Saint of the Week: St. Ambrose of Milan

I had been tempted to continue the Scotland-related theme, but St. Ambrose’s feast was yesterday, so I couldn’t pass over this one.

If you had been in Milan in the year 390 while the August Emperor Theodosius I was there, you would have noticed something peculiar about the Emperor’s behaviour at the divine liturgy: he did not receive the sacrament.  Of course, the truly remarkable fact is that Theodosius was receiving it by Christmastide, for he had been excommunicated by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, for massacring up to 7000 people in Thessalonica (according to Theodoret of Cyrus, but who can be sure with the figures of ancient historians?) in the middle of the year.  The rehabilitation of someone so soon after penance for so great a crime was not common in the ancient world.

St. Ambrose and Theodosius by van Dyck

This event is one of the most famous events of an illustrious career, and it shows us how powerful St. Ambrose (340-397) was, for he secured the penitence of the emperor for an act akin to what many an emperor before and after had perpetrated.

Yet when we consider the Italy of the late fourth century, then the Bishop of Milan is an easy choice for the role of ‘powerful man,’ for by this stage, the emperors were not regularly living at Rome.  Constantine had spent much of his early reign in Trier, and had later moved to Constantinople.  This trend continued with the most popular western choices falling to Milan and Ravenna.

Furthermore, the papacy in Rome, where many of us would expect to find at least a very influential bishop, was in a bit of hot water in these days.  366 had seen the great low point of the ancient bishopric of Rome, when a contested episcopal election led the deaths of around 160 people within a basilica.  It would take St. Leo the Great (read about him here and here) to raise the papacy to the heights that its dignity as a patriarchal see required.

With the papacy in disarray, and Milan one of the most powerful cities in the Empire, the rising star of St. Ambrose strikes me as almost to be expected.  This is especially the case when we consider his outstanding talents.

St. Ambrose, according to his biographer Paulinus, had no great intention of becoming an ecclesiastic.  His was a standard career for many aristocratic Romans ever since someone inscribed the Twelve Tables of Roman law (c. 450 BC): that of advocate/lawyer.  And what is a lawyer in the ancient world but a great orator?

But this orator was everyone’s choice when the see of Milan became vacant, so he reluctantly left behind the lawcourts and was duly ordained then consecrated bishop of Milan.  We know that he was well-skilled in oratory not only from the wealth of homilies he left us but also from the testimony of St. Augustine of Hippo who held the chair of rhetoric in Milan for a while, who would go to church just to hear St. Ambrose preach.

St. Augustine also demonstrates St. Ambrose’s ability to communicate the truths of the Gospel, not simply beautiful orations, for it was through this saint’s sermons that St. Augustine was converted, and it was by the Bishop of Milan that he was baptised.  For some, this is all they know of St. Ambrose of Milan.

I heard somewhere (this is officially hearsay) that upon his election to the episcopate, St. Ambrose melted down a large quantity of the Church’s flatware and gave to the poor.  If this is true, then we see his concern for the evangelical injunctions to help the poor.  Worship is not only what goes on in the liturgy.

Of course, worship certainly includes what goes on in the liturgy!  It is here that we see more of St. Ambrose’s genius, for he wrote many hymns and has a style of chant and an entire liturgical use named after him.  But more on that tomorrow.

Another aspect of Ambrose’s force and sheer awesomeness is his relentless attack on Arianism.  He preached against it; he wrote the Emperor Gratian his On the Faith concerning what orthodoxy believes; he did his best to keep Arians away from the emperors and out of bishoprics, especially after Theodosius declared orthodoxy the only orthodoxy allowed in 381.

This attitude towards Arianism and the establishment of orthodoxy is parallelled in his attitude towards pagans & Jewish people and the establishment of Christianity.  He was involved in a letter-writing campaign against Symmachus, Rome Prefect and one of the last great pagans, who wanted to reinstall the Altar of Victory in the Senate House.  Symmachus’ case may have been as much about tradition and culture as about paganism.  Ambrose’s was as much about Christianity as it was about what he believed a Christian emperor should endorse.

This question of Christian-imperial endorsement also explains his chastising of Theodosius regarding the emperor’s shelling out coin for the rebuilding of a synagogue.  This was not a matter of ‘Jews are bad; don’t do stuff for Jews,’ as so much else in the ancient Christian world was, but, rather, a matter of, ‘Jews aren’t Christians.  You are a Christian emperor.  The role of the Christian emperor is to build churches, not synagogues.’  One could argue with that logic, but it was a logic informed by religion and an increasingly Christianised sense of civic duty rather than by racism.*

Ambrose was a man of many talents: an orator, a poet, a politician, a lawyer, a liturgist, a letter-writer, a theologian.  He was able to bring the emperor to repentance.  He was able to convert pagan philosophers.  He truly belongs with the other three ancient doctors of the western church, with St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great.

*There are explicit cases of racism in late-ancient Christianity.  Or at least, the closest thing the ancient world gets to racism, given that their concept of ‘race’ is not the same as ours.

Saint of the Week: Constantine the Great

Constantine (272-337; r. 307-337) was the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity.  As an Emperor, he seems very little different from his predecessors — a violent war-monger who sought supreme power for himself, engaged in great building projects, regulated the life of the Roman Empire, executed family members, was involved in various palace and political intrigues, and so on and so forth.  Adrian Goldsworthy, in his recent book The Fall Of The West, says that Constantine ruled in a manner so similar to Diocletian (r. 284-305) that it is often difficult to determine who instituted which reforms.

