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Rev. Robert L. “bud” Grant, Ph.D. St. Ambrose University



5 7 18 23 31 45 96 99 102 103



Detail of the “bee hive” St. Ambrose Design by Fr. E. Catich, executed by Mr. John Schmitz, St. Ambrose University

In all people there lies, in accordance with human nature, a desire to search out the truth which leads us on to have a longing for knowledge and learning and infuses into us a wish to seek after it. To excel in this seems a noble thing. 2

Ambrose of Milan: de Officiis I.26.125

First Edition. May 31, 2011 Dedication: to St. Ambrose University, my alma mater

3 This primer is produced for the “Ambrose Academy,” a research center dedicated to the study of St. Ambrose of Milan in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and Liberal Arts. Funding for the project was gratefully received from St. Ambrose University (SAU) Office of the Vice-President for Academic Affairs, the SAU Alumni Office, Student Success Center, Office of Admissions, Student Government Association, Alumni and friends, including Matt and Karen Brenot, Matt Ehlman, Paul Koch, and Ted Stevens III. I want to thank the excellent students of Theology 141: Ambrose of Milan (2009 & 2010), Theology 344: Rome & Christianity (2001-2010), and the participants of the inaugural SAU Alumni “Ambrose’s Italy” trip (2011) for their questions, curiosity, their work, and even a few of their photos. Thanks to Dr. Ethan Gannaway, conlega amicusque, for his passion, scholarship, and for having edited this text so scrupulously. The design of this book is the artistic achievement of SAU gradudate and friend Christopher Mandle of Mandle Design. I owe a particular debt to Monsignore Cesare Pasini, Prefect of the Vatican Library, whose book, Ambrogio di Milano: Azione e Pensiero di un Vescovo, is the best biography of Ambrose currently available. I have assumed his chronology, many of his interpretations, and even something of his style. Grazie mille, Monsignore, per avevendo introdottami al nostro santo. This ‘primer’ is an introduction for those who like a good story and who can use their own critical thinking to draw out the right questions, seek the best information, make their own good judgments, and embrace the good that they find. I have avoided extensive details, footnotes, and research references. I take liberties in “channeling” what I imagine Ambrose’s personality to have been. I’ve added a brief bibliography, but the great problem for the English-speaking world is that Ambrose himself is generally not translated, or not translated recently, and not studied much: most of the very best work is in Italian, French, and German. There has been only one biography of Ambrose in the English language in the past 50 years: impressive in its scholarship, its judgment of Ambrose’s motives is not generally accepted by Ambrose scholars. If this primer succeeds in making you want to learn more about Ambrose and make your own judgments, then it has done its job.

V* mosaic of St. Ambrose from the “Ciel d’oro” chapel, Milan

pa rt I : obi tua ry. . . or a brie f biogr aphic al ske tc h

Aurelius Ambosius, one time Consularis of Aemelia and Liguria, then Bishop of Milan, died on December 7, 398 c.e. He was the third child of Ambrosius Aurelius, high ranking official at the court of the Emperor Constantine II. Proceeded in death by his father (340?), mother, and elder brother and one-time consularis Satyrus. He was survived by his elder sister, Marcellina, a consecrated Virgin. He may have been a member of the distinguished gens Aurelia. Ambrose was born in Augusta Treverorum (Trier) (333/4 or 339/340 c.e.) and raised in Rome after the death of his father. He was educated in the quadrivium and trivium, and learned Greek as well as his native Latin. He was selected by Sextus Claudius Petronius Probus to become chief magistrate in the city of Sirmium (Srijemska Mitrovica, Bosnia) where he served from 365-370 c.e.. He was then promoted to consularis of Liguria and Aemelia, with residence at the imperial city of Mediolanum (Milan). He served in that capacity for 1-3 years before being elevated to the episcopacy of that city by popular acclamation and ratified by imperial approbation of Emperor Valentinian II. He served as bishop until his death.

Photos were contributed by SAU Alumni Patrick Couri, Karen and Matt Bennot, Kevin Crowe, Ethan Gannaway, Jill Ganzamer, and Mark Waitkus.



Ambrose’s career as bishop was historic. He was at the center of a number of the great controversies of his time, from civil wars to religious strife; assassinations, massacres and invasions, heresies, scandal and riots. He made important contributions to theology, authoring numerous books on moral, scriptural and doctrinal theology; he was a champion of Nicaean Christianity in councils, treatises, and episcopal elections; he served as diplomat and advisor to 5 emperors while always remaining piously devoted to the Church. He built churches, composed hymns, recovered sacred relics, travelled extensively, produced volumes of correspondence, and translated Greek. His life is told in a series of biographies beginning with that of his one-time associate, Paulinus of Milan, and much later, Rufinus of Aquileia and Sozomen of Constantinople. Friends and associates remembered him as one the most renowned public speakers of his age, a generous patron to the poor, personally ascetical and prayerful, a scholar, a person of self-deprecating humor, an unflinching advocate for his Nicaean Christian beliefs, personally courageous, and one who pushed his rather frail body to the limits of endurance. Honeytongued, he was a scourge to those he opposed. Detractors interpreted him as ambitious and manipulative, a bully who defended transgressors of the law and pursued his enemies tirelessly, a writer who borrowed more than he created, and one who stepped beyond his sta tion to interfere in matters of state, other people’s religious practices, and other bishop’s prerogatives. All knew him as the very epitome of the classic Roman Patrician.

Ambrose was short and slender, with a long face, carefully trimmed hair and beard, his right eye a bit droopy, prominent ears and full lips. He dressed conservatively with modest elegance. He eschewed jewelry, fine food, drink, and was chaste.

The audience hall, in typical basilica form, of the imperial palace of Sirmium. Ambrose’s home for five years.

Ambrose served among the most prominent and powerful men and women of his generation including the Emperors Valentinian I, Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius, the Empress Justina, Senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, General Stilicho, Bishops Damasus of Rome, Basil of Caesarea, and Ambrose’s successor at Milan, Simplicianus, Jerome of Stridon and Augustine of Hippo, whom he baptized.


Ambrose: façade of the duomo, Milan. As per standard iconography, the scholar-saint holds not only a book, but a whip, as he was the “scourge” of heresy.


PART II: IV* S OCIOS CA PE The g r e at of the a ge: 300- 400 c.e.

From 230 c.e. till 285 c.e there were 23 confirmed emperors and as many as 66 claimants for at least some part of the Roman Empire. The average length of rule was 2.69 years. Only one died a natural death (Claudius II Gothicus, who died of the plague). In the mean time, Rome was constantly at war. Civil wars of succession, offensive and defensive wars against Persia/Parthia (one emperor was captured and enslaved), defensive wars against the Goths, and quelling uprisings in Gaul and Palmyra all stretched Rome’s capacities and resources. By 300 c.e. the Christian population of the Empire was something like 4-12% of a total population of about 60 million. Persecutions of Christians were sporadic, usually regional, often aimed at the leaders, and involved confiscation of property and exile more commonly than death. But the attacks on Christians were real and often vicious. Priests were expected to turn over (traducere hence “traitor”) sacred books and vessels. Those accused were required to offer a libation to the emperor—though idolatry to the Christian, refusal was considered “atheism” to the State. They were tortured in grotesque ways with instruments, rape, and fire. They were burned alive, drowned, attacked by beasts or gladiators in the arena, disemboweled, stoned, crucified, beheaded, pierced with arrows…Ambrose says of St. Vitalis’ tortured body that “he had more wounds than limbs” (Exhortatio Virginitatis I.9). Some Christians did recant. Later,

seeking readmission to the Church, they triggered controversy that lasted for centuries between those who denied them (Donatists) and those who forgave them (Nicaeans). Others too enthusiastically sought martyrdom and had to be reined in with ecclesial discipline. The last great persecution was initiated by Diocletian in 303. A decade later first Galerius (Edict of Toleration, 311) then Constantine and Licinius (Edict of Milan 313) legalized Christianity. Christians were simultaneously engaged in sometimes violent fights about authentic doctrine. The essential questions included the nature of Jesus Christ; being a loyal subject and a good Christian; relationships among bishops; role of the martyrs; and the sinfulness of the flesh. More Christians were killed by Christians than by Romans. After the age of the martyrs, the “slow martyrdom” of rigorous asceticism, including virginity and celibacy, grew in popularity throughout the Church, sometimes drifting into heresy by denying that the body is the work of God, but most often balanced by a healthy, if severe, sense of sacrificing earthly goods for the sake of the Greatest Good.

Constantine and Licinius delivering the “Edict of Milan,” flanking scenes of persecution of Christians.



PART II.A: F R OM THE TE TR AR CH Y TO CON S TA N T I N E Between 284 and 324 the Empire was ruled by a consortium of ever-shifting emperors and caesars (sort of adjutant emperors). This arrangement was made by Diocletian who envisioned the empire to be administered by a “tetrarchy” consisting of one emperor and a caesar in the East and another emperor and ceasar in the West. In practice and after Diocletian’s retirement the scheme suffered the machinations, subterfuge, and outright civil war among a group that included Maximian, Maximinius and his son (and sometimes partner, sometimes enemy) Maxentius, Constantinus and his son Constantine, Galerius, Severus, and Licinius. When the dust settled, Constantine had defeated Maxentius at the famous Battle of Ponte Milvio under the Christian ‘labarium’ (a banner featuring the chi-rho), and then defeated his onetime co-emperor Licinius. The whole empire was then ruled by one emperor…a Christian emperor.

Arcadius, Archaeological Museum: Istanbul

Honorarius, Capitoline Museum: Rome


Wives, Generals, Usurpers, Enemies, Illustrii, Scholars, Poets, Sisters

Bishop and/or* Theologian Athanasius, Arius*, Hilary of Poitiers, Palladius

Constantine 337-350 Constans 337-340 Constantine II

Magnentius: usurper

337-361 Constantius 361-363 Julian

Ammianus: historian Auxentius

363-364 Jovian 364-375 Valentinian I

Marina Severa, Justina: wives, Firmus: African rebel, Fritigern: Gothic chieftain, Merobaudes: general

364-378 Valens

Theodosius (elder): general, Probus: Senator, Consul Symmachus: Senator Praetextatus: Senato Ausonius: Poet

Liberalis Damasus pseudo-Auxentius

367-383 Gratian 375-392 Valentinian II 378-395 Theodosius

Flaccilla, Galla: wives, Richomer, Bauto, Gildo & Stilicho: generals, Magnus Maximus: usurper, Andragathius: general, Arbogastes, Eugenius, Nichomachus: usurpers, General, scholar, and Senator, respectively, Alaric: Gothic chieftain

Siricius Pricillian Simplician

395-408 Arcadius

Aelia Eudoxia: wife Pulcheria: daugher Galla Placidia: sister


395-406 Honorarius 10



I I.B. THE STORY OF TH ES E PEOPLE The doctrinal struggles within the Church prompted Constantine to call the Council of Nicaea, at which the creed written by Athanasius of Alexandria was adopted, against the objections of a group led by Arius, a priest of Antioch. Nicaea held that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. Arius objected on the grounds that neither the theology nor the language was biblical. He argued that ‘there was a time when Christ was not’ which at least indicated that the 2nd person of the trinity was “subordinate” to the Father. Eventually, all those who, for whatever reason, rejected Nicaea, were labeled “Arians” or, more accurately, “homoeans” (because of the Greek term they preferred: Christ is “like” God). Homoean Bishop Palladius of Pannonia served for decades after Nicaea, until driven out by Ambrose. Homoean Bishop Auxentius of Milan served for 20 years until his death and Ambrose’s succession. Auxentius drove away Simplician and Hilary, both of whom later became ardent Nicaean bishops in Milan and Poitiers, respectively. Generally, homoeans were more tolerated in the East than in the West which, led by the Bishop of Rome, was more staunchly Nicaean. The debate between the Nicaeans and the so-called Arians would last for another 200 years and became one of the defining elements of Ambrose’s career. When Constantine died, he left the empire to his three surviving sons. They immediately began fighting one another. Constantine II held Hispania, Gaul & Britannia, Constans held Italy, Illyricum, and Africa, Constantius II held the East. Magnentius, in the mean time, attempted a coup against Constans. When the dust settled, Constantius II was the one left standing. He was an Arian sympathizer. It may be that Ambrose’s father was killed by Constantine II during these quasi-civil wars. Ambrosius may have been the Prefect of Gaul, one of the 12 most powerful men in the empire, stationed at Trier. His youngest son, our Ambrose, was born there. Constantius intervened in a dispute over who should be bishop of Rome. He expelled Liberius, a Nicaean, and installed Felix. This was later reversed and Liberius returned, but to make that happen he had had to make some nod to Arianism (arguing that Rome was better off with him than with a real Arian). He is the only Bishop of Rome among the first 54 in the traditional count (he was #36) not to be made a saint. Constantius’ cousin Julian was elevated to Emperor by the troops on the German frontier while Constantius was off fighting in Persia. The latter died in route back to destroy Julian. Julian promptly set out to create a pagan institution parallel to Christianity, which he criminalized, but he died fighting in Persia about three years later. Ammianus was a soldier and the great historian of the age. He admired Julian and concludes his opus magnum just after Julian’s death. His book is still a great read. The Roman troops of the Persia campaign named Jovian as emperor; he marched them back to the empire to consolidate his power but he died in route. The troops then nominated Valentinian I, a Nicaean, on the condition that he select a co-emperor. He did that, his brother Valens, an homoean. Though both ruled the whole empire, Valentinian lived in Trier and Valens in Constantinople. Valentinian sent a party of Equites (“knights” one social class below the Senate, and by this time generally army men who had risen through the ranks rather than through ‘blue blood’ patrician ancestry) to Rome 12

to stir up trouble and route out dissenters among the elites on trumped up charges. They also intervened in a dispute over who should be bishop. Damasus, a Nicaean, was eventually preferred over his homoean rival Ursinus, but not before street fights and turf battles claimed more than a hundred dead. Damasus inaugurated a surge of pious devotion to the martyrs and named the great (and curmudgeonly) Jerome as his aide…encouraging him to the project that would become the Vulgate—the first official Latin translation of the Bible directly from Greek and Hebrew. Damasus was avid in insisting on the primacy of the See of Rome over other dioceses, thanks to the apostolic succession from SS Peter and Paul. He was supported in this by the aged, but still very powerful—and controversial—scholar-bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius. Valentinian named Gratian, his son and also a Nicaean, as co-emperor. He destroyed any other potential rivals to the throne, including the father of Theodosius, a general who had saved Britannia during the “Great Conspiracy” and then Africa from a rebellion led by the local warrior-king Firmus. Valentinian appointed Probus, an aristocrat from Rome, as Prefect of Pannonia. Probus hired the young Ambrose to work with him from his capital in Sirmium. Later, again with help from Probus, Ambrose was named Consularis of Liguria and Aemelia with residence at the imperial city of Milan. The local Bishop Auxentius, a homoean, died after 20+ years as bishop. Ambrose stepped in to keep the different Christian factions from the kind of violence that had marred the elections at the Church of Rome. This backfired, as he was himself hailed as bishop, though he wasn’t even baptized. Valentinian endorsed the appointment. Ambrose insisted on a Nicaean baptism. Valentinian married Justina, the widow of the usuper Magnentius, and she bore him a second son, Valentinian II. During a parlay with certain Gothic chieftains, Valentinian burst a blood vessel and died. Troops named both young sons as co-emperors. Gratian was just 16. Justina, though not regent, kept 4 year old Valentinian II with her and raised him as a homoean. Valens, in the mean time, had to withdraw troops from Persia yet again to put down a crisis on the Danube. Thousands of Gothic war refugees who had been maltreated by the Romans finally rebelled. The Gothic leader, Fritigern, incorporated into his ranks well armed and Roman-trained Gothic soldiers, the “foederati,” and moved at will across the East, though they were unable to attack any cities. Valens refused to wait for help from Gratian and his great general, the Frankish-Roman Richomer. He was defeated and killed at the battle of Hadrianopolis. Perhaps 10,000 Romans were killed. This was the second worst defeat of a Roman army in its history. It left the entire Eastern Empire defenseless. Gratian moved from Trier to Milan then appointed Theodosius, another staunch Nicaean, to save the East. Through a variety of strategies, including diplomacy, bribery, deceit, procrastination, sewing dissention, hiring as mercenaries, and ruthless military strikes, he slowly gained control, though to do so he had to hire whole units of barbarian troops to serve under their tribal chieftains in regions near where they had been settled. Chief among these was the great warrior Alaric. By now Co-Emperor, Theodosius was aided by the Frankish-Roman Bauto, whose daughter married Theodosius’ son Arcadius. Bauto’s son, Arbogastes, also became a trusted associate of Theodosius, despite his being a pagan. Stilicho, a Gaulish-Roman, was perhaps most crucial and he married Theodosius’ niece. 13

The “Arian” baptistry of Ravenna. Mid 5th Century mosaic.

The “Nicean” baptistry of Ravenna. Early 5th Century mosaic.

Notice the similarities between these two images: nude Christ in the Jordan, the dove-like Holy Spirit, John the Baptist, the personified figure of the Jordan River, and the ring of Apostles with crowns. Now notice the differences: the Nicean Christ has the physique of a divinity, he is not linked directly to the power of

the dove. John’s shepherd’s crook has become the Cross bejeweled in triumph. John is not touching Christ’s head. Oddly, and though diminished to a subserviant role, the god of the River Jordan remains.



Gratian, The Archaeological Museum, Trier, Germany

After a bout of life-threatening illness, Theodosius was baptized. A series of intense dramas unfolded that may have made him fear for his soul. With spiritual direction from Ambrose, Theodosius dealt with an attack on a synagogue by a rogue Christian bishop in Syria, a mob attack on his palace in Constantinople, and a massacre of citizens after a riot in Antioch. He called the Council of Constantinople which affirmed the Nicaean Creed, established in the primacy of the Chair of St. Peter in Rome, and caused Christianity to be adopted as the official religion of the Empire. With the death of Bishop Damasus—who, for the first time in history, was addressed as “Pope” and by none other than Ambrose—Siricius was appointed, much to the chagrin of Jerome, who presumed he would be named. The latter left Rome in a cloud and seems to have held Ambrose partially responsible for the slight. Pagan Senator Symmachus, perhaps to slight the Nicean Ambrose, recommended Augustine - at the time still a Manachaean - as Rhetor to the imperial court of Milan. He will soon convert and end his life as the greatest theologian of the Church in 1000 years. Magnus Maximus, the Comes Britannia, led his army to Gaul, lured Gratian to Lyon and to his death, possibly at the hands of his own Alani bodyguard or more likely by Maximus’ general Andragathius. Maximus then maneuvered to get now 12 year old Valentinian II sent to him at Trier. He also tried to entice Ambrose to support him, claiming to be a Nicaean Christian. He blundered badly by putting to death a heretical bishop, Pricillian, and two others. Ambrose, though having opposed Pricillian, was furious that the State 16

Left to right, sons Honorius, future emperor of the West, and Arcadius, future emperor of the East, with their father, Emperor Theodosius and Valentinian II, Base of Obelisk of Theodosius, Istanbul

should interfere in Church matters. This is the first execution of a cleric for heresy by a Christian emperor. Yet, despite his antipathy for the homoean Empress Justina, Ambrose, by means of prevarication, negotiated a deal with Maximus that stalled him and probably saved the boy-emperor’s life. The next year Ambrose returned to Trier with a very different, cocky even, tone of voice. Sometime later Maximus invaded Italy. Justina and Valentinian II fled Milan to Aquileia, then Thessaloniki, where Theodosius married Justina’s daughter, Galla, and, with help from Bauto, Richomer, Arbogastes, Gildo, and Stilicho, defeated Maximus and Andragathius. Maximus was killed by his own troops outside Aquileia, his son Victor was killed at Trier. Valentinian II was sent to Vienne in France under the guidance of Arbogastes. Both men seemed to be unhappy with this. Valentinian II requested Ambrose to come baptize him but before the bishop arrived he had committed suicide. He was 21 years old. Arbogastes, with help from the staunchly pagan Senator Nicomachus and the scholar Eugenius, led a revolt. They marched under the pagan banners of Jupiter and Hercules…the last time a Roman army would do so. They were destroyed by Theodosius at the Battle of Frigidus, near Aquileia. This left the empire with one emperor, a Nicaean Christian, and Theodosius is the last to rule the East and the West. He named his young boys as co-Caesars and he died a few months later. 17

The 18 year old Arcadius became emperor of the East, controlled by his powerful wife Aelia Eudoxia at Constantinople. Their son, Theodosius III, will be ruled as well by his remarkable sister, Pulcheria…that is “Saint” Pulcheria. Honorius, at the age of 11, ruled the West with the effective power being first Stilicho and then his half-sister Galla Placidia (who probably arranged Stilicho’s death). Alaric, the one-time foederatus of Theodosius, then attacked the West, even sacking Rome in 410 c.e. The court was forced to move from Milan to the village of Ravenna: built in a swamp and near the coast, it was easy to defend and easy to escape from. Galla Placidia’s son by General Constantius became emperor Valentinian III. Ambrose died a few years after Theodosius, not living to see the corrosion of the empire from within and the creeping success of Arian-Christian barbarians from outside. Theologically, the battle shifted a bit as Augustine, emerging as the greatest theologian, arguably, in the history of the Church, grappled with the issue of Free Will and Grace against the Celtic theologian Pelagius on the one side and the Manicheans on the other. From his home in Roman North Africa, Augustine would hear reports of the Sack of Rome with equanimity and could see the armies of the Vandals outside the window of his death bed room, though the Empire would last several more decades in the West and several more centuries in the East.

