The First See is Judged by No One” and the Pseudo-Symmachian Forgeries. Response to Erick Ybarra

This is part of a much larger video we did entitled “Papal Forgeries, A Road to Schism” and can be found here.

On November 16, 498, Pope Anastasius II, a sympathizer with the Byzantine Emperor’s policy on the Henotikon, died. In his two years as pope, he had created a controversial legacy by re-entering communion with pro-Henotikon clergy during the Acacian Schism and therefore causing a large faction in Rome to decline communion from the Pope. Six days after his death, on November 22, the city of Rome elected two popes. The first, a deacon of Sardinian, and probably pagan origin, Symmachus was elected by the faction that had broken with the previous Pope, Anastasius II. The second, elected later that day by the pro-Byzantine faction, was the archpriest Laurentius, whose father had also been a priest and, unlike the Sardinian deacon, had roots within Rome. Violence immediately erupted but the two factions agreed to submit to the arbitration of Theodoric, the Ostrogothic king. Theodoric, perhaps motivated by political considerations, ordered Symmachus should be kept as Pope because he had been elected prior to Laurentius and by a larger faction.

What followed next was a series of four synods related to the papal election. The first was held by Pope Symmachus in March 499 and seems to have created peace by offering Laurentius another see. The second synod was held in Arminium in 501 when Theodoric the Goth ordered the Pope there to stand trial after he was accused of celebrating Easter on the wrong day. Upon arrival in Arminium, he learned he was also under investigation for corruption and an alleged affair with a nun. Pope Symmachus, forsaking common sense, made the least intelligent decision he could have and instead of standing trial before the judge who had previously shown him favor, ran away to Rome. In reaction, the pro-Laurentian faction reasserted Laurentius’ claim to the papal throne and dragged him back to the Eternal City. The situation became so hideous that in 502, Theodoric appointed a new bishop, Peter of Altinum, as locum tenens of Rome until a new synod would decide between the Symmachus and Laurentius.

That proposed synod, the third, took place shortly after Easter 502 and was presided over by the bishops of Ravenna, Milan, and Aquileia but it fell apart when Peter of Altinum, the locum tenans of Rome, arrived at the council by order of King Theodoric. Symmachus, enraged that the locum tenans had been installed in the first place because it insinuated Symmachus was not the real pope, refused to cooperate and violence erupted. Theodoric then ordered a second session to be held on September 1, 502, which resulted in more riots and further loss of life. Due to this, Symmachus barricaded himself within St. Peter’s church outside the city walls while the faction of Laurentius seized all of the churches inside the city of Rome.

The third session of the third synod was held in the middle of September 502 and decided they could not stand in judgement of the pope as he was the pope while the fourth session of the third synod was held at Palma on October 23, 502 and ruled that all allegations against Symmachus should be dropped. The records of both of these councils are highly suspect but if the records are accurate, the synods themselves were clearly severely influenced by the forgeries. This is clear because had actual documentation existed demonstrating the first see could not be judged, there would have been no need to risk one’s reputation and standing to invent it.

Pope Symmachus (d. 514)

Despite these synods, the Laurentians just went about what they were doing and continued to hold the churches in the city of Rome while Symmachus was barricaded inside St. Peters outside of Rome itself. It was not until either 506 or 507 that the Arian Theodoric the Goth, in the midst of a dispute with the Byzantines, took an anti-Byzantine stance and sent an official to remove the nearly 30 churches within the city of Rome from the pro-Byzantine Laurentians and hand them over to Symmachus that the schism effectively ended:

“For four years Laurence held the Lateran and all the Roman churches except St. Peter’s, while Symmachus was confined by street violence as a prisoner in the Vatican. It was only because by 506 Theoderic was taking an anti-eastern political stand that he ordered the surrender of all the churches in Rome to Symmachus; Laurence tactfully withdrew.” Davis, p. xiv-xv

Laurentius then retired to a farm owned by a senator who had been his patron where he lived peacefully in prayer and fasting until his death. 

To bolster his position during the conflict with his rival, Laurentius, the partisans of Symmachus, and perhaps Symmachus himself, created a series of four main forgeries claiming prior precedent to essentially put him, as pope, above the law. As the Catholic Encyclopedia states in its article on Pope Symmachus:

“The object of these forgeries was to produce alleged instances from earlier times to support the whole procedure of the adherents of Symmachus, and, in particular, the position that the Roman bishop could not be judged by any court composed of other bishops.”

