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A History of Diplomacy in the International Development of Europe: Vol I The Struggle for Universal Empire
- The State of Italy before the Transfer
by David Jayne Hill, LL.D.


In every age it has been the unhappy lot of Rome to be made a martyr to her own greatness. Never wholly unmindful of her ancient liberties and grandeur, the Eternal City has always been doomed to sacrifice her present welfare to the memory of her splendid past. In giving herself to the headship of the world she surrendered her civic rights to the exigencies of a world-monarchy. As the cradle of republicanism in Western Europe she has demanded the rights of self-government, but as the capital of the Caesars she has been compelled to submit to the dictation of the stranger. As an apostolic community she has claimed the primitive right of choosing her own bishops, but as the seat of the Papacy she has been forced to accept the heads of the Church Universal imposed upon her by a foreign will. Nowhere else has the conciliation of the opposing principles of universal rule and local government proved so difficult to accomplish or filled the theatre of its struggles with such tragic episodes.

When the Papacy, subordinated by the Byzantine emperors, sought to gain the spiritual freedom which was deemed necessary for the unrestrained exercise of its authority over the faith of Christendom, it endeavored to establish a territorial basis for that freedom by rendering Rome independent of the Empire, and by ridding itself of the Lombard monarchy in Italy. For this purpose it put forth the claim to be a sacred republic, unfettered by the restraint and contradiction of external authority, exercising within its own borders both civil and spiritual powers in a purely theocratic sense. Encroached upon and intimidated by the Lombard kings, it appealed to the Franks for protection. In a desperate emergency, when Leo III was unable to provide otherwise for his personal safety in his "Holy Republic," in order to secure the protection of the imperial authority, he restored the Empire in the person of Charles the Great. For a time, a satisfactory solution of the problem seemed to have been found, but with the new claims of the Emperor in Italy, after the accession of Lothair I, the conflict between the local pretensions of Rome and the imperial authority was renewed.

Lothair I, having been crowned co-emperor by Pope Paschal I, at Rome, on Easter Sunday, 823, was sent to Rome in 824 by his father, Lewis the Pious, to negotiate with the new Pope, Eugenius II, and the Roman people, concerning the imperial jurisdiction over the city. Action had been rendered necessary by the disregard at Rome of the regulations introduced by Charles the Great after his coronation. At that time the entire administration of the city had been recast, with a view to render impossible such acts of violence as Leo III had received. A resident missus, or legate, of the Emperor bad been installed in a palace near St. Peter's Church, whose duty it was to administer the criminal justice of the city and to guard and represent the imperial authority. The government in other particulars was left in the hands of the papal officers, composed of three classes: the officials of the papal court, modelled after that of Byzantium; the duces, or tribuni, who commanded the militia; and the judices de clero, or ecclesiastical magistrates.

The mission of Lothair resulted in the adoption of the Constitution of 824, accepted and signed by Eugenius II, with a provision that it was to be solemnly sworn to by his successors in the presence of the imperial missi sent to judge of the legality of their election before their ordination to the papal office. 1

This Constitution of 824 was, therefore, one of the most important documents of the Carlovingian era, for it was a serious attempt to fix forever the reciprocal rights and duties of the Emperor, the Pope, and the citizens of Rome. It provided that the papal magistrates should exercise jurisdiction as they had under Charles the Great, and they were, upon occasion, if required, to appear before the representatives of the Emperor. To oversee these magistrates, missi, appointed by the Emperor and the Pope, were to constitute a mixed directory and court of appeal. If they failed to agree,the dispute was to be referred to the Emperor, who was to send special legates to determine the question. A permanent missus, residing at Rome, represented the imperial supervision.

In addition to these arrangements for the administration of justice, each inhabitant of Rome was required to choose the code -- Roman, Frankish, or Lombard -- by which he wished to live, and was then judged according to the law selected.

Dividing his time between Rome and Aachen, Lothair I, as emperor, caused little anxiety to the Papacy, to which he was devoted; but when, in 844, he assigned the royalty in Italy to Lewis II, who in 855 became Emperor, the popes were confronted with the old problem of maintaining their freedom in the presence of a monarch whose only realm was Italy. Exclusively Italian, patriotic, and a brave warrior, Lewis II nearly succeeded in accomplishing the difficult task of Italian unity. The right of the Emperor to require subscription to the Constitution of 824 was construed by him as a right to influence the papal elections also, of which there were six during his reign. He could not without great inconvenience permit his supremacy to be menaced by the election of a hostile or intriguing pontiff, and his interest was, therefore, indisputable as well as undisguised; but the Romans resented their obligation to await the presence of the imperial missi before proceeding with their election.

