AMBROSE: A Bad-ASS Roman Bishop?


Okay, I am back after an epic three-week trip around the world. I spent three days a IMC Leeds giving a paper and meeting some truly cool historians…yes I used the oxymoronic term ‘cool’. The sessions on generalship were very stimulating and it looks like a monograph may be produced, I also found out while in England that my paper on ‘The Soldier’s Life’ had been accepted in publication. I only needed to spend endless hours converting the footnotes and adding quite a bit of Greek text. Having not seen the article for six months I also did a bit of rewriting and further differentiating it from my book chapter that will be based on similar material, which brings me at last to today’s topic: Ambrose. This section is an excerpt of a new draft…so once again forgive any glaring typos and errors. I will continue polishing, but please comment or add suggestions if you wish.


In the Later Roman Empire the bishop represented Christianity’s involvement in, and responsibility to, the secular world. A bishop’s power was heavily dependent on his moral superiority. As an exemplar of supreme Christian conduct, it was natural that a bishop’s lifestyle would be compared to that of the holy men. Consequently, although many bishops were married when elected, the Church’s hierarchy frowned on subsequent sexual relationships, often preferring virginal candidates.[1] In addition to his ‘ascetic authority’, a bishop frequently wielded a great deal of ‘pragmatic authority’.[2] As one finds with the example of the rather reluctant bishop, Synesius, bishops in the Later Empire were often chosen because they hailed from the educated landowning elite, and therefore could be expected to use their social position and wealth to administer and look after their communities’ well-being.[3]

The episcopate offered Roman men other benefits. Their roles as spiritual and civic leaders at times provided bishops in the larger sees with direct access to the emperor and his inner-circle—a place of power and decision making that was increasingly out of reach for even the most esteemed members of the Roman upper classes. [4] In the court-dominated world of the early Byzantine Empire, where political influence represented a highly valued commodity, this close contact with the imperial court allowed some bishops to become patronage brokers with considerable influence. Even though the majority of bishops in the smaller bishoprics scattered throughout the Empire could never hope to gain such intimate contact with imperial authorities, even these men from the Empire’s backwaters could expect to send a missive on rather minor affairs direct to the eyes of the emperor or his consistory.[5] Therefore, while bishops remained largely subordinate to the emperor and his officials, as defenders of the local peace, advocates for their community’s poor, sponsors of regional building projects, and protectors of the holy relics, many Late Roman bishops became powerful men in their own right.[6]

Evidence for the episcopate’s growing power, as well as the need for some bishops to highlight their moral authority over secular rivals is found in Bishop Ambrose’s famous dispute with the Emperor Valentinian II (ruled 383-392) and his mother the Empress Justina (ca. 340-ca. 390).[7] This confrontation, as well as his disputes with Theodosius I, were well publicised in Western and Eastern sources of the period.[8] In his clash with the Western court, the Nicene Ambrose went to great lengths in his public writings to describe how his Christian faith had furnished him with the ‘tools’ to deny an imperial order to abandon his basilica to the Homoian imperial court in the first half of 386.[9] Ambrose portrayed himself as a victim of imperial aggression. When the bishop and his supporters—who were guarding the basilica—found themselves surrounded by Valentinian II’s soldiers, Ambrose declared, ‘If force is used, resistance I know nothing about. When I face arms, soldiers, Goths, even tears are my weapons; for such are the defences of a bishop’. Similar to the early Christian martyrs, his ‘weakness’, however, was in actuality based on his superior courage. ‘Neither weapons nor do barbarians’, Ambrose continued, ‘inspire fear in man who is not afraid of death, who is not held back by the inclinations of the flesh’.[10] Though adorned with Christian values, behind some of Ambrose’s prose is ancient Greco-Roman masculine rhetoric extolling the unselfish manliness of men who treated their own deaths with scorn by standing up to ‘tyrants’ for the good of others, or for their own ‘righteous’ convictions.[11]

