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From The Lives of the Popes from the Time of our Saviour Jesus Christ to the Accession of Gregory VII. Written Originally in Latin by B. Platina, Native of Cremona, and translated into English (from an anonymous translation, first printed in 1685 by Sir Paul Rycaut), Edited by William Benham, Volume I, London: Griffith, Farran, Okeden & Welsh, [1888, undated in text]; pp. 69-75.

The Lives of the Popes,
B. Platina

Volume I.

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A.D. 314-336.

SYLVESTER, a Roman, the son of Ruffinus, was bishop in the time of Constantine, anno dom. 314.

Under this prince the Christians, who had been continually harassed by tyrants, began to have some respite. For Constantine was equal to the best of princes in all endowments of body and mind, very desirous of military glory, successful in war, and yet freely granting peace to them who asked it. When his other great affairs permitted, he took very much delight in the study of the arts: by his bounty and goodness he gained the love of all men; many good laws he enacted, repealed those that were superfluous, and moderated those that were too rigorous. Upon the ruins of Byzantium he built a city of his own name, and endeavouring to make it equal in stateliness of buildings to Rome herself, he ordered it to be called New Rome, as appears from the inscription under his statue on horseback.

This great prince, well weighing and considering all things, when he came to understand the excellence of the Christian religion, how it obliges men to be moderate in their enjoyments, to rejoice in poverty, to be gentle and peaceable, sincere and constant, &c., he thereupon heartily embraced it; and when he undertook any war, bore no other figure on his standard but that of the cross, the form of which he had seen in the air as he was advancing with his forces against Maxentius, and had heard the angels near it saying to him, ν τούτῳ νίχα — “by this do thou overcome;” which accordingly he did, freeing the necks of the people of Rome and the Christians from the yoke of tyranny, and particularly defeating Licinius, who had expelled the Christians from city and camp, and persecuted them with banishment, imprisonment, and death itself; exposing some of them to the lions, and causing others to be hung up and cut to pieces limb by limb like dead swine.

Sylvester, having so potent and propitious a prince on his side, left the mountain Soracte, whither he had been banished by the tyrants, or, as some say, had voluntarily retired, and came to Rome, where he soon prevailed with Constantine, who was before well inclined towards the Christians, to be now very zealous in deserving well of the Church. For as 70 a particular testimony of the honour he had for the clergy, he allowed to the bishops of Rome the use of a diadem of gold set with precious stones. But this Sylvester declined, as not suiting a person devoted to religion, and therefore contented himself with a white Phrygian mitre. Constantine being highly affected with Sylvester’s sanctity, built a church in the city of Rome, in the gardens of Equitius, not far from Domitian’s baths, which bore the name of Equitius till the time of Damasus. Upon this church the munificent emperor conferred several donations of vessels, both of gold and silver, and likewise very plentifully endowed it.

