The Struggle for the Papacy

After Constantine's conversion, the future of the church was by no means secure. Heresies raged. The debates over Arianism were particularly virulent, the more so as they were played out among the dynastic successors of Constantine. Moreover, there were debates concerning church authority. When Constantine removed his capitol to Constantinople in 330 C.E., the apostolic authority of the church of Rome was threatened. Each of the four sees—Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and Constantinople—sought to establish its primacy. The papacy of Pope Damasus (c. 304-384 C.E.) represented a new trend in church leadership. He embodied the single-minded goal of establishing Rome as the primate see of the Christian church, the capital of Christendom. His elevation to the papacy was difficult and he had to struggle to hold his power through his entire reign. In what may be loosely considered a Christian version of the Roman political cursus honorum, "sequence of offices," Damasus was first a deacon under Pope Liberius (352-366 C.E.) before moving up in the ranks of clergy. At Liberius' death, he began a fifteen-year struggle against his rival Ursinus to claim the papacy. Each was elected pope by his own group of followers, Ursinus in the church of Saint Mary in Trastevere and Damasus in the church of Saint Lawrence in Lucina. In his History (27.3.12-13), the contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330-c. 391 C.E.) described a bitter antagonism between the two rivals for the powerful office of pope. They were acrimoniously polarized in their views and their supporters brawled openly in the streets. In one day, Ammianus reports, there were 137 corpses after a deadly confrontation that caused Valentinian I to banish Ursinus to Cologne and recognize Damasus as pope. The same mob violence persisted, however, and Ursinus and his followers were relocated to northern Italy. Even from that remote location, they continued to dog Damasus through the end of his papacy.

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