Pope Liberius

(Reigned 352-66)

Pope Julius died on 12 April, according to the "Liberian Catalogue", and Liberius was consecrated on 22 May. As this was not a Sunday, 17 May was probably the day. Of his previous life nothing is known save that he was a Roman deacon. An epitaph preserved in a copy by a seventh-century pilgrim is attributed to Liberius by De Rossi, followed by many critics, including Duchesne. The principal points in it are that the pope confirmed the Nicene Faith in a council, and died in exile for the Faith, unless we render "a martyr by exile". The epitaph is attributed by Funk to St. Martin I. De Rossi, however, declared that no epigraphist could doubt that the verses are of the fourth and not the seventh century; still it is not easy to fit the lines to Liberius. The text is in De Rossi, "Inscr. Christ. Urbis Romę", etc., II, 83, 85, and Duchesne, "Lib. Pont.", I, 209. See De Rossi in "Bull. Archeol. Crist." (1883), 5-62; and Von Funk in "Kirchengesch. Abhandl.", I (Paderborn, 1897), 391; Grisar in "Kirchenlex.", s. v.; Suvio, "Nuovi Studi", etc.

This subject will be considered under the following headings:


By the death of Constans (Jan., 350), Constantius had become master of the whole empire, and was bent on uniting all Christians in a modified form of Arianism. Liberius, like his predecessor Julius, upheld the acquittal of Athanasius at Sardica, and made the decisions of Nicęa the test of orthodoxy. After the final defeat of the usurper Magnentius and his death in 353, Liberius, in accordance with the wishes of a large number of Italian bishops, sent legates to the emperor in Gaul begging him to hold a council. Constantius was pressuring the bishops of Gaul to condemn Athanasius, and assembled a number of them at Arles where he had wintered. The court bishops, who constantly accompanied the emperor, were the rulers of the council. The pope's legates (of whom one was Vincent of Capua, who had been one of the papal legates at the Council of Nicęa) were so weak as to consent to renounce the cause of Athanasius, on condition that all would condemn Arianism. The court party accepted the compact, but did not carry out their part; and the legates were forced by violence to condemn Athanasius, without gaining any concession for themselves. Liberius, on receiving the news, wrote to Hosius of Cordova of his deep grief at the fall of Vincent; he himself desired to die, lest he should incur the imputation of having agreed to injustice and heterodoxy. Another letter in the same strain was addressed by the pope to St. Eusebius, Bishop of Vercelli, who had formerly been one of the Roman clergy.

Earlier than this, a letter against Athanasius signed by many Eastern bishops had arrived at Rome. The emperor sent a special envoy named Montanus to Alexandria, where he arrived 22 May, 353, to inform the patriarch that the emperor was willing to grant him a personal interview; but Athanasius had never asked for this; he recognized that a trap had been set for him, and did not move. He quitted Alexandria only in the following February, when George, an Arian, was set up as bishop in his place, amid disgraceful scenes of violence. But Athanasius had already held a council in his own defence, and a letter in his favour, signed by seventy-five (or eighty) Egyptian bishops, had arrived at Rome at the end of May, 353. Constantius publicly accused the pope of preventing peace and of suppressing the letter of the Easterns against Athanasius. Liberius replied with a dignified and touching letter (Obsecro, tranqullissime imperator), in which he declares that he read the letter of the Easterns to a council at Rome (probably an anniversary council, 17 May, 353), but, as the letter which arrived from Egypt was signed by a greater number of bishops, it was impossible to condemn Athanasius; he himself had never wished to be pope, but he had followed his predecessors in all things; he could not make peace with the Easterns, for some of them refused to condemn Arius, and they were in communion with George of Alexandria, who accepted the Arian priests whom Alexander had long ago excommunicated. He complains of the Council of Arles, and begs for the assembling of another council, by means of which the exposition of faith to which all had agreed at Nicęa may be enforced for the future. The letter was carried by Lucifer, Bishop of Calaris (Cagliari), the priest Pancratius, and the deacon Hilary, to the emperor at Milan. The pope asked St. Eusebius to assist the legates with his influence, and wrote again to thank him for having done so. A council was in fact convened at Milan, and met there about the spring of 355. St. Eusebius was persuaded to be present, and he insisted that all should begin by signing the Nicene decree. The court bishops declined. The military were called in. Constantius ordered the bishops to take his word for the guilt of Athanasius, and condemn him. Eusebius was banished, together with Lucifer and Dionysius of Milan. Liberius sent another letter to the emperor; and his envoys, the priest Eutropius and the deacon Hilary, were also exiled, the deacon being besides cruelly beaten. The Arian Auxentius was made Bishop of Milan. The pope wrote a letter, generally known as "Quamuis sub imagine", to the exiled bishops, addressing them as martyrs, and expressing his regret that he had not been the first to suffer so as to set an example to others; he asks for their prayers that he may yet be worthy to share their exile.

