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The Ecole

Ambrose of Milan

Ambrose, bishop of Milan from 374 to 397 CE and one of the official "doctors" of the Latin church, ranks among the most important figures in the formation of Western Christianity.

Background and consecration

Ambrose was born at Trier, son of the praetorian prefect of the Gauls, in c. 339. His father died young, and his widow took her three children back to Rome, where they were brought up in a Christian home, frequented by clergy. The eldest child, Marcellina, took vows of chastity and received the veil from pope Liberius in 353. Ambrose, the youngest, and his brother Uranius Satyrus were given a traditional education in the liberal arts, and embarked on careers in the imperial civil service as advocates at the court of the praetorian prefect of Italy at Sirmium. Ambrose distinguished himself as an orator, and was promoted to the rank of assessor in the council of Sextus Petronius Probus in 368. In c. 372/3, he was appointed governor of Aemilia-Liguria, a prestigious post which brought him jurisdiction over a considerable area of North West Italy and a headquarters in the strategic city of Milan.

The see of Milan had been occupied since 355 by Auxentius, a "homoian" Arian, or subscriber to the position that Christ the Son was "like" God the Father rather than consubstantial with him. Auxentius had been a popular preacher and a skillful player of ecclesiastical politics. Thanks to the political support of Valentinian I, he had withstood a number of attacks from pro-Nicene dissidents, despite concerted efforts in their favour by some redoubtable catholic churchmen such as Hilary of Poitiers. On his death in the autumn of 374, Milan was thrown into turmoil, as the Nicene community demanded a say in the appointment of his successor. As governor, Ambrose intervened in order to keep the peace, turning up in person at the basilica where the election meeting was taking place. His own sympathies lay with the Nicene camp, but his intention was simply to carry out his official duty of quelling potential public disorder. He certainly could not have anticipated what followed. According to Paulinus, later to act as one of his secretaries and his first biographer, in the midst of the uproar a child's voice was heard to cry "Ambrose for bishop!". The cry had a strangely calming effect on the crowd, it is said, and Arians and catholics thereupon united in a call for the governor himself to become their new leader (Paulinus, VA 6). Ambrose, however, had no theological training, and (like many children of Christian families at this time) had not even been baptized. Naturally reluctant to accept the acclamation, he resorted to various measures to escape ordination, including an abortive attempt to flee the city. In the end, however, he gave in, after it was clear that Valentinian lent his support to the popular mood. Ambrose received baptism at the hands of a catholic priest, and was passed rapidly through each of the various clerical grades in turn, from doorkeeper to presbyter, in the space of a week. He was consecrated bishop on 7 December, 374.

Opponent of Arianism

Contrary to the picture painted in conventional hagiographical accounts, in which Ambrose was seen to stamp his orthodoxy upon Milan right from the outset of his ecclesiastical career, we now know that Ambrose's episcopate began decidedly precariously. He had inherited a clerical body and a people among whom homoian sympathies remained dominant, and he possessed neither the knowledge nor the experience to take on those with whom he disagreed. He prudently chose to devote his earliest attentions to acquiring some basic theological skills, and to imposing his own personality upon his territory. He set himself a rigorous programme of reading, especially in Greek authors, above all Philo, Origen, and Basil (his debts to Athanasius and Didymus are also apparent), and began to feed his new-found knowledge into his regular pulpit ministry. In his preaching, he learned to harness the rhetorical gifts he had exercized in his administrative career to articulate an enthusiastic if discursive pastoral application of biblical texts. His preference was to preach on the Old Testament (which he like to read in Greek), and from the Alexandrian tradition of exegesis he imbibed a preoccupation with spiritual exposition, reading the narratives of patriarchs and prophets as allegorical and typological pointers to the definitive disclosure of divine truth in the coming of Jesus. In his time, Ambrose would become one of the most celebrated pulpit orators of the patristic age, and his debts to Greek models in both theology and hermeneutics would seminally influence subsequent Western approaches.

