The papacy of Damasus offers insight into some of the struggles among Christians as they defined church hierarchy and doctrines. Damasus joined forces with the praetorian prefect Praetextatus, a fellow aristocrat, to overcome his rival for the papal throne. Once he was established as pope, he moved in aristocratic pagan and Christian circles to gain the financial patronage of wealthy converts. His hierarchical configuration of the church was modeled on the political structure of empire. The pope corresponded to the emperor, and Rome, as the primate see, was the Christian equivalent of the ancient imperial capital. For this reason, Damasus was particularly aggressive about asserting the primacy of the see of Rome. In 377 C.E., he commissioned Jerome's edition of the Vulgate, with the result that Latin became the liturgical language of the western church. He was the first pope to invoke the term apostolica sedes, "apostolic see," when referring to Rome. He worked with Gratian and Theodosius to suppress heresy and was named in their edict of 380 C.E. as a model of orthodoxy. Under his direction, the church council in 382 C.E. produced the first list of canonical works of the Old and New Testaments and a decree authenticating the noncanonical texts that reported the twin martyrdoms of Peter and Paul. By appropriating the existing Roman political and religious structure of public spectacle, he created a Christian calendar of martyr celebrations and a powerful cycle of images (concordia apostolorum) that underscored the joint Roman mission of the apostles Peter and Paul. Together with his fellow aristocrat Filocalus, he also produced a corpus of inscriptions dedicated to martyrs that were affixed to the martyria around the city.

The Agnes texts blended pagan and Christian motifs in the same way that Damasus' political and religious initiatives blended Roman and Christian institutions. Ambrose, Damasus, and the poet Prudentius skillfully drew upon classical literature in their new Christian compositions. Their texts fused accounts of a pagan heroine with the passion of Agnes. Relying as they did upon the shared classical heritage of pagans and Christians, their appropriation of the pagan culture of rhetoric was as effective as Damasus' appropriation of pagan Roman spectacle and political institutions in ensuring Rome's primacy as the sedes Petri, "episcopal seat of Peter."

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