Ambrose, bishop of Milan between 374 and 397, is perhaps the most fascinating example of how a bishop survived in the tricky and unsettled political climate of the late fourth century. His success meant that he is seen as one of the cornerstone figures of late-fourth-century Christianity, elevated together with his contemporaries Augustine and Jerome as one of the “Doctors of the Church.” Much is known about him: his own words have come down to us in his carefully crafted letters, and an outline of his career survives in a panegyrical account of his life by Paulinus, his secretary, a “life” that has been memorably described as like “a tour of a grand cathedral conducted by a well-informed and helpful but rather overawed guide.” 1 It presents Ambrose as a confident church leader, always able to control events. Recent research, however, is probing below the surface of this presentation, suggesting that behind the facade of imperturbability was a much less secure man, one whose career was characterized by “hectic improvisation.”2

Milan was the linchpin of the western empire, well placed on the road network, its seventh city according to one ranking of 385. It was secure enough to serve as a court of the emperors but close enough to the northern borders to provide a base from which to launch campaigns against the barbarians. Understandably, it was a major priority of the emperors to maintain the city in good order. From 355 the bishop of Milan had been one Auxentius, a Homoean who had enjoyed the support of Constantius and Valentinian. On his death in 374, the peace of the city was threatened by unrest between the Homoeans and supporters of the Nicene Creed, and Ambrose, the local provincial governor, was summoned to keep order. To his surprise, he found himself acclaimed by the crowd and then accepted by the emperor Valentinian as the new bishop. He was not even a baptized Christian at the time, but within a week he had been baptized and installed. His sudden elevation is an example of just how far political needs, above all the need to keep good order, now predominated in church appointments.

Ambrose was at ease with the exercise of authority. He was the son of a praetorian prefect and had all the skills of the best of his class. To the outside world he maintained the impassive and impenetrable demeanour of a man born to dominate, and it was in vain that his most famous convert, Augustine, struggled to see behind the facade: “What hopes he nourished, what struggles he endured against the temptations that his very excellence brought or what solace he found in adversity, and what joys he felt upon the inner fact that were kept hidden in his heart when he tasted your [God’s] bread: these I could neither guess nor discover.”3 He was highly able, an effective orator with impressive administrative skills and a flair for manipulating situations to his political advantage. He was not, however (again like most of the class he came from), an original thinker, and although he knew Greek, he never fully penetrated the intricacies of the theologies he now diligently set to absorbing. His most famous pastoral work, On the Duties of Ministers, was largely a reworking from a Christian perspective of Cicero’s On Duties, and when he began plagiarizing Greek works he earned himself a stern rebuke from the scholarly Jerome for “decking himself out like an ugly crow with someone else’s plumes.”4 Something of his natural austerity might be grasped from his preoccupation with virginity—he was one of the first theologians to preach the perpetual virginity of Mary, and he classified Christians according to their degree of sexual purity. His own chastity inspired others, notably Augustine, to make it a badge of Christian faith. Yet in his first years as bishop he seems to have achieved what Valentinian had hoped, good order between the rival Christian communities. Probably as a result of the close links he kept with Christians in Rome (Ambrose was known to see Damasus, bishop of Rome 366–84, as a father figure), he came to believe in the common divinity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and he emerged as a fervent support of the Nicene Creed.

After the catastrophic defeat of Valens in Thrace, the young co-emperor Valentinian and his mother, Justina, fled to Milan from Pannonia. The powerful Justina was a committed Homoean, and she demanded from the emperor Gratian, her stepson, a basilica in Milan to be the preserve of the Homoeans. Gratian, who was still only twenty, with no firm religious views of his own and somewhat out of his depth in the political turmoil of the time, assented. The basilica granted to the Homoeans was probably the Basilica Portiana, later known as San Lorenzo, just outside the city walls. Its closeness to the palace suggests it may have been built in the reign of Constantius specifically as a Homoean church, with an attached mausoleum for the bodies of emperors.5 Ambrose found himself assailed by a Homoean community that not only was growing in confidence but also was swelled by refugees to the city. Doubtless complaints reached Gratian about Ambrose (Ambrose was charged with melting down plate donated to the churches by Homoeans, although Ambrose claimed that this was only to use the gold to ransom captives of the barbarians), and he finally asked Ambrose to give an account of his faith.