The commencement of his reign in Italy brought Lewis into conflict with both Pope and people. Gregory IV having died in 844, two candidates for the Papacy appeared. One, who assumed the title of Pope Sergius II, claiming the election, was promptly consecrated without awaiting the missi of Lothair I, and his rival was cast into prison. Upon learning of this irregularity, the Emperor despatched Lewis to Rome with an army and an imposing retinue of clergy. Having arrived at Rome, where preparations had been made to receive him in state upon the steps of St. Peter's, Lewis ascended to the platform where the Pope was waiting to greet him. Interpreting some casual circumstance as an indication that he had come to chastise them for their action, at the moment of the papal salutation the Romans precipitated a conflict with the Franks. In the confusion the Pope hastily ordered the doors to be closed, and said to the prince that, if he had come "with a pure heart and with right intentions," the doors would be opened for him by his order; if not, they would remain closed. The prince having reassured the Pope, the doors were opened.

On the following Sunday, Lewis was crowned King of Italy and anointed by the Pope; but Drogo, Archbishop of Metz, who had been sent with Lewis by the Emperor, called a synod by which the contested election was reviewed. The decision proved favorable to Sergius, who was then confirmed in his office.

But the existence of two powers in Rome was not to be obscured by the coronation of the prince and the vindication of the pontiff. A new order was issued forbidding the future consecration of a pope without the presence of the imperial missi; but, on the other hand, when the nobles in the retinue of Lewis asked the Pope to take an oath of allegiance to the new king, Sergius refused, on the ground that Rome was a fief of the Emperor, but not of the King. When Lewis withdrew from Rome, the Romans are said to have uttered cries of joy, so deeply did they resent his interference with their affairs; but, some years later, when the Roman territory was overrun and devastated by the Saracens, the Romans implored of the Emperor the protection of Lewis, who, as they believed, had intentionally left them to defend themselves.

The imperial prohibition concerning the papal elections was again violated in 847; when, upon the death of Sergius II, Leo IV was chosen and consecrated in great haste, in open disregard of the Constitution of 824. But the Romans were not always wrong in their resistance to the imperial authority.

Upon the death of Leo IV, Benedict III was duly elected by the independent party at Rome, and his credentials, signed by all the proper officers were sent to Lothair by two messengers, -- a priest and a soldier, -- who, in the course of their journey, suffered themselves to be corrupted by Bishop Arsenius in the interest of his relative, Anastasius, a devoted imperialist. In collusion with Lewis II, the messengers returned to Rome to announce that the imperial envoys would soon arrive there and review the election. Support was then given to a conspiracy for introducing Anastasius into the Lateran palace and stripping Benedict of his pontifical vestments; but the enraged populace would not endure these indignities to their chosen bishop, and the unanimity of the resistance was so complete that the imperial authorities were obliged to abandon the cause of their protégé and to acknowledge the legitimacy of Benedict III, who was then solemnly consecrated. The memory of such a thrilling victory of the popular will long inspired the Romans with a sense of their rights in the selection of the successors of St. Peter.

But the Emperor was not without his triumphs also, in the matter of the papal elections. In 858, Lewis II, at that time clothed with full imperial authority, was successful in imposing upon the Romans a papal candidate of his own choice. Having decided to force upon them the election of a prelate who would be subservient to his will, he hastened to Rome, pressed forward his candidate, and proceeded to have the election conducted in his presence. Elated with his success, he heaped upon the new Pope, Nicholas I, every mark of affection and esteem; and it seemed for a moment as if the Empire and the Papacy were thenceforth to move forward in perfect unison. But the illusion was of short duration; for Nicholas I had hardly assumed the papal dignity, when, like so many others who had preceded him, he proved to be the perfect embodiment of the traditional papal policy, whose vast impersonal conceptions found in him one of their most astute and commanding representatives. Thus, the Emperor not only failed to control the Pope, whom he had appointed, but it was the Pope, and his successors, Adrian II and John VIII, who, as we have seen, -- contrary to the wishes and plans of the Emperor, and especially of the Empress Engelberga, -- disposed of the Empire.

