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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter July 10, 2021

From Slave to Bishop. Callixtus’ Early Ecclesial Career and Mechanisms of Clerical Promotion

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Bishop Callixtus I of Rome (217?–222?) is well known for his position as manager of the κοιμητήριον, the earliest subterranean community burial ground, today known as the Catacombs of Callixtus. Less well documented, but particularly formative is, however, Callixtus’ early ecclesial career starting with his recognition as an authentic confessor shortly after his return from the mines of Sardinia. This contribution aims to shed some light on this formative period and explores the mechanisms behind Callixtus’ promotion to paid ecclesial ministry. It argues that Callixtus’ association with the clergy was neither an honorary, that is, automatic admission, nor merely a pious act to honour his individual and spiritual achievement. It seems, it was also a powerful instrument to financially support, integrate, and if necessary, control independent spiritual authorities. Moreover, Callixtus’ installation in active ministry, as well as that of other confessors, show typical patterns of client-patron relationship.

Although Callixtus was bishop of Rome between ca. 217 and ca. 222, he is—ironically—far better known for those activities he pursued before he ascended the episcopal throne. Oddly enough, he gained a reputation by the management of the κοιμητήριον, the first known subterranean collective community cemetery for Christians at Rome. Entombed elsewhere, his name was nonetheless firmly linked from early times on to the complex which served as a burial ground for generations of Roman bishops.[1] This very down-to-earth responsibility at the side of bishop Zephyrinus (199?-217?) has fuelled speculation about Callixtus’ ecclesial career and particularly about the precise nature of his ministry.[2] A not particularly recent, yet still representative verdict of Bernhard Domagalski puts the current communis opinio in a nutshell: “der Diakonat des Callixtus [wird] von niemandem mehr bestritten.”[3] While previous scholarship was predominantly engaged with the Amtsfrage, the early ecclesiastical career of Callixtus was often ignored or illuminated only from narrow perspectives.[4] This contribution aims to re-examine this rather obscure yet formative period of his life and outline the processes and mechanisms at play, which eventually made a slave into the bishop of Rome.

1 Callixtus, the Confessor

The little we know about Callixtus and his life is preserved in a heresiology, the Refutatio omnium haeresium (henceforth Refutatio). This writing is traditionally attributed to Hippolytos Romanos (†235), who was supposed to be not only an author of dozens of literary works, but also the arch-enemy of Callixtus, the first anti-pope in history, and eventually a martyr, who was reconciled with the church before his death by the co-martyr, bishop Pontianus of Rome (230–235).[5] Recent scholarship, however, has expressed severe doubts about this traditional identification and has tended to see the author as an anonymous Christian intellectual leading a small independent house community in Rome.[6] For the sake of convenience and to avoid confusion, he will be referred to as “Author” or “Author of the Refutatio.

The Refutatio offers an elaborate, yet vitriolic curriculum vitae of Callixtus. The account’s primary purpose is to deliver incontrovertible proof that the bishop was mainly a magician and a conman but certainly not an authentic martyr or confessor.[7] The story begins to be interesting for the current issue when Callixtus was sentenced and deported to the mines of Sardinia by the praefectus urbi Fuscianus, probably around 187.[8] He was freed during a rescue mission launched by Marcia, the concubine of the emperor Commodus, who was acting since the execution of Bruttia Crispina as a de facto empress. Callixtus returned to Rome probably around 190.[9] Unfortunately, at this point the account becomes rather superficial and merely touches upon the subsequent events. Yet, one learns a quite important detail. After his return, some disturbances arose within the Christian community, which forced bishop Victor (189?-199?) to “sen[d] him to remain in Antium, assigning him a monthly allowance.”[10] The Refutatio remains silent about the more than ten years Callixtus spent in the idyllic holiday resort of Antium in the shadow of magnificent seaside villas of emperors and the Roman aristocracy. Bishop Zephyrinus (ca. 199?–ca. 217), Victor’s successor, urged him to return to Rome. Callixtus’ return marks the beginning of a very close working relationship between the bishop and the ex-slave confessor. He was appointed to be in charge of the clergy and over the aforementioned κοιμητήριον.[11] The Refutatio likewise records that Callixtus “was always with him,” that is, with Zephyrinus, and that the bishop “made him (Callixtus) his partner in everything that he decided.”[12] One of those “co-orchestrated” decisions was apparently the development of a Christological formula promoting monarchianistic ideas.[13] If one simply ignores the flood of adjectives with negative connotations implying inter alia greediness, lack of education, or bad influence,[14] the essence of the passages drafts a realistic picture of Callixtus’ tasks and duties as well as of his involvement governing the bishop’s church at Rome.

