The second half of the fourth century CE was an important period of change for Roman society. Emperors, with one exception, were Christian and openly supporting the growth of the Christian church to the point that Christianity would be proclaimed the official religion of the empire before the end of the century. With the ongoing Christianization of the Roman Empire came the rise of bishops, whose power and authority within the church and in larger society increased to a level in society that no pagan priest had ever experienced. This book examines the life and work of two of the more important bishops of the era, Damasus, bishop of Rome (366-384) and Ambrose, bishop of Milan (374-397). Although the focus of this study is on the two bishops’ promotion of the cult of the saints in their respective cities, the study is actually somewhat broader than the title suggests.
Chapter 1 provides biographies of the two men, whose bishoprics overlapped each other for a decade. Damasus was the son of a priest who rose through the ranks of the church to become bishop of Rome in a disputed election that pitted schismatic factions supporting rivals. The matter was settled only after a pair of bloody massacres of his foes secured the position for Damasus. Ambrose came from a privileged, secular life; his father had been a praetorian prefect and he himself was serving as governor of Aemelia and Liguria when elected bishop at Milan, which was also going through its own schismatic strife before and during his episcopate.
Chapter 2 introduces the reader to the “Christian Topographies” of the two cities. Neither bishop was a prolific builder. Damasus built the Titulus Damasi, the first Christian church in the Campus Martius, two cemetery churches and a baptistery at St. Peter’s. He also had the Titulus Anastasiae decorated with frescoes. What separated Damasus from other fourth-century bishops of Rome was his attention to the tombs of the saints buried in the suburbs of Rome. Keeping the burials intact and leaving their access as it had been before, Damasus honored the saints by having simple architectural frames erected around their tombs, making them stand out from surrounding tombs in the catacombs and making them easier to find. The embellishment included verse inscriptions extolling the virtues and deeds of the saints, written by Damasus himself.
Ambrose can be securely linked with only two churches, but both were larger buildings more closely related to churches built by emperors. The Basilica Apostolorum, located on a colonnaded street just outside the city walls, was built on a cruciform plan, likely in imitation of the cruciform church of the Apostles that Constantius II had added to his father’s earlier structure in Constantinople. His other church was built in a cemetery on the other side of the city and was named after himself, the Basilica Ambrosiana, where eventually he would find his last resting place. Several other early Christian churches and the baptistery at Milan have been assigned to Ambrose, which would have constituted a rather extensive building program and Christianization of the city. Lox, like others before him, concludes that there is no clear evidence for those attributions.
Both bishops authored epigrams for their works and sometimes for buildings already standing, and these are the subject of Chapter 3. Löx discusses the similarities between the work of the two authors and the role of inscriptions in authenticating the tombs of martyrs, in which Damasus was much more active. Ambrose wrote epigrams that explained the meaning of the buildings in which they were found—the form of his Basilica Apostolorum was a cross, which he calls a trophy and symbol of Christ’s victory.
The roles of Ambrose and Damasus in finding the tombs of saints is explored in Chapter 4. Damasus embellished such tombs, but left their burials undisturbed. Ambrose, on the other hand, ordered that the newly discovered remains of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius be removed from their tombs and reburied under the altar of his Ambrosiana church. He also had the remains of St Nazarus moved to his Basilica Apostolorum and buried in its apse. These were extraordinary deeds; under Roman law, tombs were inviolate and the emperor Constantius had reiterated that fact with an updating to specify that the tombs of martyrs were not to be disturbed either. The only earlier translations of relics had occurred under direct orders of an emperor; Ambrose usurped that prerogative and opened the door for other bishops and clergy who followed to do the same.
Chapter 5 discusses the burials of the bishops and assesses their deeds. Damasus was buried in an as yet unidentified funerary basilica in the suburbs of Rome. Löx ties his promotion of the cult of saints and his focus on the tombs of martyrs to the bishop’s claims of Roman primacy. I do not know that this conclusion is warranted by the circumstances or by the facts. It could be said that Damasus was perhaps more interested in establishing his own legitimacy after the violent events at the beginning of his episcopate; it could also be that growing up in a religious family in an era not far removed from the last persecution, Damasus was simply devoted to these Christian heroes and was in a position to honor their burials. In contrast, Ambrose sought to guarantee his memory by planning a burial in the large church he built, under the altar and with the saints whose remains he had put there.
Dr. Löx has produced a book that brings a lot of information together and makes important contributions to our understanding of the Christianization of Roman society, the growing power of Christian bishops, and the formalization of the cult of the saints. Whereas previous scholarship has been focused on particular aspects of the careers of these bishops, their patronage or their writings, or the poetry of their epigrams, Löx uses a holistic approach to tie their deeds together in a way that allows the reader a clear view of each man’s overall contributions and the motivations behind them. If there is something missing, it is that the work of other contemporary bishops is not examined to provide an even wider context. Löx focuses on two of the more important and interesting bishops of Late Antiquity but it would be both interesting and helpful to see some comparison with the bishops of other Christian centers at Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. Paulinus of Nola, also engaged in the promotion of the cult of saints in his city at the end of the fourth century, is briefly mentioned, but could easily be brought into the discussion at the heart of the book. Nevertheless, Professor Löx has made a good start in the reassessment of the role of bishops with his choice of Damasus and Ambrose.
The book is very well researched, written, and illustrated and is nicely produced by Reichert. It will be an important resource for anyone interested in these two men, the cult of saints, or the large issues of Christianity and its art and architecture of the second half of the fourth century.