Sylvester was pope from 31 January 314 to 31 December 335, succeeding Pope Miltiades.
He filled the See of Rome at a very important era in the history of the Catholic Church, but very little is known of him.
The accounts of the papacy of Pope Sylvester I preserved in the Liber Pontificalis (7th or 8th century) are little else than a record of the gifts said to have been conferred on the Church by Emperor Constantine I, but it does say that he was the son of a Roman named Rufinus.
During his pontificate were built the great churches founded at Rome by Constantine, e.g. the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, St. Peter's Basilica, and several cemeterial churches over the graves of martyrs.
Saint Sylvester did not himself attend the First Council of Nicaea in 325, but he was represented by two legates, Vitus and Vincentius, and he approved the council's decision.
Part of the Symmachian forgeries, the Vita beati Sylvestri (c. 501–508), which has been preserved in Greek and Syriac; and in Latin in the Constitutum Sylvestri, is an apocryphal account of an alleged Roman council, introduced legends of Sylvester's close relationship with the first Christian emperor. They also appear in the Donation of Constantine.
Long after his death, the figure of Sylvester was embroidered upon in a fictional account of his relationship to Constantine, which successfully seemed to 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. 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 generous 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". Such a useful legend quickly gained wide circulation; Gregory of Tours referred to this political legend in his history of the Franks, written in the 580s.
Full article ▸