Ambrose of Milan



painting of St. Ambrose

Who was Ambrose of Milan?

Saint Ambrose (340 – 397 A.D.), was an archbishop of Milan who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century. He was one of the four original doctors of the Church. He is patron saint of Milan.

Early life Saint Abrose of Milan

Ambrose was born into a Roman Christian family about 340 and was raised in Trier. His father was Aurelius Ambrosius, the praetorian prefect of Gaul; his mother was a woman of intellect and piety. Ambrose's siblings, Satyrus and Marcellina, are also venerated as saints.

There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and honeyed tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in the saint's symbology.





After the early death of his father, Ambrose followed his father's career. He was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Praetor Probus first gave him a place in the council and then in about 372 made him consular prefect or "Governor" of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which was then (beside Rome) the second capital in Italy.

Ambrose was the Governor of Aemilia-Liguria in northern Italy until 374 when he became the Bishop of Milan. He was a very popular political figure, and since he was the Governor in the effective capital in the Roman West, he was a recognizable figure in the court of the Emperor Valentinian I. Ambrose never married.

Bishop of Milan

In the late 4th century there was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan between the Catholics and Arians. In 374 the bishop of Milan, Auxentius, an Arian, died, and the Arians challenged the succession. Ambrose went to the church where the election was to take place, to prevent an uproar, which was probable in this crisis. His address was interrupted by a call "Ambrose, bishop!", which was taken up by the whole assembly.

Ambrose was known to be Catholic in belief, but also acceptable to Arians due to the charity shown in theological matters in this regard. At first he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared: Ambrose was neither baptized nor formally trained in theology.

Upon his appointment, Ambrose fled to a colleague's home seeking to hide. Upon receiving a letter from the Emperor Gratian praising the appropriateness of Rome appointing individuals evidently worthy of holy positions, Ambrose's host gave him up. Within a week, he was baptized, ordained and duly consecrated bishop of Milan.

As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina (who later became a nun), and committed the care of his family to his brother. Ambrose also wrote a treatise by the name of "The Goodness of Death".

Arianism

According to legend, Ambrose immediately and forcefully stopped Arianism in Milan. He studied theology with Simplician, a presbyter of Rome. Using his excellent knowledge of Greek, which was then rare in the West, to his advantage, he studied the Old Testament and Greek authors like Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea, with whom he was also exchanging letters.

He applied this knowledge as preacher, concentrating especially on exegesis of the Old Testament, and his rhetorical abilities impressed Augustine of Hippo, who hitherto had thought poorly of Christian preachers.

In the confrontation with Arians, Ambrose sought to theologically refute their propositions, which were heretical. The Arians appealed to many high level leaders and clergy in both the Western and Eastern empires. Although the western Emperor Gratian held orthodox belief in the Nicene creed, the younger Valentinian II, who became his colleague in the Empire, adhered to the Arian creed. Ambrose did not sway the young prince's position. In the East, Emperor Theodosius I likewise professed the Nicene creed; but there were many adherents of Arianism throughout his dominions, especially among the higher clergy.

In this contested state of religious opinion, two leaders of the Arians, bishops Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Singidunum, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Gratian to call a general council from all parts of the empire. This request appeared so equitable that he complied without hesitation. However, Ambrose feared the consequences and prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops.

Accordingly, a synod composed of thirty-two bishops was held at Aquileia in the year 381. Ambrose was elected president and Palladius, being called upon to defend his opinions, declined. A vote was then taken, when Palladius and his associate Secundianus were deposed from the episcopal office.

Nevertheless, the increasing strength of the Arians proved a formidable task for Ambrose. In 385 or 386 the emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially military, professed Arianism. They demanded two churches in Milan, one in the city (the basilica of the Apostles), the other in the suburbs (St Victor's), to the Arians.

Ambrose refused and was required to answer for his conduct before the council. He went, his eloquence in defense of the Church reportedly overawed the ministers of Emperor Valentinian, so he was permitted to retire without making the surrender of the churches. The day following, when he was performing divine service in the basilica, the prefect of the city came to persuade him to give up at least the Portian basilica in the suburbs.

As he still refused, certain deans or officers of the court were sent to take possession of the Portian basilic, by hanging up in it imperial escutcheons to prepare for the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the ensuing festival of Easter.

