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date: 09 December 2022


, b. 340 CE


, b. 340 CE
  • Philip Rousseau


  • Christianity

Ambrose (Ambrosius), son of a praetorian prefect of Gaul, Ambrose was well educated and achieved official success under the patronage of the great prefects Sex. Claudius Petronius Probus and Q. Aurelius Symmachus (2). Until his early death, his brother Uranius Satyrus showed equal promise. His sister Marcellina became well known for her practice of consecrated virginity, dating from the time of Liberius, bishop of Rome (ce 352–66). Ambrose was appointed governor of Aemilia and Liguria in 374. Already experienced, therefore, in the affairs of Milan (Mediolanum), he was chosen to be the city's bishop in the same year, while intervening in what had become a disputed election. He died in 397 (see Paulinus of Milan, Life of St Ambrose 3–5 for his early career and, more generally, PLRE 1. 52 ‘Ambrosius’ 3).

Ambrose is famous for his confrontations with the emperor Theodosius (2) I. Imperial orders to rebuild in 388 a synagogue at Callinicum destroyed by a Christian mob were rescinded after his intervention (Epp. 40, 41); and in 390 he excommunicated the emperor, following the calculated massacre of thousands in the circus at Thessalonica (Ep. 51 provides more reliable information than Paulinus). But those triumphs reflected force of personality without precedent or institutional significance. Nor is it easy to judge what direct contribution Ambrose made to Theodosius' laws against paganism. His earlier relationships with Gratian and Valentinian II, close and affectionate, did more to form and reflect his attitudes to civil authority, as also did his embassies to Trier during the usurpation of Maximus, 383–4 and 386 (Ep.24). His abiding preoccupations in the public sphere were the defeat of Arianism (which brought him into famous conflict with the empress Justina in 386: see Ep.20) and the inhibition of pagan cult (symbolized by his successful encouragement of imperial resistance to Symmachus over the restoration of the altar of Victory in the senate-house in 384, recorded in Epp. 17 and 18).

Ambrose was a master of oral instruction. Deeply learned in Greek traditions—both those stemming from Plotinus and those indebted to Philon (4) and Origen (1)—and familiar with his near-contemporary Basil of Caesarea, he made his own contribution to theological development by binding both exegesis and philosophy more closely to sacramental cult. Not content with mere typology, his ‘mystagogic’ skills harnessed the erudition of the Church to its growth as a community through baptism and homily. Augustine was the most famous example of his success. His preaching was reinforced by a keen appreciation of ceremonial, hymnody, and architecture, together with veneration for the martyrs. He also devoted enormous energy to the spiritual health and ecclesial discipline of other churches in north Italy, not least through his correspondence and his attendance at synods. His sympathetic morality is revealed in his writings on virginity (closely associated with his sister) and in his De officiis.



Variously available in Patrologiae Cursus (14–17),Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum,Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and Corpus Christianorum, series Latina. Beware more than one system of numbering for his Letters.Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat

  • Paulinus, Vita di Cipriano, Vita di Ambrogio, Vita di Agostino, ed. A. A. R. Bastiaensen (1975).
  • Eng. trans. in F. R. Hoare, The Western Fathers (1954).
  • N. McLynn, Ambrose of Milan (1994).