Ambrose, St.

, one of the most eminent fathers of the church, was by descent a citizen of Rome, but born at Aries, in France, then the metropolis of Gallia Narbonensis, in the year 333, according to Cave, or according to Du Pin, in the year 340. His father was the emperor’s lieutenant in that district; one of the highest places of trust and honour in the Roman empire. Ambrose was the youngest of three children, Marcellina and Satyrus being born before him. After his father’s death, his mother, with the family, returned to Rome, where he made himself master of all the learning that Greece and Rome could afford; and at the same time profited in religion by the pious instructions of his sister Marcellina, who had devoted herself to a state of virginity. When grown up, he pleaded causes with so much ability, as to acquire the good opinion of Anicius Probus, pretorian prefect, or emperor’s lieutenant in Italy, who made choice of him to be of his council; and having authority to appoint governors to several provinces, he gave Ambrose one of these commissions, saying: “Go, and govern more like a bishop than a judge.” In this office, Ambrose resided at Milan for five years, and was applauded for his prudence and justice; but his pursuit of this profession was interrupted by a singular event, which threw him into a course of life for which he had made no preparation, and had probably never thought of, and for which he was no otherwise qualified than by a character irreproachable in civil life, and improved by the pious instructions of his youth.

In the year 374, Auxentius, bishop of Milan, died, and immediately the bishops of the province met together to elect a successor. The emperor, Valentinian, sent for them, and told them, that they, as men acquainted with the scriptures, ought to understand better than himself the qualifications necessary for so important a station; that they should chuse a man fit to instruct by life as well as doctrine, in which case, he (the emperor) would readily submit his sceptre to his counsels and directions; and, conscious that he was liable to human frailty, would receive his reproofs and admonitions as wholesome physic. The bishops, however, requested his majesty to nominate the person, but Valentinian persisted in leaving the decision to their choice. This was at a time when factions were strong, and when the Arian party were very desirous | of electing one of their number. The city, accordingly, was divided, and a tumult seemed approaching, when Ambrose, as a magistrate, hastened to the church of Milan, and exhorted the people to peace and submission to the laws. On concluding his speech, an infant’s voice in the crowd was heard to say: “Ambrose is bishop;” and immediately the whole assembly exclaimed: “Let Ambrose be bishop,” a decision in which the contending factions agreed unanimously.

Ambrose, in the greatest astonishment, endeavoured to refuse the offer, and afterwards took some measures of an extraordinary, and certainly unjustifiable nature, to evade the office. By exercising unnecessary seventy on some malefactors, he endeavoured to give the people a notion of his savage aild unchristian temper; and by encouraging strumpets to come to his house, he thought to obtain the character of a man of loose life. This singular species of hypocrisy, however, was easily detected. He had then no other means left to prove his repugnance to the profered office of bishop, than by retiring from Milan; but, mistaking his way, he was apprehended by the guards, and confined until the emperor’s pleasure should be known, without which no subject could leave his office. Valentinian immediately consented; but Ambrose again made his escape, and did not return until it was declared criminal to conceal him. He then, with great reluctance, entered upon his new office, in the thirty-fourth year of his age.

The first step he took, which probably confirmed the good opinion to which he owed his election, was to give to the church and to the poor all his personal property, and his lands in reversion, after the death of his sister Marcellina. His family he committed to the care of his brother Satyrus. He now applied himself to the study of theology, under Simplician, a presbyter of Rome, a man of great learning and piety, whom he invited to Milan, and who was afterwards his successor in that see. His studies he pursued with ardour and perseverance; but it has been uniformly regretted that he made the works of the fanciful Origen so much the object of his study, for to this all the extravagant opinions in his writings may be referred. He soon, however, commenced preacher, and officiated everj Sunday, and as head of the church of Milan, he labouret unremittingly in discouraging the Arian heresy in Italy, ii | which, it will soon appear, he would have made little progress, had he not been endowed with an uncommon share of heroic firmness.

In his general conduct he was distinguished for his sincerity, charity, and piety, but he could not withstand all the superstitious practices of his time. His encomiums on virginity were certainly extravagant and pernicious. This has been attributed to the little acquaintance he had with the scriptures before his ordination, and to the influence of his sister Marcellina, a zealous devotee, to whom he was affectionately attached, and who had received the veil from the hands of pope Liberius. He wrote several treatises on this subject, and attempted to reduce the rules of it to a kind of system, and probably induced many young women, who might otherwise have been ornaments of society, to become the victims of solitary restraint, and fanciful continence. In other respects he inculcated the essentials of Christianity with fervour and success, and uniformly practised its virtues. When the ravages of the Goths afforded him an opportunity to exercise his liberality, he scrupled not to apply the vessels of the church to redeem captives, and vindicated himself against those who censured his conduct. In the instruction of catechumens, he was remarkably indefatigable, and his character rose to such estimation, that his person was supposed to be sacredly guarded. Some stories to this effect are related in his life by Paulinus, which perhaps may not now obtain credit. On one occasion, when a woman insulted him, he told her that “she ought to fear the judgment of God,” and she died next day. On another occasion, when two Arians, of the court of Gratian, intended to pass a ridicule upon him, they were both thrown from their horses, and died before they could accomplish their purpose. These stories, questionable or not, at least show the veneration paid to his character, while a modern reader is left to draw what other inference he pleases.

