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Bill Thayer

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Book VII
Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a section of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book VII
Note F

Vol. IV
Note E

On the alleged Letters of Pope Gregory II to Leo III

There is no doubt that, as Theophanes tells us, Gregory II wrote to Leo III a letter on the question of image-worship, in which he remonstrated against the Emperor's pretension to change by his sole authority the ancient usages received from the fathers of the Church.1 It is probable enough that, as is also hinted by Theophanes,2 more than one of such letters was written by the pontiff. But there is very grave reason to doubt whether these letters, or any of them, are now in existence.

In the first place, it is admitted by all that the Latin originals of these letters are not forthcoming.

Secondly, it is admitted that in the Acts of the Council of Nicaea (for the restoration of image-worship), the letters now alleged to have been written by Gregory to the Emperor do not appear, though they were certainly read at that Council,3 and though the Pope's letter to the Patriarch Germanus, which was also read at that assembly, does form part of the Acts of the Council.

Thirdly, the letters now produced were first published by Cardinal Baronius at the end of the sixteenth century, from the notes of a Jesuit named Fronton le Duc. They were then appended to the Acts of the Council of Nicaea,4 in which they now always appear: but it is quite admitted that they have no documentary claim to that position.5

 p502  Fourthly, Fronton le Duc (as to whose good faith there is no question) copied, in 1590, the Greek text of the letters from a MS. which had belonged to the Cardinal of Lorraine, and which was in the library of St. Remi at Rheims. He made a Latin translation, and sent both texts, Greek and Latin, to Cardinal Baronius, who inserted them in his Annales Ecclesiastici.

Fifthly, since then, five other MSS. of the same letters have been discovered, all in Greek. The oldest, which is in the Vatican Library, is considered to date from the tenth or eleventh century. All the others, including that copied by Fronton le Duc, are of a comparatively late date, ranging from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. For details as to their character and present domiciles I refer the reader to a very elaborate article by M. Louis Guérard in 'Mélanges d'Archéologie et d'Histoire,' 1890, pp44‑60.

The external evidence then on behalf of the letters is fair, but not first-rate. It is evident that they were in existence some two or three centuries after the date of their alleged composition, but it is singular that there should be no Latin originals, and perhaps not altogether satisfactory that there should be no trace of them in the Papal Chancery.

We may therefore, without any constraint either way from documentary testimony, turn to consider the internal evidence afforded by the contents of the Epistles.

I. The greater part of the letters is of course taken up with an argument as to the theological aspect of the question, the distinction between reverence and worship, the difference between the idolatry of the Gentiles and proper reverence to the representations of the saints, the carving of the cherubim, the skill of Bezaleel and Aholiab, and so forth. With all this we have here no concern, but we must notice in passing the extraordinary blunder by which the writer makes Uzziah instead of his descendant Hezekiah the destroyer of the Brazen Serpent. That this is not a mere slip of the pen is shown by the fact that he rightly refers to the same Uzziah as a king who usurped the prerogatives of the priesthood. He also represents David as having brought the Brazen Serpent into the Temple, which was not built in his time.

 p503  II. The most striking characteristic of the letters and that which has always seemed to require explanation on the part of adherents of the Papacy is the extraordinary insolence of their tone. A few sentences may be cited as illustrations of this, but it would require some pages to quote all the rude and coarse invective of the writer: —

'It is necessary to write to you in a clownish and unlearned way, because you are yourself unlearned and clownish. We beseech you by God to lay aside the arrogance and pride with which you are overflowing, and with great humility listen to what I say.'

'Write to all whom you have caused to stumble and remove the offence, although you in your exceeding stupidity think that this is a matter of no consequence.'

'Turn away from these evil thoughts, I pray you, and free your soul from the scandal and execration with which you are loaded by the whole world, so that you are a laughing-stock even to little boys. Go to the elementary schools and say, "I am an overturner and persecutor of images," and at once they will throw their slates at your head, so that you will learn from the foolish the lesson which the wise could not teach you.'

'You talk about calling a general Council, which we do not think necessary. But imagine that we have listened to your advice, and that the bishops from all parts of the world are gathered together; where is the wise and pious and Christian Emperor who should sit in the middle to reward those who speak aright and to silence those who talk nonsense? Where is he, when you yourself oh Emperor are staggering about and imitating the barbarians? . . . Shut up and hold your tongue, and then there will be no need of a Council.'

'We entreat you by the Lord turn away from such juvenile and childish deeds.'

Let any one compare this coarse and scurrilous tirade with the sentences full of repressed indignation, but also full of courageous respectfulness, in which the first Gregory made his remonstrance to the Emperor Maurice. No: assuredly it was not in this strain that in the early part of the eighth century the Bishop of Rome (still a subject though a powerful one) addressed his sovereign, 'the most pious and serene Emperor.'