While these things were transacting at Rome, at Alexandria a certain presbyter, named Arius (a man more remarkable for his person, than the inward qualifications of his mind, and who sought more eagerly after fame and vain-glory than after truth), began to sow dissension in the Church. For he endeavoured to separate the Son from the eternal and ineffable substance of God the Father, by affirming that there was a time when He was not; not understanding that the Son was co-eternal with the Father, and of the same substance with Him, according to that assertion of His in the gospel, “I and My Father are one.” Now, Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, having in vain attempted to reclaim Arius from this his error, by Constantine’s appointment, and at his great charge, a general Council was called at Nicæa, a city of Bithynia, at which three hundred and eighteen bishops were present. The debates on either side were long and warm. For divers persons subtle at arguing, were favourers of Arius, and opposers of the simplicity of the Gospel; though one of these, a very learned philosopher, being inwardly touched by the Divine Spirit, on a sudden changed his opinion, and immediately embraced the sound and orthodox doctrine which before he had pleaded against. At length the matter being thoroughly discussed in the Council, it was concluded that the Son should be styled ὁμοούσὶος, i.e., acknowledged to be of the same substance with the Father. Of those who were of Arius’s opinion, affirming the Son of God to be created, not begotten of the very Divinity of the Father, there were seventeen. But Constantine, coming to understand the truth of the controversy, confirmed the decree of the Council, and denounced the punishment of exile to those who contradicted it. Hereupon Arius with only six more were banished, 71 the rest of his party coming over to the orthodox opinion. In this council the Photinians were condemned, who had their name from Photinus, Bishop of Sirmium,1 who, taking up the heresy of the Ebionites, held that Christ was conceived of Mary by the ordinary way of generation; as were likewise the Sabellians, who affirmed that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were but one Person. In this Council also, the bishops, according to custom, gave in bills of complaint to Constantine, wherein they accused each other, and desired justice from him; but the good emperor burnt all their accusations, and told them, that they must stand or fall by the judgment of God only, and not of men. In this Council moreover it was decreed, that no person who, upon pretence of allaying the heat of his lust, had castrated himself, should be admitted into holy orders; that no new proselyte, without a very strict examination, should be ordained, and being so, that it should not be lawful for him to associate with any other women than his mother, or sister, or aunt; that none should be promoted to the order of a bishop, unless by all, or at least by three, bishops of the province; and that one bishop should not receive any persons, whether clerk or laic, who stood excommunicated by another. It was decreed likewise, and that very sacredly, to prevent all oppression, that there should be a Provincial Synod held every year, whither any who thought themselves injured by the bishop might appeal; and I cannot see why this wholesome institution should be abolished by the prelates of our age, unless it be because they dread the censures of the pious and orthodox. It was decreed also, that they who in time of persecution fell away before they were brought to the torture, should from thenceforward continue five years among the catechumens. Finally, it was decreed, that no bishop should upon the account of ambition or covetousness leave a smaller church for a greater — a canon which is quite laid aside in our days, wherein with eager appetites, like hungry wolves, they all gape after fatter bishoprics, using all importunities, promises, and bribes to get them. The constitutions of Sylvester himself were reckoned these that follow, viz.: That the holy oil should be consecrated by the bishop only; that none but bishops should 72 have the power of confirmation, but a presbyter might anoint any person baptized upon the occasion of imminent death. That no laic should commence a suit against a clergyman; that a deacon, while he is doing his office in the church, should use a cope with sleeves; that no clergyman should plead for others or for himself before a secular judge. That a presbyter should not consecrate the elements upon a pall of silk or dyed cloth, but only upon white linen, for the nearer resemblance of the fine white linen in which the body of Christ was buried. He also fixed the several degrees in the orders of the Church, that every one might act in his own sphere, and be the husband of one wife. But Constantine being desirous to promote the Christian religion, built the Constantinian church (called the Lateran), which he beautified and enriched with several great donations, the ornaments and endowments which he conferred upon it being of a vast value. Among other things he set up in it a font of porphyry stone, that part of it which contains the water being all silver; in the middle of the font was placed a pillar of porphyry, on the top of which stood a golden lamp, full of the most precious oil, which was wont to burn in the night during the Easter solemnities. On the edge or brink of it stood a lamb of pure gold, through which the water was conveyed into it; not far from the lamb was the statue of our Saviour, of most pure silver. On the other side stood the image of John Baptist, of silver likewise, with an inscription of these words, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.” There were, besides, seven hearts placed round about it, and pouring water into it. For the maintenance of this font he gave several estates in land and houses. Moreover, Constantine, at the motion of Sylvester, built and dedicated a church to St Peter, the chief of the apostles, in the Vatican, not far from the temple of Apollo, where he very splendidly deposited the body of that apostle, and covered his tomb over with brass and copper. This church, likewise, he magnificently adorned, and very largely endowed. The same emperor, also at the instance of Sylvester, built a church, which he enriched and endowed as he had done