As scholars have already rightly pointed out, the duties described have two common characteristics. The first is the mainly practical orientation of the duties: managing the clergy and the cemetery (Refutatio 9,12,14) and involvement in the policy making process (Refutatio 9,11,3). The second is that Callixtus acted regularly on behalf of bishop Zephyrinus. More concretely, he either acted as a representative of the bishop when he conducted negotiations with heretics (Refutatio 9,11,2–3);[15] or carried out some tasks for the bishop, like the management of the cemetery (Refutatio 9,12,14); or advised the bishop, as in the co-development of a Christological formula (Refutatio 9,11,3). What is more, the Refutatio did not assign any liturgical functions to Callixtus. One has to note, however, that the Refutatio shows in general no interest in liturgical matters, unless they involve performing magic, or more precisely, unless they involve dirty tricks which are used for seducing gullible victims.[16] The weight of the evidence presented here is overwhelming and points clearly in one direction: Callixtus must have assisted Zephyrinus as a deacon.[17] This “job description” could indeed hardly be more explicit, unless the text would make use of a proper technical term like διάκονος.[18] In this respect, a further observation caused some irritation to scholars. On the one hand, the Refutatio did mention a monthly allowance paid to Callixtus, but on the other hand, it suppressed both a terminus technicus for his actual ministry and a reference to his ordination.[19]

As far as the ecclesial offices are concerned, the Refutatio systematically ignores them. In the entire work, only two persons are expressis verbis identified as clerical office holders: Irenaeus as presbyter and Victor as bishop.[20] This obvious reservation does not imply, however, that the Author would in general ignore ecclesial offices or regard them as insignificant. Rather, the Author used to replace his opponents’ ecclesial office titles with descriptions, which tend to shed negative light upon the office holder’s personal qualities. Callixtus is, for instance, characterised as one “hunting” and finally attaining “the episcopal throne”;[21] or Zephyrinus is described as a man who “was in charge of the church,”[22] yet “unprofessional, illiterate, and inexperienced in ecclesiastical rulings.”[23] This rather creative replacement of clerical offices did not serve—as often suspected—the character assassination of Zephyrinus or of his pupil Callixtus.[24] Rather, the Author applied here a sophisticated strategy. By omitting or reformulating, he decontextualised both of his episcopal opponents, which helped him downplay or even eliminate the collective legitimation expressed in their ecclesial titles. After all, he was just about to declare two successive bishops of Rome—one of them also an authentic martyr—to be the most dangerous heretics of their times.[25]

Very similar reservations apply to any reference concerning ordinations. An incidental mention of Callixtus’ ordination to whichever ministry after his return from the mines would have (in)directly confirmed what most likely happened anyway: that bishop Victor, and with him also Rome’s episcopal church, officially recognised Callixtus as an authentic witness to the faith. Such a simple glitch would have been enough to provide a decisive argument against the Author’s efforts to discredit Callixtus’ martyrdom. Thus, the Author has wisely chosen to remain silent. This is also the main reason why the Author turned the curriculum vitae into a shallow and patchy narrative after Callixtus’ return from Sardinia and offered detailed description again, once the ex-slave took personal responsibility for the Roman church as bishop.[26] Not surprisingly, the Refutatio also keeps silent about Callixtus’ ordination to the episcopate after the death of Zephyrinus, as well as about Zephyrinus’ ordination after the death of Victor. Therefore, the Refutatio’s silence about ordinations cannot be used as an argument either to prove or to disprove the supposed compliance (or divergence) of the Roman practice with that of the Traditio apostolica.[27]

The Refutatio’s deliberately incomplete account implies that Callixtus’ ministry at the side of bishop Zephyrinus can hardly be decisive for the overall development of his ecclesial career, no matter how overwhelming the evidence might be in this respect. The formative period had to have begun at an earlier point, years before Callixtus’ return from the holiday resort of Antium. A marginal yet important remark about the “monthly allowance” seems to be the very first tangible indication of his ecclesial engagement. The note’s significance arises, firstly, because it confirms, as I argued elsewhere extensively,[28] that Victor and thus the episcopal church of Rome recognised Callixtus as an authentic confessor. Secondly, and in this context more importantly, it straightforwardly confirms that Callixtus was put on the payroll of the Roman church. Yet, two at first glance contradictory statements in one sentence complicate the situation: on the one hand, the Author presented the affair as if Callixtus had been exiled to Antium, but on the other hand, the monthly allowance suggests the opposite. Some contemporary accounts might shed some light on this contradiction and explain some basic mechanism at play.

