Pope Sylvester II

Pope Sylvester II
Pope Sylvester II
As a young man, Gerbert of Aurellac became a monk in Gaul and later studied in Spain at Barcelona, and under Islamic teachers at Seville and Córdoba. He was particularly skilled in the natural sciences and arithmetic.

After completing his education under Bishop Hatto of Vichy, he traveled with the bishop to Rome and won the support of Pope John XIII. Upon a recommendation of the pope, Emperor Otto I sent Gerbert to Reims, where he was given a position as an instructor in the cathedral school under Archdeacon Gerannus.

He was highly skilled in oratory and debated Ortricus of Magdeburg before Emperor Otto II on many theological matters. He was bestowed the abbey of Bobbio by the emperor but returned instead to Reims. He was partially responsible for the rise of Hugh Capet.

Gerbert was elected archbishop of Reims in 991 by a synod of bishops. This elevation to the See of Reims was later declared invalid. Gerbert argued against the primacy of the pope in settling disputes of ecclesiastical office.


Not being able to counteract this decision Gerbert chose another path and went to the court of Otto II, where he became the emperor’s teacher. Gerbert accompanied Otto to Italy and in 998 Pope Gregory V appointed him archbishop of Ravenna.

Shortly thereafter, the pope died and Gerbert was elected to the Chair of Peter on February 18, 999, and took the name of Sylvester, becoming the first pope from France. He reigned until his death in 1003.

Sylvester’s greatest accomplishment as pope was to fight the abuses of the bishops in regard to simony and concubinage. He argued vehemently that all men who rose to the episcopate should be innocent of sin.

Sylvester II statue
Sylvester II statue

He became friends with Emperor Otto III and was exiled with the emperor after a Roman revolt against the politics of the emperor. He remained in exile for years.

Abandoning his previous beliefs that the pope could not settle ecclesiastical disputes, Sylvester declared his former opponent for the See at Reims, Arnulph, as the rightful archbishop. His reputation suffered some criticism from historians for this change in policy.

After the death of Emperor Otto III, Sylvester returned to Rome, though he gained no temporal power from the competing factions of the city. He established metropolitanates in Poland and Hungary and declared the ruler of Hungary to be a king and papal representative.

Sylvester wrote many works on mathematics and the physical sciences. The people of Rome held him in high esteem as an exorcisor of the devil and a miracle worker. Some historians claim he introduced Arabic numbers into the West and was the inventor of the pendulum clock.