Soon after the death of Theodoric, the great Eastern emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) launched from Constantinople an ambitious effort to reconquer the major areas of the West that had been lost to the barbarians. The imperial forces tackled the Vandals in North Africa in 533, and then invaded Italy from Carthage via Sicily. For almost twenty years, savage and destructive warfare ravaged the peninsula, and Rome changed hands several times. The towns and countryside were devastated and the survivors reduced to misery.
Three years after Justinian’s death, a new Germanic tribe, the Lombards, entered Italy from the north. They easily conquered the north Italian plain that still bears their name (Lombardy) and established a kingdom with its capital at Pavia. Further to the south they set up the duchies of Benevento and Spoleto. Ravenna, Rome, and Naples remained free of Lombard rule. Italy lay once again in fragments, even though the emperor at Constantinople appointed an exarch, or govenor, who had his headquarters at Ravenna and was responsible for the defense of Italy.
Constantinople was far away; danger threatened the emperors from the east, and they often could not afford to pay much attention to Italy’s needs or send money and troops to help the exarchs fight the Lombards. In this chaotic situation, the church emerged more and more as the protector of the Catholic population; the bishops often received privileges from the non-Catholic Lombard conquerors that conferred upon them virtual governing rights in the towns if they would keep them peaceful. Among the bishops, the pope took the lead; and among the popes, the most remarkable was Gregory I, the Great (r. 590-604).
Born into a rich and aristocratic Roman family, Gregory abandoned worldly things and became a monk. His administrative talents were extraordinary; he served as papal ambassador to the Roman imperial court at Constantinople before becoming pope in 590. Besides his religious duties, he had to take virtually full responsibility for maintaining the fortifications of Rome, for feeding its population, for managing the great financial resources of the church and its lands in Italy, for conducting diplomatic negotiations with the exarchate and Lombards, and even for directing military operations. Gregory had an exalted conception of papal power, and he stoutly defended its supremacy over the Eastern church.
During the seventh and early eighth centuries, the alienation between the Empire in the East and the papacy was greatly increased by religious disagreements and a related political and economic dispute (see Chapter 6). Simultaneously, the Lombards were gradually consolidating and expanding their power, taking Ravenna and putting an end to the exarchate. Menaced by the Lombards and unable to count on help from Constantinople, Pope Stephen II in 753 paid a visit to Pepin III of the Franks.
Pepin was unsure of his position, being only a descendant of a line of mayors of the palace. In exchange for papal approval of his new title of king, he attacked the Lombards and forced them to abandon Ravenna and other recent conquests. Then, although these lands did not truly belong to him, he gave a portion of them to the pope, as the celebrated Donation of Pepin. Together with Rome and the lands immediately around it, the Donation of Pepin formed the territory over which the pope ruled as temporal sovereign down to 1870. These were the Papal States, and Vatican City is their present-day remnant. Pepin’s son, Charles the Great (Charlemagne, 742-814), completed the destruction of the Lombard kingdom in 774.
The new alliance with the Franks marked the end of papal dependence upon the Empire at Constantinople and the beginning of the papacy as a distinct territorial power.
The Franks did not try to dictate to the popes. Sometime between 750 and 760 the clerks of the papal chancery forged “proof” that Pepin had been confirming a gift of lands to the church made long ago by the emperor Constantine. For about seven hundred years, until the Italian Renaissance scholar Lorenzo Valla proved it a forgery in 1440, people believed the document on which the “donation” was based was genuine.