Leo III, Pope

Leo III, Pope
(d. 816)
   Important pope whose long reign (r. 795-816) witnessed a number of significant developments in papal policy and diplomatic relations. He was an active builder and restorer of churches and public structures such as aqueducts and a great benefactor of the city. He negotiated a difficult theological issue between the churches of Jerusalem and the east and the western, especially Frankish, churches. He also faced and suppressed two serious revolts in Rome during his reign. Despite his numerous accomplishments, Leo is best known for the imperial coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800.
   Although lacking the family connections of his predecessor, Hadrian I (r. 772-795), Leo III had long been known to the papal establishment and the people of Rome when he was made pope. He was raised and educated in the papal administration, served as a high-level bureaucrat, and was the cardinal priest of the church of St. Susanna in Rome before his election on December 27, 795, the day after the death of Hadrian. The Book of the Popes (Liber Pontificalis) describes him as "chaste, eloquent and of resolute mind" (Davis 1992, 179). He is also described as a "defender of the church,"(179) and as a papal administrator he took active care of the poor and the sick. His rapid election demonstrates the high regard the clergy and people of Rome had for Leo. But faithful servant of the people and church of Rome though he was, Leo's lack of important family connections caused him difficulty throughout his reign as pope.
   Perhaps aware of his weak position in Rome, Leo immediately sought to strengthen the papacy's ties to the Carolingian king Charlemagne. Indeed, unlike his predecessor, Leo had no desire to pursue the alliance with the papacy's traditional protector in Constantinople, and in 796 he sent the keys of St. Peter and the banner of the city of Rome to Charlemagne. The great king called for a new treaty between himself and the pope, in which the king would defend the church against internal and external enemies and the pope would, like Moses, stand with arms upheld in prayer for victory. Leo began to date his official documents from the time of Charlemagne's conquest of the Lombards in 774, and he also promoted the see of Salzburg to metropolitan status at the king's request in 798. Leo clearly tied the papacy to the great power to the north.
   Although he secured a protector and diplomatic ally, Leo still faced problems in Rome from a rival faction, an aristocratic one that included relatives of Pope Hadrian. On April 25, 799, the turmoil in Rome reached a crisis. On that day Leo left the Lateran palace to lead a major religious procession throughout the city of Rome and was attacked in front of the monastery of Saints Sylvester and Stephen by two nephews and a former ally of Hadrian. Although the accounts vary, it is clear that Leo was roughly handled by his attackers and may have been blinded and had his tongue cut out by them. The Book of the Popes notes also that his attackers "left him half-dead and drenched in blood." He was then placed under a sort of house arrest, being put into a monastery by his enemies, but he was rescued by his chamberlain, who lowered him from the monastery walls by a rope. The pope was then safely returned to St. Peter's, where his enemies would not harm him. He was then escorted to Charlemagne's court at Paderborn (now in Germany) by the king's ally Winichis, duke of Spoleto.
   At Charlemagne's court, according to some accounts, Leo miraculously regained the powers of sight and speech and defended himself against the accusations of his attackers. Leo was accused of adultery, perjury, and simony (the buying and selling of church offices), serious crimes that would have rendered him unfit for office. Uncertain of how to proceed, Charlemagne kept Leo at court until the situation at Rome quieted down before returning him to the city. In November 799, Leo was returned with a Frankish escort to protect him and was enthusiastically welcomed back by the people of Rome. On the day after his arrival, his attackers were tried before Leo and his Frankish escort and found guilty, but sentencing was deferred until the arrival of Charlemagne.
   Despite the importance of the situation, or perhaps because of it, Charlemagne did not arrive in Rome for a year after Leo's return, an indication of continued uncertainty among the king and his advisors of how to proceed. Charlemagne left his kingdom in August 800 and, according to the Royal Frankish Annals, was met by the pope and his entourage twelve miles from the city of Rome. King and pope dined together and entered Rome the following day, November 24, 800. Charlemagne was welcomed by enthusiastic crowds and was led by the pope to the basilica of St. Peter, where they prayed together. On December 23, before Charlemagne and an assembly of Frankish and Roman secular and religious nobles, Leo swore an oath of purgation and declared his innocence of the crimes of which he was accused. Leo's oath was accepted as proof of innocence because no one at the assembly could prove otherwise. Leo was restored to his place. The fate of the rebels against him was also decided. They were condemned to death, but the sentence was reduced to exile for life on the request of the pope himself.
   Two days after his trial, Leo performed the most famous act of his reign. On Christmas Day, 800, at the shrine of St. Peter, Leo crowned Charlemagne emperor. According to the Royal Frankish Annals, when Charlemagne rose from prayer Leo "placed a crown on his head, and he was hailed by the whole Roman people: To august Charles, crowned by God, the great and peaceful emperor of the Romans, life and victory!"(Scholz 1972, 81). The Book of Pontiffs adds that the acclamation was repeated three times and that Leo then anointed Charles emperor. Although the exact meaning of the coronation to the various participants in the act will probably never be known, we need not accept Einhard's remark that Charlemagne would have avoided mass had he known what was going to happen. It is likely that the new emperor was not at all pleased by the way the coronation-which he surely knew about-had taken place, and may have thought that Leo sought to put him in the pope's debt. Indeed, it is possible that Leo sought to reassert his authority after his rescue by Charlemagne, or he may have intended to bind the Carolingian ruler even more closely to himself. It may also be that Leo had less self-serving motives and sought to reward the king with the imperial crown as thanks for all his efforts on behalf of the papacy and church. Whatever the case, the imperial coronation on December 25, 800, was Leo's most important act and one that shaped political thought and practice for the next thousand years.
   The remainder of Leo's reign was relatively secure, no doubt as a result of Charlemagne's support. He was an able administrator and active builder, which benefited the city greatly. He did find himself at cross-purposes with his benefactor in 809, however, over a matter of liturgical practice in which the Western church differed from the church in the Holy Lands. Although Leo supported Frankish practice, he recommended that the Frankish version not be publicly recited. And in 808, Leo complained to the emperor about Charlemagne's representatives in Italy.
   St. Peter with Pope Leo III and Charlemagne (Rome, Vatican Library)
   Leo did face one final crisis after the death of Charlemagne; long-simmering resentments that had not been eradicated in 800 boiled over, and the Roman aristocracy revolted for a second time in 814. the pope acted promptly and had the leaders of the rebellion executed. Charlemagne's successor, Louis the Pious, was concerned by Leo's harsh response and ordered his nephew, King Bernard of Italy, to investigate the situation. Leo's explanation proved satisfactory to the Carolingian emperor, but not to the Roman nobles who in 815 sought to take lands away from the papacy. Once again Louis, through his nephew Bernard, intervened, and this time on behalf of the pope. The situation in Rome remained unsettled, but it was Leo's successor as pope who addressed the situation. Leo died June 12, 816, after a long reign in which he drew the papacy closer to the Carolingians and, most importantly, crowned Charlemagne emperor.
   See also
 ♦ Davis, Raymond, trans. The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liber Pontificalis): The Ancient Biographies of Nine Popes from a.d. 715 to a.d. 817. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1992.
 ♦ Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.
 ♦ Halphen, Louis. Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire. Trans. Giselle de Nie. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1977.
 ♦ Herrin, Judith. The Formation of Christendom. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.
 ♦ Llewellyn, Peter. Rome in the Dark Ages. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.
 ♦ McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987. London: Longman, 1983.
 ♦ Noble, Thomas F. X. The Republic of St. Peter: The Birth of the Papal State, 680-825. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
 ♦ Scholz, Bernhard Walter, trans. Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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