The result was the first two books of Ambrose’s defence of the Nicene Creed, De Fide.6 De Fide does little to develop the Nicene debate, simply adopting the belief, common in the west, that God, the Son and the Holy Spirit share a common divinity. Much of the work is a polemical attack on a range of beliefs which Ambrose brings together under the umbrella of Arianism. His method is to take a condemned figure or term and associate his opponents with it. This led to the creation of absurd alliances. So the Homoeans, who stressed the “likeness” of Father and Son, were grouped with those, closer to the original tradition of Arius, who stressed the unlikeness of the two. In sweeping condemnations reflecting Ambrose’s background as a politician, the Homoeans were dubbed as enemies of the state, and Ambrose even claimed that God had sent the Goths as invaders of the empire as vengeance for its heresies. This was emotive stuff and aroused such great opposition from the Homoean community and in particular from Palladius, bishop of Ratiaria, the most sophisticated of the Homoeans, that Ambrose was impelled to expand his views in three more books of De Fide.

Whatever opposition De Fide aroused among the Homoeans, it impressed the uncertain Gratian, who seems to have been drawn to Ambrose as a father figure. In 380 or 381 Gratian moved his own court to Milan and announced that he himself would hold a council of bishops, from both east and west, which would meet at Aquileia, at the head of the Adriatic, in September 381. He was upstaged by Theodosius’ own council of pro-Nicene bishops in Constantinople (the council described earlier), with the result that most of the bishops who attended at Aquileia were from northern Italy and were loyal adherents of Ambrose. Ambrose was an energetic networker and devoted a great deal of time to maintaining good relationships with his fellow bishops of northern Italy. Palladius arrived to defend the Homoean cause, to find to his horror that Ambrose had converted the “council” into a tribunal held in a side room to the basilica at Aquileia, with Ambrose installed on a special chair alongside the presiding pro-Nicene bishop. (The basilica has long since disappeared, but its magnificent fourth-century mosiac floor was rediscovered in the last century.) Palladius’ account of the proceedings survives and, even if biased in the writer’s cause, shows how Ambrose bullied his way through the proceedings by trying to associate Palladius with documents written by Arius that Palladius had neither seen nor was allowed to see. Ambrose also exerted his influence by insisting that every word be copied down by stenographers, a move which frightened Palladius, who knew the transcripts could be later used against him.7 The end result of the “council” was not a creed but, predictably, a carefully stage-managed condemnation of the Homoean bishops. Ambrose’s ascendancy over Gratian is suggested by the return, at about this time, of the Basilica Portiana to the Nicenes. 8

Ambrose was not the only influence on the impressionable Gratian—there were other Christians in his court, many of them with links to Rome. When a group of senators travelled up from Rome with the traditional robes of the pontifex maximus, Gratian refused to accept them, the first emperor to make such a decisive break with the pagan world. (Ironically, the popes were later—in the fifteenth century—to adopt the title pontifex maximus as one of their own.) He also ended state subsidies to pagan ceremonies and ordered the Altar of Victory, on which sacrifices were made at the beginning of Senate meetings, to be removed from the Senate house in Rome. This was a much-resented intrusion and immediately a delegation of senators set out from Rome to protest. It was Ambrose, up to now apart from the debate, who persuaded Gratian that the senators should not be received.

Gratian never developed the toughness and tenacity needed to survive as emperor. In 383 he headed north at the head of his troops to confront German invaders, but his leadership was so unconfident that his men rose against him and executed him. Valentinian II, still in Milan, was now senior Augustus, but into the power vacuum in the north moved one Magnus Maximus, commander of the British legions, who had himself been acclaimed Augustus by his troops in the spring. Maximus hoped to lure the young Valentinian to Trier, where they could live, in Maximus’ words, as “father and son.” Ambrose knew how important it was to keep the young and malleable emperor in his own city, and he travelled himself to Trier to persuade Maximus, successfully, to defer the plan until winter had passed.

