Damasus I was the thirty-seventh bishop of Rome. He reigned from A.D. 366 until 384, during a period of swift, monumental change for the Christian Church. In his lifetime, Damasus saw Christianity go from a viciously persecuted minority sect to the state religion of the Roman Empire. Although St. Peter was undeniably the first Pope, it can be argued that Pope St. Damasus was the first pontiff.
Damasus was born sometime between the years 304 and 306, during the Great Persecution, perhaps in the diocese of Hispania, territory which fell under the jurisdiction of the Western, and junior, Augustus Maximian. The persecution in the west was not as fierce as that in the east, under Diocletian and Galerius, but there were nonetheless a significant number of martyrs. The persecution undoubtedly had a formative impact on the young Damasus. Years later, when Damasus composed the epigram for the tomb of the martyrs Marcellinus and Peter, he recalled hearing the story of their execution from the man who carried it out. Around the same year that Damasus was born, Maximian abdicated and his Caesar Constantius Chlorus succeeded him. As befit his new position within the Tetrarchy as Augustus, Consantius added Spain to his territories of Gaul and Britain.
Constantius had always been more lenient toward the Christians than his imperial colleagues, thus with his accession, the persecution effectively ended in Spain. Two years later, Constantius died at Eboracum (York), while on campaign against the Picts, after which his troops acclaimed his son Constantine as emperor. During the childhood of Damasus, Constantine conquered his rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge and subsequently issued the Edict of Toleration that legalized the practice of Christianity. In 325, when Damasus was about nineteen or twenty, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. The council formally anathematized Arius and condemned his teaching that the Son was of a “different essence” than the Father. Nevertheless, Arianism was far from dead.
Constantine himself was baptized on his deathbed by Eusebius, the Arian bishop of Nicomedia. Eusebius heavily influenced Constantine’s son and eventual sole heir Constantius II, who supported the Arian cause and exiled the staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy, Athanasius of Alexandria. Sometime between 355 and 356, Constantius also exiled Liberius, the bishop of Rome, to Thrace for not supporting the condemnation of Athanasius. Damasus served Liberius as a deacon and the crisis following the banishment would have dramatic repercussions for him, even after he became pope himself. Damasus would have to deal with some form of the Arian heresy through almost the entirety of his pontificate. It was not until Theodosius the Great (I) became emperor in the East that the tide turned officially against Arianism. Theodosius, with his western colleagues Gratian and Valentinian II, issued an edict in 380 that decreed that the Nicene faith would be the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The degree of influence that Damasus had directly on this imperial act is a matter of some debate, but the decree explicitly identifies the acceptable religion as that “which is now professed by the pontiff Damasus.”5 Only four years later, Damasus passed to his eternal reward.
Damasus witnessed the beginning of the triumph of Nicene Christianity over paganism and Arianism. As was the case with his participation in the Altar of Victory controversy, Damasus played a mostly supporting role to notables such as Athanasius, Ambrose and Jerome in various crises. His was not a force of personality that shaped his century. But his confident assertions of Roman primacy, when they were necessary, established a precedent, at least in the West, of looking to the Roman see as a guarantor of orthodoxy. When Damasus believed that these assertions were being challenged by the East, he acted quickly to ensure the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome.
Although some of them had far reaching effects, the most successful of the achievements of Damasus were those that he accomplished in Rome itself. Most significantly, he wrote a series of epigraphs for the tombs of martyrs and other Christians which allowed him to literally leave his mark on the Eternal City. Whatever their overall literary merit, these inscriptions were part of an attempt by Damasus to demonstrate that intellectual culture was not in the purview of pagans alone. In a similar vein, Jerome began his great project of revising the old Latin translations of Scripture at the urging of Pope Damasus. It was also during the pontificate of Damasus that the liturgy began to be said in Latin. All of these events are modestly significant by themselves, but taken together, they demonstrate a Romanizing trend developing in Western Christianity simultaneous with the Christianization of Rome. Damasus’ appropriation of Roman geography, his Latin language initiatives, both scriptural and liturgical, and the epitaphs he wrote and placed in the catacombs were part of a concerted effort to establish Rome as the center of the Christian world, with the bishop at its head. Indeed, the whole of the papacy of Damasus was devoted to maintaining the primacy and expanding the power of the bishop of Rome.