PART III: M ART YRS TO NOT E Christians honored their martyrs. According to legend, SS Pricilla and Prisca were martyred after having been caught collecting the sacred blood of martyrs from the sand of the circus in Rome. Romans, by the way, believed that drinking human blood cured epilepsy and people made a living by soaking rags with the blood of gladiators from the arena—Latin for “sand”—and selling it. As so often happened, Christians utterly transformed this custom: the blood of the martyrs healed spiritual illness by bringing one close to those who were close to Christ. Bishops had an awkward relationship with martyrs, many of whom were not immediately killed but exiled, tortured, or left to languish in prison indefinitely. Because they suffered for Christ, they were revered even while still living. Jails were porous: families brought food and clothing to prisoners and Christians did the same for their “brothers” and “sisters,” celebrating the Eucharist with them. Some martyrs, especially illeducated ones, often espoused dubious theological ideas, and Bishops had a hard time arguing with the popular Holy Ones. With the conversion of Constantine and the end of the age of the martyrs, for all practical purposes, the problem was resolved: bishops literally claimed the bodies of the martyrs, brought them into the towns and under the altars of the churches. This was not a cynical manipulation…all shared a common belief that the bodies of the martyrs were especially sacred and worthy of veneration. Many also believed they could work miracles. 18

Crypt and reliquary of SS Vitalis and Agricola built over the amphitheatre, Bologna


Among the period’s most influential advocates for this renewed cult of the martyrs were Bishops Damasus of Rome and Ambrose of Milan. Damasus popularized visits to the great catacombs such as Callistus, Domitilla, Sebastian, Commodilla, etc., opened up chapels, built shrines, and encouraged others to be buried nearby. Ambrose located the bodies of several martyrs and placed them in churches around Milan. He even found relics in places such as Bologna and delivered relics to other communities like Florence, encouraging local philanthropists to dedicate churches to them. He scattered bones like a farmer does seeds, believing that they would stimulate a new growth in the Faith. Sebastian: praetorian guard outed by Emperor Domitian and ordered pierced with arrows by his fellow guards. He survived, healed, and returned to remonstrate with the emperor, who then had him decapitated. Martyred at Rome: Catacombs of St. Sebastian. Discovered by Damasus. Ambrose claims he is a native son of Milan. Lawrence: one of seven deacons of the Church of Rome who, when the Bishop Sextus II was arrested, insisted on joining him. Required to turn over the treasure of the Church, he presented the judge with the poor who were served by the church. He was tortured on a heated grill and reportedly quipped: “turn me over, I am done on this side� (Legenda Aurea, 117.15). Martyred under Valerian (258 c.e.). Ambrose claimed that he was from Milan. Saint Soteris, virgin and martyr. She lived a simple life, though of a wealthy Roman family, and was martyred under Diocletian. Ambrose was a member of the same family. The Theban Legion: Mauritius, Candidus, Exupernis. Martyred near Lyon by Emperor Maximian after refusing to honor the god Hercules after an important victory they had ensured for the empire. The legion was decimated (every 10th man was killed). Nabor & Felix: Moorish soldiers serving Maximian, they were martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian at Lodi and buried in Milan. Cult popularized by Ambrose. Victor: another Moorish soldier, though martyred by Maximian at Milan. Boiling oil was poured over him and his body was left unburied in a grove of elm trees. Wolves protected his body till Christians found it and gave it a proper burial. Popularized by Ambrose, whose brother, Satyrus, was buried in the chapel of St. Victor very near (and now attached to) the Basilica Ambrosiana. Agricola & Vitalis: a patrician and his slave. During the persecutions of Diocletian Agricola was arrested, Vitalis insisted on joining his master. The latter was tortured, presumably in the hopes that his suffering would convince the patrician to veer from his faith. It did not work. Both were put to death in the local amphitheatre. Martyred in Bologna. Discovered by Ambrose. Relics in Bologna and Florence (brought there by NEXT PAGE, TOP: St. Sebastian, St. Victor, St. Nazarius, St. Celsus


NEXT PAGE, BOTTOM: Relics of Gervasius and Protasius (in red) flanking the body of Ambrose, Basilica Ambrosiano, Milan


Ambrose to a church dedicated by the wealthy widow Juliana, whose three daughters vow virginity and whose son is ordained a priest). Nazarius and Celsus: Nazarius was said to be the son of a soldier who refused to enlist (as was the law for sons of soldiers). Nothing is known of Celsus’ life. Martyred at Milan. Tradition has it that this took place under the Emperor Nero. Discovered by Ambrose. Vitalis & Valeria: Vitalis was martyred at Ravenna, where a church is dedicated to him, his wife Valeria while in route to Milan. Both were martyred by Nero, or perhaps Antonius Pius, or perhaps Diocletian. Relics recovered by Ambrose. Gervasius & Protasius: said later to be sons of Vitalis and Valeria, often portrayed as soldiers, not because they were in the army, but because they were Ambrose’s own spiritual warriors defending him against threats by homoeans, namely the empress Justina. Martyred at Milan. Discovered by Ambrose and re-interred in a newly consecrated church beside the chapel of San Vitore in Ciel d’ Oro where Ambrose’s own brother, Satyrus, was buried. Later Ambrose was buried alongside the bodies of these martyrs under the main altar of the church: the first non-martyr to be thus honored. The church was immediately known as The “Ambrosian” basilica, though it was only one of several that the bishop had built around Milan.

Main altar of St. Vitale, Bologna. 19th Century depiction of the martyrdom of Saints Vitalis & Agricola.


PA RT I V : TH E L A NDSC A PE Start tracing a line through Scotland from Glasgow to Edinburgh, then cross the North Sea to the Rhine and Danube all the way to the Black Sea. Go between Iraq and Iran until you get to Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. Keep going to include the eastern side of the Red Sea, the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, and cross northern Africa including Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Get to Spain and Portugal, then all of France, back up the Atlantic Ocean between England and Ireland back to Glasgow. You have circumscribed all or parts of 33 countries. That is the Roman Empire at its greatest extent. Now draw another line from the tip of the heel of Italy north through Bosnia/Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia and then south cutting Libya in two. The Western Roman Empire is now distinguished from the Eastern. This formal division, however, is somewhat artificial. Most dual (or more) emperors recognized that laws passed by one emperor were valid throughout the empire, or at least laws of one were ratified by the other—laws of religious (in)tolerance come to mind. Boundaries and political organization changed rather often, but by the death of Theodosius, the empire was subdivided into Prefectures: Gaul, Italy, Illyricum, and Oriens. Each of these had a number of Dioceses: Spain, Gaul, Britain; Africa, Rome, Italy; Macedonia, Dacia, Egypt; the East, Pontus, Asia, and Thrace. Dioceses were further divided into provinces: 15 in Gaul; 20 in Italy; 11 in Illyricum; and 46 in the Oriens. Ambrose was “consularis” (roughly: governor) of Aemelia & Liguria, two provinces in the Diocese of Italy in the Prefecture of Italy, or 1/46th of the political units of the whole empire. Rome remained the nominal capital of the entire empire even though it had seldom been the permanent home of the emperor since the end of the second century. It retained a preeminent role as the very symbol of the Empire and as the largest and most magnificent city in the Roman world. Because of the sheer size of the borders and the constant wars from Scotland to Germany and Afganistan to Iran, the emperor had to be near the “limes” or frontier. Thus were born a series of “imperial” cities that could accommodate the emperor, his court, and the army. These included Trier, in Germany; Milan and Aquileia in Italy; Sremska Metrovica in Bosnia,Thessaloniki in Greece; Istanbul and Antioch in Turkey. Certain places were great because of their religious or cultural importance (Athens, Jerusalem, Delphi). Other cities were crucial for their economic value and their region’s wealth in resources such as food grain (Alexandria) or commerce (Aquileia). Other cities developed as local or regional hubs, including Bath, Chester, and York in England; Vienne, Arles, and Lyon in France; Vienna in Austria; Carthage in Tunisia; Alexandria in Egypt; Jerusalem in Israel; Antioch, Pergamum and Ephesus in Turkey; and Split in Croatia,. Many of these cities boasted over 1/2 million citizens, though today most are considerably smaller…Sremska is a village, there is no train station in Aquileia, Ephesus is abandoned entirely. Within Roman cities there is a repeated pattern of development. The major thoroughfares are the Cardo Maximus and the Decumanis which intersect at a right angle in the center of town where the forum/agora is located. Most cities were walled. Rome has two sets of walls, one built in the sixth B.C.E. and rebuilt in the 23











The Roman Emprire circa 400 c.e. Cities in bold are associated with the life of St. Ambrose.


fourth century b.c.e. and one in the third century c.e. by Aurelian, remodeled in the fifth by Honorius. The forum is the heart of the city. It must have a market, a temple, and a government office. In small villages these could be all under one roof. In Rome there were even multiple fora, the Republican, those of Julius Ceasar, Augustus, Vespasian, Nerva, and Trajan. Constantinople, as viewed in the photo below, also had at least three imperial fora, Constantine’s Theodosius’, and Arcadius/Pulchera’s. You will note in this photo another feature seen very commonly in imperial cities such as Rome, Constantinople, Milan, and Thessaloniki, at least: the palace complex is adjacent to the circus in order to facilitate the display of ‘commonness’ between the emperor and the community. Frequently the city walls incorporate some of these structures, being built much later and, needing to built rather quickly, taking advantage of pre-existing construction. The basilica, or audience hall, in the imperial palace complex at Thessaloniki, was converted into a Christian basilica, that is a church, by then resident, Emperor Theodosius. Sharing a wall with it (and now under a modern apartment block) was the circus, the outer wall of which was linked to the city walls. It was in this LEFT: Roman Forum with Colisseum BELOW: Theoretical reproduction of Constantinople: Archaeological Museum of Istanbul







ABOVE: Cardo Maximus leading from the theatre to the port, Ephesus

ABOVE: Roman walls around Thessaloniki

BELOW: Entrance to the Forum and Senate at Vienne, France

BELOW: Boat house of the imperial palace, incorporated into defensive walls, Istanbul

Surviving apse of the basilica, adjacent to the race track, now under a modern apartment building, Thessaloniki

circus that as many as 7000 people were massacred by Gothic troops employed by the empire to keep order. Theodosius, no longer resident in the city, had commanded the execution in retaliation for a riot in the city that resulted in the death of his consularis, Butheric. Ambrose imposed penance on the emperor for this crime, denying him sacraments until it was completed. Ambrose travelled extensively and has left a few finger prints that survive today in local art, place names, artifact, church architecture, and legend. His prestige was most durable in northern Italy: Vercelli, Pavia, Piacenza, and Brescia. He was born in Trier, and returned there at least twice during the crisis of Magnus Maximus; he was raised and educated in Rome; he was the provincial administrator at Sirmium (Sremska); at Milan he was first consularis then bishop. He visited Aquileia, Trier, and possibly Vienne. He is also known to have been in Bologna, Faenza, Florence and Capua. Moreover, through his influence with Theodosius, in particular, he was able to involve himself in places he never visited personally: Antioch, Constantinople, Thessaloniki, and Callinicum (Rakka, in Syria). Tradition has it that the church now bearing his name in Florence marks the place where Ambrose stayed. With support from the local wealthy widow and philanthropist Juliana, S. Lorenzo was built to house the relics of SS Agricola and Vitalis which Ambrose brought from Bologna. 28


PA RT V : TH EOLOGIC A L A RTS One of the most interesting facets of the work of Ambrose was his integration of his Christian faith with his Classical worldview. He and his age virtually invented the idea of a Roman Catholicism. In so doing, neither the faith nor the worldview were left unchanged. How the two interpenetrated and influenced each other is evident in Roman Catholic theology, ritual, ecclesiology, customs, law‌and the arts. Ambrose and generations of Patrician prelates whom he influenced designed buildings, wrote music, commissioned works of art, produced literature, poetry, history and even reinterpreted Rome’s past all with the aim of supplying continuity between the tradition and the Church while expunging pagan elements. We can cite a few examples and no arena of human society demonstrates these trends more obviously than how Roman Catholics managed death.

ABOVE: 12th Century fresco of Ambrose (on the left), Aquileia BELOW: Ambrose venerating the Christ child and Madonna, St. Ambrogio, Florence

Temple of Antonius Pius and Faustina vis Church of San Lorenzo in Miranda, Forum, Rome. Photo by Mark Waitkus




Mor pholo gy of t he Ar c hitecture of Death Below and on the next page are five images: 1) the tombs of Augustus (d. 14 c.e.), 2) Hadrian (d. 138), 3) Galerius (d. 311), 4) Helen (d. 380) and 5) Theodoric (d. 526 c.e.). Notice the continuity of form in the design of these structures. Photos 1 and 2 by SAU Grad Patrick Couri, tomb of Helen by SAU Professor Ethan Gannaway

1 4






Now look at the next set of images. The tomb of the pagan becomes the baptistery of the Christian: not death, but resurrection…this is found throughout the Christian Roman world: the ‘new’ baptistery of Milan, designed by Ambrose, was the first. These images are of 1) the “Nicaean” Baptistery in Ravenna, 2) the old baptistery in front of the basilica in Aquileia, 3) and church of San Vitale in Ravenna. In reference to the last, notice the buttressing and one end of the elongated oval narthex to the left…also found in the tomb of Constantina in Rome and the basilica of Constantine in Trier. The fourth photograph is the schema for the audience hall of Theodosius at his palace in Thessaloniki (probably built by Gallienus). You can more easily recognize the octagon shape and the unusual double apsed, or elongated oval, narthex. This is not to suggest a clean transition: the octagonal tomb with a double-apsed narthex is found in the Christian tombs of Constantina and Honorius, both in Rome, for example.




And finally, in a rather ironic twist, here is the twentieth century cenotaph to Milan’s war dead, just behind the Basilica Ambrosiana. Under the central arch is a monumental statue of Ambrose himself. Photo by SAU Graduate Kevin Crowe



Conversion of the Basilica The Church borrowed other architectural shapes as well. The building on the left is known as the Basilica of Constantine, in Trier. It is an imperial audience hall from around the beginning of the fourth century c.e. The second is the church of S. Simpliciano in Milan, begun by Ambrose toward the end of that same century.

There are also similarities from within…notice the ‘triumphal arch’ separating the apse of the throne room from the audience hall itself. This becomes the line dividing the body of the church from the sanctuary. Thus was transformed the building (and even the name) from a place to meet a king, and the place to encounter Christ the King. 36

NEXT PAGE, TOP: Basilica of Constantine, Trier, interior NEXT PAGE, BOTTOM: St. Pricidia, Rome, interior




The Pr ofane to the S ac red Below in image 1 are “pissidi,” ivory boxes made for perfume. They are both fifth century and seem to have been made at the same shop. The one in the background shows a young, beardless Jesus in a toga, using a virga (rod) to bring back to life his friend Lazarus. The other shows the pagan god Dionysius trying to enflame the passions of a demon of, well, passion. The object in image 2 is the bottom of a transparent glass plate with a gold image of two young men. It had been mortared into a fourth century tomb. The inscription below the bust reads “Pie Zeses” (“drink and may you live!”) Is this bacchanal encouragement to get drunk, a worried urging to take one’s medicine, or a pious hope for those receiving the consecrated wine? Ivory boxes made for perfume, from the Archaeological Museum of Bologna


Peacock mosaic: Basilica of Aquileia

Sarcophagus of a bishop with peacocks and grape vines, Ravenna Archaeological Museum

1) The peacock was a pagan symbol of eternity. 2) It is transformed to a symbol of Christian resurrection. The image of grape vines, so common in pagan tombs, now signifies the resurrection: the grape is crushed to become fine wine. Of course it also evokes the transformation of wine into the blood of Christ. 3) To the image of the grape vines is added the child (a christian soul? Christ? A pagan cupid?) and a rooster, also found commonly in both pagan and Christian art.

Transparent glass plate, from the Vatican Museums


4) The rooster is another image that the Church has reinterpreted from paganism. Alectron (Greek for “rooster”) was a boy who was supposed to have guarded the bedroom of Aphrodite for Ares so that they would not be caught by her husband, Helios (the sun). He fell asleep and they were caught. He was turned into a bird and was charged to announce the rising sun. In the Christian lexicon, the rooster is the one who, by crowing, exposed Peter’s sin of denying Christ, leading him to repent (Jn. 18: 15-27). (Images 3 and 4) By extension, it announces the Rising of the Sun, as in the hymn of Ambrose.

Here are two Roman bathtubs. Image 3 has been re-used as a baptismal font in the Duomo of Milan (photo: Image 4 had been re-used as the sepulcher for Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths, whose tomb is in Ravenna. Trace the links: washing/cleansing, cleansed from sin/new life, death to resurrection. 3



Fragment (of a sarcophagus?) with grape vines and a rooster, inserted into the wall of S. Ambrogio, Milan


Mosaic from the archaeological excavation near the basilica of Ravenna. The legend is that the Turtle symbolizes the human, living below the ground and within himself. The Rooster as the herald of the Rising Son, combats this sinful tendency.



Aeterne rerum conditor Oh eternal Composer of all who rules the night and day and divides the seasons to relieve uneasiness

Christ is commonly portrayed as a Roman Emperor. For centuries he was in a toga and beardless, then the image evolved into a veritable Emperor: aloof, all powerful, almighty Judge. Left: “Nicaean” baptistery, Ravenna: the empty throne of the Final Judgment prepared for the future coming Christ, early Fifth Century.

the herald now sounds the day watchful in the depths of night nocturnal light for travelers Dividing night from night Through it Lucifer* aroused the pole loosed from the dark: Through it the Hoards all error and hurtful ways forsake Through it the Sailor binds his strength and the tumult of the sea subsides Through it even the Rock** of the church Dissolves his guilt in that crowing Let us rise up, then, with vigor the Crow arouses the drowsy And rebukes the late-sleepers the Cock reproves the deniers

Left: Christ on the seat of Judgment, surrounded by the Angels of the Apocalypse. Note the Zeus /Jupiter-like thunderbolt in his hand. From St. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravena, Mid-Fifth Century.

the Cock crowing Hope returns health is restored to the sick the Blade of the bandit is sheathed Among the lapsed faith is returned Jesus, attend to the waverers And straighten we living ones if you attend, faults fall away And with tears sins are dissolved You, Light, shine on the senses and dispel sleep from minds of You first may our voice sing and may we unbind our prayer to You Translation by author

Christ, on the right, beardless with a scroll, is empowering Peter, on the left. Notice the roster. Compare to photo of Roman consulanes, page 47. Photo by SAU Alum. Jill Gansamer

Sometimes the Church doesn’t really try to transform the images, thus we have a whole series of fourth century pagan mosaics from a building that was converted into the basilica of Aquileia whose pagan origins cannot be concealed behind the new interpretations. Is this really Christ the Good Shepherd? “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninetynine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy.” (Lk. 15: 4-5). 41

And are those “putti” (pagan cupids) really meant to invoke Matthew 5:18-19?

Other, more or less random, illustrations of the phenomenon of the shift from pagan to Christian Rome follow without comment.

“As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “come after me and I will make you fishers of men.”

The suovetaurilia: the sacrifice of unblemished and garlanded boar (L. suis) ram (L. ovis) and bull (L. Taurus). From the Roman Forum, now in the museum of the Senate, Rome.

Can one of these images represent the separation of sheep from the goats, but the other not? The first is the Imperial Palace in Istanbul, the second is the basilica of Ravenna.

A bas relief from the Roman amphitheatre in Trier. It shows a procession of animals, including sheep and a horse. Undated.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Mt. 25:31-32.

In this mosaic from the mausoleum of Constantina in Rome the pagan themes are not just retained, but copied…there is nothing overtly “Christian” about this image of making wine: collecting the grapes, delivering them to the presses, and crushing them. Nonetheless, the Christian would readily accept the scene as a metaphor of death and resurrection.

A line of lambs with a palm tree. It is all that remains of the Hagia Sophia, built by Arcadius, and destroyed by fire in the V* Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Tomb of Constantina, Rome. Photo by Dr. Ethan Gannaway



PA RT V I : TH E CONTR OV ERSI ES The Column of Marcus Aurelius, Rome. His statue would once have capped the edifice…now St. Peter does. (Photo by SAU graduate Patrick Couri).

As bishop of the capital city of the Western Empire, and given his background, education, experience, temperament, genius and courage, Ambrose very quickly emerged as the most influential church man of his age, and one of the most powerful in the history of the Catholic Church. He was either drawn to or simply leapt into any controversy that seemed to him to impinge on the autonomy of the Church from State control. Stories of this--his social and political role--help put his theological teachings in context; indeed he would have said that he was putting his theology into practice. Besides, they are simply riveting stories in their own right.

Roman columns re-erected with statues of Saints Agricola (l.) and Vitalis (r.), Ravenna.

The Dom of Trier. Once an imperial residence, converted into an apsed Christian basilica. Ancient legend said that St. Helen, the mother of Constantine gave this, her house, to the bishop. Archaeology has recently shown that at least the first level of the building (from the ground up to the arcade, minus the apse) is indeed Roman and that the entire neighborhood was the site of the imperial residence 44

1.) 2.) 3.) 4.) 5.) 6.) 7.) 8.) 9.) 10.)

Ambrose Bishop! Hadrianopolis Council of Aquileia Missions to Trier Altar of Victory The Portiana Basilica Gervasius & Protaseus Moral Blindspot: Callinicum Synagogue Massacre at Thessaloniki Frigidus and the end

374 c.e. 378 c.e. 381 c.e. 383 & 384 c.e. 384 c.e. 381, 385-386 c.e. 386 c.e. 388 c.e. 390 c.e. 394 c.e.

