The Donation of Constantine
and the critique of Lorenzo Valla
The unreasonable ultra-scepticism fashionable in the 19th century collapsed during the 20th century. Discoveries of archaeological and literary material demonstrated that the conclusions reached were incorrect. This led to a steady return to a more cautious approach to ancient documents. I have been curious to see whether the arguments in the founding document of modern historical criticism, the declamation of Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine - the Constitutum Constantini - were still valid. Fortunately, an English translation is available with parallel Latin text, and a useful introduction.1 While I am not a scholar, I felt that some notes on what I found might be of interest to others. Remarkably, the core of Valla's work is still sound, and his principles still of interest. That the Donation is false is a commonplace, often made in a context of controversy; why it is so, is never stated, and Coleman says that in the 1920's no copy of Valla's works existed in any US public library.
The document known to us as the Donation of Constantine is one of the most famous medieval forgeries. Written at an unknown date and place in the heart of the Dark Ages, for unknown purposes, it was embedded in the Forged Decretals in the early 9th century, and so drifted into the main collections of legal material used in the Middle Ages, including Gratian's Decretum. In the absence of a stable political environment in Italy from the collapse of the Roman empire to the establishment of the modern Italian state, the papacy was obliged to provide for its own security. The document was used to justify it doing so. The text purports to be a legal document issued by the Emperor Constantine, transferring control of Italy and the western provinces to Pope Sylvester in gratitude for being cured of leprosy. The renaissance Popes, whose spiritual role seemed often secondary to their function as the heads of a minor Italian state, used it extensively to oppose the territorial ambitions of the great powers and support their own. But in the Renaissance, for the first time in a millennium, it was possible to compare such documents with the genuine products of antiquity. St. Nicholas of Cusa was one of the first to notice that the Donation did not agree with the picture given by other documents.2 But it was left to the quarrelsome but brilliant scholar Lorenzo Valla to make public that the document was a fraud. This he did around 1450, while working for King Alfonso of Aragon, Sicily and Naples, who was attempting to make claims to various parts of Italy. Ultimately Valla entered Papal service himself.
The text of the Donation is available online.
Valla's text is not a modern scholarly study, but a declamation - a piece of rhetoric. The aggressive tone of his argument reflects his culture, not a yet to be born academic consensus. I have tried to abstract the arguments so that we can consider their validity. I have ignored the legal arguments about the validity of the Donation, as these cannot be of more general relevance, and skipped some of the lesser arguments. Page numbers are from Coleman.
Constantine and Sylvester were not the sort of men who would have entered into this transaction. [29-61]
This argument is an appeal to general probability, and as such is somewhat subjective.
The evidence shows that Constantine was still ruling the West later than the document is supposed to have been made, and does not show Sylvester doing so. [67-71]. The record of coinage shows no transfer - coins continue to be struck in Latin for Constantine. The historians do not mention the change of administration.
The coinage is a record of who was administering. The historians, secular and church, refer to the rule of Constantine in the same way as we would expect if there was no transfer of authority. And authority in the west passed to members of Constantine's family, including Julian the apostate. There are records of the barbarians dispossessing the Caesars; none of the Pope's being dispossessed. There is evidence that Constantine ruled the West to the end of his reign; none that Sylvester did so. There is evidence that the emperors ruled and were dethroned by the barbarians; none that the popes did or were.
Some of this involves an argument from silence, but taken with the coin record, has validity. All the other evidence supports it. However, Valla is being a little disingenuous here, since he refers to the Emperor Sigismund coming to Rome to be crowned, and being forced by Pope Eugenius IV to confirm the Donation. Obviously a physical transfer of power is not always involved, in some way, although it is suggested that, when Popes thought they could get away with it, they did.
Constantine did not make gifts to Sylvester but to an earlier Pope.[71-73]
This relies on another forged document, and is invalid.
The Decretum of Gratian exists in versions that do not include the Donation, and is included in material labelled separately within the MSS (by 'Palea'), so it must have a separate history. It breaks the thread of the narrative and is contradicted by other parts of the Decretum. Nor do the Acts of St. Sylvester include it, although the text in the Decretum suggests that this is the source.[75-83]
That the Donation is not authentically part of the Decretum is shown because the MSS which contain it (not all do) include it among material marked as additional. This is correct, but does not show the Donation to be false; only that the man who re-edited the Decretum knew the document, and thought it might be from the Acts.
The grant is strangely called a 'privilege'; the Acts of Sylvester also use the term, which tells you where the writer got it from.[83-85]
Not conclusive, but suggestive. Certainly a good point to make.
