Holy Smoke, 137 Dead in Massacre After Papal Election

 Born in what is now Portugal in what was part of the Holy Roman Empire, Pope Damascus succeeded to the papacy amidst factional violence in 366 AD.

 On the death of Pope Liberius on September 24, 366, the Roman Catholic Church was highly divided. The lingering dispute had been over the doctrine of Arianism. During the previous papacy, Emperor Constantius II had banished Pope Liberius, installing antipope Felix II as his successor, because of the emperor’s view in support of Arianism. Damascus had followed Liberius into exile. When Pope Felix II died, Pope Liberius was re-installed as pope.

 (It is of note that Pope Liberius remains the earliest pope never yet canonized by the Church of Rome.)

 Himself the son of Laurentia and Antonius, a priest at the Church of San Lorenzo in Rome –when priests could marry– Damascus faced off against a rival who was elected Pope Ursinus at the same time, across town.   The former supporters of Pope Liberiius, both deacons and laity, had backed Ursinus. As  the Christian congregation of Rome grew in size, the acclamation of a new bishop of Rome was fraught with division.  

 Conclaves, as a place of concentration. Ghetto-like. The Ark of the Covenant and the elections of popes: when the movement of time was like the movement to a new place, with the love for an institution, like the Ark of the Covenant, transporting God from one generation to the next. When a generation itself was like the founding a new town. In the way of formation.

 Ursinus and Damascus were elected simultaneously, in this atmosphere of rioting, as violence and bloodshed followed. At the Church of San Lorenzo at Lucina, the son of a priest at the Church of San Lorenzo in Rome was elected pope. So at the time of the two rival conclaves, one group mainly of clergy supported Ursinus, while another group of upper-class partisans previously loyal to antipope Felix II supported the election of Damasus, at different locations in the city of Rome. In the beginning of October 366, the dissension climaxed with a riot as both sides clashed in the streets which led to a three-day massacre, with the rare intervention of Emperor Valentinian. Damasus prevailed, but only with the support of the city prefect.

 This other Pope Ursinus ruled for several months as the same time that Pope Damascus did, with certain class hostility. Could you feel the real post traumatic stress in the story, before reaching the acceptance level, long before Elizabeth Kubler-Ross met Judy Herman? Once he was securely consecrated Bishop of Rome, his men pursued Ursinus and his supporter who were driven to the outskirts of Rome where 137 were massacred in the Basilica of Sicininus. All of this happened in the early days of the Holy Roman Empire, less than thirty years after the death of Constantine the Great. In the ever changing church, with the theme of living under a dominant power.

 Church historians such as Rufinus and St. Jerome (biased as the secretary for Pope Damascus) championed Damasus. From Edward Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:  “The enemies of Damascus styled him Auriscalpius Matronarum, the ladies’ear-scratched.”


Note the disbelief in this story of blood shed, over themes of legitimacy, after the persecution of the Christians. At a synod in 378, Ursinus was condemned and Damasus exonerated and declared the true pope. The former antipope continued to plot for the next few years against Damasus, attempting unsuccessfully to revive his claim as pope on Damasus’s death.

 Damasus did face accusations of murder and adultery (despite having not been married in in his early years as pope). Later accused of murder before a perfect, Damascus was rescued from the charges by the personal interventions of the emperor. It is written that the neutrality of these claims has come into question, with some suggesting that the accusations were motivated by the schismatic conflict with the supporters of Arianism though the reputation of the Church of Rome did suffer from the events surrounding his election.

 As a post scripts, the theological dispute now known as Arianism was about the nature of Jesus in relation to the trinity. A priest in Alexandria Egypt named Arius disputed the concept that Jesus was “of one essence” with the Father. The controversy within the church over the two natures in one person of Jesus spread throughout the Christian world. At the time, Alexandria was considered the second-most important seat of Christianity next to Rome. At first, Bishop Alexander seemed unsure of what to do about the question that Arius was raising which had been left unsettled two generations previously. Today virtually all positive writings on the theology of Arius have been suppressed or destroyed. It is interesting that these latter day follower of Jesus worried about things that neither the Apostles like Mark who spread the faith in Egypt or Peter who spread the faith to Rome ever did — over who came first, Jesus or the Father.

 It is significant that Constantine the Great had been baptized only on his deathbed by the Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedi. Constantine’s successors were all sympathizers to Arianism until Theodosius I who through imperial decree, persecution, and the calling of an ecumenical council in 381 AD effectively wiped out Arianism once and for all among the non-Germanic peoples of the Roman Empire.


1 comment so far

  1. paperlessworld on

    It is the history of the times of Constantine the Great which determined the place of the Church of Rome in western religion. The Roman Empire was on the edge of extinction, with the Empire split into three competing states, as the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, civil war, plague, and economic depression. The Crisis of the Third Century resulted in such profound changes in the Empire’s institutions, society, economic life and, eventually, religion. Constantine the Great was the son of Flavius Valerius Julius Constantius (later known as Constantius Chlorus) and and woman later canonized by the Church of Rome as Saint Helena from a common law marriage. After divorcing Helena some time before 289 (if he never married her, why the divorce?), Flavius Valerius Julius Constantius (later known as Constantius Chlorus) married Flavia Maximiana Theodora (known as Theodora) in order to obtain a wife more consonant with his rising status, per the analysis. Theodora and Constantius had six children: Constantius Chlorus carried in the Tetrarchy (which lasted until c.313) the title adopted from antiquity of Caessar, as an officer in the Roman army, and as part of the Emperor Aurelian’s imperial bodyguard.

    Modern historians attempted to determine whether Christian sources exaggerated the scope of the Diocletianic persecution of the Christians during these times. It is written that while Galerius and Diocletian were avid persecutors, Constantius was unenthusiastic. Later edicts for persecution, including the calls for universal sacrifice, were not applied in Constantius’ domain. In 303, it was Diocletian who had rescinded the legal rights of Christians, demanding compliance with traditional Roman religion.

    A prominent member of the court of Diocletian, Constantine had fought for Diocletian and Galerius in Asia. By late 305, he had become a tribune of the first order. Constantine, on taking the imperial office in 306, restored full legal equality and returned confiscated property to Christians. Internecine conflict had eliminated most of the claimants to Roman power leaving colleague and rival Constantine the Great and Licinius I. Like the Church of Rome itself, Constantine was still largely untried, with questions about his legitimacy, from Helena’s cohabitation, recognized in fact but not in law, with his father. Constantine gave his favorite half-sister Flavia Julia Constantia (one of six chilren of Theodora and Constantius) in marriage to his co-emperor, Licinius.

    Having been schooled in the East under some Christian influence, Constantine, much later, convened in 325 the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in Bithynia (modern Turkey) which had been the birthplace of his mother Helena.

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