Biography – Pope Leo IV – The Papal Library

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Leo IV

Leo IV, a Roman, was created pope in the year 847. He was the son of Rodoald, or Rudolph, of an illustrious family. At an early age he was a Benedictine monk, not, as some writers have stated, in the monastery of Saints Sylvester and Martin a' i Monti at Rome, but in the monastery of Saint Martin which joined the ancient Basilica Vaticana, in the place now occupied by the altar of Saint Veronica.

Leo became cardinal-priest of the title of the Four Crowned Saints, and owed that appointment to Pope Sergius II, or, rather, to Gregory IV.

After the death of Sergius, Leo was immediately and unanimously elected, the late pope not being as yet interred. However, the new pontiff was not consecrated until the 11th of April. The Romans were at that time in dread of an invasion of the Saracens from Sicily. The Gauls were delivered from their yoke, but Italy was not yet freed from it.

Leo deposed from the cardinalate Anastasius, priest of Saint Marcellus, because he had abandoned his parish during five years. The same pope surrounded the Church of Saint Peter with walls. All the nobles of Rome were sensibly afflicted by the excesses committed there by the Saracen soldiery, and greatly dreaded their return. To reassure the inhabitants, the pope determined to execute the design of Leo III, to build a new town about Saint Peter's, the foundations of which had already been commenced.

Leo IV wrote to the Emperor Lothaire upon the subject. The prince was delighted with the proposal, exhorted the pope to put the work in hand without delay, and sent, as the contributions of all his brothers as well as of himself, a great many pounds of silver. The pope, having received that generous reply of the emperor, assembled the Romans and consulted them upon his project. It was resolved to bring in from all the neighboring towns and lands all the workmen, whether employed by the public or by the monasteries, and set them to work in turn upon that great task. It occupied four years, the pope continually superintending operations during all the time left at his disposal by his spiritual duties, without allowing cold, rain, or storm to divert him from his purpose.

Almost at the same time, that is to say, during the twelfth indiction, which commenced that year (848), the pope also labored to repair the walls of Rome, which had fallen into ruin. He had the gates remade, and built fifteen towers from the foundation to the roof, going sometimes on foot and sometimes on horseback to encourage the workmen. Among others, he constructed two towers near the Tiber, on the gate which is on the road to Porto, now called the Porta Portese, to stop the smaller barks of the infidels.

Undeterred by those preparations, the Saracens made a descent near Ostia. The pope repaired to that town; and there, aided by the inhabitants of Gaeta, of Naples, and of Amalfi, the Romans gained a signal victory over their enemies.

Voltaire thus speaks of this historical fact:

"Being attacked by the Saracens, Pope Leo IV showed himself, by his defence of Rome, worthy to rule there as a sovereign. He had employed the wealth of the Church in repairing the walls, building towers, and stretching chains across the Tiber. He armed the militia at his own expense, engaged the inhabitants of Gaeta and Naples to defend the shores and the port of Ostia, but did not neglect the prudent precaution of taking hostages from them, well knowing that those who are powerful enough to aid us are also powerful enough to injure us. He personally visited all the posts, and met the Saracens on their descent, not in warlike array, like Gozlin, Bishop of Paris, under circumstances still more urgent, but as a pontiff exhorting a Christian people, and as a king watching over the safety of his subjects. He was a Roman; in him the courage of the primitive ages of the republic was revived, in a time of cowardice and corruption, like some beautiful monument of ancient Rome that is sometimes found amidst the ruins of the new Rome. The Saracens were valorously met on their descent, and a tempest having scattered half their vessels, a portion of the invaders, who had escaped shipwreck, were captured and made to work in chains. Thus the pope utilized his victory by employing upon the defences and adornment of Rome the very hands which were to have destroyed her."

Nothing was wanting to the glory of Leo. That noble deed of arms, that second battle of Poitiers, if we may so call it, that immortal service rendered to religion, has been handed down to posterity by Raphael in the halls of the Vatican.

