Ambrose is often depicted as the flogger of heretics or the subjugator of rulers. In reality, he was meek and gentle, as his writings show. His treatise on repentance, for example, begins with this advice: “If the highest end of virtue is that which aims at the advancement of most, gentleness is the most lovely of all, which does not hurt even those whom it condemns, and usually renders those whom it condemns worthy of absolution.”
If you visit downtown Milan, Italy, besides viewing the most popular monuments, such as the Duomo and the Sforza Castle, you may want to walk a mile out of the way to explore an older church named after a fourth-century bishop, Ambrose. You’ll see a mosaic depicting him as a small, unassuming man dressed in drab colors–quite a contrast with the altar of gold built a few centuries later in his honor. And yet, it was this seemingly unassertive man who resisted the orders of an empress and caused an emperor to walk in penitence through the city’s streets.
Ambrose’s Early Life
Ambrose was born in Trier, in today’s Germany, around the year 339, to a Christian family from Rome. His full name was Aurelius Ambrosius.
Being a prefect of Rome in Gaul, Ambrose’s father directed his son toward a political career. Ambrose’s studies in Trier and Rome allowed him to become first a lawyer, then a magistrate. Valentinian I, who was emperor at that time, was so impressed by Ambrose’s abilities as a mediator that in 370 he made him governor of the Roman provinces in northern Italy, with a seat in Milan (the capital of the western empire). Ambrose was only 24 years old.
Milan a large city, second only to Rome in the western Roman Empire. As it was typical after Constantine’s edict of 313, its population professed to be Christian. But their views of Christianity differed sharply. On one side, there were those who adhered to the Nicene Creed as it was expounded, in its early form, at the 325 Council of Nicea. On the other side were the followers of Arius, the priest who advanced the idea that Jesus was not fully God.
The bishop of Milan, Auxentius, stood with the Arians. Born in Cappadocia (in today’s Turkey), he alienated much of the population by refusing to speak Latin, the local language, and by arriving at the bishopric with the backing of the Arian emperor Constantius. At his death in 374, the Nicene Christians saw an opportunity to replace him with a man who would abide by the decisions of the Council of Nicea.
Ambrose’s early biographer, Paulinus, tells us that both factions were arguing inside a church when Ambrose walked in to bring peace. As he was used to do, he encouraged a peaceful discussion. Suddenly a child shouted, “Ambrose for bishop!” The majority – including Arians – joined in this petition.
Being bishop was the furthest thing from Ambrose’s mind. He wasn’t even baptized, let alone ordained to any office in the church. (This was not for lack of faith, but because, at that time, many postponed baptism as long as possible). He pleaded with the emperor to dissuade the people, but Valentinian was happy to have a bishop he trusted. He even made an unsuccessful attempt to leave Milan.
Hurried through baptism and a succession of ordinations, Ambrose had to be catechized while called to teach. This seemed like a recipe for disaster, but Ambrose proved to be not only a good bishop, but a wise theologian. Faithful to the Council of Nicea, he defended the orthodox position in his sermons, writings, and songs.
His tutor was Simplicianus, a man who was also instrumental in Augustine of Hippo’s conversion. In his Confessions, Augustine gives us a glimpse of Ambrose fixed to his studies, whenever he could get away from his many duties, while “his eyes glanced over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense.” Well-learned in Greek, he could read the Greek Scriptures as well as all the church fathers.