« Silverius, bishop of Rome Silvester, bishop of Rome Sylvia, bp. of Jerusalem »

Silvester, bishop of Rome

Silvester (1), bp. of Rome after Miltiades, Jan. 31, 314, to Dec. 31, 335. Though his time was important in church history, we have few genuine records of any personal action of his, but a great store of legend.

In his first year of episcopate Constantine the Great summoned the first council of Arles to reconsider the decision against the African Donatists of the synod held at Rome by his order in 313 under pope Miltiades. At the council of Arles Silvester was represented by two presbyters, Claudianus and Vitus, and two deacons, Eugenius and Cyriacus, whose names appear in his behalf fifth among the signatures. Whoever presided, the general conduct of the council seems to have been committed by the emperor to Chrestus, bp. of Syracuse (see a letter to him from Constantine preserved by Eusebius, H. E. x. 5). Certainly Silvester did not preside, nor did any representative in his place. Constantine, in making arrangements for the council, evidently takes no account of him, not even mentioning him in writing to Chrestus.

There is indeed a letter of the bishops of the Arles council to Silvester. It opens: "To the most beloved pope Silvester," and concludes in reference to the decrees: "We have thought it fit also that they should be especially made known to all through you, who hold the greater dioceses." The phrase, "qui majores dioceses tenes," with the consequent desire expressed that the pope should promulgate the decrees, has been used in proof of the pope's then acknowledged patriarchal jurisdiction over the great dioceses (i.e. exarchates) of the western empire. For the word διοίκησις denoted the jurisdiction of a patriarch, larger than that of metropolitans, the word for a diocese in the modern sense being properly παροικία. But it is highly improbable that diocese was used ecclesiastically in this sense so early as 314. Hence Bingham contended (Ant. ix. i. 12, and ii. 2) that if the passage, "by all acknowledged to be a very corrupt one," be accepted, διοίοκησις must be taken in the sense then generally expressed by παροικία; and he adduces instances of its use in this sense in canons of Carthaginian councils. But probably the whole epistle (note its general anachronism of tone) is a forgery intended to magnify the Roman see.

To the more memorable council of Nicaea in 325 Silvester was invited, but excusing himself on account of age, sent two presbyters, Vitus and Vincentius, as his representatives (Eus. V. C. iii. 7; Socr. H. E. i. 14; Sozs. H. E. i. 17; Theod. H. E. i. 6). The view that they presided in his name, or that (as Baronius maintains) Hosius of Cordova did so, is without foundation. In the subscriptions to the decrees Hosius signs first, but simply as bp. of Cordova, not as in any way representing Rome; after which come those of Vitus and Vincentius, who sign "pro venerabili viro papa et episcopo nostro, sancto Sylvestro, ita credentes sicut scriptum est." The earliest and indeed only authority for Hosius having presided in the pope's name is that of Gelasius of Cyzicus (end of 5th cent.), who says only that Hosius from Spain, "qui Silvestri episcopi maximae Romae locum obtinebat," together with the Roman presbyters Bito and Vincentius, was present (Gelas. Hist. Concil. Nic. l. ii. c. 5, in Labbe, vol. ii. p. 162). Equally groundless is the allegation first made by the 6th oecumenical council (680), that Silvester in concert with the emperor summoned the Nicene fathers. The gradual growth of this idea appears in the pontifical annals. The catalogue of popes called the Felician (A.D. 530) says only that the synod was held with his consent ("cum consensu ejus"); some later MSS. improve this phrase into "cum praecepto ejus." It is evident from all authentic documents that the synod of Nicaea, as that of Arles, was convened by the sole authority of the emperor, and that no peculiarly prominent position was accorded to the pope in either case.

But the most memorable fable about Silvester is that of the baptism of Constantine by him, and the celebrated "Donation." It is, though variously related, mainly as follows: The emperor, having before his conversion authorized cruel persecution of the Christians, was smitten with leprosy by divine judgment. He was advised to use a bath of infants' blood for cure. A great multitude of infants was accordingly collected for slaughter; but the emperor, moved by their cries and those of their mothers, desisted from his purpose. He was thereupon visited in night visions by SS. Peter and Paul, and directed to seek and recall Silvester from his exile in Soracte, who would shew him a pool by immersion in which he would be healed. He recalled the pope, was instructed by him in the faith, cured of his leprosy, and baptized. Moved by gratitude, he made over to the pope and his successors the temporal dominion of Rome, of the 904greatest part of Italy, and of other provinces, thinking it unfit that the place where the monarch of the whole church and the vicar of Christ resided should be subject to earthly sway. (See Lib. Pontif. in Vit. Sylvestri, and the Lections in Fest. S. Sylvestri in the Breviaries of the various uses). The earliest known authority for the whole story appears to be the Acta Sylvestri (see below).

The attribution of Constantine's conversion and baptism to Silvester is as legendary as the rest. His profession and patronage of Christianity were anterior to the time spoken of, and he was not actually baptized till long afterwards, at the close of his life. There is abundant testimony that he did not seek baptism, or even imposition of hands as a catechumen, till in a suburb of Nicomedia, as death drew near, he received both from Eusebius, the Arian bishop of that see. (Eus. V. C. iv. 61, 62; Theod. i. 32; Soz. ii. 34, iv. 18; Socr. i. 39; Phot. Cod. 127; Ambrose, Serm. de obit. Theodos.; Hieron. Chron. an. 2353; Council of Rimini.)

The Acta S. Sylvestri, which seem to have furnished the materials for most of the legends—including the banishment to Soracte, the leprosy of Constantine, his lustration by Silvester, and his Donation—are mentioned and approved as genuine in the Decretum de Libris Recipiendis et non Recipiendis, commonly attributed to pope Gelasius (492–496), but probably of a later date. They are quoted in the 8th cent. by pope Hadrian in a letter to Charlemagne, where the Donation is alluded to, and in another to the empress Irene and her son Constantine on the occasion of the 2nd Nicene council in 787. The original Acts have not been preserved. The extant editions of them, given in Latin by Surius (Acta SS. Dec. p. 368), and in Greek by Combefis (Act. p. 258), purport to be only compilations from an earlier document.

Silvester died on Dec. 31, 335, and was buried in the cemetery of St. Priscilla.


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