Most historians have seen the pontificate of Leo I and his confident assertion of papal power to be the beginning of the monarchial style of power which would characterize the medieval papacy. However, the description of Damasus as pontifex in Cuncto Populos is but one example of Damasus setting the stage for Leo. Henry Chadwick put it best when he wrote, “The basis of Leo’s self-confidence is the conviction expressed by Damasus that Rome has a claim upon the apostles which is unique and unrivalled by any other community.”
It is certainly arguable that the acknowledgment of the primacy of Rome was a generally increasing trend even from the pontificate of Clement I (c. A.D. 92-99). Kenneth Whitehead sees Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians as an early example of the bishop of Rome authoritatively intervening in the affairs of a different see, as if he had jurisdiction. He writes, “It is clear from Clement’s Letter that he was conscious of occupying a place in the Church of Christ that allowed—even obliged—him to adopt the didactic and hortatory tone toward a sister Church.” From that point, Whitehead provides an exhaustive list of examples going past Damasus and even Leo all the way to Pope Hormisdas in A.D. 519.349
However, the continued ascendance of the Roman see was by no means a matter of course. The influence and deference that had caused others to look to Rome made the apparent capitulation of Liberius, whether factual or not, all the more devastating. The aftermath of the crisis, with the turmoil that ensued upon the death of Liberius, brought into question not only the legitimacy of his successor but whether the ostensible bishop of Rome could even maintain his position. Furthermore, by the time of Damasus, the status of the city of Rome had already begun to decline and the status of its bishop with it. Contrary to popular belief generated by forged medieval documents and exacerbated by Renaissance paintings, Pope Sylvester I did not baptize Constantine. In fact the pope probably did not ever meet the emperor. Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople and establishment of the city as a new capital further accelerated the loss of prestige that the city had endured during the Tetrarchy.
The First Pontiff
Arguably, when Damasus ascended to the throne of Peter in A.D. 366, the papacy was at its nadir. Damasus managed to turn the situation around and he did so rather quickly. Damasus did not have an exceptionally long papacy. It was just above average length: he reigned for eighteen years, in a period where the average length of a pontificate was about fourteen years.
By the end of those eighteen years, Damasus had reestablished the prestige of the Roman see and fired the first salvo in what would become an escalating struggle for primacy with Constantinople. The events of the Liberian crisis clearly demonstrated to Damasus the unfortunate effects of being on the wrong side of imperial power. Damasus was fortunate to receive imperial support when faced with the Ursinian schism following his election. Whether Damasus bought this support with bribery, as alleged by the Ursinians, or not, he adroitly employed it to rid himself of his opposition. While the extent of the violence he allegedly inflicted on the Ursinians is surely exaggerated, Damasus clearly suffered no rivals and was resolutely determined to root out those who set themselves up as such.
At the same time, Damasus shrewdly realized that it was not enough to remove his opposition but it was necessary to erase the memory of his enemies as well. This he accomplished by reclaiming locations associated with his opponents by means of strategically placed epigrams. These epigrams honored the classical heritage of Rome while appropriating it for the new Christian faith. In so doing, Damasus created a new material culture for Christian Rome, free from the taint of paganism. At the same time, by inserting his name into almost every epigram he forever associated himself with the martyrs. Damasus further this effect by singling out for special honoring those bishops and even martyrs with whom he could demonstrate personal connections.
The prestige of the see rose with the power of the bishop. His epigrams evidence his conviction that Rome was, and should remain, the center of the Christian world. With the backing of such notables as Sts. Ambrose and Jerome, Damasus set about to make Latin the language of the Church in liturgy as well as in Scripture. In addition to ordering St. Jerome to start what eventually became the Vulgate, it is likely that the Canon of the Mass was composed during the pontificate of Damasus. It is interesting to note that many of the saints commemorated in the Canon (Peter and Paul, Sixtus II and Cornelius, Agnes, Lawrence, Comsos and Damian, Marcellinus and Peter) were also commemorated in epigrams composed by Damasus.
Even at the end of his life, Damasus rose to meet challenges to the preeminent status of Rome as Christian capital both from within and without the Church. Damasus was the first pope to be called pontifex. He did not possess all the pomp and prestige that would later be associated with that office. Yet, he had risen to new heights of power from which his successors would not descend for centuries. It is therefore most appropriate to refer to Damasus as the first pontiff of Christian Rome.
This post contains material originally published in my Master’s thesis “The First Pontiff: Pope Damasus I and the Expansion of the Roman Primacy.” If you are interested in reading the thesis in its entirety, please access it here