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St. Ambrose

Aurelius Ambrosius, better known in English as Saint Ambrose (330 – 397), was born in Gallia Belgica (present-day Germany). He was an archbishop of Milan who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century. He was one of the four original doctors of the Church. He is patron saint of Milan, beekeepers, bees, candle makers, and domestic animals.


Early Life

Ambrose was born into a Roman Christian family about 330 and was raised in Trier. His father was Aurelius Ambrosius, the praetorian prefect of Gaul; his mother was a woman of intellect and piety. Ambrose's siblings, Satyrus (who is the subject of Ambrose's De excessu fratris Satyri) and Marcellina, are also venerated as saints. There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and honeyed tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in the saint's symbology.

After the early death of his father, Ambrose followed his father's career. He was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Praetor Probus first gave him a place in the council and then in about 372 made him consular prefect or "Governor" of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which was then (beside Rome) the second capital in Italy.

Ambrose was the Governor of Aemilia-Liguria in northern Italy until 374 when he became the Bishop of Milan. He was a very popular political figure, and since he was the Governor in the effective capital in the Roman West, he was a recognizable figure in the court of the Emperor Valentinian I. Ambrose never married.

Bishop of Milan

In the late 4th century there was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan between the Catholics and Arians. In 374 the bishop of Milan, Auxentius, an Arian, died, and the Arians challenged the succession. Ambrose went to the church where the election was to take place, to prevent an uproar, which was probable in this crisis. His address was interrupted by a call "Ambrose, bishop!", which was taken up by the whole assembly.

Ambrose was known to be Catholic in belief, but also acceptable to Arians due to the charity shown in theological matters in this regard. At first he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared: Ambrose was neither baptized nor formally trained in theology. Upon his appointment, St. Ambrose fled to a colleague's home seeking to hide. Upon receiving a letter from the Emperor Gratian praising the appropriateness of Rome appointing individuals evidently worthy of holy positions, St. Ambrose's host gave Ambrose up. Within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained and duly consecrated bishop of Milan.

As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina (who later became a nun), and committed the care of his family to his brother. Ambrose also wrote a treatise by the name of "The Goodness of Death".

Ambrose and Arians

According to legend, Ambrose immediately and forcefully stopped Arianism in Milan. He studied theology with Simplician, a presbyter of Rome. Using his excellent knowledge of Greek, which was then rare in the West, to his advantage, he studied the Old Testament and Greek authors like Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea, with whom he was also exchanging letters. He applied this knowledge as preacher, concentrating especially on exegesis of the Old Testament, and his rhetorical abilities impressed Augustine of Hippo, who hitherto had thought poorly of Christian preachers.

In the confrontation with Arians, Ambrose sought to theologically refute their propositions, which were heretical. The Arians appealed to many high level leaders and clergy in both the Western and Eastern empires. Although the western Emperor Gratian held orthodox belief in the Nicene creed, the younger Valentinian II, who became his colleague in the Empire, adhered to the Arian creed. Ambrose did not sway the young prince's position. In the East, Emperor Theodosius I likewise professed the Nicene creed; but there were many adherents of Arianism throughout his dominions, especially among the higher clergy.

In this contested state of religious opinion, two leaders of the Arians, bishops Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Singidunum, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Gratian to call a general council from all parts of the empire. This request appeared so equitable that he complied without hesitation. However, Ambrose feared the consequences and prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops. Accordingly, a synod composed of thirty-two bishops was held at Aquileia in the year 381. Ambrose was elected president and Palladius, being called upon to defend his opinions, declined. A vote was then taken, when Palladius and his associate Secundianus were deposed from the episcopal office.

Nevertheless, the increasing strength of the Arians proved a formidable task for Ambrose. In 385 or 386 the emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially military, professed Arianism. They demanded two churches in Milan, one in the city (the basilica of the Apostles), the other in the suburbs (St Victor's), to the Arians. Ambrose refused and was required to answer for his conduct before the council. He went, his eloquence in defense of the Church reportedly overawed the ministers of Emperor Valentinian, so 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 basilica in the suburbs. As he still refused, certain deans or officers of the court were sent to take possession of the Portian basilic, by hanging up in it imperial escutcheons to prepare for the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the ensuing festival of Easter.

