07 December, 2009

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


Ambrose and Valentinian II

Gratian died in 383 at the hand of murderers[1] leaving this brother Valentinian II to rule the West at twelve years of age. The young boy’s proclamation as sole Emperor was not accepted by everyone. Indeed, in Gaul the commander of the Army Magnus Maximus proclaimed himself Emperor supported by the troops. The Western dominion came suddenly at an impasse. In Milan, Valentinian II was left without the full support of his soldiers, whilst from Gaul, the usurper threatened to invade Italy.


i) Embassies to Magnus Maximus

The Court had to send an embassy to Maximus and Ambrose was chosen for this role. Ambrose’s task was delicate; Maximus appeared to be a strong supporter of the Church but his reasons could have been questionable. In a letter to the Emperor in 386, in which he wrote mainly of his first embassy in Gaul, he reported a confrontation between him and Maximus[2]. Although Ambrose found common ground in matters of faith with the usurper, he had a difficult time upholding Valentinian’s position. The final outcome of his embassy is uncertain but it gave the Emperor time to reorganise his troops and garrisons on the Alps.


ii) The Altar of Victory

After few months from the death of Gratian the question about the Altar of Victory was reopened by the Senate and a new delegation departed from Rome. Ambrose’s response to Symmachus’ new initiative was extraordinary. He sent two letters to Valentinian II reminding him that ‘A Christian Emperor has to learn to honour no one but Christ[3].

Ambrose’s letters are a prime example of his religious ideals and political strategies. The first letter can be seen as an appeal to Valentinian II’s conscience through dramatised addresses of Gratian and their father[4]. Moreover, Ambrose tells the young boy that if he yields to Symmachus requests no bishop will welcome him in his church: ‘The Church does not want your gifts, because with your gifts you have adorned temples of the pagans[5]. These were very strong arguments even though they were blended with polite rhetoric and expression of affection.

In the second epistle, Ambrose refuted Symmachus’ Relatio III systematically deconstructing his work. Symmachus appeal is still regarded by scholars as an outstanding piece about freedom of religious creed; in fact, it convinced some Christian courtiers too. However, the request of restoring the Altar of Victory fell on deaf ears for a second time although Valentinian II ordered all the building materials taken from temples to be restored[6].

Both events – the embassy and the controversy about the Altar of Victory – are mentioned in De Obitu Valentiniani[7].


iii) Persecution and the conflict with Justina

Ambrose success in Gaul and against Symmachus gained him further support. Yet, the presence of some Homoian loyalist in Milan brought about a period of serious difficulties for the episcopate. Between the summer of 385 and Easter of the following year the ‘Arians’ tried to depose Ambrose. Empress Justina seemed to be the only hope for the Homoian minority[8]. Moreover, Ambrose found difficulties among the clergy as well. His most fierce rivals had been exiled after the Council of Aquileia, but a new threat was posed to the bishop by Auxentius of Dorostorum who established himself in Milan as leader of the Arians.

Ambrose’s account of his ‘persecution’ is remarkably different to the ones of both modern and ancient historiographers. Ambrose’s version is centred on the handing over of two basilicas to the Arian, whilst Augustine and Socrates for example, do not mention this particular incident[9].

The conflict started in the spring of 385 when the Court required Ambrose to hand over a church situated outside the walls – probably the Basilica Portiana – for Arian worship. The bishop’s refusal was categorical and it sparked strong reactions. Indeed, Ambrose became increasingly pressured to leave the city: voluntarily or under duress. Both Sozomen[10] and Augustine[11] refer to the scheme to kidnap Ambrose who in his letter to Valentinian II describes the basilica surrounded by the Imperial guards as he holds services[12].

The relationship between Court and Episcopate quickly deteriorated at the beginning of 386 when Justina made Arian worship lawful once again and that ‘All who conformed to the doctrines set forth at Ariminum [...] were exhorted to convene boldly[13]’. This was an audacious move of the Empress; in the East all Arian worship had been recently outlawed and in Gaul, Magnus Maximus was prepared to use his Nicene faith as an excuse for crossing the Alps. It is uncertain what role the young Emperor played in these months though McLynn suggests that he wasn’t a mere spectator of the dispute[14]. According to Sozomen, Valentinian was ‘determined to avenge the supposed wrongs of his mother[15]’ whilst in the words of Ambrose, Justina was a ‘Jezebel’ or ‘Herodias’[16]. However, by order of the Emperor, Ambrose was summoned to defend his cause against Auxentius. A negative judgment would have probably meant exile or further threats to him and the Church; therefore the leader refused to attend the dispute. Yet, Ambrose did not shrink from the debate and composed a sermon – Contra Auxentium – which he delivered in the Basilica Nova.