Next a new struggle broke out over the Basilica Portiana. While Gratian might have been able to stand up to Justina, her own son could not. Justina persuaded Valentinian to proclaim freedom of worship for those who were Homoeans and then attempted to reclaim the basilica for them. The first attempt to seize it, in 385, failed; in the second, the following year, imperial troops were sent to enforce Justina’s demand and take over the more central Basilica Nova, then the cathedral as well. Ambrose was determined not to give in. He filled the Basilica Nova with his supporters and enthused them with passionate oratory.9 The psalms were exploited for themes of persecution and a round of continuous hymn singing sustained morale. Historians of music note that the tense stand-off provides the first recorded instance in the west of a divided choir singing antiphonal hymns. The court was wise enough not to escalate the confrontation into violence, especially as its members became aware that Maximus, a staunch pro-Nicene who had possibly been alerted to the crisis by Ambrose himself, was considering taking the opportunity to enter Italy and depose Valentinian.10 The troops were withdrawn, but it was a humiliating climb-down for the court.

Ambrose may have appeared to have won a victory, but he remained vulnerable to Valentinian’s legislation, which allowed the execution of anyone interfering with Homoean worship. (It is important to remember that Theodosius’ imposition of Nicene orthodoxy applied only in the east.) He needed a major propaganda coup to deflate the court’s ambitions. Like most of the grander bishops of his day, Ambrose was an enthusiastic builder responsible for a number of large churches in Milan, among them the Basilica Ambrosiana, destined to be the city’s new cathedral, outside the city walls, where he himself planned to be buried under the altar. His pretensions were criticized—the bones of martyrs, or Apostles if they could be found, were more appropriate founding relics for a church than those of the builder—although Constantine had set a precedent in Constantinople that some felt Ambrose was following. Ambrose took the point and went on the search for relics. Sometime after Easter of 386, Ambrose, as he tells the story in a letter to his sister,11 had a presentiment that he knew where two local martyrs, Protasius and Gervasius, were buried. Sure enough, when the earth in the chosen spot was scraped away, two complete bodies were found. Their excellent preservation after perhaps some hundred years underground (there was even blood around their severed heads, Ambrose reported to his sister) might have cast doubt on the identification, but Ambrose hurriedly announced that this was the evidence that they were indeed the martyrs, miraculously preserved by God. As the bodies were carried off towards the Basilica Ambrosiana, the crowds surged round to touch them, and miracles were proclaimed, including the restoration of sight to a blind man who had wiped his sightless eyes with a handkerchief he had rubbed on the bones. Ambrose announced that this in itself proved that God supported the Nicene cause, and, in the mass hysteria of the moment, few disagreed.

Valentinian and Justina had been brilliantly out-manoeuvred, and in the volatile world of imperial politics it proved a massive blow to their credibility. Maximus, always alert to the weakness of the boy emperor, made his move in the summer of 387. He invaded Italy, and Valentinian and Justina had no alternative but to flee eastwards to Thessalonika and appeal to Theodosius for protection. Maximus arrived in Milan and appears to have attended Ambrose’s services, although we have no other record of their relationship. However, Theodosius agreed to take revenge on Valentinian’s behalf, and in 388 he himself marched into Italy, forced the surrender of Maximus at Aquileia and had him executed. Valentinian was restored as Augustus in the west and then set off to Gaul to regain the allegiance of his subjects there, while Theodosius remained in Milan.

