Letter of Pope Gelasius to Anastasius Augustus (494)

Trans. John S. Ott, Portland State University, from Andreas Thiel, ed., Epistolae Romanorum pontificum genuinae et quae ad eos scriptae sunt a S. Hilaro usque ad Pelagium II., vol. 1 (Brunsberg: Eduard Peter, 1867), Letter no. 12, pp. 349-358.  A translation of c. 2 is given by J. H. Robinson, Readings in European History (Boston: Ginn, 1905), 72-73, which is reproduced (with typos) in the Medieval Internet Sourcebook.  Other translations of the same section of the letter are widely available.  An English translation of the first half of the letter has been furnished by Hugo Rahner, Church and State in Early Christianity, trans. Leo Donald Davis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992 [orig. pub. 1960]), 173-76. A complete translation of the letter was subsequently published by Bronwen Neil and Pauline Allen in The Letters of Gelasius I (492-496): Pastor and Micro-Manager of the Church of Rome (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), 73-80.

The abridged translation below, made with reference to Rahner's, is my own.  Notes and translation are (c) John S. Ott, Portland State University.  Full permission is freely granted for classroom use.  Last revised 21 February 2017.

Notes to the text:

Gelasius I was briefly pope from 492 until 496; the letter below thus falls at the mid-point of his pontificacy.  Despite the brevity of his rule, Gelasius was quite active.  He wrote and introduced new prayers into the Latin liturgy (the cycle of prayers recited in the church throughout the year); expelled Manicheans from Rome and banned their books; sought to impose uniformity of sacramental practice in the Latin churches; and tried—less successfully—to eliminate the “pagan” Roman ceremony of the Lupercalia.  He was also posthumously praised for having seen the city of Rome through a particularly harsh famine.

Gelasius ascended the Roman see at a moment when papal relations with the eastern Christian (Greek) churches and the Roman (Byzantine) emperor were greatly strained by the outcome of a long and violent theological schism that had rent the churches of the eastern Mediterranean for decades.  In 482, Acacius, the Patriarch of Constantinople (471-489), succeeded in brokering an agreement between the “orthodox” eastern churches and the “schismatic” Monophysite churches of Syria and Egypt.  The accord was called the Henotikon and given legitimacy by the backing of the emperor, who was motivated by a desire to restore union among the Christian churches of the empire.  Acacius implemented the Henotikon’s theological compromises without Roman support, however, and this omission led Pope Felix III (483-492, Gelasius’ predecessor) to excommunicate both the Patriarch Acacius and the then-emperor Zeno (r. 476-491) in 484.  The break between the Constantinopolitan and Roman churches persisted past the lifetimes of the principal adversaries, enduring from 484 until 518.  During this time, the Emperor Anastasius I came to power (r. 491-519).  Anastasius was tolerant toward the formerly schismatic churches and supportive of the Henotikon; Pope Gelasius was not.

More broadly, the thirty-four years of schism saw renewed papal energy in asserting Rome’s religious supremacy.  During this time, Gelasius wrote Anastasius the letter outlining the respective qualities of the papal authority and the imperial power.  The letter is referred to as Duo sunt (“There are two”), after the Latin words of the passage which makes the distinction.  In later centuries, it achieved foundational status as a claim of papal authority vis-à-vis imperial authority in the Latin church, and was incorporated into the Decretum (c. 1139) of the canonist Gratian.  In the fifth century, Gelasius probably did not envision the letter as a clear statement of political ideology, but as a pastoral exhortation to cooperation between Rome and Byzantium in the face of schism. Other scholars have seen in this letter a sign of Gelasius' political weakness rather than an assertion of strength (Neil and Allen, Letters of Gelasius, 70).

An important consideration of the letter in its fifth-century context is that of Alan Cottrell, "Auctoritas and Potestas: A Reevaluation of the Correspondence of Gelasius I on Papal-Imperial Relations," Mediaeval Studies 55 (1993): 95-109.

Letter of Pope Gelasius to Anastasius Augustus

1.  The servants of Your Piety, my sons and the distinguished men Master Faustus and Ireneus, along with their colleagues holding public office, had said on returning to the city [Rome] that your clemency had inquired why I had not sent to you a letter of greeting.  Not, I confess, by my arrangement!  But some time ago, when they had been dispatched from eastern lands, they spread word through the whole city that they had been denied permission to see me by your command, and, so that I shouldn’t come across as onerous rather than courteous, I felt this [situation] ought to be smoothed over by a letter.  So you see, this situation came about not because of my dissimulation, but out of due caution that I should not cause annoyances to those already hostile to me.  But since I learned from the aforementioned men that the benevolence of your serenity has mildly requested a word from my smallness, I considered that I would not undeservedly be questioned if I were to remain silent.  And because, O glorious son, as a native Roman I love, revere, and esteem the Roman emperor [1]; and because, like him, I am a God-loving Christian, I accordingly wish to have the knowledge of truth.  And as unworthy vicar of the apostolic see, wherever I perceive a full catholic faith to be lacking, I strive to complete it with suitable proposals in my own little way. For I am compelled by the dispensation of the divine word, "it would be misery for me not to preach!" [2]  For if that chosen vessel the blessed apostle Paul was fearful and yet preached, how much more should I tremble were I to withhold the ministry of preaching which has been sent by divine inspiration and paternal devotion.

