The oldest Latin manuscript of alleged Constantine’s Donation (Bibliotèque Nationale, Paris 2777) bearing the title: “Constitutum domini Constantini imperatoris”, is an apocryphal document of an imperial decree addressed by the Constantine to Pope Sylvester I.
The text consist of two parts. In the first – “Confessio” – the emperor relates how he was instructed in the Christian Faith by Pope Sylvester I, 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 – “Donatio” – Constantine express oneself: (*)“[…] we decree that his holy Roman Church shall be honoured with veneration; and that, more than our empire and earthly throne, the most sacred seat of St. Peter shall be gloriously exalted; we giving to it the imperial power, and dignity of glory, and vigour and honour. And we ordain and decree that he shall have the supremacy as well over the four chief seats Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Jerusalem, as also over all the churches of God in the whole world. And he who for the time being shall be pontiff of that holy Roman church shall be more exalted than, and chief over, all the priests of the whole world; and, according to his judgment, everything which is to be provided for the service of God or the stability of the faith of the Christians is to be administered.[…] We have also constructed the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul, chiefs of the apostles, which we have enriched with gold and silver; where also, placing their most sacred bodies with great honour, we have constructed their caskets of electrum, against which no force of the elements prevails. And we have placed a cross of purest gold and precious gems on each of their caskets, and fastened them with golden keys. And on these churches for the endowing of divine services we have conferred estates, and have enriched them with different objects; and, through our sacred imperial decrees, we have granted them our gift of land in the East as well as in the West; and even on the northern and southern coast;-namely in Judea, Greece, Asia, Thrace, Africa and Italy and the various islands: under this condition indeed, that all shall be administered by the hand of our most blessed father the pontiff Sylvester and his successors. […]
The document so concludes: “Wherefore, before the living God, who commanded us to reign, and in the face of his terrible judgment, we conjure, through this our imperial decree, all the emperors our successors, and all our nobles, the satraps also and the most glorious senate, and all the people in the world now and in all times previously subject to our rule: that no one of them, in any way allow himself to oppose or disregard, or in any way seize, these things which, by our imperial sanction, have been conceded to the holy Roman church and to all its pontiffs. If anyone, moreover, – which we do not believe – prove a scorner or despiser in this matter, he shall be subject and bound over to eternal damnation; and shall feel that the holy chiefs of the apostles of God, Peter and Paul, will be opposed to him in the present and in the future life. And, being burned in the nethermost hell, he shall perish with the devil and all the impious […].
Given at Rome on the third day before the calends of April (March 30, 315), our master the august Flavius Constantine, for the fourth time, and Galligano, most illustrious men, being consuls.”
Till the Middle Ages the Donation was widely accept as authentic, on the contrary, until the mid-15th century, with the revival of Classical scholarship and textual criticism, not only the humanist, but as well the bureaucracy of the Church the document was considered the best-known and most important forgery of the Middle Ages.
In 1430 the German mathematician and philosopher cardinal Nicholas Kryffs of Kues (Nicholas of Cusa) declared that this decree was an apocryphal work. Ten years later, the Renaissance humanist and Catholic priest Lorenzo Valla published his “De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamation” (Discourse on the forgery of the alleged donation of Constantine), in which he enumerated the large number of historical anachronisms that pervaded the Donation. For instance, at the time of the supposed date of the document (315 AD), Constantinople as one of the patriarchal sees when it was not a patriarchate, not a see, not a Christian city, and named Byzantium, name settled from the Greek colonial expansion (around 671–662 BC), it took on the name Costantinople on 11 May 330 AD, when Constantine transferred there the imperial capital from Rome. The document referred to temples in Rome that did not yet exist, and it referred to ‘Judea’ even though in Constantine’s time the Romans referred to this territory as Palestina.
Besides, there is no historic proof that emperor Constantine never had leprosy, making it impossible for Pope Sylvester to have cured him of this disease. This Valla’s treatise was placed on the list of banned books in the mid-16th century.
Among the indications that the Donation must be a fake are its language 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 4th century; anachronistic terms such as “fief” were used.
This decree is without doubt a forgery composed probably in the 8thcentury, but until today the authorship of this document is wrapped in obscurity. The its origins are bound up with the political transformation that took place on the Italian peninsula at that time, certainly it was used in support of claims of political authority by the papacy.
In general, the scholars related the decree with historical events and political movements of that time in Italy. But among them exist are a variety of reasons for the forgery: for some the chief object of the forgery is the establishment to support the claims of the popes to secular power in Italy, or, even, a their kind of imperial supremacy over the whole West. Others agree for a papal efforts to secure independence from to undermine Byzantine territorial claims in Italy.
Even if the Donation of Constantine was entirely forged, as even the Church acknowledged, for centuries it legitimated the rich possessions of the Italian lands. These would become the Papal States and would be the basis of the Papacy’s temporal power for the next eleven centuries.
(*)The text of decree is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book.
Viceroy Eboracum Conclave