Theodosius was the fifth emperor that Ambrose had served under and the first who was unequivocally supportive of the Nicene cause. (He soon repealed the Homoean laws of Valentinian, with the result that Nicene orthodoxy was now enforced across the whole empire.) However, it was difficult to find a context in which a relationship could be forged as, despite Ambrose’s power and experience, the social and political gulf between a bishop and an emperor remained immense. Their first known encounter ended in mutual embarrassment. Theodosius attended mass in the Basilica Ambrosiana, now the city cathedral, and at the moment of communion he came up with the presbyters, as would have been expected for an emperor in the eastern church, but appears to have been rebuffed by Ambrose, who requested he come up with the ordinary faithful. Doubtless it was simply a misunderstanding, but it undermined Ambrose’s chances of gaining a hold on the emperor, who, now nearly ten years in power, was a much more confident and inaccessible figure than his immediate predecessors.12 Ambrose needed a cause that would enable him to develop a relationship with Theodosius. Predictably, he soon created one. In 388 a Christian mob, led by their own bishop, had destroyed a synagogue in Callinicum, a remote town on the Euphrates. Theodosius, who knew the importance of maintaining order on the borders and subjecting all equally to the laws, ordered the local governor to punish the criminals and compensate the victims. (Compare the edict from the Theodosian Code quoted earlier, p. 212.) Ambrose raised the issue directly in a letter to the emperor. Surely a Christian could not be responsible for re-creating a house “where Christ was denied”? And what if the bishop refused as a matter of conscience? Was Theodosius to make a martyr of him? Even more chillingly for the modern reader, Ambrose said that he himself would be happy to take responsibility for the burning: “I declare that I burned down the synagogue; at least that I gave the orders that there would be no building in which Christ was denied.”13 It is hard to know what was going on here. Ambrose shared with the Christians of his day an antipathy to Jews, and the destruction of a synagogue in itself clearly meant little to him. He was surely using the incident as a means of getting attention, and in his letter to Theodosius he elaborated what was perhaps the real issue, that the emperor should privilege Christians by actively supporting them against their enemies. When Theodosius next attended mass, Ambrose preached a sermon on the same theme. It was the duty of a Christian emperor to show solidarity with his fellow Christians. Theodosius then, in Ambrose’s version of the encounter, appeared to capitulate over Callinicum and cancelled all his orders to the provincial governor.

In his influential study of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, Verus Israel, Marcus Simon sees the Callinicum affair as marking a new departure, the moment when “the protection that the empire had granted to the persons and property of the Jews was relaxed.” 14 Simon suggests that after Ambrose’s “success” in Callinicum, references to Jews in imperial legislation become increasingly vituperative and the laws more discriminatory. That the climate of hostility towards Jews increased in these years is not in doubt, although other bishops were more openly vindictive towards the Jews than Ambrose was. (St. John Chrysostom and Jerome were profoundly anti-Jewish, with John Chrysostom at one point referring to the synagogue as a “dwelling place for demons . . . a hideout for thieves . . . a den of wild animals.”) However, Simon may have drawn too readily on Ambrose’s own triumphant account of the incident. It is known that when Ambrose prepared his letters for publication he added an extra paragraph to his original letter to the emperor to suggest that his victory over Theodosius was more resounding than it probably was. 15 In fact, Theodosius seems to have been unimpressed by Ambrose’s manoeuvres. There is evidence that Ambrose was banned from the court, 16 and, far from being more openly Christian, Theodosius soon headed to Rome, where he vigorously courted the pagan senatorial aristocracy, whose political support he considered vital.

Up to this moment Theodosius had shown himself moderate and competent in his government (his response to anti-imperial riots in Antioch in 387 was comparatively restrained), but in 390 his reputation received a humiliating blow. Rioting in Thessalonika had resulted in the death of the garrison commander, one Butheric. Theodosius, far away in Milan, ordered retaliation, and the accounts suggest his temper got the best of him and he requested no quarter be given; thousands apparently died in the ensuing massacre. Surviving accounts may be oversimplified—the emperor’s orders may not have been as harsh as was later reported, or the local troops may have been particularly ill disciplined— but Theodosius could not escape the ultimate responsibility for what was a public relations disaster. What happened next is difficult to unravel. Theodosius was clearly searching for some means of restoring his position, and he seems to have taken advantage of Ambrose’s expressed horror at the incident (the bishop intimated that he could no longer give the emperor communion). In any event, Theodosius stage-managed a ceremony in the Basilica Ambrosiana, the largest public building in Milan, at which he asked for penance. Who was using whom is not easily established. In all the surviving historical accounts the massacre and Theodosius’ penance are associated, suggesting that contemporaries saw the emperor as successfully redeeming himself. In other words, Theodosius extricated himself skillfully from a difficult situation. Ambrose, however, presented a completely different slant on the matter. Here was the emperor, deep in sin, coming to church to be purged of it— effectively an emperor was accepting the supremacy of the church over state matters.