Story #1: Ambrose Bishop! Aurelius Ambrosius, Consularis of Aemelia and Liguria had five main jobs: tax man, manager of public buildings and feasts, policeman, judge, and militiaman. Well, really, he just had one: please the emperor. This was no small task, as Valentinian I was known to be ill-tempered and short-fused. On discovering that a certain subordinate was promoting himself he had him decapitated…perhaps making a pun: as in English, the Latin “caput” means head and also leader. Earlier, when Ambrose was just a boy in Rome, Valentinian had sent shock waves through the elites—the illustrii—of Rome by allowing an Eques named Leo to literally perform witch hunts. Many senators lost their property and/or their lives. On the other hand, though himself a Nicaean, Valentinian had done nothing to help the church combat heresies. He had risen suddenly through the untimely and even unlikely deaths of Julian and then Jovian. He had survived coup attempts, put down barbarian incursions, and kept a wary eye on his own troops. Now, after more than 20 years, the venerated bishop of Milan Auxentius had died and the possibility of street fighting was very real, if other cases were any guide. Auxentius, you see, was a ‘homoean’ or, as his detractors preferred to call him, an Arian. Probably he simply objected to the language, if not the theology, of Nicaea and so he rejected it. This made him something of an outlier…most of the West had sided with Athanasius of Alexandria and Damasus of Rome. Still, he had had decades to consolidate his authority 45

and he had reached far…expelling Nicaeans like Simplician and Hilary, calling anti-Nicaean councils, and shaping the theology of the clergy by appointment. Yet the Nicaean camp had not disappeared from Milan, and it may have been swelling in anticipation of the old man’s eminent demise. When that happened, they were able to take to the streets in numbers to weigh against the homoeans. Yes, it was a threat to public tranquility. On paper, Ambrose’s powers were enormous. He could arrest, torture, and condemn. In any situation that, as the chilling phrase went, “called for arrows,” he could summon a complex mesh of armed forces including, perhaps, village police, “club-bearers,” “guardians of the peace,” “night watchmen,” as well as rather shady sounding “investigative officers” and, finally, the permanent deployment of soldiers (on hand because Milan was an Imperial city). Despite all that, he knew the dirty secret of every Governor: he did not have enough men to quell a serious riot. Recently, in Rome, the consularis had courageously hung three ring-leaders and it broke up a riot, but in another incident, the urban prefect only managed to soothe a quaking and hungry mob wanting their dole by tearfully thrusting his own children in front of him. Senator Symmachus, a peer of Ambrose, had seen one of his father’s houses torched by a crowd made angry at a snooty comment he’d made about how he would rather use his wine to make bricks than offer it to the city’s poor. In a case that will sound familiar, Viventius of Rome was required to intervene in the riotous dispute between two claimants for bishop; instead, he ran away. 137 bodies were found once the violence abated. A few years later a certain Butheric, Consularis of Thessaloniki, would be killed by a mob. In Antioch, a crowd would destroy the imperial busts (the Roman equivalent of burning the flag) and the consularis was powerless. One more: in Milan a crowd assembled and refused to allow homoeans into a church. The prefect was overwhelmed and asked the local bishop to calm the situation for him. He did…this was Bishop Ambrose. The point is that crowds were a real threat to the government. So it says something of Ambrose’s courage that he summoned the two rival camps to the new basilica in the center of Milan. The Nicaeans would never have seen its interior and would have been uncomfortable. The Homoeans would have resented the intrusion of the Nicaeans, the governor, and the sturdy and heavily armed, if also probably young and nervous, corps of soldiers with whom Ambrose had seen fit to quite visibly ring the room and block the doors. Effectively, Ambrose had succeeded in putting the two groups together while simultaneously separating these from the far larger mobs no doubt lingering agitatedly around the piazza outside. Hear the loud murmuring of the Homoeans, the softer, intimidated whispers of the Nicaeans, the click of the military boots on the pavement stones (soldiers used nails in the soles of their shoes for better traction), the slamming of the doors and thumping home of security beams. Now hear the room still as the Consularis of Amelia and Liguria takes the pulpit otherwise reserved for the bishop. He was still a young man, perhaps only 35, at the prime of his life, short and of slight build. He was dressed in the official uniform of his rank, not an officer’s armor, but something vaguely resembling the toga of his ancestors, strapped around his middle was a wide leather belt. He carried, not a sword, but a book-scroll (bound books are already appearing, but this called for an evocation of Roman tradition). Though far from controlling of the situation, he was not afraid simply because he was in the right, and that is all there was to it. He stepped up to the ambo, thumped his fist loudly to gain attention that was probably already given, 46

and leaned over the pulpit. He looked sternly into the eyes of men and women and children whom he knew well from his service in the town. They glanced away: they all knew him to be a man of principle, devotion, piety (meaning patriotism, in their Latin), and unflinching commitment. The intimidation of character, if not force, might prevail. He demanded, with appropriate rhetorical gestures and in an orator’s resounding voice accented in Rome’s patrician Latin (think JFK’s Boston accent), that there be a decision and that it be arrived at in peace. No doubt he waxed a bit on the theme, absent-mindedly quoting King David and Livy, Luke and Cicero. He wore them down with his eloquence, his passion, his evocation of tradition, his call to Gospel-like non-violence, his apocalyptic prophesies of the effects of civil strife. He won their silence, if not the peace. In the ensuing quiet that must have echoed to the high rafters of the Romanesque building…cold and dimly lit…he must have wondered what would happen next, what he would do next. He was a spontaneous man who trusted his powers—not of arms, but of persuasion—and if this didn’t work, he would think on his feet and adjust. According to the tradition (in this case, Paulinus of Milan’s Vita Ambrosii, 6) which, though resonate with familiar literary flourish, is quaintly pleasing to imagine, it was a child’s voice that reverberated in the shell of the hall: “Ambrosius Episcopus!” (Ambrose, Bishop!). For a very long split of a second there was only echo and silence. He must have been tempted to laugh, but before he could douse the spark with such an effective damper the call was picked up all around the room: on both sides of the aisle. Homoeans and Nicaeans alike were thumping their seats or stomping their feet and chanting as if at the circus: Ambrosius Episcopus, Ambrosius Episcopus, Ambrosius Episcopus. Roman consularis from the fourth century, Archaeological Museum of Istanbul. He is wearing the “power suit” of the Fourth Century; Ambrose would have dressed like this.


His contingency plan, much less his spontaneity, had not prepared him for this eventuality, so he did two things. He insisted that this was absurd, not the will of the people (remember the mobs outside), and would never be sanctioned by the emperor. He got a stay of execution till the next day. Then, well, he ran. He ran away. Well not right away. The next day he tried to explain to the assembled crowds what was obvious: he wasn’t even baptized and had no theological training. We who caucus for presidential candidates won’t be surprised to note that lack of qualifications actually made the crowd even more insistent. Then, according to Paulinus (7), he went further: knowing the law thoroughly—he was a trained lawyer, after all—he realized that governors were regularly excluded from holy orders because they used torture in the prosecution of their tasks and so, though he almost certainly never had before, he deliberately brought out prisoners to be tortured in front of the whole crowd. Their response was biblical: “Let the sin be upon us and upon our children!” So he went to even more extremes—for him. He made a show of entering a local patrician’s house for a party where there were paid prostitutes on hand. We can imagine that the people just laughed. So then he ran away. The first attempt was a miserable failure and hints that Ambrose must never have had to drive his own carriage. He got disoriented in the night’s falling snow and ended up exiting the wrong gate out of the city. He tried again but was caught and brought back to be placed under house arrest. The citizenry kept vigil over him, no doubt calling loudly, singing hymns, and perhaps also stamping out the frigid nights with warmed and spiced wine. He would have gotten little rest. Then word arrived from the emperor in Trier (the messenger must have nearly killed himself going and coming that quickly). Remember that Valentinian I was as likely to ask for Ambrose to fall on his sword as anything, but he didn’t. Whatever his motivations this man who deliberately stayed clear of religious squabbles acquiesced to the will of the people. By now other bishops would have arrived in town to help elect the successor. With imperial fiat already made, they—much like the Roman Senate in secular affairs—simply ratified the decision of the people and the emperor. Peace was the reward, Ambrose’s personal dreams and ambitions, whatever they may have been, were the cost. All agreed, even he, that it was worth it. Within a week he was baptized—pointedly by a Nicaean priest—ordained priest and then bishop, the last on what has become his feast day, December 7, 374 c.e. Ambrose’s objections were not because he lacked faith—he had had a reputation since childhood for piety and biographers tell funny, if perhaps also canned, stories of his future destiny. As an infant, the nursemaid was dismayed to see bees swarming around his face, entering and leaving his open mouth without stinging the sleeping baby. Being called to the scene, his father announced that the boy was destined for greatness (Paulinus 3). That similar stories are told of other saints (one even thinks of the baby Hercules and the serpents) is to be noted. Later, as a boy, witnessing his mother and sister kissing the ring of the Bishop of Rome when he came visiting their house (which, incidentally, speaks of the prestige of the family, even with the father being deceased), he demanded that they kiss his ring as well. Still later, commissioned by Probus, his powerful patron, to the position at Milan, he was admonished to “go, act, not as a governor, but as a priest” (Paulinus, 8). 48

So then, he baulked because he knew the personal cost. He had made a swift ascent up the cursus honorum, the ladder of success. His next step should have been to select a wife of an appropriate social class and aim for a prefectureship and perhaps finally a consulate. He knew there was a glass ceiling: by his era the top positions at court were held not by his class, the senate, but by career military men—a great many of them who were thoroughly Romanized first or second generation immigrants from the Franks, Gauls, and Goths. But that ceiling was a long way off. He baulked because he had always been a man of faith, though not baptized, and for him, a bishop must make a commitment to celibacy, asceticism, and self denial. He baulked because he did not know if he wanted to or could embrace that discipline. Not all bishops were celibate, by the way, it was Ambrose’s own asceticism that insisted on this calling. Granted, the leap was not extravagant. He had no mistress—a common law wife—which was utterly common among his class. Augustine, in contrast, was married for over 20 years and had a son when he felt called to the faith and thence to celibacy: he dismissed his common law wife and shamefully doesn’t even mention her name in his—the world’s first—autobiography. No doubt Ambrose was already also frugal in his personal life and style. Nonetheless, he took steps to ensure that the community knew the character of the man they had forced to the position. Satyrus, the older brother of Ambrose, was of a similar mind. When he heard what had befallen his little brother he resigned his own position as consularis (we don’t know of what province) and moved to Milan to help. He too eschewed marriage and wealth. Between the two of them they legally transferred their rather more than considerable wealth to the Church of Milan. They retained a stipend to ensure the welfare of their beloved elder sister, Marcellina, who, with at least one companion, had converted the family house in Rome into what today we’d call a convent (tradition has that it still is: in Rome there is a community of Benedictines in a residence called the domus ambrosianus). Satyrus then took it upon himself to organize the diocese, act as the C.F.O., and to serve as his brother’s chief confidant and administrator. He provided the crucial buffer needed for the inexperienced prelate—like a coach who’d never played the game—to learn his trade. With probable help from the indomitable Simplician, Ambrose spent nearly three years teaching himself theology which meant, in his age, such things as memorizing the entire Bible, probably in Greek, and reading the great theologians of the past centuries, assuredly in Greek (the Latin West had heretofore produced little of genuine theology). He was very fond of Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish exegete and philosopher, as well as Didymus ‘the Blind’ and Origen. Indeed, he was later accused of plagiarism by a very grumpy and biased Jerome who, lifting a phrase from Terrence, commented that he saw “good Greek turned into bad Latin” (Jerome, Praefatio in Librum Didymi de Spiritu Santo). It is one thing for a devout closet-Christian patrician to try to balance his devotion with his piety—that is his faith with his tradition—it is quite another for this same man to have to chart a course, not only for himself, but for the empire. Ambrose the Bishop of Milan was sought after by slaves and urban poor and war refugees for succor; he was demanded as a model of Christian Romanitas by the elites of the city, the court, the army; he had to re-shape his own clergy while shaping the regional episcopacy; he was councilor, advisor, mentor, and chastiser of one empress and five emperors; he knocked heads with pagan Senators, heretic theologians, and Catholic traitors; he intervened in matters far outside the obvious realm of his competency… 49

Jews in Syria, rioters in Macedonia, bishops in the Balkans and rigorists in France. He did not choose this life, but once he accepted it, he, like Thomas a Becket or Thomas Moore, pursued it with a steeled commitment for which he was willing to die. More than once, he nearly wed that which he seemed to court.

Story #2: Hadrianopolis This story is so well told by Ammianus Marcellinus that you should just read him. Seriously. I will thus be brief. Ambrose was not involved directly in this event, it is just that it was the “9-11” of his generation: the total destruction of the army of the East…the worst defeat of any Roman legion since Cannae…10,000 dead including an emperor. It is a story of self-inflicted injury triggered by corruption, greed, incompetence, failure of discipline, and hubris. Do I have your attention? It starts with the Huns… …Who will not make any significant appearance in the empire for another generation, but they are pushing from the East with such inexorable force that whole tribes are being pushed ahead of them. We call these folks by various names but archaeology (our best tool) suggests that there is no important difference between the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Alani, etc. They all share the same culture, language, agricultural economy, and tribal social organization. They are also large in population but poor in technology and wealth: only chiefs could afford swords, for example (Hollywood be damned). They were, more than anything else, war refugees fleeing ahead of the assault of the Huns. They crowded the shores of the lower Danube hoping and expecting admittance by the Romans. They had been trading partners, they knew what Rome had to offer, they spoke remedial Latin, they had kinsmen serving in the ranks of the legions. They trusted their leaders only so long as those leaders could provide…which made them lightening quick at shifting alliances to some new, more skilled chief. So. Thousands of people arrive at the ‘limes’ (the frontier) asking for admittance. Valentinian I is busy with the Gauls and in any case, this is not his affair. Valens, his brother, is deeply engaged in the perpetual war with the Parthians. So Valens sends low-ranking subordinates with insufficient support to handle the establishment of refugee camps on this side of the river. The goal is to give the tribes land in the depopulated empire (the population has been dropping for generations and agricultural land was fallow…it was a winwin) while siphoning off their young warriors to the badly depleted legions of the empire so as to acculturate them: teach them Latin and Roman ways…make them more loyal to the idea of Rome than to their chief. But Valens sent incompetent and corrupt officers. They charged the refugees for everything: boat passage across the river, housing, and food. Being without money, the children of the Goths were sold to slavery. Still, sanitation and food were awful. In the mean time more and more people kept coming. Eventually the local magistrates realized they were in over their heads. They tried to halt the boat transports and moved the refugees into the interior—never thinking to disarm them. Of course those stranded on the far side of the river would not accept this. They bribed and coerced their way across…swimming if necessary. That many drowned only exacerbated the feeling of frustration and 50

betrayal. Rome was all powerful and rich, with more land than they knew what to do with: why couldn’t it manage this simple task? You see where this goes…the tribes eventually rose against the Romans, foederati (non-citizen Gothic soldiers in the service of the empire) joined their kinsmen and brought horses, weapons, and military training with them. Victories helped arm the Goths while their ranks were constantly swollen by newcomers from the East. Valens eventually realized the severity of the threat and broke off the war with Parthia to march north. Valentinian I, by now, was already dead and his son, Gratian, wanted to move East to support his uncle. But Valens wouldn’t wait and anyway, Gratian’s general, the ultimately traitorous Andragathius, simply refused to shift troops from Gaul to Gothica. Valens allowed himself to be stalled at the battle site, near the city of Hadrianopolis, just a few kilometers from Constantinople. Notably, both Valens and his enemies were “Arian” homoeans. A certain Gothic-Roman, Ulfinus, had translated the Bible into Gothic—making up the script himself (a copy of which, remarkably, is possessed by the anyway remarkable Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan). He took this text back across the Danube and the results were phenomenal: in the next 200 years Gothic overlords will bring the Arian theology to the West. Where were we, oh yes: the Goths were stalling for the return of their cavalry. They came. Romans made other mistakes (really: read Ammianus). The result was that the entire army of the East was wiped out. Valens disappeared and may have burned alive in a house where he took refuge. Cities were spared, since the Goths had no training or equipment for siege, but the countryside was theirs for the taking. They took. They managed to evade the armies of Gratian’s general Mirobades, retreating to the mountains for a safe, if uncomfortable, respite. Neither side was content with the status quo. Gratian then made the most important decision of his life. He recalled to service the disgraced Spanish general Theodosius. Theodosius’ father had been a great general under Valentinian I. He had resolved the crisis of Britannia known as the “Great Conspiracy” because it involved coordinated attacks from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. He had put down a serious rebellion in North Africa. Then he was put to death. The excuse is hard to pin down: certain courtiers of Constantinople had consulted an Ouija-like instrument and had asked it the treasonous question of who would be the next emperor. The three letter answer was TH-E-O…further, Theodosius the younger had been the commander of an army when one small scrimmage led to a rout of Romans and he was held responsible (remember Valentinian’s temper). The father might have intervened for the son. In any case, the father was killed and the son banished. The son of the killer/ banisher recalled the banished son of the killed. Theodosius had no army, no budget, and no cachet. He moved his young family to Thessaloniki while he learned his trade and began the intricate subterfuge that was to be the hallmark of his dealings with barbarian threats. At one point he became deathly ill and so sought baptism—by a Nicaean. He recovered and went on to recover control of the East, slowly. In the mean time, Gratian was killed by Magnus Maximus, a usurper coming from Britannia and claiming to be a kinsman of Theodosius. Thus, the West was now ruled by a child, Valentinian II, and his mother Justina. She was an arianizer and resident in Milan, where she was busy butting heads with Ambrose. She wanted a church for her Easter celebrations; he would not cede one to her. 51

Don’t lose the central point: aranizing barbarians from across the limes had over-run the East. Rome suffered her worst defeat in 400 years, indeed the 2nd worst defeat in over 1,000 years. To make matters worse, the economy of the whole empire was suffering from a reduction in agricultural production. Rural population was falling and plantation owners were resorting to maiming their male slaves by chopping off their bow-fingers so as not to lose the labor to the army. Urban elites were beginning to look for ways to escape the increasingly onerous obligations of maintaining public services at their own expense. The army was increasingly mercenary and foederati who did not speak Latin or understand Romanitas. These moved with impunity and swagger that offended the local population. The ‘senior’ emperor was a teenager who did not enjoy the confidence of the army and whose foreign sounding subordinate was insubordinate. Britannia was stripped of its forces to support yet another civil war. In the mean time, powerful and pious pagan senators had unsuccessfully petitioned first Valentinian and then Gratian for the preservation of the Altar of Victory in Rome, which had been venerated for centuries, seemingly to good effect. Bishop Ambrose of Milan was the chief reason for the failure.

Story # 3: Council of Aquileia This is not one of Ambrose’s finer moments, in my opinion. Let’s begin by explaining the location a bit. Aquileia sits on the top of the Adriatic Sea, a few kilometers from the coast, in a low and marshy area. It is in direct line between Milan, capital of the West, and imperial cities in the east: Thessaloniki in Macedonia, Sremska Mitrovika (Sermium) in Bosnia, then Istanbul (Constantinople) in Turkey. It is a very ancient city and by the third century c.e. it was perhaps the 5th largest city in the Roman world. Trade routes from across the Alps to nearby Germany and sea routes to Egypt met here, with the help of a canal system that permitted boats to come right up to the city walls. It was a phenomenal emporium of goods and was the center for luxury items like glass, precious gems, ivory, and amber, and consumer objects like lamps, votive statues and ironware. Diocletian opened a mint here and created the ‘zecca’ and then bronze coins. Military belts crafted here became very popular with soldiers and court functionaries from the III* on. These were about 10 cm wide, with a long, more narrow, length for clasping, which then hung down in front. They came to be decorated with fibulae and pendants or were stamped with designs. A sword and knife would have hung from this belt. During the persecutions, soldiers who were ‘outed’ for being Christians would dramatically “let fall the belt” as a signal of their refusal to recant. In another scene we will examine, a court official of Justina threw his belt to the ground rather than cooperate with her to get Ambrose arrested. No doubt Ambrose would have worn this belt while in public administration. Because of Aquileia’s location on trade routes, its links between the East and West, and its nearness to the frontier, strong military presence was normal. Armies were constantly marching through here, generals, emperors and usurpers camped here. Maximinus Trax was killed by his own troops during a siege of Aquileia; Quintillan, the brother of Aurelian, committed suicide here; Magnentius, then Constantine II, both died here trying to kill Constans; Magnus Maximus will be killed here by his own troops after his defeat by Theodosius; Joannes, a usurper attacking Valentinian III (Theodosius’ grandson) was killed near here. The port of Aquileia. Note the foundation of the walls smothering the stairway and the altar tipped on its side, left of center.

It must have seemed as though the world was coming to an end.


Fourth Century emperor, one figure of a “tetrarchy” sculpture showing concord among the empire’s rulers, Archaeological Museum, Istanbul.


All this violence is reflected in a striking feature of the archaeology of the city’s port. It had been elaborately designed with porticos, altars, votives, and great warehouses. The canal boats were reached by clever ramps or could be drawn into ‘parking spots’ and unloaded simultaneously on both sides from steps leading down to the water line. But all of that was undone in the rush to strengthen and extend the city walls in anticipation of the attack of Maximin Thrax. One can still see altars tipped on their sides and shoved into walls; broad convenient ramps were narrowed to defensible doorways that could be closed. Succeeding emperors, including Theodosius, reinforced these walls yet further. The long age of open and secure tranquility had ended. The city bears witness to other changes as well: in the twilight of the empire the citizens built a new wall that effectively cut the city to half its size, even leaving the old forum abandoned. It is now so small that in train-happy Italy its own station is an abandoned bocce court. Still, echoes of its ancient cosmopolitanism remain: the local language is Friulian, a sort of hybrid of Italian and German. Every house has Roman bits and pieces lying around or mortared into their walls: the whole living town is, quite literally, an archaeological site. One more indicator: in the third century, which the local bishop felt confident enough to buy a U-shaped building and convert it to a basilica, he didn’t even bother replacing the stunning and quixotic mosaics of goats and sheep, deep sea creatures, putti fishermen, even partridges in pear trees. The current basilica still boasts those mosaics (ingeniously, if rather creatively, re-interpreting them with Christian themes) while other parts simply slipped under the ground, preserved in an archaeological site that has managed to reveal the floor without disturbing the park-like bell tower grounds above. When Ambrose came to Aquileia for his ‘council’ he would have seen the full glory of those mosaics. He might well have smiled, not just in delight at the whimsical craftsmanship, but at the underlying vibration: how does one build one’s Catholic faith on top of a traditional Roman foundation? How far can you stretch the re-interpretation and what should be removed or plastered over like the iconic mosaics of the Hagia Sophia? Some scholars believe that the mosaics in the archaeological zone betray Arian themes. But there is no doubt: had Ambrose sensed any arianizing messages, he’d have demanded the whole thing be torn up. And this, finally, brings us to the reason Ambrose came to Aquileia. With the permission of Emperor Gratian, he called a council there to discuss on-going doctrinal issues still percolating 56 years after the Council of Nicaea and 2 years after Theodosius had promulgated the Edict of Thessaloniki. Two bishops, Palladius of Rateria (Archar, Bulgaria) and Secundus of Singidunum (Belgrade) arrived at Aquileia to be shocked by the fact that only a few other bishops were there, just over 30, that none were from the East, and that they were the only two proponents of homoeanism. It looked like a set-up, and very quickly the proceedings took on the character of a tribunal rather than a debate. They were on trial, accused of being Arians. Nominally the host bishop Valerian presided, but it was clear to all that Ambrose, the former lawyer, was in effective control. He was assisted by Eusebius of Bologna and Sabinus of Piacenza.

is in Pannonia, where the Arian Goths had had full rein)? Even inured as we are to vile political mudslinging, this tasteless vulgarity is well beneath Ambrose. He went for them so relentlessly because, with the death of Auxentius of Milan, these two homoean bishops were the last prominent holdouts. Palladius was on docket first. The official proceedings read, in the phrase of Cesare Pasini, like a “dialogue of the deaf” (Ambrogio di Milano, p. 76). Palladius insisted that this wasn’t a real council and so he was under no obligation to respond to the charges or even debate the issues. Ambrose ignored this argument entirely, demanding that the venerable old man—Palladius was a peer of Athanasius—either admit that he was an Arian or that Christ is “True God.” Goaded to some answer, he stuck to his talking point: Christ is the “True Son of God.” Palladius then changed tack and suggested that the matter be brought to the Roman Senate and a public hearing so that the entire community could debate it. In theory, this would have meant that pagans and Jews could enter the conversation. At the very least, it was an invitation for the State to decide ecclesial matters. Nothing in the world would have made Ambrose more upset. His response was terse and blunt: bishops ought to judge laity, not laity the bishops. Palladius was recommended for excommunication; Secundus didn’t stand a chance. A few years earlier, when Ambrose was ordained bishop, Gregory Nazianzus had written asking him to pay attention to the affairs of the East. Ambrose seems to have taken this suggestion seriously, even if other bishops of the East were less receptive to his interference. Besides the condemnation of Palladius and Secundus, Ambrose and the other bishops weighed in on contested Sees of Constantinople and Antioch, the latter of which was recently vacated with the death of a homoean. Their choices were rejected out of hand, indeed contrary decisions had already been made and ratified by Theodosius, but this wouldn’t stop Ambrose from stepping into other situations, even to the degree of challenging imperial decisions. Aquileia was his first foray into geo-theology. In the mean time, letters were sent to bishops all over the empire as well as to emperors Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius explaining the proceedings and asking that their decisions be ratified. Apparently some negative assessment of the way Ambrose had handled things at Aquileia leaked, as he sounds awfully defensive in a letter to Theodosius, whom he had probably not yet met in person. Another council was called for Rome, at least in part to symbolize that bishop’s claim to primacy, but it would fizzle out with the rather condescending refusal of the Eastern bishops to attend: the Latins—one can imagine that they were figuratively looking right at Ambrose--were counseled not to meddle in affairs that weren’t any of their business. It is true that these Eastern bishops had only just returned from the great Council of Constantinople, called by Theodosius, where matters of genuine theological import were dealt with: Nicaea was re-affirmed and the place of Holy Spirit in the economy of the Trinity was clarified. So the idea of travelling to Rome, at that time still not known much for its theological brilliance anyway, would have seemed unnecessarily exhausting. More ominously, perhaps, the Eastern bishops saw no need for the West to be involved at all. This subtext of an autonomously acting East and a slighted West is heard in much of Ambrose’s early letter writing.

