Pope Damasus I 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. He employed Furius Dionysius Filocalus to do the actual engraving of the epigrams. Filocalus had distinguished himself early during the pontificate of Liberius with his completion of the Chronography of 354. The Chronography is a series of smaller documents. One of these documents is the Deposito Episcoporum, which lists the reigns and burial places of the popes from Lucius (c. 253-254) until Liberius, who was reigning at the time.
Although Damasus had knowledge of the burial sites of his predecessors going back one hundred and twelve years, he did not choose to honor every one of his predecessors. Damasus honored three popes who are buried in the Catacombs of Callistus with individual inscriptions: Xystus (II), Cornelius and Eusebius. In so doing, he carefully selected those popes that had some aspect of their pontificate with which he could identify personally.
Popes and Martyrs
The overall aim of the epigraphic program of Damasus was to honor the martyrs of Rome, but Xystus is the only one honored by Damasus who is included in the Deposito Martyrum. The Deposito is another document within the Chronography that is essentially a church calendar and lists the burial places and natales, or dates of commemoration, for the martyrs. The Deposito did not include popes who had suffered exile but were not martyrs in the strict sense. With his epigrams, Damasus was the first to consider these exiled popes to be martyrs.
While he provides epigrams for popes who are not in the Desposito Martyrum, there is no extant epigram by Damasus for either Popes Pontian or Fabian, both of whom are included in the Deposito. It is possible that Damasus was simply eager to preserve the memory of his exiled predecessor by honoring earlier popes who had suffered exile for the faith. In this way, Damasus may have been indirectly arguing that simply because Liberius did not shed his blood, this did not mean that he did not suffer in defense of his faith. If that is the case, the omission of Pontian is rather glaring, considering that Pontian, like Cornelius, Marcellus and Eusebius, died in exile for his faith in Sardinia. Moreover, it does not seem that the memory of Liberius was in any serious need of rehabilitation, indeed, even the opponents of Damasus held his predecessor in esteem. Furthermore, such a motive makes the lack of an epigram by Damasus for Liberius himself inexplicable.
Arguments from silence are inherently flawed and this is not an attempt to make such an argument. Absence of extant epigraphs by Damasus for Pontian and Liberius is mentioned here in an attempt to account for such an absence. It is also meant to answer possible objections that might arise to the arguments presented here based on the absence. As such, the response must be congruent with the earlier presented argument. While the absence in question somewhat bolsters the original argument, it is not the lynchpin of such an argument. Without the absence, the argument can stand sufficiently on earlier evidence. Ultimately, the question of what motivated Damasus to honor certain popes and not others can only be answered with hypotheses
The exclusion of Pontian makes even less sense in the context of the inclusion by Damasus of a significant figure in Church history who is closely associated with Pontian. Hippolytus of Rome was one of the most prolific patristic writers. He also holds the distinction of being the only antipope who is also venerated as a saint. In his own writings, Hippolytus describes his feud with Pope Zephyrinus, on account of the latter’s failure to deliver a judgment on the teachings of Modalism. Hippolytus considered these teachings to be heresy. He also stridently opposed the influence of the deacon Callistus on Zephyrinus. Upon the election of Callistus to succeed Zephyrinus, Hippolytus entered official schism and may have even allowed himself to be elected bishop in opposition to Callistus. He remained in schism and opposed to the successors of Callistus: Urban (I) and Pontian. Maximinus Thrax condemned both Pontian and Hippolytus to the mines of Sardinia around A.D. 236 and there Pontian received Hippolytus back into communion before both died as a result of their exile.
Pope St. Cornelius and the Novatian Schism
In the epigram that Damasus wrote in honor of Hippolytus, he refers to him as a “presbyter in schism” but identifies the schism as that of Novatian. This is an anachronism, since the schism of Novatian took place during the reign of Cornelius. Damasus additionally states that when an unidentified persecution began, Hippolytus confessed the Catholic faith and died a martyr, although Damasus characteristically does not give details of the martyrdom. H.P.V. Nunn argued, “Nothing better illustrates the confusion and obscurity which enveloped the history of the Roman Church owing to the destruction of the records in the persecution of Diocletian than the fact that Damasus had to depend on uncertain oral tradition in writing the epitaph of this celebrated person.” However, the Chronography of 354, which Damasus most likely used as a source for his epigrams, mentions Hippolytus as a presbyter who shared the exile to Sardinia with Pontian. Damasus may have honestly been unaware of the discrepancy. At any rate, the epigram of Hippolytus can be seen as an indirect exhortation for current schismatics, with whom Damasus contended throughout his pontificate, to be rejoined in communion with the bishop of Rome.
Incidentally, the epigraph that Damasus wrote for Cornelius makes no mention of Novatian, whose schism was the most significant aspect of the pontificate of Cornelius. In the wake of the Decian persecution, Cornelius supported the re-admittance of lapsi to the Church, a practice opposed by a rigorist minority centered mostly in North Africa. Adherents of the minority view elected a Roman presbyter named Novatian as a bishop in opposition to Cornelius.
Schismatic Opponents of Damasus
The Luciferians, who were in open schism during the pontificate of Damasus, opposed the receiving back into the Church of former Arian heretics. Damasus too had faced the opposition of an antipope, Ursinius, whose following could be described as rigorist, in a situation very similar to that faced by Cornelius. Like that of Hippolytus, the placement of this epigram by Damasus indicates that he wanted to remind the Roman people of these similarities. Furthermore, Damasus wished to vindicate himself by identifying with the martyred Cornelius. Shepherd reported that, in addition to writing the elogium Cornelii, “Damasus arranged more commodious space about his tomb and a more convenient stairway to it.”
Popes Eusebius and Marcellus I
Like Cornelius, Pope Eusebius and his predecessor Marcellus I, faced a crisis in the Church regarding the attitude toward the lapsi following a serious persecution. The election of Marcellus took place after a considerable interregnum following the martyrdom of the similarly named Marcellinus in the persecution under Diocletian. According to the epigram that Damasus composed for him, Marcellus, in contrast to Cornelius, required the lapsi to perform serious penances in order to gain readmission.190 Many of them rebelled violently in response and the ensuing unrest caused Maxentius to banish Marcellus. His successor Eusebius faced a situation more similar to that of Cornelius. The otherwise unknown Heraclius opposed the reception of lapsi back into the church, much as Novation had done. The resulting unrest caused Maxentius to banish Eusebius from Rome as well.
Ultimately, Damasus chose to honor Cornelius because he identified with his predecessor. Cornelius had faced a schism as did Damasus, and by identifying himself with his predecessor, Damasus hoped to demonstrate that his Ursinian and Luciferian opponents were in the wrong as the Novatianists who had opposed Cornelius had been. Both the tales of Pope Sts. Cornelius and Damasus demonstrate the importance of not breaking away from the Church, even when the Pope might be in error, perhaps grievously, over the proper application of the mercy of God.