Aurelius Ambrosius (c340-397 CE) – in English he is always known as Ambrose - was bishop of Milan from 374 to 397 and, as a member of the inner circle of imperial advisers, an influential figure in the Roman world of his time. After his death he was adopted as the patron saint of Milan, and was one of the first Christian theologians to be declared a Doctor of the Church.
Ambrose was born in Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier in the Moselle Valley in what is now Germany) into a family of high social standing: his father, also called Ambrosius, was the Praetorian Prefect (Governor) of Gaul and, as such, a very senior figure in the Imperial Civil Service.
When his father died in c350, Ambrose moved with the rest of the family to Rome, where he completed his education, remaining there till c365, when he and his brother Satyrus left for Sirmium (modern Sirmio) in northern Italy to practise as lawyers in the Court of the Praetorian Prefect (i.e., the Governor) of Italy. Ambrose was quickly promoted and in 370, on becoming Consularis (i.e., Governor) of the Province of Aemilia-Liguria, took up residence in Milan.
In 374, on the death of Milan’s bishop, Auxentius, disagreement over the appointment of a successor between Arians (i.e., supporters of the heresy condemned by the council of Nicaea in 325) and orthodox Christians led to civil unrest and violence. Ambrose, throughout his life an implacable opponent of Arianism, intervened as governor to restore order but found himself urged by the crowd to accept the new appointment himself, which in the end, very reluctantly, he did.
Milan was at that time the administrative centre of the western half of the Roman Empire and Ambrose became an unofficial member of the inner circle of government, with access to the emperor and his advisers. He was a powerful figure, much liked by the people of Milan, and not afraid to challenge the emperor and other members of the imperial family. Two instances of this are often cited:
- During the reign of Valentinian II (who was only 4 years old on his accession in 375 and no more than 21 when he died in 392) the emperor’s mother, Justina, was the dominant figure in imperial circles. A committed Arian, she constantly attempted to promote Arianism within the empire but was often thwarted by Ambrose. In 385, for example, she insisted that one of the Milanese churches, the Basilica Portiana, should be given to the Arians for their services. Ambrose rejected her demand, and when she sent a band of soldiers to take possession of the church, stood in the doorway and prevented them from entering.
- In 390 Theodosius I (emperor in the East 379-392, emperor in the East and West 392-395) ordered the massacre of the entire population of the city of Thessalonica as a punishment for a riot in which the commander of the local garrison had been killed. Ambrose, appalled at the cruelty of the emperor’s order, refused to give him communion and required him to do public penance.
On his death Ambrose was elevated to sainthood by popular acclaim, his saint’s day, 7th December, commemorating the day on which he became the city’s bishop in 374. (Nowadays 7th December is by tradition the date of the first night of the Season at Milan’s opera house, Teatro alla Scala.)
As well as being a prolific letter-writer – some of his letters have survived - Ambrose is the author of many works on theological and moral subjects. He is also remembered for having introduced the practice of hymn-singing into Christian religious services in the western half of the Roman Empire, and for his influence on the young Augustine (354-430), who came to Milan as a young man to teach rhetoric, and describes in his Confessions the kindly way in which Ambrose received him when he sought his guidance.