Date of birth unknown; died 19 July 514. According to the “Liber pontificalis”, he was a native of Sardinia and his father was named Fortunatus. Symmachus was baptized at Rome, entered the ranks of the clergy of Rome, and was ordained deacon. Directly after the death of Pope Anastasius II, Symmachus was elected his successor by a majority of the Roman clergy at the Lateran Basilica on 22 November, 498. The election was approved by a part of the Roman senate and he was at once consecrated Bishop of Rome. Later on the same day a minority of the clergy who were friendly to the Byzantines and were supported by a party in the Senate met in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and elected the Roman archpresbyter Laurentius as antipope. According to Theodorus Lector, the Laurentian party was aided with money supplied chiefly by the rich Senator Festus, who hoped that Laurentius would be influenced by this to sign the “Henotikon”, the edict of faith of the Emperor Zeno. The other authorities do not speak of such motives, which are very probable, and the testimony of Theodorus can very readily be accepted. Both parties, however, agreed that the two candidates should appear at Ravenna before the Gothic king Theodoric, the ruler of Italy, and abide by his decision. Theodoric pronouncing in favour of Symmachus on the ground that he was elected first and by the majority of the clergy, Laurentius submitted to the decision. At a synod held at Rome on 1 March 499, the Acts of which have been preserved, Symmachus, who was now universally acknowledged, bestowed on Laurentius the Diocese of Nocera in Campania. The synod ordained that any Roman cleric who sought to gain votes for a successor to the papacy during the lifetime of the pope, or who called conferences and held consultations for that purpose, should be deposed. King Theodoric was given a vote of thanks by acclamation for his unpartisan decision. When the king came to Rome in the following year he had a brilliant reception both from the pope and the people. However, the Byzantine party, headed by the two senators Festus and Probinus, did not abandon its hostility and hope of overthrowing the pope and gaining the papal see for Laurentius. The opportunity occurred in the following year, 501. Pope Symmachus celebrated Easter on 25 March, following the old Roman cycle, while the Byzantines and others observed the feast on 22 April, according to a new reckoning. The Laurentian party appealed to King Theodoric against the pope, making other accusations besides this digression in the celebration of Easter. Theodoric summoned the pope and Symmachus set out to meet him. At Rimini Symmachus learned the contents of the indictment and, refusing to acknowledge the king as his judge, returned home. The opposing party now accused him of squandering the property of the Church and other matters. It gained in strength and occupied the Lateran palace, so that the pope was obliged to live near the Church of Saint Peter outside the city walls. His opponents requested the king to call a synod for the investigation of the accusations and to appoint a visitor for Rome. Symmachus agreed to the calling of a synod, but he and his adherents protested against the sending of a visitor. Theodoric, however, sent as visitor Bishop Peter of Altinum in upper Italy, who was to administer the Roman Church in the place of the accused pope. Peter came to Rome and, contrary to the commands of king, allowed himself to be won over by the adherents of Laurentius, so that Theodoric at a later date dismissed him. Not long after Easter, between May and July, 502, the synod met in the basilica of Julius (Santa Maria in Trastevere). The pope declared before the synod that it had been called with his consent and that he was ready to answer the accusations before it, if the visitor were removed and he were re-established as the administrator of the Church. To this the majority of the bishops agreed and sent an embassy to the king to demand the execution of these conditions. Theodoric, however, refused, and demanded, first of all, an investigation of the accusations against the pope. A second session of the synod was held, therefore, on 1 September 502, in the Sessorian basilica (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme), and the minority had the indictment made by the Laurentian party read aloud. Symmachus desired to go from Saint Peter’s to the synod in order to defend himself, but on the way there he was attacked by his opponents and maltreated, and, escaping only with great difficulty, returned to Saint Peter’s; several priests who were with him were killed or severely wounded. The Goths sent by Theodoric promised him a reliable escort but the pope now refused to appear before the synod, although invited three times. Consequently the assembled bishops declared at the third session, held about the middle of September, they could not pass judgment upon the pope, because he had appeared twice before his judges, and because there was no precedent showing that an occupant of the Roman See had been subjected to the judgment of other bishops. They called upon the opposing clergy to submit to the pope, and requested the king to permit the bishops to return to their dioceses. All these steps were in vain; the majority of the clergy and people sided indeed with Symmachus, but a minority of the clergy and a majority of the Senators were at that time partizans of Laurentius. A fourth session, therefore, was held on 23 October, 502, called the “Synodus Palmaris” (Palmary synod) either from the place where it was held (ad Palmata, Palma), or because it was the most important session (palmaris). At this session it was decided that on account of the reasons given earlier the decision must be left to the judgment of God; Symmachus was to be regarded as free from all the crimes of which he was accused, and therefore entitled to the full exercise of his episcopal office; the whole property of the church was to be transferred to him; whoever returned to his obedience should escape punishment, but whoever undertook ecclesiastical functions at Rome without papal permission was to be regarded as a schismatic. The decision was signed by seventy-five bishops, among them the bishops of Milan and Ravenna. Many bishops now returned to their dioceses. The majority, however, met with the Roman priests in Saint Peter’s for a fifth session under the presidency of Symmachus on 6 November, 502. The edict issued by the prefect Basilius, in 483, regulating the administration of the possessions of the Church was declared invalid and Symmachus issued a new edict respecting the administration of this property, and especially in regard to its sale.
