Red Book of Heroes - Andrew Lang

The Crime of Theodosius

Everyone who stops to visit the town of Treves, or Trier, to give it its German name, must be struck by the number and beauty of its ruins, which give us some idea of the splendour of the city at the time that Ambrose the Prefect lived there and ruled his province. About the city were hills now covered with vines, and through an opening between them ran the river Moselle. A wall with seven gates defended Treves from the German tribes on the east of the Rhine, but only one, the Porta Nigra, or Black Gate, is left standing. Its cathedral, the oldest in Europe north of the Alps, was founded in 375 A.D. by Valentinian I., who often occupied the palace which was sacked and ruined a century later by Huns and Franks. A great bridge spanned the Moselle, and outside the walls, where the vineyards now climb the hills, was an amphitheatre which held 30,000 people, and when these came back, tired and dusty, from chariot races or games, there were baths and warm water in the underground galleries to make them clean and comfortable.

It was somewhere about the year 333 A.D. that a boy was born at Treves in the house of the governor, and called Ambrose, after his father. He was the youngest of three children, his brother Satyrus being only a little older than himself, while Marcellina, their sister, who was nearly four, looked down upon the others as mere babies. Ambrose the elder was a very important person indeed, for the emperor Constantine had made him ruler, or prefect, of the whole of Europe west of the Rhine, that is, of Spain, Gaul or France, and Britain. The prefect was a good and just man, and the nations were happy under his sway; but he died after a few years, and his wife, unfortunately, thought it wiser to leave Treves and take her children to Rome, where they could get the best teaching and would become acquainted with their father's friends.

It was a long and difficult journey for a lady and two boys (Marcellina had already gone to a convent in Rome), though they were rich enough to travel in tolerable comfort. Even in summer the passage of the Alps was hard enough, and the towering mountains, steep precipices, and rushing rivers must have seemed strange and alarming to anyone fresh from the fertile slopes of the Rhineland. But the boys were not frightened, only deeply interested, and they quite forgot to be sorry at leaving their old home in the excitement of what lay before them.

No doubt they had many adventures, or what they would have considered as such, before they reached the corn-covered plains of Lombardy, and stopped to rest in the city of Milan, whose name was hereafter to be bound up for all time with that of little Ambrose. But we are not told anything about their travels, and when they arrived in Rome they went straight to the old house, which had been for generations in their father's family. That family was famous in the annals of the city, and had become Christian in the time of the persecution; but nowadays Christians and pagans lived happily together, and divided the public offices between them.

The children soon settled down in their new surroundings, and felt as if they had lived all their lives in Rome. Marcellina they seldom or never saw, and, however much her mother may have longed after her, she was forced to content herself with her two boys and to take pride in their success.

The prefect of Rome, Symmachus by name, had taken a great fancy to Satyrus, in spite of the fact that the boy was brought up a Christian, while he himself was a pagan. Symmachus shared with the Christian Probus the chief authority in Rome, and while Satyrus was to be found in his house during most of the hours when he was not attending, with his brother, classes in Greek and Latin literature and in law, Ambrose was no less frequently in that of Probus. Though this caused their mother to spend many lonely evenings, she was well pleased, for both men bore a high character, and would be able to help her boys in many ways that were impossible to a woman. The two youths were very popular, pleasant, and well-mannered, and with strong common-sense which proved useful in saving them from pitfalls that might otherwise have been their ruin. They had friends without number, but they liked no one's company so much as each other's, and it was a sad moment for both when Symmachus gave Satyrus a post under his own son, and the two young men set sail for Asia Minor.

For some time Ambrose remained at home, learning the duties of a prefect under Probus. He early showed great talent for managing men, a quick eye for detecting crime, impartiality in giving judgment, and firmness in seeing it carried out. Probus must have watched anxiously to see how far the young man's sense of justice and his desire for mercy would act on each other, but what he saw satisfied him. Ambrose knew at once what was the important point in every matter, and never allowed his mind to be confused by things that had nothing to do with the real question. This was his safeguard as a judge, and this was the principle he held to all through his life, which caused him to be such a different man from Hildebrand or Thomas a Becket, or many great bishops who came after him. To Ambrose, murder was murder, theft was theft, whether it was done by a Christian or a pagan, and the punishment was equally heavy for both.

Perhaps the emperor Valentinian may have noted the qualities of the young lawyer, or perhaps he may have consulted with Probus, but in any case, in the year 372 Ambrose was sent off to govern the whole of North Italy, under the title of "consul." At the utmost he was only twenty-nine, and he may have been younger, for the date of his birth is uncertain. But his head was in no way turned by his position, and the emperor, a well-meaning but tactless man, beheld with satisfaction that the restless people of Milan, the capital of the north, were growing daily quieter under the rule of Ambrose. What his own severity had been powerless to accomplish Ambrose carried through without any difficulty. The parties, religious as well as political, into which the city was split up, all came to him with their grievances, and, wonderful to say, never murmured at his verdicts. Before he had been consul much more than a year, Milan was in a quieter state than it had been for half a century.

