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The Birth of the Papal State

( Originally Published 1912 )



RACE prejudice is perhaps the strongest prejudice that human beings know. Its expression in mob action is merciless, murderous. It feeds avidly and grows enormously on calumny. It is permeated by an unshakable self-satisfaction that makes it opaque : the light cannot penetrate it.

Race prejudice is a parasite of patriotism; an evil growth on a good tree. The patriotism of the multitude becomes race prejudice in the mob. Ignorance fosters it; under that black shadow, love of one's own people is transmuted into passionate hatred of other peoples.

In the early middle ages the seat of ecclesiastical authority became a state. It is useless to deplore this fact. Superficial reviewers, who are friends of religion, regret it as the cause of corruption in the church organization and of division among the followers of Christ; superficial reviewers, who are enemies of religion, exploit it as irrefutable proof that the greed of men, and not any divine inspiration, was the soul of the ecclesiastical body. But the unbiased student will marvel at the strange combinations of circumstances from which there could be no other issue than the clothing of the Christian church with political power, and the student who holds the vast and sublime conception of the mission and destiny of the church cannot escape conviction that the hand of God was moving among the nations. For, as one assembles the phantoms on the misty stage of the dark ages, and notes the political life that was generated in the dying body of the Roman Empire, as vermicular life in the human cadaver, the conclusion is irresistible that a measure of political power was absolutely necessary to the continued existence of the church. Under the idea of political supremacy, then and for centuries theretofore prevalent in the minds of men, it was impossible for the church to do its work while its central authority was in real political subjection to a secular sovereign.

While the Roman imperial organization, animated to the end, although in lessening degree, by the ancient democratic principle that government exists legitimately only for the welfare of all the people, held sway over the world, there was no serious friction, although the growing principle of autocracy had impelled rulers from the time of Constantine the Great to attempt the control and direction of ecclesiastical affairs. Had not the autocratic principle fastened it-self upon the Roman political system, it is doubtful if there would ever have been any radical disagreement between the civil power and the church ; for the church, by reason of its nature, could never have been in conflict with the democratic principle.

But when the corrupted heart of the Roman system could no longer send efficient impulses to its extremities, and the imperial power ceased to be a substance and became a shadow less and less distinct on the western world, it was necessary that some physical bulwark should be erected for the protection of the physical organization of the church, in order that the human depository of divine truth might continue to hold aloft for the illumination of the world the inextinguishable spiritual light.

There were sequential offshoots of this fact that were deplorable, beyond any doubt, but they were the evils necessarily concomitant with the imperfection of human nature; just as a tremendous effusion of blood was a necessary concomitant of the beneficent Revolution to which the world owes this Republic. And one of the collateral effects of the political status of the church was a factor making for race prejudice in the religious development of the world. The conflict between the Teuton and the Latin, the distrust of the stranger and the dislike of strange customs so natural in man, grew up between the children of the Roman civilization and the children of the forest barbarism which was conquered by and in turn conquered that civilization; and when there came a division on doctrinal points, racial prejudices so envenomed the controversy that it became the policy and the practice of Protestant princes to instil a horror of the ancient church and its leaders in the minds of their subjects.

To consider, calmly and without the prejudice that has so long clouded the Protestant mind on the subject, the beginnings of the temporal sovereignty of the popes shall be, therefore, the business of this brief chapter. It is the common understanding that this thing came about as a result of deliberation, as a consequence of the ambition and political ability of designing priests. A little reflection will show how far from the fact is this view of the subject; for the seed of the thing was in the ancient organization of the Church of Rome, a form of organization that existed for centuries before the church was recognized by the Roman state as anything but a criminal association of the obstinate votaries of an incomprehensible superstition.

The Church of Rome was democratic in the broadest sense. The bishop was elected by the communicants. When, finally, the whole population of the city of Rome became communicants, they became electors also, and they continued to act as such until mob violence made so great a scandal in the episcopal elections that it was necessary to place the power of selecting bishops in the hands of holy men; thereafter the clergy alone were to exercise the right of election.

But for many centuries the old system prevailed; for many centuries the Roman bishop was not only the apostolic successor of St. Peter, but the chosen man of the Roman people, their wisest and their saintliest man. Subject civilly to the emperor, he was yet a sovereign spiritual before whom the emperor bowed the knee. As the primate of Christendom, he enjoyed the respect and affection of even those barbarian peoples whose rising military strength was compressing the empire.

