The Roman Popes Damasus and Praetextatus

Damasus was worldly, wealthy, and resolute in his efforts to strengthen the power of his papacy and the dominance of the Roman church. The rival Ursinians were reported to have called him a matronarum auriscalpius, "an ear-scratcher of matrons," for his ability to persuade wealthy women to donate their worldly goods to the church. An edict of Valentinian I that forbade the practice of visiting wealthy matrons, widows, and orphans for the purpose of soliciting donations for the church may have been aimed at Damasus. By that edict, church leaders were forbidden to use their influence to appeal to wealthy Roman matrons for contributions and any bequests they made were declared invalid. The scholar, churchman, and (later) saint, Jerome of Stridon, offers a contemporary comment upon Damasus' "ear-scratching" in a pamphlet entitled Contra Ioannem Hierosolymitanum, "Against John of Jerusalem," which he wrote in 397 C.E. In the pamphlet, Jerome described a meeting between the praetorian prefect of Rome, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, and Pope Damasus. At the meeting, Jerome tells us, Praetextatus was so impressed by Damasus' urbanity and his imposing authority that he said, "Make me the Bishop of Rome and I will become a Christian immediately!"

Praetextatus and Damasus moved in the same social circles, one as a civil leader and one as a religious leader. Praetextatus supported Damasus against the rival Ursinians and was responsible for their exile, and Damasus supported Praetextatus in secular affairs. As praetorian prefect Praetextatus governed as a member of the traditional elite pagan Roman aristocracy. Pope Damasus was his Christian counterpart, who governed a Roman church that was a splendid Christian parallel to the elite social interactions of the pagan aristocracy. To many Roman aristocrats, the church's growing wealth, power, and social exclusivity appealed as much as any religious doctrine, and this status appeal accounted for the "religious" conversion of many Roman aristocrats. But Damasus' aim was not merely to swell the membership of the church. He wanted to reinvent Rome as the primate see of the church, a new Christian caput mundi, "head of the world." To accomplish this, he first needed to strengthen the office of the papacy.

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