In 366, the death of the bishop of Rome, Liberius led to a division in the church there. One faction supported Ursincius, while the other supported Damasus. This dissension climaxed with a riot which led to the death of 137 people and a rare intervention of emperor Valentinian I to uphold public order. Damasus prevailed, but only with the support of the city prefect. He was also accused of murder before a later prefect, but his rich friends secured the personal intervention of the emperor to rescue him from this humiliation. The reputations of both Damasus and the Roman church in general suffered greatly due to these two unseemly incidents.
Many in both pagan and Christian society saw in Damasus a man whose worldly ambitions outweighed his pastoral concerns. His entertainments were infamous for their lavishness. A wealthy aristocrat called Praetextatus, who was a priest in the cults of numerous gods, is reputed to have said jokingly to Damasus "Make me bishop of Rome and I will become a Christian". Some of his critics used to call him "The ladies' ear-tickler".
Damasus is notable for his association with Jerome of Dalmatia (roughly modern Albania). He encouraged the highly respected scholar, to revise the available Old Latin versions of the Bible into the contemporary Latin (hence Vulgate, the "vulgar" language). He also contributed greatly to the liturgical and aesthetic enrichment of the city churches. He employed a calligrapher, one Dionysius Philocalus, to adorn the shrines of martyrs and Roman bishops with epigrams.
These ceremonial embellishments and the emphasis on the Roman legacy of Peter and Paul amounted to a general claim to the Roman upper classes that the real glory of Rome was Christian and not pagan. All this made it more socially acceptable for the upper classes to convert to Christianity. Often, the women of the family were the first to abandon pagan ways, while the men tended to to hold onto them longer, being generally more conservative in their idealised views on the greatness of the Empire. This was often more for aesthetic and antiquarian reasons, rather than strictly religious ones. To these elegant, austere citizens, the pagan zeal of the previous Emperor, Julian was an embarrassment nearly as grating as that of any Christian evangelist.
He was the first bishop of Rome to invoke the "Petrine text" (Matthew 16:18) in terms that sought to establish a serious theological and scriptural foundation on which primacy of the Roman church could be based. From Damasus onwards, there is a marked increase in the volume and importance of claims of authority and primacy from the Roman bishops.
Damasus spoke of Rome in terms of the "apostolic see", as his predecessor Liberius had also done. This is one of the most noteworthy qualities of his reign, as it allowed him to emphasise his powerful apostolic inheritance. His reign is also one of the more important landmarks in the progression towards the development of the Papacy proper.
- "The Pelican History of the Church - 1: The Early Church" by Henry Chadwick
- "A History of the Christian Church" by Williston Walker