Keeping in mind this unique position occupied by the Roman bishop, let us consider the decline of the civil power to which he owed allegiance. At about the time that the proscription of the Christian church ended—and the coincidence is worthy of notice—the Roman emperors abandoned the ancient capital. Constantine himself built his own capital, which was to serve for many hundred years as the seat of the Caesars. The city by the Tiber became of secondary political importance; gradually it sank into the position of a duchy or military division of the empire. With his seat at Ravenna, an exarch, or vice-emperor, governed it in common with the other military divisions of Byzantine Italy.

The west and north of Europe had in the meantime been lost to the empire. In northern Italy the Lombard kings not only laughed at the Roman power, but more and more stretched their own boundaries over the Roman territory. Britain was a congeries of microscopic kingdoms; France and Germany were split up into principalities so numerous as to be con-fusing. The strong sword of an ambitious soldier carved out a state in a day, and the weak sword of his son lost it in an hour. There was no international law but the law of the strong hand. A man's kingdom was what he could hold in his grip; when his fingers weakened the kingdom vanished. Territorial lines flickered like the will-o'-the-wisp; today a town yielded allegiance to one king, to-morrow to another.

There was no such thing in Europe then as an army in the modern sense, or in the ancient Roman and Greek sense. A king was a leader to whom a number of feudal lords adhered, and his forces were the servants of his own household and those of his subject lords. The feudal system had supplanted the old Roman military system.

It is interesting to look back at the development of the feudal system. It was the natural consequence of the system of delegated authority by which the Roman emperors, when they had lost the martial vigor of their predecessors, hoped to govern a vast domain without personal trouble. Certain districts were handed over to military leaders, or dukes, who were supposed to govern them in lieu of the emperor. These dukes parcelled out the districts among their officers, who were supposed to pay them a certain tribute and furnish them a certain number of men for military purposes. Each lord was a captain, each duke was a colonel, the emperor was of course the general; indeed, that is the meaning of the word emperor, just as leader is the meaning of the word duke.

The dukes were only temporary officers at first, during the period when the emperors personally knew the confines of the empire; but as it became too laborious for the luxury-loving successors of Constantine to travel any distance from their palaces and slaves, and not only the military roads fell into decay, but the Roman laws lost their binding force, making such travel difficult and dangerous, the Byzantine rulers troubled themselves little about the remote provinces, and each duke was left to his own devices and the choice of his own successor. His captains, very loosely bound to the remote imperial allegiance, were intimately connected with the more immediate incarnation of power and authority in their local leader.

Meanwhile the old democratic theory of government had been utterly lost. The imperial laws troubled but little these nominal officers of the empire, who now owed their real power to the soil rather than to the distant sovereign, and who knew the weakness of the living authority behind the written statute. Each leader was a law unto himself ; sometimes he freely bound himself to allegiance to a leader stronger than himself, but it was an allegiance from which he relieved himself whenever his own strength and inclination moved him. Sometimes, when conditions made it convenient, a number of dukes would band together and elect a leader whom they would call a king; or, as was more often the case, a king would be elected by important families and lead them in war against neighboring dukes.

From out the northern forests came the Lombards, following the Goths, who had conquered and reigned at Ravenna and had then been displaced. They were at first less numerous, and therefore less powerful, than the Goths. Under Alboin, their king, they seized the northern part of Italy, and threatened but did not annex the lower provinces, which still owed allegiance to the Eastern emperor. Independent duchies, Beneventum and Spoleto, also arose and joined with the Lombard kings in threatening the dwindling Byzantine power. Luitprand, a later king of the Lombards, an enterprising and able chief, made extensive con-quests, and his activity presaged a not distant subjugation of Ravenna and Rome. Classis, the seaport of Ravenna, was one of the cities that surrendered to his arms.

While the ancient capital was thus threatened with subjugation by barbarian forces, the interference of the Byzantine emperor in religious matters brought on a quarrel between the civil power and the church.