But the death of the bishop early in 374 threatened to plunge everything into the old confusion. Valentinian was consulted, but refused to have anything to do in the matter of the election of a new prelate; it was not his business, he said. So the bishops streamed in to Milan from the cities of the north and met in the gallery of one of the large round churches that were built in those days. In great excitement the people pressed in below; so much depended on who was chosen—to which party he belonged. For hours and hours they waited, and every now and then a murmur ran through the crowd that the announcement was about to be made; but it died away as fast as it came, and the weary waiting began again. At last the strain grew too great, and it was quite plain that the smallest spark of disagreement would kindle a great fire.

A man wiser than the rest saw this, and hastened to summon Ambrose to the spot.

"Do not delay an instant," he cried, "or it will be too late. Only you can keep the peace, so come at once."



Ambrose needed no urging. What his friend said was true, and, besides, he was as a magistrate bound if possible to prevent a riot, or, if one had already begun, to quell it.

The loud, angry voices ceased as he entered the church, and amidst a dead silence he begged the crowd to be patient yet a little while longer, and to remember that the choice of a bishop was one that affected them all, and could not be made in a hurry. As he spoke he noted that the excitement began to grow less, and by the time he had ended the flushed faces were calm again. Then the voice of a child rang through the church.

"Ambrose, bishop!"

"Ambrose, bishop," echoed the people, but Ambrose stood for a moment rooted to the spot. It was the last thing he had expected or wished, but the continued cries brought him to himself, and hastily leaving the church he went to the hall where he gave his judgments, the crowd pressing on him right up to the door.

Never before or since has any man been so suddenly lifted into a position for which he had made no previous preparation. He, a bishop! Why, though a Christian, in common with many of his friends and also with his brother, he had never even been baptized, still less had he studied any of the things a bishop ought to know. Oh! it was impossible. It was only a moment's craze, and would be forgotten as soon as he was out of sight; so he stole away at night and hid himself, intending to escape to another city. But on his way he was recognised by a man who had once pleaded a cause before him. A crowd speedily collected, and he was carried by the people back to his house within the walls, and a guard placed before it, while a letter was despatched to the emperor informing him that the lot had fallen upon Ambrose.

"Vox populi, vox Dei" ("The voice of the people is the voice of God"). Valentinian gave a sigh of surprise and relief as he read the wax tablets before him. Losing no time, he sent a paper, signed by himself, the imperial seal affixed, nominating Ambrose bishop of Milan, while to Ambrose he wrote privately, saying that no better choice could have been made, and that he would support him in everything. But by the time the messenger reached Milan, Ambrose had escaped again, and was hiding in the house of a friend outside the walls. However, this effort to avoid the greatness thrust upon him was as vain as the rest, and he saw that he must accept what fate had brought him. Within a week he had been baptized, ordained priest, and consecrated bishop, knowing as little as any man might of the studies hitherto considered necessary for his position. But it is quite possible that his ignorance of these may have been a help instead of a hindrance in the carrying out of his duties.

Now very often, if a man's position is changed, his character seems to change too, and the very qualities which caused him to be chosen for the new appointment sink into the background, while others, far less suitable, take their place. No doubt, during the first days after his election Ambrose must have been watched carefully by many eyes—for no one, however popular, is wholly without enemies—and any alteration in his conduct or way of life would have been noted down. Still, even the most envious could find no difference. Ambrose the bishop was in all respects the same as Ambrose the consul, except that he gave away more money than he had done before, and held himself to a still greater degree at the disposal of the people.

In these days we are so used to reading of the struggle which raged for so many centuries between the Church and the State—the Emperor and the Pope—that it seems quite natural to us that after the death of the emperor Valentinian (which happened a few months later) the bishop should become the adviser and minister of his young son Gratian. To Ambrose, however, the situation was beset with difficulties, and both disagreeable and dangerous. He had not the least desire to meddle in the affairs of the empire—the care of the church in Milan was quite enough for any one man; but when the young emperor Gratian came to him for advice and guidance it was his duty to give it. Soon matters grew worse and worse. The Goths crossed the Danube, and defeated the army of the Eastern Empire near Adrianople; Byzantium, or Constantinople, the city of Constantine, lay at their mercy; and Italy might be entered through Hungary and the Tyrol, or by sea from the south.

