Saint Ambrose

Saint Ambrose, mosaic in the basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan
Born c. AD 340 in Trier, southern Gaul
Died 4 April AD 397 in Milan, Italy
Venerated in Roman Catholic
Major shrine Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan
Feast December 7
Attributes Beehive, child, whip, bones
Patronage bee keepers; bees; candle makers; domestic animals; French Commissariat; learning; Milan, Italy; students; wax refiners
Saints Portal

Saint Ambrose, (Latin: Sanctus Ambrosius, "Ambrosius episcopus Mediolanensis"; Italian: Sant'Ambrogio) (c. 340 – 4 April 397), bishop of Milan (Mediolanum in Latin), was one of the most eminent bishops of the 4th century. Together with Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, and Gregory I, he is counted as one of the four doctors of the West of antique church history.


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Worldly career

Statue of St. Ambrose.
Statue of St. Ambrose.

Ambrose was a citizen of Rome, born about 337–340 in Trier, Germany, into a Christian family. His father was prefect of Gallia Narbonensis, his mother was a woman of intellect and piety. There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and honeyed-tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in the saint's symbology.

After the early death of his father, Ambrose was destined to follow his father's career, and was accordingly educated in Rome, studying literature, law and rhetoric. Praetor Anicius Probus first gave him a place in the council and then about 372 made him consular prefect of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which was then beside Rome the second capital in Italy. Ambrose made an excellent administrator in this important position and soon became very popular.

Bishop of Milan

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán
St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán

The diocese of Milan was at the time, like the rest of the Church, deeply divided in the contest between Trinitarians and Arians. In 374, Auxentius, bishop of Milan, died, and the Nicene and Arian parties contended for the succession. The prefect went personally to the basilica where the election should take place, to prevent an uproar which was probable in this crisis. His address was interrupted by a call "Ambrose for bishop!" which was taken up by others upon which he was univocally elected bishop.

Ambrose was a likely candidate in this situation, because he was known to Trinitarians as sympathizer, but also acceptable to Arians due to the theologically neutral position he took as politician. At first he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared - he was so far only catechumen with no theological training. Only by intervention of the emperor he gave in and got within a week baptism and ordination and was duly installed as bishop of Milan.

As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, settled his land on the church, making only provision for his sister Marcellina, and committed the care of his family to his brother.

According to legend, Saint Ambrose immediately and forcefully stopped heresy in Milan. Actually, he moved more realistically and deliberately, as he had not many arguments against Arianism which dominated especially among the clerics and higher levels of society. He started to study the basics of theology with Simplician, a presbyter of Rome. Using his excellent knowledge of Greek, which was then rare in the West, to his advantage, he studied the Bible and Greek authors like Philo, Origenes, Athanasius and Basil of Caesarea, with whom he was also exchanging letters (See letter of Basil to Ambrose). He applied his new knowledge as preacher, concentrating especially on exegesis of the Old Testament, and his rhetorical abilities impressed Augustine of Hippo, who hitherto had thought poorly of Christian preachers.

Ambrose and Arians

In the confrontation with Arians, Ambrose applied theological and political means, using his eloquence as effectively as his political experience and his excellent political connections.

Gratian, the son of the elder Valentinian I, was Trinitarian; but the younger Valentinian, who had now become his colleague in the empire, adopted the opinions of the Arians, and all the arguments and eloquence of Ambrose could not reclaim the young prince to the orthodox faith. Theodosius I, the emperor of the East, also professed the Nicene belief; but there were many adherents of Arius throughout his dominions, especially among the higher clergy. In this distracted state of religious opinion, two leaders of the Arians, Palladius and Secundianus, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Gratian to call a general council from all parts of the empire. This request appeared so equitable that he complied without hesitation; but Ambrose, foreseeing the consequence, prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops.

A synod, composed of thirty-two bishops, was accordingly held at Aquileia in the year 381. Ambrose was elected president; and Palladius, being called upon to defend his opinions, declined, insisting that the meeting was a partial one, and that, all the bishops of the empire not being present, the sense of the Christian church concerning the question in dispute could not be obtained. A vote was then taken, when Palladius and his associate Secundianus were deposed from the episcopal office.

The increasing strength of the Arians proved a formidable task for Ambrose. In 384 the young emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially military, professing the Arian faith, requested from the bishop the use of two churches, one in the city, the other in the suburbs of Milan.

