Sylvester I and Constantine

A 13th C. fresco of Sylvester and Constantine, showing the purported Donation. Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

The Donation of Constantine (Latin, Donatio Constantini)[1] is a forged Roman imperial decree in which the emperor Constantine I transfers authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the pope. It was devised probably between 750 and 775, the earlier date being the more probable. It is often said that the document could have been written around 752. Albert Hauck suggested in 1888[2] that assuming that the document was forged shortly before the Council of Quierzy, 754, would explain demands made by the Pope on that occasion, "demands which had no basis in law or fact", commented F. Zinkeisen.[3] The earliest secure allusion to the Donatio is in a letter in which Pope Hadrian I exhorts Charlemagne to follow Constantine's example and endow the Roman church. It was clearly a defense of papal interests, perhaps against the claims of either the Byzantine Empire, or those of Charlemagne himself, who soon assumed the former imperial dignity in the West and with it the title "Emperor of the Romans". The Donation is included among the texts of the False Decretals of Isidore.

Origin and content

Purportedly issued by the fourth century Roman Emperor Constantine I, the Donation grants Pope Sylvester I and his successors, as inheritors of St. Peter, dominion over lands in Judea, Greece, Asia, Thrace, Africa, as well as the city of Rome, with Italy and the entire Western Roman Empire, while Constantine would retain imperial authority in the Eastern Roman Empire from his new imperial capital of Constantinople. The text claims that the Donation was Constantine's gift to Sylvester for instructing him in the Christian faith, baptizing him and miraculously curing him of leprosy.

It has been suggested that an early draft was made shortly after the middle of the eighth century in order to assist Pope Stephen II in his negotiations with Pepin the Short, the Frankish Mayor of the Palace. In 754, Pope Stephen II crossed the Alps to anoint Pepin king, thereby enabling the Carolingian family to supplant the old Merovingian royal line. In return for Stephen's support, Pepin apparently gave the Pope the lands in Italy which the Lombards had taken from the Byzantine Empire. These lands would become the Papal States and would be the basis of the Papacy's temporal power for the next eleven centuries.

More recently, an attempt has been made at dating the forgery to the 9th century and placing its composition at Corbie Abbey, in northern France.[4]

Medieval use

Inserted among the twelfth-century compilation known as the Decretum Gratiani, this document continued to be used by medieval popes to bolster their territorial and secular power in Italy.

"The first pope who used it in an official act and relied upon it, was Leo IX; in a letter of 1054 to Michael Cærularius, Patriarch of Constantinople, he cites the "Donatio" to show that the Holy See possessed both an earthly and a heavenly imperium, the royal priesthood."[5]

It was widely accepted as authentic, although the Emperor Otto III did raise suspicions of the document "in letters of gold" as a forgery, in making a gift to the See of Rome.[6] The poet Dante Alighieri lamented it as the root of papal worldliness in his Divine Comedy. It was not until the mid 15th-century, with the revival of Classical scholarship and textual criticism, that humanists, and eventually the bureaucracy of the Church began to realize that the document could not possibly be genuine.



Workshop of Raphael, The Donation of Constantine. Stanze di Raffaello, Vatican City.

As early as the fifteenth century its falsity was known and demonstrated. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa spoke of it as an apocryphal work. Later the Catholic priest Lorenzo Valla in De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio (1440, ed. Mainz, 1518), proved the forgery with certainty. Independently of both, Reginald Pecocke, Bishop of Chichester (1450-57), reached a similar conclusion. Among the indications that the Donation must be a fake are its language, and that while certain imperial-era formulas are used in the text, some of the Latin in the document could not have been written in the fourth century; anachronistic terms such as "fief" were used. Also, the purported date of the document is inconsistent with the content of the document itself as it refers both to the fourth consulate of Constantine (315) as well as the consulate of Gallicanus (317).

