Donation of Constantine

(Lat., Donatio Constantini).

By this name is understood, since the end of the Middle Ages, a

forged document of Emperor Constantine the Great, by which large

privileges and rich possessions were conferred on the pope and the

Roman Church. In the oldest known (ninth century) manuscript

(Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS. Latin 2777) and in many other

manuscripts the document bears the title: "Constitutum domni

Constantini imperatoris". It is addressed by Constantine to Pope

Sylvester I (314-35) and consists of two parts. In the first

(entitled "Confessio") the emperor relates how he was instructed in

the Christian Faith by Sylvester, makes a full profession of faith,

and tells of his baptism in Rome by that pope, and how he was

thereby cured of leprosy. In the second part (the "Donatio")

Constantine is made to confer on Sylvester and his successors the

following privileges and possessions: the pope, as successor of St.

Peter, has the primacy over the four Patriarchs of Antioch,

Alexandria, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, also over all the bishops

in the world. The Lateran basilica at Rome, built by Constantine,

shall surpass all churches as their head, similarly the churches of

St. Peter and St. Paul shall be endowed with rich possessions. The

chief Roman ecclesiastics (clerici cadinales), among whom senators

may also be received, shall obtain the same honours and distinctions

as the senators. Like the emperor the Roman Church shall have as

functionaries cubicularii, ostiarii, and excubitores. The pope shall

enjoy the same honorary rights as the emperor, among them the right

to wear an imperial crown, a purple cloak and tunic, and in general

all imperial insignia or signs of distinction; but as Sylvester

refused to put on his head a golden crown, the emperor invested him

with the high white cap (phrygium). Constantine, the document

continues, rendered to the pope the service of a strator, i.e. he

led the horse upon which the pope rode. Moreover, the emperor makes

a present to the pope and his successors of the Lateran palace, of

Rome and the provinces, districts, and towns of Italy and all the

Western regions (tam palatium nostrum, ut prelatum est, quamque Romæ

urbis et omnes Italiæ seu occidentalium regionum provinicas loca et

civitates). The document goes on to say that for himself the emperor

has established in the East a new capital which bears his name, and

thither he removes his government, since it is inconvenient that a

secular emperor have power where God has established the residence

of the head of the Christian religion. The document concludes with

maledictions against all who dare to violate these donations and

with the assurance that the emperor has signed them with his own

hand and placed them on the tomb of St. Peter.

This document is without doubt a forgery, fabricated somewhere

between the years 750 and 850. As early as the fifteenth century its

falsity was known and demonstrated. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (De

Concordantiâ Catholicâ, III, ii, in the Basle ed. of his Opera,

1565, I) spoke of it as a dictamen apocryphum. Some years later

(1440) Lorenzo Valla (De falso credita et ementita Constantini

donatione declamatio, Mainz, 1518) proved the forgery with

certainty. Independently of both his predecessors, Reginald Pecocke,

Bishop of Chichester (1450-57), reached a similar conclusion in his

work, "The Repressor of over much Blaming of the Clergy", Rolls

Series, II, 351-366. Its genuinity was yet occasionally defended,

and the document still further used as authentic, until Baronius in

his "Annales Ecclesiastici" (ad an. 324) admitted that the "Donatio"

was a forgery, whereafter it was soon universally admitted to be

such. It is so clearly a fabrication that there is no reason to

wonder that, with the revival of historical criticism in the

fifteenth century, the true character of the document was at once

recognized. The forger made use of various authorities, which

Grauert and others (see below) have thoroughly investigated. The

introduction and the conclusion of the document are imitated from

authentic writings of the imperial period, but formulæ of other

periods are also utilized. In the "Confession" of faith the doctrine

of the Holy Trinity is explained at length, afterwards the Fall of

man and the Incarnation of Christ. There are also reminiscences of

the decrees of the Iconoclast Synod of Constantinople (754) against

the veneration of images. The narrative of the conversion and

healing of the emperor is based on the apocryphal Acts of Sylvester

(Acta or Gesta Sylvestri), yet all the particulars of the "Donatio"

narrative do not appear in the hitherto known texts of that legend.

