Councils of Sirmium

Councils of Sirmium

Zlatomira Gerdzhikova


Institute for Balkan Studies & Center of Thracology DOI
Bulgarian Academy of Sciences 27 June 2020
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Abstract: In the 4th century six councils were held in Sirmium, three of which were of exceptional religious and political significance for what was happening in Christendom. At the councils held in 351 and 357, symbols were adopted that would form the basis for distinguishing homoian Arians from other heresies associated with the teachings of Arius. Subsequently, the decisions of these councils will be followed by the Gothic and Germanic tribes for more than 200 years.

Key words: Sirmium, Church Council, Heresy, Arianism, Late Antiquity

In the 4th century a total of six councils were held in Sirmium – 347, 351, 357, 358, 375 and 378. The common denominator between them was their anti-heretical orientation, the participation of the Balkan bishops and the active intervention of the emperors. The decisions and religious formulas adopted at some of these councils not only had a significant impact on the formation of Christianity as a religious doctrine and the Church as an institution, but also a major testament to the role of the Balkan churches in religious and political life of the Roman Empire in the 4th century.

Council of 347/348 AD

In 347 AD at Sirmium was summoned a council to pronounce on the religious beliefs of Photinus,[1] bishop of the city. Very little is known about the council and its existence is still questioned by some researchers.

Photinus is a native of Ancyra and is known for his relationship with his teacher Marcellus, Bishop of Ancyra, whose religious views he further developed. He was elected bishop of the city shortly after the end of the council in Serdica in 343 and not later than the middle of 344. His religious believes put him in the specific group of heretics. In the development of his own teachings Photinus managed to move away from your teacher Marcellus and get significantly closer to Paul of Samosata. We can define him as one of the most condemned bishops not only by the followers of the Nicene Creed, but also by the Arians and the semi-arians. Before the Council of Sirmium he was condemned by the Councils of Antioch – 344, Mediolanum – 345 (Hilar. Ad Const. Imper. II.5.4), and Rome – 347 (Hilar. Coll. Antiar. B II.7).

The council of 347/348 was held in the presence of Emperor Constantius II who was passing near Sirmium. The main topic discussed by the assembled bishops (we know nothing about their number or even names) is Photinus’ religious beliefs.[2] This council adopted no formula or some has been discussed and voted but being so general that it did not deserve to be mentioned by the proceeding councils. We know for sure that the council of Sirmium confirmed the excommunication of Photinus from the council held in Milan in 347 and acknowledged his connection with Marcellus of Ancyra. At the same time, they call on Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, to distinguish himself from this same Marcellus.[3]

Daniel Williams doubts that there was a council in Sirmium at 347/ 348 and that this council excommunicated Photinus, given the fact that the latter continued to be a bishop there and enjoyed great support among the locals.[4] Despite the several excommunications after the Council of 347 Photinus continued to be the bishop of Sirmium.

Council of 351 AD

The Second Council of Sirmium latter known as the First Great Council of Sirmium,[5] was summoned by Emperor Constantius II in the winter of 351.[6] At the end of the council the bishops propose the Sixth Arian Confession, which is in fact a slightly modified and expanded version of the Fourth Arian Confession, adopted by the Council of Antioch in 344.

Sources are contradictory about the council. Church historians Socrates (HE II.29) and Sozomenus (HE IV.6) mention the Council of Sirmium in 351, but confuse it with the Third Great Council of Sirmium in 357.[7] The two historians are not unanimous about the problems, discussed by the bishops. Their testimonies are similar only for the presence of Markus of Arethusa, Basil of Ancyra, George of Alexandria, Valens of Murcia and Ossius (of Cordoba?). Socrates also mentions Pancratius of Pelusium and Hypatius of Heraclea. Only Ursacius, bishop of Sirmium, and Valens, bishop of Mursa, were present as representatives of the West, and after the death of Emperor Constas they returned to their Arian views (Socrates, HE II.29, Sozomenus, HE IV.6).

The council ended with the adoption of three decisions, announced in a letter sent to all bishops.

First, Photinus, the bishop of Sirmium, was convicted for the fifth time, this time after a public debate between him and Basil of Ancyra (Epiphanius, Panarion 71.1-5, Socrates, HE II.29, 30, Sozomenus, HE IV.6)[8]. In this case, Constantius personally took action to exile him, and in practice Photinus disappeared from the religious and political scene. He was replaced by the anti-Nicene Germinius of Cysyc (Socrates, HE II.29.4, Athan. Hist. Arian. 74.5).

