St Marcellus I


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(Nov./Dec. 306–16 Jan. 308)

Because of internal divisions as well as the persecution, the Roman see remained vacant for just over three and a half years after Marcellinus. With the accession of Emperor Maxentius (306–12) and his adoption of toleration, an election became practicable. The man chosen, Marcellus, had been a leading presbyter under Marcellinus, and had probably played the key role during the vacancy. It is very unlikely that the Donatists' later allegations that he had surrendered sacred books to the authorities along with Marcellinus were true, for he proved a merciless judge of such conduct and seems to have expunged Marcellinus' name from official lists of popes. His dates, it should be noted, are uncertain, many scholars, for instance, accepting a later, shorter reign from 27 May or 26 June 308 to 16 Jan. 309. An important task facing him must have been the reorganization of the church in the improved political climate, and this probably underlies the anachronistically expressed report of LP that he divided the city into 25 tituli, or parishes, each under its presbyter. But a no less pressing issue was the multitude who had compromised the faith under persecution. To judge by the verse tribute composed for him by Damasus I, Marcellus was a rigorist whose hard-line penitential demands soon aroused majority opinion in the community against him. The resulting public disorder and even bloodshed led Maxentius to intervene, and when Marcellus was denounced to him by an apostate he banished him from the city as a disturber of the peace. He died shortly after, but it is not known where; his body was subsequently brought back to Rome and interred in the cemetery of Sta Priscilla, a private property which had not been impounded during the persecution. Later legend, reproduced by LP in its 2nd edition, embellished his death with the story that Maxentius, infuriated by his refusal to sacrifice to the gods, converted the building which was to become his title church into a stable for horses of the imperial post and made the pope tend them as a groom, in which menial role he died. In fact, the 5th-century Martyology of St Jerome records that he died as a confessor. Feast 16 Jan.

Since the late 19th century a case has been argued, on the basis of the confusion between them in the sources, the absence of one or other name from key texts, and other puzzling facts, for the identification of Marcellus with Marcellinus (of whose existence there can be no doubt), or at any rate for regarding him as a presbyter who exercised quasi-papal functions during the long interregnum rather than as an actual pope. It continues to attract support, but has to meet formidable difficulties, notably the appearance of both as popes in the Liberian Catalogue, compiled some 40 years later, and Damasus I's description of Marcellus as ‘rector’, a term he reserves for a bishop, in his verse epitaph for him.

Further Reading

A. Ferrua, Epigrammata Damasiana (Vatican City, 1942), 181LP i, pp. lxxiii–lxxiv, lxxix, ccxlix, 6 f., 72–4, 164–6 (Davis 1: 13–14, 100, 108)T. Mommsen, Neues Archiv, 21 (1896), 335–57E. H. Röttges, ‘Marcellinus-Marcellus’, ZKTh78 (1956), 385–420A. Amore, ‘E esistito papa Marcello?’, Antonianum, 33 (1958), 57–75T. D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Mass., 1981), 38, 303 f.Caspar i. 43, 54, 97–101PW xiv. 1494EC viii. 16 f. (V. Monachino)BSS viii. 672–6 (A. Amore)Levillain ii.967 f. (M. Le Glay)NCE ix. 137–8 (E. G. Weltin)


Subjects: Christianity.

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