07 December, 2009

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



Ambrose and Gratian

Not long after Ambrose’s consecration, Valentinian I died leaving the Western Empire with two young sons claiming the purple. The eldest son was Gratian who, pressured by a section of the army, appointed his half-brother as his ‘junior’[1]. The Empire was shaken dramatically at the battle of Adrianople in 378 where Valens, the Eastern Emperor, died. It was probably at this time that Gratian and Ambrose met for the first time.

AD 378 was a testing year for Ambrose due to a tense political situation in the Capital and to the loss of his beloved brother. Satyrus had given up his career and worked on behalf his brother in managing the family properties Ambrose had donated to the Milanese church at his election.

After his brother was buried, Ambrose participated in a synod in Rome and bishop Damasus sent him as an envoy to the Imperial Court residing in Sirmium[2]. This was not the first time Ambrose had been in the Balkan city since his election. The previous year he participated in a council of the Illyricum province and consecrated a Nicene bishop to lead the church of the city[3]. It is not certain why Ambrose travelled so far outside his jurisdiction to consecrate a bishop, but it is clear that his move demonstrated how powerful and respected the Milanese See was becoming. During that visit many of the Homoians of Illyricum protested against his presence there; amongst them was probably Justina, mother of Valentinian II.


i) De Fide

During one of these two visits Gratian asked Ambrose to compile an exposition of the faith. Gratian ‘lacked of theological training[4]’. An apologetic work about the faith would have helped the devout Ruler to understand the religious situation of his time. It can be safely assumed from the letters exchanged between Ambrose and the Emperor that Gratian ‘encouraged’ the bishop to write a treatise about the faith. This assumption is confirmed by Liebeschuetz[5]. However, it is remarkable that Ambrose of Milan – not Damasus of Rome! – was asked to compose a theological work.

The first two books of De Fide were only completed around 380 and were presented to the Emperor on his return to Milan. Ambrose finally took a firm stand against the ‘Arians’ although he refused to make a proper distinction between Homoians and other types of Arian creeds. De Fide turned in to being a firm disputation of the heresy, not an apologetic composition about the Nicene faith. It can be supposed that Ambrose’s efforts positively impressed the Emperor who tried to silence the Homoians and promulgated an edict prohibiting Arian worship[6]. Ambrose himself highly regarded his relationship with the Emperor and in his letters he wrote apologetic words for the works and theological thoughts of Gratian whom he warmly remembered even in De Obitu Valentiniani[7].


ii) The Council of Aquileia

Gratian was probably inspired by his bishop when he called a General Council in Aquileia. However, Theodosius I summoned a similar gathering in his Capital in the East rendering Gratian’s plans practically redundant. Ambrose didn’t take part at the Council of Constantinople in 381 like almost all Western bishops. The Council however, gained recognition throughout the Church and the Emperor enforced its decisions outlawing Arian worship of every kind. The consequences of the Ecumenical Council must have been great in the Western Empire as well. It is difficult to understand how successful Gratian’s edict of 380 had been, but certainly those loyal to the creeds of Ariminum 359 and Constantinople 360 found themselves increasingly marginalised or driven underground.

The synod in Aquileia met under the guidance of Ambrose but at a ‘reduced scale’ compared to what Gratian had in mind. The bishop had overwhelming support and deposed the bishops of Ratiaria and Singidunum. Ambrose wrote to both Emperors asking them to enforce the decisions of Aquileia and in yielding to his requests they also removed one of Ambrose’s stronger opponents in Milan, Iulianus Valens[8]. Ambrose’s position in Milan had been precarious since his election; the Homoian minority was fiercely opposed to the bishop, probably even more since the arrival of Valentinian II in the city. After Aquileia however, the bishop enjoyed more stability in his ministry although Gratian’s edict and the reaffirmed Nicene Creed of 381 were not enough to guarantee unity amongst the Christians in the Capital.


iii) The Altar of Victory

Some historians debate about the influence of Ambrose’s letters and writings to the Emperor in what probably was the biggest political stand Gratian made in favour of Christianity. In 382 he gave order to remove the Altar and the Statue of Victory from the Senate House. The Senators had already restored the altar once – under Julian – and might have expected a similar move from and increasingly Christianised State. However, Gratian’s reform did not stop at the Curia but he withdrew State funding for pagan priests and Vestal Virgins also. All property which generated income was confiscated and devolved to secular use[9] – e.g. to the Arca Frumentaria. Gratian also renounced to the Imperial robes of Pontifex Maximus, de facto abolishing the role.

The Senate’s reaction was of indignation. Symmachus, head of the House, arranged for envois to the Emperor. The delegation came to Milan with a petition from the majority of the senators in order to convince Gratian to repeal his ordinance. Unfortunately for the senator, Ambrose received a counter-petition from Damasus and the Christian senators. The bishop presented his plea to Court before the arrival of Symmachus to which was not even granted an audience with the Sovereign. It is worth noting that Leadbetter does not give any credit to Ambrose about Gratian’s anti-pagan measures[10]. This position is partially supported by McLynn[11] but strongly opposed by Paredi[12] who states that Gratian was ‘under obvious influence’. The Church started to clearly influence the West to a level never experienced before and Ambrose was responsible for this. Gratian came from a dynasty where religious neutrality or heterodoxy was the norm, but he decided to break with this tradition. It is difficult to envisage this change of heart in the Emperor due to his pagan courtiers. Ambrose’s pastoral ministry, his political awareness and his writings impressed the young Ruler who relied on his advice in matters of faith.



[1] Leadbetter, ‘From Constantine to Theodosius (and Beyond)’, in Esler (2000), 279
[2] Liebeschutez (2005), 11
[3] Davidson, op. cit., 1186
[4] ibid.
[5] Liebeschutez (2005), 272
[6] Leadbetter, op. cit., 281
[7] Ambrose, De Obitu Valentiniani LXXIXb, Liebeschutez (2005) 398
[8] Davidson, op. cit., 1188
[9]Liebeschutez (2005), 61
[10] Leadbetter, op. cit., 280
[11] McLynn (1994), 151-152
[12]Paredi (1964), 203

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