The distinctions conferred on the pope and the cardinals of the

Roman Church the forger probably invented and described according to

certain contemporary rites and the court ceremonial of the Roman and

the Byzantine emperors. The author also used the biographies of the

popes in the Liber Pontificalis (q.v.), likewise eighth-century

letters of the popes, especially in his account of the imperial


The authorship of this document is still wrapped in obscurity.

Occasionally, but without sufficient reason, critics have attributed

it to the author of the False Decretals (q.v.) or to some Roman

ecclesiastic of the eighth century. On the other hand, the time and

place of its composition have lately been thoroughly studied by

numerous investigators (especially Germans), though no sure and

universally accepted conclusion has yet been reached. As to the

place of the forgery Baronius (Annales, ad. an. 1081) maintained

that it was done in the East by a schismatic Greek; it is, indeed,

found in Greek canonical collections. Natalis Alexander opposed this

view, and it is no longer held by any recent historian. Many of the

recent critical students of the document locate its composition at

Rome and attribute the forgery to an ecclesiastic, their chief

argument being an intrinsic one: this false document was composed in

favour of the popes and of the Roman Church, therefore Rome itself

must have had the chief interest in a forgery executed for a purpose

so clearly expressed. Moreover, the sources of the document are

chiefly Roman. Nevertheless, the earlier view of Zaccaria and others

that the forgery originated in the Frankish Empire has quite

recently been ably defended by Hergenröther and Grauert (see below).

They call attention to the fact that the "Donatio" appears first in

Frankish collections, i.e. in the False Decretals and in the

above-mentioned St-Denis manuscript; moreover the earliest certain

quotation of it is by Frankish authors in the second half of the

ninth century. Finally, this document was never used in the papal

chancery until the middle of the eleventh century, nor in general is

it referred to in Roman sources until the time of Otto III

(983-1002, i.e. in case the famous "Diploma" of this emperor be

authentic). The first certain use of it at Rome was by Leo IX in

1054, and it is to be noted that this pope was by birth and training

a German, not an Italian. The writers mentioned have shown that the

chief aim of the forgery was to prove the justice of the translatio

imperii to the Franks, i.e. the transfer of the imperial title at

the coronation of Charlemagne in 800; the forgery was, therefore,

important mainly for the Frankish Empire. This view is rightly

tenable against the opinion of the majority that this forgery

originated at Rome.

A still greater divergency of opinion reigns as to the time of its

composition. Some have asserted (more recently Martens, Friedrich,

and Bayet) that each of its two parts was fabricated at different

times. Martens holds that the author executed his forgery at brief

intervals; that the "Constitutum" originated after 800 in connection

with a letter of Adrian I (778) to Charlemagne wherein the pope

acknowledged the imperial position to which the Frankish king by his

own efforts and fortune had attained. Friedrich (see below), on the

contrary, attempts to prove that the "Constitutum" was composed of

two really distinct parts. The gist of the first part, the so-called

"Confessio", appeared between 638 and 653, probably 638-641, while

the second, or "Donatio" proper, was written in the reign of Stephen

II, between 752 and 757, by Paul, brother and successor of Pope

Stephen. According to Bayet the first part of the document was

composed in the time of Paul I (757-767); the latter part appeared

in or about the year 774. In opposition to these opinions most

historians maintain that the document was written at the same time

and wholly by one author. But when was it written? Colombier decides

for the reign of Pope Conon (686-687), Genelin for the beginning of

the eighth century (before 728). But neither of these views is

supported by sufficient reasons, and both are certainly untenable.

Most investigators accept as the earliest possible date the

pontificate of Stephen II (752-757), thus establishing a connection

between the forgery and the historical events that led to the origin

of the States of the Church and the Western Empire of the Frankish

kings. But in what year of period from the above-mentioned

pontificate of Stephen II until the reception of the "Constitutum"