In the long run it was Ambrose’s interpretation (deepened as it was by medieval interpretations, possibly distorted, of Augustine’s magisterial City of God and works such as Thomas Aquinas’ On Kingship) that triumphed. While imperial rule in the west was to collapse in less than a hundred years, the church survived, and the event became part of its collective memory and the cornerstone of the Roman Catholic view of the Church-state relationship. When Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the emperor Henry IV in the 1070s, it was Ambrose’s action against Theodosius that he called on to enforce his ultimate supremacy (successfully in that Henry came to seek penance). Ambrose’s earlier ambition, to persuade the emperor to adopt a policy of direct support for Christianity against paganism, also met with success. Within a few weeks of his public penance, Theodosius had passed laws that in effect banned all expressions of cult worship at pagan shrines. Encouraged by the initiative, Christian mobs now began destroying the great shrines of the ancient world. Nearly twelve hundred years after their inauguration, the Olympic Games were held for the last time in 395.

In 392 Valentinian was found dead at Vienne in Gaul. One Eugenius declared himself Augustus, but his legitimacy was challenged by Theodosius, who declared his own son Honorius as his co-Augustus and successor in the western empire. Eugenius was defeated in September 394 at the battle of the river Frigidus. After his victory, Theodosius returned to Milan. However, at the games held to celebrate his arrival, he fell ill, and on January 17, 395, he died. In a masterly funeral oration, Theodosius was woven by Ambrose into the fabric of the Church and installed in glory in heaven:

Relieved therefore of the doubt of conflicts, Theodosius of worshipful memory now enjoys everlasting light and eternal tranquillity, and for the deeds which he performed in this body, he is recompensed with fruits of divine reward. And it is because Theodosius of worshipful memory loved the Lord his God, that he deserved the company of saints.17

Maximus and Eugenius, Ambrose assured his listeners, had gone to hell. Ambrose then transferred the faith of Theodosius to his sons—Honorius, now emperor in the western provinces, and Arcadius, who was to rule in the Greek east. Not only Theodosius but the dynasty had been claimed for the church and Christ.

Ambrose died just two years later, at Easter 397. (He was indeed buried in his great basilica, near to Protasius and Gervasius, the first bishop known to have been buried in a church he had himself built.) His survival within the tangled political situation of late imperial politics was remarkable. His career may have been one of “hectic improvisation,” but he proved astonishingly versatile in the range of tools he used. Whether composing letters to the emperor, using a small gathering to impose his views (Aquileia) or playing a crowd with the use of rhetoric, song and opportunely discovered martyrs’ bodies, he knew how to create the effects he wanted. He did not always succeed—the Callinicum affair was almost certainly a failure—but he survived in office; by the end of his life the church, in the west if not in the east, had created a role for itself in state affairs from which it could not be easily dislodged.

This was not his only significance. Ambrose may not have been an intellectual, but he was determined to bring the ideology of Christianity into social and political life. He presented the orthodox (Nicene) church as battling against a world corrupted by paganism and heresies. It alone was the guardian of the great mysteries of God to which all, even emperors, were admitted on an equal basis. Ambrose was committed to imposing the dominance of the church on secular society, and he hammered home his message week by week through his powerfully delivered sermons. This was the redirection of rhetoric in the service of the church. Ivor Davidson writes:

What mattered in the end was that Ambrose’s intellectual showmanship worked for those he needed to sway most—the movers and shakers of his own city, and their social peers within a wider Italian radius (embracing Rome itself) who needed to be either convinced or reminded that the philosophy of the saeculum [the community outside the church] had been vanquished by a definitive revealed truth.18

It was the combination of this spiritual message with the use of personal authority and passionate rhetoric that made Ambrose so formidable and ensured his place among the founding figures of the Roman Catholic Church.

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