- Rome and the Invention of the Papacy: The Liber Pontificalis by Rosamond McKitterick
It is surprising that an early medieval Latin text as influential as the Liber Pontificalis ("The Book of the Pontiffs") has waited so long for a definitive study of its genre, literary purpose, and transmission. Composed in installments between the sixth and ninth centuries, this serial biography of 112 bishops of Rome from the apostle Peter to Pope Stephen V, who died in 891, was edited over a century ago by Louis Duchesne and recently translated into English by Raymond Davis. Article-length studies of this sprawling work are legion, but the Liber Pontificalis has never been the subject of a monographic treatment that explains its origin, function, and enduring appeal among early medieval readers far from Rome. With this new study, Rosamond McKitterick provides a thorough introduction to this text with an emphasis on its ideological agenda and the features that made it a formidable tool of papal self-fashioning in early medieval Europe. In contrast to previous studies that have treated the Liber pontificalis as repositories of information about individual popes, McKitterick's book unpacks and explains the argument for papal power expressed by the text as a whole.
McKitterick's introductory chapter lays the foundation for this study by summarizing key information about the text itself. Composition of the Liber pontificalis began in the late 530s with the composition of fifty-nine biographies from Peter to Agapitus (535–536). Continuators amplified the text with dozens more entries throughout the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries. The identity of the original author and his later continuators are unknown, but they were likely officials in the papal administration. They modelled their serial biography of the popes on the accounts of the lives of Roman emperors presented in Suetonius's De vita caesarum XII and the [End Page 318] fourth-century Historia Augusta, especially in their formulaic presentation of their careers, the challenges to their authority, their municifence, their deaths, and the length of their reigns, thereby implying that the bishops of Rome were the rightful heirs to the emperors. The result was "a determined narrative" (31) that served as "an instrument of persuasion" (35) to forward an ideological argument about the leadership role of the popes as the successors of the Roman emperors in the post-Roman West.
McKitterick's analysis of the Liber pontificalis unfolds over the course of the next four chapters. Chapter 2 treats the represention of the citizens of Rome and the city itself in these episcopal biographies. Here McKitterick shows how the text depicted the Roman populace as "active and essential protagonists" (54) in the political life of their city, often in response to papal elections. The popes themselves transformed the eternal city by dividing it into seven new districts, by constructing new cemetaries along the major thoroughfares outside of the city walls, and by building massive new basilicas for Christian worship. As a result, according to the Liber pontificalis, Rome's topography underwent a transformation from an ancient city to a Christian metropolis under papal goverance. Chapter 3 focuses on the life of the apostle Peter and the emphasis placed on apostolic succession by the authors of the Liber pontificalis. McKitterick argues that the first biography in this history of the Roman bishops "contrives to offer many of the facets of Christian identity subsequently developed further in the rest of the text" (87), including the apostle's provision for succession and Rome's primacy in relation to other sees throughout Christendom. Chapter 4 examines later biographies from Pope Silvester (314–335) onwards to show how successive bishops of Rome took control of public buildings and converted them into Christian churches, while also patronizing new constructions and making provisions for cemetaries. As a result, the Liber Pontificalis makes "a case for what amounts to papal monopoly of church building, despite the ample physical evidence to the contrary" (122). These churches in turn served as the stages for the ministry...