Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Xystus, or Sixtus II, Pope and Martyr

detail from 'Saint Sixtus Ordains Saint Lawrence', by Fra Angelico, c.1448, Cappella Niccolina, Palazzi Pontifici, VaticanArticle

He was a Grecian by birth, deacon of the Roman Church under Saint Stephen, and upon his demise, in 257 was chosen pope, being the twenty-fifth from Saint Peter. Saint Dionysius of Alexandria consulted him by three letters on certain difficulties, and recommended to him to bear a little while with the Africans and some among the Asiatics with regard to their error concerning the validity of baptism given by heretics. Accordingly this pope used towards them indulgence, contenting himself with strongly recommending the truth to them; and his successors pursued the same conduct till that error was condemned in the plenary council often mentioned by Saint Austin. Saint Sixtus is styled by Saint Cyprian a peaceable and excellent prelate. Though some have ascribed eight years to his pontificate, it is certain from all the circumstances of his history, that he only sat one year.

Gallus, the successor of Decius in the empire, and a persecutor of the Christians, being despised for his cowardice, was slain with his son and colleague Volusius in 253, after having reigned eighteen months. Aemilius then assumed the title of emperor; but was killed after he had reigned four months, without having been acknowledged by the senate; and Valerianus, a person of a noble family, and great reputation, who had been censor and chief of the senate, was acknowledged emperor by the consent of the whole world. He was at first more favourable to the Christians than any of the emperors before him had been, not excepting the Philips; and his palace was full of religious persons. By this means the church enjoyed peace during three years and a half: which tranquillity afforded an opportunity of holding many councils; but in 257 Valerian raised the eighth, or, according to Sulpicius Severus, the ninth general persecution, which continued three years and a half, till he was taken prisoner by the Persians. The change wrought in this emperor is ascribed by Eusebius to a motive of superstition, and to the artifices and persuasion of one Macrianus, who was extremely addicted to the Persian sect of the Magians, and to the black art. This man, whom Saint Dionysius of Alexandria calls the archmagian of Egypt, had worked himself into the highest favour with the superstitious emperor, was raised by him to the first dignities of the state, and persuaded him that the Christians by being avowed enemies to art magic, and to the gods, obstruct the effects of the sacrifices, and the prosperity of his empire. Valerian had reason to tremble for his own safety upon the pinnacle of his honours; for some compute that only six, out of thirty emperors, who had reigned from Augustus to his time, had escaped the violent hands of murderers; but, by declaring himself an enemy to the servants of God, he dug a pit for his own ruin. He published his first edict against them in April, 257, which was followed by the martyrdom of Pope Stephen and many others.

The persecution grew much more fierce in the following year, when Valerian marching into the East against the Persians, sent a new rescript to the senate to be passed into a law, the tenour and effect of which Saint Cyprian notified to his fellow bishops in Africa as follows: 3 – “Valerian has sent an order to the senate, importing that bishops, priests, and deacons should forthwith suffer,” (even although they should be willing to conform), “but that senators, persons of quality, and Roman knights, should forfeit their honours, should have their estates forfeited, and if they still refused to sacrifice, should lose their heads: that matrons should have their goods seized, and be banished: that any of Cæsar’s officers or domestics who had already confessed the Christian faith, or should now confess it, should forfeit their estates to the exchequer, and should be sent in chains to work in Cæsar’s farms. To this order the emperor subjoined a copy of the letters which he hath despatched to the presidents of the several provinces concerning us: which letter I expect, and hope will soon be brought hither. You are to understand that Xystus (bishop of Rome) suffered in a cemetery upon the 6th day of August, and with him Quartus. The officers of Rome are very intent upon this persecution; and the persons who are brought before them are sure to suffer and to forfeit their estates to the exchequer. Pray notify these particulars to my colleagues, that so our brethren may every where be prepared for their great conflict; that we may all think rather of immortality than death, and derive more joy than fear or terror from this confession, in which we know that the soldiers of Christ are not so properly killed as crowned.”

Saint Xystus suffered in a cemetery; for the Christians, in the times of persecution, resorted to those subterraneous caverns to celebrate the divine mysteries. Here they met, though Valerian had forbidden them to hold assemblies, and here they were hunted out. Quartus must have been a priest or deacon; otherwise he would not have suffered upon the spot, but been first pressed by the rack to sacrifice. Some think this name Quartus a slip of the copiers, and read this passage as follows: “with four deacons;” for, say these authors, about that time four deacons suffered at Rome, Prætaxtatus, Felicissimus, and Agapitus, with their bishop, as the Liberian and other ancient Calendars testify; and Laurence, who suffered soon after him. This last was his archdeacon, and seeing him led to execution, expostulated with him, lamenting to be left behind. “St. Sixtus replied that he should follow him within three days, by a more glorious triumph; himself being spared on account of his old age.” Those are mistaken who say that Saint Sixtus was crucified; for the Liberian Calendar assures us, that he was beheaded in the cemetery of Calixtus, and the expression which Saint Cyprian uses signifies the same. Saint Cyprian suffered in the September following; and all the provinces of the empire were watered with the blood of innumerable martyrs; for though Valerian’s first edicts regarded chiefly the clergy, they were soon extended to the whole body of Christians; old and young, men, women, and children; and great numbers of every condition, rich and poor, soldiers, husbandmen, slaves, and even children, were put to cruel deaths, as Eusebius, Saint Cyprian, and the ancient Martyrologies testify.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Xystus, or Sixtus II, Pope and Martyr”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 6 August 2016. Web. 16 August 2017. <>