Click to View

Early Church Fathers
Click to ViewMaster Index
Click to ViewPower Search

 Click to View

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Document

Prolegomena to St. Ambrose.

§1. Editions.

§2. Translations.

§3. Biographies and Authorities for the Life of St. Ambrose.

I. Dogmatic and Controversial Works.

II. Exegetical Works.

III. Ethical Writings.

IV. Sermons and Addresses.

V. The Letters of St. Ambrose.

The Letters.

VI. Hymns.

VII. Doubtful and Spurious Works.

VIII. Lost Writings of St. Ambrose.

Prolegomena to St. Ambrose.

I. Literature.

§1. Editions.

All the Editions of the works of St. Ambrose which preceded that of the Benedictines are very inadequate. Of these the chief are the following:

8. A new edition by Ballerini, Milan, a.d. 1875-1886, founded on that of the Benedictines, but by no means superior to it.

There is still room for a critical edition of the works of this great Father, which are unfortunately very corrupt, but in many points it is not likely that the work of the Benedictine editors can be improved upon.

9. There are separate editions of some of the treatises of St. Ambrose, as of the Hexaëmeron and De Officiis Clericorum, in the Bibliotheca Patrum Eccl. Latinae Selecta, Leipzig, Tauchnitz. The De Officiis has also been edited, with considerable improvements in the text, by Krabinger, Tübingen, 1857, and the De Fide and De Poenitentia, by Hurter in the Vienna selections from the Fathers.

§2. Translations.

There seems to have never been any attempt to translate the works of this great Christian Father and Doctor in full.

Some few treatises, De Officiis, De excessu fratris Satyri, De Virginitate, and several other short ones, appear in German, in the select writings of the Fathers, published by Kosel of Kempten. The Epistles have been translated into French by Bonrecueil, Paris, a.d. 1746; and the De Officiis and Epistles into English, the former by Humfrey, London, a.d. 1637; the latter in the Oxford "Library of the Fathers," revised by E. Walford, London, 1881; whilst the De Mysteriis appears in a little volume of Sacramental Treatises, published by Messrs. J. Parker & Co., Oxford, under the supervision of the Editor of this volume. There is a very valuable little monograph entitled Studia Ambrosiana, chiefly critical, and unfortunately brief, by Maximilian Ihm. Leipzig, Teubner, 1889.

§3. Biographies and Authorities for the Life of St. Ambrose.

(a.) Ancient.

Many of his own writings.-Life of St. Ambrose by Paulinus,1 a deacon of the Church of Milan.-St. Augustine, Confessions, V. 23, 24; VI. 1-6; IX. 13-16; and many other passages in his writings.-St. Jerome, De Scriptoribus Ecclesiasticis, c. 134.-Rufinus, Ecclesiastical History, XI, 11, 15, 16, 18.-Socrates, Eccl. History, IV. 30; V. 11.-Sozomen, Eccl. History, VI, 24; VII. 13, 25.

(B.) Modern.

Baronius, Annals, a.d. 397, n. 25-35; Life of St. Ambrose in the prolegomena to the Roman Edition of his works.-The Life of St. Ambrose gathered from his own writings, in the Benedictine Edition (excellent).-Hermant, Vie de St. Ambroise, Paris, 1678.-Tillemont, Mémoires, etc., Tome X. St. Ambroise [pp. 78-386], and notes, pp. 729-770.-Ceillier, Histoire générale des Auteurs sacrés, Tome V. pp. 328 ff. Ed. 2, Paris, 186c.-Dupin, Tome ii. pp. 438-515. [This writer says that the text of St. Ambrose is more corrupt than that of any other Father. See Alzog, Patrologie, p. 296. Ed. i.]-Cave, Hist. Lit. Vol. I. 262.-Schoeneman, BiblÍotheca historica PP. Lat. I. 388-419.-Silbert, Leben des heiligen Ambrosius, Vienna, 1841-Baunard, Histoire de St. Ambroise, Paris, 1872 [translated into German, Freiburg, 1873].-Life of St. Ambrose, by Archdeacon Thornton, London, and other shorter sketches.-Fessler [Jungmann], Institutiones Patrologiae, I. 655 [also Patrologies of Moehler, Alzog, etc.]. Articles in the Freiburg Kirchen-Lexikon, the Dictionary of Christian Biography, and other encyclopaedias.