At the same time, Ambrose laboured to show his community that he was its natural leader: catholicism could put on the best show, and the political cohesion of society would best be promoted by fidelity to the orthodox faith. Two years into his episcopate, he published his first work, De virginibus. It reflects Ambrose's efforts to extend the established Italian tradition of female asceticism by calling upon the young women of Milan to devote themselves to the church as a way of escaping arranged marriages. The presence of a consecrated virgin in a family would, he argued, bring merit to cover the family's sins (Virg. 1.32). Ambrose was able to stage impressive processions of young candidates coming forward to receive the veil, some from as far afield as North Africa. Such spectacles inevitably boosted the prestige of the church in the public eye. More striking still was the church building-programme which he set about in the late 370s: in time, Ambrose's new basilicas would transform the landscape of his city, as the territory beyond the central walled area came to be dominated by towering edifices which epitomized the style of his church and the successful imposition of the Nicene cultus upon suburbia. Even tragedy was turned to advantage. When Ambrose's brother, Satyrus, died prematurely in 378 from an illness contracted on one of his trips to oversee the family estates in North Africa (the profits from which were being channelled into the Milanese church), Ambrose used his funeral sermon to sketch the significance of Satyrus as his own boon-companion and financial right-hand man (De excessu fratris 1), and a week afterwards delivered a memorial encomium celebrating the Christian hope of resurrection in terms clearly calculated to display his own classical learning and rhetorical powers (De excessu fratris 2). Such showmanship was a vital way of impressing his authority upon his people.

All the while, however, Arian opposition only intensified, spearheaded for a time by one Iulianus Valens, a former bishop of Pettau. Ambrose had for some time faced clandestine hostilities from homoians who gathered in rival household meetings, with their own distinctive liturgies and structures; now there was increasingly overt pressure for public space to be granted to the homoians in which their worship could be legitimized as an official alternative to the services of the catholic church. Ambrose made matters far worse for himself by boldly intervening in a synod more than five hundred miles away, at Sirmium, to ensure the election of a Nicene candidate as the local bishop. This questionable involvement in the affairs of a far-distant ecclesiastical territory provoked a furious protest from the dominant Arian clergy of Illyricum. They sought to warn the young emperor Gratian against Milan's bishop and all that he stood for. Gratian requested from Ambrose a statement of his faith, which was at length produced, in the spring of 380, in the first two books of his De fide. Ambrose's first open manifesto against Arian theology was a rather dismal piece of theologizing, which excoriated all Arian doctrine as equally bad and refused to differentiate between homoian arguments and the far more extreme beliefs of "neo-Arians" such as Aetius and Eunomius, who denied any similarity at all between God the Father and God the Son. As a political statement, however, it was astutely aimed. Ambrose presented himself as Gratian's theological ally, and promised success for the emperor's campaign against the Goths if the true faith were given official endorsement (De fide 2.136-143). The equation of theological orthodoxy with imperial security would be a familiar refrain in Ambrose's ministry.

When Ambrose's work was shown to the ablest of the Illyrican bishops, Palladius of Ratiaria, Palladius invited Ambrose to enter into a direct debate. Ambrose declined, but in response to Gratian's requests for further doctrinal clarification he produced another three books to De fide, plus a sequel of three books De spiritu sancto. The latter work, the first Western treatise on its theme, drew heavily upon Didymus and Basil, and never properly tackled some of the serious metaphysical issues of contemporary trinitarian theology. Jerome famously accused Ambrose of turning Didymus' good Greek into bad Latin (Transl. Did. Spir. Sanct., praef.). When Palladius at length got to face Ambrose in open encounter, at the council of Aquileia in 381, he was hopelessly outnumbered by Ambrose's supporters from North Italy and Gaul: Ambrose had succeeded in persuading Gratian that there would be no need to bring Eastern bishops to the convocation. In a staunchly partisan environment, Ambrose secured the condemnation of Palladius and his colleague Secundianus, bishop of Singidunum, and followed up with appeals to both Gratian and Theodosius to ensure their removal from their sees, and to remove other menaces such as the presence of Iulianus Valens in North Italy. Ambrose had scored a notable coup over his opponents.

