Donation of Pepin

Donation of Pepin
Donation of Pepin

The Donation of Pepin was one of the most important historical events of the early Middle Ages. The Byzantine Empire, the papacy, the Franks, and the Lombards were all involved in what became Pepin’s donation. It marked a change in the nature of political authority across the former Roman Empire, and what would become the medieval states in western Europe.

Following the decline of Roman political authority in western Europe, a difficult situation emerged. While in 476 the western emperor Romulus Augustulus abdicated, the empire did not collapse. The symbols of western authority were returned to the East.

From the eastern, or Byzantine, emperor’s perspective, the authority of Constantinople over Italy and other western provinces remained as legal as Constantine the Great’s authority 200 years earlier.


What the Byzantine emperor of the eighth century lacked was military power, and the ability to project his authority over the western Roman provinces. This power fell to three newer groups in the area: the Lombards, the Franks, and the papacy.

As the middle of the eighth century dawned, Constantinople’s position in Italy was weak. Real Byzantine authority was limited to particular cities and a narrow strip running from the former imperial capital of Ravenna to Rome. This created an opening for one of the newer groups in the area, the Lombards.

In northern Italy, the Lombards were able to assert their dominance and independence from the Byzantine imperial authority. In doing this they created for themselves a powerful kingdom in northern Italy, and this threatened the papacy.

The papacy in Rome had for some time been trying to assert its spiritual authority over the other bishops in Christendom. This put the popes at odds with the imperial authority in Constantinople, imperial authority that would be weakened if the patriarch of Constantinople lost equality with the pope.

What put them into further confl ict was the lack of Byzantine civil authority on the ground in central Italy. The Byzantine government could neither protect the papacy from the Lombards nor perform even the most minor governmental functions.

More and more, these functions fell to the pope as the largest landowner in the area. This left the pope as the de facto ruler of central Italy, while on parchment, the eastern emperor remained in control of the territory.

The final group in the area was the Franks, located in what today is France and western Germany. The Franks had moved into the area shortly after 476. From this time onward, the Franks had been growing in political and military might.

Early in the eighth century Frankish lead armies had turned back a Muslim invasion of western Europe, an invasion that had captured most of Byzantine North Africa and Spain. By 751 the Lombards had defeated even the pretense of Byzantine authority in northern Italy, and Pope Stephen III sought alliance with the Frankish ruler Pepin the Short.

Pepin wanted to be king of the Franks, while the church sought political and military protection from the Lombards, to say nothing of a possible political separation from the Eastern Church and Constantinople. Stephen granted religious sanction for Pepin to depose the Frankish king and to assume the throne.

In return, Pepin marched an army to defeat the Lombards in northern and central Italy. Pepin then gave this land to the pope to administer as a prince. For the first time the pope was more than a temporal ruler, and it is this action that is referred to as the Donation of Pepin.

Fifty years later, Pope Leo III crowned the successor to Pepin Imperator Romanorum, emperor of the Romans. This man was Charlemange, the first western Roman emperor since Romulus Augustulus. This marked the high point of Frankish-papal cooperation.

Charlemagne codified the actions of Pepin and confirmed the independence of the Papal States and the Donation of Pepin. The donation led to the crowning of a western Roman emperor, the first to claim political equality with the East since 476.

This meant an end of Byzantine claims to the western territories of the Roman Empire. The eastern emperor would accept this, and the split also helped to cement the political separation of the eastern and western Christian churches.