Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Before the time of Constantine, the bishop of Rome was considered by the Roman magistrates, who were unacquainted with our holy religion, only as the chief of a sect, frequently tolerated by the government, but frequently experiencing from it capital punishment. The names of the first disciples, who were by birth Jews, and of their successors, who governed the little flock concealed in the immense city of Rome, were absolutely unknown by all the Latin writers. We well know that everything was changed, and in what manner everything was changed under Constantine.

The bishop of Rome, protected and enriched as he was, was always in subjection to the emperors, like the bishop of Constantinople, and of Nicomedia, and every other, not making even the slightest pretension to the shadow of sovereign authority. Fatality, which guides the affairs of the universe, finally established the power of the ecclesiastical Roman court, by the hands of the barbarians who destroyed the empire.

The ancient religion, under which the Romans had been victorious for such a series of ages, existed still in the hearts of the population, notwithstanding all the efforts of persecution, when, in the four hundred and eighth year of our era, Alaric invaded Italy and beseiged Rome. Pope Innocent I. indeed did not think proper to forbid the inhabitants of that city sacrificing to the gods in the capitol, and in the other temples, in order to obtain the assistance of heaven against the Goths. But this same Pope Innocent, if we may credit Zosimus and Orosius, was one of the deputation sent to treat with Alaric, a circumstance which shows that the pope was at that time regarded as a person of considerable consequence.

When Attila came to ravage Italy in 452, by the same right which the Romans themselves had exercised over so many and such powerful nations; by the right of Clovis, of the Goths, of the Vandals, and the Heruli, the emperor sent Pope Leo I., assisted by two personages of consular dignity, to negotiate with that conqueror. I have no doubt, that agreeably to what we are positively told, St. Leo was accompanied by an angel, armed with a flaming sword, which made the king of the Huns tremble, although he had no faith in angels, and a single sword was not exceedingly likely to inspire him with fear. This miracle is very finely painted in the Vatican, and nothing can be clearer than that it never would have been painted unless it had actually been true. What particularly vexes and perplexes me is this angel’s suffering Aquileia, and the whole of Illyria, to be sacked and ravaged, and also his not preventing Genseric, at a later period, from giving up Rome to his soldiers for fourteen days of plunder. It was evidently not the angel of extermination.

Under the exarchs, the credit and influence of the popes augmented, but even then they had not the smallest degree of civil power. The Roman bishop, elected by the people, craved protection for the bishop, of the exarch of Ravenna, who had the power of confirming or of cancelling the election.

After the exarchate was destroyed by the Lombards, the Lombard kings were desirous of becoming masters also of the city of Rome; nothing could certainly be more natural.

Pepin, the usurper of France, would not suffer the Lombards to usurp that capital, and so become too powerful against himself; nothing again can be more natural than this.

It is pretended that Pepin and his son Charlemagne gave to the Roman bishops many lands of the exarchate, which was designated the Justices of St. Peter — “les Justices de St. Pierre.” Such is the real origin of their temporal power. From this period, these bishops appear to have assiduously exerted themselves to obtain something of rather more consideration and of more consequence than these justices.

We are in possession of a letter from Pope Arian I. to Charlemagne, in which he says, “The pious liberality of the emperor Constantine the Great, of sacred memory, raised and exalted, in the time of the blessed Roman Pontiff, Sylvester, the holy Roman Church, and conferred upon it his own power in this portion of Italy.”

From this time, we perceive, it was attempted to make the world believe in what is called the Donation of Constantine, which was, in the sequel, for a period of five hundred years, not merely regarded as an article of faith, but an incontestable truth. To entertain doubts on the subject of this donation included at once the crime of treason and the guilt of mortal sin.

After the death of Charlemagne, the bishop augmented his authority in Rome from day to day; but centuries passed away before he came to be considered as a sovereign prince. Rome had for a long period a patrician municipal government.

Pope John XII., whom Otho I., emperor of Germany, procured to be deposed in a sort of council, in 963, as simoniacal, incestuous, sodomitical, an atheist, in league with the devil, was the first man in Italy as patrician and consul, before he became bishop of Rome; and notwithstanding all these titles and claims, notwithstanding the influence of the celebrated Marosia, his mother, his authority was always questioned and contested.