2 Honour and Ministry

The first piece of evidence is an anonymous source concerning the heresy of Artemon, transmitted by Eusebios of Caesarea. The church historian recounts a particular incident which took place in Rome, during the tenure of Zephyrinus. One day, the confessor Natalius was approached by Asclepiodotos and Theodotos the Banker, the second generation leaders of the Theodotians, who promoted Adoptionism, a dynamic form of Monarchianism.[29] “They persuaded Natalius to be called bishop of this heresy, with a salary, so that he received from them one hundred and fifty denarii a month.”[30] Natalius accepted the offer, but after several visions and some torturing by angels he resigned from office and begged Zephyrinus for readmission.[31] Apparently, the prospect of the most prestigious ecclesial office, in combination with a solid monthly salary,[32] was quite seductive. It is needless to say that Natalius was not approached because of his overall qualities, education or the like. Eusebios’ anonymous source did not even bother to provide information about Natalius’ profession or background. For him, and likewise for the Theodotians, only one factor seemed to be significant: That Natalius was a confessor. And as a confessor, he was considered a chosen one of God, someone who linked earth to heaven and acted with spiritual powers as a privileged intermediary between God and men.[33] Precisely this intermediary role was appealing to the Theodotians, who merely sought to take advantage of it for their community and hoped to benefit from Natalius’s good reputation. An enhancement of their own reputation was indeed badly needed, since bishop Victor had officially broken the community bond with the Thedotians some years before.[34] It is very unfortunate that Eusebios’ source did not provide further insights into Natalius’ person. Thus, it must remain obscure whether Natalius did hold an ecclesial office prior to his appointment as bishop of the Theodotians and if so, which one. It is also unclear whether professional services were expected of Natalius as bishop and if so, which ones. Yet, both writers, the anonymous author of the Natalius episode and Eusebios, leave no doubt that Natalius’ most important qualification for the episcopal office was the possession of spiritual gifts and the spiritual authority established thereby. In this context, it is particularly interesting to note that neither author polemicises against the appointment of a confessor to paid office, nor against an installation in clerical ministry. The real scandal was in their eyes the fact that “heretics” managed to seduce a confessor, a chosen one of God, who was clothed with and thus guided by the Holy Spirit, and who therefore, by definition, must have been the infallible champion of orthodoxy.[35]

Although it would be problematic to draw direct conclusions about the Callixtus episode from the Natalius incident, its anonymous account nevertheless confirms first-hand that confessors were highly regarded members of the Christian communities of Rome at the end of the second and beginning of the third century. The affair also documents a certain interrelation between witnessing to the faith, appointment to ecclesial office and the payment of a regular salary. The lack of critique towards this interrelation by the anonymous writer from Rome, or by Eusebios roughly a century later from the East, implies that the practice of promoting confessors in paid ecclesial office as an expression of respect was nothing out of the ordinary.[36]

Another source, the Traditio apostolica, or Apostolic tradition,[37] a church order in its earliest layer dating back to the beginning of the 3rd century,[38] provides more detailed directions to appointments of confessors in clerical offices. It states that a confessor, “if he was in bonds because of the name of the Lord, shall not have hands laid on him for diaconate or presbyterate, for he has the honor of the presbyterate by his confession.”[39] The interpretation of this passage has been subject of some heated debates. Particularly the implied perspective caused some irritation in the past, namely that a lay person can “gain” access to ecclesial office without having hands laid on him, that is, without ordination (by a bishop), but simply by a confession or, as Tertullian already sarcastically noted, by simplex et breve carceris taedium.[40] While some scholars saw here a proof-text for the phenomenon of honorific ipso facto appointments of confessors into active ministry with or without formal duties,[41] others disagreed and argued that they received only the honour of the presbyterate, not the active ministry.[42] In my opinion, the latter interpretation appears to be closer to the intentions of the Tradtion apostolica.

