Pope Simplicius

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Saint Simplicius
Birth name Simplicius
Papacy began 468
Papacy ended March 10, 483
Predecessor Hilarius
Successor Felix III
Born ???
Tivoli, Italy
Died March 10 483

Pope Saint Simplicius was pope from 468 to March 10, 483. During his papacy, Simplicius witnessed the fall of the western Roman Empire to the barbarians and forged a cooperative relationship with the Arian leader, Odoacer, after the latter became king of Italy in 476. Simplicius' is best known, however, for the events surrounding his relationship with eastern Christendom centering on Constantinople.

Simplicius defended the after-effects of the of the Council of Chalcedon in the struggle against Monophysitism but opposed the council's elevation of the patriarchy of Constantinople as the "New Rome." Although he worked effectively with eastern orthodox leaders during the first part of his papacy to counter Monophysitism, Simplicius later clashed with Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople over a jurisdictional dispute. Acacius and the eastern emperor Zeno soon created an accommodation with the Monophystites known as the Henotikon, which nearly unraveled the work of Council of Chalcedon.

Simplicius was known as an effective administrator and is credited with the construction of several churches including one which still exists, dedicated to the memory of the virgin and martyr Saint Bibiana. Due to his championing of orthodoxy and his promotion of the papacy's authority, Simplicius is venerated in the West as a saint, but not by the Oriental Orthodox churches. His feast day is celebrated on March 2.

A Pope in the Barbarian West

Romulus Augustulus submits to Odoacer

Little is known of Simplicius' upbringing or his career before becoming pope. After the death of Pope Hilarius in 468, he was elected without any controversy being noted in the historical record.

During his pontificate, the western Roman Empire came to an end under the "barbarian" advance. Since the murder of Emperor Valentinian III (455), there had been a rapid succession of minor emperors in the western empire, who were constantly threatened by war and revolution. Following other German tribes, the Heruli entered Italy, and their ruler Odoacer put an end to the western empire by deposing Emperor Romulus Augustulus. Odoacer assumed the title of king of Italy.

Like several other barbarian leaders, Odoacer was an Arian Christian and, thus, a "heretic." However, he treated the Catholic Church with respect, recognizing its importance as an administrative and moral asset in his reign. He also retained, to a large extent, the former secular administrative organization of Rome, so that the the overthrow of the previous regime produced no great upheaval at Rome.

Relations with the East

During the Monophysite controversy that continued to rage in the eastern empire, Simplicius vigorously defended the orthodox view and promoted the independence of the Church against the Byzantine rulers and church leaders who were inclined to either tolerate or favor Monophysitism. He also became involved in a more direct controversy over the question of Rome's primacy.

The New Rome controversy

As the West declined in the face of the barbarian advance, Constantinople evolved greater and greater authority as the center of eastern Christendom in the later Roman Empire. It acquired, or sought to acquire, the status of "New Rome." Prior to Simplicius' papacy, the twenty-eighth canon of the Council of Chalcedon (451) granted the See of Constantinople the same privileges that were enjoyed by the bishop of Old Rome, although as the patriarch of Rome, the pope still held the highest rank of honor. The canon reads:

…The Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city (and)… gave equal privileges to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that the city which is honored with the Sovereignty and the Senate and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank next after her….

The rule went on to authorize the patriarch of Constantinople to appoint bishops in the imperial provinces of Pontus, Asia, of Thrace. The papal legates to this ecumenical council protested the elevation of the Byzantine patriarch to this degree, and Pope Leo I had confirmed only the theological decrees—as opposed to the ecclesiological rules—passed by the council. In 474, Emperor Leo II sought Simplicius' confirmation of Constantinople's status. Simplicius, however, rejected the emperor's request.

Monophysites and the Henotikon

A coin issued by Emperor Zeno during his second reign.

