For the first 300 years of Christianity’s existence, the Roman government teetered between toleration and active persecution of the religion. Many Christians were imprisoned, driven out of their homes or churches, and their properties confiscated during this period. At its worst, they were tortured and killed by Romans who viewed Christianity as a threat to the empire’s unity. It was not until the reign of Constantine that Christianity was gradually accepted in the Roman world, and most persecutions stopped. After his conversion to Christianity, Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which included an authorization to return properties confiscated by the government from the Christians in the previous years. The Popes secured the Independence of their territories after this which is dated at 568 AD according to the Biblical Timeline with World History.
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Donation of Constantine: A Forgery?
According to a document called the “Donation of Constantine”, the emperor himself increased the Christian church’s land holdings with various donations. These were soon followed by donations from other wealthy Roman families. The document was presented by Pope Stephen II hundreds of years later to the Frankish king Pepin the Younger to justify the church’s possession of Rome and other lands in Italy. It was alleged to be a forgery since there were no records of the document during the time of Emperor Constantine, but the document suited their needs at that time, so Pepin left the territories to the pope.
Pope Gregory and the Lombard Invasion of Rome
Christian leadership also evolved over the years. In the 6th century AD, the Popes of Rome became the supreme head of the Catholic Christians, but beyond the religious realm, they also played a great part in the empire’s politics. Rome was not the power center of Italy during this period, and a greater portion of the peninsula was held by the Byzantine emperor through an exarch stationed in the capital of Ravenna.
The Lombards had invaded Italy, and their army threatened Rome, which was then under the administration of the Pope Gregory. Gregory was a former diplomat; he was a part of the delegation the former Pope Pelagius sent to emperor Maurice in Constantinople. They begged the emperor to send additional troops to Rome that would help deliver the Romans from the Lombards. The emperor refused since he did not have the troops nor the money to send to them. Gregory became a monk after this, but he was once again pushed into the spotlight after the leaders of the city wrote to the Byzantine emperor and requested Gregory’s appointment as pope after the death of Pope Pelagius II. Gregory felt that he was more suited for a life inside the monastery, but the Romans felt that they had no choice, and there was no one else fit to lead the city during a time of great crisis.
Gregory’s protests did not help as his appointment as pope was confirmed some time later in 590 AD. He was unwilling but according to historical accounts of this period, Gregory did his best in protecting the citizens of the city from the Lombard invasion. Once again, he begged Emperor Maurice for relief troops, but none arrived. He was forced to pay the troops from church funds, as well as negotiate with and pay off the Lombard king to break the siege of Rome. His strategy paid off, and the Lombard king agreed to retreat from Rome after a prolonged siege.
From Pope to City Administrator
In the meantime, the patrimonies—the lands donated to the church and under the administration of the pope—increased in parts of Gaul, Dalmatia, Italy, Sicily, and North Africa. The patrimonies generated revenues which were then sent back to the pope in Rome by the administrators of these estates and the revenues gave the pope a measure of independence to rule their territories. It did not help that the Byzantine emperor who controlled a small portion of Italy at that time was busy warding off the Persian and Avar invaders in his own domain. The pope used the revenues to fund the construction and maintenance of churches and convents; he also needed to respond beyond the spiritual needs of the people now that the distant Byzantine government did not have the money nor the inclination to help them out. Revenues from the patrimonies were used to pay for the construction of hospitals and orphanages, as well as provide food for the Romans. As the Byzantine hold over the Roman popes faded, the territories under the church became more independent from the Eastern Empire as years passed.
Picture By José de Ribera – Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome; User Gerald Farinas on en.wikipedia(Uploaded using CommonsHelper or PushForCommons), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1236624
Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
“Galerius and Constantine: Edicts of Toleration 311/313.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Accessed July 19, 2016. https://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/edict-milan.asp.
“States of the Church.” CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA:. Accessed July 19, 2016. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14257a.htm.
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