Leo the Iconoclast, backed by courtier-priests of the Eastern church, questioned the spiritual superiority of the Roman bishop, and the pope organized a resistance to the imperial mandates with regard to the use of images. He was supported by the neighboring duchies, whose people sent the representatives of the emperor to Constantinople and selected as their own leaders men who sided with the Roman Church. The exarch Paul, under orders from Constantinople, sent troops to Rome to enforce his master's decrees, but the Lombard troops hurried to the defense of the pope, and the troops of the exarch retired. In Ravenna Paul found the imperial troops in a mutinous spirit, threatening to proclaim the deposition of Leo and to elect an emperor in his place. The people of Ravenna were so angered at the attack upon the pontiff that riots occurred, in one of which Paul was slain. He was succeeded by Eutychius, who was the last of the exarchs.

Eutychius at first thought to follow in the path of Paul, but he soon found that he could not rely on his troops in a warfare on the pope; he therefore made an alliance with the Lombards, the object of which was the complete subjection of the dukes of Beneventum and Spoleto to Luitprand and the subjection of the Roman pontiff to the Byzantine court. To Eutychius it was soon apparent that the Lombard was much interested in the first part of the programme, but not particular with regard to the second. After Luitprand had received the submission of the two independent dukes, he and they and the exarch went to Rome to visit the pope.

There is a delightfully humorous flavor of modern politics in the history of that visit and its effects. Luitprand began diplomatically by overwhelming the pope with gifts. If the civil governor of the Romans, the duke, took part in the proceedings, as undoubtedly he did, his part is not considered of sufficient importance for historical record. It was the Roman bishop who entertained the visitors, and it was to the Roman bishop that Luitprand, who knew the real power from its counterfeit, paid homage. It did not take the kick of a mule, obviously, to indicate to Eutychius what the exact conditions were, and how little likely it was that his Catholic, if barbarian, ally was going to use any force in bending the pope to submission; for thereafter we find the exarch in quite amicable relationship with the pope, acting quite as the other dukes acted, and paying little attention to the distant emperor. All the comfort Leo might take from the fruits of Eutychius's expedition was an alliance of all three parties in Italy for the purpose of capturing a pretender to the Byzantine throne whose name was Tiberius.

But Luitprand soon found it convenient to war again upon the emperor, and Eutychius, as the representative of the emperor, suffered in consequence. The Lombard king made himself master even of Ravenna, and the exarch fled to Venice for refuge, and was reinstated in his duchy only through the intervention of Pope Gregory III.

All through his reign, which was long and prosperous, Luitprand was considerate of the rights and comfort of the pope and his people. He had for them a respect shared by the other Germanic and Gallic nations, by whom they were known as "the peculiar people of St. Peter and the church." Many times, at the solicitation of the pope, the Lombard monarch restored cities he had taken from the Roman and neigh-boring duchies, and his only open attack on Rome itself was due to the interference of the Romans in the business of his kingdom. The powerful duchies of Spoleto and Beneventurn owed some allegiance to the Lombard monarch, but they were inclined to strike out for themselves. They had maintained what was practically an independence under the predecessors of Luitprand, but that king was not a man to brook in-subordination, and he made his displeasure very plain to the rebellious dukes. Trasimund, duke of Spoleto, a proud and choleric soldier, braved the wrath of the none too patient Luitprand; and the Romans, perhaps with the notion that two powerful free duchies might act as a buffer between themselves and the enterprising barbarian warrior to the north, espoused his cause. Luitprand swept down on Spoleto, and Trasimund fled before the royal anger. He took refuge in Rome, and the Romans refused to surrender him to the monarch who followed swift upon his heels. Rebuffed by the people who had so often been the beneficiaries of his consideration, the Lombard king still refrained from attacking the Holy City, but he did seize four places in the northern part of the Roman division, and his soldiers pillaged the land up to the very walls of the city itself. Gregory III implored Luitprand to re-turn the four towns, but the indignant Lombard refused to do so, and the pope appealed for aid to Charles Martel, the great king of the Franks.

