Ambrose of Milan
|Bishop of Milan|
|Term ended||4 April 397|
|Consecration||7 December 374|
|Birth name||Aurelius Ambrosius|
Augusta Treverorum, Gallia Belgica, Roman Empire (modern-day Trier, Germany)
|Died||4 April 397 (aged 56-57)|
Mediolanum, Italia, Roman Empire (modern-day Milan, Italy)
|Veni redemptor gentium|
|Tradition or movement||Trinitarianism|
|Notable ideas||Filioque, anti-paganism, mother of the Church|
|Feast day||December 7|
|Title as Saint||Doctor of the Church|
|Patronage||Bee keepers, bees, bishops, candle makers, domestic animals, French Commissariat, geese, learning, livestock, Milan, police officers, students, wax refiners|
|Shrines||Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio|
Ambrose of Milan (Latin: Aurelius Ambrosius; c. 340 - 397), venerated as Saint Ambrose,[a] was the Bishop of Milan, a theologian, and one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century.
Ambrose was serving as the Roman governor of Aemilia-Liguria in Milan when he was unexpectedly made Bishop of Milan in 374 by popular acclamation. As bishop, he took a firm position against Arianism and attempted to mediate the conflict between the emperors Theodosius I and Magnus Maximus. Tradition credits Ambrose with promoting "antiphonal chant", a style of chanting in which one side of the choir responds alternately to the other, as well as with composing Veni redemptor gentium, an Advent hymn. He also had notable influence on Augustine of Hippo (354-430).
Western Christianity identified Ambrose as one of its four traditional Doctors of the Church. He is considered a saint by the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion, and various Lutheran denominations, and venerated as the patron saint of Milan.
Legends about Ambrose had spread through the empire long before his biography was written, making it difficult for modern historians to understand his true character and fairly place his behavior within the context of antiquity. Most agree, he was the personification of his era.:5:ix Embracing the ideal of truth, and passionately rejecting any opposition to it, was one of his qualities, but it was also the norm for others, Christian, Jew and pagan alike.:1–2 Christian, Jew and pagan all believed, to varying degrees, in the reality of the invisible world as present, surrounding and undergirding the visible one.:3 The presence of the Altar of Victory in the senate is just one example of the omnipresence of the sacred in this environment.
Christian leaders of the fourth century were not tasked with creating a modern separation between the secular and the sacred, but worked to replace one concept of the sacred with another they fully believed to be more accurate. By Ambrose' day, Arianism was in slow decline, but still active, and Ambrose was occupied with it for over half his episcopate.:6–7 Judaism was more attractive than previous scholars realized, and pagans were still in the majority. The fourth century was an age of religious ferment comparable to the Reformation of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.:6 Orthodox Christianity was determining how to define itself by facing these challenges on both a theological and a practical level.:7–8 Unifying the church was important to the church, but it was no less important to the state.:37 In this, Ambrose' was crucial.:5
Ambrose was born into a Roman Christian family about 339 and was raised in the Roman providence of Gallia Belgica, the capital of which was Augusta Treverorum. His father is sometimes identified with Aurelius Ambrosius, a praetorian prefect of Gaul; but some scholars identify his father as an official named Uranius who received an imperial constitution dated 3 February 339 (addressed in a brief extract from one of the three emperors ruling in 339, Constantine II, Constantius II, or Constans, in the Codex Theodosianus, book XI.5). The family had a Christian tradition, produced one martyr (the virgin Soteris), and Ambrose' sister Marcellina made a profession of virginity in the early 350s, and Pope Liberius himself conferred the veil upon her.:6
Ambrose' mother was a woman of intellect and piety and a member of the Roman family Aurelii Symmachi, and thus Ambrose was cousin of the orator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus. He was the youngest of three children, who included Marcellina and Satyrus (who is the subject of Ambrose's De excessu fratris Satyri), also venerated as saints. There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and honeyed tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in the saint's symbology.
About the year 354 Ambrosius, the father, died, whereupon the family moved to Rome. There he studied literature, law, and rhetoric. He then followed in his father's footsteps and entered public service. Praetorian Prefect Sextus Claudius Petronius Probus first gave him a place in the council and then in about 372 made him governor of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan. In 286 Diocletian had moved the capital of the Western Roman Empire from Rome to Mediolanum (Milan).
