The Papal States were originally private property, owned and controlled by the popes in Rome. After the eighth century the term was applied to the duchy of Rome and surrounding feudal estates.
Constantine the Great, the first Holy Roman Emperor, declared that the Christian Church was a legal entity in the empire. Included in this declaration were the rights of the church to own and administer landed possessions. Constantine set the example for this civil doctrine by gifting the Lateran Palace to the church.
Many noble Roman families, some with a millennium of pedigree, followed suit and donated land to the church. Some of these properties still bear the name of the family who donated them. Donation of large estates ended in the early seventh century.
During the early centuries of the papal estates, lands in the provinces of Gaul and Africa were included, but this practice stopped as non-Christian Germanic tribes conquered these areas. Most of these properties were lost in the early eighth century and by the end of that century the German invaders also confiscated the properties in Italian sectors outside Rome.
All that remained were the lands in and around Rome, which were then owned not by the church, but by the pope. The pope thus became the largest landowner in Italy. The revenues of the papal estates supported the church in Rome and the many monasteries, convents, hospitals, orphanages, and poorhouses in the area.
In times of famine it was the pope, not the emperor, who had the responsibility of providing Roman citizens with food and water. Thus the emperor could fend off political scrutiny in regard to agriculture disasters or epidemics by saying the pope was responsible for the evils visited upon the capital city.
As the number of lands under control of the papacy increased after the ninth century, the temporal power of the popes increased in proportion. In time all other rulers on the Italian peninsula had to contend with and gain the support of the popes for their social, economic, political, and military campaigns.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the pope became the most powerful leader in Italy and in all of western Europe. Even during the Ostrogothic occupation, the pope was given control over temporal affairs in the region.
In 554 Emperor Justinian I issued the Pragmatic Sanction, which entrusted the pope and the Roman senate with control of weights and measures in the area, granting them indispensable powers in the region and ensuring loyal support from the region’s rulers for the government in Byzantium.
This loyalty was felt most bitterly among the Roman populace, whose only recourse to excess taxation and conscription by the Byzantine authorities was the Roman court system, which most often sided with the emperor. Election of the pope by the people of Rome, the practice of the time, did not deter the popes from choosing the emperor over the Roman citizenry.
As the Lombards began sacking Italian cities in the north, the papacy was in danger and an appeal was made to the emperor at Byzantium. But the Lombards conquered Italy, including the papal estates, in the eighth century.
In 754 Pepin, king of the Franks, agreed to fight the Lombards and return the papal estates to the church, the first valid documents to give credence to the papal estates. Charlemagne and his armies would later protect these lands from Lombard domination. But Charlemagne exerted so much control over these lands that tensions rose between the church and the Frankish court.
The Frankish kings also maintained control over papal elections, only rarely actually dictating the outcome, but more commonly guaranteeing the elections’ taking place through the Constitution of Lothair, a legal document that kept the protection of the pope by the emperor.
In the ninth and 10th centuries the control of the papal estates came under great influence by various Italian kings and their families, including the many counts of Tusculum. The area controlled by the popes of this time had dwindled to that of the areas around the duchy of Rome.
Under the Holy Roman Emperors Otto I and Otto II, the pope was often in exile, having his allegiance to the emperors as the primary reason. Only conquest by Otto III helped return the popes to Rome.
In the 11th century the naming of popes and antipopes confused the relations of the church with the people in the papal estates. In 1059 Pope Nicholas II sought to free the papacy from the control of the Holy Roman Empire. New regulations for electing the pope were enacted, removing the choice from the hands of the emperor.
Various Norman and Italian nobles added more land to the papal estates in the 12th and 13th centuries. When Emperor Frederick II and the Roman curia quarreled in the early 13th century, the lands were again placed in jeopardy.
Many conflicts and wars in northern Italy led to French control over the papal estates. During the Avignon exile of the popes in the 14th century, France controlled not only the election of the pope, but also the papal estates.
This period saw the decline in the influence of the pope in the papal estates and the rise of the control of the region in the hands of the Colonna and Orsini families. Certain regions of the estates revolted and a near anarchy resulted in some regions. In 1353 Cardinal Albornoz brought the area again under subjection to the pope, a state that would remain in force until 1816.