This appeal, made in 739, was the first evidence of a change in the attitude of the Romans toward the old imperial system. Left to themselves in a hostile environment by a sovereign too weak to help them, they had helped themselves for a long period of years. In doing so they had made their agent not the impotent vicar of the civil government, but the bishop whose election made him their peculiar representative and whose religious position gave him advantages as a negotiator that none other could possess. But they still clung to the traditional form of government, although the real functions of government were other-wise exercised; just as today the City of London elects solemnly its lord mayor, a functionary without any function in the government of the municipality. They were Romans; the Byzantine emperor was the head of the Roman Empire; the rest of the world was barbarian. What there was of civilization they stood for; they sought to retain that distinction, and not to become the political province of a barbarian chief.

But now it was becoming apparent to the pope that the Byzantine hand was too weak to hold; that the Holy City was certain to be overrun by the barbarians unless protected by one of the barbarian powers. Reluctantly the Romans turned their faces from the East and looked for succor to the West. The religious sentiment was by no means an element in this reluctance. Indeed, between Rome and Byzantium there was division on religious matters, while the entire West was doctrinally at one with the pope.

The nuncios of Gregory III were received courteously at the court of the Frankish king, and Charles in return sent an embassy to the pope. But the time was not opportune for any hostile movement of the Franks against the Lombards. Luitprand and Charles were warm friends; more than that, they were military allies, the troops of the Lombard having rushed to join the Frankish warriors against the Saracens whose swords were gleaming in the fair fields of Provence. Besides that, Charles was quite convinced that while the Roman people might feel the wrath of Luitprand for their unwarranted interference in affairs that should not have concerned them, the head of the church and his clergy need fear no violence at the hands of the pious Lombard.

The Romans were left, therefore, to their own devices, and for the hour these devices did not fail them. With a flash of the ancient spirit and the ancient capacity, they armed and marched against the invaders, took Spoleto, and reinstated Trasimund on the ducal throne.

Luitprand, involved in numerous martial enter-prises, took his time in preparation for the campaign against Beneventum, Spoleto, and Rome, but the whole peninsula was full of reports as to his purposes. While his sword was suspended above the devoted land, Pope Gregory died, following along the path to eternity Leo the Iconoclast and Charles Martel. Pope Zachary devoted the first days of his pontificate to safeguarding the future of the imperial city. He pointed out to his countrymen that the arms of the two duchies and the Byzantine provinces could hardly prevail over those of the mighty Lombard prince, to whom, after all, the Romans owed a debt of gratitude deeper than any they owed to his rebellious dukes.

The Romans accepted his counsel, and he went north to make peace with the king. His train was entirely ecclesiastical; it was made up of the robed priests of the church, and not of the armed soldiers of the empire. Luitprand, always loath to make war on the City of St. Peter, gladly accepted the Roman alliance and promised not to molest the Roman duchy. The troops of the exercitus Romanus joined him before Spoleto, and Trasimund surrendered unconditionally.

The Lombard king more than kept his promise to the pope. Not only did he restore to the Romans the four towns he had taken from them, but in the following year, when the Lombards invaded Ravenna and Zachary went to plead with the king on behalf of his neighbors, Luitprand good-naturedly gave up the conquered territory and ceased to molest the Ravennese.

In these years the pope appears as the defender of the imperial territory. Luitprand's successor, Ratchis, was as devoted to the See of St. Peter as the great king himself had been; and had he continued on the throne for long, there might have been a different history of Europe. Leaving Rome and Ravenna unmolested, he advanced against the imperial power at Pentapolis and Perugia, and was actually engaged in the siege of the latter place when Pope Zachary and his ecclesiastical train marched into the Lombard camp. Before the king the eloquent pope pleaded for peace; and so deep was the impression made by the pontiff on the mind of the Lombard chieftain that he not only withdrew his troops from the walls of Perugia, but took the crown from his brow and retired to a monastery to spend the remainder of his life in penitential exercises.

And now there came to rule over the plains of Lombardy a warrior given much less to piety and more to predation than either Ratchis or Luitprand, a crafty, ambitious leader who was convinced that the time had come to end forever the Byzantine domination over the Italian peninsula. Astolphus succeeded Ratchis in 749, and immediately took possession of Pentapolis and Ravenna. Under his ruthless heel the exarchate came to its end, and from the exarchal palace the Lombard king waved his sceptre over all of Italy between the Po and the Adriatic. In 752 Zachary died, and his successor, Stephen, found himself under the threat of a Lombard invasion. He at once sent ambassadors to his new and not desirable neighbor, and by them and him a treaty was negotiated under which Astolphus pledged himself to a peace of forty years' duration. His pledge held good for less than one-fortieth of the stipulated term, for in the autumn of the same year his troops were on the march, and halted only on the promise of a tribute of gold. The invader announced, further, that it was his purpose to cut Rome off from the empire and make the Holy City one of his dependencies.