But why had he gone for these two, especially the elderly Palladius, against whom he was ruthless, at one point insinuating that the Bishop of Rateria was somehow complicit in the debacle of Hadrianopolis (Rateria 54


But all in all, Ambrose was very likely pleased with the way things had gone. He had made himself the champion of Nicaea and he was sweeping the table. It must have seemed to him at the time that the stain of Arianism was nearly blotted out. Though this turns out not to have been the case (Arian Goths will eventually rule most of northern Europe) it is true that the Church of Nicaea was ascendant and with both Gratian and Theodosius solidly Nicaean, it was clear that Nicaean bishops would be appointed, including these now open sees in Rateria and Singidunum. Furthermore, the Church of the West began, at least, to flex its muscle demanding to be taken seriously by the better organized, wealthier, more populous, and more theologically sophisticated East. Personally, Ambrose emerged as the acknowledged bright light of the Western Church. The council showed all assembled his great skills in intellect, theology, scripture, debate, and the law. Moreover, it would have been clear to his brother bishops that he had developed some sort of relationship with Emperor Gratian and he was now introduced to the attention of Theodosius.

Jerome is a good source to discover Ambrose’s sin as, in an episode to come much later than this one, he made Ambrose his foe. Apparently, he asked the by then influential bishop of Milan to support him in his bid to succeed Damasus as Bishop of Rome, to which he felt entitled. But the acerbic genius from Stridon had made many enemies among the clergy of Rome and was not a viable candidate in anyone’s eyes but his own. Ambrose seems not to have declined, but neither did he lend his support: he just didn’t respond at all. Jerome was left hanging. Charged by some in Rome with improprieties that he was probably innocent of he stormed out of Rome with a few wealthy women in tow. He landed in Bethlehem where he organized a convent and went to work on his life’s mission: the canonical translation of the Bible into Latin. But he never forgot and never forgave Ambrose. Besides accusing him of plagiarism, he pointedly omitted him from his volume on influential Christians of the age, offered scathing reviews of his writings and even hinted that Ambrose’s ordination was illicit. This last is one possible candidate for Ambrose’s sin.

All of this begs a question: what became of the disgraced homoean bishops? The law called for them to appear before another tribunal, far from their home dioceses, for final judgment. They would have been removed from their sees and banished a minimum of 100 miles from their home cities. No doubt there would still have been a number of homoean friendly places where they would have been respected as martyrs. If precedence from other cases is any guide, they might have enjoyed a 2nd career as trouble maker, as had so many other banished prelates (Ursinus of Rome comes to mind, but there are lots of examples). Palladius, at least, found some refuge from which to express his bitter anger against Ambrose. In an apologia attributed to him, he fancies himself like the apostle scourged by the Sanhedrin and ordered not to speak again of Christ. He refers to Ambrose’s “arrogant impudence, unbridled and exaggeratingly impious.” Then in a speech impressive as much for its breathless vituperation as for its dense rhetoric, he concludes:

Church law normally excluded governors from the episcopacy on moral grounds since it is presumed that they would have been placed in awkward situations with court prostitutes, pagan-tinged rituals, and most seriously, that they would have had to use state-sanctioned violence—e.g. torture and execution. Indeed, Ambrose may have authored a very early letter appealing (successfully) to Gratian to permit accused bishops to be tried by other bishops for alleged crimes on the grounds that Church courts would not be tainted with the use of torture, as would, he implies, a typical secular court. So then, did Ambrose himself use torture and capital punishment as consularis? Was this his sin?

You have not considered…that religious men cannot be judged by the evil, defenders of truth by a blasphemer, those confessing the faith by a renegade, the friend of peace by a seditionist, peaceful men by a revolutionary, the innocent by a malefactor, the faithful by a catechumen…the servants of Christ by a minister of the anti-Christ; that one who intends a process strictly following the law and who defends a just cause cannot be judged by the adversary who is, at the same time, wickedly implicated in the process. From Pasini’s Ambrogio di Milano, trans. mine. Even granted that Palladius is furious, the heat and hurt beneath the name-calling does call Ambrose’s character into question. Ambrose’s abrupt change in career from consularis to bishop, his swift ascent as a leader of the Nicaeans, and his lack of formal training in theology riled his detractors. Besides, he had a dogged tenacity and was incapable of compromising in matters of principle. His blue blood, classical education, personal self discipline, and former career may have made him appear aristocratic and bossy while his relative youth would have made these traits more irksome. Ambrose was sensitive, at least to his professional weaknesses, and worked very hard at on the job training. Moreover, he makes frequent, if vague, allusion to his own sense of profound sinfulness. Beyond a personality that grated some, or the decisions that wounded the self interest of others, what sin was it that, even in this first blush of success in his new vocation, would have held him up short in well earned humility? 56

Apparently with no need for cooberating evidence, one overly influential scholar simply concludes that Ambrose must have used violence: it was part of his job. But neither Jerome nor Palladius ever accuse him of any such illegitimating practices. The worst Jerome can say is that Ambrose would have attended the circus (considered by many Christians to be immoral entertainment). Even given that for the curmudgeonly Stridonite this is a most vile sin, it is hardly on a par with torture. Palladius weakly calls him a “catechumen” while the rest of the vague name-calling seems to revolve around Ambrose’s theological position and his manipulations at Aquileia. If either knew of any evidence that, as governor, Ambrose had used torture or capital punishment, they have uncustomarily maintained custody of the tongue about it. Whatever Ambrose’s sins, he seems to have avoided staining himself with the public violence normally associated with his position as consularis. At least even his enemies do not accuse him of it. We, nonetheless, leave this episode of Aquileia with a bad taste in our mouths. Charitable interpreters argue that Ambrose was simply a staunch defender of orthodoxy who used the means at his disposal to do so. But those means included a certain duplicity, if not deception, and permitted him to treat venerable fathers of the Church with disrespect. For better or worse Ambrose put principle ahead of people. While there is no good reason to accuse him of manipulating all of this for personal aggrandizement it is true that he turned admiring heads with his performance and would increasingly be turned to as a natural leader. It can well be imagined that even his supporters might have whispered among themselves that they would hate to get on his bad side. As we will see in the next vignette, such a warning even applies to murdering & usurping generals with armies at their backs… 57

Story #4: Missions To Trier Duplicity and deception, we are about to learn, can be brought into the service of justice, at least when managed with the skill of a master at both. We know the broad story already, so we can concentrate on Ambrose’s remarkable role in this drama. Magnus Maximus, Comes Britanniae, lured Gratian to his death at Lyon then brought his army to Trier, from which he was poised to strike at Italy. He had planned things as best he could: writing a polite letter to Justina asking the boy Valentinian II to come to him “as a son to a father;” elevating his son Victor to a leadership role; signaling to Theodosius that he was a kinsman (both were from Spain) and thus not a threat; and letting Ambrose know that, unlike Justina and Valentinian, he was a Nicaean. He even arrested Pricillian and two other heretical churchmen whom Ambrose opposed. He stirred up troubles on the frontier so as to keep the armies of Bauto (Valentinian II’s competent general) occupied while simultaneously hiring barbarian mercenaries as if at a fire sale. But he underestimated them all. The ever resourceful and very much under-appreciated Justina suppressed her own hard feelings toward Ambrose for the moment in order to enlist the gifted bishop to the aid of the dynasty he had served his whole life. She asked him to make an embassy to Trier and keep Maximus from invading until the Court at Milan was better prepared. Though there is no smoking gun, so to speak, there is strong circumstantial evidence that Theodosius also enjoined Ambrose to ensure that he had more time to deal with the Gothic threat before moving: he had two small sons for whom he was ambitious and, bracketing Valentinian II, he had no use for another emperor…and that emperor’s son…in the West. Ambrose may have had his own motives for resisting the usurper. He resented his intrusion into church affairs by arresting Pricillian (“Bishops ought to judge laity, not laity the bishops” remember?); he was loyal to Valentinian in a way that we moderns can too jadedly dismiss; further, he seems to have decided that the real power—the future—lay with Theodosius in the East. Still, he had reason to pause before taking a journey that, under the best of circumstances, was simply physically taxing: crossing the Alps from Milan to Trier just as winter was coming on. More to the point, Maximus was ruthless. He had killed an emperor and he was poised to kill one bishop already and he was surrounded by ruthless men, many of them fresh barbarian recruits. More optimistically, he was Nicaean. He may have been a kinsman to Theodosius, making the two a formidable force. He was already in possession of Spain, France, Germany, and Britain and he had shown himself to be successful. With a competent son as an adjutant, this could be the new dynasty, the future. Were there other, perhaps self-serving, factors to weigh? This question smacks of anachronism—as if Ambrose knew which way history would unfold. He must have sensed that there were a thousand ways any decision could go awry for him personally, and very few scenarios that would work out well. Regardless of his choice, he had to rely on the virtues he so often wrote about: Courage, Justice, Temperance, Prudence, Faith, Hope, and Charity. 58

He went. Weighing all of the pros and cons I suspect that the deciding factor was his decency. He had been a client of the House of Valentinian for his entire adult life and this patron-client relationship could not be easily set aside by a true Roman. The clan to which he was devoted had been dealt with unjustly and this had to be addressed, even if he saw little opportunity for redress. The nominal reason for his mission was to retrieve the body of the slain Gratian, the real reason was to obfuscate, to delay, to buy time. Entering the consistory at Trier, Ambrose greeted the bloody-handed usurper with a pious kiss. They spoke at length about the tragedy of Gratian’s death (official story: he’d been assassinated by his own guard). Ambrose must have encouraged Maximus to wax thick about his kinship to Theodosius, his Nicaean credentials, his concern for the boy emperor. Ambrose demurred when asked about bringing the boy to Maximus, suggesting that this was beyond his mandate, then that such a thing could be done, but certainly not till the spring after the passes had opened, and of course his mother Justina would be coming along as well. This last news, delivered with a deftly feigned insouciance, must have been disconcerting to Maximus. Justina was not one to take lightly and her presence would make either manipulation or murder of the boy much harder. It was agreed that Ambrose would wait for the return of Victor, Maximus’ son, who had been sent to formally request the boy’s presence. Cinematically, Ambrose and Victor had passed one another on the road, near Mainz. What did Ambrose do while waiting? He would probably not have made a nostalgic visit to the old house where he was born—he would have had no memory of Trier from those days. He may have visited his father’s grave, if he had been buried there. He would have shunned the circus and the amphitheatre, though both were an option: no matter Jerome’s venomous liable, Ambrose shared his antipathy for sport. He might well have attended one of the two great baths of the city as he did not have Jerome’s ascetical distain for hygiene and anyway, this was where he was most likely to pick up whatever information he might have use of. He probably stayed with the local bishop—in a house said to have been given to the Church by none other than the blessed St. Helen, mother of Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross and the nails that had pierced the Man-God’s flesh. The cross was taken in triumph to Rome, where yet another of Helen’s properties had become the compound of the bishop. The nails were hammered into a crown and a bit for her son: the crown for his power, the bit to rein him in. The last nail is said to be that which still hangs suspended inside the Duomo of Milan. Victor returned in a few days and confirmed that Valentinian II could not come to Trier this season. Ambrose was allowed to return to Milan, where other matters would occupy his time, namely the debate with Symmachus over the Altar of Victory. The ploy had worked. Ambrose’s diplomacy had gained a whole year for Italy and the East to prepare for the inevitable invasion. All parties concerned used that year to spend a great deal of money. Maximus was buying barbarian mercenaries. Valentinian was buying off invading Huns. Theodosius was doing a bit of barbarian buying himself, though also inflicting important wounds so as to encourage the marauders to come to terms. Of the three, Maximus benefited least from the delay: it cost him more to retain inactive barbarians than it did Valentinian to dismiss them or Theodosius to actually use them. 59

A year later Ambrose returned. His mission was, again, to request the body of Gratian, which Maximus had denied earlier on the grounds that the sight would just stir up the grief of the brother and the anger of the troops. Ambrose’s real mission remains something of a mystery and, on the surface, it seems to have ended in a complete failure…the diplomatic equivalent of a nuclear meltdown. Ambrose and Maximus fought, harsh words were spoken by both, and Ambrose was finally counseled to hide out in town rather than risk being run down by an angry man’s vengeance. He was even shunned by Nicaean bishops, there to offer religious cover to Maximus who was about to execute Pricillian. It seems that Ambrose had avoided them earlier, since he considered the interference of the State in matters of faith to be abhorrent, even if he was in agreement about the issue. In a gesture of empathy awfully lacking in the earlier episode with the elderly Palladius, he took pity on Hygenus, the aged bishop of Cordoba who had been caught up in the heretical asceticism of Pricillian that condemned even marital sex as sinful on the grounds that flesh itself is evil. Despite this Manichean extremism and perhaps a bit sympathetic to the discipline of their asceticism, Ambrose had approached the old man’s captors to plead for compassion; asking them to at least give him some comforts in his exile. They wouldn’t talk to him. According to Ambrose’s own account of his second meeting with Maximus, the embassy seems to have been designed to fail. Indeed some scholars just dismiss his account as impossible to imagine because it is so blunt, so cantankerous. But perhaps they are missing something. What if Ambrose did, in fact, design the embassy to fail? How better than to do the following… Ambrose is kept waiting outside the basilica—the audience hall. The room is a double-apsed narrow room affixed to the front of the basilica. He asks twice for a private audience with the “emperor” but is denied by the porter, a eunuch (the term is inevitably one of derision and may have nothing to do with the man’s, ah, condition). Finally he is admitted to a public consistory and enters the hall. The room is huge, covered in polychrome marbles, ingeniously designed with windows decreasing in size toward the middle so as to give the impression that the room is even bigger than it is. Beyond this room, crowded with courtiers and petitioners and servants and soldiers, is an enormous triumphal arch that separates the apse from the rest of the room. The apse is sheathed in white marble that reflects the light streaming in from two curving bank of windows. The effect is stunning: the emperor in his robes and on his throne would have appeared as if out of a divine haze, a “splendor” to use Umberto Eco’s word. Ambrose is studiously unimpressed (it must have helped steel his resolve to have been there once already…the intimidation factor was mitigated). Ambrose refused to greet the emperor or return his kiss. Rather, he stormed into the hall with determination and (feigned, I think) fury. Allow me to imitate Mnsgr. Pasini’s abbreviation of the account which he sent to Valentinian II (Epistula 30, II.5-6).


LEFT: Imperial Baths of Trier


Ambrose: “Why do you kiss someone whom you do not acknowledge? For if you had acknowledged me you would not be seeing me in this place?” Maximus: “Bishop, you are upset…you came into the consistory during your first embassy.” “That was no fault of mine: the one who summoned, not the one who came, committed the infringement” “Why then did you come?” “On that occasion I was seeking peace for one who was inferior. Now he is your equal.” “You have deceived me! ... What would have happened, if I had not been held back the last time you came here? Who could have resisted me?” “You claim that you were deceived by me, something I might boast to have done for the safety of an emperor who is an orphan! But I won’t quibble. Did I obstruct your legions? Stop you from flooding into Italy? What rocks did I use? What army? Or did I block the Alpine passes with my body? Were that in my power!” Ambrose then goes on a tear defending Valentinian II against the charge of deception and shifting the argument to Maximus’ usurpation and murder of Gratian: “Unless I am deceived, the usurper wages aggressive war, the emperor defends his rights. You ought not to have killed him. Do you also refuse to hand over his remains? How could you maintain that you did not order him to be killed, whom you now forbid to be buried? Will it be credible that you did not grudge him his life whom you even grudge burial?

Basilica of Constantine: Trier. This is the place Ambrose met Maximus.



As Ambrose leaves, Maximus notices that Ambrose avoided the bishops he had brought there to impress him with his Nicaean credentials and to endorse his condemnation of Pricillian. He orders Ambrose to leave the city at once. Others council him to hide, for fear of an assassination. But he set out at once, high tailing it back to Milan. So, is this too incredible? Could it have happened? Some scholars accuse Ambrose of literally re-writing history, as if he had foreseen that only his accounts of events would survive the vicissitudes of time and thus enshrine his immortality. But there is a more direct interpretation. Suppose Ambrose was deliberately provoking the invasion that he had so delicately sought to forestall a year earlier? Why would he? What would have changed? There are two clues in his letter. First, he crows that Valentinian, once an inferior is now an equal. Secondly, he defends Valentinian who “chose to turn for help to the emperor Theodosius.” Could this indicate that Valentinian and Theodosius had reached a mutual accommodation, that they had each dealt sufficiently with their own crises? Could it be, in short, that Ambrose was serving them both by unleashing the dog now that they were ready to deal with him? If so, he may have gotten the point: he delayed perhaps another three years before finally invading. Was he afraid? In any case, it fell out like this. Justina had negotiated the wedding of her daughter Galla to the recently widowed Theodosius. This too signaled an alliance that left no room for Maximus. The royal family fled first to Aquileia then Thessaloniki. Maximus swept into Milan behind a wave of refugees to whom Ambrose attended—to the point of breaking up consecrated sacred vessels in order to feed them all—three months and three military defeats later Maximus was trapped in Aquileia. His own troops killed him and offered his head to the victorious Theodosius. Assassins were sent to dispatch Victor. Arbogastes was sent with Valentinian II to Vienne in France. Theodosius was left the de facto sole emperor of Rome. He and Ambrose met in person (for the first time?) in Milan that fall. Valentinian II remained in Vienne for four years. His mother had died, his sister was wed to the real power, and he was virtually ignored by General Arbogastes. Vienne was about the size of Aquileia, and one of the three great cities of Gaul, along with Lyons and Narbonne. It boasted a huge theatre, and even an Odeon—an outdoor music hall (one of only three in France). It had a circus, a vast bath complex, a decent sized forum, with temple and basilica and government house. It was nestled in a narrow valley where the Rhone River was in confluence with the River Gere. There were decent roads East to Milan and river routes down to the Mediterranean. Oddly, archaeologists have not located anything like an imperial residence and the local memory does not even include the residence of this forlorn boy. An emperor since he was four years old, he had had only one season in the field, where he acquitted himself well against Magnus Maximus and helped defeat the murderer of his brother. Near despair, Valentinian II wrote Ambrose and pleaded with him to come to Vienne and baptize him. This should have been a signal. Men often held off baptism on the grounds that they would need to cash in that ultimate grace of forgiveness later in life. Theodosius had only been baptized when he feared he was going to die. Ambrose himself was not baptized till forced to it as a pre-condition of becoming bishop. Yet Ambrose seems to have delayed the trip. By the time he set out word came that it was too late. Valentinian II had 64

either committed suicide or he had been murdered by Arbogastes. He was 21 years old. Current opinion leans toward the former, though it is true that Arbogastes moved with some speed and calculation to name Eugenius, a blue-blood Roman with a scholarly bent, as his candidate for Emperor and enlist Nichomachus, a devoted pagan Senator, to draw the support of the pagan elite of Rome. It was a calculated maneuver that would lead to a Hollywood-like showdown between the Pagan traditionalists and the upstart Christians. In the mean time, Ambrose was fighting his own, more symbolic, wars with the pagans. It all had to do with the ancient practice of senators outside the senate house offering a sacrifice of incense to the goddess of victory, Nike (yep, as in the athletic clothing company).

Story # 5: the Altar of Victory This is really a much bigger deal than it seems, and it strikes to the very essence of Ambrose as a Roman and Christian, never mind the one scholar who calls the altar an “insignificant anomaly” (McLynn. 151), Let’s take an extra minute or two to assemble the relevant facts. Even so, the immediate situation can seem very trivial to us. According to a thousand year-old-tradition, upon entering the Curia, the senate house of Rome, the senators would each take a pinch of incense and sprinkle it on coals burning on an altar placed on the staircase leading into the chamber. This effectively converted the Senate into a temple to Nike, the goddess of victory. Indeed, the cultic statue of the deity was mounted on the back wall, just as it would have in any other temple. Now the technicality is this: by now many (we don’t know how many) senators were Christian. They referred to themselves with the enigmatic epithet “the backwoodsmen.” They need not perform the ritual, of course, but they did have to get into the hall, which required that they pass through the wisps of incense smoke. Effectively, this was tantamount to performing an ablution and, though not deliberate, gave the appearance of acquiescence to and participation in a pagan rite. This was explicitly and strictly forbidden by Christian faith. St. Paul cautions the Christians of Corinth, for example, to avoid eating meat that had been offered in pagan sacrifice. He didn’t care about the act itself— the meat was just meat—but he did worry that other Christians would see this act and presume that anything went. “Thus through your knowledge, the weak person is brought to destruction” (I Cor. 8:7-13). Moreover, from sometime in the second century on, many Christian soldiers “let fall the belt” and were martyred…not because they refused to go to war, but because they were required to perform ablution to the gods and “divine” emperors. So this was a real issue for these rich and well-connected Christian “illustrii.” It seems that this caused them to boycott the Senate’s proceedings. At a certain point when they sensed a fundamental shift in political influence, they tested the waters by raising the problem to the emperor, himself a Christian. On the other hand, pagans were very likely the majority of the Senate and while Ammianus Marcellinus berated them as a class for being more interested in their annual wine vintage than matters of state, many were very engaged, very well connected, and very wealthy. 65

The Senate as a whole had been sinking in political influence for centuries and during the long bloody III* its members were regularly blackballed by the emperors in filling the command positions of the army, in favor of theoretically more loyal career military men—the better to ensure that the senators would not become rival claimants to the throne. Despite this, there was still a fairly clear cursus honorum that ambitious and idealistic men could follow. It might never lead to leadership in the army or even a place at the imperial court, but it did still culminate in the greatest of all senatoral positions: a consulship. Ambrose himself had been scaling that ladder when called to the episcopacy. In the Roman world, prestige was power, and the most prestigious position shy of the throne was that consulship. Moreover, most patricians still understood their lives in terms of this ancient sense of Romanitas: the purpose of the true Roman was to serve the patria, the fatherland, and the most noble service was as consul; the position held by Brutus, Cincinnatus, Scipio Africanus, Sulla, Marius, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero.

and eventually many emperors claimed divinity while still ruling and Roman legions were expected to offer obeisance to their images…again a problem for Christian soldiers.

