiff who did not permit patronage from any man: friendship and assistance perhaps, but never the indignities that had so ignominiously clouded the previous pontificate. A patrician by birth and a churchman by sincere vocation he ruled splendidly for nearly twenty-four years, a term of office not to be equalled by any of his successors until ten centuries later. On his accession he quickly restored order to the Roman scene. Lombardian intrigues were rejected, their agents expelled, and in preparation for their certain revenge the fearless pope, determined to make
fierce resistance against anyone who would encroach upon his independence, formed a militia of his own. Desiderius, with his schemes facing ruin but now the possessor of a formidably superior army, lost no time in accepting the challenge. His hosts advanced on Rome, ruthlessly and thoroughly ravaging the countryside. Adrian had already sent messages to Charlemagne but that warrior was engaged in one of his bitter wars with the Saxons and there seemed little chance, so the Lombards thought, of his intervention. He did send pleas for peace and they were not only ignored, but Desiderius, construing them as weaknesses, began to plot. After all Italy was subdued to his rule, he would force the Pope to proclaim Charlemagne's nephews the legal Frankish Kings. With lesser opponents perhaps these lofty dreams might have had some chance of fulfillment; but fortunately Charlemagne and Adrian were of a superior breed. Not only was one a great soldier prince and the other a splendid pope, but they were friends. And by rare and happy circumstance their harmony was never to be disturbed by the rivalries which could so easily have been born of their individual greatness.
Displaying the consummate skill of his military genius Charlemagne marched his troops across the Alps with surprising swiftness and after attacking and defeating the Lombards at Verona, surrounded their chagrined ruler in his own capital. Leaving his generals to continue with the irksome task of siege he pressed on to Rome, arriving in time to celebrate the festival of Easter. Acclamations and, significantly, Imperial honors greeted his entrance to the city but the wise prince preferred to enter as a pilgrim. On his knees he made his way up the steps of St. Peter's while a huge choir of monks chanted "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini." The jubilant pontiff raised him to his feet and embraced him as a son and as
a saviour. Devotional duties of Holy Week took precedence over temporal affairs, but in a few days all Rome was elated to learn that in similar ceremony and by deed Charlemagne had renewed the Donation of Pepin. Added to the papal domains now were the island of Corsica, the provinces of Venice, Parma, and Istria, and the duchies of Spoleto and Benevento. A few months after this superb generosity the indefatigable warrior, taking to the field again, decisively defeated Desiderius and took for himself the Kingship of the Lombard people. It seemed as though all menace to Roman security had been dissipated. But in fact, obscured beneath the friendship of Charlemagne and Adrian, the ancient city and its provinces had actually become, as time was to prove, a vassal state to the Frankish power.
Adrian's ability was not limited to temporal fields. Sovereignty of Rome at this seemingly triumphant hour did not cause a neglect of his duties as Supreme Pastor of the Church. An ardent patron of the missionaries he also took vigorous measures to fight the nascent heresy of Adoptionism. Harmony with the Eastern Church was another of his interests and in 787 at the Seventh General Council, held at Nicaea, it was his Legates who interpreted the Papal principles concerning the veneration of images. When on the Christmas day of the year 795, amidst exhibitions of universal grief and regret, he died, it was his lifelong friend Charlemagne who sadly inscribed the appropriate epitaph: "Here the Father of the Church, the Glory of Rome, the illustrious author Adrian, the blessed Pope lies buried. Born of noble parents, he was still nobler by his virtues. . . . I join our names together: Adrian and Charles; I the king, you the father. . . . With the Saints of God may your dear soul be in peace."