Key Facts:

Date 1 August 314
Location Arles (in modern-day France)
Number of Participants either 26, 33 (according to Letter to Sylvester), or 44
Regions Represented “a great many different places” (according to Constantine’s letter)
Summoned by Constantine
Chaired by Marinus of Arles
Key Participants Constantine, Bishop Marinus of Arles, Bishop Chrestus of Syracuse, Caecilian of Carthage, the presbyters Claudian and Vitus and the deacons Eugenius and Cyriacus all of Rome
Key Issues Donatist schism
Key Events reaffirmed the council of Rome (313); reaffirmed Caecilian’s innocence; matters of discipline; date for Easter; clergy forbidden to transfer; usury forbidden; deposition of traditores; quorums for episcopal consecration established; deacons forbidden to celebrate the Lord’s Supper; restrictions laid out for the vocations of Christian laity
Primary Source Descriptions Eusebius, Church History, 10.5.21-24


C. Munier’s Concilia Galliae a.314-a.506 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1963), pp. 14-22.

C. Munier, Arles” in The Encyclopedia of the Early Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Created by PSAM and SCD

Surviving Documents:

Constantine’s Summons to the Council

Letter to Sylvester

Canons of Arles

Introductory Essay:


Constantine called this council to deal with the Donatist problems of Carthage. The Donatists had been angered by the quick election of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage in 311 with only three bishops officiating, and one of those a traditor (that is, someone who handed over copies of the Scriptures to be destroyed by the authorities during persecution). Constantine appointed bishop Miltiades of Rome together with four Gallic bishops to review the controversy surrounding Caecilian. At Rome, they ruled in his favor in 313. Still dissatisfied, the Donatists demanded a more impartial hearing. Constantine agreed and called the West’s first inter-provincial council to meet on August 1, 314 at Arles in southern France. At least thirty-three bishops (three from Britain!) and sixteen other clergy were present.

The invitation (or more correctly “order”) of Constantine to Chrestus of Syracuse has been preserved by Eusebius. The bishop is told to choose two presbyters to take with him. The three of them and three servants were given access to the imperial transportation system for their journey (Church History, 10.5.21-24.). Pope Sylvester did not attend himself but was represented by the presbyters Claudian and Vitus and the deacons Eugenius and Cyriacus. The host bishop, Marinus of Arles, one of the four Gallic bishops who had reviewed the case with Miltiades the preceding year, chaired the assembly. Constantine was himself present.

The council vindicated the election of Caecilian by ruling that an election by three bishops was valid (Canon 20) and that the presence of a traditor among the ordaining bishops did not invalidate the act (Canon 14). It further spoke out against the Donatist practice of re-baptizing heretics and the lapsed (Canon 9). However, the council also took the opportunity to make pronouncements on a wide variety of issues involving church discipline, prerogatives and limitations of various clergy, and other ecclesiastical practices and abuses. Constantine is perhaps given a vote-of-confidence in Canon 3.

Sylvester of Rome did not take part in Council of Arles himself “reflecting a practice established during the 3rd century for ‘le pasteur’ himself to participate only in assemblies gathered in his own city… Officially, the Roman bishop explained that, as guardian of a tradition, he was not able to leave Rome, Seat of the Apostles.” (Pietri, p. 168). Others see his absence as due to having newly been elected (so Caspar, p.115) or other difficulties at Rome (cf. Monachino, p. 18).


“Apart from the Council of Arles there was practically no canon law in the West, except those decrees of custom vaguely referred to as “the ecclesiastical canon”. In practice it is probable that all the more serious matters came before the Pope, and the evolution of a system of Metropolitans was only just beginning in the Western Church.” (Chapman, p. 64).


The results of the council have come down to us in several forms. One, (we will refer to it as Letter to Sylvester, or LS), has a longer introduction followed by only nine canons. In this version, the bishops are all listed in the address. Another, (Canons to Sylvester, CS), consists of twenty-two canons with only a one sentence introduction. It is followed by a list of the subscribing clergy. The Novara Collection contains a third version: beginning with the introduction of CS, it then continues with the so-called comma and canons 1-3 of LS; then it returns to CS and gives all 22 canons (numbered as 1-23), concluding with 6 apocryphal canons, a concluding paragraph, and subscriptions. This third recension has received little attention, being considered a late hybrid of the other two.

Hefele-LeClercq follow Coustant and the Ballerini brothers in postulating that LS and CS represent two different letters addressed to Sylvester: LS, the shorter, was the earlier, giving a summary of the rulings against the Donatists together with a few of the other decisions, perhaps a progress report of sorts; later CS gave the official wording of the canons in their entirety. Though such a theory has little evidence to support it, the fact that each version has material the other is missing makes the theory of a dual recension problematic. Thus, we provide translations for both LS and the CS.


Ballerini, P., and G. Ballerini, Sancti Leonis Magni opera, vol. 3: Appendix (Venice 1757)

Coustant, P., Epistolae Romanorum pontificum, et quae ad eos scriptae sunt, a S. Clemente I. usque ad Innocentium III. . . ., vol. 1 (Brunsbergae: in aedibus E. Peter 1721)

Caspar, Erich Ludwig Eduard. Geschichte des Papsttums von den Anfängen bis zur Höhe der Weltherrschaft (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1930), pp. 110-113

Chapman, John. Studies on the Early Papacy (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971).

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)

De Clercq, Victor C. Ossius of Cordova; A Contribution to the History of the Constantinian Period. Studies in Christian antiquity, no. 13. (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1954).

Maassen, Friedrich, Geschichte der Quellen und der Literatur des canonischen Rechts im Abendlande (Paris 1870), pp. 188-90

Monachino, V., “Il Primato nello Scisma donatista,” Archivum Historiae Pontificiae 2 [1964], pp. 7-44.

O’Donnell, Joseph M. The Canons of the First Council of Arles, 314 A.D.. Studies in sacred theology – Catholic University of America, 2d ser., no. 127A. (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1961).

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). esp. pp. 169-72.

On Canon 11 (The remarriage of those who have divorced adulterous spouses):

Crouzel, H., “A propos du concile d’Arles. Faut-il mettre « non » avant « prohibentur nubere » dans le canon 11 ou 10 du concile d’Arles de 314 sur le remariage après divorce?”, Bulletin de Littérature Ecclésiastique 75 (1974), pp. 25-40.

Nautin, P., “Divorces et mariages dans la tradition de l’Eglise latine,” Recherches de Sciences religieuses 62 (1974), pp. 7-54, esp. p. 20.

——– Le Canon du Concile d’Arles de 314 sur le remariage après divorce,” Recherches de Sciences religieuses 61 (1973), pp. 353-62, esp. 353.

Written by GLT

Last updated: 11-22-2010

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