Get the CD Now!

The Apostolic Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers by J.B. Lightfoot: Part I, Volume 2: Hippolytus of Portus

§ 12.


Hippolytus speaks of himself as a bishop. He is so designated by others. What then was his see? Rome was the sphere of his activity while living. At Rome he was commemorated after death. All his recorded actions are connected with Rome or at least with Italy. Whether history or legend be interrogated, the answer is the same. We are not asked to travel beyond Italian ground, nor for the most part beyond the immediate neighbourhood of the world's metropolis itself.

Hippolytus was by far the most learned man and the most prolific writer which the Roman Church produced before Jerome. It is therefore the more remarkable that any uncertainty should rest upon the name of his see. It is still more strange that the writers who lived

1 Wordsworth however (p. 158 sq) strives to maintain the accuracy of Prudentius on this and other points, and is obliged to prolong the life of Hippolytus accordingly.


nearest to his own time and locality should most frankly confess their ignorance.

Yet this is so. Eusebius (AR. 3. d), who wrote within some eighty years of his death and was acquainted with several of his writings, tells us that he was a bishop somewhere or other (`ετερας που...προεστως εκκλησιας). Jerome, who wrote a little more than half a century later than Eusebius, is equally at a loss (AR. 8. b). He is not dependent on this occasion, as on so many others, on his predecessor; he shows a larger acquaintance with the works of Hippolytus; he had habitually trodden the same ground, which Hippolytus trod when living. Yet he frankly confesses that he has 'not been able to find out the name of the city' of which Hippolytus was bishop. Bunsen indeed (I. p. 420) suggests that he could not tell, because he would not tell, and that his reticence in fact means 'Non mi ricordo.' For this imputation however there is no ground. The one man of all others, whose antecedents placed him in the most favourable position for ascertaining the details of the earlier history of the Roman Church and who took special pains to preserve memorials of the martyrs—among others of Hippolytus himself—Pope Damasus, the older contemporary of Jerome, says nothing about his see, but calls him simply the 'presbyter' (AR. 7. a), a term of which I shall have to speak presently (see below, p. 435 sq). At length when this silence about the see of its most illustrious writer is broken by the Roman Church, the notice betrays the grossest ignorance. Gelasius followed Damasus in the papacy after a lapse of about a century (A. D. 492—496). He refers to the Treatise on Heresies as written by 'Hippolytus bishop and martyr of the metropolis of the Arabians,' i.e. of Bostra (AR. 13). But this notice, though blundering, is explicable and highly instructive. Eusebius, describing the chief writers of a particular period, mentions that Beryllus was bishop of the Arabians in Bostra, adding 'in like manner Hippolytus presided (as bishop) over some other church' (`ετερας που). In translating this passage Rufinus (AR. 9) drops the `ετερας που and renders vaguely, 'episcopus hic [Beryllus] fuit apud Bostram Arabiae urbem maximam. Erat nihilominus et Hippolytus, qui et ipse aliquanta scripta dereliquit episcopus.' This might imply to a casual reader who had not the original before him that Hippolytus was a predecessor or successor of Beryllus in the same see of Bostra.

The origin of this curious blunder has thus been satisfactorily explained, and it need not therefore give us any further trouble. Nevertheless it has given rise to some modern speculation, which cannot be passed by without a mention. Le Moyne (Varia Sacra I.


prol. p. 28 sq, ed. 2) with much learning and ingenuity maintained that the see of Hippolytus was not the Port at the mouth of the Tiber, which he calls Portus Ostiensis1, but Portus Romanorum or Emporium Romanum, the modern Aden, on the Red Sea2; and he succeeded in persuading several writers of great repute such as Cave, Spanheim3, and others4. Latterly this view has found no supporters. Of a recent attempt by Erbes to utilise this supposed connexion with Bostra—though shown to be a blunder—in support of his own chronological theories, I have had occasion to speak already. The real value of the notice of Gelasius is the evidence which it affords, that even in his time nothing was known at Rome of the see of Hippolytus.

The general opinion however makes him bishop of Portus the haven of Rome. This view prevailed before Le Moyne attempted to transfer him from the mouth of the Tiber to the mouth of the Red Sea. But Le Moyne's attempt called forth a vigorous championship of the received view. At the instigation of Card. Ottoboni, bishop of Portus, his librarian Ruggieri, a man of learning and ability, addressed himself to the subject in a treatise De Portnensi S. Hippolyti Episcopi et Martyris Sede, which after many vicissitudes appeared at length as a posthumous work (Romae, 1771)5. This work has given its direction to later opinion on the question; and in our own generation, when the interest in Hippolytus was revived by the publication of the Philosophumena, there was a very general acquiescence on this point among those who differed most widely in other respects.

