Christ's Faithful People
752 - 757 AD
The biographies of preceding popes reveal how gradual was the growth of the temporal power of the papacy. More and more the rude pressure of circumstance compelled popes to play the civil ruler. Now by mid-eighth century, the emperors had left Italy derelict and the popes were forced to choose between letting the hated Lombards overrun his people or taking power themselves. Stephen III had to make this decision.
Stephen III was a Roman deacon brought up by the popes after the death of his father. Since he was formed by men like St. Gregory III and St. Zachary, it is no surprise that Stephen was devoted to ecclesiastical tradition, a lover of the poor, and a firm defender of the people.
The East still groaned under the fury of the image-breaking Emperor Constantine. There was not much Stephen could do but try to recall the Emperor to his duty. He wrote to Constantine, but it did no good.
The Lombards, under fierce King Aistulf, having overrun the exarchate of Ravenna, had their eyes on Rome. The Pope, alarmed for the city's safety, made a peace treaty for which he paid handsomely. But Aistulf cared little for treaties. The Emperor, his hands full with Bulgarians and Saracens, was devoting his spare time to smashing images. The best he could do for Italy was to send an ambassador with an order for the Pope to persuade Aistulf to give back Ravenna. Stephen did go to Pavia, but when he could get nothing out of Aistulf, he passed the Alps and made a personal appeal to Pippin.
The Pope solemnly anointed Pippin and his sons Charles and Carloman as kings. Then Pippin, after Aistulf repulsed three embassies, led a Frankish army into Italy and brought the tough Lombard to terms. He was to give up Ravenna and keep peace. But once the Franks disappeared over the Alps, Aistulf called for an all-out war to overrun Italy. Burning and ravaging, the Lombards marched on Rome and blockaded the city. Frantically the Pope multiplied appeals to Pippin, the last being written in the name of St. Peter himself. After three months the situation looked black, but the Lombards raised the siege and went north. Pippin was on his way at last.
Another embassy appeared from Constantinople. When they heard about Pippin, the envoys hurried to meet him and offered him presents if he would restore the exarchate to the Emperor. Pippin replied that it was only for Blessed Peter that he had taken arms, and it was to Blessed Peter he would restore the territory.
Pippin defeated the Lombards again, and this time saw to it that peace was kept. Stephen III was put in control of the exarchate of Ravenna and now in 756 may be considered the first of the papal monarchs.
Stephen died in 757. Though known to history as the first pope-king, he was better known to the Roman poor for his great charity.