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E03229: The Acts of *Sylvester (bishop of Rome, 00397) are written in Latin in a number of versions, the earliest by the 5th c. They narrate episodes of the life of Sylvester, in particular highlighting his role in the conversion and baptism of the emperor Constantine. Later translated into Greek and Syriac.

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posted on 2017-07-11, 00:00 authored by mpignot
Acts of Sylvester

We here provide a short summary of the main elements of the narrative of books I and II of the Acts, which go back to the earliest version. In the lack of any reliable edition classifying the versions and manuscripts, this summary is based on the most accessible text, that of Mombritius’ edition, despite its shortcomings (it represents, according to Levison’s classification, the version C). See the bibliography for detailed studies on the content of the Acts and the various versions (in particular Pohlkamp 1992).


BHL 7725:

The Acts are preceded by a prologue (starting “Historiographus noster Eusebius”), stating that they were originally written in Greek by Eusebius and here translated into Latin.

BHL 7726-7730:

The main narrative can be divided into four parts written over two books (two parts per book). The first part (Mombritius 508-510), focusses on Sylvester, from youth until his consecration as bishop of Rome, referring to his pastoral activity (welcoming the future martyr Timotheus and praying at his martyrion after his death; taking care of the poor; holding theological disputes over fasting). The second (Mombritius, 510-515) relates how the emperor Constantine, as he persecuted Christians, fell ill with leprosy. He then repented, met Sylvester (following the advice of Peter and Paul appearing to him), was converted and then baptised by the bishop in the imperial palace thus regaining health. The narrative continues discussing Constantine's activities to promote Christianity after his baptism. The third part (Mombritius, 515-529) first narrates the dispute on Christianity between Sylvester and twelve learned Jews in Rome, organised following a letter exchange between Constantine and his mother Helena, and taking place in front of the emperor Constantine and his mother. The long description of the dispute, presided by the judges Crato and Zenophilus in 315, sees Sylvester’s triumph, also thanks to the miraculous resurrection of a bull. It ends with the conversion of several Jews and pagans, in particular Constantine’s mother and sons. The fourth and final part of the narrative (Mombritius 529-531) narrates how Sylvester miraculously defeated a dragon in Rome (with the help of the Apostle Peter who appeared to him in a vision and gave him instructions on how to defeat it) and triggered mass conversions. It ends with the text of a law of Constantine promoting Christianity.

The Acts in Mombritius’ edition end with an epilogue added later to the original narrative (BHL 7731-7732; Mombritius, 531) praising Sylvester’s actions (notably the construction of churches of the saints) and relating Sylvester’s last speech. Sylvester is said to have been buried in the cemetery of Priscilla, at the third milestone on the Via Salaria on the day before the Calends of January [= 31 December].

Text: Mombritius 1910, II, 508-531. Summary: M. Pignot.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Silvester, bishop of Rome, d. 336 : S00397 Peter the Apostle : S00036 Paul, the Apostle : S00008 Timotheus, martyr of Rome : S00330

Saint Name in Source

Silvester Petrus Paulus Thimotheus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult activities - Places

Martyr shrine (martyrion, bet sāhedwātā, etc.)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle with animals and plants Healing diseases and disabilities Exorcism Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Miraculous sound, smell, light Power over life and death Miracles causing conversion

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Monarchs and their family Officials Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy Physicians Women Children Animals Jews Pagans Unbaptized Christians Foreigners (including Barbarians) Aristocrats Crowds

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body Transfer, translation and deposition of relics


The Acts of Sylvester have an extremely complex textual history, and they lack of any modern critical edition. According to Levison’s classification (later refined in particular by Pohlkamp), there are three main versions: A, B and C. Version A, in two books, is the earliest, while B and C modify and augment the original narrative. A manuscript fragment of A or B dating from the 5th century (Klagenfurt, Universitätsbibliothek, Perg. Hs. 48) shows that the text was composed by the 5th century at the latest, while there are more than 200 manuscripts of the various versions from the 8th century onwards (notably Munich, BSB, Clm 3514). The Acts were also translated into Greek, then Syriac, and Armenian.


The Acts were clearly written as a falsification to overturn Constantine’s deathbed baptism in Nicomedia by the Arian bishop Eusebius. The hagiographer, probably basing his narrative on already circulating legends about Sylvester, aims at showing that in fact Constantine’s baptism was performed by a Nicene, the bishop of Rome Sylvester. For early evidence of cult of Sylvester see S00397. The Acts can be described as an evolving text, with several additions and alterations over centuries. The precise origin and date of composition of the Acts remains uncertain (see the bibliography for major studies exploring this issue). The prologue appended to the Acts in several manuscripts, and which may or may not have been part of the original narrative, presents the Acts as the translation from the Greek of a life composed by Eusebius of Caesarea. However, the comparison of the Syriac, Greek and Latin versions of the Acts , and particularly the vocabulary, liturgy, and topography points to a writing of the earliest version in Rome in Latin between the late 4th and 5th centuries. It should be noted, moreover, that there are other examples of prologues in late antique Italian hagiography, clearly composed in Latin, but pointing to an hypothetical Eusebian source (for instance E02095, E02483). The reference to Eusebius in late antique hagiography more generally relates to the mention in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastic History, of a compilation of martyrdom accounts (E00014), and it clearly gave greater authority to the text to be diffused.


Edition (BHL 7725-7732): Mombritius, B., Sanctuarium seu vitae sanctorum, 2 vols. with additions and corrections by A. Brunet and H. Quentin (Paris, 1910), II, 508-531. The original edition was published c. 1480. Further reading: Arnaldi, G., "La leggenda dell’imperatore Costantino e di papa Silvestro. A proposito del libro di Tessa Canella sugli Actus Silvestri," Sanctorum 5 (2008), 209-220. Levison, W., Konstantinische Schenkung und Silvester-Legende, in Miscellanea Francesco Ehrle (Rome, 1924), t. II, 159-247. Loenertz, R.J., “Actus Sylvestri. Genèse d’une légende,” Revue d’histoire ecclésiastique 70 (1975), 426-439. Pohlkamp, W., “Tradition und Topographie: Papst Silvester I. (314-335) und der Drache vom Forum Romanum,” Römische Quartalschrift 78 (1983), 1-100. Pohlkamp, W., “Kaiser Konstantin, der heidnische und der christliche Kult in den Actus Silvestri,” Frühmittelalterliche Studien 18 (1984), 357-400. Pohlkamp, W., “Privilegium ecclesiae Romanae pontifici contulit. Zur Vorgeschichte der Konstantinischen Schenkung,” MGH Fälschungen im Milttelalter 2: Internationaler Kongress der MGH, München, 16.-19 September 1986. Gefälschte Rechtstexte. Der bestrafte Fälscher (Hanover, 1988), 425-490. Pohlkamp, W., “Textfassungen, literarische Formen und geschichtliche Funktionen der römischen Silverster-Akten,” Francia 19/1 (1992), 115-196. Tessa, C., Gli “Actus Silvestri”. Genesi di una leggenda su Costantino imperatore (Spoleto, 2006).

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