The city of Rome rarely ceased to be the field of strife between three parties, whose activities were inspired by three different ideals. Of these, one stood for the civil independence of Rome, another for the supremacy of imperial authority, and a third for the complete domination of the Pope. The struggles and intrigues of these three parties -- themselves often subdivided into hostile factions attached to the interest of different social classes, aspirants to the imperial honor, and rival seekers or claimants of the papal office -- fill nearly every subsequent period of history with clamor and contention.

The turbulent life of Italy was still further embroiled by the presence of other elements of confusion. The local magnates, such as the dukes of Spoleto, Benevento, Friuli, and Tuscany, each with am ambition or a system of his own, and often aspiring to dominate the entire peninsula, kept the country in a state of almost constant commotion; while the aristocracy of Rome, aiming to grasp both the civil and the spiritual power, frequently imposed a local despotism that cruelly oppressed the city and thwarted the will of both popes and emperors. Added to all these complications were the relations of the Greek cities of Southern Italy to the Eastern Empire, the invasions and settlement of the Saracens, and later the incursions and final occupation by the Normans. Beyond any other country of Europe, Italy thus became the theatre of strife and discord.

By virtue of his spiritual authority, which extended throughout Europe, supplemented by an incessant distribution of favors and the constant formation of political combinations, the Pope was, on the whole, the predominating power in the midst of this conflict of aims and interests. When forced to an extremity, there always remained for him the expedient of invoking the aid of the foreigner, whose terrors he employed to reaffirm his own authority -- when, indeed, they did not completely override it. But, though often compelled to endure a temporary humiliation, the permanent residence of the popes at Rome gave them an advantage over the foreign princes who came to seek honors at their hands; for, when necessity had called the newly crowned emperors away an adroit use of the authority they had exercised often re-established the papal supremacy.

We have seen with what skill Pope John VIII, by his selection of Charles the Bald as emperor, not only defeated the wishes of Lewis II, the Empress Engelberga, and the entire German party at Rome, but how he so construed his office in determining the "divine will" in the "election as to make it appear thenceforth that the imperial crown was the gift of the Roman Pontiff. As if with the purpose of fixing that prerogative in the traditions of the Empire, John VIII had taken every precaution to give it prominence in the records of the time. In a discourse before a synod held at Rome in May, 877, he said: "A divine inspiration has revealed to our blessed predecessor, Nicholas I, the secret intentions of God regarding this prince, and this is why we have chosen Charles, with the concurrence and vote of all our brothers the bishops, the other servants of the Holy Roman Church, the elders and all the people, and, following the ancient custom, have solemnly raised him to the Roman Empire." Before the council of Ponthion, in the presence of the prelates and nobles, was read without protest this report of the election: "On the death of Lewis, who exercised the rights of the Roman Empire, the blessed Pope John, by the intermediary of the venerable bishops, invited the lord Charles, then King, to proceed to the Holy See; he has elected him defender and guardian of the Church; he has crowned him with the imperial diadem, and has chosen him, alone, among all, to receive the sceptre of the Empire." In the presence of an accomplished fact, it was difficult to raise effective objection; and thus, the mere will of the Pontiff created the tradition not only of the Church but of the Empire.2

But Pope John VIII was not content with securing the disposal of the imperial crown; he induced the successful candidate to present a thank offering for the empty honor he had obtained. Not only were important territorial accessions ceded to the Papacy by Charles the Bald, but he bestowed on the Holy See his regalian rights over Rome, and renounced the provision of the Constitution of 824, by which the papal elections were required to be conducted in the presence of the imperial representatives. The permanent legate of the Emperor at Rome was now withdrawn, although missi were sent to administer imperial justice in cases requiring their presence, and thus the Pope was left in practical possession of unrestrained authority.

But, while John VIII was thus permitted by the concessions made to the Papacy to exercise many imperial prerogatives, he was not successful in his endeavors to increase the papal power and security by his sovereignty over additional territory. On the contrary he thereby aroused the enmity of the dukes of Spoleto and Benevento, the chief victims of his diplomacy, who not only retained possession of their lands, which neither the donor nor the recipient was able to wrest from them, but visited upon Rome itself depredations which the Pope was unable either to prevent or punish. In addition to incurring this dangerous hostility, by his attempt to form a league against the dukes who refused to recognize his suzerainty over the lands bestowed upon him by Charles, John VIII forced his enemies into an alliance with the Greeks and the Saracens, thus greatly augmenting the anarchy which desolated Italy and defied the power of the helpless Emperor.