The Donation places 'satraps' as the first of Constantine's nobles. But this is an unheard of title for Roman officials [85-87].
Correct. This is not an antique usage, and shows that something is wrong here. The term only began to be used for higher officials at Rome in the middle of the 8th century.3 However it might be argued that the text is simply corrupt at this point.
The term 'optimates' is used. Instead of SPQR, the people are referred to as 'people subject'. Yet Pope Gregory says that the Roman ruler differs from others, in that he alone rules a free people. [87-89]
These usages are certainly wrong. Why would an authentic document make a mistake of such a simple nature? But a Dark Ages forger probably would not know the correct usage.
The Latinity of the grant is crude (examples omitted). Constantine is made to use biblical titles for God [89-91]
Also suggestive. How could Constantine know the usage of a bible he had supposedly never read? But perhaps his scribe did?
The Donation also gives the Roman church primacy among the churches. But a pagan emperor could not do such a thing. 
He could probably say it, though. Not really valid.
The Donation refers to Constantinople as one of the patriarchal sees when it was not a patriarchate, not a see, not a Christian city, and not named Constantinople at that time. Yet the Acts of Sylvester appealed to by the forger suggest he hadn't even thought of founding the city yet. 
A good point, although suggesting that the author of the Donation was very careless.
Byzantia is called a province, but in fact was the city of Byzantium.
Difficult to explain except by supposing an otherwise unrecorded province of that name including Byzantium.
The diadem is stated to be of gold, when it was in fact of cloth [105, 119]
Again a difficult error to explain away. Had this particular diadem been special in some way, the Donation would have specified it. As it is it reads as if the author thought a diadem was like a medieval crown, made of metal.
The clergy are to be called 'patricians and consuls'. But patrician was not a rank, and consuls were only two in number. 
This error is too gross to explain away in any manner, and is a strong point against the document. This usage refers to Dark Ages Rome, when consuls were not an office but a class.
The clothes to be given are listed in detail, but the provinces to be handed over are not detailed except vaguely. This suggests that the author didn't know what provinces Constantine ruled, as such details would be vital for any valid grant. 
Legal texts do tend to precision. This point also is hard to explain away.
Punishments are detailed for anyone who attempts to overthrow the accord - but these are not secular, but the (medieval) fear of excommunication. 
It is indeed hard to see why a man a pagan a few hours ago would think of this as the most natural and terrible threat to offer. But some sort of explanation could probably be made for this, so this isn't definitive.
The Donation calls itself a 'pagina', but this only means a 'page', not 'document' as in medieval usage. 
This could be explained as a scribal error.
The Acts of Sylvester themselves are rank fables, written by a Greek and full of stuff about dragons and manifestly copied from 'Bel and the Dragon'.
Not strictly relevant.
The Donation does not fit into the historical record of the 4th century, but does show features consist with being a later forgery. Valla's critique contains large quantites of objective points, which bear out his assessement.
Coleman tells us in the preface that the Donation is probably to be dated to the 8th century, when the last remains of Imperial Byzantine authority were collapsing, and the Popes needed to act for their own safety independently and with authority. The story of the Donation had been circulating orally as a legend since the 6th century. Perhaps we might speculate that someone - even a Pope - 'knowing' from hearsay that some such donation had occurred but naturally unable to find the paper proving it, ordered that the essentials be placed on paper in order to safeguard the lives of everyone in Rome. With the later abuse of the document we are not here concerned.
Valla refers to alleged bogus miracles at Rome, a bible supposedly written by Jerome which he found to be medieval from the subscriptio and written by an ignorant man, and the tricks and charlatanry that surrounds any tourist site.
"I neither disparage admiration for the saints, nor do I deny their divine works, for I know that faith, as much of it as a grain of mustard seed, is able even to remove mountains. Rather I defend and uphold them, but I do not allow them to be confused with ridiculous legends. Nor can I be persuaded that these writers were other than either infidels, who did this to deride the Christians in case these bits of fiction handed out by crafty men to the ignorant should be accepted as true, or else believers with a zeal for God, to be sure, but not according to knowledge, men who did not shrink from writing shameless accounts not only of the acts of the saints but even of the mother of God, and indeed of Christ himself, nor from writing pseudo-gospels." [151-3]
1. Christopher B. COLEMAN, The Treatise of Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine: Text and Translation into English. Yale University Press, 1922; copyright renewed 1950. Reprinted 1971. Much of the background material for the page is derived from this excellent study.
2. De concordantia catholica, ap. Coleman, p.3.
3. Coleman, p.85 n.3.
This page has been online since 15th December 2001.
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