With the settling of Gratian's court in Milan, Ambrose came to play a significant part in political affairs. Following the uprising led by the British commander Maximus and the murder of Gratian at the hands of one of Maximus' subordinates in 383, he acted as an ambassador for peace, going in person to Maximus at Trier. To claim a reward for his services, he manipulated Gratian's teenage successor, Valentinian II, into resisting an eminently reasonable petition from the distinguished urban prefect of Rome, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (cf. Symmachus, Relatio 3), that, in the name of religious tolerance, the famous altar of Victory be restored to the Roman senate-house in 384 (Ep. 72 [17]). In the aftermath of this encounter, however, Valentinian, under the strong influence of his pro-Arian mother, Justina, was pressurized by the Milanese homoians into making further moves to legitimize the status of the Arian community in the city. A complex alliance of Justina, her courtiers, and one Mercurinus Auxentius, a former bishop of Durostorum on the Lower Danube, conspired to pursue the issue of granting the homoians territory on which to worship. In 385 Ambrose was issued with a demand in the name of the emperor to surrender a basilica, so that the court's liturgy could be conducted by homoian clergy. By apparently stirring up his supporters to threaten a riot in resistance of the claim, Ambrose managed to win the day, and the sequestration orders were withdrawn.

However, on 23 January, 386 a law, probably framed under Auxentius' influence, was promulgated (CTh. 16.1.4) which declared freedom of worship for Arians, and the following Easter fresh orders were given to Ambrose to hand over a church. First the claim was for the central Basilica Nova itself, the bishop's own cathedral; then it was changed to the Basilica Portiana, the same building which had been demanded the previous year. Ambrose's resistance was adamant from the outset: a basilica was a "temple of God" (Ep. 76 [20].2), and a bishop could never connive at the surrender of divine property (Ep. 76 [20].8). During Easter week, the Basilica Portiana, occupied by Ambrose's loyal supporters, was blockaded by imperial troops. At the height of the crisis, Ambrose opted to remain inside his own church, the Basilica Nova, with his people, and during the vigil he introduced his congregation to the Eastern practice of antiphonal singing. The activity served both to increase a sense of solidarity in the face of persecution and danger and to popularize the idioms of Nicene theology, for Ambrose furnished his congregation not just with Psalms but also with hymns of his own. Ambrose was a composer of some poetic ability, and the simple yet evocative language of his hymns made a big impression. His style would be much copied; he had, in a tense situation, pioneered a practice that would revolutionize the Latin liturgy. To the demands for space for Arian worship he remained intransigently opposed. Even once the siege was lifted from the Basilica Portiana, he refused to comply with a summons to debate with Auxentius in the imperial consistory after Easter. He again stationed himself in his church with a crowd of supporters (this time contriving the idea of an imperial siege), and insisted that he was quite prepared to face martyrdom rather than betray his commitment to his cause. He delivered a devastating tirade against Auxentius (Sermo contra Auxentium, and, in a letter to Valentinian (Ep. 75 [21]) claimed that he could not enter a debate with Auxentius, because if he, Ambrose, were to win, the January law, which was supposed to be inviolable, would logically be invalidated. Faced with such skillful posturing, the court was left with little option but to back down, especially since there were renewed military problems emanating from Maximus and from the Goths. By seizing the moment of political opportunity and by ably orchestrating the popular mood, Ambrose had emerged the victor from what was undoubtedly the most dangerous situation of his episcopal career.

He made sure to follow up his success. On the completion of a grand new cathedral, to be known as the Basilica Ambrosiana, some weeks after the Easter siege, he masterminded the discovery of what were claimed to be the bones of two famous Neronian martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius, and dramatically reinterred their remains beneath the altar of the church. En route to their final resting place, the bones were said miraculously to heal all manner of diseases among the attending crowds. Ambrose's opponents were outstaged by his ability to work on growing popular fervour for a cult of the martyrs, and his association of the finding and the miracles with the community's loyalty to the Nicene cause - here was a symbolic reward for the people's steadfastness. Arianism by no means disappeared from the scene in Milan, but never again were the bishop's homoian challengers able to look like a credible alternative to the dynamic image of the catholic leadership.

