The Donation of Constantine, also called the Constitutum Constantini, was a document used during the Middle Ages to support papal authority and land rights. Written about AD 750 to 800, it claims to be a record of Emperor Constantine’s conversion testimony and his interactions with Sylvester I, a bishop of Rome regarded as pope in the Catholic tradition. The most striking feature of the Donation is the Emperor’s supposed concession of sweeping powers to the head of the Roman Catholic Church. It presents itself as a product of the Emperor himself but is widely regarded as a forgery based on legends about Sylvester I arising in the fourth and fifth centuries. First, we will look at what the Donation contains. Then we will look at what scholars know about this mysterious fake.
The Donation of Constantine starts with an elaborate introductory greeting, transitioning quickly into an explanation of the Christian faith, describing concepts such as the Trinity and the story of Scripture. It then dives into Constantine’s own “testimony,” portraying him as a pagan stricken with leprosy. Following a nighttime vision of Peter and Paul, Constantine seeks out Sylvester I, who exhorts him to repent and humble himself before God. After Constantine confesses faith in Jesus Christ, he is baptized and miraculously cured of his leprosy.
The Emperor then recognizes the authority of the Roman church, declaring the bishop of Rome head over every other church: “And, to the extent of our earthly imperial power, 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” (The Donation of Constantine, ⁋ 10). As if that weren’t enough, the audacious gift-giving continues as Constantine allegedly grants the bishop of Rome and his successors enormous swaths of land, including the city of Rome itself. He gives the pope and other clergy material gifts, including the right to wear imperial garments. Finally, he energetically condemns anyone who would argue against the Donation or seek to claim anything given to the pope for themselves.
The propaganda value of The Donation of Constantine is immediately obvious. As the Roman Church sought to establish its political authority in the Middle Ages, especially over and against competition with the Eastern Church, the Donation was leveraged multiple times to support Rome’s contentions. The document received widespread prominence in the 11th century, when it was cited by Pope Leo IX to support his own claims of sovereignty.
Despite occasional accusations of being a fake, the Donation was quoted by Roman Catholic apologists throughout the Middle Ages. Due to a number of chronological inconsistencies, scholars successfully exposed The Donation of Constantine as a forgery in the 15th century. The Roman Catholic Church, while still insisting on the historical reality the document ostensibly represented, eventually acknowledged that the Donation was a forgery and abandoned its use completely four hundred years later.
In spite of some clever theories, the author and occasion of The Donation of Constantine will likely remain a mystery. What is not mysterious is the falsity of its claims. Despite the Donation’s claims otherwise, the church in Rome is not the “head and summit of all the churches in the whole world”; Jesus Christ is. Whether or not Constantine or any other earthly king granted any individual religious figure the sweeping authority described in the Donation, believers can rest assured that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).
The politicking of kings and bishops does not reflect God’s kingdom, where “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Jesus explained the way that His people are supposed to live, as servants of one another: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).