Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Johannes Fried, Donation of Constantine and Constitutum Constantini: A Book Review (Part V)

Last time we sampled some of Fried’s arguments on the date and origins front. Those were just appetizers, though – supplementary points that Fried makes by way of building up to his primary argument, which has to do with Constantine's palace as portrayed by the Constitutum Constantini. It is this, above all, that convinces Fried that the Constitutum is a ninth-century text concocted by Frankish forgers.

A bit of scene setting: In the Actus Silvestri (the fifth-century source that the Constitutum builds on) Constantine lives, is baptized, and constructs a basilica in something called the Palatium Lateranense. Details in the narrative suggest to Johannes Fried that this Palatium was on the Caelian Hill, near the present Lateran basilica and baptistery. Sometimes, according to Fried, the Actus use the words Palatium Lateranense as a general term, to indicate an “area of monumental buildings” that includes the basilica Constantine constructed for the use of Roman Christians. The Actus can also use the term more specifically, in a “closer sense,” to refer to Constantine’s palace alone. Thus Constantine can be found traveling between palatium and basilica, while elsewhere basilica and palatium both appear to be gathered under the words Palatium Lateranense.

The Palatium Lateranense attracts our attention because, according to the forger of the Constitutum Constantini, Constantine gave it to Pope Sylvester. In Fried’s mind, this fiction amounts to yet another revealing error. He says that it shows that the forger has poor knowledge of details about Rome and that it provides a terminus post quem for the entire forgery project.

Fried reaches these wide-ranging conclusions, first, by trying to plot the location of the Palatium Lateranense that we read of in the Actus Sylvestri. Because the Actus refer to the Lateran basilica and baptistery – real buildings – he argues that we are “[forced] to accept that the imperial Palatium was also a real (and not a fictional) building” (75). That alone strikes me as highly questionable, but we can accept it for the sake of argument. Through several further pages of analysis, Fried attempts to persuade us that the Palatium of the Actus should be identified with the classical and decidedly non-ecclesiastical Domus Laterani – location so far uncertain but perhaps somewhere near the Lateran basilica. For Fried, in other words, the Palatium Lateranense of the Actus may have been a legendary concept, but it was one associated with a real location. This helps him to make a number of distinctions: The Domus Laterani which is supposed to have given rise to the fictional palatium of the Actus and the Lateran basilica were geographically distinct structures (79-80), though located near one another. At a greater distance was the Patriarchium, or the papal residence; through the eighth century it could be described as iuxta Lateranis (inter alia) but was definitely distinct from the ancient buildings that took their name from the Lateran family. In the year 813, our sources call this complex of papal buildings a Palatium Lateranense for the first time. Above all, then, “we must be careful to distinguish between two Lateran Palaces”: The Palatium Lateranense of the Actus and the papal Palatium Lateranense, as the popes first called their residence in 813.”

With these distinctions in mind, we return to the Constitutum Constantini. Our forgers certainly want their readers to associate the Lateran basilica with the basilica that Constantine, in the Actus Sylvestri, is said to have constructed in his palace. Pseudo-Constantine of course also gives his Palatium Lateranense, presumably including said basilica, to Pope Sylvester. This palatium is supposed to surpass all other palaces in the whole world. According to Pseudo-Constantine, in other words, Sylvester received the imperial palace, and also the basilica, from the pope.

Yet – Fried objects on the basis of his distinctions – early medieval popes lived 500 meters from the Lateran basilica and bapistery. To associate the residence of these popes with said basilica and baptistery is a serious error. An “acquaint[ance] with the topography of the city” would show an early medieval observer that this fiction was “impossible” (84).