Furthermore, Constantine’s tolerance for Christianity is not as outstanding as many, especially his panegyrists such as Eusebius, would like us to think.  The third century was not a time of rife persecution from all emperors, but often had many emperors who tolerated Christianity, with one even giving formal acknowledgement of the protection of Christians.

Unlike his predecessors, Constantine was actually a Christian.  Before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312) which he fought against his rival Maxentius, he had a dream saying, “In this, conquer,” indicating to him the labarum, or chi-rho sign — or possibly that of a cross with the top curved to look like a rho (which looks like a P).  Having painted the labarum on his soldiers’ shields, he won the Milvian Bridge and credited his victory to the Christian god.  Many Roman Emperors credited their victories to specific gods, so as yet this was still not excessively remarkable.

However, Constantine’s attachment to the Christian God was to grow throughout his reign.  Christianity gained imperial favour, which resulted in new public church buildings designed in the style of the Roman basilica, the place for public meeting, law, and business.  Included amongst these were the original St. Peter’s on Vatican Hill, St. John’s Lateran, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where his mother, St. Helena, went on pilgrimage.  The Church was also returned her property which had been confiscated during the Diocletianic Persecution.

Our English word emperor comes from the Latin imperator, which was used by Rome’s leading citizen from Augustus in 27 BC to Romulus Augustulus in AD 476.  The imperator was the supreme commander of Rome’s armies.  He organised the legions and the navy.  He planned campaigns against Rome’s enemies.  He looked after the welfare of the State in a very physical, tangible sense.  In Senatorial Rome, the military and the political and the administrative were never entirely divorced.  The imperator was a great organiser of men.

What an imperator such as Constinatine really needed was to ensure the Pax Romana — the “Roman Peace” instituted by Augustus which had suffered greatly in the previous century through a great deal of internal turmoil which beckoned a number of external threats (chiefly Germanic or Persian).  Part of this was instilling unity throughout the Empire, something attempted by Diocletian through an ill-fated price-fixing law.  Constantine did this through the army, and he sought to do it to the Church.

Thus, Constantine called the ever-famous Council of Nicaea in 324 (for more on this, read my fictionalised Nicene Sketches).  He was no theologian, and he knew it.  What he wanted was for the Church to sort herself out and become a unified force within a unified Empire.  Thus, the problems posed by Arius and his supporters needed to be dealt with.  If we look at the letters from Constantine to Arius and the involved bishops, his chief accusation against Arius was not doctrinal but that Arius was stirring things up and not submitting to his bishop.

Nicaea set the stage for the future Ecumenical Councils that helped the Church clarify her thought on certain foundational questions of theology, the person of Christ, and the Holy Trinity.  It also set a dangerous precedent for future emperors to meddle where warriors and politicians do not belong.

Constantine also established the city of Constantinople at Byzantium on the Bosporus (modern Istanbul) which later became the capital of the Eastern Empire when Rome’s power divided.  This city has largely been rumoured to have been free from pagan influences under the new Christian emperor.  Such is not the case; many pre-existing temples were retained, and Constantine even commissioned a naked statue of himself as Sol Invictus — the Unconquered Sun — atop a column.  Constantine’s conversion, even in the late 320’s and 330’s, was not sudden but gradual.  And, despite the occasional syncretistic blending of Sol Invictus and YHWH (the former also makes his way onto coinage), Constantinople was still overwhelmingly Christian, no doubt part of Constantine’s vision for himself as starting grand, new things, not because he had any antipathy towards paganism; as a ruler, he allowed pluralist paganism to continue and even received appeals from pagan cults.

Although Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was not a massive revolution in his religious life, it was real.  There was probably an element of political manoeuvring, probably also an element of superstition following the Milvian Bridge, but also undoubtedly sincere trust in the God of the Christians.  From 312 to 337, this faith was nurtured and informed by the Christians around Constantine.

He was baptised near the end of his life, the result of some concern over whether or not post-baptism sins could be forgiven — a concern that was real at this time in ancient Christianity.  He reposed on May 22, 337 and was buried in a grand mausoleum in Constantinople, surrounded by images of the Twelve Apostles.

He may not be the “Thirteenth Apostle” as some style him, but he was, in my opinion, a sincere believer who had a large impact upon the Church in his lifetime and beyond.  His impact did not affect the doctrine of the Church — Nicaea merely forced the bishops to get together in one room and come to a decision, and that decision was even questioned and overthrown after Constantine’s death.  He did not affect the organisation of the Church’s threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons.  He did not affect the liturgy of the Church.  His basilicas did not change too much — Christians were already gathering in large buildings by this time, although most of them were converted homes.

What Constantine did bring about was the thrusting of the Church into public life.  This had both good and bad affects.  Among the good were a greater ability to freely evangelise the 90 to 60 percent of the Empire’s population who still held to the traditional religions.  It meant greater ease of organisation, which meant a greater ability to deal with heretics, schismatics, and people who were just plain weird (ie. men who castrated themselves in the pursuit of holiness).  It meant that the Church could become a more dramatic patron of the arts and a more lavish helper of the poor.  All of these things the Church was already — now she was in a position to have even greater influence for the good of the people of the Roman Empire, thanks to Constantine and his conversion.