Gregory VII., who from the rank of a monk became pope, and pretended to depose kings and bestow empires, far from being in fact complete master of Rome, died under the protection, or rather as the prisoner of those Norman princes who conquered the two Sicilies, of which he considered himself the paramount lord.

In the grand schism of the West, the popes who contended for the empire of the world frequently supported themselves on alms.

It is a fact not a little extraordinary that the popes did not become rich till after the period when they dared not to exhibit themselves at Rome.

According to Villani, Bertrand de Goth, Clement V. of Bordeaux, who passed his life in France, sold benefices publicly, and at his death left behind him vast treasures.

The same Villani asserts that he died worth twenty-five millions of gold florins. St. Peter’s patrimony could not certainly have brought him such a sum.

In a word, down to the time of Innocent VIII., who made himself master of the castle of St. Angelo, the popes never possessed in Rome actual sovereignty.

Their spiritual authority was undoubtedly the foundation of their temporal; but had they confined themselves to imitating the conduct of St. Peter, whose place it was pretended they filled, they would never have obtained any other kingdom than that of heaven. Their policy always contrived to prevent the emperors from establishing themselves at Rome, notwithstanding the fine and flattering title of “king of the Romans.” The Guelph faction always prevailed in Italy over the Ghibelline. The Romans were more disposed to obey an Italian priest than a German king.

In the civil wars, which the quarrel between the empire and the priesthood excited and kept alive for a period of five hundred years, many lords obtained sovereignties, sometimes in quality of vicars of the empire, and sometimes in that of vicars of the Holy See. Such were the princes of Este at Ferrara, the Bentivoglios at Bologna, the Malatestas at Rimini, the Manfredis at Faenza, the Bagliones at Perouse, the Ursins in Anguillara and in Serveti, the Collonas in Ostia, the Riarios at Forli, the Montefeltros in Urbino, the Varanos in Camerino, and the Gravinas in Senigaglia.

All these lords had as much right to the territories they possessed as the popes had to the patrimony of St. Peter; both were founded upon donations.

It is known in what manner Pope Alexander VI. made use of his bastard to invade and take possession of all these principalities. King Louis XII. obtained from that pope the cancelling of his marriage, after a cohabitation of eighteen years, on condition of his assisting the usurper.

The assassinations committed by Clovis to gain possession of the territories of the petty kings who were his neighbors, bear no comparison to the horrors exhibited on this occasion by Alexander and his son.

The history of Nero himself is less abominable; the atrocity of whose crimes was not increased by the pretext of religion; and it is worth observing, that at the very time these diabolical excesses were performed, the kings of Spain and Portugal were suing to that pope, one of them for America, and the other for Asia, which the monster accordingly granted them in the name of that God he pretended to represent. It is also worth observing that not fewer than a hundred thousand pilgrims flocked to his jubilee and prostrated themselves in adoration of his person.

Julius II. completed what Alexander had begun. Louis XII., born to become the dupe of all his neighbors, assisted Julius in seizing upon Bologna and Perouse. That unfortunate monarch, in return for his services, was driven out of Italy, and excommunicated by the very pope whom the archbishop of Auch, the king’s ambassador at Rome, addressed with the words “your wickedness,” instead of “your holiness.”

To complete his mortification, Anne of Brittany, his wife, a woman as devout as she was imperious, told him in plain terms, that he would be damned for going to war with the pope.

If Leo X. and Clement VII. lost so many states which withdrew from the papal communion, their power continued no less absolute than before over the provinces which still adhered to the Catholic faith. The court of Rome excommunicated the emperor Henry III., and declared Henry IV. unworthy to reign.

It still draws large sums from all the Catholic states of Germany, from Hungary, Poland, Spain, and France. Its ambassadors take precedence of all others; it is no longer sufficiently powerful to carry on war; and its weakness is in fact its happiness. The ecclesiastical state is the only one that has regularly enjoyed the advantages of peace since the sacking of Rome by the troops of Charles V. It appears, that the popes have been often treated like the gods of the Japanese, who are sometimes presented with offerings of gold, and sometimes thrown into the river.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01