Nevertheless it must be confessed that the ancient evidence is very defective. We cannot overcome our surprise that, if his see had been within fifteen or twenty miles of Rome itself, the popes Damasus and Gelasius should have been ignorant of the fact. But the difficulty culminates in the case of Jerome. He was well acquainted with the various works of Hippolytus. His own friend Pammachius built at this very Portus a 'xenodochium6' or 'hospital for foreigners,' which

1 He does not however confuse Portus and Ostia (see p. 29 sq), as Wordsworth seems to think (p. 259, note 7).

2 There is however, so far as I have seen, no evidence produced to show that the place was called Portus Romanus, its common name being Emporium Romanum.

3 Op. I. p. 777, Lugd. Bat. 1701.

4 Not however Tillemont (as Wordsworth says, p. 259), at least in my edition, Mem. III. p. 239, 672 sq.

5 The circumstances attending the history of the composition and appearance of this work will be found in Wordsworth, p. 260 sq. It is inserted in Lumper, Hist. Sanct. Patr. Tom. viii, and again in Migne, Patrol. Graec. X. p. 395 sq.

6 Hieron. Epist. lxvi. § 11 (I. p. 410) 'Audio te [Pammachium] xenodochium in Portu fecisse Romano,' Epist. lxxvii.


became known far and wide and in which Jerome expresses the greatest interest. Did Portus retain no memorial of its most famous bishop, who died a martyr only a century and a half before?

Indeed the earliest authority for placing his see at Portus appears not at Rome nor in Italy, but in Constantinople and the East, two centuries and a half later than Jerome's Catalogus. In the Chronicon Paschale [c. A.D. 630] he is described as bishop 'of the place called Portus near Rome' (AR. 21)1. From this time forward he is occasionally so called, as for instance by Anastasius the Apocrisiarius or Papal Nuncio at Constantinople A.D. 665 (AR. 23); by Georgius Syncellus c. A. D. 792 (AR. 28); by Nicephorus of Constantinople †A. D. 828 (AR. 29); and other later writers. The statements of Anastasius and of Nicephorus seem to be founded on the heading to a MS of the spurious treatise Against Vero, which they both quote (see above, p. 403 sq). We may indeed suspect that this Constantinopolitan MS containing an often quoted and highly important dogmatic treatise (if it had only been genuine) was the single source of the story of the Portuensian episcopate, which seems to have been derived solely through Byzantine channels. The statement is found also in catena; and in other manuscripts containing extracts from Hippolytus.

It should be added also that, besides the defective evidence, the argument which placed Hippolytus in the see of Portus was weighted with another serious objection, which was urged with fatal effect by Döllinger. Bunsen (I. p. 422 sq, 468 sq) projected into the times of Hippolytus an arrangement of the later cardinalate, by which the bishops of the suburban sees presided as titulars of the principal churches in the City itself. Thus Hippolytus, according to Bunsen's view, while bishop of Portus, would have been likewise a member of the Roman presbytery. This solution was highly tempting; for it seemed to explain how Hippolytus, having a diocese of his own, should interfere actively in the affairs of the Church of Rome in the manner described in the Philosophumena. It is sufficient to say that Bunsen's view involves an anachronism of many centuries. The development in the relations between the suburban sees and the papacy is traced

§ 10 (I. p. 465), lxvii. § 10 (I. p. 466) 'Xenochium in Portu Romano situm totus pariter mumdus audivit; sub una aestate didicit Britannia quod Aegyptus et Parthus noverat vere.' For an interesting account of the extant remains of this xenodochium see De Rossi Bull. di Archeol. Crist. IV. p. 50 sq, p. 99 sq (1866).

l On the mistaken supposition that we have here the words of Peter of Alexandria, who flourished more than three centuries earlier, see above, p. 344.


by Döllinger (p. 105 sq); and the late growth and character of these relations are fatal to Bunsen's theory.

Here Döllinger was treading on solid ground. But, when he maintained that Portus was not at this time and did not become for many generations a place of any importance (p. 77 sq), he took up a position which it is impossible to hold. The rapid growth of Portus, from the time of its foundation, is sufficiently shown by the excavations of the present generation1, even if the extant notices had been insufficient. There is no a priori reason why it might not have been an episcopal see in the age of Hippolytus if there had been a tittle of evidence to the fact.

