Cartographies

The amazing story of badass Pope Callixtus I

I took an instant liking to Pope Callixtus I. His date of birth unknown, he lived in the Third century AD – during the reigns of the Roman Emperors Elagabalus, Commodus, and Alexander Severus, spending most of his life as a mix between Mackie Messer and Sergio Leone’s “Noodles”. Hated by most of his contemporaries and historians, he was martyred for his Christian faith and is now venerated as a saint.

According to most tales he was born into slavery, and put in charge of collecting funds given as alms by other Christians for the care of widows and orphans; funds that were soon lost, forcing him to flee from Rome. In Portus (the ancient harbor of the capital) Callixtus jumped overboard to avoid capture but was captured and taken back to his master. Released at the request of the creditors, who thought he might be able to recover some of the money, he was rearrested for sparking a fight in a synagogue as he tried to borrow money from some Jews.

Sentenced to work in the merciless mines of Sardinia, he was released with other Christians at the request of Hyacinthus, a eunuch presbyter, who represented Marcia, the favourite mistress of Emperor Commodus. Marcia was most likely Christian and persuaded the ruler of Rome to adopt a policy in favor of her fellow worshippers, and kept close relations with Victor I, the then Pope. The Bishop of Rome gave her a list with the names of all of the Christians to release; Callixtus’ was included last minute. When he returned to the capital his health was so weakened that the friends he made in Sardinia pleaded and obtained a pension for him by the Pope.

Callixtus recovered and rapidly climbed all the ladders of Rome, becoming a close aide of Zephyrinus, the gullible and ignorant, newly appointed Pope. He helped the papacy expand Christiandom by admitting into the church converts from sects or schisms who never repented. Many found his policy of extending forgiveness on sins of sexual transgressions shockingly lax, and denounced him for recognizing as valid marriages the liaisons of Christians with their own slaves.

He managed to succeed Zephyrinus on the throne in 217 (as Callixtus I), and ordered the construction of The Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere and a large set of catacombs on the Appian Way that would later contain the tombs of several popes.

Callixtus was tortured and killed around 222 or 223, perhaps during a popular uprising, and a legend says that his corpse was thrown out of a window and down a well. He is now the patron saint of all cemetery workers.

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