previous next

Ambro'sius, St.

bishop of MILAN, was born probably at Augusta Trevirorum (Treves), which was the seat of government for the province of Gaul, of which his father was prefect. His biographers differ as to whether the date of his birth was 333 or 340 A. D. but the latter is probably the true date. Circumstances occurred in his infancy which were understood to portend his future greatness. His father having died, Ambrose, then a boy, accompanied his mother to Rome, where he received the education of an advocate under Anicius Probus and Symmachus. He began pleading causes at Milan, then the imperial residence, and soon gained a high reputation for forensic eloquence. This success, together with the influence of his family, led to his appointment (about 370 A. D., or a little later) as consular prefect of the provinces of Liguria and Aemilia, whose seat of government was Milan.

The struggle between the Catholics and Arianu was now at its height in the Western Church, and upon the death of Auxentius, bishop of Milan, in 374, the question of the appointment of his successor led to an open conflict between the two parties. Ambrose exerted his influence to restore peace, and addressed the people in a conciliatory speech, at the conclusion of which a child in the further part of the crowd cried out "Ambrosius. episcopus." The words were received as an oracle from heaven, and Ambrose was elected bishop by the acclamation of the whole multitude, the bishops of both parties uniting in his election. It was in vain that he adopted the strangest devices to alter the determination of the people; nothing could make them change their mind (Paulin. Vit. Ambros. pp. 2, 3): in vain did he flee from Milan in the night; he mistook his way, and found himself the next morning before the gate of the city. At length he yielded to the express command of the emperor (Valentinian I.), and was consecrated on the eighth day after his baptism, for at the time of his election he was only a catechumen.

Immediately after his election he gave all his property to the church and the poor, and adopted an ascetic mode of life, while the public administration of his office was most firm and skilful. He was a great patron of monasticism: about two years after his consecration he wrote his three books " De Virginibus," and dedicated them to his sister Marcellina. In the Arian controversy he espoused the orthodox side at his very entrance on his bishopric by demanding that his baptism should be performed by an orthodox bishop. He applied himself most diligently to the study of theology under Simplician, a presbyter of Rome, who afterwards became his successor in the bishopric. this influence soon became very great, both with the people and with the emperor Valentinian and his son Gratian, for whose instruction he composed his treatises " De Fide," and " De Spiritu Sancto." In the year 377, in consequence of an invasion of Italy by the northern barbarians, Ambrose fled to Illyricum, and afterwards (in Cave's opinion) visited Rome. After his return to Milan, he was employed by the court on important political affairs. When Maximus, after the death of Gratian (383), threatened Italy, Justina, the mother of the young emperor Valentinian II., sent Ambrose on an embassy to the usurper, whose advance the bishop succeeded in delaying. At a later period (387), Ambrose went again to Treves on a like mission; but his conduct on this occasion gave such offence to Maximus, that he was compelled to return to Italy in haste.

While rendering these political services to Justina and Valentinian, Ambrose was at open variance with them on the great religious question of the age. Justina was herself an Arian, and had brought up the young emperor in the same tenets. Her contest with Ambrose began in the year 380, when she appointed an Arian bishop to the vacant see of Sirmium; upon which Ambrose went to Sirmium, and, a miraculous judgment on an Arian who insulted him having struck terror into his op ponents, he consecrated Anemmius, who was of the orthodox party, as bishop of Sirmium, and then returned to Milan, where Justina set on foot several intrigues against him, but without effect. In the year 382, Palladius and Secundianus, two Arian bishops, petitioned Gratian for a general council to decide the Arian controversy; but, through the influence of Ambrose, instead of a general council, a synod of Italian, Illyrian and Gallic bishops was assembled at Aquileia, over which Ambrose presided, and by which Palladius and Secundianus were deposed.