King Theodoric, not satisfied with the decision of the synod, although the great majority of the Italian episcopate was on the side of the rightful pope, did nothing to carry out the new ordinances. Consequently the opposition called its candidate Laurentius again to Rome. He resided in the Lateran palace, which was in the hands of his adherents, while Symmachus retained the house of the bishop (episcopium) near Saint Peter’s. The division continued for four years, during which both parties carried on a furious quarrel at Rome. Laurentius had his portrait added to the series of popes in the Church of Saint Paul Without the Walls. However, certain prominent persons exerted their influence in favour of Symmachus, as Bishop Avitus of Vienne, who, at the request of the Gallican bishops, addressed an urgent letter to the Senate on behalf of the rightful pope and for the restoration of unity. Symmachus gradually won over a number of adherents of the opposition. The greatest factor in the healing of the schism was the interposition of Deacon Dioscurus of Alexandria, who had come to Rome. He was commissioned by Symmachus to go to Theodoric, and won the king over to the side of the rightful pope. Apparently political motives were involved, as the king wished to take action against the Laurentian party, which inclined to Constantinople. He commanded Senator Festus, the head of the hostile party, to return all Roman churches to Symmachus. Laurentius having lost many adherents among the senators the king’s command was executed without difficulty. The antipope, obliged to leave Rome, retired to a farm belonging to his protector Festus. Only a small party still held to Laurentius and refused to recognize Symmachus as Bishop of Rome; but it was insignificant and was reconciled later to Hormisdas, the successor of Symmachus. During the schism a number of polemical writings appeared, as from the party of Laurentius the treatise “Contra Synodum absolutionis incongruae”, to which Deacon Ennodius replied in “Libellus adversus eos qui contra Synodum scribere praseumpserunt” (“Mon. Germ. Hist.: Auct. ant.”, VII, 48 sq.). While the author of the life of Symmachus in the completely preserved text of the “Liber pontificalis” is very favourable to the pope, the writer of another continuation of the papal biographies supports the cause of Laurentius (“Fragment Laurentine”, ed. Duchesne in “Liber pontificalis”, I, 44-46). During the dispute the adherents of Symmachus drew up four apocryphal writings called the “Symmachian Forgeries”; these were: “Gesta synodi Sinuessanae de Marcellino”; “Constitutum Silvestri”, “Gesta Liberii”; “Gesta de purgatione Xysti et Polychronii accusatione”. These four works are to be found in Coustant, “Epist. rom. pontif.” (Paris, 1721), appendix, 29 sq.; cf. Duchesne, “Liber pontificalis”, I, introduction, CXXXIII sq.: “Histoire littéraire des apocryphes symmachiens”. The object of these forgeries was to produce alleged instances from earlier times to support the whole procedure of the adherents of Symmachus, and, in particular, the position that the Roman bishop could not be judged by any court composed of other bishops. Still these forgeries are not the first documents to maintain this latter tenet.
Symmachus zealously defended the supporters of orthodoxy during the disorders of the Acacian schism. He defends, although without success, the opponents of the “Henotikon” in a letter to Emperor Anastasius I (491-518). At a later date many of the persecuted oriental bishops addressed themselves to the pope to whom they sent a confession of faith. Shortly after 506 the emperor sent him a letter full of invectives, to which the pope sent a firm answer, maintaining forcibly the rights and liberty of the Church (Thiel, “Epist. rom. pont.”, I, 700 sq.). In a letter of 8 October, 512, addressed to the bishops of Illyria, the pope warned the clergy of that province not to hold communion with heretics. Soon after the beginning of his pontificate Symmachus interposed in the quarrel between the Archbishops of Arles and Vienne as to the boundaries of their respective territories. He annulled the edict issued by Anastasius II in favour of the Archbishop of Vienne and later (6 November, 513) confirmed the metropolitan rights of archbishop Caesarius of Arles, as these had been fixed by Leo I. Moreover, he granted Caesarius the privilege of wearing the pallium, the first-known instance of such a grant by the Holy See to a bishop outside of Italy. In a letter of 11 June, 514, he appointed Caesarius to represent the interests of the Church both in Gaul and Spain, to hold synods of the bishops in certain cases, to give letters of recommendation to clergy who journeyed to Rome. More important matters were to be laid before the Holy See. In the city of Rome, according to the “Liber pontificalis”, the pope took severe measures against the Manichæans, ordered the burning of their books, and expelled them from the city. He erected or restored and adorned various churches. Thus he built a Church of Saint Andrew near Saint Peter’s, a Basilica of Saint Agnes on the Via Aurelia, adorned the Church of Saint Peter’s, completely rebuilt the Basilica of Sts. Sylvester and Martinus, and made improvements over the Catacomb of the Jordani on the Via Salaria. He built episcopal houses (episcopia) to the right and left of the parvis of Saint Peter’s. These buildings were evidently connected with the residence of the pope for several years near Saint Peter’s during the disorders of the Laurentian schism. He also built asylums for the poor near the three churches of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint Laurence that were outside the city walls. The pope contributed large sums for the support of the Catholic bishops of Africa who were persecuted by the rulers of the Arian Vandals. He also aided the inhabitants of the provinces of upper Italy who suffered so sorely from the invasion of the barbarians. After his death he was buried at Saint Peter’s. Symmachus is venerated in the Roman Church as a saint.
- Johann Peter Kirsch. “Pope Saint Symmachus”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 30 June 2015. Web. 24 March 2017. <>