Sylvester I
Bishop of Rome
14th-century head reliquary, Zadar
ChurchNicene Church
Papacy began31 January 314
Papacy ended31 December 335
Personal details
Died31 December 335 (aged 50)
Rome, Roman Empire[1]
Feast day
Venerated in
Other popes named Sylvester

Pope Sylvester I (also Silvester, 285 – 31 December 335) was the bishop of Rome from 31 January 314 until his death on 31 December 335.[3][4] He filled the See of Rome at an important era in the history of the Western Church, though very little is known of his life.[5]

During his pontificate, he notably convened the Council of Arles in 314, which condemned the separatist Donatist sect, and the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which aimed to resolve the Arian controversy. His pontificate also coincided with the baptism of Roman Emperor Constantine I.[6]

Sylvester I's pontificate coincided with the construction of churches including Old St. Peter's Basilica, the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme), as well as the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran.[6] His feast is celebrated as Saint Sylvester's Day, on 31 December in Western Christianity, and on 2 January in Eastern Christianity.[7]

Personal biography

The accounts of his pontificate preserved in the seventh- or eighth-century Liber Pontificalis contain little more than a record of the gifts said to have been conferred on the church by Constantine I,[8] although it does say that he was the son of a Roman named Rufinus.[9]


Large churches were founded and built during Sylvester I's pontificate, including Basilica of St. John Lateran, Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, Old St. Peter's Basilica and several churches built over the graves of martyrs.[9][10]

One of the Symmachian forgeries, the Constitutum Silvestri, is an apocryphal alleged account of a Roman council, which partially builds on legends in the Acts of Sylvester which has been preserved in Greek, Syriac, and in Latin and the fictional stories of Sylvester's close relationship with the first Christian emperor. These also appear in the Donation of Constantine.[9]


Long after his death, the figure of Sylvester was embroidered upon in a fictional account of his relationship to Constantine, which seemed to successfully support the later Gelasian doctrine of papal supremacy, papal auctoritas (authority) guiding imperial potestas (power), the doctrine that is embodied in the forged Donation of Constantine of the eighth century. In the fiction, of which an early version is represented in the early sixth-century Symmachean forgeries emanating from the curia of Pope Symmachus (died 514), the Emperor Constantine was cured of leprosy by the virtue of the baptismal water administered by Sylvester.[11]

The Emperor, abjectly grateful, not only confirmed the bishop of Rome as the primate above all other bishops, he resigned his imperial insignia and walked before Sylvester's horse holding the Pope's bridle as the papal groom. The Pope, in return, offered the crown of his own good will to Constantine, who abandoned Rome to the pope and took up residence in Constantinople. "The doctrine behind this charming story is a radical one," Norman F. Cantor observes: "The pope is supreme over all rulers, even the Roman emperor, who owes his crown to the pope and therefore may be deposed by papal decree". The legend gained wide circulation; Gregory of Tours referred to this political legend in his history of the Franks, written in the 580s.[12]

Pope Sylvester II, himself a close associate of Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor, chose the name Sylvester in imitation of Sylvester I.[9][13]

In the West, the liturgical feast of Saint Sylvester is on 31 December, the day of his burial in the Catacomb of Priscilla.[9] This is now the last day in the year and, accordingly, in German-speaking countries and in some others close to them, New Year's Eve is known as Silvester. In some other countries, too, the day is usually referred to as Saint Sylvester's Day or the Feast of Saint Sylvester.[14] In São Paulo, Brazil, a long-distance running event called the Saint Silvester Road Race occurs every year on 31 December.[15]


Pope Sylvester I portrayed slaying a dragon and resurrecting its victims, a fresco by Maso di Banco

The Donation of Constantine is a document fabricated in the second half of the eighth century, purporting to be a record by the Emperor himself of his conversion, the profession of his new faith, and the privileges he conferred on Pope Sylvester I, his clergy, and their successors. According to it, Pope Sylvester was offered the imperial crown, which, however, he refused.[16]

