The Life of Pope Sylvester  

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The Book of the Popes
Liber Pontificalis

translated by
Louise Ropes Loomis, Ph. D

This centuries old text on the life of St. Sylvester, selected from the Liber Pontificalis, for the most part contains the only record that fully describes ancient Rome's first Christian basilicas as erected during the reign of Constantine the Great, and quite likely erected under the architectural/planning supervision of Constantine's mother, the Empress Helena, otherwise known as St. Helena.

Along with naming each Church, a list of all the Churches' interior fittings are given as well, along with lists of the estates throughout the Roman Empire that provided sustaining income for the Churches.

The text of the life of St. Sylvester is here offered in its entirety, including the Loomis footnotes.


Sylvester, by nationality a Roman, son of Rufinus, occupied the See 23 years, 10 months and 11 days.

He was bishop in the time of Constantine and Volusianus, from February 1 until January 1 in the consulship1 of Constantius and Volusianus.

He was an exile on Mount Syraptin2, driven by the persecution of Constantine, and afterward he returned and baptised with glory Constantine Augustus, whom the Lord cured through baptism of leprosy, from whose persecution he had fled when he was in exile. He built a church in the city of Rome, in the garden of one of his priests who was called Equitius, and he appointed it as a parish church of Rome, near the baths of Domitian, and even unto this day it is called the church of Equitius3. There also he offered the following gifts4:
a silver paten5, weighing 20 pounds6, the gift of Constantine Augustus.

He gave likewise:
2 silver beakers7, weighing each ten pounds;
a golden chalice, weighing 2 lbs.;
5 chalices for service8, weighing each two lbs.;
2 silver pitchers9, weighing each ten lbs.;
1 silver paten, overlaid with gold, for the chrism, weighing 5 lbs.;
10 chandeliers10, weighing each eight lbs.;
20 bronze lamps, weighing each ten lbs.;
12 bronze candelabra, weighing each three hundred lbs.11;
2 silver pitchers, weighing each ten lbs.;
1 silver paten overlaid with gold, for the chrism, weighing 5 lbs.;
10 chandeliers, weighing each eight lbs.;
20 bronze lamps, weighing each ten lbs.;
12 bronze candelabra, weighing each three hundred lbs.
the Valerian manor in the Sabine region12, which yields 80 solidi13;
the Statian14 manor in the Sabine region, which yields 55 sol.;
the manor of Duae Casae in the Sabine region, which yields 40 sol.;
the Percilian manor in the Sabine region, which yields 20 sol.;
the Corbian manor in the region of Cora15, which yields 60 sol;
a house in the city, with a bath, in the Sicinine district16, which yields 85 sol.;
a garden within the city of Rome in the district of Ad Duo Amantes17, yielding 15 sol.;
a house in the district of Orfea within the city18, which yields 58 and one third sol.

1. The Liberian Catalogue says: "He was bishop in the time of Constantine, from the consulship of Volusianus and Annianus (A.D. 314), January 31, to December 31 in the year when Constantius and Albinus were consuls (A.D. 335)."
2. This form of the name is found in the fifth century Armenian text of the legend of the miraculous healing of Constantine. In the two epitomes of the Lib. Pont. and in the second recension it is written Seracten or Soracten, with the evident intention of identifying the spot with the well known mountain near Rome. Duchesne believes that the Constantinian legend originated early in the fifth century in the Syrian or Armenian communities of the Eastern church. Lib. Pont., vol. I, pp. cix-cxx. The most trustworthy account of the actual baptism of the emperor is furnished by Eusebius in his Life of Constantine, tr. Richardson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ser. 2, vol. I, pp. 555-556. The ceremony took place shortly before the illustrious convert's death, near Nicomedia in Asia Minor. Cf. Coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity for literature on this and associated topics.
3. The church is now generally known as San Martino ai Monti. Remains of Sylvester's edifice still exist below the present structure. The baths here called by Domitian's name are more usually styled the baths of Trajan or the baths of Titus.
4. On the value of this and subsequent lists of real and movable property bestowed upon the churches see Introduction, pp. ix-x. Duchesne has a lengthy discussion of the questions involved. In the course of it he prints an interesting document of the year 471, a deed of gift of lands, precious vessels and other articles from a man and his wife to a church near Tivoli. The deed is strikingly similar in phraseology and arrangement to the lists of the Lib. Pont.; op. cit., pp. cxl-cliv. Of course the churches were plundered many times over in the centuries that followed.
5. The paten of this early period, as represented in the mosaic of San Vitale in Ravenna, for example, was a large, flat bowl and was used to hold the consecrated Host for the bishop and his assistants, the bread for the laity being broken and distributed in bags. An ordinary church or an altar in a large church owned but one paten, though a number of chalices. The paten, however, might also hold the consecrated oil or chrism, as below. Duchesne, op. cit., p. cxliv; Lowrie, Christian Art and Archaeology, pp. 343-354.
6. The Roman pound, nearly equal to twelve ounces avoirdupois.
7. The " scyphus " or beaker was a large vessel, shaped like a goblet, in which the wine was placed for consecration on the altar and from which it was poured into the smaller chalices for distribution to the congregation. At least this is Duchosne's theory; ibid., p. cxliv. Sometimes, however, the term "chalice" is used to denote the vessel of honor for the altar. For the shape see the illustrations in Lowrie, op. cit., passim.
8. The "chalices for service" were used to carry the wine to the laity.
9. The "ama," pitcher or flagon, was a large receptacle which, in Duchesne's opinion, was set to receive the offerings of wine presented by the faithful. Lowrie suggests that it contained the wine and water which were mixed for the Eucharist. Op. cit., p. 347.
10. The churches of this and later centuries were illuminated by a wealth of lamps, chandeliers, candlesticks and candelabra, suspended from, the roof or standing upon the floor. A large variety of terms is employed to enumerate the different kinds and shapes of lights, an exact translation of which is now impossible. The lamps and chandeliers found at Pompeii are smaller and far less sumptuous than these products of fourth century workmanship. Lowrie, Op. cit., pp. 349-352. It will be noticed that no lights were placed upon the altar. The officiating priest still stood behind it, facing the people, and illumination came from overhead or from the sides.
11. Or thirty pounds. The figures throughout these lists vary in different manuscripts.
12. It is impossible to locate most of the lands mentioned in the lists. The word "fundus," here translated manor, means a farm or piece of country property.
13. The solidus was a gold coin introduced by Constantine and worth at this time about $3.50 in our money.
14. A small hamlet called Stazzano perpetuates the name to-day.
15. The modern village of Cori in the Campagna.
16. It is impossible to identify all of the city districts enumerated in the lists. The Sicinine district, however, was in the neighborhood of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which was known in the fourth century as the "basilica Sicinini." Duchesne, op. cit., p. 188, n. 11.
17. Probably in the vicinity of the Esquiline Hill, not far from the Church of San Martino, like the houses mentioned before and after.
18. A "lake of Orfeus " is included in the region of the Esquiline by topographers of the fourth century. A church of Santa Lucia in Orphca stood later near the church of San Martino.



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