II. Notes on Secular and Church History During the Latter Part of the Fourth Century.

After the Council of Nicaea, a.d. 325, the faith of the Catholic Church was established, but a considerable time was to elapse, and the tide of heterodoxy was to ebb and flow many times before peace should finally ensue. The "conversion" of the Emperor Constantine, though not followed, till he was dying, by baptism, led not merely to the toleration but to the protection and, as it were, the "establishment" of the Christian religion. This very naturally was followed by a large influx of worldliness into the Church, and bishops began to be time-servers and courtiers. St. Ambrose, however, was not of this number, but whether in defence of the Catholic faith, of the property of the Church, or, as in his legations to Maximus, for the protection of those in peril or anxiety who sought his aid, he braved every danger, even that of death itself.

During the greater part of the life of St. Ambrose many of those in power, amongst others the empress mother Justina, were Arians. Julian, though too early to affect the actions of the bishop, apostatized to paganism, which also numbered many supporters of high station. On the other hand, the influence of St. Ambrose, exercised even with severe strictness, was all-powerful with Theodosius, known as the emperor who subdued the Arian heresy and abolished the worship of idols in the Roman Empire.

The various historical events during the lifetime of St. Ambrose will be found entered under the different years in the subjoined table; it remains only here to give some account of his burial-place.

St. Ambrose having discovered the bodies of SS. Cosmas and Damian, a.d. 389, placed them under the right side of the altar in his basilica, and desired that he should be himself buried near them to the left, which was done a.d. 397. In the year 835 the Archbishop of Milan, Angilbert II., caused a large porphyry sarcophagus to be made in which he laid the body of St. Ambrose between the other two under the altar. In 1864 some excavations and repairs revealed in situ a magnificent sarcophagus nearly four and a half feet in length, three in width, and nearly two in height, without the covering, placed lengthwise. Further excavations brought to view two other tombs, one to the right and one to the left, lined with marble and placed east and west, not as the sarcophagus, north and south. In the one to the left were a few pieces of money, one of Flavius Victor, one of Theodosius, with some fragments of cloth of gold and other things. These were evidently the original resting-places of St. Ambrose and of SS. Cosmas and Damian, and the sarcophagus that constructed under Lothair, a.d. 835, by Angilbert.



Birth of St. Ambrose (probably at Treèves), youngest son of Ambrose, Prefect of the Gauls. Constantine II. killed at Aquieleia. Death of Eusebius.


Seventh Council of Antioch. Second exile of St. Athanasius.


Photinus begins teaching his heresy.


Birth of St. John Crysostom. Council of Sardica. St. Athanasius restored.


Birth of Prudentius the Christian poet.


Synod of Sirmium against Photinus.


Death of the Emperor Constans. St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers. Magnentius proclaimed Emperor of the West.


Photinus condemned by a semi-Arian synod.


Liberius, Pope in succession to Julius.


About this date St. Ambrose is taken by his mother to live at Rome, where his sister Marcellina received the veil at the hands of Liberius at Christmas, either a.d. 353, or more probably 354. Suicide of Magnentius the Emperor.


Birth of St. Augustine. Death of the Emperor Gallus.


Liberius the Pope, Dionysius, Bishop of Milan, and Lucifer, Bishop of Cagliari, banished by an Arian synod at Milan. Third exile of St. Athanasius.


Banishment of St. Hilary of Poitiers.


Liberius subscribes (as the Arians say> an Arian Creed, and returns to Rome a.d. 358.


Council of Ariminum. Macedonius of Constantinople deposed. Eudoxius consecrated Bishop.


Julian Emperor.


Fourth exile of St. Athanasius.


Death of the Emperor Julian. St. Athanasius restored. Felix Pope.


Death of the Emperor Jovian. Valentinian and Valens Emperors.


Death of Liberius in September. Damasus elected in his place, but the see is also claimed by Ursinus.


Gratian, though only a boy, declared Augustus by his father Valentinian.


Successful career of St. Ambrose in legal business and as "consular."


St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea.


St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Susium.


Death of St. Athanasius.


