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Vigilius, Bishop of Rome

Wace's Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

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Vigilius (5), bp. of Rome, intruded into the see in the room of Silverius, a.d. 537, by Belisarius, by order of the empress Theodora. By birth a Roman of good position, he had accompanied AGAPETUS as one of his deacons when that pope went to Constantinople a.d. 536 and procured from Justinian the deposition of the Monophysite patriarch Anthimus, and the appointment of Mennas in his room. The Monophysite party (then called commonly the ACEPHALI), who continued to reject the council of Chalcedon, had a resolute supporter in the empress Theodora. Agapetus dying April, 536, when about to depart for Rome, she sent for Vigilius and promised him an order to Belisarius to get him ordained pope if he would secretly undertake to disallow the council of Chalcedon. Vigilius (says Liberatus) willingly complied, and proceeded to Rome, but found SILVERIUS already ordained.

Vigilius having been thus ordained in 537 (on Nov. 22, according to the conclusion of Pagi; on Mar 25, according to that of Mansi), and the death of Silverius having been certainly not earlier than June 20, 538, for at least seven months his position was that of an unlawful antipope, his predecessor never having been canonically deposed. However, as pope he was accepted, the deposition of bishops and the ordination of others in their room under imperial dictation being at that time, however irregular, common enough elsewhere; and the ancients seem to have dated his episcopate from his intrusion.

Through Antonina, the wife of Belisarius and the real agent of the empress throughout, Vigilius sent without delay letters to Anthimus, Theodosius, and Severus, in fulfilment of his secret promise, expressing his entire agreement with them in matters of faith, but charging them to keep his avowal in the dark, that he might more easily accomplish what he had undertaken. He added a confession of his own faith, condemning the Tome of pope Leo (in which the orthodox doctrine of two Natures in Christ was enunciated), and anathematizing Paul of Samosata, Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and all who agreed with them. Binius and Baronius, jealous for the credit of the Roman see, argue that this letter was forged by the Monophysite party. But no valid ground has been adduced for suspecting it. It is given by Liberatus and Victor Tununensis; and Facundus (c. Mocianum ), like them a contemporary, seemingly alludes to it. Pagi (Baron. ad ann. 538) refutes all the arguments of Baronius, while alleging that the Roman see was not compromised, since Vigilius was not the true pope when he wrote.

Justinian was evidently kept in the dark about these secret proceedings, since, after the death of Silverius, he wrote to Vigilius, sending a confession of his own faith and recognizing him as pope without any suspicion of his orthodoxy. In his reply, dated 540, Vigilius declares himself altogether orthodox, accepts the Tome of Leo and the council of Chalcedon, and condemns by name all abettors of the Eutychian heresy.

In 541 began at Constantinople the new theological disputes which led to the 2nd council of Constantinople (called the 5th oecumenical), in the course of which Vigilius came in conflict with the emperor. Peter, the patriarch of Jerusalem, who was opposed to the Origenists, sent two abbats to Constantinople, with a letter to the emperor, and extracts from Origen's writings, complaining of the commotions excited by the Origenistic party and praying for their condemnation (Vit. S. Sabae ). The emperor, readily acceding, issued a long edict, addressed to the patriarch Mennas, setting forth and confuting the heresies attributed to Origen; commanding the patriarch to assemble the bishops and abbats then at Constantinople for the purpose of anathematizing him, his doctrine, and his followers, and to suffer no bishop or abbat to be thenceforth appointed except on condition of doing the same. There seems to have been no resistance to this imperial command.

Justinian was engaged, we are told, after his condemnation of Origen, in composing a treatise on the Incarnation in defence of the council of Chalcedon and in refutation of the Eutychians. But there were two Origenistic abbats from Palestine, resident at his court, in great credit with him, Theodore of Ascidas and Domitian, who suggested that he might better serve the cause of orthodoxy by procuring a condemnation of certain writers accused of Nestorianism but acquitted by the council of Chalcedon, viz. Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Ibas, the alleged author of a letter to Maris. It was represented to the emperor that, if these were now authoritatively condemned and the council of Chalcedon freed from the imputation of having approved their errors, the Acephali would no longer refuse to accept that council. The emperor, who warmly desired this reconciliation, readily fell into the snare. The writings thus prepared for condemnation are known as the "Three Chapters" ("Tria Capitula"). The imperial edict against them (περὶ τριῶν κεφαλίαων ), issued probably c. 544, anathematized their deceased authors and all defenders of them, with a saving clause to guard against any inculpation of the council of Chalcedon. But the edict was regarded as disparaging its authority. Mennas, at first refusing, at length gave his acquiescence in writing. The three other patriarchs of the East also yielded to threats of deposition, as did the rest of the Eastern bishops, except a few who were deposed and banished. In the West, less accustomed to imperial despotism, there was more difficulty. Vigilius, from his antecedents, might have been expected to obey, but shewed considerable independence of spirit, being probably influenced by the prevailing feeling at Rome and in the West generally. He refused his assent to the emperor's edict, and being thereupon summoned peremptorily to Constantinople, unwillingly obeyed.