Notwithstanding the perilous position in which his bold policy had placed him, John VIII was determined to maintain at any cost the ascendency he had taken such risks to establish. When, in 877, Charles the Bald died, John VIII resolved to dispose of the Empire in the interest of the Papacy, and with this intention he prolonged for three years and a half the imperial vacancy, in order to carry on his negotiations and secure the highest bidder.

Among the possible candidates were the three sons of Lewis the German, -- Carloman, Charles the Fat, and Lewis the Younger; the son of the dead emperor, Louis the Stammerer; Duke Boso of Arles, who had married the only daughter of Lewis II; and Lambert of Spoleto.

Carloman, regarding himself as the legitimate heir of the Emperor Lewis II, who had bequeathed to him his Italian dominion, hastened to render himself master of Lombardy, whose crown he received at Pavia. Believing that he was now certain of the imperial honor, Carloman immediately addressed John VIII with reference to his coronation; but the Pope promptly informed him that several preliminaries were necessary. His first duty was to have an understanding with his brothers. After that, the Pope would send an embassy to him, which would inform him what concessions he must make in perpetuity to the See of St. Peter. When a formal "charter methodically arranged in chapters" had been duly signed, the Pope would again send legates to conduct the King in a suitable manner to Rome, where they would together agree as to the things necessary to be done for "the strengthening of the Republic and the safety of the people."

It was the first time that the Holy See had ever spoken in such a tone. The independence of the "Republic," the right of the Pope to withhold the imperial crown, the necessity of purchasing it by "concessions," -- all these were innovations in the attitude of the Papacy. Carloman appears to have acquiesced in the recognition of the papal claims, for we read in a letter of John VIII, addressed to him: "We have expected you every day, with so much the more eagerness, because you have promised, as the price of the increase of your dignity, to raise us and our Church, tried by the assaults of so many adversaries, higher than have any of the emperors and kings, your predecessors."

But, upon reflection, Carloman had changed his mind. The terms of the Pope seemed to him too exacting, and since he was already in possession of Northern Italy, it appeared to him quite possible to force the Holy See to make easier conditions. To this end, he put himself in relation with the enemies of John VIII, particularly Bishop Formosus, a friend of the German party and afterward Pope; Lambert, Duke of Spoleto; and Adalbert, Marquis of Tuscany. Sorely pressed by these opponents, who took possession of Rome and subjected the city to their power, John VIII was obliged to escape to Genoa, whence he went by ship to France, in order to seek support from Louis the Stammerer.

There, "by the authority of the Holy Spirit," he offered to the King the imperial crown, but under conditions which Louis would not accept. After his failure to negotiate with Louis, he returned to Italy, accompanied by Duke Boso, whom he would gladly have crowned emperor, but for the obstacles thrown in his way by the Germans.

The reluctance of John VIII to confer the imperial crown upon Carloman, which was now weakened by the failure of his attempt to bestow that honor upon the King of France, had arisen from the perception that the recognition of the German prince, -- by far the strongest of the Carlovingians then living, -- might impair the prestige of the Papacy and subject it to the will of a master. This risk the Pope was not disposed to incur, and was determined to avoid it by previous assurances and concessions. What he especially desired was, to take the initiative in the selection of an emperor, and in such a manner as to impress Christendom with the idea that the Empire was the gift of the Papacy. In this sense, he wrote to Anspert, Archbishop of Milan, after the death of Charles the Bald: "It is absolutely necessary that... you receive no king without our consent, for the prince whom we destine for the Empire ought to be, first and above all, called and chosen by us."

It was for this reason that he had made his journey into France, in the hope of securing the acceptance of Louis the Stammerer, whom the Holy Spirit had designated to the Pope as the most fitting recipient of the imperial crown. The refusal of the young King of France was for John VIII a cruel experience. The political wisdom of the French court, to which Charles the Bald had not listened, had utterly frustrated the designs of the Pope and left him overwhelmed with disappointment and embarrassment.