in the collection of the False Decretals (c. 840-50) was the forgery

executed? Nearly every student of this intricate question maintains

his own distinct view. It is necessary first to answer a preliminary

question: Did Pope Adrian I in his letter to Charlemagne of the year

778 (Codex Carolinus, ed. Jaffé Ep. lxi) exhibit a knowledge of the

"Constitutum"? From a passage of this letter (Sicut temporibus beati

Silvestri Romani pontificis a sanctæ recordationis piisimo

Constantino magno imperatore per eius largitatem sancta Dei

Catholica et Apostolica Romana ecclesia elevata et exaltata est et

potestatem in his Hesperiæ partibus largiri dignatus, ita et in his

vestris felicissimis temporibus atque nostris sancta Dei ecclesia,

id est beati Petri apostoli, germinet atque exultet. . . .) several

writers, e.g. Döllinger, Langen, Meyer, and others have concluded

that Adrian I was then aware of this forgery, so that it must have

appeared before 778. Friedrich assumes in Adrian I a knowledge of

the "Constitutum" from his letter to Emperor Constantine VI written

in 785 (Mansi, Concil. Coll., XII, 1056). Most historians, however,

rightly refrain from asserting that Adrian I made use of this

document; from his letters, therefore, the time of its origin cannot

be deduced.

Most of the recent writers on the subject assume the origin of the

"Donatio" between 752 and 795. Among them, some decide for the

pontificate of Stephen II (752-757) on the hypothesis that the

author of the forgery wished to substantiate thereby the claims of

this pope in his negotiations with Pepin (Döllinger, Hauck,

Friedrich, Böhmer). Others lower the date of the forgery to the time

of Paul I (757-767), and base their opinion on the political events

in Italy under this pope, or on the fact that he had a special

veneration for St. Sylvester, and that the "Donatio" had especially

in view the honour of this saint (Scheffer-Boichorst, Mayer). Others

again locate its origin in the pontificate of Adrian I (772-795), on

the hypothesis that this pope hoped thereby to extend the secular

authority of the Roman Church over a great part of Italy and to

create in this way a powerful ecclesiastical State under papal

government (Langen, Loening). A smaller group of writers, however,

remove the forgery to some date after 800, i.e. after the coronation

of Charlemagne as emperor. Among these, Martens and Weiland assign

the document to the last years of the reign of Charlemagne, or the

first years of Louis the Pious, i.e. somewhere between 800 and 840.

They argue that the chief purpose of the forgery was to bestow on

the Western ruler the imperial power, or that the "Constitutum" was

meant to indicate what the new emperor, as successor of Constantine

the Great, might have conferred on the Roman Church. Those writers

also who seek the forger in the Frankish Empire maintain that the

document was written in the ninth century, ee.g. especially

Hergenröther and Grauert. The latter opines that the "Constitutum"

originated in the monastery of St-Denis, at Paris, shortly before or

about the same time as the False Decretals, i.e. between 840 and


Closely connected with the date of the forgery is the other question

concerning the primary purpose of the forger of the "Donatio". Here,

too, there exists a great variety of opinions. Most of the writers

who locate at Rome itself the origin of the forgery maintain that it

was intended principally to support the claims of the popes to

secular power in Italy; they differ, however, as to the extent of

the said claims. According to Döllinger the "Constitutum" was

destined to aid in the creation of a united Italy under papal

government. Others would limit the papal claims to those districts

which Stephen II sought to obtain from Pepin, or to isolated

territories which, then or later, the popes desired to acquire. In

general, this class of historians seeks to connect the forgery with

the historical events and political movements of that time in Italy

(Mayer, Langen, Friedrich, Loening, and others). Several of these

writers lay more stress on the elevation of the papacy than on the

donation of territories. Occasionally it is maintained that the

forger sought to secure for the pope a kind of higher secular power,

something akin to imperial supremacy as against the Frankish

Government, then solidly established in Italy. Again, some of this

class limit to Italy the expression occidentalium regionum

provincias, but most of them understand it to mean the whole former

Western Empire. This is the attitude of Weiland, for whom the chief

object of the forgery is the increase of papal power over the

imperial, and the establishment of a kind of imperial supremacy of

the pope over the whole West. For this reason also he lowers the

date of the "Constitutum" no further than the end of the reign of

Charlemagne (814). As a matter of fact, however, in this document

Sylvester does indeed obtain from Constantine imperial rank and the

emblems of imperial dignity, but not the real imperial supremacy.

Martens therefore sees in the forgery an effort to elevate the

papacy in general; all alleged prerogatives of the pope and of Roman

ecclesiastics, all gifts of landed possessions, and rights of

secular government are meant to promote and confirm this elevation,

and from it all the new Emperor Charlemagne ought to draw practical

conclusions for his behaviour in relation to the pope.