The church order only stipulates that the gifts of the Spirit were considered as equal to the laying on of hands by the bishop during the ordination of a presbyter or a deacon. These gifts are the source of the confessor’s spiritual authority for which a public confession before a judge and/or sufferings for the name of the Lord were constitutive elements. In other words, public confession is considered as a kind of “spiritual ordination” directly administered by the Holy Spirit. This “spiritual ordination” is equal in honour (dignity), and only in honour, to the honour of a presbyter ordained by the bishop by imposition of his hands. An ipso facto appointment to active ministry or a membership in the presbyter’s college by virtue of being a confessor is not suggested here. Rather, the opposite seems to be the case. Specifically, the remark that the confessor “shall not have hands laid on him for diaconate or presbyterate” indicates a separate act or distinct appointment to active ministry. It is not the appointment, which is unnecessary, but the imposition of the hands during the installation. Moreover, the explicit mention of “diaconate” in this context would make no sense, if the confessor would have ipso facto been promoted by an honorific appointment into the active ministry of presbyterate. Therefore, all the evidence suggests that the Traditio apostolica made a distinction between the honour (dignity) of an office and actual ministry. Although the church order recognised confessors as possessor of spiritual gifts and defined their honour as equal to the honourable office of the presbyterate, this honour neither implied automatic promotion in active ministry, nor was it equivalent with a promotion in an honorific or honorary office with or without formal duties.

Recently, Paul Bradshaw questioned the legitimacy of both prominent practices in the Traditio apostolica. He argued, that “[n]one, however, questioned whether the statement might never have been the practice anywhere.”[43] It is, however, debatable whether there is indeed no further source that confirms the admission of confessors to clerical ministry without the imposition of hands.[44] Also, the distinction between honour and actual ministry does not seem to be unique to the Traditio apostolica. During the great persecutions, bishop Cyprian of Carthage (249–258) admitted a good number of confessors to diverse ecclesial ministries, sometimes with the concrete promise of future promotion.[45] Exactly this happened to the confessors Celerinus and Aurelius. Cyprian installed them in the lower office of reader on the grounds that both were still too young to be admitted to higher clerical ranks. Although the bishop remarks at some point in his letter that it remains to be seen “whether there is a further step to which he [Celerinus] can be advanced in the church,”[46] the overwhelming part of the letter is dominated by a lengthy justification of his decision to appoint Celerinus to be a mere reader.[47] The letter concludes with the bishop’s intention eventually to elevate both Celerinus and Aurelius to the presbyterate. The first step in this direction has been made since Cyprian “already designated the honour of the presbytery for them, that so they may be honoured with the same gift as the presbyters, and may share the monthly divisions in equal quantities.”[48] The quoted passages and the letter in general illustrate well some significant aspects of Cyprian’s concept of confessorship. The eulogy about the individual achievements of both confessors particularly in combination with a good number of other, more explicit, references leave little doubt about the confessors’ spiritual authority.[49] The justification of his decision to install Celerinus and Aurelius merely as readers implies also that both would deserve a more honourable ministry by virtue of being confessors. Regarding Aurelius, Cyprian articulates this notion expressis verbis: “such a man deserved higher grades of clerical appointment and greater advancement.”[50]

Their designation for receiving a remuneration (sportulae and divisiones mensuranea) which equals that of presbyters expressed not only a prior lack of appropriate honouring, but also reveals a “horizontal hierarchy” within the individual ecclesiastical ranks because of the different remuneration of both confessors from other readers.[51] Their designated remuneration also articulates Cyprian’s intention to appoint them eventually to an ordained ministry adequate to their spiritual dignity. In this instance, as in the Traditio apostolica, the actual clerical ministry of confessors does not necessarily have to correspond to the honour of their spiritual dignity. What is more, Cyprian’s approach makes it clear that it is not the possession of spiritual gifts that qualifies for ordained office, but the local bishop’s decision. In this context, very pragmatic considerations played an important role. When he appointed both confessors as readers, he apparently bore in mind his community’s and his very own interests on the one hand and the candidates’ ability and fitness for the proposed ministry on the other hand.[52] His ultimate aim was to ensure, at least on paper, as he put it, that “a confessor can render most profit to his brothers.”[53] All of this suggests that Cyprian considered the honour of confessors and the presbyterate as equal and that he distinguished between the honour of being a confessor and ordained ministry.

Taking the Natalius affair, the witness of the Traditio apostolica and Cyprian’s approach into consideration, Callixtus’ monthly allowance not only gives the impression that he was recognised by bishop Victor and by the Roman church as an authentic confessor, but also suggests his promotion to clerical ministry.[54] Although it cannot be determined with certainty whether the episcopal church of Rome defined the dignity of a confessor as equal to the honour of the presbyterate, the unanimous witness of the Traditio apostolica and Cyprian’s letters makes such an assumption rather plausible. In contrast, it must remain uncertain whether Callixtus’ actual ministry corresponded to a confessor’s dignity or not. Specifically, this is because both the Traditio apostolica and Cyprian’s approach distinguish clearly between the dignity of a confessor and his actual ministry.

3 The Other Side of the Coin: Integration, Subordination, Control

The equating of confessors’ and presbyters honour and confessors’ association with the clergy as an expression of honour and respect is only one, piously propagated side of the story. The very fact, for instance, that the Traditio apostolica dedicated a separate passage to the confessors suggests already some kind of need for guidelines in dealing with these situations. Or at least, the issue of “how to handle confessors” was important enough to be discussed.[55] What is more, the pious words about the confessor’s honour cleverly conceal the actual intention of the passage, the de facto subordination of confessors to the bishops. In this respect, the church order’s intentions are hardly surprising. The period of the second half of the second century and first half of the third century was marked by the struggle for superiority between those with a collective legitimation through their election to clerical ministry and those with a charismatic-spiritual legitimation, namely martyrs and confessors.[56] Until the beginning of the third century, confessors’ authority was still beyond all question, though their uncontested status as the most honourable members of the community, as Hermas took for granted around 150,[57] had begun to fade away. The Natalius incident, Callixtus’ decrees,[58] Tertullian’s[59] and later Cyprian’s efforts to combat confessors, the success of the confessor Novatian and his circle of confessors, and the difficulties of the Roman bishops in mitigating the escalating situation[60] are merely the most spectacular examples of the struggle for superiority.

One important factor with great potential for conflict was the independent legitimation of confessors. According to widespread opinion, God had directly chosen the confessors, because public confession of faith and the endurance of subsequent sufferings were only possible through the support of the Holy Spirit.[61] The confessors’ authority was, therefore, per definitionem independent of the (local) church and at least on an equal footing if not superior to office holders’ collective legitimation. Thus, associating autonomous spiritual authorities with the clergy offered an excellent opportunity to integrate them into the existing local ecclesial structures with their already established systems of hierarchic subordination.[62] Moreover, an integration facilitated the access of community members to the confessors’ spiritual gifts in a supervised and thus controlled setting. In an ideal situation, the integration guaranteed a peaceful co-existence and was beneficial for all the parties involved.

Probably in not a few cases, installation of confessors was also a mean to provide them financial support and thus primarily a work of charity implemented in the form of a professional salary. Some confessors’ physical condition was seriously compromised due to torture, longer imprisonment, or forced labour; others might have lost ground economically and socially, particularly members of the lower social classes.[63]

Their integration into the clergy, particularly in combination with a regular remuneration was, however, not only a charitable and pious act, but it also established hierarchic, social, and financial dependency. In hostile situations, the regular remuneration could easily be used as a pressure point to maintain loyalty or force confessors to submit to the elected bishop and follow his lead. Thus, the association of spiritual authorities with clerical ministry could serve as a quite powerful instrument to integrate, subordinate, and in case of (internal) tensions or differences, to ensure their loyalty towards the local Christian community and their collectively legitimated authorities.

Similar mechanisms—asymmetric status, dependency, reciprocity of exchanged goods or services, mutuality, formalised but personal relationship, continuity, etc.—were at play in the well-known patron-client relations of the Roman society.[64] It has long been observed that due to his aristocratic background, Cyprian’s understanding of ecclesial authority and governance style naturally reflected typical patterns of patronage.[65] Some evidence suggests that such characteristic patterns can also be spotted in the North African ordination rites. As Stewart-Sykes argued convincingly, the spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit,[66] which is given by the bishop’s imposition of hands, can be considered a beneficium and “by virtue of being a gift which in turn empowered would thus bring about an obligation of reciprocation.”[67] In ordination, this beneficium is transmitted by the bishop’s laying on of hands constructing a patron-client relationship. In contrast, confessors and martyrs receive their beneficium directly from God by their confession and sufferings, which are constitutive for their spiritual authority.[68] If both observations are correct, then a network of patronage is created between God as patron and the confessor as client, making the confessor a fully independent actor with no obligations, dependencies, or asymmetries in (spiritual) power towards the church or its ordained ministers. Confessors’ admission to paid ministry was therefore a necessary and very efficient way for Cyprian to overcome their independence and to construct a relationship of clientela, similar to his relationship with the members of his clergy he had ordained by the laying on of hands. It is certainly not a coincidence that Cyprian explicitly speaks about sportulae when he describes the allowances which the readers Celerinus and Aurelius should receive according to their honour and which equal that of the presbyters. The word has its origins in the patronage system and its use here implies that a patron-client relationship has successfully been established between the bestower Cyprian and the recipient confessors.[69] Not only Cyprian’s vocabulary reflects typical terms of patronage, but also, and more importantly, all essential characteristics of the modern definition are met.[70] Confessors offered their spiritual gift and authority in exchange for regular remuneration by the bishop, which corresponds to the reciprocal exchange of goods and services. Moreover, a durable personal relationship was ensured by an appointment to the clergy. And finally, both the status of the parties involved as well as the nature of the goods exchanged were different, since bishops acted as uncontested leaders of Christian communities, while granted the members of the local community access to their spiritual gift for regular remuneration.

Apparently, Cyprian was aware of the potential of patronage networks and was not particularly hesitant to exploit it. Beside Aurelius and Celerinus Cyprian installed at least two other meritorious confessors in clerical ministry while still in exile in order to counter compromised or rebellious clergy in Carthage.[71] With their support, the bishop managed to regain control over the fragile situation, to restore peace and to extend his influence over such groups as had criticised his behaviour when he fled Carthage during persecution.[72] What is more, he managed to subordinate independent spiritual authorities, securing their loyalty for himself and for his faction in Carthage and thereby channelling very successfully their spiritual authority for his own agenda. Last but not least, he also used their example to send a very clear message to confessors acting contrary to his position in the reconciliation debate by issuing letters of peace for the lapsed which read: “He cannot be a martyr who is not in the Church,”[73] that is, not under the bishop’s (and thus his own) authority.

Typical mechanisms of patronage can also be observed in the Natalius affair. The salary of 150 denarii was not merely bait to seduce Natalius, but its acceptance established a relationship of patronage and turned him into the dependent of the Theodotians in exchange of his spiritual gift, honour, and respect in Christian communities. From this point on, Natalius was completely out of the range of Zephyrinus’ control mechanisms, and the situation became insoluble by man. A divine intervention was required, which eventually put Natalius back on the right track. Although it is not possible to establish a chronological order for these events, the idea is intriguing that Zephyrinus might deliberately have appointed the confessor Callixtus as his personal assistant because of the challenges and setbacks he faced during the Natalius affair. The fact that Zephyrinus was ready to take the risk and call back Callixtus, whose person was, to say the least, controversial among the Christians of Rome, supports this consideration. In any case, Zephyrinus very successfully channelled Callixtus’ potential as a confessor for his own purposes.

In light of the evidence, the association of the confessor Callixtus with the clergy by bishop Victor and his remuneration by a monthly allowance implies that he was fully integrated into the episcopal church of Rome. It is possible that his installation in the clergy arose from actual neediness. The ex-slave had just returned from the mines of Sardinia—which was a health hazard in and of itself—where he had had to carry out forced labour for a year or even longer.[74] The monthly allowance probably saved him from further decline. It is also possible that Callixtus’ appointment was motivated by considerations widely known from modern (church) practice. Office holders, who became liabilities because of some misconduct were not discharged, but promoted to a higher or alternative office and thus they were removed from the public gaze. This interpretation is supported by the Refutatio, as the Author explicitly links Callixtus’ departure to Antium with the monthly allowance: Victor “sent him to remain in Antium, assigning him a monthly allowance.”[75] Yet, the possibility remains that mentioning the monthly allowance in the first place, for which there is no other plausible explanation, and particularly its subsequent linking to Callixtus’ departure to Antium are mainly motivated by the Author’s primary aim. Specifically, he reinterpreted every little detail of his arch-enemy’s story in order to turn Callixtus’ “epic passio” into a story full of slander, betrayal, and fraud. Thus it is hardly surprising that the approach here bears the characteristic signature of the Author’s “biographic method.”[76] In any case, the situation had escalated because of Callixtus’ manipulations, whether real or imagined, and the confessor was considered increasingly persona non grata in some Christian communities. Victor and the college of presbyters,[77] to which also the Author of the Refutatio most likely belonged,[78] had a powerful tool by now at hand, which they apparently used as leverage to motivate Callixtus to vanish into thin air.