None of this was fundamentally blocked by the advent of Christian emperors, but it did throw new stones onto the road that had to be navigated around. The Nike ritual was not just a pagan ceremony, it was an ancient ceremony, and ancient rituals cannot be dismissed lightly—we are no less bothered by that sort of thing than the ancients, I suspect. Moreover, most people accepted that rituals were efficacious, that is, they worked. If for a thousand years the altar of victory had been fed its sacrifice of incense and for a thousand years Rome had grown to the greatest power in the Western world, then one toyed with that at one’s peril. Christians, it is true, took a strong and even courageous position against such ‘superstition’ but, being human, were no less susceptible to its lures (again, not unlike us). Besides, virtually everyone (save Epicureans) believed that Divine Will was played out in natural events and human history. Constantine knew he had won his victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Ponte Milvio, not through superior forces (he was, indeed, outnumbered) or even greater generalship, but because he had offered his army to Christ. God intervenes to ensure that events play out according to the Divine Plan. Constantine never doubted that. No one would have. Few do today. The showdown to come, then, is pure Hollywood. This wasn’t a battle over smoke, but a cosmic drama between gods and God.

Judaism deserves special comment, diaspora (Gk: scattering) communities were found throughout the empire, fueled by trade and slavery (the Flavian Ampitheater—the Colosseum—was built by Jews enslaved after the failed rebellion against Nero). Gentile “God Fearers” were attracted to the laws of Judaism, but had not (yet) made the final commitment. St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans was probably addressed to this group. Among these, Christians were not easily recognized as a cult separate from Judaism until late in the first century c.e.

To complicate matters even more, we have been speaking as if there were only two clearly divided camps, but this is not the case. Even bracketing the avowed or alleged atheistic philosopher classes who essentially took the question of divinity off the table, it is just not accurate to speak of pagans vs. Christians We know that Christians were themselves divided…the Nicaeans and Homoeans most obviously, but also the Pricillianists, Donatists, Nestorians, Manichaeans, Appolinarianists, Ebionites, Marcionists, Montanists, Novatians, Pelagians…it gets very complicated. On the other side, the term pagan, from ‘paganus,’ is a later Christian slur, meaning countryperson: rube, hick, redneck. There was no such thing as paganism (though Julian seems to have tried to have invented just that thing). Rather, there were traditionalists who adhered stolidly to the ancient gods of Rome and who believed in amicitia, ‘friendship’ with the gods, which meant that if you do what they want, they will do what you want…more like a contract or a business relationship that what we’d call friendship. Then there was the cult of the emperors and empresses, men and women who became gods. “Divus”or “Diva,” is a Latin term to distinguish these from “Deus” the eternal god(s and goddesses). At first this was a post-mortem accolade. Caesar was deified (thus making his adopted nephew, Octavian, the son of god). On his death bed the wry Vespasian quipped “methinks I am becoming a god.” Soon some 66

Then there were the Orientalists, a complex and nondenominational assortment of those who had favorite divinities from among the vast offerings of the East. These cults, Isis, Mithras, Cybele, Sol Invictus, Artemis Ephesus, Serapis, to name a few, had been seeping into Rome since Caesar, at least, and some developed strong followings, even among emperors. But even so, one could without qualm appeal to any of these and Rome’s gods as well—Romans were not exclusive. This is why, by the way, they accused Christians of atheism: they denied all the gods save one, who was himself just one more Orientalist cultic diety. Christian rumors had it that even Domitian had an image of Christ among the deities of his house altar. Constantine the Christian minted coins with the image of the oriental god “Sol Invictus.”

One more layer: the High Priest of the cult of Rome was known as the Pontifex Maximus. He was head of the pontifical college of priests—pontifices. The name seems to derive from the fact that, very early in Rome’s history, it was decided to build (facere) a bridge (pons) across the Tiber. This was a dramatic engineering feat, still is. It required the auspices, indications of divine approbation. Priest-engineers provided both the technical expertise and the spiritual interpretation. The result of that first effort, by the way, was the famed Pons Sublicius, built only of wood, no metal, not even nails. The last independent Pontifex Maximus was Lepidus, the forgotten member of the Second Triumvirate. When he died, this title was handed, like so many others, to Augustus—itself a title, not a name. From then on, the god-emperor was simultaneously the chief priest. He inherited the sacred vessels and robes and was expected to perform his role on the feast days. Constantine kept the title, permitted the rituals, financed from public coffers, and continued to subsidize priests, including the College of Pontifices and the Vestal Virgins, even as they extended those tax breaks and subsidies and other signs of patronage to Christian bishops. The point of all this is that the seemingly trivial issue of walking through a smoke cloud must be understood in this larger context. Where did paganism fit in the effort to balance Roman tradition and Christian faith? Eventually the thing had to come to a head. Pagans were uncomfortable with the expanding influence of exclusionary Christians and the latter did not like the idea of a Christian emperor, and thus Christian empire, propping up paganism. Finally, then, to the specifics of the situation. Constantius II had removed the Altar of Victory in 357 c.e., but it was restored, probably by Julian. Nicaean Christian Valentinian I not only left it alone, he pointedly retained the title of Pontifex Maximus and issued an order tolerating the pagan practice of divination. At the same 67

time, however, he sent two henchmen, Maximinus and Leo, to Rome to attack and outrage the mostly pagan Senate. Some were put to death on the charge of necromancy and adultery was made a capital offense. Gratian, who comes across as one who had long chaffed under Valentinian, dismissed his father’s lackeys, restored the rights of the Senate, and most dramatically, removed the Altar of Victory from the Senate chamber. The year was 382.

Back in 378 Gratian had asked Ambrose for a treatise on the Faith. Apparently this was a test of Ambrose’s orthodoxy, which someone must have called into question before the emperor. The results were impressive: two volumes were produced immediately and three more volumes within the next two years. This not only established Ambrose’s orthodoxy, it made him the de facto theological mentor of the emperor. Their relationship seems to have been strong and mutual.

The Senate responded by sending one of its best and brightest young lights to Gratian with a letter of petition and a chest containing the sacred vessels and vestments of the Pontifex Maximus to Gratian. The mission was carried out by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who, though only 37 years old, had already been Proconsul of Africa and was a member of the Pontifical College. We should pause for another moment to be introduced to one of the greatest men you have never heard of.

But this was not the end of the story, because Gratian met his end shortly afterward. Two years after the failed mission to Gratian Symmachus wrote a powerful letter formally addressed to Valentinian II, Theodosius, and Arcadius. By now the pagan Senate was in a much stronger position. Valentinian had been raised as a homoean by his mother Justina, whom Ambrose disliked. The avowedly pagan Praetextatus was the Praetorian Prefect of Italy, Illyricum and Africa. Symmachus himself was chief of the Senate and Prefect of Rome. Valentinian II was 13 years old. The time seemed right to try again, but he had miscalculated in an important detail. Ambrose had just returned from the first of his two missions to Magnus Maximus at Trier: Valentinian and Justina knew that they owed their survival to the Catholic Bishop of Milan.

Symmachus was one of the richest men in the Empire, his properties included plantations and perhaps a dozen homes. His family was old and powerful. He was trained in Gaul, married Rusticiana, and rose very quickly up the cursus honorum. He was a profligate epistulary (nine books of letters survive) writing to stay connected with amici such as Ausinius the Gaulic scholar, poet, and Gratian’s tutor. Among his many correspondents were generals Bauto and Richomer, another was Ambrose. He would go on to be Urban Prefect and Consul. He was a true Roman patrician who served the Fatherland and was patron to many very bright young clients. One of these was Augustine of Hippo. Symmachus got him his position as rhetor at the Imperial court of Milan (possibly as a dig against Ambrose: Augustine was still nominally a Manichean at the time). He was a traditionalist who tried to temper his pagan colleagues Praetextatus and especially Nicomachus, whose son had married his daughter. Among his enemies was the powerful Probus who, after Symmachus unwisely wrote a panegyric for Magnus Maximus, pressed him badly and for a time his property and life were in jeopardy. Surviving that, when Nicomachus joined the conspiracy of Eugenius and Arbogastes, Symmachus stayed aloof and when the attempt failed he managed to get Theodosius to pardon his son-in-law. One last note: this staunch pagan’s grandson will be a Christian whose son-in-law was the Christian philosopher Boethius—known also as St. Severinus. Back to his mission: he never got there. Rather, Symmachus got to Milan with the letter and the packet, but he was refused admission to Gratian. Instead he was sent home in humiliation with the order to turn over the box to the Bishop of Rome. In effect, this made Damasus the Pontifex Maximus, which has been the official title of the pope ever since. Why did the young Gratian refuse even to meet Symmachus? Ambrose. Damasus had discovered that the mission was being prepared and he sent his own counter-petition, signed by the Christian senators, to Ambrose who had ready access to the court. Please note this fact: a Roman senator was refused admission to the imperial consistory while a Christian Bishop came and went as he pleased. Times were changing, indeed. Ambrose convinced the young emperor (he was 23 years old) to dramatically alter the course of western religious history. It is worth remarking that he did not arrange things so that HE would receive the title: he was not exercising personal ambition but was promoting the Church and the Christian faith of the emperor himself. 68

Somehow Ambrose got a hold of the letter before it arrived at court, or at least he procured intimate knowledge of what the letter contained. Before Symmachus’ letter was delivered, Ambrose had sent his own, preempting the great Senator. Not content with this coup, Ambrose requested—and received—Symmachus’ letter when it did arrive. He followed up with yet another letter in which he dismantled the pagan’s arguments with scathing wit and not a little acerbity. Symmachus failed again. But why? Was it a battle of rhetoric or theological muscle or the politics of patronage? Ambrose’s first letter appealed to the Christian faith of the boy-emperor which would be put in peril by helping pagans. He urged him to consult Theodosius (Emperor now for five years and very likely known by both Ambrose and Valentinian to be their as-of-yet covert ally against the dangerous Maximus). He threatens that if he were to come to church, he would find the bishop absent. This, by the way, is Ambrose’s strategy of last resort. He will avoid emperors whom he cannot change and thus cannot court. This is not running away, it is a boycott, a blockade, a sanction. He claims that if he does restore the pagan altar and the cult’s funds, the church will refuse any of his future gifts as tainted. Finally, with quintessential Ambrosian rhetoric, he imagines the dead Gratian chastising his little brother: “I did not think that I had been defeated (by Maximus) because I left you as emperor…I did not grieve at abandoning power because I believed that my decrees…would remain throughout all ages…Of what more could my enemy have robbed me? You (will) have abolished my decrees (if you consent to the pagan petition)…now a more painful weapon is piercing my body, for it is my brother who is condemning my laws. Your act is endangering the better part of me. My death was the death of my body, this is the death of the good I have done…” (Epistula 72, 12-15). It is with these words ringing in his ears (for letters were read out loud, even if read alone, in that age) that Valentinian received the arguments of Symmachus. The Senator appealed for the same religious tolerance for which Christians had once pleaded. The rituals, he says, are essential to the maintenance of the tradition 69

of Rome which had preserved the empire for centuries, and “love of tradition is a great thing.” The subtext is always Hadrianopolis. “Who,” he ominously asks, “is on such good terms with the barbarians as not to need the altar of Victory?” The altar and the sacrifices are believed strongly to have upheld the empire, which is threatened by their ceasing; “we are apprehensive about the future…”. Drought and famine have been the consequences of the ban on sacrifice. He adds that it is by means of oaths taken at the altar that the Senate demonstrates its loyalty, swears to act in good faith and to speak the truth. He alludes to the shame of filling state coffers with the donatives deprived to the Vestals. Shifting to a theological argument, Symmachus points out that there is one “divine mind” but that it is expressed through “different cults.” “Whatever is worshipped by each of us is ultimately the same. We look at the same stars. We share the sky. The same universe surrounds us. What does it matter with what philosophy each individual seeks for the truth. It is not possible to reach so great a secret by a single route.” Paralleling Ambrose’s strategy of putting words in other’s mouths, Symmachus has the goddess Roma appeal directly for herself: “have respect for my years…allow me to live by the ancestral ceremonies…my own custom. This worship subjected the world to my laws, these sacrifices drove Hannibal from my walls, and the [Gauls] from the Capital!” He appeals to the memories of Constantius II, Valentinian I, and Gratian, all of them duly deified, despite their Christian faith: “From his citadel in the sky, the senior deified ruler (Valentinian’s father) looks down on the tears of the priests and thinks that he personally is being criticized…” (Expositio, Epistula 72a, esp. 4, 9, & 20). This is not all baroque rhetoric. It is crucial for us to remember that Symmachus and his colleagues genuinely believed what they said. Without tradition and ancestral ceremonies and Roman custom the divine protection and patronage will be removed. Evidence was already piling up: there was a crop failure in Egypt that led to hunger and riots in Rome and the Goths were still rampaging more or less at will in the East. Worse would come if the ancient rites were not restored.

Ammianus more frequently than Genesis and the Psalms, he drums away at the claim that worshipped gods protect and abused gods punish the farmers and emperors. Drought or bounty, success and failure, are attributable to natural cycles and vagaries so that at any given time some places flourish and others wither; kings are brought low, even virtuous ones like Gratian, not by the gods, but by wicked men. He juxtaposes tradition (status quo) with the advancement of God’s plan (progress), claiming that the age of the Christians, long and slow in maturing, has now come to the harvest “So the youthful condition of the world…has given way in order that the venerable old age of ‘grey haired faith’ (Virgil) can take its place. If they (pagans) are upset by this they must find fault with the harvest, because it has taken time to ripen; they must find fault with the vintage, because it arrives in the fall of the year; they must find fault with the olive because it is the latest of crops. Therefore our faith too is a harvest, a harvest of souls” (Epistula 73, esp. 8). At the intimate core of his passion Ambrose wants to sever the presumed bond between Rome’s tradition and Rome’s paganism. He seems to draw deeply from his personal self awareness as being, simultaneously and with no contradiction, a patrician and a man of faith. It is he, Ambrose—the Christian—who is the true Roman, since he has succeeded in retaining what is most virtuous in the tradition while excising from it the dross of pagan superstition. We are left breathless. The letter is a tour de force that deserves to be re-examined by Christians who may well have succumbed to the pagan notion that the ways of nature and the course of human history can be swayed by incense and utterings rather than embracing the first through right reasoning and seizing the latter by strength of character and depth of virtue. The letter did not end the tug of war, however. Back wall of the Roman Curia where the Nike was once mounted.

Of course Ambrose and the Church were equally adamant that the One God is offended by those pagan rituals and that only the patronage of Christ can protect a Christian emperor. In his rebuttal, Ambrose dismantles Symmachus’ arguments with intellect, reason, sarcasm, and his own not unimpressive rhetoric. But he is aiming higher than the incidental case of the altar. He uses this letter to condemn paganism all together. Scathingly, he mocks an appeal for tolerance from those who had tortured and killed the martyrs and who now felt tortured by something as trivial as a loss of public revenue. If these gods were so powerful, then why were they “so envious of ceremonies of alien superstition that they took over the statues and defeated gods of captured cities and the rites of foreigners?” Making full use of his own classical education Ambrose demonstrates that the vicissitudes of human history and episodic natural disasters cannot be linked to the failure to maintain pagan rites, nor Rome’s glory to pitiably weak and morally reprehensible gods. Rather, Rome’s greatness came from the virtues of her great men. Taking this argument a step further, Ambrose’s letter can be read as a response to the theodicy question: why do the good suffer? Quoting Virgil, Sallust, Livy, Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, even Herodotus and 70


Another delegation was sent to Theodosius in 389. Again Ambrose weighed in, though he seems to have been personally unwelcome at the court—possibly because of his position on the Callinicum incident. The petition was denied. Yet another delegation was sent to Vienne in 392, but even without Ambrose, Valentinian II rejected it. Finally, perhaps that same year, the pagan Eugenius seized the West and offered financial support to key pagan senators, presumably that they might use it to restore the altar and the Vestal Virgins, but this support was halted with his defeat two years later. The altar disappeared, though the statue of the winged goddess—rather resembling a great guardian angel—was retained in the Curia as a work of art. Sadly, it too is now gone. Story #6: The Portiana Basilica What a story: the drama is real and deadly serious involving armed troops, predatory legislation, civil disorder, and martyrdom. We know most of the players: the Empress Justina, the homoean mother of Valentinian II, her 13 year old son, the young emperor whose brother has been murdered and half of whose empire is controlled by the murderer. Then there is Magnus Maximus, who will remain as a threatening shadow whose very presence influences events and Ambrose, of course, who has just returned from his second of two embassies to Trier and has just defeated Symmachus in a battle of letters over the Altar of Victory. We should add one more: a mysterious homoean bishop from the East has shown up in Milan calling himself Auxentius. He is also known as Mercurinus and was associated with the Arian priest Ulfinus, whose translation of the Bible into Gothic was an important factor in the fact that the barbarians who defeated Valens would eventually rule kingdoms carved from the European part of the Roman Empire. Mercurinus-Auxentius had been deposed from his diocese in the East as part of the Nicaean cleansing. It began with a prologue. In 385, probably around Easter, Justina wanted a basilica of Milan for a homoean mass. Keep in mind that Ambrose had just convinced the young emperor to deny Symmachus’ petition for the Altar of Victory. He had also completed two embassies to Trier for Valentinian. He knew that the court was indebted to him. In any case Ambrose refused to surrender the church and was called to a consistory to explain his refusal. While there the streets filled with angry Nicaean crowds who had heard what was going on (from Ambrose himself? If so, he could be accused of inciting a riot, which is treason). The Comes Militaris (‘military count’) was unable to deal with the mob and Ambrose had to step in. By assuring them that no one was going to take over a church, he got them to disperse. The court had to back down, but they were obviously furious. Ambrose groused that he was not even thanked for his role in defusing the dangerous situation. Skip forward a year. Circumstances had changed and Justina may have felt she was in a stronger position. Valentinian had averted an attack of barbarians (probably spurred on by Maximus) with hired Hunnic mercenaries. He then reinforced his own army with Goths being brought to heel by Theodosius. There was, then, a strong military presence in the city and at least a good portion of them were homoean Goths, converted through the missionary work of Ulfinus. Then there was the presence of their very own homoean 72

bishop, Mercurinus-Auxentius, expelled from the East by Theodosius, had been invited to the court and had arrived in Milan. He had had some success (he may have gotten at least one of Ambrose’s seminarians to convert) he re-baptized a number of Nicaeans, and he probably inspired the renewed request for a church in which to celebrate Easter. This time the court acted both more cautiously and more boldly, meaning that they laid the groundwork for their move more carefully, and this time aimed not just at acquiring a church building, but at getting rid of Ambrose all together. The first move was to pass a new law which offered to the homoeans the toleration that Valentinian had denied Symmachus by inviting them to celebrate openly. The law specifically addresses homoeans, not Arians, as the latter were explicitly outlawed by Theodosius. Besides, except for the Gothic soldiers perhaps, the term homoean is probably more accurate theologically. The law continued, ominously, that anyone who opposes this edict is guilty of treason, to be exiled or put to death. This was aimed at Ambrose personally. The magister memoriae, Benevolius, was charged to draft the law, but instead, being a Nicaean, he threw down his belt and resigned his post, though he had even been offered a promotion if he went along with the measure. The law was promulgated anyway, but this signals an important fact: at least some members of the consistory were Nicaean supporters of Ambrose, and quite possibly informers for him concerning the strategies of the court. By the way, the new court rhetorician, Augustine of Hippo—not yet a Christian—was an interested witness to all of this: his mother was a loyal parishioner of Ambrose. In any case, armed with the law, the court sent word to Ambrose that it required the suburban church it had requested a year earlier. The third card played was inviting Ambrose to the consistory to debate the issues with Auxentius before a panel of judges selected by both bishops. If this sounds familiar, that may be deliberate. Was this Auxentius trying to turn tables on Ambrose for Aquileia’s dismissal of homoean bishops? Not unlikely. Now it was Ambrose’s turn to act. He did not. That is, he refused to participate in the debate on by now familiar grounds that laity cannot judge bishops. His argument is sheer Ambrose-the-lawyer. thinking of those who would be called to offer judgment in the case: if the judges found him guilty and sentenced him, they would be guilty of apostasy; if they found for him they would be threatened by the state. He could not allow himself to put these men in such an untenable situation. Further, he espoused a position that will transform Roman tradition and remove it one step further from pagan precedent: if, in the past, there was no separation between religion and state, then the Church is now asserting it: the emperor is a member of the Church, not above it. In the mean time, Nicaean crowds had moved in to take over the threatened basilica. The court raised the stakes again: fully armed troops were called to occupy the church. Once again their nail studded boots scraped the pavement stones and surround a congregation that is more or less trapped inside (though they did manage to get messages out and probably supplies in). It may be in this scene that Ambrose came up with the novel antiphonal approach to praying the psalms that is still used in the Church’s Office of the Hours: one side of the church recites or sings one stanza, the other side the next, and so on. They may have also sung hymns Ambrose composed. 73

Rumors spread. Assassins were abroad in the streets waiting to attack Ambrose; Justina hired a street thug, Eutimius, who stashed a wagon in a side street and was stalking the bishop with the intent of abducting him and carrying him into exile; the death penalty had been decreed against him; he was counseled to accept voluntary exile. In his homilies of those days, Ambrose confirmed that he will not leave, that he may be killed, and that he will not tolerate any violence done to protect him. The tension was near the boiling point. Each side was waiting for the other to blink or slip up: the court was looking for an excuse to judge against Ambrose. He was walking a tight rope and his primary weapon, the crowds, were not completely within his control—crowds never are. The court again ratcheted up the pressure, demanding not a suburban church, but the bishop’s own basilica in the heart of the city. Ambrose again refused, using the potent word traduco. Literally this just means that he will not ‘hand over’ the church, but already that term is laden with meaning. During the ages of perseBasilica of S. Lorenzo, Milan: some think this is the “Portiana” that is, the suburban basilica demanded of Ambrose by Valentinian II. Notice the octagonal chapel to the left…possibly an imperial mausoleum.

cution, priests and bishops were martyred for not ‘handing over’ sacred vessels and books—thus our word “traitor.” The people crowded into the church and applaud him. The court stepped back, again demanding the suburban church. Again the people displayed their rejection and occupied the threatened building. At Ambrose’s plea for temperance, they were allowed in through the belt of soldiers surrounding it. On Palm Sunday, the court sent a delegation to decorate the suburban church for Easter rites. Among these were banners displaying the Imperial seal. Crowds assaulted Castulus, a homoean priest on the street and tried to lynch him. Ambrose sent immediate word that he was to be released unharmed. The court pressured the city’s merchants by demanding a stiff fine in gold as punishment for the crowd’s illegal actions. Many were imprisoned. This may have been designed to peel off important support for Ambrose from the merchant class of the city. A couple of days later another delegation was sent to Ambrose, demanding he back down. He pointed out that the state can seize his own property—though he owned none, but that it could not take what belongs to God, nor could he authorize that. They demanded that he control the crowds. His reply was amazing. He said that he could not guarantee that. Was he simply stating the facts or was he tacitly threatening the court? He was inching closer and closer to explicit treason. That night, apparently, he went home and slept soundly saying “they know where to find me, and they will find me ready” (this and further quotes are from Epistula 76, Ambrose’s letter to Marcellina). The next day dawned to find churches occupied by Nicaeans and surrounded by troops. Some of these soldiers, at least, were not Gothic homoeans. Ambrose threatened them with excommunication so they sent word to their emperor that they would defend him only if he attended a Nicaean mass, then they slipped into the basilica to join Ambrose in prayer. Word came to Ambrose that the people had taken down the banners and that then they were torn by boys playing: this was a treasonous act. Ambrose was blamed. Ambrose sent priests to the other basilicas being occupied (there are three all together), perhaps to try to gain some control over the people: weary, stressed out, cramped, and probably hungry. A secretary arrived at church and confronted Ambrose even before his homily was finished, demanding: “I want to know if you are a usurper, in order to know how to respond against you” (Epistula 76. 22). Once again Ambrose had to choose his words with utter care. But also confidence and courage…he warned that Valentinian ought “not to create for himself a real usurper” (ibid 23). This allusion to Magnus Maximus is dangerous. Was he simply stating the obvious, that Magnus Maximus had an army and was anxious to intervene; was he reminding Valentinian of the debt he owed him for having kept Maximus on the other side of the Alps; or was he implying that he had an ally upon whom he could call? That night he could not go home because soldiers blocked all the exits. The next day was Holy Saturday. At some point during that day the soldiers exited the three churches, except for those who stayed to embrace, weep, sing, and worship with the Nicaeans. The merchants were released and their property restored. The court had left town. Justina made due with a portable chapel built for Constantine.



