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From The Lives of the Popes from the Time of our Saviour Jesus Christ to the Accession of Gregory VII. Written Originally in Latin by B. Platina, Native of Cremona, and translated into English (from an anonymous translation, first printed in 1685 by Sir Paul Rycaut), Edited by William Benham, Volume I, London: Griffith, Farran, Okeden & Welsh, [1888, undated in text]; pp. xv-xxiv.

The Lives of the Popes,
B. Platina

Volume I.

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THE early history of the Roman Church is obscure. We are not told in the Bible by whom it was founded; when St Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans he had not himself visited the city. The tradition that St Peter was martyred there is a very old one, and is so well authenticated that, except for controversial reasons, it would probably never have been questioned.1 But the dates confidently given by some Roman Catholic historians are certainly not proved by any historical evidence, while there is much which goes directly in disproof. And for many years there is a darkness upon the history of the Roman Church. St Jerome says that the greater part of the Latins regard Clement as second after Peter, though many put Linus and Ani[cletus] between them. It will thus be understood, that not only the life of St Peter as given by Platina, but those of his successors during the first century, are traditionary and of little value. The Roman Church, like the greater part of early Christendom, was a Greek colony, and the Epistle of St Paul to it was certainly written in Greek. The first Latin Christian writer, Tertullian, was not a Roman, but an African. The Roman bishops in early time were so obscure that during the whole period of the heathen persecutions there was no great mind among them, and afterwards for a long period not a single doctor; the first is Leo the Great. Cardinal Newman uses this fact as an argument in favour of the infallibility. (See his “Apologia,” pp. 407-409). The first emergence of the Roman bishops from the xvi obscurity is seen in the Paschal Controversy, A.D. 157. Anicetus and Polycarp are clearly discernible figures, and from that time onwards we are standing on firmer ground. A work of Hippolytus in the beginning of the third century is the principal source of our knowledge of the Roman bishops up to his time. But they were still men of little weight until the Empire became Christian. As the Empire declined in strength under the blows which were struck upon it by the fierce nations from the north, the Popes became more important. As paganism died and Christianity established itself, they were as monarchs over their domain, and Monasticism still further strengthened their position. Rome was in the year 411 sacked by the Goths, and emerged from that catastrophe a Christian city. Before the century ended Pope Leo the Great was the most important man in Italy. The Western Empire was tottering to its fall, the East too was feeble; never was the ancient city in greater strait; it needed one who could consolidate Western Christendom, and unite it against the heretical Goths and Lombards who were gathering against it. In 452 the fierce Attila, “the scourge of God,” having desolated North Italy, was preparing to descend on Rome. The coward Emperor fled. Then Pope Leo went forth to Attila’s camp, and by his eloquence turned the barbarian back.

And now the claims to the successorship of St Peter make themselves heard. From earliest times the ecclesiastical divisions had followed the civil divisions of the Empire, and thus the bishops of capital cities were known as metropolitans, and presiding at synods of the bishops and clergy of their own province, came to be looked upon in Church affairs as the representatives of the provinces generally. When Constantine divided the Empire into dioceses, each consisting of several provinces, the bishop of the chief city in each diocese received the title of primate, and the most eminent of the primates were called patriarchs. Such were the bishops of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople. The xvii patriarchate of Rome included the vigorous western world, that which was rising while the elder ones were declining in influence, and this at the outset gave a vast importance to the Roman see. The State acknowledgment of Christianity gave the bishops of Rome fresh influence year by year, since their opinions and assistance were asked for by other bishops, and the emperors needed their help and support in the difficulties that beset them. This growing influence was recognised and resented by the Easterns, and at the Council of Sardica, held in 345 to endeavour to end the Arian controversy, there was an open rupture. On the alleged ground that the Western bishops had usurped undue authority, the Easterns withdrew from the Council, and opened one of their own in Thrace under the presidency of the patriarch of Antioch. But they were unequal to the growing strength of their rivals, and the Sardican council, in their absence, passed canons, giving to the Bishop of Rome appellate jurisdiction in the case of any bishop who disapproved of the acts of his synod. He was not to decide the case himself, but to say whether there ought to be a new trial, in which case he was to send legates to sit with the judges. But, as Robertson shows, while this greatly increased the Roman power from that time onward, it is also a proof that such power was then conferred, and did not previously exist (Ch. Hist. i. 304). Nevertheless the Bishop of Rome grew into the habit of quoting the canons of Sardica as if they were those of Nicæa. In the pontificate of Siricius, the Bishop of Tarragona in Spain applied for advice, and the result was the first papal “Decretal.” At first the Decretals were written in the name of the Synod of Rome, but afterwards they ran in the name of the Pope alone, and the tone changed from that of brotherly advice to command. The next step was the change of the nature of claim. The power of the Empire was declining, the traditions of the august city were great as ever. No longer on the ground of imperial dignity was the claim to supremacy grounded, but on Christ’s charge to St Peter. This claim xviii was first made by Pope Innocent I., who laid it down as a principle that all churches should follow the usages of Rome. Yet he appears to have limited the claim to those of the West — Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa, Sicily — on the plea that these had been founded by St. Peter or the emissaries of his successors. Innocent’s successor, Zosimus, went further, and proclaimed the authority of the Apostolic see to be such that no one might dare to question its decisions, and that the successors of St Peter were to be regarded as holding an authority equal to that of the apostle himself. Pope Leo the Great, as we have already noted, was the representative, through the circumstance of his time, of the imperial dignity of old Rome. And in consequence he became the true founder of the mediæval papacy in its uncompromising strength. Circumstances not unlike Leo’s were those of Pope Gregory I. The Western Empire had quite disappeared, Italy was nominally under an exarch or lieutenant who resided at Ravenna, and it fell not to him but to the Pope to provide for the feeding and protection of the citizens. What Attila had been to Leo the Lombards were now to Gregory. But, moreover, the Popes had become great land holders; “the patrimony of St Peter,” as their estates were called, were situated not only in Italy but in other countries. This property was managed by agents, whose influence with the sovereign of the countries they lived in was great; and thus the personal power of the Pontiffs still grew.