At length, in the years 385 and 386, Ambrose and Justina came to open conflict. Justina, in the name of the emperor, demanded of Ambrose the use of at least one of the churches in Milan, for the performance of divine worship by Arian ecclesiastics. Ambrose refused, and the people rose up to take his part. At Easter (385) an attempt was made by Justina to take forcible possession of the basilica, but the show of resistance was so great, that the attempt was abandoned, and the court was even obliged to apply to Ambrose to quell the tumult. He answered, that he had not stirred up the people, and that God alone could still them. The people now kept guard about the bishop's residence and the basilica, which the imperial forces hesitated to attack. In fact, the people were almost wholly on the side of Ambrose, the Arian party consisting of few beyond the court and the Gothic troops. Auxentius, an Arian bishop, who was Justina's chief adviser in these proceedings, now challenged Ambrose to a public disputation in the emperor's palace; but Ambrose refused, saying that a council of the church was the only proper place for such a discussion. He was next commanded to leave the city, which he at once refused to do, and in this refusal the people still supported him. In order to keep up the spirits of the people, he introduced into the church where they kept watch the regular performance of antiphonal hymns, which had been long practised in the Eastern Church, but not hitherto introduced into the West. At length, the contest was decided about a year after its commencement by the miracles which are reported to have attended the discovery of the reliques of two hitherto unknown martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius. A blind man was said to have been restored to sight, and several demoniacs dispossessed. These events are recorded hy Ambrose himself, by his secretary Paulinus, and by his disciple Augustine, who was in Milan at the time; but a particular discussion of the truth of these miracles would be out of place here. They were denied by the Arians and discredited by the court, but the impression made by them upon the people in general was such, that Justina thought it prudent to desist from her attempt. (Ambros. Epist. xii. xx. xxi. 22.2, liii. liv.; Paulin. Vit. Ambros. ยง 14-17, p. 4, Ben.; Augustin. Confess. 9.7.14-16, De Civ. Dei, 22.8.2, Serm. 318, 286.)

An imperial rescript was however issued in the same year for the toleration of all sects of Christians, any offence against which was made high treason (Cod. Theodos. IV. De Fide Catholica); but we have no evidence that its execution was attempted; and the state of the parties was quite altered by the death of Justina in the next year (387), when Valentinian became a Catholic, and still more completely by the victory of Theodosius over Maximus (388). This event put the whole power of the empire into the hands of a prince who was a firm Catholic, and over whom Ambrose speedily acquired such influence, that, after the massacre at Thessalonica in 390, he refused Theodosius admission into the church of Milan for a period of eight months, and only restored him after he had performed a public penance, and had confessed that he had learnt the difference between an emperor and a priest.

Ambrose was an active opponent not only of the Arians, but also of the Macedonians, Apollinarians, and Novatians, and of Jovinian. It was probably about the year 384 that he successfully resisted the petition of Symmachus and the heathen senators of Rome for the restoration of the altar of Victory. He was the principal instructor of Augustine in the Christian faith. [AUGUSTINUS.]

The latter years of his life, with the exception of a short absence from Milan during the usurpation of Eugenius (392), were devoted to the care of his bishopric. He died on the 4th of April, A. D. 397.


As a writer, Ambrose cannot be ranked high, notwithstanding his great eloquence. His theological knowledge scarcely extended beyond a fair acquaintance with the works of the Greek fathers, from whom he borrowed much. His works bear also the marks of haste. He was rather a man of action than of letters.

His works are very numerous, though several of them have been lost. They consist of Letters, Sermons, and Orations, Commentaries on Scripture, Treatises in commendation of celibacy and monasticism, and other treatises, of which the most important are : Hexaemeron, an account of the creation; De Officiis Ministrorum, which is generally considered his best work; De Mysteriis; De Sacramentis ; De Poenitentia ; and the above-mentioned works, De Fide, and De Spiritu Sancto, which are both upon the Trinity. The well-known hymn, Te Deum laudamus, has been ascribed to him, but its date is at least a century later. There are other hymns ascribed to him, but upon doubtful authority. He is believed to have settled the order of public worship in the churches of Milan in the form which it had till the eighth century under the names of Officium Ambrosianum and Missa Ambrosiana.


The best edition of his works is that of the Benedictines, 2 vols. fol., Paris, 1686 and 1690, with an Appendix containing a life of Ambrose by his secretary Paulinus, another in Greek, which is anonymous, and is chiefly copied from Theodoret's Ecclesiastical History, and a third by the Benedictine editors. Two works of Ambrose, Explanatio Symboli ad initiandos, and Epistola de Fide, have been discovered by Angelo Maii, and are published by him in the seventh volume of his Scriptorum Veterum Nova Collectio.


hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
397 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: