Pope Leo III
Lateran Palace mosaic, c. 799
|Papacy began||27 December 795|
|Papacy ended||12 June 816|
Rome, Exarchate of Ravenna, Roman Empire
|Died||12 June 816
Place of death unknown
|Feast day||12 June|
|Other popes named Leo|
Pope Leo III (750 – 12 June 816) was the head of the Roman Catholic Church from 795 to his death in 816. Protected by Charlemagne from his enemies in Rome, he subsequently strengthened Charlemagne's position by crowning him Emperor and Augustus of the Romans.
Leo was a Roman, the son of Atyuppius and Elizabeth. At the time of his election he was Cardinal-Priest of St. Susanna, and seemingly also vestiarius, or chief of the pontifical treasury, or wardrobe. He was elected on the very day his predecessor, Adrian I, was buried (26 Dec., 795), and consecrated on the following day. It is quite possible that this haste may have been due to a desire on the part of the Romans to anticipate any interference of the Franks with their freedom of election. With the letter informing Charlemagne that he had been unanimously elected pope, Leo sent him the keys of the confession of St. Peter, and the standard of the city, and requested an envoy. This he did to show that he regarded the Frankish king as the protector of the Holy See.
In return he received from Charlemagne letters of congratulation and a great part of the treasure which the king had captured from the Avars. The acquisition of this wealth was one of the causes which enabled Leo to be such a great benefactor to the churches and charitable institutions of Rome. While Charlemagne's letter is respectful and even affectionate, it also exhibits Charles' concept of the coordination of the spiritual and temporal powers, nor does he hesitate to remind the pope of his grave spiritual obligations. Charlemagne's reply stated that it was his function to defend the Church, and the function of the Pope to pray for the realm and for the victory of his army.
Prompted by jealousy or ambition, or by feelings of hatred and revenge, a number of the relatives of Pope Adrian I formed a plot to render Leo unfit to hold his sacred office. On the occasion of the procession of the Greater Litanies (25 April, 799), when the pope was making his way towards the Flaminian Gate, he was suddenly attacked by a body of armed men. He was dashed to the ground, and an effort was made to root out his tongue and tear out his eyes and left him unconscious. He was rescued by two of the king's missi, who came with a considerable force. The Duke of Spoleto sheltered the fugitive pope, who went later to Paderborn, where the king's camp then was. He was received by the Frankish king with the greatest honour at Paderborn. This meeting forms the basis of the epic poem Karolus Magnus et Leo Papa.
His enemies had accused Leo of adultery and perjury. Charlemagne ordered them to Paderborn, but no decision could be made. He then had Leo escorted back to Rome. In November 800, Charlemagne himself went to Rome, and on 1 December held a council there with representatives of both sides. Leo, on 23 December, took an oath of purgation concerning the charges brought against him, and his opponents were exiled.
Coronation of Charlemagne
Charlemagne's father, Pepin defended the papacy against the Lombards and issued the Donation of Pepin, which granted the land around Rome to the pope as a fief. In 774 Pope Adrian I had conferred on Charles his father dignity of Patricius Romanus, which implied primarily the protection of the Roman Church in all its rights and privileges, above all in the temporal authority which it had gradually acquired (notably in the former Byzantine Duchy of Rome and the Exarchate of Ravenna) by just titles in the course of the two preceding centuries. Two days after Leo's oath, on Christmas Day 800, he crowned Charlemagne as Roman emperor. According to Charlemagne's biographer, Einhard,(Vita Caroli 28) Charles had no suspicion of what was about to happen, and if informed would not have accepted the imperial crown. On the other hand, there seems no reason to doubt that for some time previous the elevation of Charles had been discussed, both at home and at Rome, especially in view of two facts: the scandalous condition of the imperial government at Constantinople, and the acknowledged grandeur and solidity of the Carolingian house. The coronation offended Constantinople, which had seen itself still as the rightful defender of Rome, but the Eastern Roman Empress Irene of Athens, like many of her predecessors since Justinian, was too weak to offer protection to the city or its much reduced citizenry.
Few moments in world history proved to be of greater significance than what transpired in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome on Christmas Day in the year 800. Charlemagne became the father of Europe. At his royal court, he gathered the cream of available intellect, centered around the scholar Alcuin, whom he brought from York in England. Monks and other copyists were set to transcribing ancient manuscripts, both classical and Christian, for the preservation and extension of learning. Schools were established at monasteries and cathedrals, the forerunners of the great universities. Myriad hymns and poems were composed, along with commentaries on Holy Scripture, treatises on music, theological works, and numerous chronicles of history. Advances were made in architecture (at Aachen and Ingelheim, for instance), technology (such as the iron horseshoe and the padded harness for plowing with horses), and agriculture (for example, the system of triple crop rotation). Under the leadership of this wise and powerful monarch there arose a cultural enrichment still known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Although the political unity Charlemagne imposed on the greater part of that continent did not outlive him, the cultural unity of Europe did.
Leo helped restore King Eardwulf of Northumbria and settled various matters of dispute between the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. He also reversed the decision of his predecessor Pope Adrian I, in regards to the granting of the pallium to Higbert, Bishop of Lichfield. He believed that the English episcopate had been misrepresented before Adrian and that therefore his act was invalid. In 803, Lichfield was a regular diocese again.
Leo forbade the addition of Filioque to the Nicene Creed, when asked to confirm the decision of a Council of Aachen held in 809. Although he approved of the doctrine thus expressed, he also ordered that the Nicene Creed, without Filioque, be displayed on silver tablets placed in Saint Peter's Basilica, adding: "Haec Leo posui amore et cautela orthodoxae fidei" (I, Leo, put these here for love and protection of orthodox faith).
The reasons for the coronation of Charlemagne, the involvement beforehand of the Frankish court, and the relationship to the Eastern Roman Empire are all matters of debate among historians. An effective administrator of the papal territories, Leo contributed to the beautification of Rome.
Leo III wasn't officially canonized, but his name was included in the Roman Martyrology in 1673. Because of this irregurality and the lack of evidences about his holiness, his name was eliminated during liturgical reform in 1953.
Leo was originally buried in his own monument. However, some years after his death, his remains were put into a tomb that contained the first four Pope Leos. In the 18th century, the relics of Leo I were separated from the other Leos, and he was given his own chapel.
- "Pope St. Leo III". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Mann, Horace. "Pope St. Leo III." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 5 Jan. 2013
- Shahan, Thomas, and Ewan Macpherson. "Charlemagne." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 5 Jan. 2013
- Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne, translated by Samuel Epes Turner, New York, Harper & Brothers,(1880)
- Reardon, Patrick Henry, "Turning Point: The Crowning of Charlemagne", Christianity Today, January 1, 2006
- "Agreed Statement of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation, 25 October 2003".
- Reardon, Wendy (McFarland). The deaths of the Popes.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Pope Leo III.|
- Translation of Einhard's Life of Charlemagne (c. 817–830, translated in 1880)
- Works by or about Pope Leo III in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Opera Omnia by Migne Patrologia Latina with analytical indexes
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