He sailed first to Sicily, where he was joined by Datius, bp. of Milan, a resolute opponent of the condemnation of the Three Chapters. Arrived at Constantinople (a.d. 547), he persevered for a time in the same attitude, but before long gave a secret promise to condemn the Chapters (Facund. c. Moc. ), and presided over a synod with the hope of inducing it to do what the emperor required. Meeting opposition there, especially from bp. Facundus of Ermiana, who requested leave to argue the question (Facundus himself tells the story), he suspended the proceedings, requiring the bishops separately to send him their opinions in writing. Seventy bishops were thus induced to declare for the condemnation of the Chapters, including many who had previously refused. Vigilius, supported by these 70 signatories, issued the document known as his Judicatum , addressed to Mennas, on Easter Eve, 548 (Ep. Vigilii, ad Rustianum et Sebastianum ), condemning the Chapters, though disavowing any disparagement of Chalcedon. The Judicatum provoked serious opposition. At Constantinople Facundus continued resolute, protesting against bishops who betrayed their trust to win favour with princes. Vigilius's own deacons, Rusticus and Sebastianus, declared against him, but were deposed and excommunicated. The bishops of Illyricum condemned the Judicatum in synod; those of N. Africa did the same, and even formally excommunicated Vigilius (Vict. Tunun. ad ann. 549, 550). Alarmed by these consequences, Vigilius now recalled his Judicatum , and seems to have represented to the Westerns that he had issued it unwillingly. Facundus attributes his whole action to desire of court favour and position, as his earlier secret promise to Theodora had been due to ambition. Vigilius could not now undo what he had done, for the Judicatum was known far and wide. If any further proof were needed of his double dealing we should have a signal one in the fact (if it be one) that, even while thus trying to persuade the Westerns that he was on their side, he was induced by the emperor to take a secret oath before him to do all he could to bring about the condemnation of the Three Chapters. The oath, dated the 23rd year of Justinian, is given among the Acts of the 7th session of the 5th council (Labbe, vol. vi. p. 194). There seems to be no sufficient reason to doubt its genuineness. In it he swore to unite with the emperor to the utmost of his power to cause the Chapters to be condemned and anathematized, and to take no measures or counsels with any one in their favour against the emperor's will. The result of his crooked policy was that neither party trusted him.

In the year in which the Judicatum was issued Theodora died; but the emperor continued resolute in carrying out his project for the condemnation of the Three Chapters by full ecclesiastical authority. Vigilius, hampered by the repudiation of his Judicatum in the West and by his own secret understanding with the emperor, would gladly have left the scene of action. But his presence was still required at Constantinople by the emperor. The plan he now adopted was to persuade the emperor to summon the bishops, both of the East and West (including especially those of Africa and Illyricum who had shewn themselves so strongly opposed to the Judicatum ), to a council at Constantinople, and meanwhile to take no further steps. Justinian acted on his advice; but though the obsequious Easterns obeyed the summons, very few of the Westerns came—a small number from Italy, two from Illyricum, but none from Africa. Justinian would have had Vigilius proceed at once with such bishops as were in Constantinople. Vigilius, with considerable spirit, refused. Thereupon the emperor issued a new edict against the Chapters, which he caused to be posted in the churches. Vigilius protested against this as a violation of their agreement, called an assembly of bishops in the palace of Placidia where he lodged, conjured them to use their efforts to procure a revocation of the edict till the episcopate of the West should have an opportunity of pronouncing its opinion, and in virtue of the authority of the apostolic see declared all excommunicated who should meanwhile sign or receive it. Justinian sent the praetor whose office it was to apprehend common malefactors, with an armed band, to seize the pope in his place of refuge. Vigilius escaped to Chalcedon, and there sought sanctuary in the church of St. Euphemia two days before Christmas, 551. No attempt was made to violate this sanctuary. The pope was able from it to dictate terms on which he would take part in the forthcoming council. The emperor, anxious to secure his concurrence at the council, at length acceded to his conditions, and revoked the edict.

