Papal States
Italian Papal States
Timeline: Byzantine Khazaria

OTL equivalent: Italy, Vatican City
Flag of the Papal States (pre 1808) Coat of arms of the Vatican City
Flag Coat of Arms
Anthem "Noi vogliam Dio, Vergine Maria"
Capital Rome
Largest city Rome
Language Latin
Religion Roman Catholic Christianity
Ethnic Group Italian
Government Theocratic non-hereditary monarchy

The Papal State(s), State(s) of the Church, or Pontifical States (Italian: Stato Pontificio, also Stato della Chiesa, Stati della Chiesa, Stati Pontifici, and Stato Ecclesiastico; Latin: Status Pontificius, also Dicio Pontificia) were among the major historical states of Italy and one of the only two surviving Italian states after the Byzantine-Italian wars.

The Papal States comprised territories under direct sovereign rule of the Papacy, and at its height it covered the Italian regions of Romagna, Marche, Umbria and Lazio. This governing power is commonly called the temporal power of the Pope, as opposed to his ecclesiastical primacy.


The Christian Church spent its first three centuries as an outlawed organization and was thus unable to hold or transfer property. Early Christian churches congregated in the audience halls of well-to-do individuals, and a number of Early Christian churches built round the edges of Ancient Rome were ascribed to patrons who held the property in custody for the Church: see titulus. After the ban was lifted by the Emperor Constantine I, the Church's private property grew quickly through the donations of the pious and the wealthy; the Lateran Palace was the first significant donation, a gift of Constantine himself. Other donations soon followed, mainly in mainland Italy but also in the provinces, but the Church held all of these lands as a private landowner, not as a sovereign entity. When in the fifth century the Italian peninsula passed under the control of first Odoacer and then the Ostrogoths, the church organization in Italy, and the bishop of Rome as its head, submitted to their sovereign authority while beginning to assert spiritual supremacy.

The seeds of the Papal States as a sovereign political entity were planted in the sixth century. The Byzantine Empire in Constantinople launched a reconquest of Italy that took decades and devastated the country's political and economic structures; just as those wars wound down, the Lombards entered the peninsula from the north and conquered much of the countryside. With effective Byzantine power weighted at the northeast end of this territory, the Bishop of Rome, as the largest landowner and most prestigious figure in Italy, began by default to take on much of the ruling authority that Byzantines were unable to project to the area around the city of Rome. While the Bishops of Rome — now beginning to be referred to as the Popes — remained de jure Byzantine subjects, in practice the Duchy of Rome, an area roughly equivalent to modern-day Latium, became an independent state ruled by the Church.

The Church's independence, combined with popular support for the Papacy in Italy, enabled various Popes to defy the will of the Byzantine emperor. As Byzantine power weakened, the Papacy took an ever larger role in defending Rome from the Lombards, usually through diplomacy, threats and bribery. In 781, Charlemagne codified the regions over which the Pope would be temporal sovereign: Rome was key, but the territory was expanded to include Ravenna, the Pentapolis, parts of the Duchy of Benevento, Tuscany, Corsica, Lombardy and a number of Italian cities. The cooperation between the Papacy and the Carolingian dynasty climaxed in 800, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne the first "Emperor of the Romans" ('Augustus Romanorum').

Byzantine Khazaria


The Italian political situation before the events of 'Byzantine Khazaria'.

By 780, Papal relations with the Byzantine Empire had reached a breaking point. This climaxed in 788, when the Papacy, under the direction of Pope Vivianus I, permanently split the one Roman church by declaring itself free of Greek influence and the meddling of the Byzantine emperors. Growing disputes over Papal authority have also led the Pope to excommunicate the Byzantines. This rift was not done with tears or remorse, but left both sides mutually bitter.

In 800, when the Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne 'Roman emperor', whom the government in Constantinople regarded as a common barbarian, this only stamped out any chances of a reconciliation between the churches. The Byzantines went on to found their own Orthodox church, which survives to this day.

Throughout the 900's, relations with the Greeks only worsened, as both churches plotted political machinations against each other and claimed sovereignty over Christendom and Roman heritage. This pushed the Papacy and Byzantium only closer to open military conflict.

The Holy Roman Empire

Events in the 9th century postponed the Byzantine situation: the Frankish Empire collapsed as it was subdivided among Charlemagne's grandchildren, and the Papacy's prestige declined. In practice, the Popes were unable to exercise effective sovereignty over the extensive and mountainous territories of the Papal States, and the region preserved its old Lombard system of government, with many small countships and marquisates, each centered upon a fortified rocca.