The tidings reached Milan through the first of the numerous fugitives who had managed to escape across the Alps. Every day more frightened, starving people arrived, and the city was taxed to the utmost to find them food and shelter. Yet even the lot of these poor creatures was happy in comparison with those who had been taken prisoners by the Goths, and were doomed to spend their lives in slavery unless they were ransomed. Ambrose set the rich citizens an example by giving all the money he had, but after every farthing possible had been raised the unredeemed captives were still many. There only remained the golden vessels of the church, which were the pride of Milan, and these the bishop brought out and melted down, so that as far as in him lay all prisoners might be freed.

In after-years his enemies sought to use the fact as a handle against him. He had no right to give what was not his own, they said; but Ambrose paid little heed to their words; he had done what he knew was just, and the rest did not matter.

With the appointment of the general Theodosius as emperor of the East things began to mend. The Goths began to understand that they had a strong man to deal with, and Ambrose was once more left to act both as bishop and magistrate in his own diocese, and to give constant advice to the well-meaning but weak young Gratian. The legal training that Ambrose had received was now of the highest value, and his experience of men and the world acquired in Rome preserved him from making many mistakes and giving ear to lying stories. The cleverest rogues in Milan knew that the most cunning tale would never deceive the bishop, and would only earn for themselves a heavy fine or imprisonment. "Some," he writes, "say they have debts; make sure that they speak truly. Others declare they have been robbed by brigands; let them prove their words, and show that the injuries were really received by them." Under Ambrose's rule impostors of all kinds grew scarce.

During these years the bishop's life, except for public anxieties, had been calm and happy, for his brother Satyrus had been with him, and had given him his help in many ways. At length important business took the elder brother to Africa, and on his return the ship in which he was sailing struck on a rock and sank. Luckily, they were not far from land, and Satyrus was a good swimmer, so with great exertions he managed to reach a lonely part of the coast. He was kindly cared for by the people, but there was no means of letting Ambrose hear of his safety, and he had to wait long before another ship passed that way. Then, when his friends had abandoned all hope, he suddenly appeared in Milan, to the speechless joy of the bishop. But not long were they left together. In a little while Satyrus fell ill, and in spite of the constant care that was given him, in a few days he died, leaving Ambrose more lonely than before.

After this troubles crowded thick and fast on the bishop. Gratian, whom he had loved as a son, was treacherously murdered in Gaul by order of Maximus, who had been given by Gratian himself rule over the prefecture of Gaul with the title of emperor. The grief of Ambrose was deep; but besides he was forced to act for Gratian's half-brother Valentinian, whose mother Justina never failed to send for the bishop to help her out of her difficulties, and directly he had made things smooth, proceeded to fall back into them.

Thankful indeed was he when she and her son set out for Thessalonica, to put themselves under the protection of Theodosius.

In the long line of the emperors of the East there were few more honest and able than Theodosius. He found his dominions in a state of confusion, the prey of the barbarian hordes that were always pouring westwards from the wide plains of Scythia, while internally the strife in the church was fiercer than ever. Quietly and steadily the emperor took his measures. Here he pardoned, there he punished, and men felt that both pardon and punishment were just. He was not yet strong enough to fight against the rebel Maximus, as he would have liked to do, but he determined that, cost what it might, he would never forsake the young Valentinian. Maximus had snatched at some excuse to invade Milan, which on his entrance he had found abandoned by its chief men, save only Ambrose, who treated him with contempt and went his own way. The intruder's efforts to buy support by conciliation failed miserably, and in a few weeks there came the news that Theodosius was preparing to meet him on the borders of Hungary, or Pannonia. Then Maximus assembled what forces he could, and set out across the pass of the Brenner.

Two battles were lost, for the legions of Maximus were but half-hearted; in the third he was taken prisoner and brought before the emperor. Theodosius was a merciful man, but his heart was hard towards the murderer of Gratian. "Let him die!" he said, and without delay the order was carried out.



Now that Maximus was dead the legions were quite ready to return to their rightful emperor, and as soon as he had settled matters Theodosius went on to Milan. There he and Ambrose became great friends; the bishop was much the cleverer of the two, but they were both honest and straightforward, with great common-sense, and it must have been a relief to Ambrose, who did not in the least care for being an important person, to feel that he could at last mind his own business, and leave affairs of state to the emperor.

It was while all seemed going so smoothly that the supreme crisis in the lives of both men took place—the event which has linked the names of Ambrose and Theodosius for evermore.

Thessalonica, the chief town of Macedonia, was a beautiful city, and its Governor, Count Botheric, a special friend of the Emperor, who constantly went to pay him a visit when wearied out with the cares of state, which pressed on him so heavily in Constantinople. The people were gay and light-hearted, loving shows and pageants of all sorts, but more especially the games of the circus. In order to celebrate the defeat of Maximus, Botheric had arranged a series of special displays, and in the chariot races most of the prizes were carried off by one man, who became the idol of the moment. Furious, therefore, was the indignation which ran through the city when, immediately after the festival was over, the charioteer was accused of some disgraceful crime, and being found guilty, was thrown into prison by Botheric. In a body the populace surged up to the house of the Governor and demanded his release. But Botheric was not the man to be turned from what he knew to be right by an excited crowd. He absolutely refused to give way, and told them that the man had deserved the punishment he had given him, and more too. Then the passion of the mob broke loose. They attacked the Governor's house and the houses of all who were in authority. The soldiers who were ordered out were too few to cope with their violence. In the struggle Botheric was killed, and many of his friends also, and their bodies subjected to every kind of insult that madness could suggest.