A great change had by this time come over the position of the church. It was no longer the religion of the Roman world, but also of the Teutonic. The races which had destroyed the ancient Empire and were to play so large a part in the foundations of modern Europe, had been Arians. They were now orthodox. And meanwhile the old Roman letters and arts were almost extinct. For many a long year literature had no place; the only writers were the monks and schoolmen, and their only subject theological discussions. For Monasticism having been introduced into the West had xix received a strong impulse from St Benedict and was increasing mightily.

The Iconoclastic controversy in the eighth century brought the Popes and the Eastern Emperors into collision. The Emperor, against whom public opinion in his own country unmistakably set, had to give way, and the Pope was the stronger for the struggle. And now as the nations of modern Europe began to emerge from the ruins of the old Roman Empire, the claim of the Pope to be a judge of temporal matters was for the first time made and allowed. Pipin, Mayor of the Palace under Childeric, the last of the feeble Meerwing kings, asked Pope Zachary whether the nominal power should not be in the hands of the real holder. The answer was in the affirmative, and the Meerwing race gave place to the Karlings. As a matter of fact, the question was one of casuistry, laid before the chief religious judge of the Church. But the opportunity was taken of declaring that hereby was confessed the Pope’s right to depose sovereigns.

Controversy hangs round the great event which ushers in the ninth century, the restoration of the Western Empire under Charles the Great, commonly known as Charlemagne. He was crowned in St Peter’s by Pope Leo III. in the year 800. One side declares that he was so by the will of the Pope, who thus had the power of raising men to monarchy, the other, that the Pope was but the voice of the popular will (see Milman ii. 206). The title of the new Empire thus founded, and which lasted unbroken, though its splendour waned, until 1806, was significant of the idea on which that foundation rested. It was “The Holy Roman Empire.” “In that day,” says Mr Bryce, “as through all the dark and middle ages, two forces were striving for mastery. The one was the instinct of separation, disorder, anarchy, caused by the ungoverned impulses and barbarous ignorance of the great bulk of mankind; the other was the passionate longing of the better minds for a formal unity of government, which had its historical xx basis in the memories of the old Roman Empire, and its most constant expression in the devotion to a visible and Catholic Church. . . .  The act [of coronation] is conceived of as directly ordered by the Divine providence, which has brought about a state of things that admits but of one issue, an issue which king, priest, and people had only to recognise and obey; their personal ambitions, passions, intrigues, sinking and vanishing in reverential awe at what seems the immediate interposition of heavens.” From the first Charles regarded his sway as of a distinctly sacred character. He summoned and sat in councils (presiding even when Papal legates were present), appointed bishops, settled small details of church discipline in his capitularies, regulated the monasteries, restricted the clergy to spiritual duties, even admonished the Pope to obey the canons. Among his intimate friends he chose to be called by the name of David, signifying thereby that he presided over the kingdom of God on earth. But his might belonged more to his personal character than to his Empire. At his death all this temporal and ecclesiastical supremacy crumbled to pieces, and as the various portions of the Empire became possessions of great nobles, so the spiritual supremacy and much of the temporal fell to the clergy. Two great forgeries which were put forth at this period did much to help the Papal claims. The one was the so-called “Donation of Constantine,” alleging that that Emperor had conferred on Pope Sylvester the right of wearing a golden crown, that he had endowed the see with the Lateran Palace, with the City of Rome, with the whole of Italy. Probably the Lateran story was true; the rest were all fictions purporting to date from A.D. 330, but really invented about the middle of the ninth century, and believed in until the fifteenth. The other was the Forged Decretals. Some real ones had been gathered early in the seventh century by Isidore of Seville; about A.D. 840 these false ones were put forth, very skilfully arranged, and purporting to go back to Apostolic days. They aimed at exalting the Pope’s power, and also at asserting clerical rights against xxi the oppressions of the Emperors. That they were forgeries is now admitted by Roman Catholics, but their influence for some centuries was very strong.