At Poitiers, France as a whole was threatened and saved; but by the victory of Ostia it was the city of Rome that was directly to be crushed or freed. In a few hours, had the Saracens been victors at Ostia, Rome would have been theirs. Voltaire has not exaggerated the praise of Leo, and in speaking of him the imagination and the ability of the writer were equal to the subject.

The new city built around Saint Peter's is still to this day called the Leonine city; it is connected with Rome, and actually inclosed in the same circuit.

In 852 the pope, prudent as became a man who had conquered barbarians, resolved to fortify the town of Porto, because the Saracens had concentrated considerable forces in Sicily. Then there presented themselves a great number of Corsicans, whom dread of the Saracens had driven from Bastia and the neighborhood of Corte, and who were wandering about without fixed abode. Having set forth their misery, they promised that, if they should be received, they and their children would remain in the service of the pope, who, on his part, offered them the city of Porto, well fortified, and provided with vineyards, meadows, arable land, horses, and cattle. The Corsicans, a brave people, loving war, and highly esteeming the pope, who had shown himself as brave as themselves, accepted Leo's offer, and a deed of gift of the lands was delivered in due form to those who hastened to sign the treaty.

Leo IV had, in 850, crowned Louis II as emperor, or rather as associate in the empire, and he lived constantly in good understanding with him, as well as with Lothaire, the still living father of Louis.

Towards the end of the year 853, Leo IV held at Rome, in the Church of St. Peter, a council of sixty-seven bishops, amongst whom were four sent by the Emperor Lothaire. The council assembled on the 8th of September, second indiction, seventh year of the reign of Leo, thirty-seventh of the reign of Lothaire, and the fifth of the reign of Louis II. It was in that council that Anastasius was deposed, as mentioned earlier in this account. The inhabitants of Centum Cellae, a flourishing town in the days of Trajan, were exposed to attacks by the Saracens, and quitted the city. Leo built, at a short distance, a new city, but in the course of time it was deserted, and the inhabitants returned to the old Centum Cellae, to which they gave the name of Civita Vecchia (the old city), which it still bears.

Leo was the first who began to reckon the years of his pontificate. Leo IV governed the Church eight years, three months, and six days. In two ordinations he created sixty-three bishops, nineteen priests, and eight deacons.

This pope was very learned; he united the rarest virtues, circumspection, munificence, piety, humanity, courage, and love of justice; he was beneficent to the poor, and fulfilled the duties of the pontifical ministry with the most exemplary exactitude. Leo died on the 17th of July, 855, and was interred at the Vatican.

All that is related concerning this reign fully proves how powerful Leo was at Rome. Fleury, however, seems to doubt the authenticity of such a sovereignty. He says: "Daniel, master of the militia, went from Rome to Pavia to obtain an interview with Louis," and said to him: "Gratian, governor of the palace of Rome, whom you believe to be faithful to you, said to me in his own house: 'These French do us no good and give us no assistance; on the contrary, they pillage us. Why do we not call in the Greeks, and make a treaty with them, and drive away the French king and nation?'"

The emperor was so irritated on hearing this that he hastily marched upon Rome without writing to the pope or the senate. The pope, however, received him, in the usual honorable manner, upon the great steps of the Church of St. Peter, and spoke to him with mildness to appease him.

A day was appointed for Gratian's trial; and the emperor, accompanied by the pope and the Roman and French nobles, held his court in the palace erected by Leo III, near St. Peter's. Daniel repeated his accusation in Gratian's presence, that he sought to persuade him to deliver Rome to the Greeks; but Gratian and the Romans contradicted him. The emperor ordered them to be tried by the Roman law, and Daniel was convicted of calumny. He was delivered to Gratian to abide his will, but at the request of the emperor was released. This story shows who was sovereign at Rome.

This biographical data is from "The Lives and Times of the Popes" by The Chevalier Artaud De Montor. Published by The Catholic Publication Society of New York in ten volumes in 1911. The pictures, included in the volumes, were reproduced from " Effigies Pontificum Romanorum Dominici Basae."


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