Representative of Ecclesiastical Authority

Ambrose's determination to be seen as an unyielding advocate of the church's rights can also be seen in his relations with Theodosius. In late 388, a riot occurred in the city of Callinicum on the Euphrates, and a Christian mob , incited by the local bishop, plundered and burned down a synagogue. Theodosius' response was to order speedy punishment for those responsible, and to impose upon the bishop in question the cost of rebuilding the synagogue. Ambrose protested strongly on behalf of his colleague, arguing that no Christian bishop could possibly finance the construction of such an "idolatrous" edifice as a Jewish place of worship. Even after Theodosius had cancelled the fine, Ambrose insisted that the whole case against the perpetrators of the affair be dropped. His letter to the emperor (Ep. 74 [40]) contains some decidedly anti-Semitic sentiment; it also endeavours to legitimize violence in pursuit of a religious cause. When next Ambrose preached in the emperor's presence, he interrupted the service with an ultimatum that he would not continue the liturgy until the quest to punish the Christians of Callinicum was dropped. Not surprisingly, Theodosius chose to comply. The scene is depicted in the sources as a triumph of Ambrose's will over the emperor's (cf. Paulinus, VA 23). To some extent it was; but there is little doubt that Theodosius also appreciated the political value of publicly exercizing clemency.

In the summer of 390, another riot took place, this time at Thessalonica. Botheric, the commander of the local garrison, was killed, along with other officials. Theodosius endorsed orders to allow the troops to take the severest revenge on the residents of the city, and anything up to 7, 000 were brutally massacred (Theodoret, HE 5.17). Ambrose, having pleaded unsuccessfully for mercy prior to the enforcement of the orders, wrote to the emperor, requesting him, with formal professions of sorrow, to do public penance for his actions (Ep. extra coll. 11 [51]). He avoided contact with Theodosius until his demands were met. At length, Theodosius elected to go along with him, and engaged in official expressions of contrition; he was publicly received back into communion by Ambrose, amidst great ceremony, early in 391 (Theodoret's account (HE 5.18), in which the excommunication was terminated at Christmas 390, is probably unreliable). Like the Callinicum affair, the spectacle was designed to display the triumph of episcopal authority over even the highest of political powers, and the resolute assertion of ecclesiastical prerogatives over every secular claim. In reality, its impact also depended upon the willingness of the staunchly Nicene Theodosius to play his part in the interests of building up his own popular support in the West. Though Ambrose's relationship with Theodosius never was as close as has traditionally been supposed, when it came to the emperor's death in 395 Ambrose was able to deliver a funeral oration which hailed Theodosius as the shining patron of a faith which had definitively won in the West (Ob. Theod.). Each man had had his own reasons for presenting it as so.

Theological Significance

Ambrose's theological contributions need to be seen in tandem with his political significance: at various levels, his preaching, writing, and concern for clerical and liturgical styles were all reflections of his quest to forge a specific convincing image for himself and his church. He exercized a remarkable influence over the whole of North Italy, and helped to forge a disparate collection of neighbouring sees into a fairly unified force, loyal to the Nicene faith. He intervened in episcopal elections - often with some controversy - in favour of his own preferred candidates, and he maintained a strong, charismatic hold over his brother-bishops in a number of key frontier centres. His disciplinary standards for his clergy were strict, reflecting his own austere norms of self-control and public presentation. His most famous work, De officiis, modelled on the work of Cicero, is a manual on moral responsibilities addressed to the clergy. Like the stereotypical leaders of classical antiquity, ecclesiastics are called to be paragons of "seemliness", and to evince the kind of official "manly" persona which will impress the sophisticates of an imperial capital. At the same time, they are to outstrip the ethical achievements of the noblest of pagans, in order to commend the intellectual and moral superiority of the gospel whose spokesmen they are. Ascesis, as important to men as to women, was one way to prove such self-mastery: Ambrose insists on clerical celibacy, and upholds poverty and self-denial as indispensable spiritual virtues. The cardinal virtues are fused with ideals which stem from a biblical rather than a classical milieu, such as humility and the ability to bless one's enemies. Devotion to duties such as almsgiving and the offering of counsel, protection, and hospitality to the needy is part of a drive not only to show Christian charity, but also to prove the importance of an ecclesiastical hierarchy which can call upon its dependents as both a loyal retinue and a living testimony to its altruism.