Practically confined to a choice between the sons of Lewis the German, John VIII now resolved to take a desperate chance. In the illusory hope of conciliating the East and effecting a final reunification of Christendom under the guidance of the Papacy, he pursued a dilatory policy in the West, while opening secret negotiations with the Emperor Basil at Byzantium.

Re-established in Rome by the protection of Duke Boso, whom he adopted as a "glorious son" and used as a foil to stimulate the ambition of Carloman and Charles the Fat, John VIII now adopted the policy of creating a rivalry between the two brothers. His preference was undoubtedly for Charles, whose torpid nature rendered him the more likely to be subservient, but whose ambition needed to be quickened by such means as the Pope adopted.

In the execution of his plans, John VIII sent Wilbod, Bishop of Parma, on the secret mission of discreetly sounding the two brothers, with the purpose of ascertaining who would make the larger concessions to the Papacy. Before this result was accomplished, Carloman died; and the problem then remained, how to secure from his brother the highest possible price for the crown. Charles the Fat now claimed and received at Pavia the crown of Lombardy; but the demands and restrictions of the Pope were so exacting that he held aloof, and the negotiations, zealously renewed by John VIII, dragged on without result through the year 880. Finally, the reserve of Charles was suddenly broken and he announced his intention of coming immediately to Rome, to receive the imperial crown. The Pope promptly warned him in vigorous language not to come until the preliminaries which he had before imposed were duly observed and the concessions formally made. But this time Charles did not hesitate. Through the secret confidences of a friend, a new light had suddenly dawned upon the hitherto unsuspecting king. Made aware of the Pope's secret negotiations with Byzantium and of their failure, Charles saw that John VIII was in reality helpless; marched directly to Rome with his army, against the Pope's angry prohibition and protest; and, apparently without signing any conditions, -- although oral assurances were probably given, -- received the imperial crown from John VIII, in February, 881. The Pope, whose diplomacy had completely miscarried, had found neither a vassal nor a protector.

The revelation which had emboldened Charles the Fat to go to Rome and demand the crown, explains the calm serenity of the Pope in continuing the vacancy in the Empire, and in making his own terms in the midst of such weakness and peril. The Greek Emperor Basil I, aiming to re-establish the unity of the old Empire in the spirit of Justinian, had resolved to avail himself of the anarchy of Italy, and to recognize the spiritual supremacy of the Pope in exchange for his influence. The fleet of Byzantium had invested the coast towns of Italy, and, by judicious alliances with the Italian princes, Basil was on the point of carrying his scheme into effect, when the tide of affairs had suddenly changed and the great combination which had been formed had fallen to the ground. Even before the death of Charles the Bald, John VIII had been in secret communication with the East. When he beheld the chaos and impotence into which the Carlovingian dynasty had fallen, the danger in which the Papacy was placed, and the inconstancy and incapacity of the aspirants to the imperial dignity in the West, it was but natural that he should turn with pleasure to the hope of restoring the unity of Christendom under the more vigorous régime of the Eastern Empire, then reviving its ancient glory in the hands of a great statesman like Basil. The letters of John VIII bring to light the secret understanding which had been formed with the East, the large expectations entertained by the Pope, and the reasons for postponing the investiture of an emperor at Rome, whose accession would instantly dissolve this dream of greatness.

But the restoration to favor of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, whose craft and skill were superior even to those of John VIII, after a profession of friendship almost melodramatic in its effusiveness, had caused the re-affirmation of the Patriarch's primacy in Christendom; John had found himself discredited; and, in 880, the papal legates had brought back to Rome the story of the machinations and perfidy with which the Pope had been duped.

As John VIII was awakening from his bright dream of glory, Charles the Fat entered Rome with his army. The tempest of the Pope's wrath had already broken upon him in the letter of warning which he had received; but, perceiving that he had nothing to fear, he did not hesitate. In the Pope's eyes, his entrance into the sacred city was an act of violence as well as a step of presumption; but the humiliation was borne, and the imperial crown was conferred -- for the first time -- upon a disobedient son of the Church. Thus began the German occupation of the Empire, and with it a new chapter in the history of the Papacy.




1. The text of the "Constitution of 824" is found in Migne, XCVII, p. 459 et seq.; and in Mon. Germ. Hist., Leges, IV, p. 545.

2. The subject is fully treated by Gasquet, L'empire byzantin et la monarchie franque, who cites the authorities in detail.

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