Ambrose refused, and was required to answer for his conduct before the council. He went, attended by a numerous crowd of people, whose impetuous zeal so overawed the ministers of Valentinian that he was permitted to retire without making the surrender of the churches. The day following, when he was performing divine service in the basilica, the prefect of the city came to persuade him to give up at least the Portian church in the suburbs. As he still continued obstinate, the court proceeded to violent measures: the officers of the household were commanded to prepare the Basilica and the Portian churches to celebrate divine service upon the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the ensuing festival of Easter.

Perceiving the growing strength of the prelate's interest, the court deemed it prudent to restrict its demand to the use of one of the churches. But all entreaties proved in vain, and drew forth the following characteristic declaration from the bishop:

If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.

Circumstances never actually tried Ambrose's courage to this degree.

Ambrose and emperors

Saint Ambrose and emperor Theodosius by Van Dyck.
Saint Ambrose and emperor Theodosius by Van Dyck.

If the imperial court was displeased with the religious principles and conduct of Ambrose, it respected his great political talents; and when necessity required, his aid was solicited and generously granted. When Magnus Maximus usurped the supreme power in Gaul, and was meditating a descent upon Italy, Valentinian sent Ambrose to dissuade him from the undertaking, and the embassy was successful.

On a second attempt of the same kind Ambrose was again employed; and although he was unsuccessful, it cannot be doubted that, if his advice had been followed, the schemes of the usurper would have proved abortive; but the enemy was permitted to enter Italy; and Milan was taken. Justina and her son fled; but Ambrose remained at his post, and did good service to many of the sufferers by causing the plate of the church to be melted for their relief.

Ambrose was equally zealous in combating the attempt made by the upholders of the old state religion to resist the enactments of Christian emperors. The pagan party was led by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, consul in 391, who presented to Valentinian II a forcible but unsuccessful petition praying for the restoration of the Altar of Victory to its ancient station in the hall of the Roman Senate, the proper support of seven Vestal Virgins, and the regular observance of the other pagan ceremonies.

To this petition Ambrose replied in a letter to Valentinian, arguing that the devoted worshippers of idols had often been forsaken by their deities; that the native valour of the Roman soldiers had gained their victories, and not the pretended influence of pagan priests; that these idolatrous worshippers requested for themselves what they refused to Christians; that voluntary was more honourable than constrained virginity; that as the Christian ministers declined to receive temporal emoluments, they should also be denied to pagan priests; that it was absurd to suppose that God would inflict a famine upon the empire for neglecting to support a religious system contrary to His will as revealed in the Holy Scriptures; that the whole process of nature encouraged innovations, and that all nations had permitted them even in religion; that heathen sacrifices were offensive to Christians; and that it was the duty of a Christian prince to suppress pagan ceremonies. In the epistles of Symmachus and of Ambrose both the petition and the reply are preserved.

The turn of mind of Ambrose, and his rhetorical application of apparently logical processes are well displayed in his 40th and 41st Epistles. A bishop was accused of instigating the burning of a synagogue by an anti-Semitic mob, and Emperor Theodosius was preparing to order the bishop to rebuild it. Ambrose discouraged the Emperor from taking this step, not that the bishop in question had never encouraged fanatic destruction, but on the grounds that it would appear to show favoritism to the Jews. He adduces recent instances of inaction: when houses of various wealthy individuals were burned in Rome; when the house of the Bishop of Constantinople was burnt; when several Christian basilicas were burnt during the reign of Julian, some of which were still not rebuilt, an action Ambrose attributes to the Jews. Ambrose asks that Christian monies not be used to build a place of worship for unbelievers, heretics or Jews, and he reminds Theodosius that some Christian laity had said of Emperor Maximus, "he has become a Jew" because of the edict Maximus issued regarding the burning of a Roman synagogue. Ambrose did not oppose punishing those directly responsible for burning the synagogue.

To support the logic of his argument, Ambrose halted the celebration of the Eucharist, essentially holding the Christian community hostage, until Theodosius agreed to abort the investigation without requiring reparations to be made by the bishop.

Theodosius I, the emperor of the East, espoused the cause of Justina, and regained the kingdom. Theodosius was threatened with excommunication by Ambrose for the massacre of 7,000 persons at Thessalonica in 390, and was bidden imitate David in his repentance as he had imitated him in guilt - Ambrose readmitted the emperor only after several months of penance to the Eucharist. This incident shows the strong position of a bishop in the Western part of the empire, even when facing a strong emperor - the controversy of John Chrysostom with a much weaker emperor a few years later in Constantinople led to a crushing defeat of the bishop.

Ambrose's influence upon Theodosius is credited with eliciting the enactment of the "Theodosian decrees" of 391 (see entry Theodosius I, which are more characteristic of the constant agenda of Ambrose than of Theodosius.

