Alexander is reckoned the fifth pope after St. Peter. As with many persons from the early period of the Church, little is known about Alexander. The most likely scenario is that he was a Roman, some say named after his father. Legend has it that he was born at Caput Tauri, (“head if the bull”) an area of Rome on Esquilline Hill, one of the seven named hills of Rome. This is a well to do area around Porto S. Lorenzo, a main entry gate into the city. The date of his birth is shrouded in antiquity.
Tradition holds that Alexander was elected to the honor of bishop of Rome when he was still in his twenties. If that is the case, he must have been a brilliant and scholarly man to gain so much recognition at so young an age. This may have been the first papal election. Previous to that the process was a nomination to succeed by the current pope. Alexander seems to have had favor at court, with a small following, including a prefect, Ermetes, and a tribunal, Quirinius. Thus he was a perfect candidate for a time of reduced persecution.
As noted in another article, Pliny the Younger vouched for the Christian population, urging Romans to reduce persecutions because the Christians were doing no crimes against the Empire itself. To Trajan, who ruled 98 – 117, Pliny wrote that he was concerned for the Christians. Trajan agreed that Christians should not be killed due to gossip but only for not sacrificing to the Emperor. Thus, in the second part of Trajan’s rule, from about 111 on, the Christians were somewhat more at peace with the society.
Hadrian became Emperor in 115 and continued an indifferent approach to Christianity, assuming they did not get violent. The great uprisings of the Jews at that time forced Hadrian to push the Jews out of the eastern regions of the Empire. By this time, Christianity was seen to be separate from Judaism, but soldiers couldn’t be expected to always know the difference. So a number of Christians were treated poorly along with their Jewish neighbors.
Pope Alexander is regarded as having done much to develop the administrative and liturgical traditions of the Church in its early years. Legend has it that he was the one who introduced holy water and the blessing of holy water and salt on a house to ward off evil. It is also said that he introduced the wording of the Consecration into the Mass.
Alexander ruled for between seven and ten years, dying around 115-119 AD. Eusebius, writing in the mid-300s, claims that this pope died in the third year of Hadrian’s reign. One story says that Alexander converted a well-placed Roman official, Hermes, and his entire household of 1500 people. This is likely to have incurred the wrath of Hadrian who ordered the bishop killed. He also may have been killed for preaching in public. At any rate, in the mid-1800s, an underground cavern was discovered along the Via Nomentana in Rome, with three buried bodies at the seventh milestone. They were named Alexander, Eventius and Theodulus. The claim is that these three were killed together. Whether this Alexander is our Pope Alexander may never be known, but the scene is certainly plausible.
For some reason, the remains of Pope Alexander are said to have been taken to Bavaria in the 800s. Perhaps someday the fate of this pope will be known.