Victor, son of Felix, born in the Roman province of Africa, is named fourteenth [thirteenth according to Jerome’s “Lives of Illustrious Men”; fifteenth according to the “Liber Pontificalis” whose earliest form was introduced by pseudepigraphic “Letter from Jerome to Damasus bishop of Rome” (c.304-384; pope from 366)] in the official listing of the bishops of Rome. He held the office according to tradition from the consulship of Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus (161-192, co-emperor from 177, sole ruler from 180 until his assassination on 31 December 192) for the fifth time with Gravio [Glabrio] as colleague (= 186) to the consulship of Literanus and Rufinus (= 197) under the imperial administration of Septimus Severus (146-211, emperor from 13 April 193). And he is credited with advancing “the Latinization of the Roman Church hitherto overshadowed by Graeco-Oriental influences” [Kelly ODP (1986) 12, where the rectified pontifical dates are given as 189-198; with additional data provided directly from the “Liber Pontificalis” in the second edition of Raymond Davis TTH 6 (2000) 6]. William Hugh Clifford Frend observed that in Victor “Africa produced the first bishop of Rome who wrote in Latin” [Frend 1952: 1].
While Jerome’s inclusion of Victor in his De virus inlustribus is one of the briefest of the 135 entries, merely identifying Victor as author of “On the Question of the Pasch” [J 34; FOTC 100 (1999) 56], reference is made back from the corresponding but much fuller entry relative to Irenaeus bishop of Lyons in the Roman province of Gaul [J35; FOTC 100 58 #6] which notes an admonishing letter from Irenaeus to Victor on the paschal question that the latter “should not easily sunder the unity of the Episcopal college” (in Halton’s translation), explaining that Victor has pushed to the point of excommunication those bishops of the provinces of Asia and of the East who celebrated the Pasch (i.e, Easter) with the Jews on the fourteenth of the month irrespective of whether that day fell on a Sunday.
Correspondingly, from his entry relative to Polycrates bishop of Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia [J 45; FOTC 100 69], who likewise “wrote a synodal letter to Victor” on this same issue, “in which he declared that he followed the authority of the Apostle John and of the ancients” (in Halton’s translation), Jerome quotes substantial portions of that letter, derived directly from its fuller citation within his source of Eusebius’ “Ecclesiastical History” [3.31.2-3 + 5.24.1-8]. The matter of the computation of an exact date for Easter remained a “thorn in the flesh” of Christendom until the calculation problem could be ultimately solved by the Venerable Bede (c. 673-735) in his textbook “The Reckoning of Time” [superbly translated with extensive introduction, notes, and commentary by Faith Wallis TTH 29 (1999) ci + 479 pp.].
Details on this controversy as generated by Victor and responded to by these two bishops with many others named who refused to accommodate Victor’s judgment, are elaborated further in Eusebius [H.E. 5.23-25]. Noteworthy is the fact that down to the episcopacy at Rome of Soter (c. 166-174), Rome itself had not observed an annual festival of Easter, so the matter was doubly galling to those of the East who had persevered with its celebration from apostolic times. But Victor did succeed in getting the feast day kept only on a Sunday (Grant 1970: 307).
What becomes evident is that Victor was the first bishop of Rome to assume unto that office “the right to interfere in other churches” (Kelly ODP 12). As Michael McHugh has observed “Victor’s implicit assertion of Roman authority would become important in subsequent debate over papal supremacy” (GEEC 926). But it is also worthy of note that in confronting Victor, Polycrates had quoted Peter as recorded in Acts 5:29 (“It is necessary to obey God, rather than men.”) against the very Petrine succession which Victor claimed (at Eusebius H.E. 5.24.7; cf. Grant 1970: 157)!
Victor is also “the first pope known to have dealings with the imperial household” (Kelly ODP 12). Commodus, having instigated the murder of Marcus Ummidius Quadratus, great-nephew of his own father, Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus (121-180), had acquired among other property Quadratus’ concubine, Marcia Aurelia Ceionia Demetria, daughter of Marcus Aurelius Sabinianus, as his own mistress. Raised by a Christian presbyter, whether she can be called a Christian herself or not remains moot, it has been observed by Frederick Norris that being “given honors as an empress, she used her influence on behalf of Christians” (GEEC 714). With a list of names provided from Victor, she helped secure the release from fatal labor in the Sardinian mines for many Christians, including most eminently Callistus, who subsequent to Victor’s own successor, Zephyrinus, became bishop of Rome. When Commodus was assassinated on December 31, 192, however, Marcia herself was also put to death by one of those in the rapidly changing imperial sequence, Didius Julianus (emperor from 28 March 193), himself condemned to death by the Senate and executed on June 2, 193. We may infer that the connection between Marcia and Victor lay in their both having North African roots, for as Frend has observed, “There had always been a considerable African community in Rome, and this had played an influential part in the church there” (1952: 164).
Eusebius, citing the so-called “Little Labyrinth” of unidentified authorship (probably Hippolytus; cf. Lawlor 1928:189; Q 2.196), notes as another action on Victor’s own part the first instance of excommunication of one supporter of the ancient “adoptionist” Christology, namely the “leather-seller” Theodotos of Byzantium, affirming thereby his papal preference for a more “monarchian” perspective (H.E. 5.28; cf. ODP 12). [For a more precise consideration of these issues within “a history of the development of doctrine”, see P 1.175-190.]
As Philip Carrington observed, “At the end of the episcopate of Victor, therefore, the theology of incarnation had won a resounding victory over the theology of adoption, and when Zephyrinus succeeded him, a `monarchian’ theology of this type became the official theology of the Roman Church” (1957: II.416-417). And that Roman Church was thereby set for the beginning of elections of “anti-popes” – the first and most notable of whom was Hippolytus (c.155-235, equally canonized) at the accession of Callistus [cf. Smith 1988; Kelly ODP 1986:12-16; Attwater PDS 1965:172; Carrington 1957: II.434-435, 445-446, 450-451, 457 – which includes the respective martyrdoms of Callistus and Hippolytus].
While Victor was probably buried “close to the body of the apostle St. Peter on the Vatican on July 28 [his subsequent feast day]” (Liber Pontificalis #15), that he was also martyred as well does not fit the evidence and “should be rejected” (ODP 12).
Clyde Curry Smith
Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):
J 34; FOTC 100 56, 58, 69
ODP 12; TTH 6.6-8
ODCC 1418; NIDCC 1017 (JDDouglas); GEEC 1159 (MPMcHugh); OEEC 867 (BStuder)
[On Marcia: GEEC 714 (FWNorris); OCD 922 (ARBurn)]
Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes.
Frend 1952 The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.
Grant 1970 Augustus to Constantine: The Thrust of the Christian Movement into the Roman World, by Robert McQueen Grant. New York, Evanston, and London: Harper and Row.
Lawlor 1928 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume II: Introduction, Notes, and Index, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor.
Oulton 1927 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume I: Translation, by John Ernest Leonard Oulton. (Specific references also cited as H.E. with book and chapter).
Smith 1988 “Hippolytus of Rome,” by Clyde Curry Smith. In Great Lives from History: Ancient and Medieval Series, edited by Frank Northen Magill. Pasadena: Salem Press, Inc. Volume III, pp. 999-1004.
This article, received in 2004, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.