His steady adherence to the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, in opposition particularly to the Arians, induced him to take very active measures, and involved him in much trouble. About the year 381, he condemned, in a council held at Aquileia, Palladius and Secundianus, two Arian bishops, and the chief supporters of that heresy in the west, and they were formally deposed. Justina, the empress, was a decided patroness of Arianism, and after | the death of her husband, she endeavoured to instil those principles into her son Valentinian, and to induce him to threaten Ambrose, who exhorted him to support the doctrine received from the Apostles. In a rage the young emperor ordered his guards to surround the church, and commanded Ambrose to come out of it; but when the latter told him, that although his life was in his hands, he could not obey such an order, Valentinian desisted, and Justina was obliged to have recourse to more secret hostilities, dreading, probably, the people, who were generally inclined to support their bishop.

About this time Ambrose had to contend with an attempt of another kind. The Pagans, taking advantage of the minority of Valentinian, and the confusions of the empire, endeavoured to recover their ancient establishment. The senate of Rome contained still a considerable proportion of Gentiles, and many of the great families piqued themselves on their constancy, and contempt for the innovations of Christianity. Symmachus, one of their number, a man of great learning and powers of eloquence, applied to the emperor for permission to restore the altar of victory to the senate-house. Ambrose immediately discerned that this was a request for something more than toleration. “If,” said he, in his letter to Valentinian, “he is a Pagan who offers you this advice, let him give the same liberty which he takes himself. You compel no man to worship what he does not approve. Here the whole senate, as far as it is Christian, is endangered. Every senator takes his oath at the altar; and every person who is obliged to appear before the senate upon oath, takes his oath in the same manner. The divinity of the false gods is evidently allowed by the practice, and Christians are by these means obliged to endure a persecution.” The address of Symmachus, with Ambrose’s reply, are still extant; but Ambrose was successful, and lived to defeat Symmachus when he made a second attempt, in the reign of Theodosius.

Still, however, Justina, the empress, continued his enemy, although he had, by his talents in negociation, averted for a tune the invasion of Italy from the court of Milan. In the year 386, she procured a law to enable the Arian congregations to assemble without interruption; and Auxentius, a Scythian, of the same name with the Arian predecessor of Ambrose, was now introduced, under the protection of the empress, into Milan. He challenged | Ambrose to hold a disputation with him in the emperor’s court, but the latter denied that it was any part of the emperor’s business to decide on points of doctrine; adding, “Let him come to church, and upon hearing, let the people judge for themselves; and if they like Auxuutius better, let them take him; but they have already declared their sentiments.” Auxentius then demanded that a party of soldiers might be sent to secure for himself the possession of the church called Basilica; and it was represented as a very unreasonable thing, that the emperor should not be allowed one place of worship agreeable to his conscience. This, however, was not the fair question, for the emperor, if he chose to exert his authority, might have commanded any, or all the churches. The fact was, that Ambrose was now requested to do what he could not do conscientiously; namely, by his own deed to resign a church into the hands of the Arians, and thereby, indirectly at least, acknowledge their creed. He therefore refused, telling the officers that if the emperor had demanded his house or land, money or goods, he would have freely resigned them, but that he could not deliver up that which was committed to his care. And although another attempt was made to obtain forcible possession of one or two churches, and violent commotions were about to ensue, Ambrose persisted in his principles of duty, and his resistance was effectual.

Notwithstanding this weight of personal character, which crushed every attempt of his enemies, we find some accounts of superstitious practices upon record, which it is difficult to reconcile to his general conduct. Being called upon by the people to consecrate a new church, he answered that he would comply, if he could find any relics of martyrs there, and we are told that it was revealed to him in a vision at night, in what place he might find the relics; but this last circumstance is not to be found in the epistle which he writes on the subject. He describes, however, the finding the bodies of two martyrs, Protasius, and Gervasius; the supposed miracles wrought on the occasion; the dedication of the church; the triumph of the Orthodox; and the confusion of Arianism, If these miracles were not real, we know not how to exculpate Ambrose from at least conniving at the imposture, or being deluded himself, neither of which are very consistent with | the strength of understanding and independence of mind which he displayed on other occasions.

The news of Maximus’s intention to invade Italy arriving at this time (387), Justina condescended to employ Ambrose again on an embassy to the usurper, which he cheerfully undertook, and executed with great fortitude, but it was not in his power to stop the progress of the enemy. Theodosius, who reigned in the east, coming at length to the assistance of Valentinian, put an end to the usurpation, and the life of Maximus, and by his means the young emperor was induced to forsake his mother’s principles, and to embrace those of Ambrose. After his death, in the year 392, Ambrose composed a funeral oration to his praise, in which he seems to believe the real conversion of his royal pupil. The oration is not worthy of Ambrose, and perhaps the best excuse that can be made for him, is that he praised one when dead, whom he never flattered when living.

