07 December, 2009

Ambrose of Milan: his writings and his influence on the Empire (pars i)

This paper was produced to the Examination Schools in May. I am not 100% pleased with the style and the structure though. Comments and suggestions would be most appreciated. I know for a fact that the conclusion is not very strong, but the bulk of the work is the fruit of solid research and good many hours in the library. Let me apologise in advance about the footnotes. i still don’t know how to deal with them on Blogger.com!!

Also, the publication by Liebeschutez (2005) is an excellent piece of scholarship and I do recommend it if you want to geek out... Liverpool University is producing really good historical books at the moment.

Church and State in the career and writings of Ambrose of Milan


The Fourth century was a time a deep political and religious turmoil. This century witnessed the terminal decline of the traditional, pagan religion that had been cherished for centuries. Since Constantine, political and religious hierarchies grew closer together – with the exception of Julian’s reign. The Emperors found themselves in a position of supremacy over bishops and still-forming Church bureaucracy; this status allowed them to summon synods and General Councils as well as giving them de facto power of veto over Episcopal appointments.The Senate – entrusted with symbolic power rather than real political weight – was still in Rome. The Imperial Court seldom visited the ancient Capital and it officially resided in Milan, which had been proclaimed the new Capital some sixty years before the birth of Ambrose.

Ambrose’s father, Aurelius Ambrosius, was the praetorian prefect of Gaul. Not much is known about the social status of Ambrose’s family[1] but it can be assumed, as indeed Liebeschuetz does, that Ambrose Aurelius was a ‘self made man[2] who had risen to senatorial status under Constantine II. Yet, scholars like von Campenhausen, who point towards the possibility of Ambrose as a descendant of the ancient Roman line of the Aurelians[3]. However, it seems clear from Paulimus’ accounts that Ambrose’s education involved a thorough knowledge of rhetoric, classics and Greek. This type of education was available to the Roman aristocracy but it was becoming altogether quite uncommon for the rest of the West[4]. In the light of Ambrose correspondence with Easter bishops and his use of the Septuagint it can be safely assumed that his knowledge of Greek was higher than his contemporary standards. Good knowledge of the language permitted Ambrose to bridge the gap between the East and West, at least in terms of the theological debate. He participated to the dispute against Apollinarius and imported the works of Eastern theologian in the West – e.g. Basil of Cesarea.

Ambrose’ family was a committed Christian family which enlisted in its ancestry the virgin Soteris, who Ambrose refers to in De Virginitate[5]. Perhaps following in the steps of Soteris, Ambrose’s sister consecrated herself to a celibate life and receiving the veil in Rome from bishop Liberius.

Ambrose’s early career and arrival to Milan

Ambrose and his brother Satyrus, both embarked upon careers in the Civil Service. They were soon employed in the central court of Sirmium under the patronage of Petronius Probus towards the end of the 360s. Probus had responsibilities for the appointment of provincial governors and it is possible that he procured Ambrose a post in Northern Italy, in the province of Aemilia and Liguria. After his nomination Ambrose moved to Milan, when he was only in his early thirties[6]. It was here in Milan that Ambrose lived for about four years before his acclamation as bishop of the city.

Auxentius was Ambrose’s predecessor as bishop of Milan; he was native of Cappadocia and received his appointment under the reign of Constantius after the Emperor had deposed the Nicene Dionysius. The bishop was regarded by the Nicene Christians as a heretic, but historians are divided on how much Auxentius’ theological positions influenced his leadership in Milan. Liebeschuetz regards him as a ‘good bishop[7] because of Auxentius efforts in building a new cathedral – the Basilica Nova. However the scholar seems to contradict himself by acknowledging that the Auxentius had been imposed by force[8]. At the time of Ambrose arrival in Milan, Christians were markedly divided between Homoias and Nicene – or Homoousians. Auxentius lead the Milanese church for nineteen years and kept his See even through several attempts to depose him. Notably, in 364 the bishop was cleared from the allegations of heresy made by Hilary of Poitiers[9]. On one hand, the acquittal declared by ten bishops was probably influenced by Valentinian I who appealed to the citizens of the Capital to support their bishop[10]. On the other hand, Auxentius never made specific declarations about the nature of Christ; he limited himself to keep the ‘Nicene loyalists’[11] under strict control. However, rivalry between factions grew through the years of Auxentius episcopacy. The disagreements were heightened at Auxentius’ death in 374 sparking riots and protests around the election of his successor.

Ambrose’s election

The events that took place at Ambrose’s election are not clearly defined in ancient historiography and Ambrose himself never explained what really happened in detail. In writing to Valentinian II, the bishop explained the official reason of his eventual acceptance saying that the Emperor saw in his elevation a possible end to the religious conflicts, and the beginning of a peaceful time for the Milanese Church[12].

As governor, Ambrose had the responsibility of keeping public order in his province and in the Capital. When the two parties where confronting each other in the Basilica Nova, he approached the cathedral with troops trying to mediate an agreement which would have prevented bloodshed and the – sometimes extremely harsh – punishments for rioters. It was after his appeal in the great church – which could contain up to 3000 people – that Paulinus depicts the acclamation of Ambrose as bishop. Paulinus points out that the crowd repeated the cry of a child (vox infantins), acclaiming ‘Ambrose, bishop![13]. It is not known what Ambrose said to the people but he must have appealed to both factions. The training in rhetoric and the skills he gained working at various praetorian courts must have helped him in convincing the people to stop rioting.

Once more, the events which immediately followed the acclamation of the new bishop are not entirely clear. It seems that Ambrose recoiled from the church and submitted himself to the judgment of the Emperor. Theodoret reports the word which Valentinian I had allegedly addressed to Ambrose after he had ‘gladly concur[red] in the appointment’: ‘Go on, as God’s law bids you, healing the errors of our souls[14]. Sozomen narrates a similar account, but without dramatising it and he unmistakably points towards the August approval as decisive for Ambrose to accept his sudden election.

Ambrose came from a Christian background and had worked with committed Christians at the service of Valentinian I but he was just a catechumen. This was certainly remarkable, but it would not have profoundly shocked the Christians of that time. There were other examples of individuals – like Fabian of Rome in 236 or Eusebius of Caesarea in 362 – elevated to episcopacy who were lay or indeed catechumens[15]. Ambrose’s decision to be baptised by the Nicene clergy was indicative of his theological position[16]. However Ambrose never took a specific stand on the Homoian issue until 378, writing De Fide; in fact on becoming bishop, he took over all the clergy of Milan which was for the fast majority ‘Arian’.

According to Paulinus, Probus charged Ambrose with governorship in Aemilia and Liguria and prophesied about him saying:Go, act as a bishop, not as a judge[17].

[1] Ambrose ‘son of a noble family’. Rusch (1977), 47
[2] Liebeschutez (2005), 5
[3] von Campenhausen (1964), 90
[4] Liebeschutez (2005), 6
[5] Liebeschutez (2005), 6
[6] von Campenhausen (1964), 91
[7] Liebeschutez (2005), 9
[8] ibid.
[9] For more detailed exposition of the events involving of Hilary see McLynn (1994), 26-30
[10] Davidson, ‘Ambrose’, in Esler (2000), 1178
[11] Liebeschutez (2005), 9
[12] Paredi (1964), 123
[13] ibid. 119
[14] Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 4.VI, (NPNF, 1989) 110
[15] Paredi (1964), 119
[16] Homes Dudden (1935), 68
[17] McLynn (1994), 43

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