Theodosius was in Milan when the news reached him, and after a few moments of stony horror he was seized with such terrific passion that it almost seemed as if he would die of rage. At last he spoke; to those who stood around the voice sounded as the voice of a stranger.

"The crime was committed by the whole town," he said, "and the whole town shall suffer." Then, and without giving himself time to change his mind, he sat down and wrote the order for a massacre to one of the few magistrates left alive.

His words were probably reported to Ambrose, and no doubt the bishop tried his best to calm the wrath of the emperor. But Theodosius was in no mood to be reasoned with. He declined to see his friend, and left Milan, shutting himself up in silence till the terrible tale of vengeance was told.

In obedience to his instructions, games, and especially chariot races, were announced to take place in the circus. We do not know if the mob had broken open the prison and released the charioteer in whose honour so much blood had been shed; but if so we may be sure that he was present, and was hailed with shouts of welcome. The circus was crowded from end to end—not a single seat was vacant. The eyes of the spectators were fixed on the line of chariots drawn up at the starting-point, and drivers and lookers-on awaited breathlessly the signal. In their absorption they never noticed that soldiers had drawn silently up and had surrounded them. A moment later, and a signal was indeed given, but it was the signal for one of the bloodiest massacres that ever shocked the ancient world. Probably the authorities who carried out the emperor's orders went further than he intended, even in the first passion of his anger. But of one thing we may be quite sure, and that is that remorse and shame filled his soul when the hideous story reached him. Not that he would confess it; to the public he would say he was justified in what he had done, but none the less he would have given all he had to undo his actions. He came back one night to Milan, and shut himself up again in his palace.

At the time of the emperor's return Ambrose happened to be staying with a friend in the country, for his health had suffered from his hard work, and also from this last blow, and his uncertainty how best to bring Theodosius to a sense of his crime. When he entered Milan once more, he waited, in the hope that the emperor might send for him, as he was used to do; but as no messenger arrived, the bishop understood that Theodosius refused to see him, and the only course open was to write a letter.

The occasion was not one for polite phrases, neither was Ambrose the man to use them. In the plainest words he set his guilt before Theodosius and besought him to repent. And as his sin had been public, his repentance must be public too. But this letter remained unanswered. Theodosius was resolved to brave the matter out, and next day, accompanied by his usual attendants, he went to the great church.

Ambrose and Theodosius


At the porch Ambrose met him, and refused to let him pass.

"Go back," he said, "lest you add another sin to those you have already committed. You are blinded by power, and even now your heart is hard, and you do not understand that your hands are steeped in blood. Go back."

And Theodosius went back, feeling in his soul the truth of the bishop's words, but prevented by pride from humbling himself.

Months went on, and the two men still lived as strangers, and now Christmas was near. Rufinus, prefect of the palace, who was suspected of having inflamed the wrath of the Emperor in the matter of Thessalonica, upbraided his master with showing so sad a face while the whole world was rejoicing. Theodosius then opened his soul to him, and acknowledged that at length he had repented of his crime and was ready to confess it before the bishop and the people. Once having spoken, he would not delay, and there and then went on foot to the church. As before, Ambrose, who had been warned of his intention, met him in the porch, thinking that the emperor meant to force his way in, and in that case the bishop was prepared to put him out with his own hands.

But Theodosius stood with bowed head, and in a low voice confessed his guilt and entreated forgiveness. "What signs can you show me that your repentance is real?" asked Ambrose. "A crime like yours is not to be expiated lightly."

"Tell me what to do, and I will do it," said Theodosius.

And the proof that Ambrose demanded was neither fasting nor scourging nor gifts to the church. "It was that the emperor should write where now he stood, on the tablets that he always took with him, an order delaying for thirty days the announcement of any decree passed by a reigning emperor which carried sentence of death or confiscation of property to his subjects." Further, that after the thirty days had passed the sentence and the circumstances which called it forth must be considered over again, to make quite sure that no injustice should be committed. To this Theodosius willingly agreed; not only because it was the token of repentance imposed on him by Ambrose, but because his own sense of right and justice made him welcome a law by which the people no longer should be at the mercy of one man's rage.

The law was written down and read out so that those who stood around might hear; then Ambrose drew back the bar across the porch, and Theodosius once more entered the church.