In spite of Imperial opposition, Bishop Ambrose declared:

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.

Ambrose and Jews

An address by Ambrose to Christian young people warns them against intermarriage with Jews ("De Abrahamo," ix. 84, xiv. 451). But his opposition assumed a more active character in the matter of the bishop of Callinicum in Mesopotamia. It appears that in 388 a mob, led by the local bishop and many monks, destroyed the synagogue at Callinicum. The emperor Theodosius the Great ordered the rebuilding of the synagogue at the expense of the rioters, including the bishop. Ambrose immediately issued a fiery protest to the Emperor. He writes to Theodosius ("Epistolae," xl. xvi. 1101 et seq.) that "the glory of God" is concerned in this matter, and that therefore he cannot be silent. "Shall the bishop be compelled to reerect a synagogue? Can he religiously do this thing? If he obey the emperor, he will become a traitor to his faith; if he disobey him, a martyr. What real wrong is there, after all, in destroying a synagogue, a 'home of perfidy, a home of impiety,' in which Christ is daily blasphemed? Indeed, he must consider himself no less guilty than this poor bishop; at least to the extent that he made no concealment of his wish that all synagogues should be destroyed, that no such places of blasphemy be further allowed to exist." At the end, he succeeded in obtaining from Theodosius a promise that the sentence should be completely revoked, with the very natural consequence that thereafter the prospect of immunity thus afforded occasioned spoliations of synagogues all over the Empire. That Ambrose could nevertheless occasionally say a good word for the Jews is shown by a passage in his "Enarratio in Psalmos" (i. 41, xiv. 943), in which he remarks, "Some Jews exhibit purity of life and much diligence and love of study."

Ambrose and emperors

The imperial court was displeased with the religious principles of Ambrose, however his aid was soon solicited by the Emperor. When Magnus 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.

A second later embassy was unsuccessful; the enemy entered 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.

In 385 Ambrose, backed by Milan's populace, refused Valentinian II's imperial request to hand over the Portian basilica for the use of Arian troops. In 386 Justina and Valentinian received the Arian bishop Auxentius Junior, and Ambrose was again ordered to hand over a church in Milan for Arian usage. Ambrose and his congregation barricaded themselves inside the church, and the imperial order was rescinded.

Theodosius I, the emperor of the East, espoused the cause of Justina, and regained the kingdom. Theodosius was threatened with excommunication by Ambrose for the massacre of 7,000 persons at Thessalonica in 390, after the murder of the Roman governor there by rioters. Ambrose told Theodosius to imitate David in his repentance as he had imitated him in guilt — Ambrose readmitted the emperor to the Eucharist only after several months of penance. This incident shows the strong position of a bishop in the Western part of the empire, even when facing a strong emperor — the controversy of John Chrysostom with a much weaker emperor a few years later in Constantinople led to a crushing defeat of the bishop.

In 392, after the death of Valentinian II and the acclamation of Eugenius, Ambrose supplicated the emperor for the pardon of those who had supported Eugenius after Theodosius was eventually victorious.

Persecution of Paganism

Under Ambrose's major influence, emperors Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I carried on a persecution of Paganism. Under Ambrose's influence, Theodosius issued the 391 "Theodosian decrees," which with increasing intensity outlawed Pagan practises, and the Altar of Victory was removed by Gratian. Ambrose prevailed upon Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius to reject requests to restore the Altar.

Death and legacy

Soon after acquiring the undisputed possession of the Roman empire, Theodosius died at Milan in 395, and two years later (April 4, 397) Ambrose also died. He was succeeded as bishop of Milan by Simplician. Ambrose's body may still be viewed in the church of S. Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated — along with the bodies identified in his time as being those of Sts. Gervase and Protase — and is one of the oldest extant bodies of historical personages known outside Egypt.