On the other hand Döllinger had his own solution of the difficulty, not less tempting but even less tenable. He supposed Hippolytus to have been not bishop of Portus, but of Rome itself. This was in fact the first papal schism, and Hippolytus was the first antipope.

Against this solution three serious and indeed fatal objections lie. (1) It is not justified by anything in the language of Hippolytus himself. If he had put forward these definite claims, he must have expressed them in definite terms. On the contrary he only mentions vaguely his obligation, as a bishop, to stand forward as the champion of the truth. Of his adversaries he never says that they are not the lawfully constituted bishops of Rome, but implies that by tneir doctrinal and practical irregularities they have shown themselves no true bishops. His very vagueness is the refutation to this solution of a rival papacy. (2) The entire absence of evidence—especially in Rome and the West—is fatal to the supposition. There were several papal schisms in the third and fourth centuries—one more especially within less than twenty years of his death. Yet in none of these controversies is there any reference to this one which (if it had existed) must have set the deadly precedent. Moreover we have several lists of the popes dating from the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, but in not one of these is there a hint of Hippolytus as an antipope. (3) The evidence, when it does come, is hardly less conclusive than the silence. It is late; it comes from the East; and it means nothing or next to nothing. The first witness quoted is Apollinaris about A.D. 370 (AR. 6). It is a passage in a catena, ascribed, and perhaps rightly ascribed, to this father. But we should require far stronger evidence than we possess, to justify the improbable supposition that one who had the papal lists of Eusebius before him would have called Hippolytus επισκοπος `Ρωμης, meaning thereby that he was bishop of the metropolis of the world. We must

1 See esp. De Rossi Bull. di Archeol. Crist. IV. pp. 37 sq, 63, 99 (1866).


therefore suppose that part of the heading at all events is a later addition. After this we have no earlier witnesses than Eustratius c. A.D. 578 (AR. 18) and Leontius c. A.D. 620 (AR. 20). Considering the late date of these writers, we must regard them as absolutely valueless to prove such a conclusion; more especially as the writers would know that Hippolytus was a bishop and that he lived in or near Rome, so that επισκοπος `Ρωμης would occur as a loose designation, if they did not take the pains to see whether his name was actually in the papal lists.

But, though the testimony which makes Hippolytus bishop of Portus is late and valueless, the evidence connecting him with Portus is of a very different quality and much earlier in time. Prudentius, who visited the shrine of S. Hippolytus on the Tiburtine Way as we have seen soon after A.D. 400, and gives an account (doubtless imaginary in its main features) of the martyrdom, speaks of the persecutor as leaving Rome to trouble the suburban population and as harassing the Christians at the mouth of the Tiber ('Christicolas tune Ostia vexanti per Tiberina viros'). The tyrant, he continues, 'extended his rage to the coast of the Tyrrhene shore and the regions close to sea-washed Portus.' After devoting some thirty lines to describing the punishments inflicted there, he says that an old man ('senior') was brought before the tribunal and denounced by the bystanders as the chief of the Christian folk ('Christicolis esse caput populis'). If this does not distinctly name him the bishop of Portus, it implies that he held a leading position in the Church, and that this was the scene of his clerical activity. Again after the martyrdom we are told of the disposal of his reliques;

Metando eligitur tumulo locus; Ostia linquunt:
    Roma placet, sanctos quae teneat cineres.

Of his later connexion with Portus a few words will be necessary hereafter. It is sufficient to say here, that for many centuries his memory has been intimately connected with this town.

If then the see of Hippolytus was neither Portus nor Rome, what was it? But before seeking the answer, we are confronted with a previous question. Had he any see at all, in the common acceptance of the term? It is now the received theory of the Christian Church, that a settled Christian land should be covered with sees, conterminous but not overlapping one another; that each is independent of its neighbour; and that an imperium in imperio is an intolerable anomaly. The difficulties created at times by this theory are great. The Roman Church overcomes them by consecrating bishops in partibus. The Roman congregations