Over several campaigns in the mid-tenth century, the German ruler Otto I conquered northern Italy; Pope John XII crowned him emperor (the first so crowned in more than forty years), and the two of them ratified the Diploma Ottonianum, which guaranteed the independence of the Papal States. This also marked the beginning of the political 'Holy Roman Empire. Yet over the next two centuries, Popes and German Emperors squabbled over a variety of issues, and the German rulers routinely treated the Papal States as part of their realms on those occasions when they projected power into Italy. A major motivation for the Gregorian Reform was to free the administration of the Papal States from imperial interference, and after the extirpation of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, the Holy Roman emperors rarely interfered in Italian affairs. By 1200, the Papal States, along with the rest of the Italian principalities, were effectively independent.

The Norman Crusade

By the year 1000, the Papal States again directly bordered the Byzantine Empire, as the Greeks had consolidated their holdings in southern Italy and absorbed the smaller Italian states in their vicinity.

Worried by the growth of Greek power and fearing that the Papacy would become nothing more than a puppet of the Byzantine nobles, the Pope Bonifacius I decided he had had enough. He called a Crusade for the nations of Western Europe to drive all Arab Muslims and Byzantine heretics from the Italian peninsula. Amongst the many people of Italy the Pope found the perfect choice: The Normans. Norman explorers had already claimed Italy before, only to be repelled by the Byzantine forces. Perhaps a fresh assault would establish a Catholic Norman state in place of Muslim or Byzantine rule.

The Pope was possibly embittered to strike back against the Byzantines and expand his influence partially through a recent loss of territory to the neighboring Republic of Venice to the north. It is also possible he was interested in conducting spiritual activity to defy those who criticized the way the Papacy dominated its own states like a secular monarchy. Whatever the case, Norman adventurers who were already serving as mercenaries in southern Italy found it easy to turn on their employers, initiating a series of bloody assaults on Byzantine cities. Meanwhile, the independent Lombard Duchy of Spoleto was the first to fall to a Norman expedition in 1048, and was donated to the Pope. Ironically, even though it was the first victim of the Crusade, it was neither Greek nor Muslim. After capturing Spoleto, the Normans launched a series of invasions against Sicily, dispatched by Robert I, Duke of Normandy.

Much to the Pope's disappointment, however, the Normans made only minor expeditions into Byzantine territory, since the Greeks were far too powerful to be sufficiently dislodged. Stiff resistance around Naples quickly drove the Norman forces back into their Sicilian coastal territories. This left the Normans in an ambiguous relationship with the Byzantines, and led to constant warfare over the next few decades.

The Crusade was a point of fizzling disgust to the Papacy, as it had failed in all of its objectives. The Normans would not even completely eliminate Muslim rule over all of Sicily or Malta until 1127, nearly a century later. Although the Papal States had expanded their territory, the Norman Crusade would be a subject of ridicule in Italy for years to come. In fact, it had come to symbolize a somewhat odious meaning, to the point when the Popes would refuse to even recognize it as a real Crusade of history.

Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire's fortunes in the East continues to rise and fall. Byzantium experienced several decades of stagnation and decline, which culminated in a vast deterioration in the military, territorial, economic and political situation of the Byzantine Empire by the accession of the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos in 1056.

Later Crusades

The Seljuk Turks were the newest threat to Europe in the 1000's. Arriving from the steppes of Central Asia, they crushed a Byzantine army in Asia Minor and overran eastern Anatolia. The Turks also adopted Islam through contact with the caliphs of the Arab states, becoming extremely fanatical. Their victories earned them the nickname 'Men of the Sword'. For the first time in history, there was a Muslim state in the heart of traditional Roman and Christian lands.

Alexios I Komnenos was the first Byzantine emperor to recognize that reconciliation should be achieved, to whatever extent was possible, with the Pope. Alexius was able to secure much of the other Anatolian regions by campaigning a series of defensive movements against the Turks, but was unable to recover any lost territory. As early as 1090, Alexios had taken reconciliatory measures towards the Papacy, with the intention of seeking western support against the Seljuks. In 1095 his ambassadors appeared before Pope Urban II at the Council of Piacenza. The help which he wanted from the West was simply mercenary forces and not the immense hosts which arrived, to his consternation and embarrassment, after the pope preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont later that same year. Not quite ready to supply this number of people as they traversed his territories, the emperor saw his Balkan possessions subjected to further pillage at the hands of his own allies. Alexios dealt with the first disorganized group of Crusaders, led by the preacher Peter the Hermit, by sending them on to Cilicia, where they were massacred by the Turks in 1096.