Gloomy tidings, indeed, were these for the Roman people; to give up the glorious past; to lose that independence they had enjoyed under the weakening imperial system; to become vassals to strangers whose dress was wild, whose beards and hair were uncouthly shorn; to pass from political unity with civilization to political subordination to a barbaric power : all this it meant to a people proud of their peculiar position as citizens of a holy republic and heirs of the conquerors of the world. There was no division among them on this subject; the farmer and the tradesman shared with the duke and the pope the horror of such a situation.

For years the Romans had been pleading with the emperors to wake up to the dangers in the West, but the somnolent powers at Constantinople could not be awakened to the gravity of those dangers. At this juncture they did indeed take some slight notice of Pope Stephen's entreaties, and sent to Rome not armed legions, but John the Silentiary with letters to Astolphus and to the pope. The first was entreated to restore the territories of the empire he had annexed to his kingdom; the second to do what he could for the empire diplomatically. Stephen sent his brother Paul to Astolphus with the Byzantine ambassador, but the Lombard king was not much impressed by either the emperor's or the pontiff's representative. He did consent to send a messenger to Constantinople, but in the absence of that messenger he employed his time with incursions into the Roman duchy and the seizure of a castle or two.

Meanwhile the Romans were in a state of panic. With reason they expected little aid from the East, and in their distress they thought more often of a protectorate by the Frankish monarch under which they might continue to enjoy their independence. With this in view, the pope began a secret correspondence with Pepin, using as his messenger a peasant. He asked the Frank for a bodyguard to see him safely through Lombardy, as he desired to visit France. Pepin sent a Frankish bishop and the duke Auchtaire to escort him from Italy, and these, on their arrival in Rome, found John the Silentiary, who had returned from the Eastern court. The Byzantine had brought to Stephen a command of the emperor that he hold a personal interview with Astolphus and induce him to restore Ravenna to the empire.

Preceded by Auchtaire and escorted by his clerics and a splendid military company, Stephen set out for Pavia, the Lombard capital, to which Astolphus had retired from Ravenna. This was in October, 753. On the road the pontiff was met by a messenger from Astolphus with an entreaty that the pope refrain from any reference to the exarchy. It was an entreaty to which the pope paid scant respect, his diplomatic mission being to obtain the restoration of Ravenna. All his eloquence was wasted, however, although he was strongly backed by the imperial ambassador and by the Frankish nobles who stood at his side. The Lombard king would not concede an inch that he held by right of conquest, nor would he give any satisfactory guarantee with regard to his future proceedings.

The pope had made his last effort for the integrity of the Byzantine empire. It had demonstrated its weakness, and it was beyond his power to uphold its sovereignty longer against the rapacity of the Lombard. His business now was the protection of the "peculiar people" and their territory, and he went about the business without loss of time. Sending back to Rome the military escort, he proceeded, with his clerical entourage and his Frankish attendants, to the seat of the Frankish monarch. Pepin met him on the road and treated him with great respect and affection. To him Stephen made his plea, setting before him the state of Italy and the danger to the Roman republic, and begging him to protect the patrimony of Peter.

It was a plea that did not fall on deaf ears. The Frankish king was horrified at the idea of an attack by the Lombards on the headquarters of the Christian faith; he besought Astolphus through numerous ambassadors to refrain from such hostile activity and to refrain from the imposition of unaccustomed taxes. But Astolphus was stubborn; the entreaties of his Frankish neighbor did not move him, and Pepin swiftly took to the sword to effect what the tongue had been unable to bring about. At the head of his Frankish chivalry, he crossed into Italy, met Astolphus on the road, routed him, and pursued him to Pavia. Vanquished by the Western warriors, the Lombard king was compelled to yield back Ravenna and the other duchies, and Pepin sent the pope back to Rome, where the people received their pontiff with joyful acclamations.