Strangely, though, no objections to the implied geography of the Constitutum Constantini survive from the Middle Ages. Perhaps this is because the fiction of the Constitutum takes place not in any real Rome, but in a mythical Rome informed by the Sylvester legend. The Palatium Lateranense was simply legendary furniture. Whether a Frank or a Roman, Pseudo-Constantine need not have cared about anything beyond the fact that an ancient and authoritative text claimed that the emperor lived at the Palatium Lateranense. The Palatium is the only imperial dwelling on offer in this Actus, and this made it a useful symbol of Roman imperium.

We cannot know how our forger expected his readers to relate the idea of Sylvester receiving the Palatium Lateranense from Constantine to eighth- or ninth-century Roman geography. Our forger clearly writes to explain the origins of early medieval religious and liturgical realities when, for example, he enumerates the vestments that Constantine gave Sylvester and the Roman clergy. The Palatium Lateranense, however, as a mythical structure derived from the Sylvester legend -- and not contemporary religious, liturgical, or ecclesiastical realities -- was “imaginary” (to use Fried’s term). As far as I can see Fried marshals no evidence indicating that the Domus Laterani was still known or that anyone any longer associated it with Constantine’s former palace in the Carolingian period. Before the popes started calling the Patriarchium a Palatium Lateranense, how might a Roman reader or a Roman forger have interpreted the terminology of the Actus and the Constitutum? The answer is less than obvious. The text refers to Constantine’s basilica as being situated in the palace – a kind of imperial building complex – and of course the popes did and do preside over the Lateran basilica, an element of this complex. Was that not enough for a knowledgeable reader/forger? Elsewhere the text has Constantine traveling from the basilica to his palatium. If it was this usage that caught attention, it too had an explanation – for as Fried shows at length, the early medieval papal residence was indeed distinct from the Lateran. Of course it was not previously understood to have been Constantine’s residence – far from it. Perhaps, however, the forger wanted his audience to reconceive of the papal residence along these lines? Perhaps this is evidence not of ignorance, but of an agenda? Why not suppose that a knowledgeable forger decided to risk inaccuracy, to stretch the truth and venture to posit a Constantinian palace complex that extended over 500 meters (the distance, as we have seen, between the Lateran basilica and the early medieval papal residence), to advance his fiction? Again we see that Fried is altogether too hasty to convict our forger of ignorance.

Fried also argues that our forger’s use of the Palatium Lateranense provides a means of dating the Constitutum. For Fried, only potentates who exercise some form of secular jurisdiction preside over palatia, and it was only in the ninth century that the papacy began to flex its secular muscles – and thus, by the year 813, the popes finally began to conceive of their residence as a palace. Thus, again for Fried, a fiction that shows Sylvester receiving a palatium from the emperor is something that could only have been written in the ninth century.

I think the problems here are obvious. In the first place, purely on methodological grounds, I cannot accept a ninth-century terminus post quem for the Constitutum Constantini on the basis of terminology derived from a fifth-century source. Fried’s arguments that early medieval palatia were places for the exercise of secular jurisdiction get us nowhere. Once again, the forgery takes place in a legendary world – one that our forger deploys to shape (rather than to mimic) contemporary understanding. Perhaps the forger wants to put the pope in a palace, despite contemporary characterizations of his residence. Perhaps the Palatium Lateranense is evidence that contradicts Fried's contentious reading of the Constitutum. Perhaps the palatium is our forger’s means of insisting that Constantine, at least, wished the pope to exercise “secular jurisdiction,” at least in some sense of the term.

Or perhaps the forger never extrapolated so far; perhaps the perspective of the Constitutum Constantini constrained him. The entire text purports to be a document issued by a Roman emperor. Such an emperor could indeed characterize his residence as a palatium in the full Friedian sense of the term. Sylvester’s perspective interests our forger not at all, and so Fried’s argument dissolves in uncertainty. Does a palatium granted by the emperor continue to be a palatium once in the pope’s possession? Does our forger even want us to assume as much? Or does he wish his readers only to recognize that the popes presided over a basilica that was once a component of Constantine’s palace?

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: This is not the stuff of which termini post quem are made.

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