By that time, Alexios had consolidated and stabilized Byzantine Italy, as well as accepting a formal union with the states of Georgia. He saw the chance for more such gains when the second and much more formidable host of crusaders gradually made its way to Constantinople, led by the Holy Roman emperor and other important members of the German nobility. Many of the other Western medieval kingdoms were at the time paralyzed by various expansionist wars and unwilling to send troops for the Crusade. Alexios used the opportunity of meeting the crusader leaders separately as they arrived and extracting from them oaths of homage and the promise to turn over conquered lands to the Byzantine Empire. Transferring each contingent into Asia, Alexios promised to supply them with provisions in return for their oaths of homage. The crusade was a notable disappointment for Byzantium, as the Turks were able to destroy it and capture the German emperor. Upon his execution, the Crusading spirit began to fall apart at the seams.

Checked by the failure of the Crusade, the Byzantines turned their attention away from the Turks and, with the Crusading spirit in Western Europe broken, began focusing their attention elsewhere. First, Alexios used a considerable amount of diplomatic and military pressure to force a peace with the Norman County of Sicily to stabilize his western borders. He then turned his attention to a grand conquest he had envisioned of the northern black sea area and the people that dwelt there: The Khazars.

As for the Papacy, the Pope resigned himself to accepting peace with the Byzantines further south, well aware that the emperors of Constantinople could crush Rome readily if they pleased. The Pope also saw a number of wars waged in northern Italy as the powerful Republic of Genoa captured and absorbed more and more of the Italian states. By 1200, the Holy Roman Empire officially withdrew from northern Italy, and by 1204 they recognized Genoa as fully independent of the German emperors. A new Italy was emerging. Even as Genoa crushed its fellow Catholic Italians, there was little, if anything the Papal States could do to stop it. The Genoese could just as easily invade and attack Rome as they wished, and were indirectly backed by the Byzantine Empire. Provoking Genoa could be just the excuse the Greeks were looking for, in the minds of the Popes, to crush the Pope's tiny dominion between them. Pope Pius II wished to prevent this at all costs; he became notorious for infamously accepting a private bribe by the Genoese to ignore the situation in northern Italy.

The Disastrous Second Crusade

In 1205, the Second Crusade materialized due to the Pope's appeals for the Crusading spirit in Western Europe. Unfortunately, unwilling to fight the Turks or deal with the Byzantines by traveling overland, the French Crusaders tried to ask the Venetians to help ferry them by sea directly to Palestine, and the goal of the Crusade: Jerusalem itself.

The Greeks made no secret of their hostility and coldness towards the 'Frankish Barbarians'. It was especially aggravated by the sacking of Trebizond by the Holy Roman emperor during the First Crusade. But the hostility only added to the growing rift when the Venetians turned the Second Crusade aside to attack Constantinople instead. The French knights who comprised it turned aside and began ravaging their way through Serbia. John III hurried to meet them with a massive army. He also posted garrisons across the borders of Croatia, Serbia, and Bulgaria to prevent the Crusaders from slipping through unopposed. The fighting came to a huge battle in Bulgaria. The Crusaders and their Venetian allies at first defeated the armored Byzantine cavalry with the use of mercenary pikemen, but a sudden counterattack by John III and his Turkish archers routed the Crusader army and shattered their front line.

Nearly 1,000 French soldiers were made prisoners of the Byzantines, and most of them were executed, save for the few knights and Venetian barons who were able to ransom themselves and return to Italy. The disastrous Second Crusade not only disillusioned Europe about the Crusading spirit, and mortified Pope Pius II, but it drove a permanent wedge between Venice and Byzantium. In 1206, John III accused the Catholic Hungarians of having supported the Crusade and annexed southern Hungary. The king was reduced to the status of a vassal, and forced to pay an annual tribute.

Throughout the rest of the 1200's, the Byzantines waged wars of retaliation against the Catholic nations of Eastern Europe, defeating Poland and eliminating Hungary altogether. Pius II tried to dissuade them, but to no avail. The Greeks fought and killed until they were finally satisfied. The Pope attempted to assassinate the Byzantine emperor John III no less than four times during his reign. However, upon the death of Pius in 1208, Pope Honorius III, fearing the wrath of Byzantine armies on the Papal border, gave in and agreed to an alliance with Constantinople. Although this action angered some of the Orthodox Greeks, there can be no doubt that it accomplished some good and brought an ease to the rift between the churches.

Byzantine Allies

The Papacy maintained a somewhat friendlier policy towards the Byzantines under Pope Honorius IV, who became Pope in 1216. They shared a peaceful existence until 1421, when the Republic of Venice was unseated by a combined Byzantine-Genoese effort. The Pope became increasingly alarmed; the Norman Sicilians had been expelled to Malta, Genoa had absorbed all of the northern Italian states, including Milan, and now Venice had fallen and was occupied by Greek forces.