the former, in the Via Ostiensis, in honour to St Paul, whose body he entombed after the same manner with that of St Peter; by his order also, a church was built in the Sessorian Atrium, by the name of St Cross of Jerusalem, wherein he deposited a part of the holy cross, 73 which was found out by his mother, Helena, a lady of incomparable piety and devotion, who, being prompted thereto partly by the greatness of her own mind and partly by visions in the night, went to Jerusalem to seek after the cross upon which Christ was crucified. To find it was a very difficult task, because the ancient persecutors had set up the image of Venus in the same place, that so the Christians might by mistake worship her instead of their Saviour. But Helena, being animated with zeal, proceeded on to dig and remove the rubbish, till at last she found three crosses lying confusedly one among another; on one of which was this inscription in three languages, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Macarius, the bishop of that city, was at first mistaken in his opinion as to which was the right; but at length all doubt concerning it was removed by an experiment upon the body of a dead woman, who was raised to life at the application of the true one. From the sense of so great a miracle, Constantine published an edict, forbidding any malefactor to be from thenceforward punished by crucifixion. Helena, having first built a church upon the ground where this cross was found, returned, and brought the nails with which our Saviour’s body was fastened to it, as a present to her son. Of one of those nails he caused to be made the bit of the bridle with which he managed the horse he used in war, the other he wore on the crest of his helmet, and the third he threw into the Adriatic Sea, to suppress the rage and tempestuousness of it. That part of the cross which the devout lady brought along with her in a silver case, set with gold and precious stones, was placed in this Sessorian Church, to which Constantine was very liberal and munificent. Some tell us that the Church of St Agnes was built at Constantine’s command, upon the request of his daughter Constantia, and a font set up in it, where both his daughter and his sister of the same name were baptized, and which in like manner he largely presented and endowed. The same emperor built also the Church of St Laurence without the walls, towards which he was not wanting to express his usual beneficence. Moreover, in the Via Lavicana he built a church to the two martyrs, Marcellinus the presbyter, and Peter the exorcist; not far from which he built a stately monument in honour to his mother, whom he buried in a sepulchre of porphyry. This church also received signal testimonies of his exemplary bounty. 74 Besides these churches in the city of Rome, he built several others also elsewhere. At Ostia, not far from the port, he built a church in honour to St Peter and Paul the blessed apostles, and John Baptist; near Alba he built a church peculiarly dedicated to John Baptist; at Capua, also, he built in honour to the apostles, that which they called the Constantinian Church, — all which he enriched as he had done the former. At Naples he built another, as Damasus tells us, but it is uncertain to whom he dedicated it. And that the clergy of New Rome also might be sharers in the emperor’s munificence, he built likewise two churches at Constantinople, one dedicated to Irene, the other to the apostles, having first quite destroyed the Delphic Tripods, which had been the occasion of a great deal of mischief to superstitious people, and either demolished the pagan temples or else transferred them to the use and benefit of the Christians. Besides all the foregoing instances of Constantine’s munificence, he distributed moreover, among the provincial churches and the clergy, a certain tribute or custom due to him from the several cities, which donation he made valid, and perpetuated by an imperial edict. And that virgins and those who continued in celibacy, might be enabled to make wills, and so to bequeath by testament something to the clergy (from whence I believe the patrimony of the church to have received a great increase) he repealed a law which had been made for the propagating of mankind, by which any person was rendered incapable of entering upon an estate who had lived unmarried till five-and-twenty years of age — a law upon which the princes had founded their jus trium liberorum, the right or privilege of having three children, of which they often took advantage against those who had no issue. All these things are exactly and fully delivered to us by Socrates and Sozomen, the historians. In the time of Sylvester flourished several persons of extraordinary note, by whose labour and industry many countries and nations were converted to Christianity, and particularly by the preaching of Julianus, Frumentius, and Edisius, whom certain philosophers of Alexandria had carried thither. The Iberi also, a remote people, were brought to the knowledge and belief of Christianity by a certain captive woman, through the assistance and persuasion of their king Bacurius. At this time likewise, the authority of Antony, the holy hermit, did much towards the reformation of mankind; 75 Helena did oftentimes, both by letter and messengers, recommend herself and her sons to his prayers. He was by country an Egyptian; his manner of living, severe and abstemious, eating only bread and drinking nothing but water, and never making any meal but about sunset; a man wholly rapt up in contemplation. His life was written at large by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. As for Sylvester himself, having at seven Decembrian ordinations made forty-two presbyters, thirty-six deacons, sixty-five bishops, he died, and was buried in the cemetery of Priscilla, in the Via Salaria, three miles distant from the city, on the last day of December. He was in the chair twenty-three years, ten months, eleven days; and by his death the see was vacant fifteen days.


 1  This seems to be inaccurate. Photinus developed his heresy somewhat later. He was repeatedly condemned, and in 351 was deposed by a synod held in his own city. — ED.

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Previous Pope:  33. St. Melchiades. 34. St. Sylvester. Next Pope: 35. Marcus I.

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