In his work, “The Invention of Peter,” Prof. George Demacopoulos states as much when he explains:

“What makes these texts partisan within that pro-papal context is that they narrate the trials and tribulations of past papal sovereigns through thinly veiled comparisons to Symmachus’ own troubles. But they always do so in a way that both reinforces papal autonomy and exonerates Symmachus.” Demacopoulos, p 113

He adds:

“[…] the pro-Symmachian party produced during the height of the controversy a number of imagined papal biographies that either related directly to the charges against Symmachus or hoped to insulate him further by offering legendary accounts that emphasized the authority and autonomy of Peter’s successors. Although the stories are very different in content, they contain a series of interrelated theses concerning the inability of anyone (whether lay or ecclesiastic) to judge the bishop of Rome. They also offer specific justifications for many of the accusations recently lodged against Symmachus. Thus, the heroes of these papal biographies all serve as proxies for Symmachian interests and demonstrate a new form of papal rhetoric born in the traditions of the hegemonic claims of the Petrine topos.” Demacopoulos, p. 111

In other words, with each incident recorded in the life of Pope Symmachus in the Liber Pontificalis, there is a corresponding forgery meant to provide evidence as to why he should be acquitted and this is no coincidence and the first segment of the Liber Pontificalis was written during this time. This is why the primary editor of the first critical edition of the Liber, the Catholic priest Fr. Louis Duchesne was also the primary editor of the first critical edition of the Symmachian Forgeries. Now, during this period, four main forgeries were created by the partisans of Symmachus entitled:

  • Gesta Liberii
  • Gesta synodi Sinuessanae de Marcellino
  • Constitutum Sylvestri
  • Gesta de purgatione Xysti et Polychronii accusatione.

Professor Demacopoulos summarizes each of the four forgeries in his book “The Invention of Peter” as follows:

“The Gesta Liberii, for example, tells an apocryphal story of how Pope Liberius (352-366) was exiled from Rome by the heretical emperor Constantius. When Easter approached and it was time for the pontiff to perform his annual baptism of catechumens, the citizens of Rome came to him on the outskirts of the city so he could perform the ritual in an Ostian cemetery. Not only does this text provide a “papal precedent” for performing baptisms outside of the city (as Symmachus was doing at St. Peter’s), and claim that the orthodox catechumens of Rome would seek to be baptized by the authentic pope, it also emphasizes that Liberius had performed these baptisms on the very same site that St. Peter had performed baptisms, when he was the bishop of Rome. In other words, the Gesta Liberii carefully makes a narrative link between the baptisms of the historic Peter, a previously exiled but holy pope, and Symmachus who was at that time performing baptisms in the church that housed the relics of St. Peter.” Demacopoulos, p. 111

Symmachus, barred from entering the city by the Laurentians, is forced to hold the yearly baptism of catechumens outside the city at a shrine and not in the city’s main cathedral so a precedent was invented to explain why this was not only acceptable, but preferable. But it does not stop there:

“In another of the Symmachian apocrypha, the Synodi sinuessanae gesta, we find a fictional tale of how Pope Marcellinus (296-304) had been brought to trial by a local synod for having offered incense to pagan idols during the Diocletian persecution. At the moment when the synod was about to pass judgment against the pope, a miraculous voice was heard by all to proclaim: “prima sedes non iudicabitur a quoquam – “the first See will not be judged by anyone.” Here again, papal biography serves as a narrative weapon to insulate Symmachus from his enemies – namely the first synod of 502, which had been ordered by Theoderic to evaluate the charges against Symmachus. The biography invents the account of a divine voice proclaiming papal sovereignty because the reality of the present circumstances demonstrates just how limited Symmachus’ authority really was.” Demacopoulos, p. 111-112

You will remember that at the second and third sessions of the third synod mentioned above, it was decided that the pope could not be judged. What almost certainly occurred was either the synod acts are themselves forgeries, which is possible, or they synod was simply working off of the forgeries themselves believe them to be authentic. The reason it is one of either two of those options is synods make decisions based on prior precedent and as mentioned, there would be no reason to create forgeries had there been real prior historical precedent for what they forgeries were claiming – in other words, why forge the deed to a house when you already own the house?