This not only caused concern because Byzantium and Genoa were now the only two powers controlling the Italian landmass, but because it displayed a renewed Byzantine interest in Italy. The Popes began to dread that the Papal States would be next on the Byzantines' list for annexation. With the fall of Venice, Genoa also became the new 'Lion of the Mediterranean'. Under Byzantine protection, they monopolized trade in the entire sea, controlling European shipping lines from Africa, the Middle East, and Christendom.

However, a year later, the Genoese doge was assassinated by spies of the Holy Roman Empire, throwing Genoa into anarchy. A bloody civil war followed, and the Italians under Genoese rule in northern Italy seized the chance to declare their independence as the Duchy of Tuscany. At first, the Pope supported the Duchy of Tuscany as an end to Genoese dominance and Byzantine expansion into Italy, being the first sovereign to officially recognize it. This infuriated the Genoese, but as they were busy with their internal strife they were unable to reclaim it. However, the Duchy of Tuscany was seriously weakened and thus short-lived. By 1425, it had come to an end when the duke was killed in Florence during a Byzantine assault on the city. As the will to defend against the invading Greeks began to crumble, the Byzantines seized the entire land area of Tuscany and claimed it for the imperial crown. This horrified the Pope, as it left the Papal States surrounded on all sides by Byzantine territory. However, unwilling to provoke the Greeks, the Pope did nothing.

After order in Genoa was restored, a long, drawn-out war was waged by the Genoese in a desperate attempt to regain their lost territories. However, the Byzantines overwhelmed them. The Pope remained neutral, although the Papacy was reduced to giving financial aid to the doge of Genoa to help him in his war against the Byzantine emperor Pavlos I. In 1435, the Genoese were driven back to the gates of Genoa itself, where the exhausted but victorious Byzantine forces chose not to press their advantage any further. Genoese military power was broken; and a cloud of doom settled over the Papal States.

Sack of Rome

Main article: Second Sack of Rome

The emperor Georgios III worked to better relations with the Genoese and repaired their old alliance. Under Georgios and his successors, a war was waged against the Holy Roman Empire to restore lost Genoese territories to the old republic and make more territorial gains. The war ended in 1473 with the fall of Vienna. The Byzantine emperor himself now sat on the throne of the Holy Roman rulers, proclaiming that there was no Roman empire but the true Eastern one, to the irrepressible humiliation of the German emperor.

The Pope Gilio I instituted a series of attempts to form an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and Genoa against the Byzantines; but neither the doge nor the emperor dared oppose Greek military might. From 1439 to 1444, the Pope played all three nations against each other. He also tried to have Georgios III assassinated. Unfortunately for the Pope, the assassin, a Milanese, was captured. When put to torture he admitted a cardinal near Rome had contacted him for the assassination, Georgios took this as a sign of war. He immediately dissolved his alliance with the Pope and invaded the Papal States.

ByzantineMap 3

Europe, circa 1443, one year before the Sack of Rome by Byzantine armies. The Papal States, engulfed by the Byzantine Empire (purple) on all sides, can be seen displayed in yellow, near central Italy.

The war culminated with the sack of Rome in 1444. The Pope retreated to the Vatican, and the Byzantines chose to spare him. However, numerous treasures of the church, sacred Papal ornaments, jeweled icons, and ancient Roman works of art were carried back to Constantinople. The troops defending Rome were not at all numerous, consisting of 2,000 Italian militiamen and the Papal Swiss Guard. The city's fortifications included massive walls, but these were destroyed by the Byzantine siege machines.

One of the Swiss Guard's most notable hours occurred at this time. Almost the entire guard was massacred by Greek troops near the center of Rome. Only a handful of the guards on duty survived. The Papal flag was torn down from the palaces and churches, and burned by Byzantine soldiers. Churches and monasteries, but also palaces of prelates and cardinals, were destroyed and spoiled of any precious object. After thoroughly sacking the city, the Greek army marched away. The Papal States still clung to existence--but the Sack of Rome was a clear warning of Byzantine power. Georgios III had looted the Eternal City, and would take it by force and threatened to place the Pope's head on a pike if the Papacy dared to betray him again. The only reason the Byzantines allowed the Papacy to retain its dominion probably lies in the fact that they were overextended from their recent European conquests and feared the wrath of all the Catholic nations. Had it not been for this happy decision of Georgios, the Papal States would've undoubtedly been wiped from the face of the Earth.

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