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Latin ecclesiastics.

1. The first of that name who occupied the papal throne, is usually styled the GREAT. He was a native of Rome, and must have been born towards the close of the fourth century, although the precise year is unknown. Nothing has been recorded concerning his parents, except that his father was called Quintianus, nor with regard to his early training; but when we remark the erudition and polished accuracy displayed in his writings, and the early age at which he rose to offices of high trust, it becomes manifest that his great natural talents must have been cultivated with uncommon assiduity and skill. While yet an acolyte he was despatched, in A. D. 418, to Carthage, for the purpose of conveying to Aurelius and the other African bishops the sentiments of Zosimus concerning the Pelagian doctrines of Coelestius. [COELESTIUS.] Under Coelestinus [COELESTINUS] he discharged the duties of a deacon; and the reputation even then (431) enjoyed by him is clearly indicated by the terms of the epistle prefixed to the seven books, De Incarnatione Christi, of Cassianus, who at his request had undertaken this work against the Nestorian heresy. Having obtained the full confidence of Sixtus III., to whom he rendered much good service, he attracted the notice of Valentinian III., and by the orders of the emperor undertook a mission to Gaul, in order to soothe the formidable dissensions of Aetius and Albinus. [AETIUS.] While Leo was engaged in this delicate negotiation, which was conducted with singular prudence and perfect success, the chief pontiff died, and by the unanimous voice of the clergy and laity the absent deacon was chosen to fill the vacant seat, and on his return was solemnly installed, A. D. 440.

From the earliest ages until this epoch no man who combined lofty ambition with commanding intellect and political dexterity had presided over the Roman see: and although its influence had gradually increased, and many popes had sought to extend and confirm that influence, yet they had merely availed themselves of accidental circumstances to augment their own personal authority, without acting upon any distinct and well devised scheme. But Leo, while he sedulously watched over the purity of his own peculiar flock, concentrated all the powers of his energetic mind upon one great design, which he seems to have formed at a very early period, which he kept stedfastly in view during a long and eventful life, and which he followed out with consummate boldness, perseverance, and talent. This was nothing less than to establish the " Apostolic Chair" in acknowledged spiritual supremacy over every branch of the Catholic church, and to appropriate to its occupant exclusively the title of Papa, or father of the whole Christian world. Nor were the evil days amid which his lot was cast unfavourable, as might at first sight be imagined, to such a project. The church, it is true, was every where distracted and torn by the strife of parties, and by innumerable heresies, while the character of its ministers had grievously degenerated. The empire in the West was pressed on every side by hordes of barbarians, who were threatening to pour down upon Italy itself. But in this season of confusion the contending factions among the orthodox clergy, terrified by the rapid progress of Arianism, were well disposed to refer their own minor disputes to arbitration, and to acquiesce in the decision of one pre-eminent in learning and dignity. Leo, who well knew, from the example of his predecessor Innocentits, that the transition is easy from instruction to command, in the numerous and elaborate replies which he addressed to inquiries proceeding from various quarters, while he conveyed the information sought, or resolved the doubts proposed, studiously adopted a tone of absolute infallibility, and assumed the right of enforcing obedience to his dictates as an unquestionable prerogative of his office. On the other hand, the barbarian chiefs whose power was not yet consolidated were eager to propitiate one who possessed such weight with the priesthood, and through them could either calm into submission or excite to rebellion an ignorant and fanatic multitude. Hence these also proved powerful, although unconscious, instruments in forwarding the great enterprise. But even after the minds of men were in some degree prepared and disposed to yield to such domination, it was scarcely to be expected that it could be firmly fixed without exciting jealousy and resistance. Accordingly, a strong opposition was speedily organised both in the West pand in the East, which soon assumed the attitude of open defiance. In the West the contest was brought to an issue by the controversy with Hilarius of Aries concerning the deposition of Chelidonius. [HILARIUS Arelatensis. ] The total defeat and severe punishment of the Gaulish bishop filled his supporters with terror, and the edict of Valentinian issued upon this occasion served as a sort of charter, in virtue of which the Roman bishops exercised for centuries undisputed jurisdiction over France, Spain, Germany, and Britain.