Scheffer-Boichorst holds a singular opinion, namely that the forger

intended primarily the glorification of Sylvester and Constantine,

and only in a secondary way a defence of the papal claims to

territorial possessions. Grauert, for whom the forger is a Frankish

subject, shares the view of Hergenröther, i.e. the forger had in

mind a defence of the new Western Empire from the attacks of the

Byzantines. Therefore it was highly important for him to establish

the legitimacy of the newly founded empire, and this purpose was

especially aided by all that the document alleges concerning the

elevation of the pope. From the foregoing it will be seen that the

last word of historical research in this matter still remains to be

said. Important questions concerning the sources of the forgery, the

place and time of its origin, the tendency of the forger, yet await

their solution. New researches will probably pay still greater

attention to textual criticism, especially that of the first part or

"Confession" of faith.

As far as the evidence at hand permits us to judge, the forged

"Constitutum" was first made known in the Frankish Empire. The

oldest extant manuscript of it, certainly from the ninth century,

was written in the Frankish Empire. In the second half of that

century the document is expressly mentioned by three Frankish

writers. Ado, Bishop of Vienne, speaks of it in his Chronicle (De

sex ætatibus mundi, ad an. 306, in P.L., CXXIII, 92); Æneas, Bishop

of Paris, refers to it in defence of the Roman primacy (Adversus

Græcos, c. ccix, op. cit., CXXI, 758); Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims,

mentions the donation of Rome to the pope by Constantine the Great

according to the "Constitutum" (De ordine palatii, c. xiii, op.

cit., CXXV, 998). The document obtained wider circulation by its

incorporation with the False Decretals (840-850, or more

specifically between 847 and 852; Hinschius, Decretales

Pseudo-Isidorianæ, Leipzig, 1863, p. 249). At Rome no use was made

of the document during the ninth and the tenth centuries, not even

amid the conflicts and difficulties of Nicholas I with

Constantinople, when it might have served as a welcome argument for

the claims of the pope. The first pope who used it in an official

act and relied upon, 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. Thenceforth the "Donatio" acquires

more importance and is more frequently used as evidence in the

ecclesiastical and political conflicts between the papacy and the

secular power. Anselm of Lucca and Cardinal Deusdedit inserted it in

their collections of canons. Gratian, it is true, excluded it from

his "Decretum", but it was soon added to it as "Palea". The

ecclesiastical writers in defence of the papacy during the conflicts

of the early part of the twelfth century quoted it as authoritative

(Hugo of Fleury, De regiâ potestate et ecclesiasticâ dignitate, II;

Placidus of Nonantula, De honore ecclesiæ, cc. lvii, xci, cli;

Disputatio vel defensio Paschalis papæ, Honorius Augustodunensis, De

summâ gloriæ, c. xvii; cf. Mon. Germ. Hist., Libelli de lite, II,

456, 591, 614, 635; III, 71). St. Peter Damian also relied on it in

his writings against the antipope Cadalous of Parma (Disceptatio

synodalis, in Libelli de lite, I, 88). Gregory VII himself never

quoted this document in his long warfare for ecclesiastical liberty

against the secular power. But Urban II made use of it in 1091 to

support his claims on the island of Corsica. Later popes (Innocent

III, Gregory IX, Innocent IV) took its authority for granted

(Innocent III, Sermo de sancto Silvestro, in P.L., CCXVII, 481 sqq.;

Raynaldus, Annales, ad an. 1236, n. 24; Potthast, Regesta, no.

11,848), and ecclesiastical writers often adduced its evidence in

favour of the papacy. The medieval adversaries of the popes, on the

other hand, never denied the validity of this appeal to the

pretended donation of Constantine, but endeavoured to show that the

legal deductions drawn from it were founded on false

interpretations. The authenticity of the document, as already

stated, was doubted by no one before the fifteenth century. It was

known to the Greeks in the second half of the twelfth century, when

it appears in the collection of Theodore Balsamon (1169 sqq.); later

on another Greek canonist, Matthæus Blastares (about 1335), admitted

it into his collection. It appears also in other Greek works.

