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Leo III (795-816 AD)


After the fall of Italy to the Lombards in the 6th century, the task of defending the Church and the Papacy fell to the distant Byzantine emperors. The Byzantine rulers never set foot in Italy after the country fell to the Lombards and the attacks of the Saracens made any trip to Italy next to impossible. However, the emperors in Constantinople still had the power to confirm or reject a pope’s election. The Lombards ruled a large portion of Italy, which left out tiny bits of land that the Pope and the Emperor in Constantinople (ruled on his behalf by the exarch of Ravenna) divided among themselves. The border lines would shift again after the rise of the Frankish king Charlemagne, the man who helped shape Europe into what it was during the Medieval Period. Charlemagne’s ascent as Holy Roman Emperor would not have been possible if not for the presence of another man: Pope Leo III. He is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History at the end of the 7th century AD.

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Pope Leo III: Early Life and Election as Pope

The deceased Pope Adrian was buried on December 26, 795 AD. On the same day, the senior priests elected Leo, a cardinal-priest of Santa Susanna, as the new Bishop of Rome (Pope). He was a veteran of the church after he served at the papal treasury at a young age and rose to prominence as vestiarius or the chief of the pontifical treasury some years later. His election was unanimous. He was consecrated immediately without the confirmation of the Byzantine emperor since, at that time, the papacy was largely independent of Constantinople.

Pope Leo was the son of Romans Atyuppius and Elisabeth. Biographers note that perhaps his family was of plebeian (commoner) origin and his father a barbarian which probably played a role in future conspiracies against him. The church of Santa Susanna on the Quirinal flourished under Leo after he was ordained as a priest there. He steadily rose through the ranks until he reached the position of the Pope. He was generally well-regarded by his successors and papal biographers. He was also described as eloquent, well-versed in Scriptures, and generous to the poor.

He immediately informed Charlemagne of his election in a letter he sent in 796 AD. As a sign of his recognition of the king’s power and his own regard for Charlemagne, he also sent the keys to the confession of St. Peter and the banner of the city of Rome. It was also Leo’s way of saying that he considered the king as his own defender, as well as the Church’s. Charlemagne replied to this with a letter of congratulations and sent the newly-elected pope the gifts he was supposed to send to Pope Adrian when he was still alive. Angilbert (Charlemagne’s son-in-law and envoy) delivered these presents to Leo in the same year which included another congratulatory letter from the king’s advisor, Alcuin of York.

This undoubtedly pleased Pope Leo, so he commissioned an exquisite mosaic of himself, Charlemagne, and Apostle Peter in the Lateran Palace called the Triclinium (Triclinio Leoniano—since restored and can still be viewed there today). Pope Leo and the Frankish king had a good diplomatic relationship throughout their lives, and both benefited from this very well.

Mosaic of Pope Leo III

The Conspiracy Against Leo

In 799 AD, a high official of the papal administration named Paschal conspired with Campulus and some disgruntled members of the military aristocracy to attack the pope. Paschal was Pope Adrian’s nephew and his motivation for attacking the Pope was perhaps rooted in ambition or envy. The fact that Leo was born from plebeian parents and that he rose through the ranks equal to Pope Adrian I probably made Paschal envious. The possibility that Leo showed favoritism to a particular group while neglecting the people Paschal favored was another reason for his rebellion. In any case, his motivation for attacking Leo was never really established even after Charlemagne tried the group.

The attack occurred during the procession of the Great Litanies on the 25th of April. The procession led by Pope Leo left by the Flaminian Gate and ended at St. Peters. The armed men sent by Paschal attacked the pope as they walked with the intention of cutting off his tongue and removing his eyes. The pope’s attendants fled when they saw that he was attacked, while his attackers also escaped from the scene without checking if they had carried out the mutilation successfully. Pope Leo was luckily alive but bloodied on the street while his attackers soon returned and proceeded to cut his face. They dragged him inside the church of Saint Sylvester but later transferred him to the monastery of Saint Erasmus where they kept him under watch.