That these were not mere words was proved, not only by Liberius's noble attitude of protest during the preceding years, but by his subsequent conduct. Constantius was not satisfied by the renewed condemnation of Athanasius by the Italian bishops who had lapsed at Milan under pressure. He knew that the pope was the only ecclesiastical superior of the Bishop of Alexandria, and he "strove with burning desire", says the pagan Ammianus, "that the sentence should be confirmed by the higher authority of the bishop of the eternal city". St. Athanasius assures us that from the beginning the Arians did not spare Liberius, for they calculated that, if they could but persuade him, they would soon get hold of all the rest. Constantius sent to Rome his prefect of the bed-chamber, the eunuch Eusebius, a very powerful personage, with a letter and gifts. "Obey the emperor and take this" was in fact his message, says St. Athanasius, who proceeds to give the pope's reply at length: He could not decide against Athanasius, who had been acquitted by two general synods, and had been dismissed in peace by the Roman Church, nor could he condemn the absent; such was not the tradition he had received from his predecessors and from St. Peter; if the emperor desired peace, he must annul what he had decreed against Athanasius and have a council celebrated without emperor or counts or judges present, so that the Nicene Faith might be preserved; the followers of Arius must be cast out and their heresy anathematized; the unorthodox must not sit in a synod; the Faith must first be settled, and then only could other matters be treated; let Ursacius and Valens, the court bishops from Pannonia, be disregarded, for they had already once disowned their bad actions, and were no longer worthy of credit.

The eunuch was enraged, and went off with his bribes, which he laid before the confession of St. Peter. Liberius severely rebuked the guardians of the holy place for not having prevented this unheard-of sacrilege. He cast the gifts away, which angered the eunuch yet more, so that he wrote to the emperor that it was no longer a question of simply getting Liberius to condemn Athanasius, for he went so far as formally to anathematize the Arians. Constantius was persuaded by his eunuchs to send Palatine officers, notaries, and counts, with letters to the Prefect of Rome, Leontius, ordering that Liberius should be seized either secretly or by violence, and despatched to the court.

There followed a kind of persecution at Rome. Bishops, says St. Athanasius, and pious ladies were obliged to hide, monks were not safe, foreigners were expelled, the gates and the port were watched. "The Ethiopian eunuch", continues the saint, "when he understood not what he read, believed St. Philip; whereas the eunuchs of Constantius do not believe Peter when he confesses Christ, nor the Father indeed, when He reveals His Son"--an allusion to the declarations of the popes that in condemning Arianism they spoke with the voice of Peter and repeated his confession, "Thou art [the] Christ, the Son of the living God", which the Father Himself had revealed to the Apostle. Liberius was dragged before the emperor at Milan. He spoke boldly, bidding Constantius cease fighting against God, and declaring his readiness to go at once into exile before his enemies had time to trump up charges against him. Theodoret has preserved the minutes of an interview between "the glorious Liberius" and Contstantius, which were taken down by good people, he says, at the time. Liberius refuses to acknowledge the decision of the Council of Tyre and to renounce Athanasius; the Mareotic acts against him were false witness, and Ursacius and Valens had confessed as much, and had asked pardon from the Synod of Sardica. Epictetus, the young intruded Bishop of Centumcellę, interposes, saying that Liberius only wanted to be able to boast to the Roman senators that he had beaten the emperor in argument. "Who are you", adds Constantius, "to stand up for Athanasius against the world?" Liberius replies: "Of old there were found but three to resist the mandate of the king." The eunuch Eusebius cried: "You compare the emperor to Nabuchodonosor." Liberius: "No, but you condemn the innocent." He demands that all shall subscribe the Nicene formula, then the exiles must be restored, and all the bishops must assemble at Alexandria to give Athanasius a fair trial on the spot. Epictus: "But the public conveyances will not be enough to carry so many."
Liberius: "They will not be needed; the ecclesiastics are rich enough to send their bishops as far as the sea."
Constantius: "General synods must not be too numerous; you alone hold out against the judgment of the whole world. He has injured all, and me above all; not content with the murder of my eldest brother, he set Constans also against me. I should prize a victory over him more than one over Silvanus or Magnentius."
Liberius: "Do not employ bishops, whose hands are meant to bless, to revenge your own enmity. Have the bishops restored and, if they agree with the Nicene Faith, let them consult as to the peace of the world, that an innocent man be not condemned."
Constantius: "I am willing to send you back to Rome, if you will join the communion of the Church. Make peace, and sign the condemnation."
Liberius: "I have already bidden farewell at Rome to the brethren. The laws of the Church are more important than residence in Rome." The emperor gave the pope three days for consideration, and then banished him to Beroea in Thrace, sending him five hundred gold pieces for his expenses; but he refused them, saying Constantius needed them to pay his soldiers. The empress sent him the same amount, but he sent it to the emperor, saying: "If he does not need it, let him give it to Auxentius or Epictetus, who want such things." Eusebius the eunuch brought him yet more money: "You have laid waste the Churches of the world", the pope broke out, "and do you bring me alms as to a condemned man? Go and first become a Christian."


