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The Acts of Silvester: History, Legend and Sundays in Rome

Michele Salzman

University of California Riverside

When Constantine stipulated that Sunday be a day of rest and the law courts closed, he may have been responding to queries from officials in the city of Rome. Indeed, his revolutionary 321 law (Codex Justinianus 3.12.2(3), ed. Krueger= C. Th. 2.8.1) was directed to Helpidius, the vicar of the city of Rome. But the impetus for this law likely arose from this emperor’s interactions with bishops, including, the bishop of Rome at that time, Silvester. Unfortunately, we have no reliable fourth-century evidence for Silvester’s relationship with Constantine. We do, however, have an important, later account that gives the Silvester a key role in defining observances on Sunday. Yet scholars have overlooked a key text, the Acts of Silvester, because of its fabulous narrative about the conversion of Constantine (Canella 2013).

This paper argues that we can use the late fifth century layer A of the Acts of Silvester, a text that was widely circulated and augmented into the eighth century, to fill out our understanding of Roman attitudes toward Sunday practice and of the role of Silvester. Layer A of the Acts of Silvester depicts a dramatic encounter between this bishop and unnamed eastern bishops that lead to a public debate about the proper observance of Sunday (Acts 1.510, ed. Furhmann). The eastern bishops view Sunday as a day of penitence, and thus argue for fasting. In opposition, Silvester explained that Sunday was the day on which to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, and so, not a day to fast but to celebrate with prayer in the presence of the bishop (Acts 1.510). This was not a real debate, but, as I argue in this paper, we can view it as a reflection of late fifth-century attitudes about proper Sunday practice and, more importantly, episcopal authority. Contemporary evidence indicates that this was an issue; for example, Pope Miltiades, was similarly credited with arguing that Christians who fast on Sunday are pagan in this practice (Book of the Popes 33.2). Knowledge of ritual practice about Sunday, thus functioned in this text, as did baptism, “as both a primary thematic component of the Acts and a major facet of his authority” (Sessa 2016).

Finally, as I conclude, the victory of Silvester over eastern opposition fits well with the late fifth-century date of this text. After 484, the bishops of Rome were eager to assert their autonomy in what was the first schism between east and west, the so-called Acacian Schism (Salzman, 2019). The legend of Silvester’s ritual expertise about Sunday lived on as history (e.g. Bede De temporum ratione 8 [CCSL 123A: 299-303], fueled as it was by the readers of the Acts of Silvester who cared little about the legal proclamation of Constantine and far more about the role of their bishop.

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Pagans and Christians

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