Ambrose's preaching was deeply pastoral in orientation. His exegesis contained plenty of displays of his own learning, but it was first and foremost practical in its orientation. Ambrose was concerned with the moral lessons taught by biblical characters. Again and again he presses upon his hearers their obligation to be different from the corrupt world around them. The community of the faithful is cast as inevitable target for the spiritual assaults of evil forces ranging from heretics to pagan political powers and barbarian foes, all of them instruments of Satan's determination to overthrow Christ's cause. There is a constant note of warfare between the seen and the unseen, the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal. A strong Platonism colours Ambrose's spirituality and his attitudes to the world of the body. For Ambrose, a secure catholic church is indispensable to the interests of the Roman empire, but the church is also called to a higher service of allegiance to its own supreme imperator, Christ (cf. De officiis 1.185-186). Ambrose accentuates the privileges of the people of God, whose vocation is to the ultimate reward of heavenly bliss. On the way to that kingdom, Christian conduct is to be shaped by a tension between two imperatives: on the one hand, the need to exploit the maximum possible social and political leverage for the catholic faith; on the other, the need to rise above the world of "the flesh", to resist its wiles, challenge its injustices, and practise a transcendence of its inevitably transient structures. Ambrose's remarkable catechetical homilies depict the waters of baptism as the gateway to a path of ascent away from the physical to the final release and fulfillment of eschatological oneness with God.

Ambrose was not much of an original thinker. Modern scholarship suggests that he did give his own creative slant to the exegetical resources of the Eastern traditions on which he drew so heavily, but his theological ideas were mostly derivative, and, as his dogmatic treatises reveal, his understanding of the nuances of Arianism was often far weaker than his opponents'. His significance lay in his ability to communicate ideas, and to popularize Greek perspectives and practices in a Western context. He anticipated or influenced Augustinian thought in a number of areas, such as in the case of original sin, which he saw as biologically transmitted, or on the principle of a just war as biblically validated. He also spoke, seminally, of a supernatural change taking place in the eucharistic elements when the celebrant recites the dominical words. He encouraged both the cult of the saints and later developments in the veneration of Mary.

Key texts

Ambrose's extant works are conventionally categorized in four types: exegetical; moral-ascetical; dogmatic; and miscellaneous. His exegetical works consist of a major series of writings on Genesis, including Hexaemeron, on the six days of creation, De paradiso, De Cain et Abel, De Noe, and a string of works on the patriarchs. Other texts in this category include studies on the Psalms, on Job and David, on Luke's gospel (Ambrose's only surviving commentary on a New Testament text), and a few fragments of a work on Isaiah. Ambrose also left treatises which are ostensibly expositions of figures such as Elijah, Naboth, and Tobit, but they are in reality stylized moral disquisitions on the virtues of fasting and the evils of vices such as greed and money-lending. His moral-ascetical works consist of De officiis and his highly significant writings on virginity and widowhood. The dogmatic texts are his core works on the Nicene faith and on the Holy Spirit, plus additional pieces on related themes; there are also homilies on the sacraments (De sacramentis), a redacted version of the same series (De mysteriis), and a work on penitence (De paenitentia. The miscellaneous works consist of funeral sermons for Satyrus, Valentinian II, and Theodosius, his sermon against Auxentius, hymns (the authentic number of which is debated), and a fascinating collection of some ninety-one epistles, which reveal a carefully controlled public presentation of Ambrose's political and spiritual character. Other texts once ascribed to Ambrose are now known to be false, such as the very important series of commentaries on the Pauline epistles whose author has since Erasmus' time been dubbed "Ambrosiaster". We have a valuable, if strongly hagiographical, life of Ambrose written by one of his former deacons and secretaries, Paulinus.


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