Ambrose of Milan – The Reluctant Bishop Who Called Emperors to Task

Ambrose of Milan – The Reluctant Bishop Who Called Emperors to Task


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.”[1] Well-learned in Greek, he could read the Greek Scriptures as well as all the church fathers.


Ambrose and Justina

            The first major clash between Ambrose and the ruling authorities took place when Justina, regent for her minor son Valentinian II, wanted to establish an Arian church in Milan, and wanted Ambrose to give her one of the four church buildings he had erected. Ambrose couldn’t obey.

            In a letter to his sister Marcelllina, he explained the exchange he had with the emperor’s messagers: “’If my patrimony be required,’ I said, ‘take it; if my person, here it is. Will you drag me away to prison, or to death? I will go with pleasure. I will not entrench myself by gathering a multitude round me, I will not lay hold of the Altar and beg for my life; rather will I offer myself to death for the Altar.’”[2]

            To defend the churches, the Christians in Milan (including Monica, Augustine’s mother) barricaded themselves inside, staging what was probably the first sit-in in church history. But comparisons with modern sit-ins stop at the physical posture, because fourth-century emperors were known to trample on their own laws, and the Christians were truly risking their lives.

            In a sermon, Ambrose calmed their fears: “Why, then, are you disturbed? I will never willingly desert you, though if force is used, I cannot meet it. I shall be able to grieve, to weep, to groan; against weapons, soldiers, Goths, my tears are my weapons, for these are a priest's defense. I ought not, I cannot resist in any other way.”[3]

            To strengthen the crowds, Ambrose encouraged them to sing some simple hymns he had composed, often reinforcing a trinitarian doctrine. For example, Aeterne rerum Conditor begins with a prayer for strength (“Eternal Creator of all things, who rule the day and night, and give the times of times, to relieve our weariness”) and concludes with a praise of the Triune God (“To Thee, Christ, most pious King, and to the Father be glory together with the Spirit Paraclete for eternal ages”).

            Iam surgit hora tertia speaks specifically of Christ’s divinity (We do believe the birth of God, sprung from the sacred virgin’s womb; he bore the sins of all the world, and now sits at his Father’s right”).  

            Suddenly, on Maude Thursday, April 2 387, while Ambrose was preaching from the book of Jonah, someone brought the news that the emperor had called back his soldiers.


Ambrose and Theodosius

            Theodosius was another emperor who had to deal with Ambrose’s reproofs. This was the same Theodosius who, in 380, made Christianity, as it was approved at the Council of Nicea, the official religion of the Roman Empire. He also had a reputation for piety. And yet, around the year 390, he either ordered or allowed the massacre of civilians in Thessalonica, Greece, in response to the killing of a Roman soldier.

            The details of the story are hazy, but Ambrose didn’t hesitate to place the blame on Theodosius. “I urge, I beg, I exhort, I warn, for it is a grief to me, that you who were an example of unusual piety, who were conspicuous for clemency, who would not suffer single offenders to be put in peril, should not mourn that so many have perished,”[4] Ambrose wrote in a private letter that was intended for Theodosius’s eyes only. “I have written this, not in order to confound you, but that the examples of these kings may stir you up to put away this sin from your kingdom, for you will do it away by humbling your soul before God.”[5]

            Ambrose asked Theodosius to repent and perform acts of public repentance. This was not unusual at that time. Those who had sinned before all had to repent before all. And yet, the idea of an emperor heeding to a bishop’s call for public repentance and humiliation sounded so stunning to later artists that it has been depicted in several works. The Flemish Peter Paul Rubens went as far as showing an unlikely, but symbolic scene, of Ambrose standing at the door of the church, blocking the emperor from entering.

            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. Moreover, it is the only virtue which has led to the increase of the Church which the Lord sought at the price of His own Blood, imitating the lovingkindness of heaven, and aiming at the redemption of all, seeks this end with a gentleness which the ears of men can endure, in presence of which their hearts do not sink, nor their spirits quail. For he who endeavors to amend the faults of human weakness ought to bear this very weakness on his own shoulders, let it weigh upon himself, not cast it off.”[6]


[1] Augustine, Confessions, VI:3,

[3] Ambrose, Sermon On the Giving Up of the Basilicas, 2,

[4] Ambrose, Letter 51, to Theodosius, 12

[5] Ibid, 11

[6] Ambrose, Concerning Repentance, Book 1, Chapter 1,


Simonetta Carr