Damasus employed Furius Dionysius Filocalus to do the actual engraving of his epipgraphs. 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 Calixtus with individual inscriptions: Sixtus II, Cornelius and Eusebius. In so doing, he carefully selected those popes with some aspect of their pontificate with which he could identify personally.
The overall aim of the epigraphic program of Damasus was to honor the martyrs of Rome, but Sixtus II 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
Pontian vs. Hippolytus
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. (The interesting case of Felix II, is the result of conflating an otherwise unknown martyr named Felix, with the antipope who was appointed by Constantius II to take the place of Liberius.) 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, which denied the distinctiveness of the Persons of the Trinity, teaching that they were only “modes” of one God. Hippolytus considered these teachings to be heresy. He also stridently opposed the influence of the deacon Callixtus on Zephyrinus. Upon the election of Callixtus to succeed Zephyrinus, Hippolytus entered official schism and may have even allowed himself to be elected bishop in opposition to Callixtus. 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. There Pontian received Hippolytus back into communion before both died as a result of their exile.
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.
Purpose of the Inscription
At any rate, the epigraph 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. The Luciferians, led by the bishop Lucifer of Cagliari, had rejected the validity of Liberius and were in open schism during the pontificate of Damasus. Damasus too had faced the opposition of an antipope, Ursinicus, whose following could be described as rigorist. Ironically, the Ursinicans rejected Damasus because they believed he had betrayed his oath to accept no new bishop while Liberius lived, and they held Liberius to have remained steadfast in the Faith. Nevertheless, it is possible that when the Ursinicans were exiled by the Emperor, that the Luciferians picked up the torch of opposition to Damasus.
Sts. Pontian, Pope, and Hippolytus, Priest, Martyrs, orate pro nobis!