Council of Arles: Introductory Essay Constantine’s letter Letter to Sylvester Canons of Arles
hi mom
Incipit: Communi copulo caritati
Date: 314
Ancient source: Select manuscripts from various collections of canon law, including the Donatist, Koln, and Dionysio-Hadriana collections, and others.
Modern edition: C. Munier, Concilia Galliae a.314-a.506, (Turnhout: Brepols 1963), pp. 4-6

Marinus, Acratius, Natalis, Theodorus, Proterius, Vocius, Verus, Probatius,
Caecilianus, Faustinus, Surgentius, Gregorius, Reticius, Ambitausus, Termatius, Merocles, Pardus, Adelphius, Hibernius, Fortunatus, Aristasius, Lampadius, Vitalis and Maternus, Liberius, Gregorius, Crescens, Avitianus, Dafnus, Orantalis, Quintasius, Victor, Epictetus, (34 in all) to our dearest father Sylvester, eternal greetings in our Lord.

Being connected by a common bond in love and by a chain in the unity of our mother the universal church, being brought by the will of our most godly emperor to the city of Arles, we thus salute you with deserved reverence, o most glorious father; where we have borne heavy and ruinous injury to our laws and traditions <…> by men with violent minds; both the present authority of our God and the tradition and rule of truth have thus rejected these men, so that no account of what is spoken among them might remain nor any type of accusation or a trial be convened. For that reason, by the judgment of God and mother church which first renewed and confirmed them, they have been either condemned or repulsed. Dearest brother, oh that you were present when this great spectacle took place, indeed we believe since the decision rendered against them was very severe, that, when you had joined with us in judgment, our assembly might have rejoiced with all the more gladness. But since now you have been able to stand back a little from these affairs in which also the apostles <daily were occupied> and whose blood unceasingly evidences the glory of God <…>.

Not however are only these things seen to be bringing us together, dearest brother, to which things we should invite you, but also for consulting you while we were consulting with ourselves; and as the provinces are diverse from which we came, thus also various matters take place which we think we ought to take note of.

Be it resolved, therefore, in the presence of the Holy Spirit and his angels, that we would also give judgments concerning those things which stir up any individuals, <as if> you are in agreement: it is further resolved, with the assent of him who occupies the greater dioceses, that this be introduced to all through you especially. What, therefore, it is that we have decided, we have subjoined in our brief written statement.

1. In the first place the following was discussed concerning our life and usefulness:  Since one person has died for all and is risen again, that this is to be observed at the same time with a devout mind by all people, lest divisions and dissensions be allowed to rise up in so great an allegiance of devotion. We have proposed therefore that the Easter of our Lord be observed on one and the same day throughout the whole world.

2. Concerning those who have been ordained to minister in certain places, let them remain in those same locations.

3. It is further proposed as to those men who lay down their weapons in peacetime:[1] be it resolved that they be excluded from fellowship.

4. Concerning those among the faithful who drive chariots in the circus: be it resolved that, as long as they continue to drive them, they be excluded from fellowship.

5. Concerning actors: be it resolved concerning them that, as long as they continue in that occupation, they be excluded from fellowship.

6. It is proposed concerning those  who in time of sickness are converted and wish to confess their faith: be it resolved that they receive the laying on of hands.

7. Concerning officials who are among the faithful and who are serving in the government: be it resolved thus, that when they are transferred, they receive certain letters of reference from their churches. So that, therefore, in whatever places they serve, they will be given care by the bishop of that place, and if they begin to act contrary to the church’s discipline, that only then they be excluded from fellowship.

8. Similarly with those who wish to take part in public affairs.

9. Concerning the African churches which are using their own special law in that they practice rebaptism: be it resolved that, if any heretic come to the church, they are to question him on the creed, and if they consider him to have been baptized into the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, let him only receive the laying on of hands. But if after questioning he does not solemnly confess this Trinitarian faith, then deservedly let him be baptized. And so forth.

Then, being weary, he commanded all to return to their episcopal seats. Amen. [2]

[1] Various explanations have been suggested: a) the most obvious reading of the text is that this supports the duty of Christians to serve in the army even during peacetime; b) that this canon was passed in support of pacifism and that the text is corrupt (note in bello suggested by Surius); c) that in pace refers to the new peace between the Empire and the Church, enjoining Christians to continue to do their duty as citizens (According to H.I. Marrou [and Pietri seems to agree], in pace means “under the Christian Empire.” See also Harnack, pp. 87-88.); d) that this somehow refers to gladiators (note id est gladiatur in T), as Canons 4 and 5 refer to charioteers and actors; if so, however, further corruptions must have occurred, since the present reading would enjoin gladiators (or Christians brought into the arena) to fight!

It would seem that the best interpretation would be to take it as it reads. During the persecutions of the preceding quarter century, the military was undoubtedly called upon in carrying out the edicts. This must have created a dilemma among Christians in the military and led to many desertions. Now that Christianity had been legalized, there was no longer reason for such desertions. The synod merely underlines this fact, reminding Christians that they have no further cause for shirking their responsibility to serve in the army.

[2] “He” may be the presiding bishop, Marinus, or more likely the man who called the council, Constantine.


Harnack, Adolf von., Militia Christi die christliche Religion und der Soldatenstand in den ersten drei Jahrhunderten (Tübingen: Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1905)

Clerq, Charles de, Henri Leclercq, P. Richard, Karl Joseph von Hefele, and Auguste Michel, Histoire des conciles d’après les documents originaux (Paris: Letouzey, 1952)

Marrou, H.I.,Christiana tempora. Mélanges d’histoire, d’archéologie, d’épigraphie et de patristique [recueil d’articles]. Collection de l’École française de Rome 35 (Roma: École française de Rome, 1978)

Munier, C., Concilia Galliae a.314-a.506, (Turnhout: Brepols 1963)

Pietri, Charles. Roma Christiana: recherches sur l’Eglise de Rome, son organisation, sa politique, son idéologie de Miltiade à Sixte III (311-440). Bibliothèque des Écoles Françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, fasc. 224. (Roma: École Française de Rome, 1976).

Translation/Notes by GLT

Years 313-364 (Constantine-Jovian)

Years 364-395 (Valentinian I – Theodosius I)

Years 395-431 (Arcadius and Honorius to Council of Ephesus)

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