Ambrose was the Governor of Aemilia-Liguria in northern Italy until 374, when he became the Bishop of Milan. Ambrose was a very popular figure, and since he had been the Governor in the effective capital in the Roman West, he was already a recognizable figure when he came to the court of Valentinian I.
In the late 4th century there was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan between the Nicene Church and Arians. In 374 the bishop of Milan, Auxentius, an Arian, died, and the Arians challenged the succession. Ambrose went to the church where the election was to take place, to prevent an uproar, which was probable in this crisis. His address was interrupted by a call, "Ambrose, bishop!", which was taken up by the whole assembly.
Ambrose was known to be Nicene Christian in belief, but also acceptable to Arians due to the charity shown in theological matters in this regard. At first he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared: Ambrose was neither baptized nor formally trained in theology. Upon his appointment, Ambrose fled to a colleague's home seeking to hide. Upon receiving a letter from the Emperor Gratian praising the appropriateness of Rome appointing individuals evidently worthy of holy positions, Ambrose's host gave him up. Within a week, he was baptized, ordained and duly consecrated bishop of Milan. This was the first time in the west that a member of the upper class of high officials accepted the office of bishop.:57
As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina (who had become a nun). This raised his popularity even further, giving him considerable political leverage. Upon the unexpected appointment of Ambrose to the episcopate, his brother Satyrus resigned a prefecture in order to move to Milan, where he took over managing the diocese's temporal affairs.
Ambrose studied theology with Simplician, a presbyter of Rome. Using to his advantage his excellent knowledge of Greek, which was then rare in the West, he studied the Old Testament and Greek authors like Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea, with whom he was also exchanging letters. He applied this knowledge as preacher, concentrating especially on exegesis of the Old Testament, and his rhetorical abilities impressed Augustine of Hippo, who hitherto had thought poorly of Christian preachers.
In the confrontation with Arians, Ambrose sought to theologically refute their propositions, which were contrary to the Nicene creed and thus to the officially defined orthodoxy. The Arians appealed to many high level leaders and clergy in both the Western and Eastern empires. Although the western Emperor Gratian supported orthodoxy, the younger Valentinian II, who became his colleague in the Empire, adhered to the Arian creed. Ambrose did not sway the young prince's position. In the East, Emperor Theodosius I likewise professed the Nicene creed; but there were many adherents of Arianism throughout his dominions, especially among the higher clergy. It is probable it was as early as February of 380 when Theodosius first proclaimed Nicene Christianity for all his subjects (Cod. Theod. 16, 1, 2), officially declaring all other forms of Christian beliefs to be heresies punishable by both the state and the supernatural.:37 In this way, "all Arian and semi-Arian formulas, together with Apollinarianism, [were] repudiated".:38
In this state of religious foment, two leaders of the Arians, bishops Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Singidunum, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Gratian to call a general council from all parts of the empire. This request appeared so equitable that he complied without hesitation. However, Ambrose feared the consequences and prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops. Accordingly, a synod composed of thirty-two bishops was held at Aquileia in the year 381. Ambrose was elected president and Palladius, being called upon to defend his opinions, declined. A vote was then taken and Palladius and his associate Secundianus were deposed from their episcopal offices.
Nevertheless, the strength of the Arians proved a formidable task for Ambrose. In 385 or 386 the emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially military, professed Arianism. They demanded that Valentinian allocate to the Arians two churches in Milan: one in the city (the Basilica of the Apostles), the other in the suburbs (St Victor's). Ambrose refused to surrender the churches, answering: "What belongs to God, is outside the emperor's power". In this, Ambrose called on an ancient Roman principle: a temple set apart to a god became the property of that god. If that god failed to protect his or her temple, and allowed it to be captured by an enemy, then it lost its sanctity which could only be regained when the conqueror left. Otherwise, no man could own it, only the relevant god. Ambrose now applied this ancient legal principle to the Christian churches: once having been consecrated, not even the emperor had the power to redesignate that, and the bishop, as representative, was guardian of his god's property.:79–80
The day following, while Ambrose was performing divine service in the basilica, the prefect of the city came to persuade him to give up the Portian basilica in the suburbs. Ambrose again refused, and certain deans (officers of the court) were sent to take possession of the Portian basilica, by hanging upon it imperial escutcheons. While Ambrose was preaching, soldiers from the ranks the emperor had placed around the basilica began pouring in assuring Ambrose of their fidelity. The escutcheons outside the church were removed, and the children tore them to shreds.:79–80
Ambrose continued to refuse to surrender the Basilica, and sent sharp answers back: "If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it." By Thursday, the emperor gave in, bitterly responding: "Soon, if Ambrose gives the orders, you will be sending me to him in chains.":80
In 386 Justina and Valentinian received the Arian bishop Auxentius the younger, and Ambrose was again ordered to hand over a church in Milan for Arian usage. Ambrose and his congregation barricaded themselves inside the church, and the imperial order was rescinded.
It has long been convention to see Gratian and Ambrose as having a personal relationship, with Ambrose in the dominant role of guide, philosopher and friend. Sozomen is the only ancient source that shows Ambrose and Gratian together in any personal interaction. Sozomen relates that, in the last year of Gratian's reign, Ambrose crashed Gratian's private hunting party in order to appeal on behalf of a pagan senator sentenced to die. After years of acquaintance, this indicates Ambrose could not take for granted that Gratian would see him, so instead, Ambrose had to resort to such maneuverings to make his appeal. Modern scholarship indicates Gratian's religious policies do not evidence capitulation to Ambrose more than they evidence Gratian's own views. The largest influence on policy was the profoundly changed political circumstances produced by the battle of Adrianople in 378.
Gratian had become involved in fighting the Goths the previous year and had been on his way to the Balkans when his Uncle and the "cream of the eastern army" were destroyed at Adrianople. Gratian withdrew to Sirmium. It was there that Gratian first reached out to Ambrose. Several rival Christian groups, including the Arians, sought to secure benefits from the government at Sirmium. In an Arian attempt to undermine Ambrose, Gratian was warned that Ambrose' faith was suspect. Gratian took steps to investigate by writing Ambrose and asking him to explain his faith.
Ambrose and Gratian first met, after this, in 379 in Milan. The bishop made a good impression on Gratian and his court, which was pervasively Christian and aristocratic, like Ambrose himself. Two laws were recorded from this time. One of these canceled the 'law of toleration' Gratian had previously issued at Sirmium. This toleration allowed freedom of worship to all with the exception of the heretical Manichaeans, Photinians and Eunomians. The law canceling this has been previously presented as proof of Ambrose' influence over Gratian, but the law's target was Donatism which had failed to be listed in the previous law's exceptions. There is no evidence to support Ambrose as having had anything to do with this restatement of sanctions that had existed since Constantine.
When the emperor returned to Milan in 380, Ambrose had complied with his request for a statement of his faith in two volumes known as De Fide, a statement of orthodoxy, Ambrose' political theology, and a polemic against the Arian heresy intended for public discussion.  The emperor had not asked to be instructed by Ambrose, and in De Fide Ambrose states clearly that he was not asked to instruct the emperor. Nor was he asked to refute the Arians. He was asked to justify his own position, but in the end, did all three, though there is no evidence Gratian ever read them.
Gratian, who was childless, had treated his younger brother Valentinian II like a son. Ambrose, on the other hand, had incurred the lasting enmity of Valentinian II's mother, the Empress Justina, in the winter of 379 by helping to appoint a Nicene bishop in Sirmium. Not long after this, Valentinian II, his mother, and the court left Sirmium.:129 Justina and her son were strongly Arian, and Sirmium had come under Theodosius' control, so they went to Milan which was ruled by Gratian. When Gratian was killed by Magnus Maximus, in 383, Valentinian was twelve years old, and it left his mother, Justina, in a position of something akin to a regent.:129–130 Conflict between Ambrose and Justina followed with Ambrose being ordered to surrender his basillica and refusing, an attempted kidnapping, and another attempt to arrest him and force him to leave the city.:130 Several accusations were made, but unlike John Chrysostum, no formal charges were brought, probably due to Ambrose' popularity with the people.:131 When Magnus Maximus usurped power in Gaul, and was considering a descent upon Italy, Valentinian sent Ambrose to dissuade him, and the embassy was successful. A second later embassy was unsuccessful. The enemy entered Italy and Milan was taken. Justina and her son fled, but Ambrose remained, and had the plate of the church melted for the relief of the poor.
After defeating the usurper Maximus at Aquileia in 388 Theodosius handed the western realm back to the young Valentinian II, the seventeen year old son of the forceful and hardy Pannonian general Valentinian I and his wife, the Arian Justina. Furthermore, the Eastern emperor remained in Italy for a considerable period to supervise affairs, returning to Constantinople in 391 and leaving behind the Frankish general Arbogast to keep an eye on the young emperor. By May of the following year Arbogast's ward was dead amidst rumours of both treachery and suicide...
While Ambrose was writing De Fide, Theodosius published his own statement of faith in 381 in an edict establishing catholic Christianity as the only legitimate faith. There is unanimity amongst scholars that this represents the emperor's own beliefs. The aftermath of Valen's death had left many questions for the church unresolved, and this edict can be seen as an effort to begin addressing those questions. Theodosius' natural generosity was tempered by his pressing need to establish himself and to publicly assert his personal piety.
Liebeschuetz and Hill indicate that it wasn't until after 388 during Theodosius' stay in Milan following the defeat of Maximus that Theodosius and Ambrose first met.:17 Theodosius' actions in 390-391 after the Massacre of Thessalonica have sometimes been explained in terms of Theodosius falling under the dominating influence of Bishop Ambrose.:60,63,131:3 Modern scholarship indicates that events following the Thessalonian massacre and its fabled encounter at the church door do not constitute evidence of Ambrose' dominance over Theodosius because there was no dramatic encounter at the church door.:111:13 It is "a pious fiction". The image of the mitered prelate braced in the door of the cathedral in Milan blocking Theodosius from entering is a product of the imagination of Theodoret, a historian of the fifth century who wrote of the events of 390 "using his own ideology to fill the gaps in the historical record".:215
The view of a pious Theodosius submitting meekly to the authority of the church, represented by Ambrose, is part of the myth that evolved within a generation of their deaths. For centuries after his death, Theodosius was regarded as a champion of Christian orthodoxy who decisively stamped out paganism. This view, which R. Malcolm Errington says "has dominated the European historical tradition almost to this day", was recorded by Theodoret who is recognized as an undependable historian. Theodosius's predecessors Constantine, Constantius, and Valens had all been semi-Arians. Therefore it fell to the orthodox Theodosius to receive from Christian literary tradition most of the credit for the final triumph of Christianity. Modern scholars see this as an interpretation of history by Christian writers more than as a representation of actual history. 
In his treatise on Abraham, Ambrose warns against intermarriage with pagans, Jews, or heretics. In 388, Emperor Theodosius the Great was informed that a crowd of Christians, led by their bishop, had destroyed the synagogue at Callinicum on the Euphrates. He ordered the synagogue rebuilt at the expense of the bishop, but Ambrose persuaded Theodosius to retreat from this position. He wrote to the Emperor, pointing out that he was thereby "exposing the bishop to the danger of either acting against the truth or of death"; in the letter "the reasons given for the imperial rescript are met, especially by the plea that the Jews had burnt many churches". Ambrose, referring to a prior incident where Magnus Maximus issued an edict censuring Christians in Rome for burning down a Jewish synagogue, warned Theodosius that the people in turn exclaimed "the emperor has become a Jew", implying that if Theodosius attempted to apply the law to protect his Jewish subjects he'd be viewed similarly. In the course of the letter Ambrose speaks of the clemency that the emperor had shown with regard to the many houses of wealthy people and churches that had been destroyed by unruly mobs, with many then still not restored and then adds: "There is, then, no adequate cause for such a commotion, that the people should be so severely punished for the burning of a building, and much less since it is the burning of a synagogue, a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God Himself has condemned. For thus we read, where the Lord our God speaks by the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah: 'And I will do to this house, which is called by My Name, wherein ye trust, and to the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh, and I will cast you forth from My sight, as I cast forth your brethren, the whole seed of Ephraim. And do not thou pray for that people, and do not thou ask mercy for them, and do not come near Me on their behalf, for I will not hear thee. Or seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah?'[Jeremiah 7:14] God forbids intercession to be made for those."
In his exposition of Psalm 1, Ambrose says: "Virtues without faith are leaves, flourishing in appearance, but unproductive. How many pagans have mercy and sobriety but no fruit, because they do not attain their purpose! The leaves speedily fall at the wind's breath. Some Jews exhibit purity of life and much diligence and love of study, but bear no fruit and live like leaves."
Ambrose had varying levels of influence with the Roman emperors Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I, but exactly how much, and in what ways, have been debated in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.:xv:2 Modern scholarship indicates paganism was a lesser concern than heresy for Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries, which was the case for Ambrose.:375 Writings of this period were commonly hostile and often contemptuous toward a paganism Christianity saw as already defeated in heaven, as Ambrose' work reflects. The great Christian writers of the third to fifth centuries felt their "business was to discredit traditional religious practices as a route toward propagating their new faith and destroying any loyalty to the old gods and goddesses that still survived in the Roman West. To do this more effectively, they ransacked pagan Latin writings, particularly those of Varro, for everything that could be regarded by Christian standards as repulsive and irreligious." These Christian sources have had great influence on perceptions of this period by creating an impression of overt and continuous conflict that has been assumed on an empire-wide scale. Archaeological evidence indicates that, outside of violent rhetoric, the decline of paganism away from the imperial court was relatively non-confrontational.:7
Ambrose was, throughout his episcopate, active in his opposition to state sponsorship of pagan cults. In 382, Gratian was the first to divert public financial subsidies that had previously supported Rome's cults. Before that year, contributions in support of the ancient customs had continued unchallenged by the state.:68 Gratian also ordered the Altar of Victory to be removed. This roused the aristocracy of Rome to send a delegation to Gratian to appeal the decision, but Pope Damasus I got the Christian senators to petition against it, and Ambrose blocked the delegates from getting an audience with the emperor.:69
"No regime in the Christian empire was less priest-ridden than that of [Gratian's father] Valentinian I", whereas Gratian was personally devout and never made a decision or let a day pass without seeking God. Gratian's personal devotion led Ambrose to write a large number of books and letters of theology and spiritual commentary to the emperor. The sheer volume of these writings and the effusive praise they contain has led many historians to conclude that Gratian was dominated by Ambrose, and it was that dominance that produced Gratian's anti-pagan actions. McLynn asserts that effusive praises were common in everyone's correspondence with the crown, and that "the actions of [Gratian's] government were determined as much by the constraints that operated upon the decision-making process as by his own initiatives or Ambrose's influence".
Under Valentinian II, an effort was made to restore the Altar of Victory to its ancient station in the hall of the Roman Senate and to again provide support for the seven Vestal Virgins. The pagan party was led by the refined senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who used all his prodigious skill and artistry to create a marvelous document full of the maiestas populi Romani.:76 Hans Lietzmann writes that "Pagans and Christians alike were stirred by the solemn earnestness of an admonition which called all men of goodwill to the aid of a glorious history, to render all worthy honor to a world that was fading away".:76,77 Then Ambrose wrote Valentinian II a letter asserting that the emperor was a soldier of God, not simply a personal believer but one bound by his position to serve the faith; under no circumstances could he agree to something that would promote the worship of idols. (Romans claimed to be the most religious of peoples. Their unique success in war, conquest, and the formation of an Empire, was attributed to the empire maintaining good relations with the gods through proper reverence and worship practices. This did not change once the empire 's official religion became Christianity.) Ambrose held up the example of Valentinian's brother, Gratian, reminding Valentinian that the commandment of God must take precedence.:77 The bishop's intervention led to the failure of Symmachus' appeal.:77–78
In 389, Ambrose intervened against a pagan senatorial delegation who wished to see the emperor Theodosius I. Although Theodosius refused their requests, he was irritated at the bishop's presumption and refused to see him for several days. Later, Ambrose wrote a letter to the emperor Eugenius complaining that some gifts the latter had bestowed on pagan senators could be used for funding pagan cults.
Some past scholars have credited Ambrose with influencing the Emperor Theodosius I into major anti-pagan legislation beginning February 391. Theodosius had just done penance before Ambrose over the Massacre of Thessalonica, and this could have prompted the Emperor into more drastic demonstrations of faith at the bishop's behest. This interpretation has been heavily disputed from the late twentieth century. McLynn says Ambrose was "not a power behind the throne". The two men did not meet each other frequently, and documents that reveal the relationship between the two formidable leaders are less about personal friendship and more like negotiations between the institutions they represent: the Roman State and the Italian Church. Cameron says there's no evidence Ambrose was a significant influence on the emperor. McLynn also argues that Theodosius's anti-pagan legislation was too limited in scope for it to be of interest to the bishop.
In April 393 Arbogast, magister militum of the West and his puppet Emperor Eugenius, marched into Italy to consolidate their position in regard to Theodosius I and his son, Honorius, whom Theodosius had appointed Augustus to govern the western portion of the empire. Arbogast and Eugenius courted Ambrose's support by very obliging letters; but before they arrived at Milan, he had retired to Bologna, where he assisted at the translation of the relics of Saints Vitalis and Agricola. From there he went to Florence, where he remained until Eugenius withdrew from Milan to meet Theodosius in the Battle of the Frigidus in early September 394.
Soon after acquiring the undisputed possession of the Roman Empire, Theodosius died at Milan in 395, and two years later (4 April 397) Ambrose also died. He was succeeded as bishop of Milan by Simplician. Ambrose's body may still be viewed in the church of Saint Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated - along with the bodies identified in his time as being those of Saints Gervase and Protase.
In 1960, Neil B. McLynn wrote a complex study of Ambrose that focused on his politics and intended to "demonstrate that Ambrose viewed community as a means to acquire personal political power". Subsequent studies of how Ambrose handled his episcopal responsibilities, his Nicene theology and his dealings with the Arians in his episcopate, his pastoral care, commitment to community, and his personal ascetism, have mitigated this view.:3–4:4–5 All of Ambrose' writings are works of advocacy of his religion, and even his politics was closely related to his religion.:5 He was rarely, if ever, concerned about simply recording what had happened; he did not write to reveal his inner thoughts and struggles; he wrote to advocate for his God.:4 Boniface Ramsey writes that it is difficult "not to posit a deep spirituality in a man" who wrote on the mystical meanings of the Song of Songs and many extraordinary hymns.:ix-x
In spite of an abiding spirituality, Ambrose had a generally straightforward manner, and a practical rather than a speculative tendency in his thinking.:1 De Officiis is a utilitarian guide for his clergy in their daily ministry in the Milanese church rather than "an intellectual tour de force".:315 Ambrose was not adverse to conflict and opposed many with a fearlessness born of self-confidence and a clear conscience and not from any sense that he would not end up suffering for his decisions.:2 Christian faith in the fourth century developed the monastic life-style, a general practice of virginity for religious reasons, and voluntary poverty that were embraced by many new converts, including Ambrose.:9
Having begun his life as a Roman aristocrat and a governor, it is clear that Ambrose retained the attitude and practice of Roman governance even after becoming a bishop.:6–7 He undertook many different and varied labors in an effort to unite people and "provide some stability during a period of religious, political, military, and social upheavals and transformations".:1 His ability to maintain good relationships with "classically educated elites, social ordinaries, merchants, the masses, and other clergy and saints" made this possible.:2
The bishops of this era had heavy administrative responsibilities, and Ambrose was also sometimes occupied with imperial affairs, but he still fulfilled his primary responsibility to care for the well-being of his flock. He preached and celebrated the Eucharist multiple times a week, sometimes daily, dealt directly with the needs of the poor, as well as widows and orphans, "virgins" (nuns), and his own clergy. He replied to letters personally, practiced hospitality, and made himself available to the people.:5–6 Local church practices varied quite a bit from place to place at this time, and as the bishop, Ambrose could have required that everyone adapt to his way of doing things. It was his place to keep the churches as united as possible in both ritual and belief.:6 Instead, he respected local customs, adapting himself to whatever practices prevailed, and recommended the same to his mother.:6
Ambrose joins Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great as one of the Latin Doctors of the Church. Theologians compare him with Hilary, who they claim fell short of Ambrose's administrative excellence but demonstrated greater theological ability. He succeeded as a theologian despite his juridical training and his comparatively late handling of Biblical and doctrinal subjects.
Ambrose's intense episcopal consciousness furthered the growing doctrine of the Church and its sacerdotal ministry, while the prevalent asceticism of the day, continuing the Stoic and Ciceronian training of his youth, enabled him to promulgate a lofty standard of Christian ethics. Thus we have the De officiis ministrorum, De viduis, De virginitate and De paenitentia.
Ambrose displayed a kind of liturgical flexibility that kept in mind that liturgy was a tool to serve people in worshiping God, and ought not to become a rigid entity that is invariable from place to place. His advice to Augustine of Hippo on this point was to follow local liturgical custom. "When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are." Thus Ambrose refused to be drawn into a false conflict over which particular local church had the "right" liturgical form where there was no substantial problem. His advice has remained in the English language as the saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
One interpretation of Ambrose's writings is that he was a Christian universalist. It has been noted that Ambrose's theology was significantly influenced by that of Origen and Didymus the Blind, two other early Christian universalists. One quotation cited in favor of this belief is:
Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection in the Apocalypse. 'Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection,' for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved unto the second resurrection, these shall be disciplined until their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection.
One could interpret this passage as being another example of the mainstream Christian belief in a general resurrection (that both those in heaven and in hell undergo a bodily resurrection), or an allusion to purgatory (that some destined for heaven must first undergo a phase of purification). Several other works by Ambrose clearly teach the mainstream view of salvation. For example: "The Jews feared to believe in manhood taken up into God, and therefore have lost the grace of redemption, because they reject that on which salvation depends."
In De Officiis, the most influential of his surviving works, and one of the most important texts of patristic literature, he reveals his views connecting justice and generosity by asserting these practices are of mutual benefit to the participants.:313:205–210:313 Ambrose draws heavily on Cicero and the biblical book of Genesis for this concept of mutual inter-dependence in society. In the bishop's view, it is concern for one another's interests that binds society together.:210–212 Ambrose asserts that avarice leads to a breakdown in this mutuality, therefore avarice leads to a breakdown in society itself. In the late 380s, the bishop took the lead in opposing the greed of the elite landowners in Milan by starting a series of pointed sermons directed at his wealthy constituents on the need for the rich to care for the poor.
Some scholars have suggested Ambrose' endeavors to lead his people as both a Roman and a Christian caused him to strive for what a modern context would describe as a type of communism or socialism.:3–4 He was not just interested in the church but was also interested in the condition of contemporary Italian society. Ambrose considered the poor not a distinct group of outsiders, but a part of a united people to be stood with in solidarity. Giving to the poor was not to be considered an act of generosity towards the fringes of society but a repayment of resources that God had originally bestowed on everyone equally and that the rich had usurped. He defines justice as providing for the poor whom he describes as our "brothers and sisters" because they "share our common humanity".:214,216
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In matters of exegesis he is, like Hilary, an Alexandrian. In dogma he follows Basil of Caesarea and other Greek authors, but nevertheless gives a distinctly Western cast to the speculations of which he treats. This is particularly manifest in the weightier emphasis which he lays upon human sin and divine grace, and in the place which he assigns to faith in the individual Christian life.
Ambrose is traditionally credited but not actually known to have composed any of the repertory of Ambrosian chant also known simply as "antiphonal chant", a method of chanting where one side of the choir alternately responds to the other. (The later pope Gregory I the Great is not known to have composed any Gregorian chant, the plainsong or "Romish chant".) However, Ambrosian chant was named in his honor due to his contributions to the music of the Church; he is credited with introducing hymnody from the Eastern Church into the West.
Catching the impulse from Hilary of Arles and confirmed in it by the success of Arian psalmody, Ambrose composed several original hymns as well, four of which still survive, along with music which may not have changed too much from the original melodies. Each of these hymns has eight, four-line stanzas and is written in strict iambic tetrameter (that is 4 × 2 syllables, each iamb being two syllables). Marked by dignified simplicity, they served as a fruitful model for later times.
In a passage of Augustine's Confessions in which Augustine wonders why he could not share his burden with Ambrose, he comments: "Ambrose himself I esteemed a happy man, as the world counted happiness, because great personages held him in honor. Only his celibacy appeared to me a painful burden."
When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.
This is a celebrated passage in modern scholarly discussion. The practice of reading to oneself without vocalizing the text was less common in antiquity than it has since become. In a culture that set a high value on oratory and public performances of all kinds, in which the production of books was very labor-intensive, the majority of the population was illiterate, and where those with the leisure to enjoy literary works also had slaves to read for them, written texts were more likely to be seen as scripts for recitation than as vehicles of silent reflection. However, there is also evidence that silent reading did occur in antiquity and that it was not generally regarded as unusual.
Several religious brotherhoods which have sprung up in and around Milan at various times since the 14th century have been called Ambrosians. Their connection to Ambrose is tenuous
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