in England in our own time were ruled (owing to legal difficulties) for many years, much to the amusement of Englishmen, by a great Cardinal who was bishop of Melipotamus—a place of which they had never heard. The Anglican Church solves this difficulty in another way. Its exigencies require that there should be a bishop to superintend the English congregations of Asia and Africa; he is 'Anglican bishop in Jerusalem and the East,' but Jerusalem is not his see. Still more necessary is it that the congregations on the continent of Europe should have episcopal supervision. This is committed to the bishop of 'Gibraltar.' Here indeed Gibraltar is properly a see; but the theoretical diocese consists of a garrison and its belongings, a harbour, two or three miles of rock, and whole troops of rabbits and monkeys. The main body of the human flock, which the bishop shepherds, is scattered about Europe and the Mediterranean, and would not be found more in Gibraltar itself than in the moon. When the bishop some years ago went to Rome to confirm the English residents there, Pio Nono is reported to have said humorously that he did not know till then that he was in the diocese of Gibraltar. No doubt when Hippolytus lived, the practice of the later Church had already become general, but it cannot have been universal. Indeed from the very nature of the case, the development of the system must have been more or less gradual; though it was the ideal at which the Church would aim. Less than a century had elapsed, when Hippolytus was born, since Timothy exercised episcopal functions in Ephesus, and Titus in Crete; but they were itinerant, not diocesan bishops. Even at the close of the second century exceptional cases would be treated in an exceptional way. The harbour of Portus, now fast supplanting Ostia, was thronged with a numerous and fluctuating population, consisting largely of foreigners—sailors, warehousemen, custom-house officers, dock-police, porters, and the like. A bishop was needed who should take charge of this miscellaneous and disorderly flock. He must before all things be conversant in the manners and language of Greece, the lingua franca of the East and indeed of the civilized world. Hippolytus was just the man for the place. He was probably appointed by bishop Victor (c. A.D. 190—200); for his relations to Victor's successors, Zephyrinus and Callistus, forbid us to suppose that he owed any promotion to them, and indeed his account of Victor generally leads us to look upon this bishop as his patron. This hypothesis accords with his own language speaking of his position. He distinctly designates himself as holding the high-priestly or in other words the episcopal office; he was described either by himself or by another1 as having been appointed

1 Photius AR. 32. a; see above, p. 348.


bishop of the Gentiles (επισκοπος εθνων), thus indicating th'at he had charge of the various nationalities represented at Portus. This is obviously an archaic expression and may have originated in the time of Hippolytus. At all events in his extant great work, the so-called Philosophumena, he appeals in his concluding address (AR. I. 1) to 'Greeks and Barbarians, Chaldaeans and Assyrians, Aegyptians and Libyans, Indians and Aethiopians, Celts and Latins on foreign service (`οι στρατηγουντες Λατινοι), and all those who dwell in Europe, Asia and Libya' as their counsellor; where the limitation of the Latins seems to suggest that planted at Portus as his head-quarters, he regarded himself by virtue of his commission as a sort of episcopal Chaplain-general of the Forces. Moreover my theory harmonizes very well with another fact. The earliest bishop, connected with Portus after the age of Hippolytus, was present at the Council of Arles (A.D. 313); but unlike the other bishops mentioned in the same list (de civitate Eboracensi, de civitate Utica, etc.) he is called not de civitate Portuensi, but Gregorius episcopus de loco qui est in Portu Romae1, as if the same arrangement still prevailed, Portus being the residence of this Gregorius, but not strictly speaking his see.

Occupying this ground, Hippolytus needed nothing more. Here was a sufficient fulcrum for his ecclesiastical lever. He was senior as bishop even to his ecclesiastical superiors Zephyrinus and Callistus. He held that, as a successor of the Apostles, he had a special gift of the Holy Spirit. By virtue of his office, he was an appointed 'guardian of the Church' (φρουρος της εκκλησιας). He was a man of fiery dogmatic and moral zeal; and, when he saw, or fancied that he saw, the occupants of the Roman see swerving both from the one and from the other, he let fly at them at once. His position is quite intelligible. There is no evidence that he regarded them as deposed and, from his puritanical point of view, himself substituted in their place. But his language implies that in some sense he looked upon them as no true bishops. Probably, if he formulated his views at all, he would have said that their doctrinal and moral obliquities had placed their episcopal office and functions in abeyance for the time.

If such was his position, we can well understand why Jerome could not discover his see. In fact he had no see to be discovered. But on the supposition that he was either a schismatical bishop of Rome or the lawful bishop of Portus, no explanation of this ignorance can be given.

1 Labb. Conc. I. p. 1454 (ed. Coleti). The previous year a Roman synod was held under Miltiades (ib. I. p. 1427), in which bishops of Terracina, Praeneste, Tres Tabernae, and Ostia are present, but no bishop of Portus; see Döllinger, p. 90.

Return to the Table of Contents of J. B. Lightfoot's The Aposstolic Fathers, Part I, Vol. 2

Please buy the CD to support the site, view it without ads, and get bonus stuff!

Early Christian Writings is copyright © Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.

Get the CD Now!

Kirby, Peter. "Historical Jesus Theories." Early Christian Writings. <>.