Vigilius returned to Constantinople towards the end of 552, after nearly a year in St. Euphemia. Justinian summoned the council to meet on May 5, 553. The Easterns met, in number 165, under the presidency of Eutychius, who had succeeded on the death of Mennas. Vigilius and the Westerns kept aloof, assembling by themselves in the Placidian palace, and prepared a very lengthy document, known as his Constitutum ad Imperatoren , addressed to the emperor. It refutes extracts that had been made from the works of Theodorus of Mopsuestia, and condemns the views expressed as heretical, but proceeds to protest against the condemnation of Theodorus himself as a heretic after his death, since he had not been so condemned when alive and had died in communion with the church; and also against any such condemnation of Theodoret or of the letter of Ibas, both having been acquitted of heresy by the council of Chalcedon. This Constitutum , dated May 14, 553, was signed also by 16 Western bishops. It does not appear that the emperor transmitted it to the council; but he handed in, on May 26, a statement of how Vigilius had once himself condemned the Chapters, had pledged himself to do so by word, writing, and solemn oath, and had been invited to the council and refused to come. Anathemas were pronounced against Theodorus of Mopsuestia and his writings, against the inculpated writings, but not the persons, of Theodoret and Ibas; and all who should continue to defend the condemned writings were, if ecclesiastics, to be deprived, if monks or laymen, excommunicated.

Vigilius soon changed sides once more, assenting to the decrees of the council, and thus giving them at length the sanction of the Roman see. That he did this is indisputable, and according to Evagrius (lib. iv. c. 34) in writing, ἐγγράφως; nor does there seem valid reason to doubt the genuineness of the two written documents in which his recantation is declared. The first of these is a letter to the patriarch Eutychius, dated Dec. 8, 553, i.e. six months after the conclusion of the council. The other document (dated Feb. 23, 554) is entitled "Constitutum Vigilii pro damnatione Trium Capitulorum" (given in Labbe, vol. vi. p. 239). It expresses entire agreement with the decisions of the council, and ends with the same declaration, word for word, as the letter to Eutychius.

Justinian, having thus attained his end, Vigilius was allowed to leave Constantinople for Rome, after a compelled absence of 7 years, the emperor giving him certain grants, privileges, and exemptions for the people of Rome and Italy (Baron. ad ann. 554, ix. x. xi. xii.). But he died on his way at Syracuse towards the end of 554 or early in 555. His body was conveyed to Rome and buried in the church of St. Marcellus on the Salarian Way.

He was evidently a man with no firmness of character or principle. The attempts of Baronius to vindicate his conduct after he had become lawful pope, though allowing him to have been a poor creature before, are pitiably unavailing. To his final submission to Justinian's will is due the important fact that the Fifth council, the origin, purpose, and conduct of which had so little to commend them, came at last to be universally accepted, in the West as well as the East, though not without prolonged resistance in some parts of the West, as oecumenical and authoritative. For, though its anathemas against the dead and their writings were passed under imperial dictation in defiance of the pope and of the Western church, Vigilius's eventual approval of them was endorsed by his successors. There is no lack of contemporary authority for the history given above—viz. the Breviarium of Liberatus, archdeacon of Carthage; the Eccl. Hist. of Evagrius; the Chronicon of Victor, bp. of Tununum; the Pro Defensione Trium Capitulorum , and the Liber contra Mocianum of Facundus, bp. of Ermiana; and the Hist. Bell. Goth. and the Anecdota , or Hist. Arcana , of Procopius. The writings of Facundus are peculiarly valuable in giving an insight into the state of parties, and the course of events in which he was himself implicated, having been, with Victor Tununensis, a prominent opponent at Constantinople of the condemnation of the Three Chapters. We have also the letters written by Vigilius, of great historical value, and the Acts of the Fifth council, with contemporary documents preserved among them.


Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Vigilius, Bishop of Rome'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hwd/​v/vigilius-bishop-of-rome.html. 1911.
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