Second, the council withdrew the symbol adopted in Antioch in 341. They rejection the most famous views related to the Arians and added to the original formula 26 anathemas to replace the complex structure of the "long faith" of 344. (the document is preserved in Athan. De syn. 27, Hilary, De syn. 37, Socr. HE II.30).[9]

Third, the council of Sirmium once again condemned and excommunicated Athanasius of Alexandria.[10]

The faith, which was adopted by the bishops of the council of Sirmium in 351, completely repeats the Fourth Symbol of Antioch, which until then had been used at least twice in the preparation of other symbols. According to Socrates, the author of the text is Markus, Bishop of Arethusa.

All formulations of the anathemas are close to the Nicene interpretations, but very skillfully avoid their exact repetition. According to Athanasius, the belief of the Council of Sirmium in 351 expresses heretical ideas that the Council of Nicaea condemned.

Council of 357 AD

The third council in Sirmium was held in 357 and marked the peak of Arianism. The Seventh Arian Confession (Second Confession of Sirmium - preserved in Latin in Hilari, de synod .; in Greek in Athan. De synod. 28; Socr. HE 2.30) says that both homoousios and homoiousios have no origin in the Bible and that the Father is greater than the Son. This creed would later be known as the "Blasphemy of Sirmium." This is the council at which homoian Arians established themselves as one of the important religious parties in the Roman Empire.[11]

The council of 357 was summoned by Emperor Constantius II and was held in his presence. Only Western bishops (Socr. HE 4.12) take part, of whom only Ursacius of Singidunum, Valens of Mursa, Herminius of Sirmium, and Potamius of Lisbon are mentioned by name (Hilari de Synod. 11 Hilarius named the Council "Blesphemy"). According to Hilary, Potamius was the author of the creed and not Ursacius, Valens, and Germinius, three of the emperor's favorite bishops mentioned at the beginning of the introduction.[12]

Ossius, Bishop of Korboa, also attended the council. At an advanced age he was summoned by Constantius II to join him at Sirmium, where he was compelled to sign the Second Confession by Sirmium and condemn Athanasius.[13]

Although homoian Arianism draws from the interpretations of Arius and Eusebius of Caesarea, we cannot say with certainty that it existed before 357, when it appeared in the Second Confession of Sirmium and led to the crystallization of various theological positions confusing or obscure until then.[14]

Council of 358 AD

In 358, Constantius II summoned another council at Sirmium, to which he invited all the Eastern bishops who had participated in the council at Ancyra in 357, and all the bishops who were at that time in his court at Sirmium. This time Liberius, bishop of Rome, was the main reason for the council.

Shortly after the Synod of Milan in 355, Constantius sent the bishop of Rome, Liberia, into exile in Beroe, in Thrace, for his support of the Nicene Creed. Two years later, in 357, the emperor was in Rome, whose inhabitants during his stay begged him to return their bishop from exile. Constantius decided to return Liberius, but made it a condition that he had two bishops in Rome, he and Felix, who had been appointed to the chair, each serving his own flock. Both Liberius and the inhabitants of Rome rejected the emperor's proposal (Theod, HE 2.14; Socr. HE 2.37; Soz. HE 4.15; Sulp. Sev. Chron. 2.39).[15]

According to the testimony of Sozomen (Soz. HE 4.15), Constantius summoned a council and called on bishop Liberius to appear from Beroe to Sirmium and renounce his religious beliefs. In his decision on the bishop of Rome, the emperor was supported by the semi-Arians Valens of Ancyra, Eustathius of Sevastopols, and Eleusis of Cyzicus. The listed bishops collected in a book all the conciliar decisions against Paul of Samosat and Photinus of Sirmium, as well as the symbol of the Synod of Antioch of 341.

The actions of the council of 358 can be summarized as follows:

  • Liberia was invited to join the participants in the council;
  • The semi-Arian views triumphed over those of the Anomeans and the second formula of Sirmium was again suppressed;
  • No new symbol of faith was adopted, and the old formula of Eusebius (from the Council of Antioch in 341) was renewed and signed by all bishops, even Liberius.

We do not have enough information about the councils of 375 and 378 to be sure whether there really were any and whether they were not confused by the sources with other councils.


[1] Hanson, 1988, 312–314; Zeiller, 1918, 262–265; Hefele, 1876, 187–190; Harnak, 1898, 70–72; Meslin, 1967, 264–268.

[2] Kelly, 1972, 281; Parvis 2006, 248.

[3] Hanson, 1988, 313–314.