This, however, was only the beginning of Simplicius' struggle with the emperors of the East. In 476, after Leo II's death, Flavius Basiliscus drove the new emperor, Zeno, into exile and seized the Byzantine throne. Basiliscus looked to the Monophysites for support, and he allowed the deposed Monophysite patriarchs Timotheus Ailurus of Alexandria and Peter Fullo of Antioch to return to their sees. At the same time Basiliscus issued a religious edict which commanded that only the first three ecumenical councils were to be accepted, rejecting the Council of Chalcedon. All eastern bishops were commanded to sign the edict. The patriarch of Constantinople, Acacius, wavered; but a popular outcry led by rigidly orthodox monks moved the bishop to resist the emperor and to reject his overtures to the Monophysites.

Pope Simplicius made every effort to maintain the theology the Council of Chalcedon, and many of the abbots and priests of Constantinople rallied to his authority. The pope sent letters of exhortation to Patriarch Acacius and the priests and abbots of the east, as well as to Emperor Basiliscus himself. Simplicius also sought to influence the emperor on behalf of the orthodox former patriarch of Alexandria, Timotheus Salophakiolus, who had been superseded by Timotheus Ailurus.

Ultimately, when the former emperor, Zeno, regained power from Basiliscus in 477, he sent the pope a completely orthodox confession of faith, whereupon Simplicius congratulated him on his restoration to power. Zeno promptly voided the edicts of Basiliscus, banished Peter Fullo from Antioch, and reinstated Timotheus Salophakiolus at Alexandria. However, he also allowed the Monophysite Patriarch Timotheus Ailurus to retain his office in the same city, reportedly on account of the latter's great age, although no doubt also because of the strength of the Monophysite adherents there. In any case, Ailurus soon died. The Monophysites of Alexandria now put forward Peter Mongus, the former archdeacon of Ailurus, as his successor. Urged by the pope and the orthodox parties of the east, Zeno commanded that Peter Mongus be banished. Peter, however, was able to remain in Alexandria, and fear of the Monophysites prevented the use of force.

Meanwhile the orthodox Patriarch Timotheus Salophakiolus, apparently seeking conciliation, risked the ire of the anti-Monophysites by placing of the name of the respected Monophysite patriarch Dioscurus I on the list of honored leaders to be read at the church services. Simplicius wrote to Acacius of Constantinople on March 13, 478, urging that Salophakiolus should be commanded to reverse himself on this matter. Salophakiolus sent legates and letters to Rome to assure the pope that Dioscorus' name would be removed from the lists.

Patriarch Acacius continued his campaign against the Monophysistes, and at his request Pope Simplicius condemned by name the previously named "heretics" Mongus and Fullo, as well as several others. The pope also named Acacius as his representative in the matter. When the Monophysites at Antioch raised a revolt in 497 against anti-Monophysite Patriarch Stephen II and killed him, Acacius himself chose and consecrated Stephen's successors. Simplicius demanded that the emperor punish the murderers of the patriarch, but—ever vigilant to defend Rome's prerogatives—strongly reproved Acacius for allegedly exceeding his competence in performing the consecration of Stephen III. Relations between the patriarchs of the two great cities now soured considerably.

After the death of Salophakiolus, the Monophysites of Alexandria again elected Peter Mongus patriarch, while the orthodox chose Johannes Talaia. Despite Acacius' earlier opinion that Mongus was a heretic, both Acacius and the emperor were opposed to Talaia and sided with Mongus. When Mongus came to Constantinople to advance his cause, Acacius and he agreed upon a formula of union between the Catholics and the Monophysites—the Henotikon—that was approved by the Emperor Zeno in 482.

Mongus' rival Talaia, meanwhile, had sent ambassadors to Pope Simplicius to notify him of his election. However, at the same time, the pope received a letter from the emperor in which Talaia was accused of perjury and bribery. The emperor insisted that under the circumstances, the pope should recognize Mongus. Simplicius thus hesitated to recognize Talaia, but he also protested against the elevation of Mongus to the patriarchate. Acacius, nevertheless, maintained his alliance with Mongus and sought to prevail upon the Eastern bishops to enter into communion with him. Acacius now broke off communication with Simiplicius, and the pope later wrote to him, blaming Acacius severely for his lapse. Talaia himself came to Rome in 483, but Simplicius was already dead. Pope Felix III welcomed Talaia, repudiated the Henotikon, and excommunicated Peter Mongus.