Many circumstances in the history of Ambrose are characteristic of the general spirit of the times. The chief causes of his victory over his opponents were his great popularity and the 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 generous 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 Protasius. The saints, although they would have had to have been hundreds of years old, looked as if they had just died. The applause of the people was mingled with the derision of the court party.


Ambrose ranks with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, as one of the Latin Doctors of the Church. Theologians compare him with Hilary, who they claim fell short of Ambrose's administrative excellence but demonstrated greater theological ability. He succeeded as a theologian despite his juridical training and his comparatively late handling of Biblical and doctrinal subjects. His spiritual successor, Augustine, whose conversion was helped by Ambrose's sermons, owes more to him than to any writer except Paul.

Ambrose's intense episcopal consciousness furthered the growing doctrine of the Church and its sacerdotal ministry, while the prevalent asceticism of the day, continuing the Stoic and Ciceronian training of his youth, enabled him to promulgate a lofty standard of Christian ethics. Thus we have the De officiis ministrorum, De viduis, De virginitate and De paenitentia.

Ambrose displayed a kind of liturgical flexibility that kept in mind that liturgy was a tool to serve people in worshiping God, and ought not to become a rigid entity that is invariable from place to place. His advice to Augustine of Hippo on this point was to follow local liturgical custom. "When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are." Thus Ambrose refused to be drawn into a false conflict over which particular local church had the "right" liturgical form where there was no substantial problem. His advice has remained in the English language as the saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

One interpretation of Ambrose's writings is that he was a Christian universalist. It has been noted that Ambrose's theology was significantly influenced by that of Origen and Didymus the Blind, two other early Christian universalists. One quotation cited in favor of this belief:

Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection in the Apocalypse. 'Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection,' for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved unto the second resurrection, these shall be disciplined until their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection.

One could interpret this passage as being another example of the mainstream Christian belief in a general resurrection (both for those in heaven and for those in hell). Several other works by Ambrose clearly teach the mainstream view of salvation. For example:

The Jews feared to believe in manhood taken up into God, and therefore have lost the grace of redemption, because they reject that on which salvation depends.


The powerful Mariology of Ambrose of Milan influenced contemporary Popes like Pope Damasus and Siricius and later, Pope Leo the Great. Central to Ambrose is the virginity of Mary and her role as Mother of God.

The virgin birth is worthy of God. Which human birth would have been more worthy of God, than the one, in which the Immaculate Son of God maintained the purity of his immaculate origin while becoming human?

We confess, that Christ the Lord was born from a virgin, and therefore we reject the natural order of things. Because not from a man she conceived but from the Holy Spirit.

Christ is not divided but one. If we adore him as the Son of God, we do not deny his birth from the virgin… But nobody shall extend this to Mary. Mary was the temple of God but not God in the temple. Therefore only the one who was in the temple can be worshipped.

Yes, truly blessed for having surpassed the priest (Zechariah). While the priest denied, the Virgin rectified the error. No wonder that the Lord, wishing to rescue the world, began his work with Mary. Thus she, through whom salvation was being prepared for all people, would be the first to receive the promised fruit of salvation.

Ambrose viewed virginity as superior to marriage and saw Mary as the model of virginity. He is alleged to have founded an institution for virgins in Rome.


In matters of exegesis he is, like Hilary, an Alexandrian. In dogma he follows Basil of Caesarea and other Greek authors, but nevertheless gives a distinctly Western cast to the speculations of which he treats. This is particularly manifest in the weightier emphasis which he lays upon human sin and divine grace, and in the place which he assigns to faith in the individual Christian life.

De fide ad Gratianum Augustum (On Faith, to Gratian Augustus)

De Officiis Ministrorum (On the Offices of Ministers, an ecclesiastical handbook modeled on Cicero's De Officiis.)