The Church historian Rufinus portrayed the clash between Ambrose and the imperial family in gendered and martial terms. Emphasising empress Justina’s role, while deemphasising the child-emperor Valentinian II’s part in the dispute, he wrote:

In this war she assailed Ambrose, the wall of the church and its stoutest tower, harassing him with threats, terrors, and every kind of attack as she sought a first opening into the church she wanted to conquer. But while she fought armed with the spirit of Jezebel, Ambrose stood firm, filled with the power and grace of Elijah.[12]

The Milanese bishop, Rufinus continued, had sought to ‘ward off the empress’s fury’ not with ‘hand or weapon, but with fasts and unceasing vigils’.[13]

It is also probably no coincidence that in the midst of this dispute, Ambrose ‘discovered’ the relics of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius.[14] Here he took a less passive stance, describing in a letter to his sister, these dead saints’ metaphorical ‘martial’ qualities:

Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus, that in the holy martyrs you have raised for us such an effective guardian spirits, at a time when your Church needs greater defenders. Let everybody take note what kind of champions I seek: champions who have the power to defend, but do not practise aggression. This kind of champion I have acquired for you, my holy people: champions to benefit everybody and harm no one. Such are the ‘defenders’ to whom I pay court, such the soldiers whom I maintain, that is, not soldiers of the world, but soldiers of Christ.[15]

Whereas the emperor and his soldiers ruled in the secular world, Ambrose implied here that he and the ‘soldiers of Christ’ held sway in the spiritual one. Contemporaries of Ambrose once again presented the dispute in gendered terms. In reference to Ambrose’s ‘triumph’ over the empress Justina, Augustine of Hippo declared that the discovery of the martyrs had allowed the Milanese bishop ‘to thwart a feminine fury, but also a royal one’ [ad cohercendam rabiem femineam, sed regiam].[16]

It is true that Ambrose constructed an image of the dispute that he wished to convey. Yet, passages like those discussed above—whether they are completely accurate or not—provide us with lucid examples of how these classically trained orators created, what one modern academic describes as a ‘Christian discourse’ that could be wielded to promote the moral as well as the episcopate’s political authority.[17] By adopting the Hellenic tradition of parrhesia (freedom of speech) that had formally granted the politically non-aligned philosopher the ability at times to speak ‘truthfully’ to the emperor, bishops like Ambrose in the West and John Chrysostom in the East helped to establish the episcopate ‘as the arbitrator of imperial mercy’.[18] Ambrose explained his vision of this role for bishops in a letter to Theodosius I, ‘It is not the part of an emperor to deny freedom of speech, so it is not that of a bishop to refrain from saying what he thinks’.[19] With Ambrose we have moved into a different Roman world. As Peter Brown comments, ‘We forget that this was the very first time a Latin bishop had raised his voice in such a tone when dealing directly with an emperor and that these certainties were first enunciated in situations where Ambrose was far from certain of success’.

Though exaggerated for rhetorical effect, this sentiment on the part of Ambrose reflected the real power that bishops and holy men had throughout the Byzantine period to be listened to respectfully by the emperor and his representatives.[20] In a culture where a man’s masculine identity was often intimately connected to his public authority, bishops could therefore feel and be seen by others as powerful and, at times, manly men.[21]

Of course the case of Ambrose standing up to the imperial regimes of Valentinian II and Theodosius I and emerging largely triumphant was exceptional, and possible primarily because of the Milanese bishop’s mastery of contemporary Northern Italian politics. So too was Ambrose fortunate to have in the instance of Theodosius I, an emperor who realised the opportunities in employing such Christian rhetoric as a political tool to help him manipulate public opinion. As Neil McLynn has convincingly argued, Theodosius’ celebrated ordo poenitentium (public penance) in Milan at the behest of Ambrose in 391 for a massacre of citizens in the previous year in Thessalonica, does not represent an instance of an emperor bowing down to an increasingly puissant Christian Church, as argued in the older historiography, but is better understood as a mutually orchestrated political gesture that helped to transform ‘the catastrophe into a public relations triumph for the emperor’.[22] When Theodosius died on 17 January 395 in his cathedral in Milan Ambrose gave the funeral address in front of an audience that included his two sons—the eighteen-year old, and now Eastern emperor, Arcadius, and the eleven-year old Honorius, the new Western emperor . More significantly the Church was filled with military men who had only a few months earlier been fighting opposite sides in a civil war between Theodosius and the Western “usurper” Eugenius (392-940, a conflict that had seen the usurper killed and the Eastern forces victorious. Combining classical and Christian forms, Ambrose beseeched a Western audience, both civilian and military, to throw their support behind Theodosius’ young sons:

An emperor of such greatness, then, has withdrawn from us. But he has not wholly withdrawn: for he has left us his children, in whom we can both see and embrace him.Their age should not trouble us! The loyal support of his soldiers makes the emperor’s age fully grown.For age is fully grown when strength is. This is reciprocal. For the faith (fides) of the emperor produces strength in his soldiers.[23]

As Meghan McEvoy explains, ‘Ambrose’s words should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric: he was making a real plea for military support which was not yet assured’.[24] For our purposes, the sentiments expressed in the passage above reveal how Christian leaders like Ambrose could move deftly between the spiritual and the material realms. A bishop who we saw earlier was guiding mystical armies was now seeking to convince real soldiers to throw their support behind the sons of an emperor whom many had only recently seen as an enemy.

I recognise that when dealing with Roman emperors, few later bishops would have the inclination, the courage, or most importantly, the opportunity, to emulate Ambrose’s example.[25] The Eastern emperors, in particular, ‘left little scope for independent initiatives by bishops’.[26] We should therefore modify Mathew Kuefler’s claim that Ambrose’s ‘stands’ against the emperors represented a ‘new manliness’ in action. Kuefler overestimates Ambrose’s and other late Roman bishops’ ability to make Roman emperors ‘submit to them’.[27] I would agree with Kuefler, however, that Ambrose’s example, though extreme, sheds some light on the growing authority of bishops, and the need by some Christian authors to represent them as manly role models. Ambrose’s supposed deeds stimulated the imaginations of those fifth-century theologians who sought to curtail the emperor’s dominant role within the Church.[28] Though largely fictionalized, later audiences embraced the notion that ‘a prince’s impiety should be met by spiritual warfare.’ This topos would have a long run in Western civilisation.[29]

Much of this literature presented confrontational bishops like Ambrose as idealised Christians and as manly men. Sozomen, for instance, remembered Ambrose for the ‘manly [ἀνδρείως] and very holy way he represented his office’.[30] For Sozomen, bishops need not make as dramatic a stand as Ambrose against the emperor to be seen as paradigms of Christian courage and manliness. Sozomen made it a point in his history to praise emperors who ‘never imposed any commands on priests’, and praised bishops, who ‘manfully [ἀνδρείως] resisted the emperor’ when he interfered in what the historian saw as the Church’s affairs.[31]

Consequently, for a ruling elite that valued its social standing, by the fifth century holding an ecclesiastical office finally began to offer a pathway to not only religious fulfilment, but to worldly and masculine prestige as well.[32] Reflecting on this development, Kuefler goes so far to claim: ‘It was as bishops, then, that men of the later Roman aristocracy rescued their political identities and their social superiority and found a new means to achieve manliness’.[33] Even though we should remain cautious in making such extravagant claims as the preceding one, Robert Markus was surely correct when he concluded that the union of the holy men of the desert and the clerical authority in the cities altered ‘the spiritual landscape of Late Antiquity’.[34]

[1] Philip Rousseau, ‘Bishops’, in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, ed. G. W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, Oleg Grabar (Cambridge: Harvard University Press / The Belknap Press, 1999), 342.

[2] Rapp, Holy Bishops, 23-55, 100-55.

[3] Rapp, Holy Bishops, 17-18.

[4] Rapp, Holy Bishops, 260.