Astolphus hardly waited until Pepin was back over the Alps before he laughed at his own promises and prepared to revenge himself on Rome. The pillage of the countryside by his outriders gave warning of the attack in force, and Rome had some time to prepare a defense against the three formidable columns of bearded men-at-arms whose weapons flashed in the sunshine outside her gates on New Year's morning of 756. All around the city the vengeful Lombard wasted the fields and villages, and again and again his charges threatened the very walls; but the Romans hurled back his storming parties, priests and abbots, with armor worn over their monastic robes, fighting with the lay soldiery on the ramparts. Meanwhile the pope smuggled his messengers by sea through the Lombard lines, and his appeals reaching Pepin at last, the king of the Franks and his terrible squadrons once more advanced into Italy in their war harness. Astolphus raised the siege of Rome to front his far more formidable foe. Step by step he was driven back until, cornered at last in Pavia, he was beaten again into submission.

Meanwhile some inkling of what was occurring in the West had penetrated the minds of the powers at Constantinople, and the victorious Pepin was met by a Byzantine ambassador who entreated him to restore Ravenna and the other duchies to the Eastern Empire. But the Frankish king shook his head; for St. Peter and the remission of his sins he had undertaken the war, he said, and on the shrine of St. Peter he proposed to lay the fruits of his victory. And he did as he said. At the head of a military division, the abbot Fulrad went with the Lombard commissioners from city to city, gathering the keys and hostages, and all these Fulrad took to Rome, depositing in the Confession of St. Peter the keys of the conquered cities together with the deed in which their conqueror made them over to the apostle and his successors.

Thus was the State of the Church born. All the circumstances of the time conspired to bring it about.

Under the protection of the Frankish monarch it was placed by the grateful pope, who bestowed upon Pepin the title of Patrician of the Romans. Other popes extended its confines, and not many years went by before there was revived the tradition of imperial protection, when Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans and the Western Empire arose on the ruins of the Eastern.

This is a segment of the record of the progress of the church : not its spiritual progress so much as its temporal or material progress. What is it we see in it, now that we examine it closely? And what is it that others see? Draper, the Protestant historian, sees the cunning machinations of a perfectly organized priesthood; the triumph of a selfish, corrupt, superstitious, but marvellously subtle and politic priestcraft. By no other hypothesis can he account for the survival of the Roman Church—by no other hypothesis because the only alternative never suggests itself to his unconsciously but completely prejudiced mind.

Macaulay sees in a still greater segment something he cannot quite understand, but which compels, as he admits, his reluctant admiration. He accounts for it on the theory that "the polity of the Church of Rome is the very masterpiece of human wisdom." He speaks of the "forty generations of statesmen" whose experience gave perfection to that polity. But what made these popes statesmen? Many of them, before the time of which we treat, and after, were simple-minded religious enthusiasts, mortifying their flesh with haircloth shirts under the splendid pontifical vestments they wore. Many of them were the children of peasants and tradesmen who had graduated up through the priesthood to the primacy of the church. Was there really something else—something Macaulay could not see because of the traditions that had come down to him and the environment that affected even his enlightened mind?

What is there to see really, if we look at these things just as we look at political events of a more immediate past—the Spanish-American War, for in-stance, or the present seizure of Tripoli by the Italian government? Is there priestcraft reaching out for power? Or is there the picture of a world over which the system of law had broken down, an empire whose dead members, having sloughed off, became possessed of a new, fierce life and turned to rend the body from which natural decay had dissevered them? And in the midst of the bloody chaos is the human organization that holds the living light of a divine faith, and that turns this way and that, pleads and protests, gives blows and blessings, in a day-to-day struggle against the extinction of that light in the warring tides of ignorance and blood. And out of it all there comes the only thing that could come if darkness were not to swallow the world, as the Indians believe it does when the ecliptic shadow falls across the hills and valleys : a human state supporting the spiritual church, as the dark tower of rock supports the shining beam whose glory streams out over the troubled waters.

It was a state to vex sovereigns whose inclinations, otherwise unchecked by any law, were called to accountability here. It was a state against which they could rouse the race prejudice when religious constraint chafed their licentious spirits. It was some-thing that was bound to have some of the corruption without which no human government has ever been, and to be open to attack therefor, and to a fierce arraignment in which a pinch of truth might be used to flavor an ocean of falsehood.



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