In spite of Imperial opposition, Bishop Ambrose declared:

If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.

Judaism

Painting of St. Ambrose with whip and book in the church of San Giuseppe alla Lungara, Rome
An address by Ambrose to Christian young people warns them against intermarriage with Jews ("De Abrahamo," ix. 84, xiv. 451). But his opposition assumed a more active character in the matter of the bishop of Callinicum in Mesopotamia.

It appears that in 388 a mob, led by the local bishop and many monks, destroyed the synagogue at Callinicum. The emperor Theodosius the Great ordered the rebuilding of the synagogue at the expense of the rioters, including the bishop. Ambrose immediately issued a fiery protest to the Emperor.

He writes to Theodosius ("Epistolæ," xl. xvi. 1101 et seq.) that "the glory of God" is concerned in this matter, and that therefore he cannot be silent. "Shall the bishop be compelled to reerect a synagogue? Can he religiously do this thing? If he obey the emperor, he will become a traitor to his faith; if he disobey him, a martyr.

What real wrong is there, after all, in destroying a synagogue, a 'home of perfidy, a home of impiety,' in which Christ is daily blasphemed? Indeed, he must consider himself no less guilty than this poor bishop; at least to the extent that he made no concealment of his wish that all synagogues should be destroyed, that no such places of blasphemy be further allowed to exist."

At the end, he succeeded in obtaining from Theodosius a promise that the sentence should be completely revoked, with the very natural consequence that thereafter the prospect of immunity thus afforded occasioned spoliations of synagogues all over the Empire. That Ambrose could nevertheless occasionally say a good word for the Jews is shown by a passage in his "Enarratio in Psalmos" (i. 41, xiv. 943), in which he remarks, "Some Jews exhibit purity of life and much diligence and love of study."

Imperial relations

The imperial court was displeased with the religious principles of Ambrose, however his aid was soon solicited by the Emperor. When Magnus Maximus usurped the supreme power in Gaul, and was meditating a descent upon Italy, Valentinian sent Ambrose to dissuade him from the undertaking, and the embassy was successful.

A second later embassy was unsuccessful; the enemy entered Italy; and Milan was taken. Justina and her son fled; but Ambrose remained at his post, and did good service to many of the sufferers by causing the plate of the church to be melted for their relief.

In 385 Ambrose, backed by Milan's populace, refused Valentinian II's imperial request to hand over the Portian basilica for the use of Arian troops. In 386 Justina and Valentinian received the Arian bishop Auxentius the younger, and Ambrose was again ordered to hand over a church in Milan for Arian usage. Ambrose and his congregation barricaded themselves inside the church, and the imperial order was rescinded.

Theodosius I, the emperor of the East, espoused the cause of Justina, and regained the kingdom. Theodosius was threatened with excommunication by Ambrose for the massacre of 7,000 persons at Thessalonica in 390, after the murder of the Roman governor there by rioters.

Ambrose told Theodosius to imitate David in his repentance as he had imitated him in guilt — Ambrose readmitted the emperor to the Eucharist only after several months of penance. This incident shows the strong position of a bishop in the Western part of the empire, even when facing a strong emperor — the controversy of John Chrysostom with a much weaker emperor a few years later in Constantinople led to a crushing defeat of the bishop.
In 392, after the death of Valentinian II and the acclamation of Eugenius, Ambrose supplicated the emperor for the pardon of those who had supported Eugenius after Theodosius was eventually victorious.

Persecution of Paganism

Under Ambrose's major influence, emperors Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I carried on a persecution of Paganism. Under Ambrose's influence, Theodosius issued the 391 "Theodosian decrees," which with increasing intensity outlawed Pagan practises, and the Altar of Victory was removed by Gratian. Ambrose prevailed upon Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius to reject requests to restore the Altar.

Death and legacy

Soon after acquiring the undisputed possession of the Roman empire, Theodosius died at Milan in 395, and two years later (April 4, 397) Ambrose also died. He was succeeded as bishop of Milan by Simplician. Ambrose's body may still be viewed in the church of S. Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated — along with the bodies identified in his time as being those of Sts. Gervase and Protase — and is one of the oldest extant bodies of historical personages known outside Egypt.



  1. "Ambrose of Milan" Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (with minor edits), under GFDL.