Damasus witnessed the beginning of the triumph of Nicene Christianity over paganism and Arianism. In this saga, Damasus played a mostly supporting but nevertheless significant 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.
Constantine and Constantius (II)
In A.D. 325, when Damasus was about nineteen or twenty, the emperor Constantine the Great 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, who in turn heavily influenced Constantine’s middle son Constantius II. From the time of Constantine’s death in A.D. 337, Constantius proved the most capable of his three heirs. His brothers in the West, Constantine II and Constans, supported the doctrine of Christianity affirmed at Nicaea. In the East, Constantius contended with the redoubtable St. Athanasius of Alexandria, perhaps the staunchest defender of Nicene orthodoxy.
Constantine himself had exiled Athanasius toward the end of his reign on trumped up charges, and Constantius banished him once more in A.D. 339. Athanasius spent this second exile in the West, where Julius, the bishop of Rome, received and supported him by means of “commendatory letters. When he was Pope, Damasus wrote an epigraph for Pope Marcus, who had a short-lived reign of less than ten months. This, combined with Damasus being the age canonically required for ordination to the diaconate, suggests that it was Pope Marcus who ordained Damasus as a deacon. Thus, since Marcus was the immediate predecessor of Julius, it is likely that the deacon Damasus interacted with Athanasius on a regular basis.
The (Temporary) Return of Athanasius
Four years later, in A.D. 343, Constans called a council at Sardica, over which Hosius of Cordova presided. Hosius had been a close advisor of Constantine since the campaigns against Maxentius. He had been present at Nicaea, where he had championed the cause of the homoousion, but had been gradually edged out of influence by Eusebius of Nicomedia. The bishops at Sardica rejected a lengthy creed that the Eastern bishops had sent to them, reaffirmed the creed of Nicaea and demanded the reinstatement of Athanasius to his see. Constantius acquiesced when Constans threatened to go to war with him if he did not. In A.D. 350, supporters of a usurper named Magnentius assassinated Constans, leaving Constantius II as sole ruler of the Roman Empire. After dealing with Magnentius, Constantius wasted no time in once again exiling Athanasius and threatened him with death should the bishop return to Alexandria
Constantius well remembered the way in which the west had stood against his will in regard to Athanasius and, without his brothers to oppose him, took measures to ensure they did not do so again. The emperor called for a synod to be held in Milan, where the bishops from the east called for a unanimous condemnation of Athanasius. The Italian bishops Eusebius of Vercellae, Dionysius of Alba and Lucifer of Cagliari, joined by the Gallican bishops Paulinus of Treves and Rhodanus of Toulouse, vehemently protested the proposal and succeeded in preventing a vote on the matter. Incensed, Constantius exiled these men along with Hilarius, bishop of Potiers in Gaul, who is sometimes called the “Athanasius of the West.”
While Constantius was busy putting down the revolt of Magnentius, Pope Julius I died and Liberius was elected to succeed him. Constantius was eager to ensure that Liberius did not emulate his predecessor. To this end, Constantius summoned Liberius to an audience where the emperor ordered the pope to ratify the condemnation of Athanasius, which had been proposed (and defeated) at Milan. Liberius refused, so Constantius exiled him to Beroea, in Thrace. Damasus served Liberius as a deacon and the crisis following the banishment would have dramatic reprecussions for him, even after he became pope himself.
The Liberian Controversy
Constantius appointed a Roman deacon named Felix to take the office of Liberius. According to the document entitled Quae gesta sunt inter Liberium et Felicem episcopos (Literally, “Those things that were between the bishops Liberius and Felix”), usually shortened to the Gesta, the Roman clergy, including not only Damasus but Felix as well, took a joint public oath to not accept another bishop of Rome as long as Liberius lived. Damasus even followed Liberius into exile briefly, but quickly returned to Rome. The Gesta argues that the clergy “perjured themselves most wickedly and supported Felix” against the will of the people who continued to publicly support Liberius. The Gesta is the only source for this incident and is also the only source that describes Felix as an archdeacon. The Byzantine historians do not mention an oath and identify Felix only as a deacon. In the same accounts, Damasus does not make an appearance until his election. Despite this, there is no reason to question the Gesta’s identification as there is nothing to contradict it in the other accounts. Archdeacon was not a separate office, but simply the title of the highest ranking deacon in the local church, usually second in authority to the bishop.
The accounts of Ammianus, Socrates and Theodoret all agree that the actions of Christians of Rome brought about the return of Liberius. The author of the Gesta concurs but adds an ominous caveat to the acquiescence of Constantius. “He soon agreed, saying, ‘You may have Liberius, who will return to you better than he was when he departed.’ But this revealed that by his agreement he was extending the hand of treachery.” Frustratingly, there is no further elaboration on this point. Sozomen supplies the details that the author of the Gesta omits. Constantius once again summoned Liberius before him and “urged him…to confess that the Son is not of the same substance as the Father.” Sozomen states that the Arian bishops of the East produced a document which condemned the doctrines of Sabellianism, with which Arians often erroneously equated the doctrine of Nicaea. Liberius assented to the document, which included a confession of faith which deliberately omitted the term homoousias. In fact, it made no mention of “substance” at all. These creeds were not technically heretical. They did not state false doctrine but neither did they affirm the doctrine of the homoousion that had been accepted at Nicaea.69 Upon this basis, the Arian party “circulated the report that Liberius had renounced the term ‘consubstantial,’ and had admitted that the Son is dissimilar from the Father.” There are also two letters ascribed to Liberius, in which he allegedly repudiates his former support of Athanasius. Historians doubt their authenticity, however, with a number of them concluding that the letters were forged. Athanasius himself related that Liberius gave way but argued that two years of exile and continual threat of death or torture mitigated much of his guilt in doing so. With this propaganda victory, Constantius allowed Liberius to return to Rome.
