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Pope Stephen IV of Rome was the Pope of the Church of Rome from 768 to 772. Pope Stephen was elected to the papal see after a previously elected successor to Pope Zacharias, also Stephen, died before his consecration. This has resulted in confused regnal numbering when the Annuario Pontificio de-listed Stephen II and listed Stephen III as Stephen II (III). As a consequence, Pope Stephen IV may also be listed as Stephen III.


Stephen was born in Sicily about the year 720, the son of Olivus in Sicily.[1] He came to Rome during the pontificate of Pope Gregory III and entered the Monastery of St. Chrysogonus. There, he was tonsured a Benedictine monk.[2] During the pontificate of Pope Zacharias, Stephen was ordained a priest, after which he was assigned to the Lateran Palace. Stephen gradually rose to high office in the service of a succession of popes. He was at the bedside of the dying Pope Paul I as in late June 767 the powerful factions in Rome began maneuvering to ensure the election of their own candidate. During the following year, antipope claimants Constantine II (installed by a faction of Tuscan nobles) and Philip (the candidate of the Lombards) were forced out of office the Primicerius of notaries Christophorus and his son Sergius before Christophorus organized a canonical election in August 768 for which he called the Roman clergy, army, and people to assemble before the Church of St. Adrian. The assembly then elected Stephen as pope.[3] He was then consecrated on August 7, 768.[4]

The election of Stephen spurred an angry reaction against members of the regime of the antipope Constantine. The reaction of the crowd became brutal as Constantine’s Vice-dominus Bishop Theodore and his brother, Passivus were blinded, and retribution was made on the members of the town of Alati that had supported Constantine. The brutality included even Constantine as he was also blinded.

The role of Stephen III in these events is obscure, with assessments varying from his being an impotent observer to that of being complicit by issuing orders and taking delight in destroying his rival and his supporters. What is clear, however, is that the recent creation of the Papal States saw the traditional rivalries of the ruling families of Rome transformed into a murderous desire to control this new temporal power in Italy, dragging Stephen's papacy with it. [5]

After the situation settled down, Stephen notified the Frankish kings, now Charlemagne and his brother Carloman I of his election and convened a council that, after a final condemnation of Constantine and his appointees, established strict rules for papal elections that also restricted the involvement of the nobility in subsequent elections. The Lateran Council of 769 also rejected the iconoclast Council of Hiera and confirmed the practice of veneration of icons.[6]

Stephen remained apprehensive of the aggressive plans of the Lombards, a concern that led to his firming his relations with the Frankish kings Charlemagne and Carloman, particularly getting their support for the new Papal States. Their intervention with the Lombards did obtain the restoration of parts of Benevento to the papacy, however much to Stephen's consternation, the marriages of the Lombard king Desiderius' daughter, Desiderata, and son, Adalgis, to Charlemagne's mother's son and his sister were arranged.[7] While Stephen objected, noting that both men were already married, his pleas fell on deaf ears as Charlemagne himself married Desiderata in 770, temporarily cementing a familial alliance with the Lombards.

During the first years of his pontificate, Christophorus and Sergius continued in their support and counsel of Pope Stephen with a pro-Frankish bias and antipathy towards the Lombards. This, King Desiderius resented, which led to his engineering their downfall.[8] Using bribes, Desiderius got Paul Afiarta, Stephen's Chamberlain, and other members of the papal court to spread rumors about them to Stephen. When Desiderius tried to enter Rome in 771 with an army, claiming to be on a pilgrimage to pray at the shrine of St. Peter, Christophorus and Sergius shut the gates of the city against them. Arriving at the gates and seeing armed troops manning the walls, Desiderius asked to speak to the Pope, who came out to him. Then during Stephen’s absence, Afiarta and his supporters sought to stir up a mob to overthrow Christophorus and Sergius. However the two gained the upper hand and forced Afiarta and his colleagues to flee to the Lateran Palace.

Christophorus became suspicious when Stephen returned to the Lateran believing that Stephen had entered into an agreement with Desiderius and forced Stephen to swear that he would not surrender Christophorus or his son to the Lombards. When the next day Stephen appealed to the Lombard king for help, Desiderius demanded that Stephen surrender Christophorus and Sergius.[9] After the two surrendered, they were blinded. Three days later Christophorus died and Sergius was held captive in the Lateran.[10]

Stephen remained subject to King Desiderius as in early 772 Afiarta took advantage of Pope Stephen's illness. After it became clear that Stephen was dying, Afiarta began to exile a number of influential clergy and nobles from Rome, while others he put into prison. Then on January 24, before Stephen’s death, Afiarta dragged the blinded Sergius from his cell in the Lateran and had him strangled. On February 1, 772, Pope Stephen died.[11]


  1. Mann, pg. 369
  2. Mann, pg. 369
  3. Mann, pg. 368
  4. Mann, pg. 371
  5. Duffy, Eamon, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes (1997), pg. 72
  6. Mann, pgs. 373-375
  7. Mann, pg. 378-379
  8. Mann, pg. 383
  9. Mann, pgs. 384-385
  10. Mann, pg. 386
  11. Mann, pg. 392


  • Mann, Horace K., The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages, Vol. I: The Popes Under the Lombard Rule, Part 2, 657-795 (1903)
Succession box:
Stephen IV of Rome
Preceded by:
Paul I
Pope of Rome
768 - 772
Succeeded by:
Adrian I
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