|Saint Victor I|
|Other popes named Victor|
Pope Saint Victor I was bishop of Rome (from about 189 to 199 C.E.). Having been born in the Roman Province of Africa, he was the first African pope.
Victor is best known for his role in the Easter controversy, in which he attempted unsuccessfully to require that all Christians celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus on Sunday, rather than in relation to the Jewish calculation of Passover. He was also actively involved in ridding the Roman church of Gnosticism and other heresies, including Adoptionism and possibly Montanism.
According to Jerome, Victor was the first Christian author to write theological works in Latin. Before Victor's time, Rome celebrated the Mass in Greek, and he may have been the first Roman bishop to use a Latin liturgy. Latin masses, however, did not become widespread until the latter half of the fourth century.
Although he is traditionally venerated as a martyr, there is no evidence of his martyrdom in the historical records. Indeed, he seems to have been the first pope to have enjoyed close connections to the imperial household. His reign was marked by improved and peaceful relations with the Roman state.
Victor died in 199 C.E., and was succeeded by Pope Zephyrinus. His feast day is commemorated on July 28.
Victor's date of birth is unknown. The Liber Pontificalis identifies him as a native of Africa and gives his father's name as Felix. The dates of his reign as bishop of Rome are a matter of some confusion. The Liber Pontificalis gives the years 186-197 as the period of Victor's episcopate. The Armenian text of the Chronicle of Eusebius, however, places the beginning of Victor's pontificate in the seventh year of the reign of the Emperor Commodus (187) and gives it a duration of 12 years. In Eusebius' Church History (V, xxxii), however, Eusebius places the beginning of Victor's pontificate in the tenth year of Commodus and makes it last ten years.
During the closing years of the reign of Commodus (180-192) and the early years of Septimius Severus (from 193), the Roman Church enjoyed, in general, a time of external peace, from which Pope Victor and his flock benefited in comparison to earlier times of persecution. Moreover, even during the preceding reign of Marcus Aurelius, the persecution of Christians had been more severe elsewhere in the empire than in Rome itself.
The favorable opinion of the Christians held by Commodus is ascribed to the influence of a woman named Marcia, reportedly the emperor's mistress and later one of his assassins. According to the testimony of Hippolytus (Philosophumena, IX, 12) Marcia had been brought up by the presbyter Hyacinthus, and was very positively inclined toward the Christians, perhaps even a Christian herself. One day she summoned Pope Victor to the imperial palace and volunteered to help gain the freedom of the Roman Christians who had been previously condemned to forced labor in the mines of Sardinia. The pope provided her a list of these sufferers, and Marcia, after receiving the required document of pardon from the emperor, sent Hyacinthus to Sardinia with an order of release. The future Pope Callistus was among those released, although he did not return to Rome but remained at Antium, where he received a monthly pension from the Roman Christians.
Irenaeus (Adv. Haerses, IV, xxx, 1) reports that Christians were employed during this period as officials of the imperial court. Among these officials was the imperial freedman Prosenes, whose gravestone and epitaph have been preserved. Septimius Severus, during the early years of his reign, also regarded the Christians kindly, so that the influence of Christian officials continued. This emperor retained in his palace a Christian named Proculus, who had once cured him. He protected Christian men and women of rank against the excesses of the pagan populace, and his son Caracalla had a Christian wet nurse (Tertullian, "Ad Scapulam," IV). Christianity thus made great advances in the capital during Victor's episcopate and also found adherents among the families who were distinguished for wealth and noble descent (Eusebius, "Hist. eccl.," V, xxi).
While the external situation of the Roman Church thus prospered, internal dissensions during this period greatly affected the Church. The dispute over the celebration of Easter in particular grew more acute. The Roman Christians who had come from the province of Asia (also called Phrygia in today's western Turkey) were accustomed to observe Easter in relation to the timing of Passover, on the fourteenth day of Jewish month of Nisan—whatever day of the week that date might happen to be. This tradition led to trouble when it was noticed by the native Christian community of Rome.
Pope Victor decided to bring about unity in the observance of the Easter festival and to persuade the "Quartodecimans" to join in the practice of the Roman Church. He wrote, therefore, to Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus and persuaded him to call together the bishops of the province of Asia in order to discuss the matter with them. This was done, but the result was not to the pope's liking. In the letter sent to Victor by Polycrates in reply, he declared that he firmly held to the Quartoceciman custom as did the majority of the many other celebrated bishops of that region.