[4] Williams, 2006, 1999.

[5] Gwatkin, 1900, 149; Zeiller, 1918, 269–271.

[6] Zeiller 1918, 265–266; Hefele, 1876, 193–200.

[7] Hanson, 1988, 325, бел. 52.

[8] Hanson, 1988, 325.

[9] Hanson, 1988, 326–329.

[10] Barnes, 1993, 63, 109; Hanson, 1988, 325.

[11] Schäferdiek, 2014, 46.

[12] Hefele, 1876, 227.

[13] Hanson, 1988, 334–336.

[14] Hanson, 1988, 358.

[15] Hefele, 1876, 231.


Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius, De synodis Arimini et Seleuciae. H. G. Opitz (ed.) (1935–41) Athanasius: Werke II.1, Berlin, 231–78.

A. Robertson (ed.), St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 4, (Oxford, 1892) 451–80.

Athanasius, Historia Arianorum. H. G. Opitz (ed.) (1935–41) Athanasius: Werke II.1, Berlin, 183–230.

Epiphanius, Panariaon Epiphanius, GCS, 3 vols, rev. by J. Dummer, C.-F. Collatz and M. Bergermann.

       Frank Williams (tr.) The Panariaon of Epiphanius of Salamis, Books II and III (Sects 47-80, De Fide) (Brill, 1994).

Hilarius Pictaviensis, Tractatus mysteriorum, Collectanea antiariana, Ad Constantium imperatorem, Hymni, Fragmenta. Pseudo-Hilarius, Epistula ad Abram filiam, Hymni – ed. A. Feder 1916, CSEL 65 Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis (On the Councils) J.-P. Migne (ed.) (1845) Sancti Hilarii Pictaviensis Episcopi Opera Omnia: Tomus II, Patrologia Latina 10, Paris, 479–546.

Philostorgius, Historia ecclesiastica (Kirchengeschichte), Joseph Bidez and Felix Winkelmann (eds), GCS 21, (3rd edn, Berlin, 1981);

Philip R. Amidon (tr.), Philostorgius Church history. translated with an introduction and notes, Writings from the Greco-Roman world 23 (Leiden, 2007)

Sokrates Scholasticus, Historia ecclesiastica, Günther Christian Hansen (ed.), GCS N.F. 1 (Berlin, 1995).

Sozomenos, Historia ecclesiastica, Joseph Bidez and Günther Christian Hansen (eds), GCS 50 (Berlin, 1960);

Ernst Walford (tr.), The ecclesiastical history of Sozomen, comprising a history of the church form A.D. 324 to A.D. 440 (London, 1855).

Sulpicius Severus, Chronica. G. de Senneville-Grave (ed.) (1999)

P. Schaff and H. Wace (edd.) (Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian, Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 11, (Oxford, 1894), 71–122.

Theodoret, Historia ecclesiastica, Léon Parmentier and Günther Christian Hansen (eds), Theodoret Kirchengeschichte, GCS N. F. 5, (3rd edn, Berlin, 1998);

Blomfield Jackson (tr.), ‘The Ecclesiastical history, dialogues, and letters of Theodoret’, in Henry Wace and Philip Schaff (eds), Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, NPNF 3 (Oxford 1892, repr. 1995), 33–160.

Secondary Sources

Barnes, T.D. (1993) Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press).

Gwatkin, H.M. (1900) Studies of Arianism: Chiefly Referring to the Character and Chronology of the Reaction which Followed the Council of Nicaea (Cambridge: Deighton Bell&Co.)

Hanson, R.P.C. (1988) The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318–381 (T.&T. Clark).

Hefele, K.J. (1876) History of the Councils of the Church from the Original Documents, vol 2 (Edinburgh)

Kelly, J.N.D. (1972) Early Christian Creeds (London: Longman).

Meslin, M. (1967) Les Ariens l’Occident, 335–430 (Paris).

Parvis, S. (2006), Marcellus of Ancyra and the last years of the Arian controversy 325–345 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Schäferdiek, K. (2014) “Ulfila and the so-called “Gothic” Arianism – English Summery” – In: G.M. Berndt, R. Steinacher (eds.) Araianism: Roman Heresy and Barbarian Creed (London&New York: Routledge)

Williams D.H. (2006) “Monarchianism and Photinus of Sirmium as the Persistent Heretical Face of the Fourth Century” – The Harvard Theological Review 99.2 (2006), 187–206.

Zeiller J. (1918), Les origines chrétiennes dans les provinces danubiennes de l'Empire romain (Paris).



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