Lu Santu Papa Silvestru, a story in Giuseppe Pitrè's collection of Sicilian fables, recounts the legend as follows: Constantine the king wants to take a second wife, and asks Sylvester. Sylvester denies him permission, calling on heaven as witness; Constantine threatens him, and Sylvester, rather than give in, escapes into the woods. Not long after, Constantine falls ill; when he is desperate of ever regaining his health he has a dream which commands him to send for Sylvester. He obeys, and Sylvester receives Constantine's messengers in his cave and swiftly baptizes them, whereafter (having shown them several miracles) he is led back to Constantine, whom he baptizes also, and cures. In this story, Constantine and his entourage are not pagans but Jews.[17]

Another legend has Sylvester slaying a dragon. He is often depicted with the dying beast.[18][19]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Patron Saints Index: Pope Saint Sylvester I". 5 January 2010. Retrieved 29 December 2013.
  2. ^ January 15, / January 2.
  3. ^ Annuario Pontificio per L'anno 2008 [Pontifical Yearbook for the year 2008] (in Italian). [Vatican City] Citta Del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. 2008. p. 8*. ISBN 978-88-209-8021-4.
  4. ^ Lieu, Samuel N.C. (2006). "Constantine in Legendary Literature". In Lenski, Noel (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine. Cambridge University Press. pp. 298–323. ISBN 978-0-521-52157-4.
  5. ^ Cross, F. L.; Livingstone, E. A., eds. (2005). "Sylvester I, St.". The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd rev. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3.
  6. ^ a b "Pope St. Sylvester I: Saw beginning of Christian empire in Rome". Catholic News Herald. 23 May 2016. Retrieved 30 January 2024.
  7. ^ Butler, Alban (1981). Butler's Lives of the Saints, Volume 4. Christian Classics. p. 644. ISBN 978-0-87061-046-2. Retrieved 1 January 2017.
  8. ^ Archer, Thomas Andrew (1911). "Silvester (popes)" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  9. ^ a b c d e Public Domain One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain: Kirsch, J.P. (1912). "Pope St. Sylvester I" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  10. ^ Dietz, Helen (2005). "The Eschatological Dimension of Church Architecture: The Biblical Roots of Church Orientation" (PDF). Journal of the Institute for Sacred Architecture. 2005 (10): 10–14. Archived from the original on 9 December 2021. Retrieved 18 January 2023.
  11. ^ Russell, Bertrand (1946). History of Western Philosophy. Psychology Press. p. 366. ISBN 978-0-415-32505-9. Retrieved 29 January 2018.
  12. ^ Reported in: Cantor, Norman F. (1993). The Civilization of the Middle Ages (Revised ed.). New York: HarperCollins. p. 177. ISBN 978-0060170332. A completely revised and expanded edition of: Medieval history, the life and death of a civilization. (1963).
  13. ^ Kirsch, J.P. (1912). "Pope Sylvester II" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Sylvester the Second
  14. ^ Cohen, Ariel (31 December 2014). "Celebrating an anti-Semitic pope on Sylvester". The Jerusalem Post. Archived from the original on 31 December 2014. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
  15. ^ RONDINELLI, Paula. "Corrida Internacional de São Silvestre". Brasil Escola (in Brazilian Portuguese). Retrieved 29 January 2018.
  16. ^ Cross, F. L.; Livingstone, E. A., eds. (2005). "Donation of Constantine". The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd rev. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3.
  17. ^ Pitrè, Giuseppe, Fiabe, novelle e racconti popolari siciliani, Volume terzo, Palermo 1875. pp. 39–42
  18. ^ Pohlsander, Hans A. (2002). The Emperor Constantine. Taylor & Francis. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-203-13721-5.
  19. ^ Voragine, Jacobus de (1275). "The Life of Saint Silvester". Golden Legend. Retrieved 29 December 2013.