During the political chaos of the early Middle Ages, there was one stable, unifying force that held things together in Europe: the Roman Catholic Church. While Europe scrambled to pick up the pieces after the fall of the Roman Empire, the pope’s authority over Rome and the surrounding areas was unchallenged, thanks to an imperial decree from the first Christian Roman emperor to the pope. Hundreds of years would pass before it was revealed that the document in question was a forgery.
The Donation of Constantine was an imperial decree from A.D. 315, bearing the signature and seal of Constantine the Great. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. His decree recognized the supremacy of the pope over all religious matters in the Roman Empire and granted Pope Sylvester I and his successors “Rome and all the provinces, districts and cities of Italy and the West as subject to the Roman church for ever.” The document also explained that Constantine founded the city Constantinople and chose it instead of Rome as the capital of his government so he would not appear to be in competition with the pope.
The Donation of Constantine was used as the legal basis for several land disputes. In 754, Pope Stephen cited the document when he found himself in a territorial dispute with Frankish King Pepin. Three hundred years later, Pope Leo IX found himself in a similar dispute with the Patriarch of Constantinople, and he used the Donation of Constantine to support his legal position. Several times throughout the centuries to come, popes confidently asserted their authority by rolling out one of the last recognized decrees of the Roman Empire.
Unfortunately, the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. What is amazing is that it took almost 700 years before its authenticity was disproven. In 1518 someone finally noticed that in the Donation, dated A.D. 315, Constantine bequeathed spiritual authority over Constantinople to the pope. This was remarkable, given that Constantinople was not founded until A.D. 326 — eleven years after the Donation was supposedly written.
Read more fun facts about popes.