Victor then called a meeting of Italian bishops at Rome, which is the earliest Roman synod known. He also wrote to the leading bishops of the various districts, urging them to call together the bishops of their sections of the country and to take counsel with them on the question of the Easter festival. Letters came from all sides: From the synod in Palestine, at which Theophilus of Caesarea and Narcissus of Jerusalem presided; from the synod of Pontus over which the venerable Palmas presided; from the communities in Gaul whose bishop was Irenaeus of Lyons; from the bishops of the Kingdom of Osrhoene; and also from individual bishops, such as Bakchylus of Corinth. These letters unanimously agreed with Victor that Easter was to be observed on Sunday.
Victor, who believed that he acted as the head of Catholic Christendom, now ordered the bishops of the province of Asia to abandon their custom and to accept the practice of always celebrating Easter on Sunday. Those who refused to comply he declared to be excommunicated, in effect condemning their practice as heresy. The first major split between eastern and western Christianity had thus begun.
Victor's severe procedure outraged even some of those who agreed with him on the main point. Irenaeus of Lyons and others wrote to Victor, criticizing his harshness and urging him to maintain peace and unity with the bishops of Asia. Irenaeus reminded him that even though his predecessors had maintained the Sunday observance of Easter, they had never broken off friendly relations and communion with bishops because they followed another custom (Eusebius, "Hist. eccl.," V, xxiii-xxv). Under this influence, Victor was forced to reconsider his actions and lifted the threat of excommunication against the eastern churches.
In Rome, Victor enforced the observance of Easter on Sunday by all Christians in the capital. However, an easterner named Blastus, with a number of followers, refused to go along with this policy, creating a schism in Rome (Eusebius, loc. cit., B, xx). Beyond this, in terms of the wider course of the Easter controversy under Victor I, little is known. However, in the course of the third century, the Roman practice in the observance of Easter became more universal. Nevertheless, the Nisan 14 tradition was still important enough in the early fourth century that Emperor Constantine I felt compelled to ban it, declaring: "Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Savior a different way" (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Book III, chapter 18)
Victor also had difficulties with a Roman priest named Florinus. As an official of the imperial court, Florinus had become acquainted in Asia Minor with Saint Polycarp, and later became a presbyter of the Roman Church. He allegedly fell into the Gnostic heresy and defended the views of the Gnostic leader Valentinus. Irenæus wrote two treatises against Florinus' opinions: "On the Monarchy [of God] and that God is not the Author of Evil," and "On the Ogdoad." Irenaeus called Victor's attention to the writings of Florinus, and Victor forbade him to practice his priestly functions and may have expelled him from the Church altogether (Eusebius, "Hist. eccl.," V, xv, 20).
Victor faced another challenge when a rich Christian called Theodotus the Leather-seller came from Constantinople to Rome and taught that Christ, rather than being the Incarnation of God from his birth, was endowed by the Holy Ghost with divine power when he was baptized by John the Baptist. Victor condemned this teaching as heresy and excluded Theodotus from the Church. Theodotus, however, would not submit. Together with his adherents, he formed a separate congregation, which maintained itself for several years at Rome.
Victor may also have been the pope who first opposed the Montanists. Tertullian reports ("Ad Praceam," 1) that a Roman bishop, whose name he does not give, had initially declared his acceptance of the prophecies of Montanus, but had been persuaded by a certain Praxeas to withdraw his support. Some believe that Tertullian, who himself had joined the Montanists by the time he wrote this, referred to Victor's predecessor, Pope Eleutherius, rather than Victor himself.
Jerome calls Pope Victor the first Latin writer in the Church (Chronicon, ad an. Abr. 2209). Prior to him, Greek was the nearly universal language of theological discourse. Jerome mentions small theological treatises written by him in Latin. However, besides the letters touching the Easter controversy, none of Victor's actual works is known. The question of whether he promoted the use of Latin in the Roman liturgy is an open one.
It may have been during Victor's administration that the canon of scripture used at Rome, and which has been partially preserved in the Muratorian Fragment, was drawn up.
Victor, though harsh and unsuccessful in his attempt to bring the eastern churches to heel on the Easter controversy, affirmed Rome's primacy on this matter, in a manner still looked to in the Catholic tradition as being within the pope's rights. From the standpoint of the eastern churches, however, Rome's primacy has always been one of honor only, not one of legislative authority. In this sense, Victor's actions set an unfortunate precedent, which continued to be experienced as arrogance and sometimes as outright error by those of the Orthodox tradition.
As the first Latin writer of the Catholic Church, Victor left an important legacy, as Latin would eventually become the official language of the Western Church. While this would create a rich intellectual and liturgical tradition throughout Europe, it, too, exacerbated relations with the east. This was especially the case during the theological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, which sometimes hung on the translation of technical terminology which was not easily rendered into both Latin and Greek with the same precise meaning.
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This article incorporates text from the public domain Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).
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