In the East the struggle was much more complicated, the result much less satisfactory. The Archimandrite Eutyches [ EUTYCHES], in his ve-hement denunciation of Nestorius, having been betrayed into errors, very different indeed, but equally dangerous, was anathematised, deposed, and excommunicated, in A. D. 448, by the synod of Constantinople. Against this sentence he sought redress, by soliciting the interference of the bishops of Alexandria and Rome. By the former his cause was eagerly espoused; the latter, although at first disposed to listen favourably to a complaint which he chose to regard as an appeal from an inferior to a higher court, was eventually induced, either by policy or conviction, to reject the application, and drew up an elaborate epistle to the patriarch Flavianus, in which the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation was authoritatively expounded and defined. Meanwhile, a general council was summoned to be held on the 1st of August, 449, at Ephesus, and thither the ambassadors of Leo repaired, for the purpose of reading publicly the above letter. But a great majority of the congregated fathers acting under control of the president, Dioscuros of Alexandria, refused to listen to the document, passed tumultuously a series of resolutions favourable to Eutyches, excommunicated the most zealous of his opponents, and not only treated the Roman envoys with indignity, but even offered violence to their persons. Hence this assembly, whose acts were all subsequently annulled, is known in ecclesiastical history as the Synodus Latrocinalis. The vehement complaints addressed to Theodosius by the orthodox leaders proved fruitless, and the triumph of their opponents was for a time complete, when the sudden death of the emperor in 450 again awakened the hopes and called forth the exertions of Leo. In consequence of the pressing representations of his envoys, Anatolius, the successor of Flavianus, together with all the clergy of Constantinople, were induced to subscribe the Confession of Faith contained in the Epistle to Flavianus, and to transmit it for signature to all the dioceses of the East. Encouraged by this success, Leo solicited the new monarch Marcianus to summon a grand council, for the final adjustment of the questions concerning the nature of Christ, which still proved a source of discord, and strained every nerve to have it held in Italy, where his own adherents would necessarily have preponderated. In this, however, he failed. Nicaea was the place first fixed upon, but it eventually met at Chalcedon in October, 451. Although the Roman legates, whose language was of the most imperious description, did not fail broadly to assert the pretensions put forth by the representative of St. Peter, at first all went smoothly. The Epistle to Flavianus was admitted as a rule of faith for the guidance of the universal church, and no protest was entered against the spirit of arrogant assumption in which it was conceived. But when the whole of the special business was concluded, at the very last sitting, a formal resolution was proposed and passed, to the effect that while the Roman see was, in virtue of its antiquity, entitled to take formal precedence of every other, the see of Constantinople was to stand next in rank, was to be regarded as independent of every other, and to exercise full jurisdiction over the churches of Asia, Thrace, and Pontus. The resistance of Leo was all in vain. The obnoxious canons were fully confirmed, and thus one half of the sovereignty at which he aimed was for ever lost, at the very moment when victory seemed no longer doubtful. Two other events in the active life of this remarkable man must not be passed over in silence. In 452, when Attila was advancing in full career upon Rome, Leo was selected as the chief of an embassy, sent forth in the forlorn hope of propitiating the fierce conqueror. What the arguments employed by the eloquent suppliant may have been history has failed to record. The result is well known. The Hun not only spared the metropolis, but evacuated Italy, and returned with his army to the Danube. Again in 455, when the city lay at the mercy of the Vandals, Genseric was persuaded by the entreaties of Leo to forego his purpose of general conflagration and massacre, and to be content with pillage--a concession which, when we consider the circumstances of the case and the temper of the chief, indicates the influence of the pontiff not less forcibly than his success with Attila.

His last anxiety arose from the tumults excited in the church at Alexandria about 457 by the disorderly proceedings of Timotheus Aelurus. Having united with the emperor of the East and with the patriarch of Constantinople in restoring order and discipline, and having written a congratulatory letter to the clergy of Alexandria upon the happy termination of their troubles, he soon after died, on the 10th of November, 461.


The works of Leo consist of discourses delivered on the great festivals of the church or other solemn occasions, and of letters.