4 Conclusions

Callixtus’ ecclesial career highlights indeed some interesting mechanisms of clerical promotions. The very first tangible reference to the beginning of his ecclesial career is the Refutatio’s notice about a “monthly allowance,” which Callixtus received from Victor and the Roman church. It implies, first, that Callixtus was recognised as an authentic confessor, and second, that he was installed in a rather vaguely defined ministry, for which he was financially remunerated. This, combined with other verified elements of his biography,[79] particularly the fact that he was recognised as a confessor on the one hand and that he was a slave before his condemnation on the other, suggests that Callixtus did not make a clerical career and earn his appointment, but received it by confessing before the praefectus urbi and by his suffering for Christ’s name in the lead mines of Sardinia. The early third century Natalius incident confirms that there was a connection between being a confessor and appointment to a paid ecclesial office. From the same period, though of uncertain origins, the Traditio apostolica recognises confessors’ honour as equal to that of the presbyterate, but distinguishes between the honour (dignity) of confessors and their actual ministry. Cyprian of Carthage held a similar view as well, when he honoured some confessors by associating them with the lower clergy. His approach reflects characteristic mechanisms of the patron-client relationship and was heavily influenced by the conflict between those who claimed authority based on their courageous stand during persecutions and professional clergy. His letters illustrate that he used appointments to ministry mainly to integrate, to subordinate, and to control confessors, and to exploit their spiritual gifts not only for the benefit of his local church community but also for achieving his own agenda. Similar patterns can also be observed in both the Natalius affair and the Callixtus narrative. The monthly salary of 150 denarii both ensured Natalius’ full loyalty towards the Theodotians and removed him from Zephyrinus’ sphere of influence, a situation which could only be overcome by divine intervention. Callixtus’ appointment to the clergy was in this respect a very successful attempt to integrate an independent hero of faith into the local hierarchy and community. The monthly allowance paid to him honoured his spiritual achievement, secured his otherwise rather precarious existence, and last but not least, also offered a pressure point. Without batting an eyelid, bishop Victor and the college of presbyters exploited this pressure point to motivate him to leave for Antium once the situation in Rome became too hot to handle.

It cannot be determined with certainty whether the dignity of the confessor Callixtus was considered to be equal to the honour of the presbyterate in Rome also, or whether his appointed ministry corresponded to this dignity. Nevertheless, some sporadic evidence implies that his dignity and possibly his ministry might have been presbyterial in nature. Both sources, the Traditio apostolica and Cyprian converge in these respects. Both suggest that the dignity of confessors is equal to the honour of the presbyterate, which leaves little space for alternative suggestions. Likewise, both witnesses differentiate between the dignity and the actual ministry, which implies that a linking of dignity to ministry did not ipso facto take place. Rather, it depended on the decision of the local bishop. However, both Cyprian’s explanations for installing the confessors Celerinus and Aurelius as readers and the bishop’s struggle to prevent the pardoning of the lapsed Christians by confessors without episcopal authorisation, imply that the divine-spiritual agency of confessors had its natural place in a liturgical and disciplinary context. This might also have been so in the case of Callixtus and would explain his sensitivity for disciplinary issues during his tenure as bishop.[80]

Ultimately, the precise determination of Callixtus’ clerical ministry plays a marginal role, if any, in his formation and further ecclesial career. His confession in front of the praefectus urbi as well as his sentence to the mines were decisive. All further developments have their origins here.


Parts of this research have received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 665501 in form of a FWO [PEGASUS]² Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowships Nr. 12T3717N to the author. I would also like to express my gratitude to Robert Wiśniewski for his insightful comments on an earlier version of this essay.

Published Online: 2021-07-10
Published in Print: 2021-07-27

© 2021 András Handl, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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