Pope Leo III

Orfeas Katsoulis | May 20, 2023

Table of Content


Leo III (Rome, 750 - Rome, June 12, 816) was the 96th pope of the Catholic Church from December 26, 795 until his death.

Little is known about his life prior to his election to the papal throne. Born and raised in Rome, a priest of modest origin and lacking support among the great Roman families, he gained considerable experience in the Lateran offices. At the time of his election he was cardinal priest of Santa Susanna. He was unanimously elected pontiff on December 26, 795, the day his predecessor, Pope Adrian I, was being buried, and was consecrated the following day.

Relations with the Franks

His first act was to communicate his election to King Charlemagne of the Franks, delivering to him the keys of Peter's Tomb (symbolizing the confirmation of the king's role as guardian of religion) and the standard of Rome (a political symbol by which Charlemagne was recognized as an armed defender of the faith). In Charles, therefore, all political power was summed up, but always within the protection of the Mater Ecclesia, while the pope was left with all religious power. But in this way Charlemagne's power still fell within the supremacy of the Church, while the Frankish king saw things exactly the opposite: a Church that recognized itself as the daughter of political and religious authority unified in the person of the sovereign. And in this sense he replied to the pontiff, declaring that it was his function to defend the Church, while the pope's task, as first among the bishops, was to pray for the kingdom and for the victory of the army. Charlemagne was absolutely convinced of this division of roles and that he (except in theological matters) was the one in charge of running the Church, and he demonstrated this by his constant interference in ecclesiastical matters. The pope, moreover, did not have the pulse of his predecessor to oppose the king's claims....

The bombing of 799 and its aftermath

On April 25, 799, Leo III was attacked by the Roman nobles Pascale, nephew of Pope Hadrian I, and Campolo, primicerius, who wanted to eliminate Leo and have a member of their faction elected to the papal throne.

The attempt was foiled thanks to the intervention of the Duke of Spoleto, who was protected by Charlemagne's missi dominici. No longer feeling safe, Leo III moved temporarily, with a retinue of 200 people, to Paderborn, Saxony, where Charlemagne himself was staying. He spent about a month there. There are no records of the Paderborn talks between the pope and Charlemagne, but subsequent events hint at the results.

Representatives of the opposition were arriving from Rome and news that in part seemed to confirm the accusations made against the pope by the conspirators. Charlemagne consulted with the theologian and adviser Alcuin of York who, having taken note of the accusations and suspicions against the pope, nevertheless suggested to the king an attitude of extreme prudence: no earthly power could judge the pope (prima sedes a nemine iudicatur) and any deposition of the pope could prove particularly damaging to those who disposed of him and bring the entire Christian Church into heavy disrepute; "...in you is placed the salvation of Christendom," he wrote to the king.

Escorted by Frankish bishops and nobles, Leo returned to Rome on November 29, 799, triumphantly welcomed (Frankish diplomacy had in fact moved in Rome in a way that outwitted the opposition, and Charlemagne's lack of cooperation was, in part, a surprise to the attackers). The pope returned to the sacred throne, while the bishops of the escort who had accompanied him collected documents and testimony about the charges, which they sent to Charlemagne along with those responsible for the attack on the pontiff

The attack suffered by the pontiff, which was in any case a sign of a climate of disquiet in Rome, could not, however, be left unpunished (Charles was still invested with the title of Patricius Romanorum), and at the annual meeting held in August 800 in Mainz with the great of the kingdom he communicated his intention to descend to Italy.