As pastor of the West

The Church of Santa Bibiana in Rome was initially built by Pope Simplicius and consecrated in 467. It was restored by Pope Honorius III in 1224.

Simplicius was actively involved in the pastoral care of western Europe as well, despite the trying circumstances of the church during the disruption of the barbarian migrations. He issued decisions in numerous ecclesiastical questions and appointed Bishop Zeno of Seville as papal vicar in Spain, enabling Rome to exercise its authority more directly in that country. Simplicius vigorously opposed the decision of Bishop John of Ravenna in 482, to place the city of Mutina under his and to consecrate Bishop George for this diocese.

Simplicius also established four new churches in Rome itself. A large hall built in the form of a rotunda on the Cælian Hill was turned into a church and dedicated to Saint Stephen. The main part of this building still exists as the Church of San Stefano Rotondo. When a fine hall near the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore was given to the Roman Church, Simplicius turned it into a church dedicated to Saint Andrew, although this building no longer exists. Simplicius built another church dedicated to Saint Stephen behind the memorial church of San Lorenzo in Agro Verano. This church is no longer standing. He had a fourth church built in the city in honor of Saint Bibiana, this church still remains near the site of her grave.

In Rome itself, Simplicius took steps to make sure of the regular holding of church services, the administration of baptism and penance in the great churches of the catacombs outside the city walls: Namely the churches of Saint Peter (in the Vatican), Saint Paul on the Via Ostiensis, and of Saint Lawrence on the Via Tiburtina. Simplicius ordained that the clergy of three designated sections of the city take charge religious functions at these churches of the catacombs in an established order.

Simplicius was buried in Saint Peter's on Vatican Hill. The "Liber Pontificalis" gives March 2 as the day of burial but Catholic scholars now believe that March 10 is a more accurate date.

After his death, the prefect of the city, Basilius, asserted that Simplicius had stipulated that no one should be consecrated Roman bishop without his or King Odoacer's consent. The Roman clergy, however, opposed this edict on the grounds that limited their right of election. They also appealed to the earlier edict issued by the Emperor Honorius during the reign of Pope Boniface I, which gave authority for the election of the Roman bishop to its clergy alone.


Simplicius left an important legacy in his strong stand for orthodoxy during the Monophysite controversy, affirming Rome's unbending leadership as opposed to the compromising attitude of eastern emperors and patriarchs. At the same time, he showed that an orthodox pope could get along even with a heretical king such as Odoacer, as long as the king did not seek to impose his theological views on the church. However, in insisting absolutely on Rome's authority over Constantinople in ecclesiological matters, and especially in reproving Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople for appointing certain bishops, Simplicius alienated a crucial ally. Acacius' resultant detente with the Monophysites—in the form of the Henotikon—would nearly undo Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

Simplicius is venerated as a saint, and his feast is on March 2 or 3.

Roman Catholic Popes
Preceded by:
Bishop of Rome
Succeeded by:
Felix III

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Alberigo, Giuseppe. The Oecumenical councils from Nicaea I to Nicaea II (325-787). Turnhout: Brepols, 2006. ISBN 9782503523637.
  • Chapman, John. Studies on the Early Papacy. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1971. ISBN 9780804611398.
  • Cunningham, Agnes. The Early Church and the State. Sources of Early Christian thought, 4. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982. ISBN 9780800614133.
  • Frend, W.H.C. The Rise of the Monophysite Movement: Chapters in the History of the Church in the Fifth and Six Centuries. London: Cambridge University Press, 1972. ISBN 9780521081306.
  • Heather, P.J. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. ISBN 9780195159547.
  • Kreilkamp, Hermes. Rome and Constantinople in the Fifth Century: A Study in the Relationships of Patriarchal Churches. Washington, D.C.: School of Canon Law, Catholic University of America, 1971.


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