Ambrose’s attitude towards his Church never changed throughout the conflict. There is a strong sense of his acceptance of God’s will in his letters and sermons; however he seemed to be expecting martyrdom any day[17] at the hand of soldiers or Homoian loyalists. Even though the religious beliefs of Justina were in contrast with most of the Empire, she was determined to see Arians free to worship in the Capital as well as Ambrose removed from his See. In this tense climate a second request came from the Palace: the bishop had to surrender the Basilica Portiana and the Basilica Nova[18].

Ambrose was not alone in his struggle but like the previous year the reaction of his Church was impressive. The people of Milan crowded one and then both churches, preventing the Army from taking over the place and from harming their bishop. The volatile situation could have easily degenerated in a bloodbath and for over two weeks the city was involved in the wrestle between Justina and Ambrose. Even Augustine reported the events asserting that his mother was among the faithful keeping watch in one of the basilicas[19].

Ambrose’s letters and Paulinus’ Vita Ambrosii are the only primary sources to describe the basilicas’ incident. Socrates, Sozomen and Augustine only report about the tense situation in Milan and about vigils held in the churches in support of the bishop. Theodoret, on the other hand, mentions how Ambrose was ‘not to betray God’s temple to the blasphemers’[20].

The support Ambrose’s received from his people in Milan was decisive in his victory against Justina. These individuals risked their lives and were subjected to heavy fines in order to preserve their Creed and their places of worship[21]. Yet, the political weight of a pro-Nicene Emperor in the East must not be underestimated. Theodosius had outlawed Arian worship in his dominion and he was a strong supporter of the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. This Council, gathered just before Aquileia, had wiped out the creeds of Ariminum and Constantinople 360. The Milanese Court was the last beacon of hope for the Arian cause in the West, but its co-religionists were rapidly diminishing or in hiding. Liebeschutez argues that the Basilica Portiana was required by the Imperial Court for a regular, public display of the establishment’s piousness – this could be justified by the putting up of Imperial hangings[22] –, however this kind of use would have not justified a complete take-over of the church[23]. Perhaps this is the reason why historiographers of the time did not mention the incident although it would have seemed of enormous gravity for the bishop of Milan and his congregation. In their mind there would have been no distinction between handing over the sacred spaces for a number of days or ad infinitum. In his letter to his sister Ambrose reports alleged words to Valentinian’s officials: ‘Emperor, it is not lawful for me to surrender the Basilica, nor it is right for you to receive it[24].



[1] Socrates Scholasticus, EH 5.XI, (NPNF, 1997) 124
[2] Ambrose, Epistula 30.III-VI, Liebeschutez (2005), 356
[3] Ambrose, Epistula 73.X, ibid. 83
[4] Ambrose, Epistula 72.XV-XVI, ibid. 76
[5] Ambrose, Epistula 72.XIV, ibid. 75
[6] Paredi (1964), 228
[7] Ambrose, De Obitu Valentiniani XIX-XX, Liebeschutez (2005), 373
[8] Davidson, op. cit., 1190
[9] Socrates Scholasticus, EH 5.XI ,(NPNF, 1997) 124
[10] Sozomen, EH 7.XIII, (NPNF, 1997) 383-384
[11] Augustine, Confessions 9.VII, Bigg (1899), 311
[12] Ambrose, Epistula 75a.IV, Liebeschutez (2005), 144
[13] Sozomen, EH 7.XII, (NPNF, 1997) 382-383
[14] McLynn (1994), 172
[15] Sozomen, EH 7.XIII, (NPNF, 1997) 383-384
[16] Ambrose, Epistula 76.XVIII, Liebeschutez (2005), 168
[17] Ambrose, Epistula 75.XVI, ibid. 140-141
[18] Davidson, op. cit., 1190
[19] Augustine, Confessions 9.VII, Bigg (1899), 311
[20] Theodoret, EH 5.XIII, (NPNF, 1989) 141
[21] Ambrose, Epistula 76.VI, Liebeschutez (2005) 163
[22] Ambrose, Epistula 76.IV, Liebeschutez (2005), 162
[23] Liebeschutez (2005), 130
[24] Ambrose, Epistula 76.XIX, Liebeschutez (2005), 168

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