Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital

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In this new and illuminating interpretation of Ambrose, bishop of Milan from 374 to 397, Neil McLynn thoroughly sifts the evidence surrounding this very difficult personality. The result is a richly detailed interpretation of Ambrose's actions and writings that penetrates the bishop's painstaking presentation of self. McLynn succeeds in revealing Ambrose's manipulation of events without making him too Machiavellian. Having synthesized the vast complex of scholarship available on the late fourth century, McLynn also presents an impressive study of the politics and history of the Christian church and the Roman Empire in that period. Admirably and logically organized, the book traces the chronology of Ambrose's public activity and reconstructs important events in the fourth century. McLynn's zesty, lucid prose gives the reader a clear understanding of the complexities of Ambrose's life and career and of late Roman government.

Author Biography: Neil McLynn is Visiting Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, Keio University, Japan. He was trained in the classics at Oxford.

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Neil McLynn is University Lecturer and Fellow in Later Roman History at Corpus Christi College, Oxford University.

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Ambrose of Milan

Church and Court in a Christian Capital

By Neil B. McLynn


Copyright © 1994 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-91455-1




Ambrose never lingered over the circumstances of his election, even while preaching to his people on the anniversary of his consecration, 'when my priesthood seems to begin again'. 'You are my fathers and mothers', he reminded them, recalling how they had made him their bishop; but within a sentence he had marched to their converse role as sons and daughters, and he devoted the remainder of the sermon to their filial obligations.

Equally brisk and purposeful are Ambrose's other allusions to the election. In De officiis he explains his deficiencies as a teacher with a striking phrase: he had been 'snatched into the priesthood from the magistrate's tribunal and my robes of office'. But exactly the same expression—'raptus de tribunalibus'—is repeated in another work in relation to his former devotion to the 'vanities of the world'. Even the apparent spontaneity of an exclamation, 'How I resisted being ordained!', which interrupts a disquisition about the qualities necessary for the episcopate, is deceptive. The outburst is part of an elaborate argument, and serves to forestall the objection that by accepting ordination immediately after his baptism, Ambrose had breached his own requirement that a bishop should 'uphold in himself the precepts of the law'.

These snippets are, moreover, less informative than they might initially appear. Other authors use similar expressions to describe experiences which scarcely justify their urgency. Paulinus of Nola, like Ambrose a former magistrate, wrote asking Augustine to help him with his religious studies, since he was 'unskilled, only just emerging after my many shipwrecks from the waves of the world'; he describes himself elsewhere as having been 'dragged by force' into his ordination as a presbyter and 'captured from the forests of the world'. But both Paulinus and Augustine, who had used similar language to claim what amounted to a period of study leave immediately after his ordination, had advertised themselves as potential recruits for the church by renouncing their careers and professing ascetic vocations. When Gaudentius, whom Ambrose made bishop of Brescia, recalled to his people his unsuccessful resistance—'I tried with all my strength to refuse'—they would have understood his modesty in its context: as a prominent presbyter of his church and a favourite disciple of the previous bishop, Gaudentius had long been marked out as a future leader.

If Ambrose were our only source, we would probably bracket him with these men as a victim of an overly public commitment to his faith. The only significant indication of anything unusual is Ambrose's claim— prompted by the most serious crisis of his career—that the emperor had 'guaranteed' him security of tenure if he accepted the post. But this does not prepare us for the account of the election by Rufinus of Aquileia, which shows Ambrose literally being dragged from the tribunal of his provincial governorship of Aemilia and Liguria:

When Auxentius, the bishop of the heretics at Milan, had died, the people of the two parties clamorously supported their different claims. The grave dissension and dangerous unrest of the parties threatened to produce immediate destruction for their own city if they failed to fulfil their mutually contradictory aims. Ambrose was at that time governing the province. When he saw the disaster that lay in store for the city, he hastened, in accordance with his rank and duties, to enter the church, to calm the disturbance among the people. When he had there concluded a long speech, in accordance with the laws and with public order, a shout and a single cry suddenly arose among the people who were fighting and quarreling among themselves: 'Ambrose for bishop!' They shouted that he should be baptized immediately (he was a catechumen) and be given to them as bishop, and that there was no other way that they could become a single people sharing a single faith, unless Ambrose were given to them as bishop. Although he demurred and resisted fiercely, the desire of the people was referred to the emperor and the order came to implement it with all speed. For the emperor said that it was thanks to God that this sudden conversion had restored the divided beliefs and antagonisms of the people into a single shared consensus and inspired a unanimous proposal. Shortly afterwards, Ambrose obtained the grace of God and was both initiated in the sacred mysteries and made bishop. (HE 11.11)

Rufinus provides rich flesh indeed for the bones of Ambrose's reminiscences. He shows him drafted, unlike the other famous conscripts to the fourth-century church, directly from the reserved occupation of the imperial service. Still more dramatic is the information that the people of Milan, Ambrose's 'parents in the priesthood', had been divided into two factions which were reconciled only in the act of creating him their bishop. Their quarrel was no trifle: as 'catholics' and 'Arians', they stood on opposite sides of the great fault line that cut through the church of the fourth century.

At the time of Ambrose's consecration, in December 374, Rufinus had already begun the ascetic career that would keep him away from Italy until the very moment of the bishop's death in the spring of 397.8 But when composing his history at Aquileia he had ready access to information. He wrote at the request of the local bishop, his old friend Chromatius, a correspondent of Ambrose who had probably been consecrated by him; other knowledgeable informants were also available. But Rufinus gives us not merely his own well-informed interpretation but the 'official' version of the Milanese church. Ambrose's biographer, Paulinus, writing a decade later, echoed his account almost exactly: riot, speech, acclamation, resistance and imperial intervention follow one another in the same sequence, the only difference being Paulinus' elaboration of Ambrose's ruses to avoid consecration. These details make it unlikely that he was copying Rufinus, whom he fails to use for other important episodes like the clash with Justina and the penitence of Theodosius. On the other hand, Paulinus' account does not betray any confidences obtained directly from the bishop. The two reports should therefore be seen as parallel versions of a tradition which had already, at the time of Ambrose's death, achieved uniformity.

It is difficult to make historical sense of this remarkable sequence of events. Reducing the episode to a charade—orchestrated either by Ambrose himself (his reluctance therefore being nothing more than the conventional 'rite of refusal') or by his political superiors (in an attempt to ensure a reliable tenant for this important see)—fails completely to account for its most extraordinary feature: nowhere else are homoeans and Nicenes ever reported to have turned so suddenly from strife to harmony. Most historians therefore stress Ambrose's personal (or political) attractiveness, which is argued to have appealed across party barriers. Milanese Christians, according to one highly influential account, were 'sensible to the humane qualities of their governor', attracted by his judicial mildness and sober lifestyle. A subtle variant makes Ambrose a compromise candidate, whose opportune arrival provided an acceptable solution to both sides after each had failed to secure the election of their own first choice. The homoeans looked not only to his personal qualities but also to his likely fidelity to Valentinian I's policy of religious neutrality.

But any homoeans who expected their governor to protect their community from doctrinal extremism were mistaken. Ambrose would immediately prove, by insisting upon baptism from a 'catholic' bishop, that he was no neutral. Nor, as we shall see, were his allegiances likely to have been a secret. More fundamentally, the explanations cited above assume that Ambrose's qualities were visible to the Christians in the basilica, that the bishop could already be recognized beneath the magistrate's mask. But the government of a province offered little scope for the exercise of the Christian virtues. During his short term of office a governor was closely circumscribed by his responsibilities for enforcing the law, supervising the collection of taxes and maintaining order. Besides, his was a much harsher role than the bishop's: he represented the savage and relentless face of the late Roman judiciary, the 'terror of public administration' which left little room for manoeuvre.

There happens to survive a contemporary, if somewhat overwrought, account of a consularis of Aemilia and Liguria in action. During an assize at Vercelli, the governor (who made regular tours of his province) heard a charge of adultery brought by a jealous husband. Routine interrogation ('as the bloodstained hook tore at his livid flesh and the truth was sought through the pain in his ravaged sides' [Jer. Ep. 1.3]) duly extracted a confession from the alleged lover, but the wife steadfastly failed to oblige. 'Thereupon the consularis, his eyes gorged with slaughter, like a wild beast which having once tasted blood ever thirsts for more, orders the tortures to be doubled, and gnashing his teeth in rage threatened a similar penalty for the torturer himself unless the weaker sex should be made to confess what masculine strength had been unable to keep secret' (1.4). When the torturer finally retreated in baffled exhaustion, the governor ('stirred with sudden rage') resolved the impasse by delivering a verdict of guilty on the couple on the strength of the one confession, summing up with the proposition that 'adultery takes two' (1.6). The whole population streamed out to watch the execution, supervised by the governor's minions: both the implacability of the legal process and the consent that underpinned it are illustrated by the chief official's successful prevention of an attempt to rescue the woman by protesting that this would only lead to his own execution (1.10). But beneath the exuberant rhetoric, the episode represents a perfectly ordinary example of the judiciary in action; nor, for all the lurid colours in which he paints the crudelis iudex, does Jerome suggest that he could have acted very differently. He concludes by condemning not the individual but the system. 'After these great miracles (the woman's survival after seven swipes of the executioner's sword), the laws continue to run their savage course' (1.14).

The crowds who attended trial and execution did not come to protest or to express their sympathy with these victims of legal savagery; they made their half-hearted rescue attempt only when the spell of authority was temporarily broken by the executioner's incompetence. The fulminations of the consularis were fed with at least the tacit consent of his people, including the Christians. At Milan, too, churchgoers may well have approved of the manner in which Ambrose enforced the stern morality of the Christian empire; but their assessment of his performance at the tribunal will have been conditioned by the gruesome, polluting instruments that surrounded him. It is especially difficult to envisage the grim figure of a Christian judge, the sword-wielding 'avenger of God against those who do wrong', being hailed as a peacemaker by two parties each convinced that their opponents were criminals. The pattern of relations attested elsewhere between provincial governors and their Christian subjects will suggest a very different interpretation for the scene.

The acclamation is central to Rufinus' account. The contents are recorded in full to emphasize the unity which it represented: the word one appears five times in three sentences. Historians have therefore been encouraged to envisage Ambrose being nominated upon an overwhelming wave of popular support, an authentically—and exceptionally— 'democratic' candidate. But this is to be overimpressed by a phenomenon that was a quite ordinary feature of episcopal elections, and of public life in general. All acclamations, moreover, were by their nature 'unanimous'. Nor was there anything unusual about the report to Valentinian, the second hinge upon which Rufinus' account turns. For want of a more reliable index of popular feeling, acclamations were recorded and dispatched to the court as legitimate testimonials to the quality of a governor's administration.

The stress which Rufinus puts upon these aspects suggests instead the polemical or apologetic The stress which Rufinus puts upon these aspects suggests instead the polemical or apologetic use made in other election narratives of the people's unanimous support for a candidate. The biographers of Cyprian and Martin castigate, respectively, the 'certain men' who opposed Cyprian and the fastidious bishops of Gaul by invoking against them the 'spiritual desire' or 'divinely inspired assent' which united the people behind their chosen leader. In these cases the dissent masked by the demonstration of popular unity endured beyond the bishop's death to influence the shape of the biography. Although Ambrose did not face the same posthumous pressures, the account of his election seems just as much designed to confer legitimacy. Rufinus is scrupulously evenhanded about assigning responsibility for the initial affray: both heretics and orthodox contributed to the 'grave dissension and dangerous unrest' which 'threatened immediate destruction for the city'. But the apologist is betrayed in the emphasis upon the propriety of Ambrose's reaction. The governor's visit to the church, prompted by anxiety to avert the disaster that lay in store for the city, accorded with his rank and duties ('pro loco et officio suo'); his long speech conformed with the laws and with public order ('secundum leges et publicam disciplinam'). Yet Rufinus protests too much, for Ambrose had chosen an extremely unorthodox method of keeping the peace.

Magistrates regularly confronted mobs, but appeasement of this sort was reserved for the most desperate emergencies. The usual practice was described in a celebrated passage of Ammianus, where the prefect of Rome, Leontius, calmed an angry crowd by singling out an individual, Peter Valvomeres, for exemplary punishment. The only recorded attempt to employ rhetoric to restore order was when a later urban prefect, Tertullus, faced a hungry mob who blamed him for a bread shortage. The 'impending doom' which he faced, however, was not his city's but his own; his melodramatic gesture of offering his children to the mercy of the populace suggests the extremities to which he was reduced. Ecclesiastical disputes could be serious and even bloody affairs, but they threatened neither the vital interests of the state nor the lives (or reputations) of its representatives. Faced with the notorious papal election of 366, the prefect Viventius (a Christian) proved 'able neither to repress nor to calm the disturbances' and withdrew to the suburbs until the bloodletting subsided: this behavior did not affect his standing in the eyes either of Ammianus, who praised him as 'sensible and honest', or of the emperor, who rewarded him with further promotion.

The contest in Milan had apparently not yet resulted in actual violence, and in any case it lacked the ambitious candidates who had fuelled the carnage at Rome. That Ambrose had a 'duty' to intervene at this stage is therefore doubtful, but his method of restoring order was also peculiar. Leontius' arrest of Peter Valvomeres can be taken as a paradigm of normal procedures. Social disturbance involved criminal activity, and the magistrate's duty was to identify and punish the offenders. This is the bleak doctrine enshrined in the Digest of Justinian: The good and serious-minded governor should take care that the province which he rules is peaceable and quiet. He will attain this without difficulty if he acts diligently to free his province of wicked men and to hunt them down' (1.18.13: Ulpian). All that was required, therefore, was the proper application of coercion.

Disturbance of the religious peace received similar treatment. The natural state of affairs was concord, which according to the emperor Val- entinian I ought to prevail both inside church buildings and in ecclesiastical issues. Any interference with this concord betrayed the urgings of an 'unquiet spirit' and therefore deserved the utmost severity: a rescript of the same emperor decreed that offenders should not be deemed Christians at all, but were 'cut off from the terms of the laws and of religion'. Theoretically, then, magistrates involved themselves in ecclesiastical disputes merely to lend their authority (and coercive powers) to the beleaguered representatives of authentic Christianity. An equally narrow view of official responsibilities is implied by Ossius of Corduba's alleged outburst to a vicarius of Spain: 'Your mandate is not to investigate but to enforce'. Both the demand made of the vicar and his subsequent abdication of responsibility, although fictional, ring true. Precisely this background explains the imperial edict addressed to the provincial governors of Africa two generations later, accusing them of negligence in pursuing the outlawed Donatist schismatics (and therefore of connivance in the harm done to Catholics) and ordering that the offending Donatists be identified and executed.


Excerpted from Ambrose of Milan by Neil B. McLynn. Copyright © 1994 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Abbreviations


Chapter 1. The Reluctant Bishop
Chapter 2. Consolidation
Chapter 3. Ambrose and Gratian
Chapter 4. Persecution
Chapter 5. Ambrose's People, I: Master of Ceremonies
Chapter 6. Ambrose's People, II: Friends and
Chapter 7. Ambrose and Theodosius
Chapter 8. Sanctity



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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2001

    Scholarly yet readable

    This is not a book for the Christian faithful looking for a hagiography; nor for casual readers wanting a standard 'life'. It is rather a re-examination of Ambrose in the light of modern scholarship, which has done much to fill in our understanding of political power in the late fourth century. Despite the scholarly tone, though, this is a very readable book; in particular, the chapter on Ambrose's dangerous confrontation with Valentinian over control of Milan's churches is spellbinding. Highly recommended if you already know something about the period and want a new view of one of the most important figures of late antiquity.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A commanding performance from McLynn

    Precidely written, Ambrose of Milan reads somewhat like a well composed doctoral thesis. No matter. Part of a resurgent, Christian church, Ambrose's triumph over the last emperor of both western Rome and Byzantium, Theodosius I, have led biographers to tend toward hagiography. While no new material on Ambrose has surfaced, McLynn offers a more balanced view of his subject than existing scholarship.<BR/><BR/>McLynn's command of the nuance of late Roman society is very impressive and he earns 5 stars here for intellectual rigor.

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