On the departure of Liberius from Rome, all the clergy had sworn that they would receive no other bishop. But soon many of them accepted as pope the Archdeacon Felix, whose consecration by the Arian Bishop Acacius of Cęsarea had been arranged by Epictetus at the emperor's order. The people of Rome ignored the antipope. Constantius paid his first visit to Rome on 1 April, 357, and was able to see for himself the failure of his nominee. He was aware that there was no canonical justification for the exile of Liberius and the intrusion of Felix; in other cases he had always acted in accordance with the decision of a council. He was also greatly moved by the grandeur of the Eternal City--so Ammianus assures us. He was impressed by the prayers for the return of the pope boldly addressed to him by the noblest of the Roman ladies, whose husbands had insufficient courage for the venture. There is no reason to suppose that Felix was recognized by any bishops outside Rome, unless by the court party and a few extreme Arians, and the uncompromising attitude of Liberius through at least the greater part of his banishment must have done more harm to the cause the emperor had at heart than his constancy had done when left at Rome in peace. It is not surprising to find that Liberius returned to Rome before the end of 357, and that it was noised abroad that he must have signed the condemnation of Athanasius and perhaps some Arian Creed. His restoration is placed by some critics in 358, but this is impossible, for St. Athanasius tells us that he endured the rigours of exile for two years, and the "Gesta inter Liberium et Felicem episcopos", which forms the preface to the "Liber Precum" of Faustinus and Marcellinus, tells us that he returned "in the third year". The cause of his return is variously related. Theodoret says that Constantius was moved by the Roman matrons to restore him, but when his letter to Rome, saying that Liberius and Felix were to be bishops side by side, was read in the circus, the Romans jeered at it, and filled the air with cries of "One God, one Christ, one bishop". The Arian historian Philostorgius also speaks of the Romans having eagerly demanded the return of their pope, and so does Rufinus. St. Sulpicius Severus, on the other hand, gives the cause as seditions at Rome, and Sozomen agrees. Socrates is more precise, and declares that the Romans rose against Felix and drove him out, and that the emperor was obliged to acquiesce. The reading in St. Jerome's "Chronicle" is doubtful. He says that a year after the Roman clergy had perjured themselves they were driven out together with Felix, until (or because) Liberius had re-entered the city in triumph. If we read "until", we shall understand that after Liberius's return the forsworn clergy returned to their allegiance. If we read "because", with the oldest MS., it will seem rather that the expulsion of Felix was subsequent to and consequent on the return of Liberius. St. Prosper seems to have understood Jerome in the latter sense. The preface to the "Liber Precum" mentions two expulsions of Felix, but does not say that either of them was previous to the return of Liberius.