De Spiritu Sancto (On the Holy Ghost)

De incarnationis Dominicae sacramento (On the Sacrament of the Incarnation of the Lord)

De mysteriis (On the Mysteries)

Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam (Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke)

Ethical works: De bono mortis (Death as a Good); De fuga saeculi (Flight From the World); De institutione virginis et sanctae Mariae virginitate perpetua ad Eusebium (On the Birth of the Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary); De Nabuthae (On Naboth); De paenitentia (On Repentance); De paradiso (On Paradise); De sacramentis (On the Sacraments); De viduis (On Widows); De virginibus (On Virgins); De virginitate (On Virginity); Exhortatio virginitatis (Exhortation to Virginity); De sacramento regenerationis sive de philosophia (On the Sacrament of Rebirth, or, On Philosophy )

Homiletic commentaries on the Old Testament: the Hexaemeron (Six Days of Creation); De Helia et ieiunio (On Elijah and Fasting); De Iacob et vita beata (On Jacob and the Happy Life); De Abraham; De Cain et Abel; De Ioseph (Joseph); De Isaac vel anima (On Isaac, or The Soul); De Noe (Noah); De interpellatione Iob et David (On the Prayer of Job and David); De patriarchis (On the Patriarchs); De Tobia (Tobit); Explanatio psalmorum (Explanation of the Psalms); Explanatio symboli (Commentary on the Symbol).

De obitu Theodosii; De obitu Valentiniani; De excessu fratris Satyri (funeral orations)

91 letters

A collection of hymns

Fragments of sermons

Ambrosiaster or the "pseudo-Ambrose" is a brief commentary on Paul's Epistles, which was long attributed to Ambrose.

Church music

Ambrose is traditionally credited but not actually known to have composed any of the repertory of Ambrosian chant also known simply as "antiphonal chant", a method of chanting where one side of the choir alternately responds to the other. (The later pope St. Gregory I the Great is not known to have composed any Gregorian chant, the plainsong or "Romish chant".) However, Ambrosian chant was named in his honor due to his contributions to the music of the Church; he is credited with introducing hymnody from the Eastern Church into the West.

Catching the impulse from Hilary and confirmed in it by the success of Arian psalmody, Ambrose composed several original hymns as well, four of which still survive, along with music which may not have changed too much from the original melodies. Each of these hymns has eight four-line stanzas and is written in strict iambic dimeter (that is 2 x 2 iambs). Marked by dignified simplicity, they served as a fruitful model for later times.

Deus Creator Omnium

Aeterne rerum conditor

Jam surgit hora tertia

Jam Christus astra ascendante"

Veni redemptor gentium (a Christmas hymn)

In his writings, Ambrose refers only to the performance of psalms, in which solo singing of psalm verses alternated with a congregational refrain called an antiphon.

St. Ambrose was also traditionally credited with composing the hymn Te Deum, which he is said to have composed when he baptised St. Augustine of Hippo, his celebrated convert.

Ambrose and Augustine

Ambrose was Bishop of Milan at the time of Augustine's conversion, and is mentioned in Augustine's Confessions.

Ambrose and celibacy

In a passage of Augustine's Confessions in which Augustine wonders why he could not share his burden with Ambrose, he makes a comment which bears on the history of celibacy:

Ambrose himself I esteemed a happy man, as the world counted happiness, because great personages held him in honor. Only his celibacy appeared to me a painful burden.

Ambrose and reading

In this same passage of Augustine's Confessions is a curious anecdote which bears on the history of reading:

When read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

This is a celebrated passage in modern scholarly discussion. The practice of reading to oneself without vocalizing the text was less common in antiquity than it has since become. In a culture that set a high value on oratory and public performances of all kinds, in which the production of books was very labor-intensive, the majority of the population was illiterate, and where those with the leisure to enjoy literary works also had slaves to read for them, written texts were more likely to be seen as scripts for recitation than as vehicles of silent reflection. However, there is also evidence that silent reading did occur in antiquity and that it was not generally regarded as unusual.

The text in this box was generated from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the CC-BY-SA.

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