The Liber Pontificalis is the only real biographical information available for the earliest popes of the Roman Catholic Church. In this article (part 1 of 2), the history of The Book of Popes is detailed, as well as brief biographical information on some of the most historically significant popes through the beginning of the 4th Century.
The Liber Pontificalis – or The Book of Popes – is the only real biographical information we have about the earliest popes. The biographies in this collection start with St. Peter and continue until the fifteenth century, however, there were distinct sections, practices and ways in which they were written. Most significant in the collection are the first five hundred years of the papacy, as there is so little known information otherwise.
The first collection of the Liber Pontificalis extended through the reign of Stephen V (d. 891), and were then continued through Pius II (d. 1464), but in a different style and form. The most ancient of the biographies have a specific form to them, detailing the birthplace of the pope, length of his reign, major civil events, donations of land or money, major building projects or renovations, significant church and public affairs, the number of major ordinations, and where the pope was buried.
Trying to define the collection in parts and sections is complicated, but necessary from a perspective of accuracy of the biographies, and how they were compiled. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that St. Jerome was the author of the biographies under Pope Damasus, because of supposed correspondence between the two which implied that Damasus requested that St. Jerome write the biographies. These letters were proved to be false. Through the centuries, there was more inaccurate speculation about the author(s) of the biographies, but finally, Duchesne proved the true origins.
The first clearly defined section, from St. Peter through Felix III (d. 530), was collected and assembled during Pope Boniface II’s reign, but the actual author remains unknown. This first part is considered to be a complete work, made up of multiple parts. The first and most important resource used was called the Catalog Liberianus, which listed the popes through Liberus (d. 366). Exploring even deeper, it appears that, at least in part, this catalog was drawn from the papal catalogue of St. Hippolytus of Rome (antipope), in his Liber Generationis. In addition to this, other sources were used, some historically proven, others apocryphal, including the writings of St. Jerome. Following this first section, the biographies were added by different authors, often in different forms.
It is particularly important to remember that these earliest accounts are not always historically accurate. This has been proven and documented by historians, but the research and study is ongoing. It is, however, coupled with the historical research to date, the best and most complete information available for this time period.
I am going to briefly detail the lives of some of the most historically relevant popes in the first 500 years of the papacy, either by specific actions taken by them, or historical events directly related to the Roman Catholic Church. Because of the length of the biographies, this article will focus on the popes before Constantine the Great and the end of the Christian persecutions in Rome. My next article will continue from that point on.
Linus, St. (67-76) St. Linus is mentioned in II Timothy (4:21) and was St. Peter’s immediate successor as Bishop of Rome. Very little is known about him except that he was Roman – the first of many – and there is valid historical proof of his papacy immediately following St. Peter, from the writings of bishops of the time. The most significant event of his papacy was the burning of Jerusalem in 70, when the city was under siege by Titus and the Romans. No details of his death are known.
Clement I, St. (88-97) Mentioned in Philippians (4:3), St. Clement was a significant papal figure in the early history of the church. In part, his fame was due to legends and stories of the time, including the story of his supposed martyrdom where it is said he was thrown into the sea with an anchor tied around his neck. This has been proved by historical scholars to be purely legend. He is the author of the “First Epistle of Clement”, an extremely important early Church document. Prior to his reign, he was a bishop, and it is believed he was consecrated by St. Peter. No reliable information is available about his death.
Victor I, St. (189-199) St. Victor was an African, but reared in a Roman family. During his rule as Pontiff, he tackled the controversy over the proper date for Easter and insisted that the accepted Roman date be used, rather than Passover as was customary in the East, because it did not always fall on Sunday. Additionally, during his papacy, Latin became the official language of the Church. There is no verifiable information about the circumstances of his death.
Callistus I, St. (217-222) During his rather short papacy, Callistus was easily one of the most controversial popes of the early Church, however, any of the controversy that is known is due to the writings by the antipope, St. Hippolytus. Prior to his papal rule, he was a trusted slave, placed in charge of his master’s finances. Callistus lost the money, and ultimately was placed in the Sardinian mines to work off his debt. One of the very few who escaped death in the mines, he returned to Rome and eventually was named as pope. He was accused of being liberal in disciplinary matters, as evidenced by his decision to allow adulterers back into to the Church. It is probable that he died as a martyr.
Pontian, St. (230-235) Not much is known about St. Pontian’s papacy, except, most significantly, that he was the first pope ever to step down from the Chair of St. Peter. Emperor Maximinus I Thrax began a bloody Christian persecution in 235, during which time, both Pontian and the antipope Hippolytus were sent to the Sardinian mines. Realizing that almost no one lived through this sentence, he ceded the throne and an election was held for a new pope.
Fabian, St. (236-250) One of the most interesting aspects of St. Fabian’s Papacy was the circumstances under which he became Pope. He was never considered a “contender” for the papacy, but instead, traveled to Rome for the election, as an observer. While at the gathering, in the middle of a crowd, a dove flew directly to him and landed on his head. This was taken to be a sign that St. Fabian was chosen by God for the Chair of Peter. During his reign, he was considered to be a good leader, and his major accomplishments included improving the catacombs, and dividing the Roman diocese into districts, each led by a deacon and a subdeacon. Ultimately, this organization influenced the structure of the College of Cardinals. St. Fabian died in 250, the first victim of Emperor Trajanus Decius’ persecution.
Marcellinus, St. (296 – 304) For the most part, Marcellinus’ papal reign was uneventful until new Christian persecutions began under Emperor Diocletian. It is believed that during this time, Marcellinus was guilty of apostasy, paying homage to pagan gods, and giving the Romans sacred scripture. For a very long time, his name was completely omitted from the list of popes, some proof of the accuracy of these claims. He was beheaded, however, and because of that he was named as a saint.
Marcellus I, St. (308 – 309) Marcellus was the successor to Marcellinus, but only after four years had passed, because of the persecutions and the difficulties caused to the church by Marcellinus’ death. Marcellus’ reign was a short one, but relatively peaceful, as the persecutions had quieted to some degree under Emperor Maxentius’ rule. During the brief year of his papacy, Marcellus focused all of his efforts on addressing the issue of discipline in the church, perhaps in an attempt to repair the damage caused by Marcellinus. His actions were so unpopular, however, that riots were held in Rome. The Emperor Maxentius eventually banished Marcellus from Rome entirely, on the grounds that he had caused civil disobedience and unrest. Marcellus died shortly thereafter.