A Brief History
On September 28, 235 A.D., Pope Pontian became the first pope to resign his office, only to live out his days exiled to the mines of Sardinia!
When Pope Benedict XVI resigned his papacy in 2013, he was the first pope to do so since 1415. In fact, he was one of only a handful of popes to ever resign. Out of the 266 popes who have led Roman Catholicism, only six have ever abdicated. Pope Emeritus Benedict actually retains various aspects of his former office and probably lives under better conditions than many people around the world, but that was hardly the case for Pontian. Indeed, Pope Saint Pontian had a far, far worse fate than Benedict XVI when Pontian made his fateful decision nearly two thousand years ago today.
Pontian served as the head of the Catholic Church from July 21, 230 to September 28, 235 A.D. Most of his reign was uneventful and even quite peaceful. Then Roman Emperor Alexander Severus (r. March 11, 222 – March 19, 235 A.D.) did not persecute Christians in any extreme manner. Unfortunately for both the emperor and the pope, an ambitious giant of a man had other ideas.
According to Historia Augusta, this ambitious man, Maximinus Thrax (c. 173 – 238 A.D.), “was of such size, so Cordus reports, that men said he was eight foot, six inches in height.”
His willingness to commit brutality rivaled his imposing physique. He seized power by killing both Emperor Alexander and his mother. Thrax then reversed his predecessor’s tolerant policy toward Christians.
Amid the turmoil, Pontian and another leading church official, Hippolytus of Rome, were both sentenced together to hard labor in the mines of Sardinia. Facing such a sentence, Pontian became the first pope in history to resign. Neither he nor Hippolytus survived the year while working in the dreaded mines. According to legend, they may have even died martyrs. Medieval images, for example, depict Hippolytus being dragged to death by wild horses (for some reason it is much harder to find images depicting the death of Pontian). Yet, despite their deaths, legends only grew as various miracles were attributed to both men, earning them eventual recognition as saints.
As for Max Thrax, his reign only lasted until 238 A.D. when disgruntled soldiers in his camp assassinated him, his son, and his chief ministers. The soldiers then cut off their victims’ heads, placed these heads on poles, and carried them to Rome.
Questions for students: Do you have a favorite pope from history? If so, who and why?
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To learn more about this time period, the aforementioned Augustan History is one of the most entertaining primary sources from antiquity. For more objective and scholarly secondary accounts of Pontian and Hippolytus, we encourage you to consider one of the numerous encyclopedias of saints available from Amazon.com and other fine places where books are sold.
Kelly, J. N. D. and Michael Walsh. A Dictionary of Popes (Oxford Quick Reference). Oxford University Press, 2010.
The featured image in this article is a faithful representation of an icon inside the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls: the author(s) is unknown and the image itself dates back to circa 1850 (reconstruction of the basilica under pope Pius IX). As such it falls in the public domain. See popechart.com for documentation. This faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art is in the public domain for the following reason: this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.