III. We come to difficulties raised by statements of fact  p504 contained in the letters. At the outset Gregory is supposed to say to the Emperor that he received and treasured the letters written by him in the first ten years of his reign, namely, those of the fourteenth Indiction, of the fifteenth, of the first and so on to the ninth Indiction. The fourteenth Indiction extended from September 1, 715, to August 31, 716. Leo's formal accession and entry into Constantinople did not take place till March 25, 717, and though it is true that for some months before that time he had been in arms as a candidate for the Empire, it is most improbable that from his camp in the heart of Asia Minor he could find leisure to write letters on theological matters to the Roman pontiff, who moreover was then recognising his rival.

IV. After the supposed Gregory has told the story of the destruction of the great picture of the Saviour at Constantinople (which he calls Antiphonetes), he says, 'Then you, eager in your pursuit of evil, sent your guards and killed I know not how many women, in the presence of honourable men from Rome, from France, from the Vandals, from Mauritania, from Gothland, and, to speak in general terms, from all the Western interior. When these went to their own lands and described your juvenile and childish deeds, then men trampled down your laurelled effigies and hacked at your face, and the Lombards and the Sarmatians and the rest of the people who dwell in the North having levied their forces, infested the wretched Decapolis with their incursions, and occupied the metropolis Ravenna itself, and ejecting your magistrates appointed magistrates of their own.'

'Vandals,' 'men of Mauritania' (after the Saracen conquest), 'Gothland,' 'Sarmatians,' — is it conceivable that a Roman Pope would talk of these vanished nationalities in this way in the year 727? Some Eastern ecclesiastic or Greek rhetorician writing from the longitude of Constantinople, knowing little of 'the Western interior,' and thinking only of the victories of Belisarius and Narses, might easily use these mouth-filling names, but surely not Pope Gregory II. As for the occupation of Ravenna by the Lombards before 727, though that event is not impossible, the attempt to find a place for it without disturbing the natural order of events has hitherto made the reign of Liutprand the despair of chronologers.

V. 'But if you insolently threaten us,' says the supposed  p505 Gregory, 'it is not necessary for us to descend into the contest with you: at twenty-four stadia (three miles) the Roman pontiff will withdraw into the region of Campania. Then come on, chase the wind.'

Contracted as the Ducatus Romae undoubtedly was, its frontier on the Campanian side must have been nearly one hundred miles distant from Rome. It would have been more to the purpose if the Pope had said that he would seek the country of the Sabines, as the Lombard frontier in the direction of Tivoli was only about twenty miles distant. But nothing can justify the wild assertion about the twenty-four stadia.

I have by no means exhausted all the improbabilities and incongruities which these letters contain: but what has been said will perhaps suffice to show that there is a very strong case against their genuineness. Since the question was mooted and attention was called to the weakness of the documentary evidence in their favour, almost all scholars who have carefully examined into the question (with the one important exception of Hefele) have pronounced against them. This is the verdict of Monticolo and Guérard, and above all of Abbé Duchesne, whose judgment, after his close and conscientious study of the Liber Pontificalis, is in itself almost decisive. He says, 'Je considère donc les prétendues lettres de Grégoire II comme ayant été fabriquées à Constantinople par quelque défenseur des images, pour suppléer à la perte des véritables.'

At least we may say that no historian of this period need henceforth trouble himself to find a place in his scheme for any event which only rests on the authority of the so‑called letters of Gregory to Leo.

The Author's Notes:

1 Γρηγόριος ὁ πάππας Ῥώμης ἔγραψε πρὸς Λέοντα ἐπιστολὴν δογματικήν, μὴ δεῖν βασιλέα περὶ πίστεως λόγον ποιεῖσθαι καὶ καινοτομεῖν τὰ ἀρχαία δόγματα τῆς ἐκκλησίας τὰ ὑπὸ τῶν ἁγίων πατέρων δογματισθέντα (Theophanes, A. M. 6217).

2 ἐλέγξας τὸν Λέοντα δι’ ἐπιστολῶν (Id. A. M. 6221).

3 This is fully admitted by Hefele (Concilien­geschichte, III.393). As he defends the genuineness of the letters he accounts for the omission by supposing that Leo had destroyed the letters which were sent to him, and so the Council had no copy ready at hand. (But if so, how could they have been read, as he states, p467, at the fourth session?)

4 Seventh General Council.

5 The statement of Gibbon (chap. xlix n. 33), 'The two Epistles of Gregory II have been preserved in the Acts of the Nicene Council,' is therefore incorrect, or at any rate requires explanation.

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