A Few Thoughts on Ambrose of Milan

07 Jan

When I say I think this Medieval History stuff is fun (I say this quite often along with other technical terms like cool and neat) I kind of wonder if people understand what that means to me. For me, fun means I come across something which does one of two things. It may be a concept, idea or event which makes me sit up, blink and say to myself, “Huh, I had no idea.” Or it may be something where I go through the same physical response and the thought is, “You mean that’s how that works/what that means?”

As most folks familiar with Medieval History are probably aware, there are some popular concepts out there about religion and religious change which, once you really look at the evidence, don’t hold up. Among these are characterizations of the evolution of Western Europe to a Christian society being one of a violent, militant process just short of (or for some people equaling) a “convert or be killed” period. I run across this all the time and in most places, such as open discussion groups on Usenet, I just avoid the conversation. The amount of work required to change people’s minds would be monumental and in many cases, people engaged in the discussions have no interest in their minds being changed. They’re just looking for a place where they can pronounce their opinions.

I’ve always looked at the Christianization process which occurred from the early 4th century through the 6th century to be a fairly gradual process largely lacking in the sort of violent forced conversion these folks like to promote. This does not mean there weren’t pressures, incentives and penalties involved. However these were largely along the lines of Christians being named to most high government posts or Christian places of worship receiving taxation benefits.

So when I give my very rough, general overview statements of the process I say something along the lines of, “By and large the conversion to Christianity was achieved with relatively little bloodshed. Justinian’s 6th century forced conversion is a significant exception and individuals such as Cyril of Alexandria and Ambrose of Milan took a more aggressive approach but these were mostly exceptions, rather than the rule.”

This brings me to Ambrose. In reading overviews of the late 4th century, three events regarding Ambrose have stood out for me. First, he went toe-to-toe with Symmachus regarding restoring the Altar of Victory in the Senate House. Second, in violation of Roman Law that one Church in each city would be reserved for other Christian sects, he did not allow a Church in Milan to be used by Arians. 1 Third, when a Catholic Bishop led a mob in the destruction of a Jewish Synagogue, he singlehandedly prevented that synagogue from being rebuilt and paid for by the Catholics.

These three events had me mentally classifying Ambrose as outside the norm; a more aggressive, almost militant opponent of non-Christian religions, to the extent where he would defy Roman leaders and incite mobs to pressure the Empire and Emperors to ignore the law. In essence, I looked at Ambrose as something of a zealot, determined to have his way in everything without much regard for anyone else.

I recently finished reading Neil McLynn’s, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. I now have a different opinion of Ambrose and his role. As always (I’m unable to think of an exception) historical events and characters are more complex once I learn more about them. With Ambrose, the nuances become quite interesting. 2

When it comes to Ambrose a great deal of what we know about him comes from Ambrose himself. Towards the end of his life he published or organized writings and collections of writings recounting his role in various events. I recently read an essay by Michael Proulx discussing how Ambrose basically fabricated a role for himself as the protector of Valentinian during the usurpation by Magnus Maximus.

So I was already somewhat aware of how Ambrose engaged in self-promotion and later revisions of his roles. McLynn took this to a whole new level. For each of the above events he discusses how the event actually transpired when considering various aspects and players, and contrasts this with Ambrose’s later portrayal of them. I’ll try to briefly summarize McLynn for each of these.

Symmachus and the Altar of Victory. Prior to reading McLynn, my (admittedly crude) understanding of this issue was that in 384, while Prefect of Rome, Symmachus had requested that the Altar be restored and Ambrose went toe-to-toe with him, writing a detailed response to Symmachus’ request and pressuring Valentinian II into denying it.

This is far from what actually happened. Symmachus’ request was heard and denied before Ambrose had much to say on the matter. The Imperial Court denied it fairly quickly, for a variety of reasons. As McLynn says, “… there was never a debate on the subject [of the Altar of Victory] at all. Symmachus’ relatio was short-circuited in the imperial consistory, and Ambrose’s detailed rebuttal of the urban prefect’s arguments was compiled after the question had been settled. The issue has been transmitted to posterity in a framework devised by Ambrose …” (264)

Use of a Milanese Church by Arians. I have no idea how to briefly summarize this. In essence, my prior opinion had been that Valentinian and in particular his mother Justina wanted a Milan church to be diverted from Catholic to Arian control. Instead, this event was over a much more limited issue (though Ambrose’s later portrayal would be highly influential in the Church-ruler dynamic). Valentinian, an Arian, wanted to celebrate Easter in a Milan Church, not take over a Church entirely. Ambrose argued that this constituted an invasion of one of his churches and organized popular resistance to its use for this purpose. The combination of public pressure and arguments resulted in Valentinian (likely) celebrating Easter with the Imperial Court in a makeshift church. There is likely more truth to my prior perception of this than for the other two instances but there are some important distinctions. First, Valentinian wanted the Church for a single day. Second, this ended up being much more of a demonstration of the Valentinian government’s lack of power. Their government was based in Milan but Ambrose and the Church had been there much longer. Finally, Ambrose himself, while arguing against this use of his Church, did not directly oppose Valentinian so much as organize mass opposition. He certainly managed the event but he was careful to position himself so as not to be looked at as the ringleader.

Destruction of the Jewish Synagogue at Callinicum. In 388 a local bishop led a mob which plundered and destroyed a Jewish Synagogue. Initially, Theodosius’ ordered that the synagogue be rebuilt and the costs of doing so paid for by the bishop. Ambrose took this incident on directly and, over a period of time, eventually got the Emperor to drop the entire matter. The interesting item here is that, based on McLynn, Theodosius appears to have ended up on top in this conflict. “The loser in this unhappy affair was Ambrose. Theodosius had been forced to concede clemency in a case he felt deserved exemplary punishment; but such concessions were an occupational hazard of the imperial office. As compensation, moreover, he could enjoy the gratitude and admiration which he had no doubt inspired among the Christians of Milan.” (308) McLynn also relates that Ambrose later wrote a revised version of the event which placed him as the victor at the emperor’s expense. Ambrose would not regain his influence with Theodosius until the massacre at Thessalonica two years later. 3

Does Ambrose still fit in my original characterization as a zealot? Maybe – but less so than I had once believed, which was based largely on the way he portrayed himself. He was an ardent defender of the Church, more so than many contemporary bishops. More than anything, he seems to be a man who excelled in two areas. First was an understanding of the political realities of the day and how to influence the imperial court and emperors. Second, and something which this post does not cover, he was able to inspire tremendous loyalty in the residents of Milan. His congregations went to great lengths to support and defend him. McLynn does not cover this in any depth but on a personal level, Ambrose must have possessed characteristics which inspired people to follow him.

For me this is fun. My opinion of Ambrose has changed, somewhat. More than a zealot, he was also a man who understood the imperial government and how to influence events. Zealotry may still be present, but it included an ample mix of ability and intelligence. This was not a man engaged in blind passions but in measured, concerted, detailed actions to defend his rights and those of the Church.

1 To be honest, I’m not certain this was a law so much as a policy of toleration but this is my original impression so I’m going with it. I need to look into it further. A brief search while writing this post didn’t give me anything.

2 I am unaware of anything more recent which substantially refutes McLynn however as this book was published in 1994 there may be something out there. If there is, I’d appreciate folks letting me know.

3 The Thessalonica event is also an interesting revision, which I’ve left out because it didn’t play into my initial Ambrose perception. This has come to be viewed as Ambrose denying Theodosius access to the Church until he engaged in an act of public penance. McLynn characterizes this as much more of a cooperative venture where Ambrose and Theodosius were able to develop a solution whereby the emperor was able to defuse a public relations disaster and regain his popular standing.

McLynn, Neil B., Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1994). ISBN: 978-0-52008-461-6.

Proulx, Michael, “Patres Orphanorum’: Ambrose of Milan and the Construction of the Role of the Bishop,” in Frakes, Robert M., Digeser, Elizabeth DePalma and Stephens, Justin, eds., The Rhetoric of Power in Late Antiquity: Religion and Politics in Byzantium and the Early Islamic World, pp. 75-97. New York: Tauris Academic Studies (2010). ISBN: 978-1-84885-409-3.


Posted by on January 7, 2012 in Religion


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6 responses to “A Few Thoughts on Ambrose of Milan

  1. Paul Browne (@CaballoBat)

    January 7, 2012 at 4:48 pm

    Thank you for this. I’ve always disliked Ambrose of Milan as a person based on his political letters and speeches (Liebeschutz, Liverpool Translated texts for Historians). This gives more complexity- though realising that he tried to manipulate history’s views of him confirms some of my worst views of him. But it expanded my knowledge- thanks!

    • Curt Emanuel

      January 7, 2012 at 7:52 pm

      You’re welcome. I’ve always felt similarly about him – he’s someone I’ve always viewed with distaste though I try to remind myself that I’m looking at him through modern eyes conditioned by a society based on religious freedom. I can’t get on him too much for trying to build an image for posterity. Lots of people did that back then with edited letter collections, monuments and inscriptions, etc. As I was reading the book I found it interesting that some (not all – some legitimate zealotry seems to have been there) of what I disliked most about him was of his own making through this image building and is evidently how he wanted to be remembered.

  2. Nathaniel Campbell

    February 1, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    I’m glad to see that, as you look more deeply at Ambrose, you’re getting a better feeling for his role in late-fourth-century Italy. We’ll see how well my students can grasp this; their first in-class writing assignment is on Friday, and their task is to read both Symmachus’ Memorial and Ambrose’s response and explain and summarize each of their arguments.

    If you’re interested in a fourth-century bishop much more in the aggressive mode, I’d suggest reading more about Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (325-373) and his fight against he Arians (Arius was, in fact, an Alexandrian priest originally and nominally under Athanasius’ authority; most historians agree that it was Athanasius’ pugnacity that pushed Arius to articulate his views on the divinity of Christ in such a clear-cut and ultimately condemnable way). Although Athanasius was indeed militant (he had charge over quite a bit of temple trashing during his episcopate), he was much more: pugnacious, charismatic, conniving, and extremely intelligent.

    P.S. I’ve added your blog to my bookmarks of “things to read when I really don’t want to start grading papers yet”, an honourable place, I assure you.

    • Curt Emanuel

      February 3, 2012 at 6:57 am

      Nathaniel, Thanks for your comment. I think it was Sozomen where, for a while, his History read like a travel itinerary for A. Clearly he forgot to pack his copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” In the near future I’m planning to get the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Second Series by Schaff so I can read more of what he says for himself.

      There are plenty of vitae later which show the same pattern. Of those I think my favorite is Wilfrid. Stephanus falls all over himself trying not to admit that the bishop brought a lot of his problems (exile, having to appeal to the Pope) on himself by his intransigence. He’s not the only one; Apollinaris, Bonitus, Sturm and a couple of others show similar patterns but IMO Wilfrid is the most striking example.


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