Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Eleutherus, bp. of Rome

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Eleutherus (1), bp. of Rome in the reigns of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, during 15 years, 6 months, and 5 days, according to the Liberian catalogue. Eusebius (H. E. v. prooem.) places his accession in the 17th year of Antoninus Verus (i.e. Marcus Aurelius), viz. a.d. 177; which would make 192 the date of his death. But the consuls given in the Liberian catalogue as contemporary with his election and death are those of 171 and 185.

Hegesippus, quoted by Eusebius (H. E. iv. 22), states that when he himself arrived in Rome, Eleutherus was deacon of Anicetus, who was then bishop, and became bishop on the death of Soter, the successor of Anicetus (cf. Iren. adv. Haeres. iii. 3, and Jerome, de Vir. Illustr. c. 22).

Eleutherus was contemporary with the Aurelian persecution; and after the death of Aurelius the Christians had peace, in consequence, it is said, of the favour of Marcia, the concubine of Commodus; the only recorded exception in Rome being the martyrdom of Apollonius in the reign of Commodus (Eus. H. E. v. 21; Jerome, Catal. c. 42). The chief sufferers under Aurelius were the churches of Asia Minor and those of Lyons and Vienne in Southern Gaul, a.d. 177. In letters to Eleutherus by the hand of Irenaeus the latter churches made known, "for the sake of the peace of the churches" (H. E. v. 3), their own judgment, with that of their martyrs while in prison, respecting the claims of Montanus to inspiration.

The fact of the bp. of Rome having been especially addressed on this occasion has been adduced as an acknowledgment in that early age of his supreme authority. But the letters of the martyrs to Eleutherus do not appear, from Eusebius, to have had any different purport from those sent also to the churches of Asia and Phrygia, nor does their object seem to have been to seek a judgment, but rather to express one, in virtue, we may suppose, of the weight carried in those days by the utterances of martyrs. Their having addressed Eleutherus, as well as the churches where Montanus himself was teaching, is sufficiently accounted for by the prominence of the Roman bishop’s position in the West, about which there is no dispute. Of the course taken by Eleutherus with respect to Montanus nothing can be alleged with certainty.

Besides the heresy of Montanus, those of Basilides, Valentinus, Cerdo, and Marcion were then at their height, and gained many adherents in Rome. Valentinus and Cerdo had come there between 138 and 142; Marcion a little later. There is, however, some difficulty in placing the sojourn in Rome of these heresiarchs in the episcopate of Eleutherus; Valentinus, according to other accounts, having died previously (see Tillem. On Eleutherus). Florinus and Blastus also, two degraded presbyters of Rome, broached during the episcopate of Eleutherus certain heresies, of which nothing is known except what may be gathered from the titles of certain lost treatises written against them by Irenaeus (Eus. H. E. v. 14, 15, 20, Pacian, Ep. i.). The visit of Irenaeus to Eleutherus gave the latter opportunity to become acquainted with the prevalent heresies, against which he became the most distinguished champion.

Especially interesting to Englishmen is the story connecting Eleutherus with the origin of British Christianity (Bede, H. E. c. iv.). [Lucius (16)]. This account, written some 500 years after the event, is the earliest mention of it in any historian. It seems pretty certain that it was from a Roman catalogue that Bede got his information, Gildas, his usual authority, being silent on the subject. In the hands of chroniclers after Bede the story receives several and growing additions. The story is first found in its simplest form in the Pontifical annals at Rome, in the 6th cent.; is introduced into Britain by Bede in the 8th; grows into the conversion of the whole of Britain in the 9th; and appears full-fledged, enriched with details, and connected with both Llandaff and Glastonbury, in the 12th. There is, however, nothing improbable in the original story itself, and it is more likely to have had some fact than pure invention for its origin, and the Welsh traditions about Lleirwg, though unnoticed by Gildas, may have been ancient and genuine ones, independent of Bede’s account. Lingard takes this view, laying stress on the dedication of churches in the diocese of Llandaff to Lleirwg and the saints associated with him, and supposing him to have been an independent British prince outside the Roman pale. In confirmation of the story is alleged further the fact that, shortly after the time of Eleutherus writers first begin to speak of British Christianity. For Tertullian, Origen, and Arnobius are the first to allude to the triumphs of the Gospel, though partial, in this remote island. What they say, however, is quite consistent with the earlier, and other than Roman, origin of the British church; and it may be that it was the very fact of their having borne this testimony that suggested Eleutherus, a pope shortly anterior to their date, as one to whom the mission might be assigned.

[J.B—Y.]