Moreover, it was highly esteemed in the Greek East. The Greeks

claimed, it is well known, for the Bishop of New Rome

(Constantinople) the same honorary rights as those enjoyed by the

Bishop of Old Rome. By now, by virtue of this document, they claimed

for the Byzantine clergy also the privileges and perogatives granted

to the pope and the Roman ecclesiastics. In the West, long after its

authenticity was disputed in the fifteenth century, its validity was

still upheld by the majority of canonists and jurists who continued

throughout the sixteenth century to quote it as authentic. And

though Baronius and later historians acknowledged it to be a

forgery, they endeavoured to marshal other authorities in defence of

its content, especially as regards the imperial donations. In later

times even this was abandoned, so that now the whole "Constitutum",

both in form and content, is rightly considered in all senses a



The text of the Donatio has often been printed, ee.g. in LABBE,

Concil., I, 1530; MANSI, Concil. col., II, 603; finally by GRAUERT

(see below) and ZEUMER in Festgabe für Rudolf von Gneist (Berlin,

1888), 39 sqq. See HALLER, Die Quellen zur Geschichte der Entstehung

des Kirchenstaats (Leipzig and Berlin, 1907) 241-250; CENNI,

Monumenta dominationis Pontificiæ (Rome, 1760), I, 306 sqq.; cf.

Origine della Donazione di Costantino in Civilta Cattolica, ser. V,

X, 1864, 303 sqq. The following are non-Catholic: ZINKEISEN, The

Donation of Constantine as applied by the Roman Church in Eng. Hist.

Review (1894), IX, 625-32; SCHAFF, Hist. of the Christ. Church (New

York, 1905), IV, 270-72; HODGKIN, Italy and Her Invaders (Oxford,

1899), VII, 135 sqq. See also COLOMBIER, La Donation de Constantin

in Etudes Religieuses (1877), XI, 800 sqq.; BONNEAU, La Donation de

Constantin (Lisieux, 1891); BAYET, La fausse Donation de Constantin

in Annuaire de la Faculté des lettres de Lyon (Paris, 1884), II, 12

sq.; DÖLLINGER, Papstfabeln des Mittelalters (Munich, 1863),

Stuttgart, 1890), 72 sqq.; HERGENRÖTHER, Katholische Kirche und

christlicher Staat (Freiburg im Br., 1872), I, 360 sqq.; GENELIN,

Das Schenkungsversprechen und die Schenkung Pippins (Leipzig, 1880),

36 sqq.; MARTENS, Die römische Frage unter Pippin und Karl dem

Grossen (Stuttgart, 1881), 327 sqq.; IDEM, Die falsche

Generalkonzession Konstantins des Grossen (Munich, 1889); IDEM,

Beleuchtung der neuesten Kontroversen über die römische Frage unter

Pippin und Karl dem Grossen (Munich, 1898), 151 sqq.; GRAUERT Die

konstantinische Schenkung in Historisches Jahrbuch (1882), 3 sqq.

(1883), 45 sqq., 674 sqq. (1884), 117 sqq.; LANGEN, Entstehung und

Tendenz der konstantinischen Schenkungsurkunde in Historische

Zeitschrift für Kirchenrecht (1889), 137 sqq., 185 sqq.; BRUNNER,

Das Constitutum Constantini in Festgabe für R. von Gneist (Berlin,

1888), 3 sqq.; FRIEDRICH, Die konstantinische Schenkung (Nördlingen,

1889); SCHEFFER-BOICHORST, Neuere Forschungen über die

konstantinische Schenkung in Mitteilungen des Instituts fürösterr.

Geschichtsforsch. (1889), 302 sqq. (1890), 128 sqq.; LAMPRECHT, Die

römische Frage von Konig Pippin bis auf Kaiser Ludwig den Frommen

(Leipzig, 1889), 117 sqq.; LOENING, Die Entstehung der

konstantinischen Schenkungsurkunde in Histor. Zeitschrift (1890),

193 sqq.; BÖHMER, Konstantinische Schenkung in Realencyclopadie für

prot. Theol. (Leipzig, 1902), XI, 1 sqq.


Transcribed by Steven Fanning

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V

Copyright © 1909 by Robert Appleton Company

Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight

Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor

Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York