Why? What happened? Apparently Valentinian received a letter from none other than Magnus Maximus who complained about the “violence done to Catholic churches and bishops being besieged in their basilicas.” It was the last straw. The bishop had stayed firm while avoiding fatal missteps, the people had remained with Ambrose without violent rioting. The loyalty of many troops was suspect. A violent response might not have been successful and, with this letter they knew that it might trigger an invasion. Ambrose had successfully negotiated the cataracts. He defended Nicaean orthodoxy and shielded the basilicas; he had struck an important blow for the separation of church and state; he had not violated his fidelity to the house of Valentinian I. But had he played the ‘Maximus’ card? Did he know that a letter was coming? Had he written to the usurper about the state of affairs? And another question: was it over? This was the second clash with the homoeans over a basilica (or perhaps third…one scholar writes about an incident some five years earlier). Ambrose was left holding the field, but was his victory final or pyrrhic? The relief he must have felt—exhausted but exultant, skeptical but hopeful—must have been tempered with prudent wariness. Even while coming down off the emotional precipice of possible martyrdom he had to deal with whatever would come next, which was probably an invasion, if he had read well that implied threat from Maximus.

they had merely touched the garment of the saints with their hands, have been freed from sickness…there has been a revival of the miracles of the days of old…how many handkerchiefs are being displayed…as possessing healing in their very touch!” Ambrose was aware that skeptics were suspicious of the discovery of miracle-working martyrs while the conflict over the “Portiana” basilica was still warm. In no small part due to the influence of Ambrose himself, martyrs had become badges of legitimacy: bolstering the bishops who held their relics. Was this a bit too convenient? Ambrose took the offense: “you have raised for us such effective guardian spirits at a time when your Church needs greater defenders.” It was as if he was addressing the homoeans of Justina’s court directly who accused him of playing into the hands of Maximus, if not being himself a traitor and conspirator. He pressed on: “Let everybody take note of what kind of champions I seek: champions who have the power to defend, but do not practice aggression…champions to benefit everybody and harm no one.” Basilica Ambrosiana, Milan

Story # 7: Gervasius and Protasius While dedicating a new church, members of the congregation yelled at Ambrose to “consecrate the basilica as you did the Basilica Romana!” “I will! If I find relics of martyrs!” he shot back (this and other quotes from Epistula 77). Ever spontaneous, obviously at ease with his people—even in the middle of a solemn ceremony—he meant it as a quip, but immediately Ambrose felt a thrilling sensation. Sparing no time, not even pausing to consider the wisdom of his actions, he left the church—already known as the Ambrosiana— accompanied by skeptical priests and workers with shovels, and headed for the nearby cemetery of SS Felix and Nabor, soldiers martyred at Milan. He ordered them to dig just in front of the gates. Quietly his associates whispered that he was taking a huge gamble here: the crowds were large and expectant—what if there was nothing there? Suddenly a woman threw herself toward the tomb, minutes later two sets of remains were found amidst a large mass of still moist blood. Two males, remarkably tall, with heads severed, were recovered. Their discovery attracted so much attention that it took four days to translate and inter them in the basilica. En route Severus, a former butcher who had gone blind, touched the relics and was healed “as soon as he touched the fringe of a garment of the martyrs” (ibid). There were lots of witnesses, including Augustine, and apparently even homoeans interviewed him, churlishly unable to “deny the action, they deny the benefit” (ibid). Others draped kerchiefs over the bodies through grates that protected them from overly enthusiastic piety. The recovered ribbons were treated as holy objects for having touched the bodies of the holy martyrs Gervasius and Protasius. Their story had not been known previously. Their identity as martyrs was confirmed by their efficacy: “many persons have been cleansed from evil spirits…very many, after 76


Illustration from Sancti Ambrosii, in the collection of St. Ambrose University, Davenport, Iowa. You will notice the blind man in the midst of the miraculous recovery, front and right.



He had chosen a reading for the day that spoke of the prophet Elisha besieged by a pagan army (c.f. II Kings 6.16). Alluding even more directly to the tense stand-off that had pitted the people against the court, Nicaeans against homoeans, even Catholic soldier against Gothic Arian soldier, he added: “Such are the defenders to whom I pay court, such the soldiers whom I maintain, that is, not soldiers of the world, but soldiers of Christ. I am not afraid…let them come and let them see my bodyguards. That I am surrounded by weapons of this kind, I do not deny.” In fact, in Milanese religious art Ambrose is often shown flanked by two armed warriors often with the palm branches of martyrdom. The drama of the past few months had not yet subsided. No one knew whether the homoeans had abandoned their attacks on Ambrose or were just re-grouping. The bishop could well still be reverberating with the proximity of his own possible (and courted?) martyrdom: “I cannot deny the act of grace which the Lord Jesus conferred on the times of my episcopacy: because I do not deserve to be a martyr, I have acquired these martyrs for you.” The next day he pushed the offensive further, rallying the people to himself by praising the congregation for their holiness and devotion (much as he had when soldiers surrounded the churches) and explicitly attacking the homoeans of Milan for their failure to acknowledge the miracles wrought by the relics. He knew that, as before, he was the real target of their animosity and used the martyrs as his shield: “At this point I ask whether it is me that they envy or the holy martyrs….” This, incidentally, confirms that there remained a rather vocal community of homoeans even after the departure of the court (and presumably also of Auxentius). There are lots of questions here. First of all, who were Gervasius and Protasius? The short answer is that we don’t know. Ambrose tells us nothing but their names, which he got from “old men” who had “sometime or other heard the names…and read their inscriptions.” Subsequent legend will weave Gervasius and Protasius together with SS Vitalis and Valeria and St. Nazarus: Vitalis was martyred at Ravenna (where his church is found). His wife Valeria was martyred en route to Milan. Their twin sons, Gervasius and Protasius, were raised by Christians in Milan and martyred for failing to offer sacrifice. Nazarus was martyred after visiting the two in jail before their deaths. Tidy.

Not long afterward, back in Milan, Ambrose discovered the relics of St. Nazarius and St. Celsus. The first was translated to the Church of the Apostles, thus nicely completing the circle. It was because Ambrose had brought remains of the Apostles John, Andrew, and Thomas to this church that he was asked for martyrs for the Ambrosiana. Celsus was left in his tomb, to be translated to a church well after Ambrose’s death. All of these ‘twin’ martyrs also raise eyebrows. In the climactic battle of Frigidus, Theodosius prevailed over pagans bearing images of Hercules and Jupiter. It was said that he was aided by SS Philip and John, who swept over the armies blowing a boral wind against the pagans so fierce that their own arrows were turned back on them. The echo of Castor and Pollux is difficult to miss. These gods were the twin patrons of Rome who were seen to have fought with them against the Etruscans. Of course coincidence, even rather obviously valuable and oft repeated, does not make the discoveries of so many sets of martyrs completely incredible. Why Ambrose’s fascination with martyrs…and their bones? He and Damasus of Rome were the leading proponents of the cult of the martyrs who, in life, often posed problems for bishops in that their holiness attracted followers even if their theology was suspect. But this reclaiming of the martyrs by reclaiming their bodies is not merely a power play. Ambrose was utterly convinced of the powers of the martyrs and could not imagine that their miracles were faked. “I have heard of many things being made up, but this is something nobody has ever succeeded in pretending….” That the martyrs did lend prestige to him and to his church he was quite willing to embrace. Indeed, he basked in that as would an athlete a trophy. We have seen that he was also willing to use them as sort of super-human shields, at least rhetorically, in his battles Ambrose between Gervasius and Protasius. Medieval gate near the Basilica Ambrosian, Milan.

These were the first martyrs that Ambrose discovered. While visiting Bologna, in part at least, to avoid having to deal with the usurper Eugenius, Ambrose must have been told oral traditions about a pair of local martyrs, knowing his interest in such things. He insisted on transferring their bodies, and so were discovered Agricola and Vitalis in a Jewish cemetery near the amphitheatre where they had been martyred. Ambrose comments that even the Jewish population was aware of their existence. A church was built over some of their remains. Ambrose took remains with him to Florence, where he was meeting with a well known Christian philanthropist, Juliana. A widow who vowed to not re-marry, she had three daughters who vowed to virginity and a son to the priesthood. She used her wealth to assist the local church and when Ambrose presented the relics, a church, now called S. Lorenzo, was built to house them.



with homoeans. There may well be one other miracle attributed to the twins…Augustine was an eye witness to the entire episode, as he had the earlier drama of the Portiana. A few months after this, while on retreat at the summer house used by Ambrose, he finally succumbed to his tortured will and was baptized by Ambrose at the bishop’s basilica baptistery. He left Milan the next year to return to Africa in order to, he supposed, take up the life of a country philosopher surrounded by friends. Ambrose used the faith-inducing dry bones of martyrs like a latter-day Ezekiel (Ez.37), sewing them in churches throughout northern and central Italy and beyond. Bologna, Florence, Nola, Brescia and even Rouen all received relics from Ambrose’s martyrs, further ensuring the spread of their cult in the West. In the same way Ambrose built churches to strengthen the Nicaean Church of Milan. In fact, his enemies accused him of surrounding the city as with an army. Leading out from the Porta Romana was a massive columned portico that terminated in a triumphal arch. Half way along this route he built the Church of the Apostles, later renamed S. Nazaro, since that is where the martyr’s relics were laid to rest. This, by the way, is the first cruciform church in the western Empire, though Ambrose could have seen them in the East. Ambrose was simultaneously an innovator in the West and a translator of the East, much like his theology. Notice that both architecture and location are carefully constructed messages. The Ambrosiana is insinuated roughly half-way between the imperial palace and the imperial mausoleum, as if Ambrose is the mediator of emperors between life and death. He intended all along to be buried here—the first such instance of a non-martyr so interred. He ceded his place to Gervasius and Protasius, but when he died, the people made room for him immediately beside them (now, after a later re-arrangement, they literally flank him). Other churches he built include S. Lorenzo, held by many to be the ‘Portiana’ basilica contested between Ambrose and Justina; S. Simpliciano, re-named as such for Ambrose’s mentor, friend, and successor as bishop of Milan; and the now lost S. Dionigi, which Ambrose built to house the relics of his predecessor, bishop Dionigus, martyred in Cappadocia. In this case Ambrose had had to ask for relics to be sent him. Finally, while the bishop’s basilicas (the ‘vetus’ –old and ‘novus’ –new) were not Ambrosian—the Vetus may be Constantinian, the Novus was built by the homoean Auxentius—their location led to the re-orientation of central Milan away from the forum, a few blocks away, to the grand episcopal complex of three basilicas, a baptistery, and the bishop’s residence. Ambrose added the new baptistery, which he built in the form of an octagon, deliberately imitating an imperial mausoleum, in which Ambrose baptized Augustine. Ambrose and the rituals of the church were quite literally at the center of Milan’s social life. But this strategic use of buildings and bodies (including, ultimately, his own) cannot be understood as the final, or even most important, message that Ambrose was sending. His devotion to the cult of the saints was, like his asceticism, healthy and well balanced. Even in the first homily on the occasion of the translation of Gervasius and Protasius, he puts things in perspective for the nearly fanatical congregation: “Let the triumphant victims take their place where Christ himself is the sacrifice, but he above the altar, since he has suffered for all, they below it since they have been redeemed by his suffering.”


Story # 8: Moral Blindspot: Callinicum Synagogue If Aquileia was not Ambrose’s finest moment, this was probably his worst. Callinicum was not a very big place for having caused such a tumult. The local bishop riled up his congregation against the town’s Jewish population and they went on a rampage, smashing windows, beating people, probably killing too, and finally burning the synagogue. These civil disturbances could not be left unanswered, especially in light of the long stretch of violence in the East: the barbarian Goths were barely subdued and Magnus Maximus had just been defeated and killed at Aquileia. There was other civil disorder as well. The citizens of Constantinople had exuberantly rioted having thought that Theodosius had lost the battle and at Antioch angry citizens had been pardoned after having smashed the imperial busts. Hearing now about Callinicum while travelling in the West, Theodosius’ response was mild. He ordered the local bishop to finance the reconstruction of the synagogue and to pay reparations. There was to be an official investigation and those guilty of the actual violence were to be brought to justice. This should have closed the case, but Ambrose protested to the emperor of the East and, although it had nothing to do with a Western bishop, he got a hearing, possibly in person at Milan: the guilty bishop was freed from his responsibilities and the government assumed the expenses of rebuilding the synagogue. This did not satisfy Ambrose, however, and he sent two separate letters to Theodosius. It is hard to explain why he did so without seeing it in light of his watchdog-like attitude toward any slight hint that the state might interfere in the operations and the justice of the Church. Analogously to his attitude in the Pricillian case, Ambrose expressed disapproval (albeit mild) at the bishop’s actions while asserting, again, the principle that bishops should judge laity, not laity, bishops. Further, as he had told Valentinian, the emperor is of the Church, not above it. In other words, Ambrose seems to have seen the whole thing from a point of view that outsiders could judge to be almost comically tangential to the real crime and punishment. Of course, this was not trivial from Ambrose’s point of view. But that does not explain the vitrupitude with which he reacted and the frankly horrible rhetoric that he permits himself to use about Judaism, let alone his demands that even the lay criminals be pardoned. Some see in his letters the roots of Christian antiSemitism. This is painful, but we have to explore this. Ambrose had worked for Theodosius and admits to have already been granted favors from him (probably Ambrose had written for promotion for those whom he took as clients. He did successfully plead for clemency for followers of Maximus). Theodosius was in Milan at the start of a long victory lap that would keep him in the West for an extended period. He had his youngest son with him and the Emperor of the West, Valentinian II, may already have been dispatched to Vienne with Arbogastes. In other words, Theodosius was exerting his hegemony over the whole empire and was pointedly introducing the people to his son and heir. His route took him to Milan before going on to Rome. He was expected at the liturgy, the church was being draped in imperial banners. Ambrose risked putting a pall over the entire triumph by confronting the emperor and was willing to do so, even in person and in public. 83

The situation, Ambrose asserts in his letter to Theodosius (Epistula 74), is his concern: “if I were speaking of political issues…I would not be gripped by such anxiety…but in a case involving God…who will dare tell you the truth if a bishop does not?” The Bishop of Callinicum, while probably “overly zealous” and then “too craven,” cannot build a synagogue. It would be apostasy. As for the laypeople incriminated, since torture would be the norm for the official inquiry, they should also be pardoned in advance. For that matter, it is a crime for any Christian to finance a building to be “put up for the perfidious practices of the Jews.” Are they, he continues, “to inscribe the façade of their synagogue with the inscription: ‘The temple of impiety, built out of booty taken from the Christians’?” At the very least, the case should be left for bishops to decide since, “if over matters of finance you consult your comites (finance officers) how much more appropriate is it that in a matter of religion you consult the priests of the Lord?” His core argument is that this is a religious matter. I cannot believe that even he takes seriously his other arguments: that it was just a measly outpost shack; that Christian churches were destroyed by Jews and the culprits not forced to rebuild them; that the Jews made the whole thing up as a slander; that they would accuse innocent people as they had “defamed Christ himself with false evidence.” His name calling does not bear repeating, but he does like the word “perfidious” and though it was already a commonly employed slur, he needn’t have, but did, refer to “Christ whom they killed, whom they rejected.” Ironically, the letter is peppered with references to the good Jewish kings of the Hebrew Bible whom Theodosius should emulate. Putting a lengthy God-to-Job-like speech in the mouth of Christ, Ambrose makes it clear that Theodosius owes his victories—past and future—to His continued patronage. The matter had not been settled to Ambrose’s satisfaction when the emperor showed up for the liturgy. Ambrose preached a crazy quilt string of texts (his typical exegetical method), mostly from the Old Testament, that culminated in the rebuke of King David by the prophet Nathan. Then he left the pulpit and went to stand by the emperor himself. The following is Ambrose’s own account to his sister of what happened next (Epistula Extra Collectionem 1).

Ambrose: “I am acting on your promise.” Silence. Ambrose: “I am acting on your promise.” Theodosius: “Act!” Were it not for the vulgar anti-Jewish slurs and the passion with which Ambrose defends the guilty in a case that is otherwise straight forward, this would just be another example of Ambrose courageously standing up against imperial over-reach in matters that are the province of the Church. It is true that this is exactly how Ambrose himself sees it. He does not defend the bishop and the community as innocent, he just wants them pardoned (implying their guilt). It is also the case that Ambrose’s denegrating language is not unique to him. He is employing stock slurs rather than making a genuine case against the Jews in this specific situation. But he does use them and he need not have to make his case. Even if they were part of common speech (like racially tinged terms in pre-civil rights America) they seem to roll off his tongue with an ease that suggests that he uses them often. This is not enough evidence to convict Ambrose of anti-Semitism. There is some counter evidence. recognizes this ambiguity: “Ambrose was a strenuous opponent of Jews on the one hand, and a faithful pupil of Jewish tradition and Jewish teachers on the other (the Callinicum Riot). His funeral was attended by a large delegation of Milan’s Jewish community; he did not—as he himself “admits”—attack synagogues or incite the Milanese to attack Jews. Theologically, he is such an uncritical devotee of the theology of the Jewish Philo of Alexandria that he is accused of plagiarism. Indeed, because of his extensive quoting, some texts of the great rabbi that are otherwise lost are known. Was he, then, just a man of his time with all of that generation’s blindness and casual prejudice? Was he more than that? Less. How could a man of such intelligence and spirituality not at least recognize the inconsistency between his passion for the Hebrew Bible and his own crude vocabulary? Jewish synagogue, Ostia Antica. The largest synagogue in the Western Empire. Look carefully under the extended lintels: you’ll see the menorah.

Fragment of a Jewish tomb on the courtyard wall of St. Ambrogio, Milan

Theodosius: “You have been preaching about me.” Ambrose: “I treated a topic relevant to your welfare.” Theodosius: “In the matter of the repairing of the synagogue by the bishop I really did make a rather harsh decision, but it has been put right.” They were interrupted by the commander of the cavalry, whom Ambrose rebukes sharply. Then he simply stood in silence, in church, at mass, in front of the emperor. Finally he said: “Enable me to make the offering on your behalf without worry. Set my mind at rest.” Theodosius remained silent. It must have been excruciating for everyone present. Ambrose didn’t budge, and finally Theodosius agreed to ‘put it right.’ Ambrose pushed further, demanding that the investigation (remember, probably requiring torture) be cancelled. Theodosius promised. 84

Fragment of a Jewish tomb...


This kind of moral blindspot is a deep and broad problem within Christianity. St. Paul dismissed women even while working with them and failed to condemn slavery, though he baptized slaves. It has taken Christianity nearly two millennia to see through all three of these blind spots. Why do so many today condemn gays? Fear Muslims? Denigrate creation? Besides the specific content and the various ways of interpreting it, there are a few other points that shed light on Ambrose’s approach to emperors. For example, he often threatens to absent himself from the church if the emperor is present, a slight to the imperial person. The strategy of running away goes back to his first call to the episcopacy. This was not cowardice but politics. He left Milan ahead of both Maximus and Eugenius rather than seem to offer legitimacy to their usurpations, conversely he explicitly told his people that he would not leave them, even to save his own life, during the Portiana conflict.

Story # 9: Massacre at Thessaloniki It was the night before the biggest sports event of the year. Thessaloniki, like the rest of the Roman world, was as crazy about chariot racing as Americans are for NASCAR and NFL combined. We know because the graffiti is still all over Roman sites. Sure, there were other sports—every little kid had a little effigy of his favorite gladiator—but when we use the term “bread and circuses” we mean the race track. Every town of any size had their own track and every town used the same stripped down no-commercial-adds simplicity to the teams: and they did race in teams—think Cross Country. You were identified as a fan by your colors, simultaneously the names of the teams: Red, White, Green, Blue. There was gambling, drinking before hand, parties in homes and in bars…we get the scene.

Which raises another trope. As elsewhere Ambrose alludes to his willingness to take personal risk. He dares to speak out because “I would expose myself patiently, though not gladly…I would prefer you to be accepted and glorified by God without any danger to myself. But if the guilt of my silence and my dissembling inculpate me.” He goes so far as to claim—absurdly—that he is personally responsible for the attack and even dares the emperor to punish him “so as not to lose the opportunity for martyrdom.” This is drama, of course: Theodosius is unlikely to threaten a bishop of the stature, reputation, and people’s affections as Ambrose. On the other hand, Maximus has set the precedent of killing bishops and Theodosius was known for—and will soon demonstrate—a murderous temper. In the Callinicum case, as in that of the Altar of Victory, Ambrose wrote two letters, the second one as if he had not already won his point. Why go to the bother? The second letters allow him to make a more full throttle argument, to run up the score, so to speak. It is as if he wants to load the public record with a complete precedent to be employed, if necessary, later. There are also a few clues in this episode that allude to the relationship between Ambrose and Theodosius. First, it is clear (and had been even as far back ago as the mission to Maximus) that Ambrose understood Theodosius to be the premier authority, despite the young Valentinian II being emperor longer and being of the dynasty of Valentinian I. Ambrose was probably part of the consistory of this Nicaean ruler. His first appeal in this matter seems to have been in person and he seems to suggest that, had he not been absent from Milan when the order was given, he might have kept it from happening in the first place. Ambrose took great personal liberties with Theodosius not the least of which is illustrated in that utterly remarkable episode at the liturgy; he can snap at a senior officer with impunity, he plays a blinking game with the emperor himself—and wins. He forces an explicit promise, and then trusts that coerced promise. For better or worse, Theodosius believes that the bishop has a particular influence with God which he would not want to jeopardize: “will you really not listen to the man whom you would want to be heard praying on your behalf? Are you not apprehensive…that when you declare me unworthy of being heard by you, you may declare me unworthy to be heard [by God] on your behalf?”


The “green” team on a victory lap, complete with the palm branch of victory (which will become, in Christian art, the sign of martyrdom—victory over death. Ostia Antica, Baths of the Seven Sages in the Insula of Serapis, Hadrianic.