Death of Auxentius, the Arian Bishop of Milan, and election of St. Ambrose, though still only a catechumen, by acclamation. St. Martin Bishop of Tours.


St. Ambrose sends a deputation of clerics to St. Basil to ask for the body of St. Dionysius, late Catholic Bishop of Milan. [St. Basil, Ep. 197.]


Death of Valentinian in November. His son Valentinian is admitted by Gratian to be Emperor of the East, though only four years old.


St. Ambrose writes the three books, De Virginibus; one, De Viduis; which is followed by the book, De Virginitate.


The first two books, De Fide, written at the request of Gratian, who was setting out to the relief of Valens against the Goths. Valens is overcome and killed at Adrianople. Many Christians having been made captives, St. Ambrose sells Church plate to redeem them.


Theodosius is proclaimed Augustus. Death of St. Basil and of St. Ephrem Syrum. Gratian, on his way back from Thrace, requests St. Ambrose to come to meet him and receives the first two books of the treatise De Fide, and asks for a further one of the Holy Spirit; the latter was written two years later. Death of Satyrus, brother of St. Ambrose. The two treatises on his death written.


Famine in Rome.-See De Off. III. 46-48.


Baptism of Theodosius at Thessalonica. Books III.-V. of the De Fide written about this time. The basilica which had been sequestered by Gratian is restored to the Church.


Synod at Rome under Damasus at which St. Ambrose was present. Probably in the same year St. Ambrose consecrated Anemius Bishop of Sirmium in spite of Arian opposition.


Death at Constantinople of Athanaricus, leader of the Goths. The three books, De Spiritu Sancto, written. Death of Peter, Bishop of Alexandria. The Oecumenical Council of Constantinople commences under the presidency of Meletius of Antioch. Also at Aquileia a council, at which St. Ambrose took a leading part, was held against the heretics Palladius and Secundianus. An account is given of the proceedings in Epistles 9-12.


St. Ambrose presides over a council of Italian bishops to take into consideration the troubles at Antioch and Constantinople. Epistles 13, to Theodosius, and 14, his reply, state the proceedings. Theodosius summoned a council to consider the same matters at Constantinople.


Gratian orders the removal of the image of Victory from the forum at Rome. [Ep. 17, 18.] Acholius, Bishop of Thessalonica, dies and is succeeded by Anysius.


The Priscillianists endeavour in vain to gain Damasus and St. Ambrose to their side by means of a visit to Rome and Milan. On the 25th of August Gratian is assassinated at Lyons by the instigation of Maximus. A great dearth at Rome. [De Off. III. 7, 49; Ep. 18.]


First legation of St. Ambrose to Maximus on behalf of Justina the Empress and her son Valentinian II.384. The memorial of Symmachus the prefect of the city to Valentinian, requesting the restoration of the Altar of Victory, and the reply of St. Ambrose. [Ep. 17, 18.] A synod at Bordeaux against the Priscillianists. Death of Damasus, who is succeeded by Siricius as Pope.


Priscillian and his companions are condemned to death at Trèves at the instigation of the Spanish Bishops Idacius and Ithacius. The Ithacians consecrate Felix as Bishop. [Ep. 42-51.] The persecution at Milan of Catholics by Justina in Holy Week. [Ep. 20.] The law of Valentinian II., granting Arians equal rights with Catholics. Auxentius claims the see of Milan. [Sermon against Auxentius and Ep. 21.] The deposit which a widow had entrusted to the Church at Trent having been carried off by imperial order, St. Ambrose succeeds in procuring its restitution. [De Off. II. 29, 150, 151.] New basilica at Milan consecrated.


Finding of the bodies of St. Gervasius and Protasius [Ep. 22]. Epistle 23 to the bishops of the province of Aemilia on the right day for the observance of Easter.


The exposition of the Gospel according to St. Luke written.387. Baptism of St. Augustine at Milan by St. Ambrose at Easter. Second mission of St. Ambrose to Maximus. [Ep. 24.] Expulsion of St. Ambrose from Trèves because of his refusal to communicate with the murderer of his sovereign. In the later part of the year Maximus crosses into Italy and enters Milan.