Luciferian, Ursinician and Miletian Schisms
When Constantius died, his successor Julian the Apostate, eager to sow dissension in the Christian ranks, recalled all the bishops whom his predecessor had exiled. In A.D. 363, the returned Athanasius presided over a council at Alexandria that ruled that Arians who repented of their heresy should be welcomed back into communion with the Church. Another returning bishop was Lucifer of Cagliari, whom Sozomen, Theodoret and the author of the Gesta record as suffering exile for his outspoken support of Liberius against Constantius. Having suffered much in defense of orthodoxy, Lucifer no doubt felt that the Church had capitulated too much to the Arian heretics, with the acceptance of Felix serving as a prime example. Refusing to accept former Arians into communion, Lucifer and his followers also broke away from both Athanasius and Liberius.
In Adversus Valentem et Ursacium Lucifer’s one-time ally St. Hilarius of Poitiers demonstrated that Studens Paci, a letter in which Liberius allegedly repudiated his earlier support of Athanasius, was in fact a forgery. John Chapman argued that the forger was a Luciferian, and that schismatics used the forged letter to further justify their claims against Liberius and the whole Church with him. Even if the charge of slander itself is false, its plausibility indicates a rift between Liberius and Lucifer, no doubt occasioned by the report of the former’s fall. Such enmity makes it unlikely that a Luciferian would be the author of the arguably pro-Liberian Gesta. Chapman presented a possible solution to the problem when he surmised that the author of the Gesta was not a Luciferian, but a Ursinian posing as one. Ursinicus was a fellow Roman deacon of Damasus. When Damasus was elected to succeed Liberius upon his death in A.D. 366, a sizable faction of the clergy protested, due to Damasus apparently accepting Felix as bishop while Liberius was in exile. The schism eventually erupted into armed conflict, with loss of life, but Damasus was able to secure the papal throne with imperial support.
One of the many tasks that fell to Pope Damasus was the resolution of various conflicts that had erupted between the Arian, Nicene and moderate candidates for various sees. One such schism was in Antioch between the supporters of Euzoius (an Arian), Meletius and Paulinus, who had been consecrated by the schismatic Lucifer of Cagliari. Since his consecration in A.D. 370, St. Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea, had been trying to bring in Western support for to end the schism in favor of Meletius. He communicated this plan with Meletius himself who cooperated with Basil in carrying it out by loaning his deacon Dorotheus to serve as Basil’s envoy to Rome. Basil also wrote a number of letters to Athanasius of Alexandria, in an attempt to gain his aid as well, but Athanasius supported Paulinus. Among the Epistulae of Basil is a letter with no addressee, which is nonetheless grouped with Basil’s other letters from this period. The text of the letter indicates that it was originally addressed to Damasus. The most compelling evidence for this is Basil’s mention of “the blessed bishop Dionysius, conspicuous of your see as well for soundness of faith as for all other virtues.” Dionysius succeeded the martyred Xystus II as bishop of Rome, where he reigned for a year and half. Basil apparently never sent this letter. Justin Taylor theorized that “Basil may have had a presentiment…that Damasus may not be as sympathetic as he had hoped, and so refrained from making the sort of personal appeal to him that he had earlier planned.”
The Edict of Thessalonica
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. Acholius, the bishop of Thessalonica, baptized Theodosius following a serious illness that left the emperor near death in A.D. 380. Thus, it is no accident that in that same year, Theodosius, with his western colleagues Gratian and Valentinian II issued the famous edict Cunctos Populos from Thessalonica, for which reason it is also known as the edict of Thessalonica. The Edict established orthodox Christianity, defined as “that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter…and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria” as the state religion of the empire. It is likely that this definition on the part of Theodosius was a result of the influence of Acholius, who was in regular communication with Damasus.
It is no surprise that Theodosius mentions Peter of Alexandria alongside Damasus of Rome. Rome and Alexandria had long enjoyed a close relationship and alliance. “One writer even called it an ‘axis.’” Tradition held that Mark, who had founded the church at Alexandria and served as its first bishop, had been a close companion of Peter. Athanasius had personally chosen Peter to succeed him, but immediately after Peter’s consecration he was threatened with arrest and forced to flee Alexandria. Peter followed his predecessor’s example and fled to Rome, where Damasus warmly received him. As Julius had, Damasus also wrote letters in support of Peter but the deacon whom he sent to deliver them was arrested and condemned to the mines. While in Rome, Peter played his part in drawing Damasus into the Meletian controversy on the side of Paulinus by accusing Meletius of Arianism in the presence of Damasus.