A more unpardonable instance of his weakness occurred at the beginning of the reign of Theodosius. This emperor, from a sense of justice, ordered some Christians to rebuild, at their own expence, a Jewish synagogue, which they had tumultuously pulled down. But Ambrose prevailed on him to set aside this sentence, from a mistaken notion, that Christianity should not be obliged to contribute to the erection of a Jewish synagogue. His eloquence on this occasion was, as usual, vigorous, but must surely have been used in support of arguments that could be listened to only in an age of remarkable superstition. Ambrose appears, however, to more advantage in another transaction with the emperor Theodosius, of a very extraordinary kind. At Thessalonica a tumult happened among the populace, and one of the emperor’s officers was murdered. Theodosius, who was of a passionate temper, ordered the sword to be employed. Ambrose interceded, and the emperor promised forgiveness; but the great officers of his court persuaded him to sign a warrant for military execution, and seven thousand persons were massacred in three hours, without trial or distinction.

Ambrose immediately wrote a letter to Theodosius, in which he stated his own duty, and the emperor’s crime, and refused to admit him into the church at Milan. The emperor pleading the case of David, Ambrose desired him to | imitate David in his repentance as well as in his sin, and he accordingly submitted, and kept from the church eight months, nor was he at last admitted without signs of penitence, and the performance of public penance. One condition which Ambrose imposed cannot be mentioned without approbation; it was, that the emperor should suspend the execution of capital warrants for thirty days, in order that the mischiefs of intemperate anger might be pre vented. Although in these public penances we see more of superstition than real compunction, and perhaps what might now be reckoned an immoderate exercise of episcopal power, yet it is probable in the then state of society, Theodosius lost nothing by submission in the case of so flagrant a crime, nor Ambrose by performing what not only he conceived, but was then acknowledged, to be his duty.

Such are the outlines of the life of this eminent father, which might have perhaps been filled up with many collateral events in which he was partially concerned; but for these our readers may be referred to Cave, in his lives of the fathers, and other ecclesiastical historians. Some of these, indeed, seem inclined to depreciate his character by a common error, of estimating the characters of distant and dark ages by the opinions which now prevail, and in this they have been followed by all who are hostile to ecclesiastical establishments.

It remains that we conclude this article with a short notice of his death. In the year 392, Valentinian the emperor being assassinated by the contrivance of Argobastus, and Eugenius usurping the empire, Ambrose was obliged to leave Milan, but returned the year following, when Eugenius was defeated. He died at Milan the 4th of April, 397; and was buried in the great church at Milan, He wrote several works, the most considerable of which is that “De officiis,” a discourse, divided into three books, upon the duties of the clergy. It appears to have been written several years after he had been bishop, and very probably about the year 390 or 391, when peace was restored to the church, after the death of the tyrant Maximus, He has imitated in these three books the design and disposition of Cicero’s piece De officiis. He confirms, says Mr. Du Pin, the good maxims which that orator has advanced, he corrects those which are imperfect, he | refutes those which are false, and adds a great many others which are more excellent, pure, and elevated. He is concise and sententious in his manner of writing, and full of turns of wit; his terms are well chosen, and his expressions noble, and he diversifies his subjects by an admirable copiousness of thought and language. He is very ingenious in giving an easy and natural turn to every thing he treats, and is frequently not without strength and pathos. This is part of the character which Du Pin gives him as a writer; but Erasmus tells us that he has many quaint and affected sentences, and is frequently very obscure; and it is certain that his writings are intermixed with many strange and peculiar opinions; derived, as we have already remarked, from his early attachment to the manner of Origen. He maintained, that all men indifferently are to pass through a fiery trial at the last day; that even the just are to suffer it, and to be purged from their sins, but the unjust are to continue in for ever; that the faithful will be raised gradually at the last day, according to the degree of their particular merit; that the bow which God promised Noah to place in the firmament after the deluge, as a sign that he never intended to drown the world again, was not to be understood of the rainbow, which can never appear in the night, but some visible token of the Almighty. He carries the esteem of virginity and celibacy so far, that he seems to regard matrimony as an indecent thing. But it must be observed with regard to all those selections of opinions, that great injustice has been done to his memory by frauds and interpolations, and entire works have been attributed to him, which he never wrote. His works, indeed, are divided into, 1. Those that are genuine. 2. Those that are doubtful. 3. Those that are fictitious: and 4. Those that are not extant. Paulinus, who was his amanuensis, wrote his life, and dedicated it to St. Augustin; it is prefixed to St. Ambrose’s works; the best edition of which is reckoned to be that published by the benedictine monks, in two volumes in folio, at Paris, in 1686, and 1690. His life was also published in 1678, by Godfrey Herment. 1


Cave’s Lives of the Fathers. Milner’s Church Hist. vol. II. p. 173 238. Mosheim. Gen. Dict. Saxii Ouomasticon.