The Legend of Simon Magus in Rome

Gregory DiPippo

In the 8th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the deacon Philip goes to Samaria to preach the Gospel, and encounters a “magician” called Simon, who had “bewitched (the Samaritans) with his magical practices”, causing them to say that he was “the power of God, which is called great.” This man was converted by the miracles which Philip performed, but soon after attempted to buy from the Apostles the power of imparting the Holy Spirit to others, for which St Peter sharply rebuked him. From this episode comes the term “simony”, meaning any monetary traffic in spiritual matters, but especially the purchase of ecclesiastical offices.

These few verses contain all that is known for certain about Simon, who is usually referred to with the epithet “Magus – the magician.” However, already in the second century, a tradition had arisen that he had come to Rome, where he continued to perform magic with the assistance of devils, seducing the Romans into honoring him as a god. St Justin Martyr speaks of a statue which was erected to him on the Tiber Island with the inscription “Simoni Deo Sancto – To Simon, the holy god.” This is a misinterpretation of an inscription to a very ancient god called Semo Sancus, which was discovered on the island in 1574, and which properly reads “Sanco sancto Semoni deo fidio…” By St Justin’s time, this god had fallen into obscurity, and it was very natural that he, a Greek-speaker from the Middle East, should not have understood the inscription correctly.

(A reconstruction of the statue of Semo Sancus; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Despite the scarcity of information about him, Simon appears as a significant character in various early apocryphal writings. In one of these, a purported Acts of Ss Peter and Paul, he seeks to prove to the Emperor Nero that he is indeed the authentic messenger of the gods by jumping off a tower and flying. A passage about this from a sermon of St Maximus of Turin was read on this day in the Breviary of St Pius V from the time of its first publication in 1568 until 1881.

“Hodierna igitur die beati apostoli sanguinem profuderunt, sed videamus causam quare isti perpessi sunt, scilicet quod inter cetera mirabilia, etiam magum illum Simonem orationibus suis de aëris vacuo praecipiti ruina prostraverunt. Cum enim idem Simon se Christum diceret, et tamquam filium ad patrem assereret volando se posse conscendere, atque elatus subito magicis artibus volare coepisset: tunc Petrus fixis genibus precatus est Dominum, et precatione sancta vicit magicam levitatem. Prior enim ascendit ad Dominum oratio, quam volatus, et ante pervenit justa petitio, quam iniqua præsumptio; ante Petrus in terris positus obtinuit quod petebat quam Simon perveniret in cælestibus, quo tendebat. Tunc igitur Petrus velut vinctum illum de sublimi aëre deposuit, et quodam praecipitio in saxo elidens ejus crura confregit, et hoc in opprobrio facti illius, ut qui paulo ante volare tentaverat, subito ambulare non posset, et qui pennas assumpserat, plantas amitteret.

On this day, then, the blessed Apostles shed their blood; but let us look to the cause for which they suffered, namely, that among other miracles, they also by their prayers brought down the famous magician Simon in a headlong fall from the empty air. For when this Simon said that he was Christ, and claimed that as the Son he could ascend to the Father by flying, and, having been lifted up by his magical arts, had at once begun to fly; then Peter knelt down and prayed the Lord, and by his holy prayer, overcome the magician’s flight. For his prayer ascended to the Lord before the flight did, and his just petition came there before (Simon’s) wicked presumption did; Peter, being set upon the earth, obtained what he asked for before Simon could come to the heavens whither he was headed. Then did Peter set him down like a prisoner from the lofty heights, and dashing him down with a steep fall onto a stone, broke his legs; and this, as a reproach of what he had done, so that he who had just tried to fly could suddenly no longer walk, and he that had taken on wings lost the use of his feet.”

(The Fall of Simon Magus, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461-2)  

The legend goes on to say that the enraged Nero arrested Peter and Paul and threw them into the Mamertine prison before their execution. There they converted the two wardens, Processus and Martinian, in whose acts it is told that St Peter caused a well to spring up from the ground so that he could baptize them. The site has been venerated as the place of the Apostles’ imprisonment for many centuries, and pilgrims can still visit it to this day.

On the opposite end of the Via Sacra, the principal street of the Roman Forum, Pope St Paul I (757-67) built an oratory dedicated to Peter and Paul, nicknamed ‘ubi cecidit magus – where the magician fell.’ This oratory contained as its principal relic the stone upon which St Peter knelt to pray for the defeat of Simon Magus and the vindication of the Christian faith. It was later demolished, but the stone itself is preserved in the nearby church of Santa Maria Nuova.

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