Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Symmachus, Pope and Confessor

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He was a native of Sardinia, and archdeacon of the Roman church under Pope Anastasius, and succeeded him in the holy see in 498. Festus, the patrician, had been gained by Anastasius, emperor of Constantinople, and a protector of the Eutychians, to endeavour to procure from Pope Anastasius a confirmation of the Henoticon of Zeno, an imperial edict in favour of those heretics, as Theophanes relates. That pope dying, Festus, by bribes, gained several voices to raise Laurence, archpriest of Saint Praxedes, to the pontificate. They were both ordained the same day: Symmachus in the basilic of Constantine, and Laurence in that of our lady. Theodoric, king of Italy, though an Arian, ordered that election should take place which was first, and made by the greater number. By this rule Symmachus was acknowledged lawful pope. He called a council at Rome of seventy-three bishops, and sixty-seven priests, which, to prevent cabals and factions in the elections of popes, ordained that if any one promised his vote to another, or deliberated in any assembly upon that subject, whilst the pope is living, he should be deposed and excommunicated; and that after the pope’s death that person should be duly elected who had a majority of the voices of the clergy. Laurence subscribed these decrees the first among the priests, and was afterwards made bishop of Nocera. Soon after, some of the clergy and senators, by the contrivance of Festus and Probinus, privately recalled Laurence to Rome, and renewed the schism, which is by many historians reckoned the first that happened in that church, though Novatian had attempted to form one. The schismatics accused Symmachus of many crimes, and king Theodoric commanded a synod should be held at Rome upon that occasion. The bishops of Liguria, Emilia, and Venetia took Ravenna in their way to Rome, and strongly represented to the king, that the pope himself ought to call the council, which right he enjoyed both by the primacy of his see, derived from Saint Peter, and by the authority of councils; also, that there never had been an instance of his being subjected to the judgment of his inferiors. The king showed them the pope’s letters by which he agreed to and summoned the council. Indeed the pontifical says, that Symmachus assembled this council.

The synod met at Rome in September 501, and declared Pope Symmachus acquitted of the accusations entered against him, condemning to be punished as schismatics any who should celebrate mass without his consent; but pardoning those who had raised the schism, provided they gave satisfaction to the pope. When this decree was carried into Gaul, all the bishops were alarmed at it; and they charged Saint Avitus, bishop of Vienne, to write about it in the name of them all. He addressed his letter to Faustus and Symmachus, two partricians who had both been consuls, complaining, that when the pope had been accused before the prince, the bishops, instead of opposing such an injustice, had taken upon them to judge him: “For,” says he, “it is not easy to apprehend how the superior can be judged by his inferiors, especially the head of the church.” However, he commends the council for bearing testimony to his innocence, and earnestly entreats the senate to maintain the honour of the church, and not to suffer the flocks to rise up against their pastors. The famous deacon Paschasius, a man eminent for his great alms-deeds and other good works, had the misfortune blindly to abet this schism to the latter end of his life; for which Saint Gregory the Great relates, upon the authority of a certain revelation, that he was detained in purgatory after his death, but delivered by the prayers of Saint Germanus, bishop of Capua. Ceillier thinks that he repented only in his last moments; or, that simplicity of heart extenuated his sin. Paschasius wrote a learned book on the divinity of the Holy Ghost, though the two books on that subject which now bear his name, are the work of Faustus of Riez.

Pope Symmachus wrote to the emperor Anastasius declaring that he could not hold communion with him so long as he maintained that of Acacius. That prince expected such a menace from the zeal of the pope, and therefore he had not written to him upon his promotion, according to custom. He also accused him of Manicheism, though Symmachus had banished the Manichees out of Rome; and he did not cease to thwart the pope, dreading his known zeal against his favourite sect of the Acephali. Symmachus composed an apology against this emperor, in which he shows the dignity of the Christian priesthood. He wrote to the oriental bishops, exhorting them to suffer banishment and all persecutions rather than to betray the divine truth. King Thrasimund having banished many Catholic African bishops into Sardinia, Pope Symmachus sent them annually both clothes and money; and there is still extant among the works of Ennodius a letter which this pope sent to comfort them. He accompanied it with some relics of the martyrs Saints Nazarius and Romanus. He redeemed many captives; and gave one hundred and seventy-nine pounds of silver in ornaments to several churches in Rome; and to the chapel of the holy cross, a gold cross of ten pounds weight, in which he enclosed a piece of the true cross. On a ciborium, that is, in the language of that time, a tabernacle, which he gave to Saint Paul’s church, he caused to be engraved the figures of our Saviour and the twelve apostles. He instituted that the hymn of divine praise called the Gloria in Excelsis should be sung on every Sunday, and on the festivals of martyrs, as the pontifical testifies. He filled the papal chair fifteen years and eight months; and died on the 19th of July, 514.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Symmachus, Pope and Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 14 July 2013. Web. 29 August 2014. <>