presents Simon LeVay's new novel, The Donation of Constantine
A tale of intrigue, passion, and the struggle for control of medieval Europe
Constantine, Sylvester, and Stephen
Left hand from a colossal statue of Constantine, Capitoline Museum, Rome

The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great cast a giant shadow across Rome for centuries after his death in the year 337. This was true both literally -- colossal statues of him stood in the Roman Forum -- and figuratively. In the early medieval period he was revered as the person who stopped the persecution of Christians and who himself became the first Christian emperor. In addition, the fact that he was a victorious general made him a role model for a more muscular form of Christianity than what characterized the early Church.

Pope Sylvester baptizes Constantine

Pope Sylvester I held office while Constantine was Emperor. Almost nothing is known about him, except that, during his tenure, the Church was the beneficiary of Constantine's unbounded generosity: the emperor constructed the basilicas of St. Peter's (on the Vatican Hill), and of St. John Lateran (next to the Lateran Palace, which became the papal residence), as well as many other churches. According to legends current in the early Middle ages, Constantine's conversion and baptism took place after Sylvester cured him of leprosy.

Pope Stephen II receives title and keys to Ravenna and other cities

Pope Stephen II held office from 752 to 757, i.e. four centuries after Constantine's death. This was at a time when Islam was rapidly expanding in the Mediterranean world, and Rome itself was in imminent danger of destruction at the hands of the Lombards. Stephen saved the city by negotiating a treaty with Pepin, King of the Franks, according to which Stephen crowned Pepin in exchange for military assistance against the Lombards. This lead to the Lombards' defeat, and Pepin gave Stephen possession of Ravenna and other cities in northern Italy that the Lombards had previously seized from the Byzantine emperor.

 According to some scholars (and in my novel) the Donation of Constantine, by which Constantine supposedly gave the western Empire to the Papacy, was forged at this time -- the motive being to strengthen Stephen's hand with Pepin. The reliance on ancient authority to justify beliefs and actions was the norm in Stephen's time. But it was giving way to a more pragmatic, even machiavellian style of thinking: if ancient authority was lacking, then it could be manufactured. The forged Donation of Constantine made the pope's claim to worldly imperium seem like an ancient doctrine authorized by a revered emperor and a saintly pope.