But not satisfied with just one forgery proclaiming the Bishop of Rome to be above the law, the forgers doubled down on it and created a fictitious synod led by Pope St. Sylvester issuing 20 canons and stating, emphatically, that the pope cannot be judged. As Demacopoulos states:

“In the Constitutio Silvestri, yet another narrative proxy for Symmachian concerns, we find a similar injunction, nemo enim dijudicet primam sedam – “no one, indeed, can judge the first See,” which is designed to insulate the papacy from both secular and rival ecclesiastical interferences. In this case, the decree is put in canonical form, authorized by hundreds of bishops, Pope Sylvester, and the emperor Constantine. The text maintains that a cleric can be accused only by a peer (meaning a bishop can be accused only by another bishop, not by a priest or deacon) and that the pope can be accused by no one. The text also stresses the importance of celebrating Easter in unity and emphasizes the pope’s role in determining the date of Easter. As with the other texts, these matters relate directly to Symmachian concerns and offer a counter-narrative to Laurentian accusations and Symmachian humiliations.” Demacopoulos, p. 112

As pointed out earlier, Symmachus had been summoned by Theodoric in 502 to answer accusations that he had celebrated Easter on the wrong day. Using an older Roman calculation, he had actually celebrated it about a month prior to Laurentius, who was using the Eastern or Nicene calculation. But you do not need calculations when the Pope himself can simply determine the date and everyone must simply obey. Again, if there were actual historical precedents for the first see not being judged by anyone why were these not brought up as evidence? Why was forgery immediately resorted to? The reason is because there were no historical precedents for it.    

It should be noted that this statement, “the first see can be judged by no one” first appears in the Symmachian Forgeries. Despite claims that the same theme is found in Pope St. Gelasius shortly before, an inspection of his letters do not reveal anything like it as Gelasius’ concern was papally ratified ecumenical councils being overturned. The statement “the first see can be judged by no one” is then repeated in the Pseudo-Isidore Decretals, the Liber Pontificalis, and then in various canonical collections to the point that it is part of Roman Catholic canon law to this day at title 1404. As Davis notes in the introduction to his translation of the first eight centuries of lives in the Liber Pontificalis:

“This material was forged about 502 to support Symmachus’ claim to the papacy against that of Laurence, by producing, with other matters, ‘historical’ precedents for the claim that councils were not competent to pronounce judgment on the incumbent of Christendom’s first see: Symmachus’ refusal to accede to the council which attempted to depose him could thus be justified. The principle enunciated (prima sedes a nemine iudicatur) would be of considerable interest to later canon lawyers, and the LP is our proof that within a generation these forgeries had come to be accepted as genuine history.” Davis, p. xxiv

Another accusations brought against Symmachus and was to be addressed by the synod held by Theodoric the Goth in 502 at Arminium – before Symmachus ran away prior to defending himself – was that he had been corrupt in his handling of Church property and that he had been romantically involved with a nun. Demacopoulos summarizes it thus:

“In some cases, the narratives of the Symmachian apocrypha are so similar to the accusations against Symmachus that one wonders if they ever fooled anyone. The Gesta de Xysti purgation, for example, notes that Pope Sixtus III (432-440) had been accused by wealthy Roman landowners of poorly managing church property and of having an adulterous affair with a nun. […] During the trial that exonerates Sixtus (a trial in which the emperor Valentinian III presides, accompanied by the entire Senate and clergy of Rome), the body of the council, one again, refuses to pass judgement on the pontifex. But more important, the bishop of Rome is made to be the emperor’s proxy, to literally sit on his chair, and to serve as the city’s leading moral and legal constituted authority in his absence.” Demacopoulos, p. 112

The Symmachian forgeries proved to be popular and rapidly spread. The statement that “the first see is judged by no one” suddenly showed up, during this time, in the writings of two saints, St. Ennodius of Pavia and St. Avitus of Vienne, were influenced by what they thought were genuine works but were in fact recent fabrications and simply parroted. Erick Ybarra makes a big to do about this in an article on his blog entitled “The First See is Judged by No One: Historical & Critical Review of Bishop +Athanasius Schneider’s Op-Ed for Rorate Caeli.” Mr. Ybarra gets these from Thomas William Allies’ work “The See of Peter.” In that article, the quotations appear as this:

“God perchance has willed to terminate the causes of other men by means of men; but the prelate of that [Roman] See He has reserved, without question, to His own judgment. It is His will that the successors of the blessed Apostle Peter should owe their innocence to Heaven alone, and should manifest a pure conscience to the inquisition of the most severe Judge [God]. Do you answer; such will be the condition of all souls in that scrutiny? I retort, that to one was said, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my Church’, and again, that by the voice of holy pontiffs, the dignity of his See has been made venerable in the whole world, since all the faithful everywhere are submitted to it, and it is marked out as the head of the whole body’ (Mansi, viii. 284 taken from Thomas William Allies, See of Peter, Pg. 92-96)”

Thus says St. Ennodius. Mr. Ybarra then follows with what is actually several snippets pasted together and not actually an entire quotation from a letter by St. Avitus of Vienne on the same topic:  

“‘We were in a state of anxiety and alarm about the cause of the Roman church, inasmuch as we felt that our order [the episcopate of Gaul] was endangered by an attack upon its head […] What license for accusation against the headship of the universal church ought to be allowed?[…] As a Roman senator and a Christian bishop, I conjure you that the state of the Church be not less precious to you than that of the commonwealth. If you judge the matter with your profound consideration, not merely is that cause which was examined at Rome to be contemplated, but as, if in the case of other Bishops any danger be incurred, it can be repaired, so if the Pope of the city be put into question, not a single bishop, but the episcopate itself, will appear to be in danger. He who rules the Lord’s fold will render an account how he administers the care of the lambs he entrusted to him; but it belongs not to the flock to alarm its own shepherd, but to the judge [God]. Wherefore restore to us, if it be not yet restored, concord in our chief’ (Mansi, viii. 284 taken from Thomas William Allies, ibid.)”

Mr. Ybarra then finishes with a quotation that, in the work by Allies, is claimed to be from the council of 499, but the citation in Mansi. says immediately at the top that it is from the so called “Palma Synod,” which was the fourth session of the third synod held in October 502 as can be seen below.

Mr. Ybarra continues:

 “…the person [Symmachus] who was attacked ought himself to have called the Council, knowing that to his See in the first place the rank or chiefship of the Apostle Peter, and then the authority of venerable councils following out the Lord’s command, had committed a power without its like in the churches; nor would a precedent be easily found to show, that in a similar matter the prelate of the aforementioned See had been subject to the judgment of his inferiors” (Mansi, viii, 248 ; ibid)

Two of these three statements were written after the council and the third was from the final council in 502 – the one in which the locum tenans appeared and Symmachus refused to cooperate. By that time, the accusations against Symmachus were nearly three years old. In those three years, the Pseudo-Symmachian forgeries had more than enough time to spread throughout central Italy, influencing bishops in their wake.  

After a long quotation from Trevor Jallands, Mr. Ybarra continues and expresses:

[…] those who forged these Symmachian-documents were appealing to even earlier centuries where Popes were deemed above the judgment of all inferiors. But they are held by historians to be spurious accounts (I’ve not done any extensive studies on any particular claim of these).”

But this begs the same question we asked at the beginning of the video: if you already own a house, why forge the deed to it? If popes were “deemed above all judgement of inferiors in earlier centuries,” why not just quote those documents? Why forge brand new ones and then not appeal to the older ones you are claiming are there? At no point in the Symmachian controversy did anyone appeal to anything said by Popes like St. Leo or St. Gelasius precisely because anything those saints may have said concerning papal auctoritas never indicated to the contemporaries that the pope was above judgement. Instead, it took forgeries to create that impression.

The Symmachian Forgeries, though were part of a much larger, more involved effort to reinvent the papacy and were an initial piece in what was growing to become a propaganda war within Rome itself.

Make sure to watch the video that this is a part of on our Youtube channel, Ubi Petrus. The first half of the video is available on Youtube here but the full video is available to our Patreon subscribers here.




Works Cited

“CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Pope Saint Symmachus.”, Accessed 27 Jan. 2021.

Davis, Raymond. The Book of Pontifs (Liber Pontificalis) : The Ancient Biographies of the First Roman Bishops to A.D. 715. Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1989.

Demacopoulos, George E. The Invention of Peter : Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity. Philadelphia, Penn, University Of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.


This article is in response to the claims made by Mr. Ybarra his two articles found below:

(1) Answering Eastern Orthodox Objections (Part 1) – Schism, Greek episcopate on Divine Roman Primacy, Vigilius/Honorius, & Council vs Pope | Erick Ybarra

(2) The First See is Judged by No One: Historical & Critical Review of Bishop +Athanasius Schneider’s Op-Ed for Rorate Caeli | Erick Ybarra

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