[5] Millar, Greek Roman Empire, 60-2.

[6] Brown, Power and Persuasion, 138-41.

[7] The best introduction to Ambrose and his world remains Neil Mclynn, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Valentinian II had become emperor in the aftermath of the Emperor Gratian’s death fighting the usurper Magnus Maximus (383-88). Whilst recognising Valentinian II in his struggle against Magnus Maximus, Theodosius I at first left his Western counterpart to try and sort out his own affairs; indeed, the Eastern emperor had his own troubles trying to help his half of the Empire recover after disastrous defeat at the hands of the Goths in 378. Theodosius perceived Valentinian II to be more of a nuisance than a threat or rival. Ultimately marginalised to the point of despair, Valentinian killed himself, rather than take the bullying of his barbarian henchman Arbogast.

[8] Some Greek sources include, Sozomen, HE 7.13, 7.25, 8.4, Theodoret, HE 4.6, 5.17-18.

[9] As J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz notes (Ambrose of Milan, 130), it would have been difficult for the embattled Valentinian II to evict a Nicene bishop without provoking the Nicene Eastern Emperor Theodosius I.

[10] Ambrose, Ep. 75. 7, trans. J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz, Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches, (trans., TTH 43 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), 146.

[11] Kaldellis, Procopius of Caesarea, 142.

[12] Rufinus, HE 11.15, trans. Philip Amidon, The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia, books 10 and 11 (Oxford: Oxford University, 1997). Rufinus had spent many years in the Eastern half of the Empire and founded a monastery in Jerusalem. He translated many Greek works into Latin, including Eusebius’ ecclesiastical history.

[13] Rufinus, HE 11.16.

[14] For the dates of these letters and a historical summary of the dispute, see Liebeschuetz, Political Letters, 124-35.

[15] Ambrose, Ep. 77.10.

[16] Augustine, Confessions 9.7.16, quoted and trans. in Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 135.

[17] Cameron, Rhetoric of Empire, 139.

[18] Brown, Power and Persuasion, 65-6, 111-13.

[19] Ambrose, Ep. 74.2.

[20] Liebeschuetz, Ambrose and John, 268.

[21] For public authority and political virtues as an essential aspect of Roman masculine ideology, see Montstserrat, ‘Reading Gender’, 153-82, Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 19-69, Harlow,’ Clothes Maketh the Man’, 44.

[22] McLynn, Ambrose, 323.

[23] Ambrose, De obitu Theodosii 5, ed. O. Faller CSEL 73: 39-401, trans. J. H. W. G Liebeschuetz, Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches

[24] McEvoy, Child-Emperor Rule, 146.

[25] For the similarities and dissimilarites between Ambrose’s and John’s stands against the imperial family, see Liebeschuetz, Ambrose and John, 5. The mutually beneficial aspects of Theodosius I’ and Ambrose’s interactions, and the revisionist notion that Theodosius and Ambrose were not particulary close confidantes is covered in McLynn, Ambrose, 315-30.

[26] Liebeschuetz, Ambrose and John, 266.

[27] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 130.

[28] Theodoret (HE 5.17) went to great lengths to make Ambrose’s dispute against Theodosius I even more dramatic and confrontational.

[29] Buc, Holy War, 24.

[30] Sozomen, HE 6.24.6 (my trans.).

[31] Sozomen, HE 6.21(my trans.). Sozomen here was describing an incident in 353 when the bishop of Rome Liberius, against Constantius II’s wishes, refused to condemn the Bishop Athanasius. Ammianus (Res gestae 15.7) provides the secular alternative of the incident, seeing it as an example of Christian arrogance and of a bishop prying ‘into matters outside his province’.

[32] Salzman, Christian Aristocracy, 204-05. As Salzman notes (Christian Aristocracy, 132-33), members of the aristocracy had been somewhat reluctant in the fourth century to pursue careers within the Church.

[33] Kuefler, Manly Eunuch, 125.

[34] R. A. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 181.

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