I. Sermones

Of these we possess ninety-six. There are five De Natali ipsius, preached on anniversaries of his ordination, six De Collectis, nine De Jejunio Decimi Mensis, ten De Nativitate Domini, eight In Epiphania Domini, twelve De Quadragesima, one De Transfiguratione Domini, nineteen De Passione Domini, two De Resurrectione Domini, two De Ascensione Domini, three De Pentecoste, four De Jejunio Pentecostes, one In Natali Apostolorum Petri et Pauli, one In Natali S. Petri Apostoli, one In Octavis Apostolorum Petri et Pauli, one In Natali S. Laurentii Martyris, nine De Jejunio Septimi Mensis, one De Gradibus Ascensionis ad Beatitudinem, one Tractatus contra Haeresim Eutychis.

II. Epistolae

These, extending to the number of 173, are addressed to the reigning emperors and their consorts, to synods, to religious communities, to bishops and other dignitaries, and to sundry influential personages connected with the ecclesiastical history of the times. They afford an immense mass of most valuable information on the prevailing heresies, controversies, and doubts, with regard to matters of doctrine, discipline, and church government.

Tracts of dubious authenticity

Besides the ninety-six Sermones and 173 Epistolae mentioned above, a considerable number of tracts have from time to time been ascribed to the same author; but their authenticity is either so doubtful, or their spuriousness so evident, that they are now universally set aside. A list of these, and an investigation of their origin, will be found in the edition of the brothers Ballerini, more particularly described below.


In consequence of the reputation deservedly enjoyed by Leo, his writings have always been eagerly studied. But, although a vast number of MSS. are still in existence, none of these exhibit his works in a complete form, and no attempt seems to have been made to bring together any portion of them for many hundred years after his death. The Sermones were dispersed in the Lectionaria or select discourses of distinguished divines, employed in places of public worship until the eleventh century, when they first began to be picked out of these cumbrous storehouses, and transcribed separately, while the Epistolae were gradually gathered into imperfect groups, or remained embodied in the general collections of papal constitutions and canons.


Of the numerous printed editions, which commence with that which issued from the press of Sweynheym and Pannartz (Rom. fol. 1470), under the inspection of Andrew, bishop of Aleria, comprising ninety-two Sermones and five Epistolae, it is unnecessary to give any detailed account, since two are decidedly superior to all others.

The first is that published at Paris in 1675, in two large quarto tomes, by Pasquier Quesnel, who by the aid of a large number of MSS., preserved chiefly in the libraries of France, was enabled to introduce such essential improvements into the text, and by his erudite industry illustrated so clearly the obscurities in which many of the documents were involved, that the works of Leo now for the first time assumed an unmutilated, intelligible, and satisfactory aspect. But the admiration excited by the skill with which the arduous task had been executed soon received a check. Upon attentive perusal, the notes and dissertations were found to contain such free remarks upon many of the opinions and usages of the primitive church, and, above all, to manifest such unequivocal hostility to the despotism of the Roman see, that the volumes fell under the ban of the Inquisition within a year after their publication, and were included in the "Index Librorum Prohibitorum " of 1682. Notwithstanding these denunciations, the book enjoyed great popularity, and was reprinted, without any suppression or modification of the obnoxious passages, at Lyons in 1700. Hence the heads of the Romish church became anxious to supply an antidote to the poison so extensively circulated. This undertaking was first attempted by Peter Cacciari, a Carmelite monk of the Propaganda, whose labours (S. Leonis Magni Opera omnia, Rom. 1753-1755, 2 vols. fol.; Exercitationes in Universa S. Leonis Magni Opera, Rom. fol. 1751), might have attracted attention and praise had they not been, at the very moment when they were brought to a close, entirely thrown into the shade by those of the brothers Peter and Jerome Ballerini, presbyters of Verona, whose edition appeared at Verona in three volumes folio in the course of the years 1755-1757, and is entitled to take the first place both in purity of the text, corrected from a great number of MSS., chiefly Roman, not before collated, in the arrangement of the different parts, and in the notes and disquisitions. A full description of these volumes, as well as of those of Quesnel and Cacciari, is to be found in Schönemann, who has bestowed more than usual care upon this section.

Further Information

Maimbourg, Histoire du Pontificat de Léon, Paris, 4to. 1687; the dissertations of Quesnel and the Ballerini; Schönemann, Bibl. Patrum Lat. vol. 2.42; Arendt, Leo der Grosse, Mainz. 8vo. 1835; Bähr, Gesch. der Röm. Literat. Suppl. Band. IIe Abtheil. § 159-162.

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