Luckily, the pope had friends inside the monastery who smuggled him outside and sent him back to St. Peter’s Basilica. After his recovery from the botched mutilation attempt, Leo traveled north to the city of Paderborn where Charlemagne held his court at that time. The pope was warmly received by the king and his noblemen. Charlemagne invited him to stay in Paderborn temporarily. After some time, Leo decided to return to Rome; he left Paderborn with the king’s blessing, and an escorte by the Frankish counts and bishops. The citizens of Rome welcomed him back to the city, and the entourage stayed at the pope’s official residence, the Lateran Palace. Charlemagne’s envoys put on trial some of the people who were involved in the plot to mutilate the pope, found them guilty, and sent them to exile in France.

The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor

Charlemagne arrived in Rome several days before Christmas Day of 800 AD and stayed there with his entourage. The Pope welcomed him just as warmly as Charlemagne received him a year before in Paderborn. After a few days, they went to St. Peter’s to attend an assembly where the King announced his intention of seeing whether the charges against Pope Leo were true. None of the accusations against the pope were proven true, so Charlemagne condemned all those involved in the attack to death. Leo, however, begged the king for his attackers to be spared, so they were exiled to France instead.

On December 25, 800 AD, Charlemagne, as well as all the Frankish noblemen in his entourage, went to St. Peter’s Basilica to attend the Christmas Day mass. The king knelt at the confession, and when mass began, Pope Leo stood up, approached the king, and placed a crown on his head. He then proclaimed Charlemagne as Imperator et Augustus (emperor and Augustus) or Holy Roman Emperor to all the people who attended the mass. This act made Charlemagne not just the king of the Franks, but also recognized him as the most powerful man in Europe at that time. After the proclamation, the newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor presented the Pope some lavish gifts including a cross adorned with gems.

The pope’s motives were a mix of political and personal. The first was that there was no other ruler who could provide adequate protection against his enemies at that time except Charlemagne. He also did it to protect the people of Rome from the raids of Muslim and Viking raiders who terrorized Europe at that time. Leo could easily ask the Byzantine rulers for support against their enemies, but he did not as Constantinople’s track record for defending Rome against past barbarians had been dismal. In addition, Pope Leo essentially turned Charlemagne from a simple Frankish king to a Roman emperor who was responsible for Leo’s personal and territorial protection.

This arrangement between the pope and the Frankish ruler increased Charlemagne’s power in Europe, but not his territory. Leo’s snub of Constantinople had little political effect on the Byzantine rulers. Because of this, even the neighboring kingdoms looked up to Charlemagne now that he had the title of emperor. The “One Church and One State” scheme united the Carolingian Empire with the Church. However, ecclesiastical authority was still off-limits to Charlemagne. While the pope could also give his advice to the emperor and the responsibility of defending Rome from its enemies fell upon Charlemagne, this did not make either of them master of each other.

Charlemagne stayed for a year in Italy to take care of state business (his son Pepin was king of Italy) and left in Easter of 801 AD. The Saracen navy threatened to overrun Italy in the years that followed, so Charlemagne advised the pope to set up a fleet to protect them against the invaders. Pope Leo followed his advice, and he soon recovered some patrimonies (land) between Gaeta and Garigliano. This harmonious diplomatic relationship continued even after Charlemagne’s death in 814 AD, and well into the reign of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son.

Charlemagne died in 814 AD after a 47-year reign. The crown passed on to his son Louis the Pious. The people mourned over Charlemagne’s death, but it was Leo III who felt the effects of the absence of the emperor’s advice and protection. News of a plot to kill him reached Leo in 815. This time, the pope was not as lenient for he had the plotters executed immediately. The pope later fell ill in the same year, and chaos immediately descended upon Rome as the private armies of some noblemen ransacked homes and farms. The chaos was only quelled by the Duke of Spoleto by order of Bernard, King of Italy. Leo died in June, 816 AD and was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica on the 12th of the same month.

Picture by: Public Domain,
Mann, Horace K. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages, Vol. 2. Vol. II. London: K. Paul, Trench, Tru虉bner, 1906.
Einhard. “Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne.” Internet History Sourcebooks. Accessed September 13, 2016.
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