2.  I beseech your piety, that you not consider arrogant the office of divine reason.  May this be furthest thing from the Roman prince's mind, so that he may judge with his own senses his true inner wound.  There are two [powers], august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority (auctoritas sacrata) of the priests and the royal power (regalis potestas). Of these, that of the priests is weightier, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment.  You are also aware, most clement son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in divine matters you bend your neck devotedly to the bishops and await from them the means of your salvation.  In the reception and proper disposition of the heavenly sacraments you recognize that you should be subordinate rather than superior to the religious order, and that in these things you depend on their judgment rather than wish to bend them to your will.  If the ministers of religion, recognizing the supremacy granted you from heaven in matters affecting the public order, obey your laws, lest otherwise they might obstruct the course of secular affairs by irrelevant considerations, with what readiness should you not yield them obedience to whom is assigned the dispensing of the sacred mysteries of religion?  Accordingly, no slight danger befalls bishops if they keep silent concerning the divine cult, which is appropriate; given these things, there is no little risk for those who despise—God forbid!—when they ought to obey.  And if it is fitting that the hearts of the faithful should submit to all priests in general who properly administer divine affairs, how much more is obedience due to the bishop of that diocese [Rome] which the Most High ordained to be above all others, and subsequently what the general piety of the church appropriately celebrates.

3.  As your piety is obviously aware, it is humanly impossible to elevate oneself either by privilege or confession over him whom the voice of Christ put above everyone, whom the church has always held ought to be revered and enjoy primacy of devotion.  What is established by divine judgment may be attacked by human presumptions but cannot be vanquished by any human power. [3]  Even the boldest audacity could not stand against that shining example, because it was established by the same author of holy religion that it cannot be toppled by any force whatsoever!  “Firm is the foundation of God!” [4]  For is it not the case that when religion is assaulted by others, that just when it’s thought it can be vanquished by novelty, it emerges that much stronger than what was once thought would overcome it?  And so I beseech you, may those people desist, who under your aegis run about headlong seeking to disrupt the church, which ought not be permitted: or at least that these men should in no way lay their hands on what they are disingenuously striving after, nor keep their positions before God. [5]

4.  For this reason, I purely and sincerely beseech, adjure, and exhort your piety before God that you receive my petition without disdain.  I will say again: I ask that you hear me beseeching you in this life rather than accusing you--God forbid!--before the divine tribunal.  Nor is the zeal of your piety in private life hidden from me, O august emperor.  You have always chosen to be a participant in the eternal promise.  For that reason do not, I beseech, be angry with me, for as much as I love you I wish the empire (regnum) which you hold temporarily to last in perpetuity, so that you who rules the world may be able to reign with Christ.  Certainly, emperor, by your laws you would permit nothing to extinguish the Roman name, nor allow anything to happen to its detriment.  Is it therefore the case, distinguished prince, that you who so desire not only the present but future blessings of Christ will not in your time suffer any loss to befall either religion, truth, or the sincerity and faith of the catholic communion?  By what faith, I ask you, will you strive for his later reward whose insult you do not now forbid?

5.  I ask you not to bear heavily what is said with your eternal salvation in mind.  You have read what is written: "A friend's blows are better than an enemy's embraces." [6]  I ask your piety that you hear what I am saying as it is intended.  May no one deceive your piety.  What Scripture says figuratively through the prophet is true, "there is one alone, my dove, my perfect one."  There is only one faith, and that is the universal faith (catholica). [7]  The Catholic faith is that which is sincere, pure, and spotless, set off from communion with all evil-doers and their successors.  Were this not the case, wretched confusion would take the place of divinely mandated discretion.  Nor would it stay that way if we opened it up to any sort of contagion, or if we were to clear a path or doorway for all sorts of heresies.  "For he who offends in one aspect of it, does so for all of it," and "He who scorns the little things will himself fall, little by little." [8]

6.  This is because the apostolic see takes special care that, since its pristine foundation is the apostle's glorious confession, it should in no way be tainted by contagion or cracks of depravity. . . . Accordingly, if your piety refuses to allow the people of a city to gather together, what shall we do about the peoples of the entire globe if (may it not happen!) they are confused by our prevarication?  If the whole world was corrected from the contemptible, profane tradition of its fathers, how can the population of a single city not be corrected if authentic preaching follows?  Therefore, glorious emperor, how can I not want the peace of churches, which I embrace, even if it comes about at the cost of my blood?  But, I beseech you, this peace ought not to be of just any sort, but authentically Christian.  For how may there be a true peace for him who lacks unstinting charity? . . .

. . . .

12.  It is often the quality of the weak, that they find fault with the physicians restoring them to health with suitable prescriptions, rather than that they should consent to abandon or reject their own noxious appetites.  If we are prideful, who administer the fitting remedy of souls, what should those who resist be called?  If we are proud, who say that the institutes of the fathers should be obeyed, what shall we call those who question them?  If we who desire the divine cult to be carried out in a pure and unimpaired matter are conceited, what shall we call those who speak and act against Divinity?  So we consider the others who are in error, because we do not consent to their insanities.  Thus, truth itself shines wherever the spirit of pride truthfully stands firm and fights on.


1.  The Latin reads, "Roman prince" (Romanum principem).
2.  1 Cor. 9:16.
3.  The Latin is quorumlibet potestate (by the power of anyone whatsoever); the use of the potestas echoes the distinction between sacral authority and temporal power in c. 2, above.
4.  2 Tim. 2:19.
5.  A reference to the clergy who supported the Henotikon, presumably, and a less-than-direct way of asserting that they should be removed from power.
6.  Prov. 27:6.
7.  Song of Songs 6:9.
8.  James 2:10 and Ecclesiasticus 19:1.