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date: 23 January 2021

Damasus I, Bishop of Rome, free

366–384 ce
  • Marianne Sághy

Summary

Bishop Damasus of Rome was the builder of Christian Rome and papal power in the 4th century. Following a double election, Damasus succesfully fought the schism instigated by his rival Ursinus. Damasus established the cult of the martyrs in the Roman catacombs and commissioned Jerome to revise the Latin translation of the Bible. A great promoter of the preeminence of Rome (“primacy of Peter”) among the churches, Damasus enjoyed the support of Emperor Theodosius I, but his relations with the East were strained.

Updated in this version

Article and bibilography updated to reflect current scholarship. Summary, Keywords, and Primary Texts added.

Damasus came from a clerical family. His parents Antonius and Laurentia may have moved from Spain to Rome, where his father served as a priest and his sister Irene was a consecrated virgin. Laurentia remained a widow for sixty years after her husband’s death. Born in Rome around 305, Damasus personally witnessed the restoration of rights to Christians after Diocletian’s Persecution, the ushering in of the new Constantinian ecclesiastical policy, and the struggle of the pro-Nicene Churches with those who opposed the Council (see Arianism) between the 320s and 380s. Damasus was an archdeacon of the Church of Rome in 355, when the emperor Constantius II exiled the Nicene Bishop Liberius to Beroa in Thrace and appointed Bishop Felix in his stead. On Liberius’ return to Rome in 357, Damasus supported Liberiusrather than Felix. When Liberius died in 366, Damasus fought for his legacy against his colleague the archdeacon Ursinus. In a Roman church divided by doctrine and schism, Damasus launched the cult of the martyrs to bolster his legitimacy and promote Christian unity in the city.

While archaeology and epigraphy attest to the veneration of the tombs of the apostles and martyrs between the 1st and the 3rd centuries in Rome, literary and historical evidence for Roman martyrs is strikingly meagre before Damasus: his epigrams, along with the Liberian Catalog, the very first list of the martyrs of Rome preserved by the Chronograph of 354, constitute the earliest textual evidence of martyr cult in Rome, without overlapping completely in content. Damasus’ Classical poetry integrated the cult of the martyrs into the traditions of Rome by institutionalising private commemoration at the tombs and bringing them under episcopal control. High-brow epigrams replete with Virgilian reminiscences engraved in the exquisite crimson lettering created by his friend the master calligrapher Filocalus on white marble celebrated the “new stars” of Christian Rome and served as signposts within the maze of the catacombs. Damasus’ epigraphy proclaimed the unifying power of Christianity and exhorted Christian group cohesion. Pilgrims collected and preserved copies of fifty-nine authentic Damasian epigraphic inscriptions and some fragments from sixty Roman catacombs.

Damasus’ inscriptions and architectural projects in the catacombs— such as the staircase leading to the tomb of the martyred Bishop Eusebius in the Catacomb of S. Callisto, the Crypt of the Popes, also in S. Callisto, and the underground basilica of SS. Nereus and Achilleus in the Catacomb of Domitilla—preserved and Romanized the memory of the martyrs and shaped their veneration by grafting episcopal authority onto their charisma.In this way, he rewrote the history of early Christian Rome and established the topography of the Christian founders of the city. The robust link between episcopal authority and the commemoration of martyrs forged by Damasus became a model for bishops across the Empire in the intensely agonistic world of late ancient Christianity.

Damasus’advertisement of the martyrs provided the impetus for the production of gold glass medallions representing the saints of Rome (e.g., Peter and Paul, Sixtus, Lawrence, Agnes, sometimes together with Damasus and a faithful companion, such as Pastor). Typically keepsakes of the pontificate, these medallions emphasized the leading theme of Damasus’ epigrams: the unity and community of saints and believers. The producers of these pious souvenirs rode on the crest of the success of martyr commemoration in Damasian Rome.

The Damasian commemoration of the dead involved not only illustrious martyrs. The bishop composed his own epitaph and inscriptions for his family members (his father, mother, and sister) as well as for ordinary believers (the lady Proiecta, who died at the age of sixteen in 384). The difference between the martyrial and the non-martyrial epigrams is the Filocalian font used for the former. Proiecta may be identical with the owner of the Proiecta casket of the Esquiline treasure now in the British Museum.

Against Constantinople, Damasus promoted the primacy of the See of Peter through the cult of the apostles, Saints Peter and Paul. In the fight against people he saw as heretics and schismatics, Damasus enjoyed imperial support, but he let Ambrose of Milan deal with Rome’s last pagan senators’ request for religious tolerance.

Damasus’ relations with the Eastern churches were strained due to the rancour over the Council of Nicaea. Nevertheless, in 380, Emperor Theodosius I’s Edict of Thessalonica ordered his subjects to profess “the faith of Damasus of Rome and Peter of Alexandria,” thus instituting Nicene Christianity as the only legal form across the Roman Empire. In 382, Damasus convened the Council of Rome to end the Meletian schism in Antioch and to determine the list of the canonical books of the Old and the New Testament. Parts of Damasus’ decree survive in the “Gelasian Decree” of 495. One participant in the Council was Jerome, whom Damasus would employ as his secretary, commissioning the vir trilinguis (who knew Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) to revise the Latin translation of the Bible. This translation was to become the Vulgate. Damasus also promoted the Romanization of the liturgy.

Copied by pilgrims visiting the holy places in Rome, Damasus’ epigraphic output is mostly known through its preservation in medieval manuscripts of pilgrimage routes and itineraries. Only a few Damasian inscriptions remained in situ, as for example in the Crypt of Popes of the Catacomb of San Sebastiano.

Damasus’ epigraphy, the gold glass medaillons, and his building projects reveal Christian expectations after the death of the body that combined Roman traditions of stellar afterlife (or catasterism) with the trust in the heavenly mediation and protection of the martyrs, confidence in salvific reunification with God, and belief in the communion of the living and the dead. Damasus played a decisive role in the theological and material expression of the Christian faith of Nicaea. His pontificate marked an important step in the making of Christian Rome.

Primary Texts

  • Aste, Antonio, ed. and trans. Gli epigrammi di papa Damaso I. Traduzione e commento a cura di Antonio Aste. Tricase, Italy: Libellula Edizioni, 2014 (Italian translation).
  • Ferrua, Antonio, ed. Epigrammata Damasiana. Vatican City: Pontificio Istituto di archeologia Cristiana, 1942.
  • Günther, Otto, ed. Epistulae Imperatorum Pontificum Aliorum inde ab A. CCCLXVII usque ad A. DLIII datae Avellana quae dicitur Collectio (Collectio avellana). Vol. 1, docs. 1, 5–13. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 35. Vienna: F. Tempsky, 1895.
  • Trout, Dennis E., ed. and trans. Damasus of Rome. The Epigraphic Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015 (English translation).

Bibliography

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