And, as now, sports heroes were not necessarily paragons of virtue, not role models for your kids. The best known athlete in Thessaloniki had a thing for a girl, but so, as it turns out, did Butheric, the consularis. If one had star power, the other had legal power. The governor had the racer arrested and thrown in jail. Imagine this happening to the star quarterback of your team the night before the Super bowl. You are already lubricated with wine and bolstered by your rowdy friends. People took to the streets in the thousands—some say as many as 7,000. They went for the jail, they liberated their divus and when confronted by the militia, they fought back. There was blood and when the dust settled and the sun rose the governor himself was dead. Word reached Theodosius in Milan. He knew Thessaloniki well, he had lived there for at least three years and he had faced the abuse of the populace himself. The circus, in fact, was adjacent to the imperial palace complex (see Thessaloniki race track wall, page 29) (there, as in other imperial cities, this was for the convenience of making a ‘public’ appearance at the games without having to traverse the streets on gameday). Theodosius was furious at this attack on his authority: it could not be interpreted any other way. He had turned a blind eye when the citizens of Constantinople had cheered the false rumor of his defeat to 87

Maximus; he had been lenient with the Antiochenes when their riot led to the tumbling of the imperial busts; he had backed down to Ambrose in the matter of the Callinicum bishop. Not this time. He sent a quick order off to the nearest army outpost demanding that they round up those responsible and execute them all. No need for a trial. His consistory did not try, or at least they did not succeed in dissuading him. Ambrose was not present. Not all that long later, having cooled down, he regretted the decision and sent a remission, but it did not arrive in time. The legion in the area was mostly composed of recently recruited Goths who understood their mandate in the broadest terms. According to one account they simply rounded up 7,000 citizens in the circus (contra passim: the punishment fits the crime) and butchered them all. The entire empire was appalled. If it could happen in an imperial city, it could happen anywhere. The emperor, anointed by God and sworn to protect the Senate and the People of Rome (SPQR, in Latin abbreviation) had turned a bloody knife on his own. Theodosius’ situation was now perilous. It wasn’t just that he had he opened a door to any would-be rival to exploit the people’s shock and indignation. He had sinned, and he knew it. Any public official knew that the execution of his offices might require him to act contrary to the gospel. That is why they commonly deferred baptism until the last possible moment, it conferred forgiveness of sins. Many Christians, albeit heretically, believed that any sin committed after baptism could not be forgiven. Whatever else he was, Theodosius believed that he owed God for his rise to power and his eternal soul. This had now been put in jeopardy. He had indeed shed innocent blood. There was no point in arguing that he had not intended a massacre, that he had repented the order, that overly zealous barbarians had actually done the deed. He was damned. Ambrose, in the mean time, had been excusing himself from the consistory. We are not sure why, but perhaps it is as simple as that he sensed Theodosius’ annoyance at his interference in the Callinicum affair (or, more specifically, his calling him out in front of everyone at mass). In any case, he was accused of knowing too much and so he kept away without, however, losing his contacts who made sure he remained knowledgeable. Since he hadn’t been there to prevent it, he stepped in to address it pastorally, perhaps following his own advice: “Kings should not be attacked recklessly by God’s prophets and priests unless there are very grave sins... “ (Expositionis PS. XXXVII. 43) Ambrose sent a letter to the emperor. “I write with my own hand what you alone are to read.” It was discrete, personal, respectful, and forceful. In it he called his emperor to repentance and mildly suggested that he should not try to receive the Eucharist while in this state of sin. In that letter he makes clear that “I have written these things not to embarrass you…I persuade, request, encourage, advise, because I am filled with grief for you…” He compares him to King David and the occasions where that greatest of all kings sinned 88

and performed public penance (I Chron. 21). He even admits his own fault in not having been more assertive in protesting before the first order was officially issued. Now there were at least two ways that this letter could have been received. Theodosius could have considered it another, and more egregious—because more personal and more justified—meddling of the bishop in affairs of state, or he could have registered it as a hand being stretched out to a drowning man. If the former, well, he had already killed 7,000 If the latter, then he may already be on the road to redemption. Did Ambrose know in advance which route the emperor would take? Of course not. He spoke out with the same bold courage and deeply held convictions that had caused him to ‘meddle’ in other situations. This time, not only was he unequivocally on the right side of the moral equation, he was accepted as such by the emperor. And so began a long period of quite public repentance for the emperor. It was a win-win situation: the emperor regained confidence in his own salvation and the good will of the people; Ambrose gained, well, exactly the same things. Despite the rather anachronistic judgment of one student of this case that the whole repentance thing was set up by the two of them as a publicity stunt, the cultural, social, and historical situation (we call all this the “Sitz-em-Leben”) spoke to the genuine sincerity of all involved: the emperor, the people, and the bishop. Theodosius was required to attend mass without the trappings of his rank. He had to sit in a place set apart for repentant sinners. He had to abstain from receiving the Eucharist. He may have worn the sackcloth of the penitent. Later, in his funeral oration for Theodosius, Ambrose remembered how the emperor “threw to the ground all the royal attire he was wearing; he wept publicly in church over his sin…with groans and tears he prayed for forgiveness.” (de Obitu Theodosii. 34) This went on for several months (until Christmas or until Easter, depending on the scholar). In the end, he entered the church on the day of his recall and knelt before the altar, asking for God’s forgiveness. Ambrose rushed down from the altar, threw himself on the ground beside his emperor, and they embraced. The people would have wept and cheered in exultation. It was over. The empire was once again saved by the redemption of the emperor. Theodosius’ eternal soul was in jeopardy and as went the emperor, so went the empire. This idea of congruence between God’s relationship to the king and God’s relationship to the kingdom is biblical and it may have been taken literally. It is even possible that Theodosius had just suffered the loss of an infant son (named Gratian), and that he took that as a sign of God’s disfavor. Ambrose made clear that he owed his military victories to his piety. In any case, no one was safe in a world where the prince could strike whom he willed. This proved that the crown was itself bent in service of the Gospel. It also meant that forgiveness— even after baptism—was possible in the Church. For this alone the tears of joy and the wild applause were justified. It is all about forgiveness. It’s worth taking a moment to dwell on the broader theological implications here. No one understood better than Ambrose that forgiveness was the single greatest gift that the Church had to offer the world. It is the other name of Love; it IS the crucifixion. Ambrose had his personal reasons 89

for clinging to the faith claim that one could be forgiven, but beyond that, he spread his conviction to the Church, in opposition to the Donatists, the Novitians, and whoever else demanded a God of Wrath and Judgment who would send the chaff of sinners to eternal damnation. This is perhaps the most tenacious of all the Christian heresies. Ambrose knew from personal experience, pastoral work, and theological reflection that forgiveness is a hard thing to ask for, hard to accept, and hard to grant to others. One of his greatest achievements, I think, was his making a case for forgiveness. It is a medicine that should be denied no one, and it is a harsh and bitter medicine. He practiced this personally, and in this case, he administered it pastorally. He also argued for it clinically against the Novatians, who were among the most adamant in denying the possibility of postbaptismal forgiveness. Folks who insist that others are damnable sinners are very likely doing so in good conscience, that is, they are not deliberately hypocritical. Ambrose thinks that they are trying to protect the dignity of God from the offense of those who would take advantage of God’s mercy. But this attitude of judgmentalism is awful, anti-Gospel, and sinful. “They affirm that they are showing great reverence for God…but in truth none do God greater injury than they who choose to prune His commandments, and reject the office entrusted them.” (de Poenitentia, I. Esp. 6) Ambrose’s attitude toward Theodosius was completely consistent with his understanding of the Gospel mandate to the Church: “What you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and what you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Jn. 20.22-23). Because “the Lord forgave all sins, He made an exception of none” the Church must use its power to draw the sinner back; that mercy must prevail over severity. Theodosius believed that he had committed the ‘sin unto death.’ Ambrose trumped that verdict by showing the sinful emperor that he was loved by Christ, forgiven by Christ. In fact, in this episode—putting his relationship with his sovereign, if not his neck, on the line in order to call him to repentance, Ambrose lived that Gospel. He repeats over and over again in the funeral oration for Theodosius a few years later: “I have loved this man.” Because he loved him, he challenged him. Because he loved him, he offered him God’s own forgiveness.

Story # 10: Frigidus and the end Some call it the last battle of the Roman Empire. Two Spanish/Romans, using largely barbarian forces squared off against one another in the sub-alpine plains not far from Aquiliea. One army marched under the banners of Jupiter and Hercules, the other under the ‘labarium’ the imperial banner embroidered with the “chi-rho” (the first two letters of the name “Christ” in Greek: “X” and “P” superimposed on one another as an anagram). It would be the last battle fought by Romans under the old gods. It would leave one man as emperor of Rome for the last time.


A typical, and historically very inaccurate, portrayal of a defiant Ambrose and an aggressive Theodosius


The usurpers came from Gaul (France) and went immediately to Milan. Ambrose, knowing they were coming and in any case torn by remorse that he had not made it to Vienne before Valentinian’s death, saw fit to leave the city. He had been organizing relief for the war refugees, but had no desire to lend legitimacy to Arbogastes’ gang by remaining in the capital. He took the chance to take an interesting journey to Bologna, where he found the relics of Agricola and Vitalis, then to Florence, where he “seeded” a new church with some of those relics. While there he worked with Juliana, the great philanthrope who gave her wealth to build churches and her children to the religious life: 3 daughters and a son. Ambrose did write Eugenius, the titular emperor, excusing his absence. The Battle of Lake Frigidus lasted two days. The first day favored the pagans, to whose side a contingent of barbarian troops switched. On the second day Theodosius was heard to utter a very loud plea for God’s help: “Where is the God of Theodosius!” (de Obitu Theodosii 7). The boreal wind came up strongly from behind his ranks—some said so strongly that it blew the arrows of the enemy back at them. Others claimed they saw Saints James and John swirling overhead like Castor and Pollux of old. In the end it was the new heavily-armed cavalry—the cataphracti—who won the day. These were a relatively new innovation and are much closer to medieval knights than to the foot soldiers of the legions of Caesar. Eugenius, the puppet emperor, died that day. He was a scholar and poet, the one-time tutor of princes, who was set up as ruler to attract the approbation of Rome’s pagan Senate class. Nichomachus was tracked down and killed. He was a staunch pagan of the Senate class who seems to have seen this conflict as a showdown between tradition and innovation. Arbogastes, the third of the usurping triumvirate, had been a general for Theodosius, the nephew and son of two of his most trusted men, but he was a pagan and had aspiration. He was certainly behind the death of Valentinian II in Vienne, even if the young man did commit suicide, and he was the force behind this bid for power. The field was left to a Nicaean emperor who had recently—just after his Thessaloniki penance was completed—made Christianity the official religion of the empire and had Rome declared the First City of what will eventually be called Christendom. Though not without issues to resolve, such as the superabundance of non-Romanized barbarians in the army, the increasing pressure from the Huns, the economic woes caused by so much civil war, and the cultural battles between and among sects of Christians, pagans, and Jews. But the future looked bright. He had two sons who now enjoyed a clear route to the throne. He immediately had them made co-Emperors with him. The elder, Arcadius, Theodosius left in Constantinople, the younger, Honorius, he sent for to join him in Milan, along with that boy’s half sister Galla Placidia. General Stilecho, husband to Theodosius’ neice, was tasked to hold the West in the name of Honorius. Tellingly, Theodosius had taken it upon himself to refrain from the Eucharist until his family was safely at his side. That, apparently, was the proof he needed that God was indeed propitiated and that this most recent civil war would not damn him. He also heeded the plea by Ambrose for leniency for all the usurpers save the three leaders. This included, by the way, Symmachus, who seems to have been coerced into writing a panegyric, something like a eulogy-poem at an inauguration, for Maximus. It also included his son-in-law who might not have had anything to do with the rebellion personally, but whose father was none other than Nichomachus. 92

Warrior king mosaic from the Fifth Century, palace of Theodoric in Ravenna


And then he died. He had not been sole-ruler for more than a few months before his body gave out. Ambrose gave his funeral homily in which he spoke of his love for his king, the likeness of Theodosius to David, and, importantly, that the emperor had intended the empire to be kept together under the sole regency of Stilecho. This was not to be. The East and West were divided, neither son proved to be able to rule. Alaric, a onetime mercenary in the pay of the empire, was bought off in the East and so made endless trouble in the West, even sacking Rome. Stilecho sent the ominous letter to Britannia calling back the legions…the island was on its own. Ambrose died two years after Theodosius. They had worked together for 16 years. They had known one another intimately for at least six years. Simplician, though much older than Ambrose, outlived him and even succeeded him as bishop of Milan. According to a funny story, the bishops gathered around the death bed of the great bishop of Milan were debating his succession and Simplician’s name came up. One of the bishops dismissed him as being too old. Ambrose, from the bed, and presumed to be unconscious, quipped: “old, but good.” That sealed it. The diocese of Milan faded in prestige once Honorius and Galla Placidia moved the capital to Ravenna. (Bologna shifted its dependency from the one to the other at that time). Ravenna is a bog. In fact, it is sinking, but that very feature makes it easier for a weak and vulnerable emperor to hold on to his seat, if not his empire, against the great barbarian armies that were sweeping through Europe and Italy. His nephew (Galla Placidia’s son and, according to the amusing gossip spread by a security guard at the archaeological museum in Ravenna, also the son of her brother Honorius) would rule as Valentinian III and the fiction of a Western emperor would last for about one more century. Senator Symmachus would go on to enjoy a consulship—the summit of the cursus honorum. His family would continue to enjoy wealth, prestige, and scholarship until his own great-grandson, also a Consul, and a Christian, was killed with his son-in-law, Boethius, under the barbarian and Arian King of Italy, Theodoric, who ruled from Ravenna. The future belonged, not to the Western Empire, but to the Church of Rome. In no small part thanks to Ambrose, the Bishop of Rome was now Pontifex Maximus. He was the spiritual heir of both Peter and Paul. Seldom was that See held by a great intellectual giant (one thinks of the great Roman patrician Gregory the Great as an exception. His great library is held to have been on the Caelian Hill, where a bit of ruin is still visible). But the bishops and the theologians of the West had accepted his primacy. These included Augustine, rhetor of the palace in Milan, baptized by Ambrose, made bishop of Hippo against his will, this introspective, emotional, rigorous, genius—the first modern Westerner, the first autobiographer—will serve up the intellectual concrete that will hold the Church together even while the empire slips away. Of course the point of all this is that there was not an “end” to the Roman Empire at all, really, at least not in any definitive way. Roman law, Roman learning, and most especially Roman Catholicism, ensured that the


A 19th century image of Ambrose in Milan. Note that he is dressed as a Roman patrician…even the architectural frame is Roman (if a bit overdone).



new kingdoms of the West, though ruled by Arian barbarians, were staffed with the elites of Rome. And it was the latter who, in the end, prevailed. These patricians, both clerics and civil servants, simply shifted their worldview from a Roman tradition that was pagan to the Roman Catholicism that Ambrose, perhaps more than anyone else, created, explained, defended, and lived. Sure, it will be inevitably and markedly changed with the emergence of the likes of Merovingians, the Angles and Saxons, the Vikings, and crucially, from the Celtic Christians emanating from Ireland, Iona, and Lindisfarne, but a lot remains: law, language, ritual, virtues, tradition, art, and architecture. Look around and you will see that, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, Ambrose would still find elements that would be remarkably familiar. He should, he ensured it.

V II: THEOLOGY Most people who read Ambrose’s theological works get put off by how unsystematic it is. That is true…it is. He is reacting more or less spontaneously to an immediate issue rather than trying to set out a program or, to borrow a later concept, a ‘summa.’ Moreover, a lot of his writing began in oral form as homilies and that oral ‘echo’ is sometimes so evident that you would swear you could hear a member of the congregation yawn or a rooster crow. Also, he was very frequently rebutting something that someone else had said, so we can get the feeling that we are hearing only half of what was often a heated conversation. Then there is his prose style, in keeping with the period that also gave us the turgid poetry of Ausonius (his Mosella is an acquired taste), he can be a bit, ah, generous in his decorative flourishes. Finally the character of the man emerges in his theological arguments and they reveal him to be of compressed and controlled passion, sharp and blunt, if not always clear and precise. He was self-taught on-the-job, and though his classical liberal arts education would have prepared him well for that challenge, he could be guilty of fairly heavyhanded borrowing, especially from Origen, Philo, Didymus, but also Virgil, Ovid, and especially Cicero. His creativity and freshness is not so much in new ideas as how he can weave together the ideas of so many others in a way that is of immediate use…not at all unlike the work of a lawyer lining up his witnesses and evidence to make his case. Lindisfarne, England

In Biblical exegesis he loved drawing connections between themes, ideas, even single images, regardless of whether they were in Hebrew or Greek, New or Old Testament. This method is called a grappolo, literally: ‘as if clustered.’ He drew both moral and mystical lessons from them and never doubted that every word was written about Christ through Divine inspiration. He focused a lot of his attention on Genesis, the Patriarchs, the Psalms, some prophets, the Song of Songs and Luke. It is inspiring and often delightful reading, but not the sort of thing that would pass for serious biblical scholarship today, being unaware of historical, social, literary, linguistic, and cultural criticisms for example. Here’s a sample: The sinful woman who anoints Christ’s feet with her tears] carries in herself the image of a far greater woman, that is the soul and also the Church, come to the earth to reunite to herself at last the people with the good perfume…. She does not stop kissing his feet, so as not to be any more on the level of speaking than on wisdom, of not being on the level of love any more than of justice, of not being more on the level of flowering with lips than on chastity, of not being more on the level of kissing than on humility. [the Church] assumes the figure of the sinful woman from the moment that Christ himself assumes the aspect of a sinner. To us is given the Son of the Virgin…to us is given Emmanuel, God With Us, to us is given the cross, death, resurrection of the Lord. If Christ agreed to suffer for all, all the more has he agreed to suffer for us, because he suffered his passion for the Church. It isn’t for nothing that we are able to give worthily in exchange to God—in fact what ought we give in exchange for the afflictions rendered on the body of the Lord, what in exchange for the wounds, what in exchange for the cross, the death, the tomb? Shame on me if I do not give love! Let us give, therefore, love for our debt, charity for blessing, recognition for this richness, love all the more he who is the more condemned.”

Exposition of the Gospel according to Luke, VI, respectively 13-15, 20-21, and 25-27

You can see that for Ambrose all scripture is Christological and everyone and everything becomes a complex allegory. In this case, the sinful woman is the Church and at the same time the soul of the Christian. His doctrinal works tend to be polemical; that is, their goal is to refute a heretical position, most often concerning the full divinity of Christ against the homoeans, the place of the Holy Spirit as a full member of the Trinity, and the point of the sacraments, especially penitence. Listen to an excerpt: Let the Church, our Mother, weep for you, and wash away your guilt with her tears; let Christ see you mourning and say, Blessed are you that are sad, for you will rejoice.’ It pleases Him that many should entreat for one…And if you weep bitterly Christ will look upon you and your guilt shall leave you, for the application of pain does away with the enjoyment of wickedness and the delight of the sin. And so while mourning over our past sins we shut the door against fresh ones, and from the condemnation of our guilt there arises as it were a training for innocence. De Poenitentia I.X.92



In this case Ambrose is arguing against the Novitans, who refused to accept the post-baptismal forgiveness. This triggers his own theological reflection on Reconciliation. His Ethical theology is arguably his most creative work. He is concerned with how various classes within Christianity embrace and fulfill their obligations. Vowed Religious (“Virgins” and “Widows”) are encouraged to lives of prayer, purity, and non-materialism. Ambrose was one of the very great advocates for this way of life and while some might accuse him of thus demeaning the sacredness of married life, he saw himself as advocating for women who wished to be free of that life. Remember that women were often told who they were to marry and it was for family honor, not love, that they did so. Here he is on that topic: No, I am not against marriage. I am only recounting the benefits of consecrated virginity, which is a thing for the few while marriage will always be for the many. Virginity cannot do without its source, and that source is marriage. I am really comparing something good with something else that is good…virginity stands in comparison with the bees…I should like you, my daughter, to imitate the tiny bee…your words must have no deceit, no untruth; they must be the honey of simplicity and dignity. Let your lips generate the lasting posterity of your merits. Gather not just for yourself but for many others. Your riches, then, must be for the poor… De Virginibus I.35. 40-43 He also addressed the laity, and seems to be addressing men and women of property, position, and power. They are to live honestly, piously, and are to attend to the needs of the poor, especially refugees. The Roman virtues of Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage are to be joined to the Christian virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. In all of these, they are to model themselves on the great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Political leaders, especially princes, empresses and emperors, were cautioned with tales of Moses, Jezebel, and especially David to serve God first and in all things. Thus he addresses Theodosius after the massacre at Thessaloniki: Or are you ashamed, o emperor, to do what was done by David, the king and prophet and according to the flesh forefather of the family of Christ? David was told that a rich man, who had numerous flocks, on the arrival of a guest seized the only sheep of the poor man and killed it, and he recognized that in this he was himself the accused because this was what he had done, and he said, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Don’t therefore take it ill, emperor if you are told, you have done what the prophet told king David he had done. For if you listen to this attentively and say I have sinned against the Lord, if you repeat that royal and prophetic saying: O come, let us worship and fall down before him, and let us weep before the Lord our maker, you too will be told: Because you have repented, the Lord will forgive your sin and you shall not die…I have not written these things to embarrass you but so that the examples involving kings may induce you to lift this burden of sin from your kingship: and you will lift it by humbling your soul before God. You are a man and temptation has come your way. Conquer it! Ambrose to Theodosius: Epistula Extra Collectionem 11.7, 11


Of particular concern to Ambrose were his own clergy, perhaps because he inherited a largely homoean priesthood from his predecessor. It is notable that he dismissed only one that we know of, and refused to admit one other. All the rest seem to have been brought along. He explicitly treated them as his sons, to the point that his greatest ethical work, de Officiis, (Concerning One’s Duties) is explicitly modeled on a book of that same title by Cicero for the edification of his son. Listen to his thoroughly Roman advice on the exercise of virtues: What duty [is] connected with the chief virtues? In the first place…prudence, which is exercised in the search of the truth and which imparts a desire for full knowledge; next, justice, which assigns each man his own, does not claim another’s, and disregards its own advantage, so as to guard the rights of all; thirdly, fortitude, which both in warfare and at home is conspicuous in greatness of mind and distinguishes itself in the strength of the body; fourthly, temperance, which preserves the right method and order in all things that we think should either be done or said…nature has poured forth all things for all men for common use. God has ordered all things to be produced, so that there should be food in common to all, and that the earth should be a common possession for all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all…Thus in accordance with the will of God and the union of nature we ought to be of mutual help to one another and to vie with one another in doing duties, to lay all our advantages as it were before all to bring help one to the other from a feeling of devotion or of duty, by giving money, or doing something, at any rate in some way or other so that the charm of human fellowship may ever grow sweeter amongst us and none may ever be recalled from their duty by fear of danger but rather account all things, whether good or evil, as their own concern.

