(Ambrose of Milan)


Saint Ambrose of Milan was one of the most influential fathers of the early church. From the very beginning of his clerical career he set an outstanding example of Christian leadership. In 374 A.D. he was in his early thirties and a governor of the region surrounding Milan. He was wealthy and well respected, but had never considered becoming a priest. Though he had Christian beliefs, he had not yet even been baptized. When the bishop of Milan died, he was unexpectedly acclaimed bishop by popular demand. At first he resisted, but when pressed, he gave up all of his worldly belongings, agreed to be baptized and ordained, and devoted his talents to the service of the church. Besides providing a great example of personal piety, Ambrose was an important defender of orthodox Catholicism in opposition to the various heresies of the day, including Arianism and Manichaeanism. He had a great influence on Augustine of Hippo, who was later to become the most important Christian theologian of the first millennium.

Ambrose was an outstanding bishop at a critical period in history, and had great influence with the emperors of both the East and the West. He is most famous for standing his ground against two emperors, and insisting that "The Emperor is in the Church, not above it." In 384 A.D. he refused a direct request from the Western Emperor Valentinian II for the use of church property in service to Arian Christians. In 390 A.D. he excommunicated the Eastern Emperor Theodosius, because of his involvement with the massacre of 7000 citizens of Thessalonica, until he had done a public penance. Ambrose did not have the final word on the subject of the supremacy of the Church over the empire, but his was certainly a radical ideal for a civilization with a 400 year history of deifying its emperors.

It was consistent with the character of Ambrose that his principled stand opposed to the emperors created lasting respect, rather than a lasting rift. Ambrose remained a close advisor to Theodosius for the duration of his reign. He won the respect of members of the imperial court who were not sympathetic to Christian ideas, and his charity toward the poor assured him of great influence also with the masses. He was often called upon to mediate between rival factions and was frequently successful in bringing opposing parties to some agreement. His legal training allowed him to frame issues based on principle and precedent, rather than bias or arbitrary favor, and he used these skills to promote the interests of Christianity, and discourage paganism without appearing to be unfair or heavy-handed.

Key events during the life of Ambrose of Milan:

Born in Germany to Christian parents.
  Excelled at studies of literature, law, and rhetoric.
  Promoted to consular prefect of Liguria, with his office in Milan.
Bishop of Milan dies. Ambrose was proclaimed bishop by popular demand, though he was not yet baptized.
  Gave away all riches, and whole-heartedly devoted himself to the service of the Church.
Persuaded Emperor Gratian to outlaw all heresy in the Western empire.
Presided at the synod of Aquileia, Arian bishops were deposed fron their office.
Refused request of Emperor Valentinian II for use of churches for Arian services.
St. Augustine is baptized as Christian after being influenced by Ambrose.
Excommunicated Emperor Theodosius after the massacre of 7000 Thessalonians.
Encouraged the Christian Emperor Valentinian II to suppress pagan worship.
Valentinian II is murdered and Eugenius usurps throne. Ambrose flees from Milan.
After Theodosius defeats Eugenius, Ambrose requests pardon for all supports of his rival.
Ambrose dies, two years after death of Theodosius.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Emperor's Penance  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Ambrose  in  The Early Church, from Ignatius to Augustine  by  George Hodges
Ambrose, 340-397  in  Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages  by  George Hodges
St. Ambrose  in  Back Matter  by  books/horne/statesmen/_back.html
St. Ambrose  in    by  

Image Links

Ambrose rebukes Theodosius, Fugel
 in Famous Men of Rome

Saint Ambrose
 in Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages

Ambrose Barring Theodosius from the Church
 in Greatest Nations - Rome

Saint Ambrose of Milan
 in Back Matter

Ambrose Rebukes Theodosius
 in Back Matter

Go back', he said.
 in Red Book of Heroes

Do not delay an instant', he cried, 'or it will be too late.'
 in Red Book of Heroes

Short Biography
Gratian Emperor in the West during Ambrose's early years as bishop. Opposed the Arians.
Valentinian II Young emperor who succeeded Gratian. Allied at first with the Arians.
Theodosius Emperor excommunicated by Ambrose for massacre of civilians at Thessalonia.
Augustine of Hippo Greatest Christian theologian of the Middle Ages. Wrote Confessions and City of God.
Symmachus Prominent senator who petitioned for pagan worship privileges to be restored.
Maximus Usurped the supreme power in Gaul.