Pope Pius II wrote a tract in 1453 to show that though the Donation was a forgery, the Church owed its lands to Charlemagne and its powers of the keys to Peter; he did not publish it however,[7] the Vatican essentially ignored Valla: however, though the bulls of Nicholas V and his successors made no further mention of the Donation even when partitioning the New World, Valla's treatise was placed on the list of banned books in the mid-sixteenth century. The Donatio continued to be tacitly accepted as authentic until Caesar Baronius in his "Annales Ecclesiastici" (published 1588-1607) admitted that the Donatio was a forgery, and eventually the church conceded its illegitimacy.[8] It has been suggested that this acceptance was hastened by Andeas Helwig's Antichristus Romanus (1612) which had identified the title Vicarius Filii Dei used in the Donation as being the number of the beast. Nearly a century after Baronius, Christian Wolff still alluded to the Donatio as undisputed fact.[9]

More recently, some scholars have further demonstrated that other elements, such as Sylvester's curing of Constantine, are legends which originated at a later time. Its recent editor[10] has affirmed that at the time of the composition of Valla's work, Constantine's alleged "donation" was no longer a matter of contemporary relevance in political theory and that, rather, it furnished the theme for a brilliant exercise in legal rhetoric.

Contemporary opponents of papal powers in the Peninsula emphasized the primacy of civil law and civil jurisdiction, now firmly embodied once again in the Justinian Corpus Juris Civilis. The Florentine chronicler Giovanni Cavalcanti reported that, in the very year of Valla's treatise, Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, made diplomatic overtures toward Cosimo de' Medici in Florence proposing an alliance in common defence against the Pope, as sovereign lord of the Marche, where Francesco Sforza was currently protected by papal sovereignty, in which Visconti used the words, "It so happens that even if Constantine consigned to Sylvester so many and such rich gifts— which is doubtful, because such a privilege can nowhere be found— he could only have granted them for his lifetime: the Empire takes precedence over any lordship."

Civil law was the Emperor's prerogative, according to the Imperial vassal Visconti: "and for this reason you see why the Church is without civil law."[11] Valla's refutation was taken up vehemently by scholars of the Protestant Reformation, such as Ulrich von Hutten and Martin Luther.

Further reading

For a detailed account of textual forgery in the early Christian Church, see:

from the Introduction: "I charge . . . 1. That the Bible, in its every Book, . . . is a huge forgery. . . . 4. That the Christian Church . . . was a vast and tireless Forgery-mill."
  • McCabe, Joseph, A History Of The Popes, (Watts & Co, 1939). Book by an anti-Catholic ex-priest.


  • Lorenzo Valla, Treatise on the Donation of Constantine (1440). online edition

See also


  1. In many manuscripts, including the oldest one, which dates from the 9th century, the document bears the title Constitutum domini Constantini imperatoris.(The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, s.v. "Donation of Constantine").
  2. Hauck in Zeitschrift für kirchlichen Wissenschaft und Leben 4 (1888).
  3. Zinkeisen, "The Donation of Constantine as Applied by the Roman Church" The English Historical Review 9 No. 36 (October 1894:625-632) p. 625, note 4. Zinkeisen examines the uses made of the Donatio over time.
  4. J. Fried, Donation of Constantine and Constitutum Constantini. 'Millennium Studies', 3. Berlin 2006
  5. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, s.v. "Donation of Constantine"
  6. Monumenta Germania Historiae ii B:162, noted in Zinkeisen 1894: 626 note 12.
  7. It was among his Opera inedita, in Atti del Reale Accademia dei Lincei 1883:571-81 (noted by Henry Charles Lea, "The 'Donation of Constantine'" The English Historical Review 10 No. 37 [January 1895:86-87]).
  8. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Donation of Constantine"
  9. Wolff, in Append. ad Concilium Chalcedonensem, in Opere ii:261, noted by Henry Charles Lea 1895:86-87.
  10. Wolfram Setz, editor, Lorenzo Valla, De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica X (Weimar, 1976).
  11. Fubini, Riccardo (January 1996). "Humanism and Truth: Valla Writes Against the Donation of Constantine". Journal of the History of Ideas 57 (1): p. 80f.. 

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikisource. The original article was at Donation of Constantine. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with the Religion wiki, the text of Wikisource is available under the CC-BY-SA.

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