De Officiis I. XXIV.115, XXVIII.125

The overarching theme of these works is rooted in Ambrose’s own character. He was a Roman, raised with the noble virtues of his tradition and he was a Christian who learned to examine all things and interpret all things anew in light of the Incarnation. He simply saw no problem between these two. Against the pagans, like Symmachus, he thought that the best of Romanitas was found after excising it from its pagan trappings. Against Eastern cultists and some Gnostic-tinged Christians he embraced the good of creation and human creation and human free will, even while emphasizing asceticism, spirituality, and God’s providence. He was a creative synthesist who just saw no problem keeping one foot in each camp…a bridge builder…a pontifex, if you will. Many of his contemporaries violently disagreed and the easy bridge he spanned between the various truth claims was to be ruptured and splintered from all sides in coming generations, more’s the pity. V I I I : C H AR ACT ER It is tempting to leave this chapter blank. Consider skipping the rest of this chapter, which is only my personal perspective anyway. It is more important that you form your own impressions. The stories already told offer a glimpse behind the veil into the character of Aurelius Ambrosius. In my opinion he can only be understood as a fusion of traditional Roman virtues and the new virtues derived from his Christian faith. He was a Roman. He believed in the traditions of Rome, not the least the four so-called “Cardinal” virtues 99

of Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. He also embraced other classic notions, such as amicitia, pietas, religio, disciplina, pudor, vericundia, and ultimately romanitas itself. But he didn’t just embrace them. He was a Christian, so he transformed them, and THAT is the key to Ambrose. • Amicitia: a relationship most like “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” • Pietas: obedience owed first to one’s father, then to the State, and finally the gods • Religio: proper respect for the gods…that is, observing the rituals correctly. • Disciplina: an ordered way of life (what the military tries to teach in boot camp). • Pudor: purity, integrity, wholeness, also modesty • Vericundia: the shame that comes from boastfulness, or humility, if your worth is left for others to assess. • Romanitas: all things Roman are superior to all things non-Roman. It is cultural hege mony fueled and supported by military and economic hegemony. Rome is a divine gift to the rest of the world and it may be imposed on them for their own good if they don’t grasp its innate value themselves. It would have been used the way Americans use the term “democracy” in foreign relations, particularly in the Middle East (as in, “we are invading to bring democracy to the region”).

The problem here is that a secular historian may interpret the thoughts and actions of a man of faith in a way in which that man of faith would not recognize or accept as sufficient or even valid. Of course, the opposite problem is that too syncophantic a hagiography is likely to emerge from Church historians. Between this Charybdis and Scylla there is a man of his times, temperament, and training; class, crises, and culture; family and faith.

To these he added his own profound sense of Christian ascetical practices. Paulinus, his secretary and first biographer, says that “the venerable bishop was a man of great abstinence, of many vigils and labors… (who) weakened his body with daily fasts.” (Vita Ambrosii. 38) He ate once a day, after sunset, except on high feast days and week-ends. He prayed regularly. He transferred his vast personal fortune to the Church and for the care of the poor. He sounds personally experienced when he advises his clergy: “I think that what you wisely do is…avoid the banquets of strangers, but so that you are still hospitable to travelers, and give no occasion for reproach by reason of your great care…Banquets with strangers engross one’s attention, and soon produce a love for feasting. Tales, also, of the world and its pleasures often creep in. One’s glass, too, even against one’s will, is filled time after time.” (De Officiis I. XX. 86) Cardinal Giacamo Biffi quietly suggests that perhaps the reason Ambrose was never very close to Augustine was because the older man just couldn’t tolerate “the intricate speculations and in the spiritual ruffles of this complicated intellectual, capable of the most subtle dialectical acrobatics and incapable of leaving himself finally to live in a just and dignified way…A man like Augustine would have presumed to take up whole days in patient conceptual arguments and of miniscule philosophical analyses, and a man with the temperament of Ambrose certainly would have had neither the means nor the taste to launch himself in that enterprise,” (in Pasini, 137) which is an amusingly candid way of saying that Ambrose was self-disciplined in his passions and practical in his pastoral theology. He had no time for belly-gazing intellectualism tinged by an over-wrought conscience. Neil McLynn concedes that: “the deeper springs of Ambrose’s personality…remain hidden…the ‘real’ Ambrose will in any case elude us. The polished surface of his writings will defeat our efforts to penetrate them…” and yet, “historians might nevertheless be forgiven their speculations as they weigh the different traits they discern in his works against one another…” (McLynn 375). 100


Reference Letter for Aurelius Ambrosius, Bishop of Milan


To Whom It May Concern: I have known Ambrose for many years, but recently I have gotten to know him better through his letters, theological treatises, biographies, and commentators. We also share the same faith and serve the same Church. In many ways he remains an enigma to me, even now, because there are so many differences between us; culture, social class, language, and the like. Yet I have come to know him as one who believes passionately, behaves courageously, and labors tirelessly. He is brilliant, well educated, and creative, if not original, intellectually. He is something of an introvert who has fewer friends than colleagues. Yet he loves people with an empathy and compassion that he cannot conceal. True, his deepest heart is closed to all but his brother, sister, his confessor—whom I believe was Simplician—and possibly also Gratian, Valentinian II, and almost certainly Theodosius. To others he may appear a bit aloof, but he never begrudges those who need him. When he is not travelling he is found often at the refugee camp he set up and funded: he gave his entire fortune to the church. He lives very simply, but he wears his simplicity with a certain grace, even elegance. He can be stubborn and though not easily riled, can, when pressed, use his wit rather sharply. I would perhaps council him to be more tolerant of the people whose positions he cannot, on principle, tolerate.

There remains one final question: why is Ambrose important and not merely interesting? I can think of a few reasons, and I will be brief:

You will find Ambrose to be indefatigable, a very quick study, and loyal almost to a fault. That is, he can much more easily find flaws in the arguments of his competitors than he can be critical of his own side. His skill set might be considered a bit antiquated, but this would be a terrible misjudgment. He is a master of international politics and diplomacy; bi-lingual; he has experience with refugees and illegal immigrants; he is a talented composer and architect. He is as familiar with the classics of Greece and Rome as he is with the Old and New Testament. He is a problem solver who can think very quickly on his feet. He is as pragmatic as ideological, which means that he focuses on the immediate problem before him rather than on some more global vision, even though he addresses it from a genuinely held conviction from which he is loathe to budge. Yet he is a skilled bridge-builder who can bring several different positions to the table. He inherited an entire staff from his predecessor, whose approach was antithetical to his own, yet he earned their loyalty and devotion. The people whom he served, from the most powerful politicos to the business class, from laborers to the poor, would go to the mat for him; sacrificing career, wealth, even life, if necessary. He has played brinkmanship very, very effectively. Yet he is personally modest, even retiring. He has a sense of humility that sometimes makes one feel badly for him. He is funny and self-depreciating in his humor. He is a natural leader and has exercised that skill in a variety of fields, including provincial lawyer, governor, priest and bishop. He is not, for all his energy and loyalty, ambitious…he defers to and promotes the interests of others, most specifically the Bishop of Rome. Yet he will exert his influence well outside of his official position in order to influence events and promote those whom he sponsors. I would have to add that I would not want to get on his bad side, as he can be relentless. Yet I trust him and would follow him and frankly, would like to know him even better. 102

ONE: because he is an essential link in the ancient tradition of the Church which we ignore at our peril. Alastyre McIntire has it right. The Tradition is what links us now, in the present, with our roots in the ‘founding narrative.’ Ambrose is one—one of the very few—who is rooted in each of the great founding narratives of Western civilization: the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian. TWO: because he fought for and created a model for the relationship between the Church and State which is far from irrelevant in a country where the perceived strength—and even denomination—of the faith life of a presidential candidate can still determine the election outcome. THREE: because he is a perfect role model for the Liberal Arts. He was a theologian, statesman, diplomat, governor, orator, architect, poet, author, philanthropist, linguist, historian, scientist, and a man of faith. He accepted a radical career change that required him to re-create his skill sets and knowledge base, and he succeeded spectacularly. FOUR: because the issues he dealt with are not all that different than those we deal with today - though obviously the conditions are radically different: illegal immigration, women’s rights, foreign war, civil unrest, and refugees, religion in the market place, and heresies that still lurch from Manichaeism to Gnosticism; Arianism to Novitianism; paganism to Pricillianism. FIVE: because he is such a human being: great in so many ways, flawed in rather obvious ways. We have as much to learn from his blind spots as from his genius. He lived in extraordinary times and worked with the great and the heinous, the brilliant and the crafty, the saints and the rest of us. He not only survived, he thrived. He not only became a bishop, he transformed that office as the most powerful churchman yet seen, and one of the most powerful men in the world. He did not scale the cursus honorius to the established heights, he took the position he had and made it great. SIX: because even what he does not teach us with his letters and deeds he can teach us with his character. We ought to be better at negotiating the great crises of our age and even though these are very different than those of his (think Global Warming or AIDS) his intellectual and moral virtues can be brought to bear on these in fruitful ways. SEVEN: because he is one entre into that most important century in the history of Western Civilization between the Edict of Milan and the Edict of Thessaloniki, when Christianity was stunningly transformed from the leven in the dough to the cultural hegemon. EIGHT: because some things are timeless, like his virtues, like his courage and devotion and generosity and indefatigability, and self-sacrifice for the greater good. 103

APPE NDIX A: C HR ONOLOGICA L DAT ES Taken fr om C. Pa sini: A mbr ogio di Mil ano: Azione e Pensier o di un Vescovo

375 November

Death of Valentinian I; the western part of the Empire was divided between his sons Gratian and Valentinian II, while the East remained in the hands of the emperor Valens.

376 (circa)

Intervention of Ambrose at Sirmium for the nomination of Bishop Anemius.


Martyrdom of Soteris, ancestor of Ambrose, in the persecution of Diocletian.


Publication of the treatises de Virginitatis and de Vidove.


Council of Nicea: condemnation of Arius and proclamation of the Word of God is of the same substance with the Father.

378 early months

Death of Satyrus; Ambrose delivers his two funeral discourses: de Excessu Fratis.

Birth of Ambrose at Trier, third born of the homonymous imperial government official; Ambrose was preceded by his sister, Marcellina, and a brother, Satyrus.

378 Aug. 9

Valens dies defeated in the battle of Hadrianopolis against the Goths. To ransom the prisoners Ambrose breaks the sacred vessels. Valentinian II and his mother Justina move from Sirmium to Milan, obtaining from Gratian a basilica for their philo-Arian cult.


At Aquileia, Constantine II is murdered by his brother Constans; the family of Ambrose leaves Trier for Rome; perhaps in those situations the father of Ambrose died.


Publication of the first two books de Fide. Gratian chooses Theodosius as Augustus for the East.

352/354 Christmas

Marcellina takes the veil as a vowed Virgin by the hand of Pope Liberius.

379 Jan. 19

Publication of books III-IV of de Fide.


Council of Milan: through the intervention of the emperor Constans, the bishops refute the faith of Nicea; Dionigus of Milan is sent into exile. To his post the philo-Arian Auxentius is insinuated.

380 Year’s end 381 Spring

Gratian restores to Ambrose the sequestered basilica. Ambrose publishes his treatise de Sancto Spiritu.

365 (circa)

Ambrose and his brother Satyrus go to Sirmium to practice law.

370 (circa)

Ambrose is transferred to Milan to assume the governorship of the province of Liguira and Aemelia under the authority of Valentinian I.

381 May-July

Council of Constantinople: reconfirms the faith established at Nicea and proclamation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

374 Autumn

Death of Auxentius and the election of Ambrose.

381 Sept. 3

Council of Aquileia under the guidance of Ambrose. The philo-Arian (homoean) bishops Palladius of Rateria and Secundus of Singidunum are condemned.

374 Nov. 30

Baptism of Ambrose.


Council of Rome under the presidency of Bishop Damasus, with the participation of Ambrose. Ambrose publishes his treatise de Mysteriis. The Emperor Gratian is assassinated. In the West, the Empire is left to Valentinian II.

374 Dec. 7

Episcopal ordination of Ambrose.

383 Aug. 25

Valentinian sends Ambrose to Trier to meet with the usurper Maximus.

375 November

Death of Valentinian I; the western part of the Empire was divided between his sons Gratian and Valentinian II, while the East remained in the hands of the emperor Valens.

383 Autumn 384 Summer

Opposition of Ambrose to the request of Symmachus for the replacement of the Altar of Victory in the Roman Senate.

333/4 or 339/340:



384 Autumn

Second mission of Ambrose to Trier. Augustine arrives at Milan as a teacher of rhetoric. He makes contact with Ambrose.

392 May 15

Death of Valentinian II; in the following August Ambrose celebrates the funeral at Milan.

385 Spring

Valentinian requests a church for a group of philo-Arians (homoeans) led by Mercurinus Auxentius and supported by the Empress Justina; first resistance of Ambrose.

392 Aug. 22

General Arbogastes proclaims Eugenius as emperor. Ambrose avoids having contact with him.

386 Spring

Renewed request for a church by a group of philo-Arians (homoeans). Serious contest toward Holy Thursday, April 2. In Holy Week of 386 or one of the subsequent years Ambrose preaches the homilies on “The Six Days of Creation” (Exameron).

393 Early Months

Council of Milan against Jovian and the defense of the value of monastic and Virgin’s consecration.

393 Spring/ Summer

In order not to encounter Eugenius who is approaching Milan, Ambrose begins a voluntary exile in Bologna, Faenza, and Firenze, towards the end of August and the following year. At Bologna Ambrose assists in the recovery of the remains of the martyrs Vitalis and Agricola. At Firenze Ambrose dedicates a church dedicated by the widow Juliana. The homily pronounced on that occasion was published later the same year under the title of Exhortatio Virginitatis.

386 17-20 June

Recovery and translation of the remains of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius.

386 Autumn

After having resigned from his position, Augustine retreats to Cassiaciaco to prepare for baptism.


Publication of the treatise de Virginitate

394 March- July

387 24-25 April

During the Easter Vigil Augustine, prepared by the rich Lenten catechesis of Ambrose, receives the baptism by the hand of the bishop.

394 Sept. 5-6

Victory of Theodosius over Eugenius in the battle of Lake Frigidus. Ambrose intercedes for those who were complicit with Eugenius.

388 28 August

Defeat and death of Maximus by Theodosius who, the following October, enters victoriously to Milan as the effective head of the whole Empire.

395 Jan. 17

Death of Theodosius. Leadership of the Empire is left to his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius. In the funeral discourse delivered on the following Feb. 25th, Ambrose recommends the young Augustii to General Stilicho.

388 Year’s end

A synagogue at Callinicum is burned by a group of Christians. Ambrose blocks Theodosius from punishing those responsible and to reconstruct the synagogue at State’s expense.


Recovery of the remains of martyrs Nazarus and Celsus


Publication of the Expositionis Evangelii Secundum Lucam


Probable preaching and publication of the Expositio Psalmi CXVIII and of the treatise de Isaac vel Anima.


To punish an uprising, Theodosius subjects those responsible to a terrible massacre at Thessaloniki. The Emperor agrees to undergo the penance proposed by Ambrose and the Bishop readmits him to the Church on Christmas that year.


Letter to the Church of Vercelli for the election of the new bishop. Ambrose went to Vercelli, breaking a log jam in the situation favoring the nomination of Honoratus. On his return to Milan, Ambrose meets the future Bishop Gaudentius at Novara.

392 Beginning

Council of Capua, presided over by Ambrose. On the question of Antioch and on the anti-Marian doctrine held by Bishop Bonosius. In the middle of that year, there was probably another council in Milan on Bonosius.

397 Beginning

Composition of Expositio Psalmum XLIII, interrupted by the aggravation of an illness that will lead to the death of Ambrose.

392 Easter

At Bologna Ambrose delivers a homily for the veil-taking of Ambrosia, published the next year under the title de Institutione Virginis.

397 April 4

In the first hours of the day, Ambrose died, assisted by Bassianus of Lodi and Honoratus of Vercelli.

397/400 circa

Death of Marcellina



APPENDIX B: FOR FURTHER READING AMBROSE One of the greatest obstacles preventing Ambrose from being better known and studied in the English speaking world is that he is not well translated: there is no English-language “Complete Works” and very little recent translation work. Political Letters and Speeches. Translated with an introduction and notes by J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz. Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2005. Liebeschuetz is one of the best interpreters of Ambrose and his period. This text is an excellent translation and has very helpful introductions and critical notes for each work. It is select: not all of his letters are included, but he did, thankfully, include a few orations.

On Abraham. Translated by Theodosia Tomkinson. Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, Etna, CA. 2000. A solid and recent translation from the Sanctus Ambrosius Episcopus Milanensis Opera Omnia (SAEMO) Latin (considered authoritative by scholars). No footnotes, no introduction. Under her maiden name (Grey) and for the same publisher, Mrs. Tomkinson has also translated the “Exposition on the Gospel According to Luke.” I have not seen it yet.

PRIMARY RESOURCES Paulinus of Milan: The Life of St. Ambrose. 412 or 422 c.e. This very brief hagiography is the earliest account of Ambrose’s life and written by a person who knew him personally. It leans very heavily on hagiographical tropes and even invents a few that will be used by others in the genre. Not to be read as factual, it nonetheless does provide firsthand data that is valuable.

The Early Church Fathers: Ambrose. Boniface Ramsey, O.P., Ed. Carol Harrison. Routledge Press, London & New York, 1997. The very long introduction of this book is essentially a text book: part history, biography, and analysis. Translations are from critical editions of the Latin. Annotated list of works, introductions and endnotes are very helpful. One could only wish that there were more texts, and I am not sure why these were selected. Texts include: “On Virgins,” “On Naboth,” “On the Mysteries,” “The Prologue from the Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke,” Hymns, and “Letters Pertaining to the Altar of Victory Controversy.”

Ammianus Marcellinus: The Later Roman Empire, 354-378. This is a firsthand account of the reigns of Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian and Valens. It is a great story and reveals how at least one contemporary interpreted the military and political events through which Ambrose lived.

The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Second Series. Translated into English with Prolegomena and Explanatory Notes by H. De Romestin, M.A. Ed.s Philip Schaff, D.D., L.D.D. and Henry Wace, D.D. Volume X: St. Ambrose Select works and Letters. T&T Clark, Edinburgh, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing co. Grand Rapids, MI. This is a very old (no publication date) translation of select texts. It has a nice set of prefaces including a biography, chronology, and list of works (some of which are no longer accepted as having been written by Ambrose). It is still the single largest compilation in English, but should be read with an eye to the Latin, if only because English has changed so much since this translation was made. Footnotes reveal Ambrose’s sources, but offer no help with interpretation. Translations include: “On the Duties of the Clergy;” “On the Holy Spirit;” “On the Death of Satyrus;” “On the Belief in the Resurrection;” “On the Christian Faith;” “On the Mysteries;” “On Repentance;” “Concerning Virgins;’ “Concerning Widows.”

Brown, Peter. Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. 1992. Based on his Curti Lectures of 1988. This is brief, readable, scholarly, and supplies context for understanding Ambrose. Read anything by Peter Brown.

The Fathers of the Church Volume 42: St. Ambrose. Hexameron, Paradise, & Cain and Abel. Translated by John J. Savage. Catholic University of America Press, Washington D.C. 1961. It is great to have these texts. The translation should be compared to the Latin and the footnotes only show Ambrose’s sources.



Colish, Marcia. Ambrose’s Patriarachs: Ethics for the Common Man. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN. 2005. This is a great model of using Ambrose to address problems that he didn’t address explicitly in a single work. Dr. Colish uses several sources to find out what Ambrose thinks about moral theology for the lay person (perhaps not the “common man” exactly). This book rounds out Ambrose’s moral theology, which is otherwise addressed to vowed Widows, Virgins, and Clergy. One could envision another volume on “Ethics for Bureaucrats” based on his letters to emperors and imperial officials. Colish has produced an impressive collection of articles about Ambrose as well. It would be good to see these assembled into a single volume.


Curran, John. Pagan City and Christian Capital: Rome in the Fourth Century. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 2000. This ranks with Brown’s book for scholarship and general understanding of the world in which Ambrose lived. Curran talks about how various emperors of that period physically altered the city and how that transformation reflected policies and even theology.

Sogno, Cristiana. Q. Aurelius Symmachus: A Political Biography. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 2006. Narrow in focus and careful in its analysis of Symmachus’ own writings, this offers an intense and very scholarly perspective into the mind of one of Ambrose’s great protagonists. Symmachus is one of the most amazing men that most of us have not heard of.

Freeman, Charles. A.D. 381: Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State. The Overlok Press, Woodstock & N.Y. 2008. A highly polemical work by a non-scholar that should be read with a grain of salt.

Williams, Stephen and Gerard Friell. Theodosius: The Empire at Bay. Yale University Press, New Haven & London. 1994. Less scholarly than Sogno (but most are) and nearly as readable as Freeman (and without the ideological bias) this is a brief but sweeping review of another of Ambrose’s great protagonists. Theodosius is wedged between Constantine and Justinian and unjustly shadowed by those great lights. The authors help to restore his place in the crucial moment of Western civilization. Ambrose is treated, inevitably, and one could have wished that he would have been given more attention.

McLynn, Neil. Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. University of California Press, Berkeley, L.A., London. 1994. This is the most influential English language biography of Ambrose in the past 50 years. It seems to have been accepted uncritically by many historians and as a result, to read a recent history of the fourth century is to encounter an Ambrose-as-Machiavelli. Momigliano, Arnaldo. The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century. Ed. Arnaldo Momigliano. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1963. As Ambrose said of Simplician: “old, but good.” This is a collection of rather heavy essays on an eclectic variety of topics ranging from social history to theology. Moorhead, John. Ambrose: Church and Society in the Late Roman World. Longman Press, London & N.Y. 1999. Brief and topical, this biography offers a general introduction to Ambrose. It is straightforward and factual, and perhaps not as engaging a story that it might have been. Topics include: Women, the Bible, and Church & State. Pasini, Cesare. Ambrose of Milan: Deeds and Thoughts of a Bishop. Translated by Robert Grant. St. Paul’s Alba House, N.Y. expected late 2011. This is not (just) shameless promotion. Mons. Pasini’s biography is crucial, especially as a counter-balance to McLynn’s influential book. He provides an interpretation of Ambrose ‘from the inside,’ that is, as a man of faith. This gives him insights into his “thoughts and actions” that thoroughly escape McLynn At the same time, Pasini is not uncritical and he does not dodge the controversies (though he clearly is, as McLynn would say, ‘speaking for the defense.’) The book is heavily weighted with Ambrose’s own words—and those of his contemporaries, which allows the voice of his protagonist to shine through. It is really the very best biography available today. Salzman, Michele Renee. The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge & London. 2002. This is a vital contribution to the transformation of men and women like Ambrose who were simultaneously Roman elites and leaders of Christianity. It is well written: careful and cautious but uses exhaustive resources. It comes with good footnotes and great appendices.



The Primer  

Saint Ambrose of Milan

The Primer  

Saint Ambrose of Milan