We know nothing of that siege and capture and practically nothing of the splendid victory of the Venetians. But the tremendous significance of the fall of Ravenna, which had been the impregnable seat of the empire in Italy since Belisarius entered it in 540, must not escape us. Rightly understood it made necessary all that followed.
At this dramatic moment the Emperor Leo died, to be followed in 741 by Pope Gregory and Charles Martel. Gregory was succeeded by Pope Zacharias, who in the year of his election met Liutprand at Narni and obtained from him the restoration of the four frontier towns he had taken two years before. But though Rome was thus secured Ravenna was in worse danger than ever, for Liutprand now renewed his attack upon it and it was only the intervention of the pope in person at Pavia that saved the city. Zacharias set forth along the Flaminian Way; at Aquila perhaps near Rimini the exarch met him, and he entered Ravenna in triumph, the whole city coming out to meet him. In spite of the opposition of Liutprand he made his way to Pavia, and was successful in persuading him to give up his attempt to take the once impregnable city and to restore much he had captured. Liutprand was an old man; perhaps he was not hard to persuade, for he was on the eve of his death, which came to him in 744. His successor Hildeprand reigned for six months and was deposed. Ratchis became king, a pious man who made truce with the pope, and in 749 abdicated and entered a monastery. Aistulf was chosen king, and at once turned his thoughts to Ravenna. The crisis so long foreseen, so often prevented by the papacy, came at last with great suddenness. In 751 Ravenna fell and the Byzantine empire in Italy thereby came to an end.
We know nothing of this tremendous affair; we do not know whether the great imperial city, full of all the strange wonder of Byzantium, and heavy with the destiny of Europe, was taken suddenly by assault or after a long siege. We know only that it fell, and that Aistulf was master there in the year of our Lord 751.
A sort of silence followed that fall. In 752 Pope Zacharias died. His successor was never consecrated, but died within three days of his election and made way for Pope Stephen. In the confusion of all things it is said that a party in Rome urged Aistulf to usurp the empire. This was enough; it might have been, and perhaps was, expected. The pope had his answer ready. The heir of the empire in Italy was not the Lombard but the Holy See. Aistulf threatened to invade Roman territory, and, indeed, occupied Ceccano in the duchy of Rome. Again the pope had his answer. That answer was the appeal to Pepin and his Franks. The papacy had found a champion.
THE PAPAL STATE
The appeal of Stephen, which was to have for its result the resurrection of the empire in the West and the establishment of the papacy as a temporal power and sovereignty, was made in a letter now lost to us, which a pilgrim on his way back to France from Rome carried to Pepin the king of the Franks. In reply to it, the abbot of Jumieges appeared in Rome as Pepin’s ambassador to invite the pope himself to cross the Alps.