Sylvester I (also Silvester, died 31 December 335) was the bishop of Rome from 314 until his death. He was the 33rd Pope of the Catholic Church. He filled the see of Rome at an important era in the history of the Western Church, yet very little is known of him. The accounts of his pontificate preserved in the seventh- or eighth-century Liber Pontificalis contain little more than a record of the gifts said to have been conferred on the church by Constantine I, although it does say that he was the son of a Roman named Rufinus. His feast is celebrated as Saint Sylvester’s Day in Western Christianity on 31 December, while Eastern Christianity commemorates it on 2 January.
Large churches were founded and built during Sylvester I’s pontificate, including Basilica of St. John Lateran, Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, Old St. Peter’s Basilica and several churches built over the graves of martyrs.
Sylvester did not attend the First Council of Nicaea in 325, where the Nicene Creed was formulated, but he was represented by two legates, Vitus and Vincentius, and he approved the council’s decision.
One of the Symmachian forgeries, the Vita beati Silvestri (c. 501–508), which has been preserved in Greek and Syriac (and in Latin in the Constitutum Silvestri), is an apocryphal alleged account of a Roman council, including legends of Sylvester’s close relationship with the first Christian emperor. These also appear in the Donation of Constantine.
Long after his death, the figure of Sylvester was embroidered upon in a fictional account of his relationship to Constantine, which seemed to successfully support the later Gelasian doctrine of papal supremacy, papal auctoritas (authority) guiding imperial potestas (power), the doctrine that is embodied in the forged Donation of Constantine of the eighth century. In the fiction, of which an early version is represented in the early sixth-century Symmachean forgeries emanating from the curia of Pope Symmachus (died 514), the Emperor Constantine was cured of leprosy by the virtue of the baptismal water administered by Sylvester.
The Emperor, abjectly grateful, not only confirmed the bishop of Rome as the primate above all other bishops, he resigned his imperial insignia and walked before Sylvester’s horse holding the Pope’s bridle as the papal groom. The Pope, in return, offered the crown of his own good will to Constantine, who abandoned Rome to the pope and took up residence in Constantinople. “The doctrine behind this charming story is a radical one,” Norman F. Cantor observes: “The pope is supreme over all rulers, even the Roman emperor, who owes his crown to the pope and therefore may be deposed by papal decree”. Such a useful legend quickly gained wide circulation; Gregory of Tours referred to this political legend in his history of the Franks, written in the 580s.
Pope Sylvester II, himself a close associate of Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor, chose the name Sylvester in imitation of Sylvester I.
In the West, the liturgical feast of Saint Sylvester is on 31 December, the day of his burial in the Catacomb of Priscilla. This is the last day in the year and, accordingly, in German-speaking countries and in some others close to them, New Year’s Eve is known as Silvester. In some other countries, too, the day is usually referred to as Saint Sylvester’s Day or the Feast of Saint Sylvester. In São Paulo, Brazil, a long-distance running event called the Saint Silvester Road Race occurs every year on 31 December.
The Donation of Constantine is a document fabricated in the second half of the eighth century, purporting to be a record by the Emperor himself of his conversion, the profession of his new faith, and the privileges he conferred on Pope Sylvester I, his clergy, and their successors. According to it, Pope Sylvester was offered the imperial crown, which, however, he refused.
“Lu Santu Papa Silvestru”, a story in Giuseppe Pitrè’s collection of Sicilian fables, recounts the legend as follows: Constantine the king wants to take a second wife, and asks Sylvester. Sylvester denies him permission, calling on heaven as witness; Constantine threatens him, and Sylvester, rather than give in, escapes into the woods. Not long after, Constantine falls ill; when he is desperate of ever regaining his health he has a dream which commands him to send for Sylvester. He obeys, and Sylvester receives Constantine’s messengers in his cave and swiftly baptizes them, whereafter (having shown them several miracles) he is led back to Constantine, whom he baptizes also, and cures. In this story, Constantine and his entourage are not pagans but Jews.
Another legend has Sylvester slaying a dragon. He is often depicted with the dying beast.