Officially, Charlemagne's coming to Rome in November 800 was intended to unravel the issue between the pope and the heirs of Hadrian I, who accused the pontiff of being totally unfit for the papal tiara as a "dissolute man." He had with him his son Charles the Younger, a large retinue of high prelates and armed men, and also brought back those responsible for the assassination attempt on the pope, including Pascale and Campolo themselves; on November 23 Leo went to meet him at Mentana, some 20 kilometers from the city, also with a large retinue of people and clergy, and they solemnly entered the city. The accusations (and evidence) soon proved difficult to refute, and Charlemagne was extremely embarrassed, but he could hardly allow himself to be defamed and questioned by the leader of Christendom. On December 1, the king summoned citizens, nobles, and the Frankish and Roman clergy (a cross between a tribunal and a council) to St. Peter's to announce that he would restore order and ascertain the truth. The debate went on for three weeks; while it is true that the pope's position did not seem to come out clearly, the accusers were unable to produce concrete evidence and, in the end, relying on principles (erroneously) attributed to Pope Simmacus (early 6th century), the position already expressed by Alcuin of York (who had preferred not to participate in the trip to Rome) was imposed: the pontiff, the highest authority on Christian morality, as well as faith, as the representative of God who judges all men, could not be judged by men. But this did not mean absolution, and Leo chose (or perhaps the move had already been decided in Paderborn) to take an oath. On December 23, in front of Charlemagne and a huge crowd, Leo III swore an oath on the Gospel and, calling God as his witness, innocence of the crimes and sins with which he was accused. It was enough to establish the pope's extraneousness to the charges against him and to recognize him as the legitimate holder of the papal throne; the direct and immediate consequence was that Pascale and Campolo were found guilty of the crime of lese majesty and sentenced to death. Through the intercession of Leo himself, who feared the effects of renewed hostility should it be carried out, the sentence was commuted to exile.

In 797 on the throne of the Byzantine Empire, in fact the sole and legitimate descendant of the Roman Empire, ascended Irene of Athens, who proclaimed herself basilissa of the Romei (empress of the Romans). The fact that the "Roman" throne was occupied by a woman prompted the pope to consider the "Roman" throne vacant. Irene was the first woman to have full power over the Byzantine Empire and, to mark this, she also assumed the male imperial title of basileus dei Romei, that is, "emperor of the Romans."

The next day, at the end of the Christmas night services that Charlemagne was attending in St. Peter's Basilica, the pope placed a golden crown on his head, consecrating him Christian emperor and pronouncing these words, "To Charles most august, crowned by God, great and peaceful emperor of the Romans, life and victory!" Charlemagne received the title according to the custom practiced in Constantinople, that is, by acclamatio of the people. To this day the authorship of the initiative is unclear (and the problem does not appear to be solvable), the details of which, however, seem likely to have been worked out during confidential talks in Paderborn and, perhaps, also at the suggestion of Alcuin: the coronation might in fact have been the price the pope had to pay to Charles for absolution from the charges brought against him. According to another interpretation (P. Brezzi), the authorship of the proposal would be attributed to an assembly of Roman authorities, which was nevertheless accepted (in which case the pontiff would have been the "executor" of the will of the Roman people of which he was the bishop. It should be pointed out in this regard, however, that the only historical sources on the events of those days are of Frankish and ecclesiastical extraction, and for obvious reasons both tend to limit or distort the interference of the Roman people in the event. It is certain, however, that with the act of coronation the Church of Rome presented itself as the only authority capable of legitimizing civil power by attributing to it a sacred function, but it is equally true that, as a result, the emperor's position became one of leadership in the internal affairs of the Church as well, with a strengthening of the theocratic role of its government. And yet it must be acknowledged that by that single gesture alone Leo, otherwise not a particularly lofty figure, inextricably bound the Franks to Rome, broke the link with the Byzantine Empire, which was no longer the sole heir to the Roman Empire, perhaps fulfilled the aspirations of the Roman people, and established the historical precedent of the absolute supremacy of the pope over earthly powers. The birth of a new Western Empire was not well received by the Eastern Empire, which, however, did not have the means to intervene. Empress Irene had to watch helplessly what was happening in Rome; she always refused to recognize Charlemagne's title of emperor, considering Charlemagne's coronation by the pope an act of usurpation of power.

With the occasion of the visit to Rome, Charlemagne's son Pippin was crowned king of Italy, and in this way the old question of the territories that were to be returned to the Church, according to the commitment solemnly signed between Charlemagne himself and by Pope Hadrian I, and never fulfilled, continued to remain unresolved.

No documents report on the motives and decisions made in a subsequent visit of Pope Leo to the emperor in 804.

Upon Charlemagne's death in 814, the anti-papal faction of the exiles Pascale and Campolo revived, planning a new attempt on the pope's life, but this time those responsible were discovered and immediately tried and executed. The new emperor Ludwig sent King Bernard of Italy, son of the late King Pippin, to Rome to investigate and solve the problem, which he finally closed by settling further unrest. The situation was entrusted to Duke Guinigisio I of Spoleto, who settled in the city with his troops and carried out new death sentences. However, the sources are uncertain for these years and for the complicated junctures of the early part of the 9th century.

Ecclesiastical and theological issues

As early as 798 Charlemagne had performed an act by which he extended his leadership role to the ecclesiastical sphere by assuming certain prerogatives of the pontiff. Indeed, he sent an embassy to Rome with the charge of presenting to the pope the plan for the ecclesiastical reorganization of Bavaria, with the elevation of the diocese of Salzburg to an archiepiscopal see and the appointment of the trusted bishop Arno as titular of that see. The pope took note, did not even attempt to repossess what should have been his privilege, and acquiesced in Charles' plan, simply implementing it. In 799 the Frankish king again exceeded his royal duties by convening and presiding at Aachen over a council (a kind of duplicate of the one at Frankfurt in 794) in which the learned theologian Alcuin of York refuted, using the technique of disputation, the theses of Bishop Felix of Urgell, the promoter of the adoptionist heresy that was again spreading. Alcuin came out on top; Felix of Urgell admitted defeat, abjured his theses and made an act of faith, with a letter he also addressed to his faithful. A commission was subsequently sent to southern France, the land of widespread adoptionism, with the task of restoring obedience to the Church of Rome. In all this, the pope, who would have been personally responsible for convening the council and setting the agenda, was little more than a spectator.

Another theological issue that saw Charlemagne prevail at the expense of the pontiff (some years later, when he had already been crowned emperor) was that of the filioque. The formulation of the traditional text of the Creed used the formula that the Holy Spirit descends from the Father through the Son and not, equally, from the Father and the Son (in Latin, precisely, filioque) as was used in the West. The pope himself, in deference to the deliberations of the councils that had so ruled, considered the Greek version (which, by the way, did not provide for the recitation of the Creed during Mass) to be valid, but he wanted to submit the question anyway. The emperor, in November 809, convened a council of the Frankish Church in Aachen, which declared the Filioque to be a doctrine of the Church and ordered the singing of the Creed with that aside at Mass. Leo, convening in turn an assembly of bishops in the following year, refused to take note of it (perhaps also to avoid conflict with the Eastern Church), and for about two centuries the Roman Church used a different formulation from that of the other Western Churches, until, around the year 1000, the version established by the Frankish emperor, which has come down to the present day, was finally deemed correct and accepted.

Relations with other Christian kingdoms

Leo helped resettle the Anglo-Saxon king Eardwulf of Northumbria (808-811 or 830) and settled several disputes between the archbishops of York and Canterbury.

Leo III died on June 12, 816. His liturgical celebration falls on that date.

In 1673 his name was included by Pope Clement X in the Roman Martyrology. The recurrence was removed from the calendar during the 1953 liturgical revision, but it is still maintained by the current edition of the Roman Martyrology, which thus commemorates him:

"June 12 - In Rome at St. Peter's, St. Leo III, pope, who conferred on Charlemagne, king of the Franks, the crown of the Roman Empire and did everything in his power to defend the righteous faith and the divine dignity of the Son of God.  "


  1. Pope Leo III
  2. Papa Leone III
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