Of course this power of the Pope’s was not unfrequently put to a righteous use, and the civilised world recognised then, as it does still, that the mediæval Papacy was a great agency for good. It defended the peoples against the power of monarchs, who but for it would have been cruel tyrants. When Lothair II., in 858, wished to divorce his wife, a Frankish National Council obsequiously sanctioned the proceeding, but Pope Nicholas I. firmly and successfully opposed him. The righteousness of the cause sufficed to sanction any irregularity or want of just title.

But now clouds began to gather over the Papacy, and the tenth century is a dark and dismal age. Under the disorders which accompanied the disintegration of the empire of Charles, the Popes became degraded into slaves of the fierce barons of the Romagna. The sombre picture which Platina draws of the morals and characters of the Pontiffs is proved by all contemporary history not to be over-coloured. Italy was in a terrible state. As the Karling power came to an end, she aimed at freeing herself from the German thraldom, and to name her own king, but there was no spirit among the people brave or great enough to take the lead. There were rival claimants who made war upon each other, but without such general support as enabled any one to rule. Pope succeeded Pope with such rapidity as to awaken the worst suspicions. Yet in the North this period is not without bright features. While the Saracens were threatening Europe and acquiring almost absolute command of the Mediterranean, the fierce Northmen were settling down, embracing Christianity, laying the foundations of power, exercised on the whole nobly, and themselves sending missionaries to the heathen Prussians on the Baltic. The greatest of English Kings, Alfred, was restoring peace to his country, and laying the foundations of English greatness, learning, and literature.


Europe in general knew little and cared little for the miserable intrigues which went on in the Papal city, the Pontificate so often won, and again vacated, by murder; and yet no one questioned the spiritual monarchy of the men who thus succeeded. Not even the nobles and people of Rome, but the soldiers and the rabble were the electors of the vicar of Christ. The exception to this was when some profligate woman nominated him, or he bought the see. The Transalpine powers at length interfered, foreign ecclesiastics were for nearly a century seated on the Papal throne, and only thus was the see delivered from the hatred and contempt of mankind.

Meanwhile, agencies were at work, begun in antipathy to the crimes and ungodliness at Rome, and threatening to break up Christendom into sets. They were kept down by the strong arm of ecclesiastical and temporal power, but were not extinguished, and in the course of years showed themselves again with increased force. But two controversies had arisen, which were destined to have most serious and lasting effects upon Christendom. The first was the quarrel between the East and the West. We can trace antipathies almost from the beginning, jealousy between Greece and Rome, questions about Monasticism, about the time for keeping Easter, about ritual. But the first clear breach arose out of Iconoclasm, the decrees of the Emperor Leo III. (“the Isauarian”) against images, A.D. 730. A quarrel about the conversion of Bulgaria in the following century increased the existing ill-feeling, the Patriarch of Constantinople alleging that the Pope of Rome had intruded into his dominion. The breach was patched up, not healed. But the crisis came through the famous Filioque, the addition by the Western Church to the words of the Nicene Creed, Qui ex Patre procedit. After long disputing, and even for a while the disuse of the addition, the Western Church once more revived it, and in 1053 Pope Leo IX. excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, and with him all who refused it. The Patriarch, Michael Cerularius, invited legates from the Pope to Constantinople, xxiii to negotiate for peace. They came accordingly, but it was to lay the Pope’s sentence on the altar of St Sophia (June 16, 1054). The Patriarch retorted the excommunication, and the breach was complete.

The second great controversy was within the Western Church, and concerned the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The name of Paschasius Radbertus, Abbot of Corbie (A.D. 844-851) is associated with the first promulgation of the doctrine of Transubstantiation. The most eminent Frankish churchmen combated his views, headed by Ratramnus, another monk of Corbie. A yet more uncompromising opponent, who seems to have made the sacrament a commemorative ordinance only, was John Scotus Erigens. We need not add that the view of Radbert has come to be the doctrine of the Roman Church. Bishop Ridley declared that he was induced to abandon it through reading the reply of Ratramnus. The history of this great controversy will be found at length, and told with characteristic power and eloquence, in Milman’s “Latin Christianity,” Book vi. ch. ii.

Toward the end of the period before us, the dark clouds which had rested so long on the Papal see began to break. The Emperor Henry III. (1039-1056), was one of the most vigorous of rulers, raising the Holy Roman Empire to the zenith of its power, and bent on reforming the ghastly abuses of the Church. The Romans, sickened with the disorders and crimes around them, joyously welcomed him when he came among them; there never was any monarch so popular there as he, and Pope Leo IX. was his nominee. It was on the occasion of his election that Hildebrand, afterwards to become so famous, first comes into notice. When at length, after being the means of nominating four Popes in succession, he saw fit to accept the see himself, he had acquired sufficient power to revolutionise the Papacy, and to start a new order of things.


 1  See Smith’s “Bible Dictionary,” s.v.Peter,” p. 805.

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