In 392, after the assassination of Valentinian II and the usurpation of Eugenius, Ambrose fled from Milan; but when Theodosius was eventually victorious, he supplicated the emperor for the pardon of those who had supported Eugenius. Soon after acquiring the undisputed possession of the Roman empire, Theodosius died at Milan in 395, and two years later (April 4, 397) Ambrose also died. He was succeeded as bishop of Milan by Simplician. Ambrose's body may still be viewed in the church of S. Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated — along with the bodies identified in his time as being those of Sts. Gervase and Protase — and is one of the oldest extant bodies of historical personages known outside Egypt.


Many circumstances in the history of Ambrose are characteristic of the general spirit of the times. The chief causes of his victory over his opponents were his great popularity and the reverence paid to the episcopal character at that period. But it must also be noted that he used several indirect means to obtain and support his authority with the people.

He was liberal to the poor; it was his custom to comment severely in his preaching on the public characters of his times; and he introduced popular reforms in the order and manner of public worship. It is alleged, too, that at a time when the influence of Ambrose required vigorous support, he was admonished in a dream to search for, and found under the pavement of the church, the remains of two martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius. The applause of the people was mingled with the derision of the court party.


Though ranking with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, as one of the Latin Doctors of the Church, he is most naturally compared with Hilary, whom he surpasses in administrative excellence as much as he falls below him in theological ability. Even here, however, his achievements are of no mean order, especially when we remember his juridical training and his comparatively late handling of Biblical and doctrinal subjects.

His great spiritual successor, Augustine, whose conversion was helped by Ambrose's sermons, owes more to him than to any writer except Paul.

Ambrose's intense episcopal consciousness furthered the growing doctrine of the Church and its sacerdotal ministry, while the prevalent asceticism of the day, continuing the Stoic and Ciceronian training of his youth, enabled him to promulgate a lofty standard of Christian ethics. Thus we have the De officiis ministrorum, De viduis, De virginitate and De paenitentia.


In matters of exegesis he is, like Hilary, an Alexandrian. In dogma he follows Basil of Caesarea and other Greek authors, but nevertheless gives a distinctly Western cast to the speculations of which he treats. This is particularly manifest in the weightier emphasis which he lays upon human sin and divine grace, and in the place which he assigns to faith in the individual Christian life.

  • De fide ad Gratianum Augustum
  • De Spiritu Sancto
  • De incarnationis Dominicae sacramento
  • De mysteriis
  • homiletic commentaries on the early Old Testament narratives, e.g., the Hexaemeron (Creation) and Abraham, some of the Psalms, and the Gospel according to Luke.
  • several funeral orations
  • 91 letters
  • Ambrosiaster or the "pseudo-Ambrose" is a brief commentary on Paul's Epistles, which was long attributed to Ambrose.

Church music

Main article: Ambrosian Hymnography

Ambrose is traditionally credited but not actually known to have composed any of the repertory of Ambrosian chant also known simply as "chant, a method of chanting, or one side of the choir alternately responding to the other, much as the later pope St. Gregory I the Great is not known to have composed any Gregorian chant, the plainsong or "Romish chant. However, Ambrosian chant was named in his honor due to his contributions to the music of the Church; he is credited with introducing hymnody from the Eastern Church into the West.

Catching the impulse from Hilary and confirmed in it by the success of Arian psalmody, Ambrose composed several original hymns as well, four of which still survive, along with music which may not have changed too much from the original melodies. Each of these hymns has eight four-line stanzas and is written in strict iambic tetrameter. Marked by dignified simplicity, they served as a fruitful model for later times.

  • Deus Creator Omnium
  • Aeterne rerum conditor
  • Jam surgit hora tertia
  • Veni redemptor gentium (a Christmas hymn)
  • Text of some Ambrosian Hymns

In his writings, Ambrose refers only to the performance of antiphonal psalms, in which solo singing of psalm verses alternated with a congregational refrain called an antiphon.

St. Ambrose was also traditionally credited with composing the hymn Te Deum, which he is said to have composed when he baptised Saint Augustine, his celebrated convert.

Ambrose and reading

Ambrose is the subject of a curious anecdote in Augustine's Confessions which bears on the history of reading:

When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.

The extraordinary aspect of this passage, of course, is that Augustine felt it noteworthy that Ambrose could read silently, implying that hardly anyone else could at the time.

Others opine that, in the ancient world, what was well written was intended to be read aloud, and this was customary. Ambrose thus surprised Augustine not by his ability to read silently, but by his habit of doing so.[citation needed]

See also

  • Ambrosians
  • Ambrosian hymnography
  • Ambrosian Liturgy and Rite.
  • St. Ambrose Basilica, Milan
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