Date of Graduation


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in History (PhD)

Degree Level





Lynda Coon

Committee Member

Kim Sexton

Second Committee Member

Lynn Jacobs


Damasus I, Late Antique Rome, Roman Catacombs, Roman Christianity


Damasus I (305-384) ascended to the office of the Bishop of Rome after a bitter and bloody battle with Ursinus in 366 CE. The violence was a culmination of doctrinal squabbles and power contests which erupted in the Roman church over the course of the fourth century. Damasus engaged in a substantial program of physical renovation and enlargement of martyr sites and personally penned numerous epigrams both extolling the virtue of the honored dead and the patronage of the bishopric. Scholarship related to Damasus and his works is typically narrowly focused, considering motive(s) for his actions, his use of specific architecture and/or materials, the content of his epigrams, etc. This dissertation expands the analysis to synthesize elements of space and architectural theory, sensory theory, and anthropological issues to fully explore the impact of his works related to martyr sites on the minds and bodies of pilgrims visiting such sites during martyr festival.

The bishop’s interventions at the catacomb of Callistus serve as a prime example of his use of architectural features, materials, decoration, and rhetoric to forge a distinct collective memory for visitors to the space – memory that was both manifestly Christian and manifestly Roman. Damasus’ use of materials and architectural features redefined the catacomb as monumental space. His proscription of physical movement and the stunning impact of the performance of his epigrams, combined with the sights, sounds, and smells within the space engaged the visitors’ senses to incite synesthesia and visceral seeing toward an encounter with the divine. These elements--catacomb-as-monument and synesthesia--provided visitors a shared visceral experience, which cemented a message of unity and a distinct collective identity for the fracturing Roman Christian community.