On the other hand, the Arian Philostorgius related that Liberius was restored only when he had consented to sign the second formula of Sirmium, which was drawn up after the summer of 357 by the court bishops, Germinius, Ursacius, Valens; it rejected the terms homoousios and homoiousios; and was sometimes called the "formula of Hosius", who was forced to accept it in this same year, though St. Hilary is surely wrong in calling him its author. The same story of the pope's fall is supported by three letters attributed to him in the so-called "Historical Fragments" ("Fragmenta ex Opere Historico" in P.L., X, 678 sqq.) of St. Hilary, but Sozomen tells us it was a lie, propagated by the Arian Eudoxius, who had just invaded the See of Antioch. St. Jerome seems to have believed it, as in his "Chronicle" he says that Liberius "conquered by the tedium of exile and subscribing to heretical wickedness entered Rome in triumph". The preface to the "Liber Precum" also speaks of his yielding to heresy. St. Athanasius, writing apparently at the end of 357, says: "Liberius, having been exiled, gave in after two years, and, in fear of the death with which he was threatened, signed", i.e. the condemnation of Athanasius himself (Hist. Ar., xli); and again: "If he did not endure the tribulation to the end yet he remained in his exile for two years knowing the conspiracy against me." St. Hilary, writing at Constantinople in 360, addresses Constantius thus: "I know not whether it was with greater impiety that you exiled him than that you restored him" (Contra Const., II).

Sozomen tells a story which finds no echo in any other writer. He makes Constantius, after his return from Rome, summon Liberius to Sirmium (357), and there the pope is forced by the Semi-Arian leaders, Basil of Ancyra, Eustathius, and Eleusius, to condemn the "Homoousion"; he is induced to sign a combination of three formulę: that of the Catholic Council of Antioch of 267 against Paul of Samosata (in which homoousios was said to have been rejected as Sabellian in tendency), that of the Sirmian assembly which condemned Photinus in 351, and the Creed of the Dedication Council of Antioch of 341. These formulę were not precisely heretical, and Liberius is said to have exacted from Ursacius and Valens a confession that the Son is "in all things similar to the Father". Hence Sozomen's story has been very generally accepted as giving a moderate account of Liberius's fall, admitting it to be a fact, yet explaining why so many writers implicitly deny it. But the date soon after Constantius was at Rome is impossible, as the Semi-Arians only united at the beginning of 358, and their short-lived influence over the emperor began in the middle of that year; hence Duchesne and many others hold (in spite of the clear witness of St. Athanasius) that Liberius returned only in 358. Yet Sozomen mentions the presence of Western bishops, and this suits 357; he says that Eudoxius spread the rumour that Liberius had signed the second Sirmian formula, and this suits 357 and not the time of Semi-Arian ascendancy. Further, the formula "in all things like" was not the Semi-Arian badge in 358, but was forced upon them in 359, after which they adopted it, declaring that it included their special formula "like in substance". Now Sozomen is certainly following here the lost compilation of the Macedonian (i.e. Semi-Arian) Sabinus, whom we know to have been untrustworthy wherever his sect was concerned. Sabinus seems simply to have had the Arian story before him, but regarded it, probably rightly, as an invention of the party of Eudoxius; he thinks the truth must have been that, if Liberius signed a Sirmian formula, it was the harmless one of 351; if he condemned the "Homoousion", it was only in the sense in which it had been condemned at Antioch; he makes him accept the Dedication Creed (which was that of the Semi-Arians and all the moderates of the East), and force upon the court bishops the Semi-Arian formula of 359 and after. He adds that the bishops at Sirmium wrote to Felix and to the Roman clergy, asking that Liberius and Felix should both be accepted as bishops. It is quite incredible that men like Basil and his party should have done this.


At the time of his return, the Romans cannot have known that Liberius had fallen, for St. Jerome (who is so fond of telling us of the simplicity of their faith and the delicacy of their pious ears) says he entered Rome as a conquerer. It was clearly not supposed that he had been conquered by Constantius. There is no sign of his ever having admitted that he had fallen. In 359 were held the simultaneous Councils of Seleucia and Rimini. At the latter, where most of the bishops were orthodox, the pressure and delay, and the underhand machinations of the court party entrapped the bishops into error. The pope was not there, nor did he send legates. After the council his disapproval was soon known, and after the death of Constantius at the end of 361 he was able publicly to annul it, and to decide, much as a council under Athanasius at Alexandria decided, that the bishops who had fallen could be restored on condition of their proving the sincerity of their repentance by their zeal against the Arians. About 366 he received a deputation of the Semi-Arians led by Eustathius; he treated them first as Arians (which he could not have done had he ever joined them), and insisted on their accepting the Nicene formula before he would receive them to communion; he was unaware that many of them were to turn out later to be unsound on the question of the Divinity of the Holy Ghost. We learn also from St. Siricius that, after annulling the Council of Rimini, Liberius issued a decree forbidding the re-baptism of those baptized by Arians, which was being practiced by the Luciferian schismatics.