Pope Symmachus (? – 514) – a controversial but unrelenting shepherd

Façade of the Church of San Pancrazio

Façade of the Church of San Pancrazio

In times when the pope was elected by the citizens of Rome, there were often arguments between the supporters of one candidate or another, dual elections and schisms. At times for months, or even years rivaling factions would stand by their one and only legitimate candidate. This was the case in the year 498 A.D. when another bishop of Rome was being chosen.

Façade of the Church of San Pancrazio
Alleged image of Pope Symmachus, pic. Wikipedia
Façade of the Church of Santa Croce
Church of Santa Prisca, view of the main and side naves
Façade of the Church of San Sebastiano al catacombe

In times when the pope was elected by the citizens of Rome, there were often arguments between the supporters of one candidate or another, dual elections and schisms. At times for months, or even years rivaling factions would stand by their one and only legitimate candidate. This was the case in the year 498 A.D. when another bishop of Rome was being chosen.

 

     

The election of Symmachus to St. Peter’s throne was conducted traditionally by representatives of the community of the city of Rome (the clergy, Senate, populace) and confirmed by a representative of the then ruler of Italy – Theodoric the Great. However, the faction supporting the Emperor of the East, Anastasius, selected a rival pope – Lawrence. This situation resulted in street riots and so greatly distressed Theodoric that he invited both bishops to Ravenna and ordered that the legal successor of St. Peter should be the one who was elected first. This ensured a short period of peace, however in the following year a conflict once again erupted between the rivaling factions, who were not above using force, falsifying documents, betrayals and intrigues. The situation was further worsened by the fact that Symmachus was accused of inappropriate conduct and promiscuity which became the subject of talks of the council called in the year 502. At this council Symmachus claimed that “apostolic bishops cannot be judged by anyone” aiding himself with forged documents (the so-called Symmachian forgeries), which were supposed to prove, that allegedly Pope Silvester I announced to Emperor Constantine the Great that nobody may judge the pope, since he only answers to God himself. This provided him with immunity and the right to disregard any kind of legal accusations. Symmachus, was ultimately cleared of all charges and once again appointed to the position of pope, however the unfavorable crowd did not allow him to remain in the city. And thus Lawrence „reigned” on the Lateran in the bishop’s palace, while Symmachus went to the Vatican where he began broad construction works, which were to a large extent sanction his position as the successor to St. Peter.

The oldest rotunda found near St. Peter’s Basilica was transformed into the Chapel of St. Andrew and decorated with a baldachin made of silver. The pope added three small chapels to the baptistery which was located there, dedicated to the Holy Cross, St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist. The similarity between these chapels and analogous chapels built by the previous pope, Hilarius, around the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Laterano, cannot remain unnoticed. Thus, Symmachus created a complex alternative to the Lateran one. He also did not forget about St. Peter’s Basilica, which he had covered in marble, while its atrium was properly arranged and adorned with porticos, decorated with mosaics and marbles. In the center a fountain was placed, while an additional element nobilitating this place was the stairs enlarged with side tracts. Next to them the pope created two structures which served only him, the so-called Episcopia, meaning the bishop’s residence, which became the de facto foundation for the future Apostolic Palace, which in subsequent centuries would grow in stature to become the true papal residence. At Symmachus’s imitative the Church of San Pancrazio (Basilica of St. Pancracius Outside the Walls) was built on Janiculum Hill, along with accompanying buildings designated for pilgrims which had gathered there.

 

     

It was not until the year 506 that the situation in Rome calmed down. Theodoric was able to convince Lawrence to leave the city, while Symmachus gained all authority.

After the death of Symmachus, the following pope, Felix IV was chosen to a large extent by Theodoric the Great himself, who in this way wanted to prevent another papal diarchy.

In the Church documents from that time (Liber Pontificalis) there ae 28 titulae mentioned, meaning first titular churches situated in numerous points across Rome, mainly in densely populated and poor areas. Their patrons were generally martyrs connected with the city (e.g. St. Prisca, St. Sabina, St. Agnes, St. Pudenziana, St. Cecilia). At that time seven important pilgrim churches had also existed (San Pietro in Vaticano, San Paolo fuori le mura, San Lorenzo fuori le mura, San Sebastiano al catacombe, Santa Croce, San Giovanni in Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore).