1902 Encyclopedia > St Ambrose

St Ambrose
Roman official and Christian prelate
(c. 339 -397)

SAINT AMBROSE, Bishop of Milan, was one of the most eminent fathers of the church in the fourth century. He was a citizen of Rome, bom in Gaul,—according to some historians, in the year 334, but according to others in 340. At the period of his birth his father was prae-torian prefect of Gallia Narbonensis; and upon his death the widow repaired to Bome with her family. Ambrose received a religious education, and was reared in habits of virtue by his mother, an accomplished woman, and eminent for her piety. The names of his instructors in the rudi-ments of Greek and Roman literature have not been trans-mitted to posterity; but in these branches he made early proficiency, and having directed his attention to the law, he employed his eloquence with such reputation in the prae-torian court of Anicius Brobus, that he was soon deemed worthy of a place in the council. After he had continued in this station for some time, Probus appointed him con-sular prefect of Liguria and Aemilia, comprehending the territories of Milan, Liguria, Turin, Genoa, and Bologna. Milan was chosen as the place of his residence; and, by the prudent and gentle use of his power, he conducted the affairs of the province with general approbation and grow-ing popularity.

The death of Auxentius, bishop of Milan, in the year 374, made a sudden change in the fortune and literary pursuits of Ambrose. At that period the tide of religious conten-tion ran high between the orthodox and the Arians, and a violent contest arose concerning the choice of a successor
to Auxentius. When the people were assembled in the church to elect the new bishop, Ambrose, in the character of governor of the place, presented himself to the assembly, and in a grave, eloquent, and pathetic address, admonished the multitude to lay aside their contentions, and proceed to the election in the spirit of religious meekness. It is reported that when Ambrose had finished his address, a child cried out, "Ambrose is bishop," and that the agitated multitude, regarding this as a miraculous inti-mation, unanimously elected Ambrose bishop of Milan. Some suppose that this was entirely a device of Ambrose or his friends; others ascribe it to mere accident. Am-brose professed strong reluctance, and even fled, or pre-tended to fly, from the city in order to avoid the intended honour. The place of his concealment, however, was soon discovered; the emperor's confirmation of his election was made known to him; and after being baptized, he was ordained bishop of Milan, about the end of the year 374. Whatever we may think of the singular conduct of Ambrose in accepting an office for which he was certainly unqualified in respect of previous studies, habits, and employments, it must be admitted that he immediately betook himself to the necessary studies, and acquitted himself in his new elevation with ability, boldness, and integrity. Having apportioned his money among the poor, and settled his lands upon the church, with the exception of making his sister tenant during life, and having committed the care of his family to his brother, he entered upon a regular course of theological study, under the care of Simplician, a pres-byter of Bome, and devoted himself to the labours of the church.

The irruption of the Goths and the northern barbarians, who rushed down upon the Boman empire at this time, spreading terror and desolation all around, compelled Ambrose, along with several others, to retire to Illyricum, but his exile was of short duration, for the northern invaders were quickly defeated by the forces of the emperor, and driven back with considerable loss into their own territories.

The eloquence of Ambrose soon found ample scope in the dispute between the Arians and the orthodox. About this era the doctrine of Arius concerning the person of Christ had been extensively received, and had many power-ful defenders both among the clergy and the common people. Ambrose espoused the cause of the Catholics. Gratian, the son of the elder Valentinian, took the same side ; but the younger Valentinian, who had now become his colleague in the empire, adopted the opinions of the Arians; and all the arguments and eloquence of Ambrose were in-sufficient to reclaim the young prince to the orthodox faith. Theodosius, the emperor of the East, also professed the orthodox belief; but there were many adherents of Arius scattered throughout his dominions. In this distracted state of religious opinion, two leaders of the Arians, Pal-ladius and Secundianus, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Gratian to call a general council from all parts of that empire. This request appeared so equitable that he complied without hesitation ; but Ambrose, foreseeing the consequence, prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops. A synod, composed of thirty-two bishops, was accordingly held at Aquileia in the year 381. Ambrose was elected president; and Palladius being called upon to defend his opinions, declined, insisting that the meeting was a partial one, and that the whole bishops of the empire not being present, the sense of the Christian church concerning the question in dispute could not be obtained. A vote was then taken, when Palladius and his associate Secundianus were de-posed from the episcopal office.

Ambrose was equally zealous in combating the heathen superstitions. Upon the accession of Valentinian II., many of the senators who remained attached to the pagan idolatry made a vigorous effort to restore the worship of the heathen deities. Symmachus, a very opulent man and a great orator, who was at that time prefect of the city, was intrusted with the management of the pagan cause, and drew up a forcible petition, praying for the restoration of the altar of Victory to its ancient station in the hall of the senate, the proper support of seven vestal virgins, and the regular observance of the other pagan ceremonies. In the petition he argued that this form of religion had long been profitable to the Roman state, and reminded the emperor how much Rome had been indebted to Victory, and that it had been the uniform custom of the senators to swear fidelity to the government upon that altar. He likewise adduced many facts to prove the advantages accruing to the state from its ancient religious institutions, and pleaded that, as it was one divinity that all men worshipped under different forms, ancient practice should not be rashly laid aside. He even proceeded so far as to assert the justice of increasing the public revenue by robbing the church, and attributed the late famine which had overtaken the empire to the neglect of the ancient worship. To this petition Ambrose replied in a letter to Valentinian, arguing that the devoted worshippers of idols had often been forsaken by their deities; that the native valour of the Roman soldiers had gained their victories, and not the pretended influence of pagan priests; that these idolatrous worshippers requested for themselves what they refused to Christians'; that voluntary was more honourable than constrained virginity; that as the Christian ministers declined to receive temporal emoluments, they should also be denied to pagan priests; that it was absurd to suppose that God would inflict a famine upon the empire for neglecting to support a religious system con-trary to His will as revealed in the Scriptures; that the whole process of nature encouraged innovations, and that all nations had permitted them, even in religion; that heathen sacrifices were offensive to Christians; and that it was the duty of a Christian prince to suppress pagan ceremonies. In the epistles of Symmachus and of Ambrose both the petition and the reply are preserved, in which sophistry, superstition, sound sense, and solid argument are strangely blended. It is scarcely necessary to add that the petition was unsuccessful.

The increasing strength of the Arians proved too formidable for Ambrose. In 384 the young emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity professing the Arian faith, requested from the bishop the use of two churches, one in the city, the other in the suburbs of Milan. The prelate believing the bishops to be the guardians both of the temporal and spiritual interests of the church, and regarding the religious edifices as the unquestionable property of the church, positively refused to deliver up the temples of the Lord into the impious hands of heretics. Filled with indig-nation, Justina resolved to employ the imperial authority of her son in procuring by force what she could not obtain by persuasion. Ambrose was required to answer for his conduct before the council. He went, attended by a numerous crowd of people, whose impetuous zeal so over-awed the ministers of Valentinian that he was permitted to retire without making the surrender of the churches. The day following, when he was performing divine service in the Basilica, the prefect of the city came to persuade him to give up at least the Portian church in the suburbs. As he still continued obstinate, the court proceeded to violent measures : the officers of the household were com-manded to prepare the Basilica and the Bortian churches to celebrate divine service upon the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the ensuing festival of Easter. Perceiving the growing strength of the prelate's interest, the court deemed it prudent to restrict its demand to the use of one of the churches. But all entreaties proved in vain, and drew forth the following characteristic declaration from the bishop :—" 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."

Many circumstances in the history of Ambrose are strongly characteristic of the general spirit of the times. The chief causes of his victory over his opponents were his great popularity and the superstitious reverence paid to the episcopal character at that period. But it must also be noted that he used several indirect means to obtain and support his authority with the people. He was liberal to the poor; it was his custom to comment severely in his preaching on the public characters of his times; and he introduced popular reforms in the order and manner of public worship. It is alleged, too, that at a time when the influence of Ambrose required vigorous support, he was admonished in a dream to search for, and found under the pavement of the church, the remains of two martyrs, Gervasius and Brotasius. The vulgar crowded to behold these venerable relics, and, according to report, a number of sick persons were healed by touching the bones. Ambrose exulted in these miracles, and appealed to them in his eloquent sermons; while the court derided and called in question their existence. It is remarkable that these and many other miracles obtained current credit among the Christian historians of the second, third, and fourth centuries; and Dr Cave, in speaking of them, says—"I make no doubt but God suffered them to be wrought at this time on purpose to confront the Arian impieties."

Although the court was displeased with the religious principles and conduct of Ambrose, it respected his great political talents; and when necessity required, his aid was solicited and generously granted. When Maximus usurped the supreme power in Gaul, and was meditating a descent upon Italy, Valentinian sent Ambrose to dissuade him from the undertaking; and the embassy was successful. On a second attempt of the same kind Ambrose was again employed; and although he was unsuccessful, it cannot be doubted that, if his advice had been followed, the schemes of the usurper would have proved abortive; but the enemy was permitted to enter Italy, and Milan was taken. Justina and her son fled; but Ambrose remained at his post, and did good service to many of the sufferers by causing the plate of the church to be melted for their relief. Theodosius, the emperor of the East, espoused the cause of Justina, and regained the kingdom.

In the year 390 a tumult happened at Thessalonica, in which Botheric, one of the imperial officers, was slain. Theodosius was so enraged at this that he issued a royal mandate for the promiscuous massacre of the inhabitants of the place, and about 7000 persons were butchered without distinction or mercy. The deed called forth a severe rebuke from Ambrose, who charged the emperor not to approach the holy communion with his hands stained with innocent blood. The emperor reminded him that David had been guilty of murder and of adultery. The bishop replied, "You have imitated David in his guilt; go and imitate him in his repentance." The prince obeyed, and after a course of eight months' penance he was absolved, on condition that in future an interval of thirty days should intervene before any sentence of death or confiscation was executed.

The generosity of Ambrose was favourably exhibited in the year 392, after the assassination of Valentinian and the usurpation of Eugenius. Rather than join the standard of the usurper, he fled from Milan; but when Theodosius was eventually victorious, he supplicated the emperor for the pardon of those who had supported Eugenius. Soon after acquiring the undisputed possession of the Roman empire, Theodosius died at Milan (395). Bishop Ambrose did not long survive him, having died in the year 397.

On many accounts the character of the bishop of Milan stands high among the fathers of the ancient church. With unvarying steadiness he delivered his religious senti-ments on all occasions; with unwearied assiduity he dis-charged the duties of his office; with unabated zeal and boldness he defended the orthodox cause in opposition to the Arians; with a liberal hand he fed the numerous poor who flocked to his dwelling; with uncommon generosity he manifested kindness to his adversaries; and with Christian affection he sought the happiness of all men. His general disposition and habits were amiable and virtuous, and his powers of mind vigorous and persevering. Ambition and bigotry were the chief blemishes in his character.

The writings of Ambrose are voluminous, but many of them are little more than reproductions of the works of Origen and other Greek fathers. The great design of them was to defend and propagate the Catholic faith. His expositions of Scripture contain many extreme examples of allegorical and mystical interpretation. Modern readers will regard much in the writings of Ambrose as trivial, and even as ludicrous; but his style is vigorous, and the sentiment is often weighty. Gibbon's judgment appears to be too severe : " Ambrose could act better than he could write ; his compositions are destitute of taste or genius, without the spirit of Tertullian, the copious elegance of Lactantius, the lively wit of Jerome, or the grave energy of Augustin." His exegetical writings include an exposi-tion of the Gospel of St Luke, and commentaries on certain Psalms. His Hexaemeron is a homiletical treatise on the history of the creation. " The Hymns of St Ambrose have exercised a powerful influence on Christendom. They were designed by him to be a preventive against the errors of Arianism, and to confirm the professors of the true faith in the doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. . . . Very many of them have found a place in the liturgies of the Western Church. On account of the celebrity of St Ambrose, many hymns have been attributed to him which are not his; and, on the other hand, some critics have gone into the opposite extreme, and have deprived him of his property. In the Benedictine edition of his works only twelve hymns are admitted; and Dom. Biraghi [of the Ambrosian Library, who has endeavoured, in his Inni Sinceri di Sant' Ambrogio, to restore the hymns to their primitive form] shows reason for believing that only seven of these are genuine" {Journal of a Tour in Italy, by Ghr. Wordsworth, D.D., 1863). The most accurate and complete edition of his works is that published by the Benedictines, printed at Paris in 1686 and 1690, in two volumes folio.

A liturgical form, the Ambrosian Ritual, which is still in use in the arch-diocese of Milan, has been tradition-ally ascribed to Saint Ambrose. Several attempts were made, in particular by the Emperor Charlemagne and Pope Nicolas II., to secure uniformity by enforcing the adoption of the Boman breviary throughout the Western Church, but the clergy of Milan refused to yield. The ritual of Ambrose is included in the Liturgia Latinorum of Bamelius (Cologne, 1571-6). "Full information concerning its history will be found in the Ceremoniale Ambrosiano, by Dom. Giovanni Dozio, published at Milan, 1853" (Wordsworth's Tour, 1863).

For a description of the famous church of St Ambrose, founded by him at Milan 387 A.D., see MILAN. For the Ambrosian Library, see LIBRARIES. Notices of his LITURGY and HYMNS will be found under these headings.

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