(Written 20/6/2004)

Dear All,

In looking for information on Lorenzo Valla’s (1406 – 1457) proof of the spuriousness of the Donation of Constantine, I came across this amusing scene described by HG Wells in, The Outline of History, Cassell & Co, 1956.

It is assumed that Constantine the Great must have known that the backbone of the old empire was already broken when he decided to unify and rejuvenate his dominions by making Christianity the permitted faith of the realm. Or perhaps he really did think that the mistake by Maxentius’ engineers – of releasing the boats at the battle of the Milvian bridge too soon – was an act of God. Whatever Constantine’s motivation, Wells writes (p. 547);

It was only after Constantine had turned to Christianity that he realised the fierce dissensions of the theologians. He made a great effort to reconcile these differences in order to have one uniform and harmonious teaching in the community, and at his initiative a general council of the Church was held at Nicaea, a town near Nicomedia and over against Constantinople, in 325. Eusebius gives a curious account of this strange gathering over which the emperor presided, even though Constantine had not yet been baptised. It was not his first council of the Church, for he had already (in 314) presided over a council at Arles. He sat in the middle of the council of Nicaea upon a golden throne, and, as he had little Greek, we must suppose he was reduced to watching the countenances and gestures of the debates, and listening to their intonations. The council was a stormy one. When old Arius rose to speak, one, Nicolas of Myra, struck him in the face, and many ran out, thrusting their fingers into their ears in affected horror at the old man’s heresies. One is tempted to imagine the great emperor, deeply anxious for the soul of his empire, firmly resolved to end the divisions, bending towards his interpreters to ask them the meaning of the uproar.

Incidentally, Valla showed that the Donation of Constantine, from which the Pope in Rome drew so much authority, could not have been written in the 4th century as claimed by the Holy See, because it contained the word “fief”. The feudal system of “Fiefdom” was an 8th century invention. (Rice, F. R., The foundations of Early Modern Europe: 1460-1559, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1978, p. 71).