Since the mid third century there had been a growing assimilation of Christian and secular culture. It is already in evidence long before Constantine with the art of the Christian burial sites round the city, the catacombs. With the imperial adoption of Christianity, this process accelerated. In Damasus’ Rome, wealthy Christians gave each other gifts in which Christian symbols went alongside images of Venus, nereids and sea-monsters, and representations of pagan-style wedding-processions.Shotwell and Loomis note, “During the pontificate of Damasus, Optatus, bishop of Mileve, a town in the Roman province of Numidia, wrote a treatise on the Donatist schism, which he dedicated to the Christian emperors.”
This Romanisation of the Church was not all a matter of worldiness, however. The bishops of the imperial capital had to confront the Roman character of their city and their see. They set about finding a religious dimension to that Romanitias which would have profound implications for the nature of the papacy. Pope Damasus in particular took this task to heart. He set himself to interpret Rome’s past in the light not of paganism, but of Christianity. He would Latinise the Church, and Christianise Latin. He appointed as his secretary the greatest Latin scholar of the day, the Dalmatian presbyter Jerome, and commissioned him to turn the crude dog-Latin of the Bible versions [currently] used in the church into something more urbane and polished. Jerome’s work was never completed, but the Vulgate Bible, as it came to be called, rendered the scriptures of ancient Israel and the early Church into an idiom which Romans could recognize as their own. The covenant legislation of the ancient tribes was now cast in the language of the Roman law-courts [emphasis added], and Jerome’s version of the promises to Peter used familiar Roman legal words for binding and loosing -- ligare and solver -- which underlined the legal character of the Pope’s unique claims. (Eamon Duffy, “Saints and Sinners, A History of the Popes, New Haven and London, Yale Nota Bene, Yale University Press ©1997 and 2001, pgs 38-39)
Here’s what Optatus (c. 370) said of “the Chair of Peter”:
We must note who first established a see and where. If you do not know, admit it. If you do know, feel your shame. I cannot charge you with ignorance, for you plainly know. It is a sin to err knowingly, although an ignorant person may be blind to his error. But you cannot deny that you know that the episcopal seat [“cathedra”] was established first in the city of Rome by Peter and that in it sat Peter, the head of all the apostles, wherefore he is called Cephas. So in this one seat unity is maintained by everyone, that the other apostles might not claim separate seats, each for himself.… (Cited in Shotwell and Loomis, “The See of Peter,” pgs 111-112, writing to the Donatists.)According to the editors, “not only, he says, was Peter ‘head of the apostles’ and the first bishop of Rome, but his bishopric at Rome was the first to be established anywhere in the Church. It was the original episcopate. The claim, however, was excessive even for that credulous age. It violated such widely accepted ideas as those of the bishopric of James the apostle at Jerusalem, and of Peter’s foundation of the bishopric at Antioch.” (111)
Optatus was an incredibly bad historian. No doubt he was passing along what Eamon Duffy had termed “pious romance, not history” about Peter – in the form of “later legends” that sprung up around his personality in the second century.
Who wants their faith to be formed around a legend? I certainly don’t. But that is the legacy of hundreds of years-worth of papal “history”.
Separating what is true from what is the legend is the ongoing work of critical historians. As I’ve mentioned, during the 20th century, Rome has backed far away from some of the claims made by someone like Adrian Fortescue. They have been very shy about proclaiming the results of their own studies.