The Donation of Constantine

The Donation of Constantine, The emperor makes donation from the city of Rome to Pope Sylvester I, Fresco, 13th century, Chapel of St, Sylvester, Basilica of Four Crowned Saints, Rome, Italy.
13th century fresco portraying the Donation of Constantine.

Universal Images Group/Hulton Fine Art/Getty Images

The Donation of Constantine (Donatio Constantini, or sometimes just Donatio) is one of the best-known forgeries in European history. It is a medieval document which pretends to have been written in the early fourth century, giving large areas of land and related political power, as well as religious authority, to Pope Sylvester I (in power from 314 – 335 CE) and his successors. It had a little immediate impact after being written but grew to be heavily influential as time went on.​​

Origins of the Donation

We’re not certain who faked the Donation, but it seems to have been written circa 750-800 CE in Latin. It might be connected to the coronation of Pippin the Short in 754 CE, or the grand imperial coronation of Charlemagne in 800 CE, but could easily have been to aid Papal attempts to challenge Byzantium’s spiritual and secular interests in Italy. One of the more popular views has the Donation being created in the mid-eighth century at the behest of Pope Stephen II, in order to aid his negotiations with Pepin. The idea was that the Pope approved the transfer of the great central European crown from the Merovingian dynasty to the Carolingians, and in return, Pepin would not just give the Papacy the rights to Italian lands, but would actually ‘restore’ what had been given long before by Constantine. It appears that the rumor of a Donation or something similar had been traveling around the relevant parts of Europe since the sixth century and that whoever created it was producing something people expected to exist.

Contents of the Donation

The Donation begins with a narrative: Sylvester I was supposed to have cured Roman Emperor Constantine of leprosy before the latter gave his support to Rome and the Pope as the heart of the church. It then moves into the granting of rights, a ‘donation’ to the church: the Pope is made the supreme religious ruler of many great capitals—including the newly expanded Constantinople—and given control of all the lands given to the church throughout Constantine’s empire. The Pope is also given the Imperial Palace in Rome and the western empire, and the ability to appoint all kings and emperors ruling there. What this meant, if it had been true, was that the Papacy had the legal right to rule a large area of Italy in a secular fashion, which it did during the medieval period.

History of the Donation

Despite containing such a massive benefit to the papacy, the document appears to have been forgotten in the ninth and tenth centuries, when struggles between Rome and Constantinople raged over who was superior, and when the Donation would have been useful. It wasn’t until Leo IX in the mid-eleventh century that the Donation was quoted as evidence, and from then on it became a common weapon in the struggle between the church and secular rulers to carve up power. Its legitimacy was rarely questioned, although there were dissenting voices.

The Renaissance Destroys the Donation

In 1440 a Renaissance Humanist called Valla published a work which broke the Donation down and examined it: the ‘Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine.' Valla applied the textual criticism and interest in history and classics which grew so prominent in the Renaissance to show, among many criticisms and in an attacking style we might not consider academic these days, that the Donation was not written in the fourth century. Once Valla had published his proof, the Donation was increasingly seen as a forgery, and the church couldn’t rely on it. Valla’s attack on the Donation helped promote humanist study and in a small way helped lead to the Reformation.

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Wilde, Robert. "The Donation of Constantine." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Wilde, Robert. (2020, August 28). The Donation of Constantine. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Donation of Constantine." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).