At Constantinople the Arians destroy the residence of the Catholic Bishop Nectarius. [Ep. 40, §13.] Death of Justina, and conversion of Valentinian II. by Theodosius. Theodosius marches against Maximus, who is everywhere defeated [Ep. 40, §23], and executed at Aquileia. Third application concerning the Altar of Victory.


The excessive cruelty with which Theodosius punished a sedition at Thessalonica brought on him exclusion from communion, and a severe rebuke at the hands of St. Ambrose. The Emperor's penitence and readmission to communion. A synod is held at Milan against the Ithacian heretics, and Felix, Bishop of Trèves. [Ep. 51.]


The deputation of part of the Roman Senate to Valentinian to request the restoration of the Altar of Victory in the Forum. [Ep. 57, §5.] The treatise De institutione Virginis, written about this time, as also, De Officiis.


Valentinian II. killed at Vienne by Arbogastes [Ep. 53, §2; De ob. Valent. 25 ff.]. His body is brought to Milan. The address, Consolatio de ob. Val. A further delegation from the Senate is sent to Eugenius respecting the Altar of Victory [Ep. 57, §6 ff.].


On the arrival of Eugenius at Milan St. Ambrose leaves the city for Bononia Faventia and Florence. The letters to Eugenius and Sabinus written about this time.


At Florence St. Ambrose dedicates a basilica, in which he deposits the bodies of the martyrs Vitalis and Agricola, which he had brought from Bononia. His address on this occasion was that which is inscribed, Exhortatio Virginitatis. He writes Ep. 59.


Theodosius sets out from Constantinople against Eugenius. About the beginning of August St. Ambrose returns to Milan. Eugenius defeated by Theodosius and slain, Sept. 6. St. Ambrose intercedes and obtains pardon for the followers of Eugenius. After this St. Ambrose writes the Enarrationes on Psalms 35-40 and Ep. 61, 62.


Death of Theodosius at Milan. St. Ambrose's oration De obitu Theodosii. Honorius and Arcadius Emperors. St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Death of Rufinus.


Dissensions at Vercellae, the occasion of writing Ep. 63, and of a visit to that Church.


St. Ambrose consecrates a bishop for Ticinum, and shortly after falls ill. He commenced the Enarratio on Psalm 43, which he left unfinished; and died in the night between Good Friday and Easter Eve,

III. Historical Summary and Chronological Tables.

IV. On the Doctrine of St. Ambrose.

There is a very complete agreement on the part of St. Ambrose with the Catholic teaching of the universal Church. St. Augustine speaks of him as "a faithful teacher of the Church, and even at the risk of his life a most strenuous defender of Catholic truth,"2 "whose skill, constancy, labours, and perils, both on account of what he did and what he wrote, the Roman world unhesitatingly proclaims."3 In matters both of faith and morals by his words and writings he greatly benefited the Church and was called by St. Jerome "a pillar of the Church."4

In his dogmatic treatises, more particularly in his books on the Faith, he shows great skill and penetration, and his reasoning is full and clear, meeting the most subtle objections with patient industry. Scarcely any ancient writer has treated the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the theological difficulties connected with it more clearly and convincingly than St. Ambrose in his De Fide and De Spiritu Sancto.

In his expositions of Holy Scripture he treats of the threefold sense, the literal, the moral, and the mystical, devoting more pains, however, and time to the latter than to the former. He gives special consideration to the mystical interpretation of such passages as may seem to contain in a literal sense anything diverging from sound morality. Many of his other mystical interpretations of plain, simple matters of fact have much beauty, as in his treatment of the story of the building of the ark, the marriage of Isaac, and the blessings of the Patriarchs. The literal sense is followed specially in the Hexaëmeron, the treatise on Paradise, Noah and the Ark, and the Exposition of the Gospel according to St. Luke. The moral sense, though referred to throughout his writings, is more particularly sought out in the Expositions of the Psalms.

St. Ambrose was a diligent student of the Greek writers, whom he often follows largely, especially Origen and Didymus, as also St. Basil the Great and St. Athanasius, and he has also adapted many points of allegorical interpretation from Philo. He is fond of alleging scriptural proofs, and when he argues from reason often confirms his argument by some quotation or reference, a task easy for him who, from his consecration, was so diligent a student of holy Scripture.

As to justification, St. Ambrose ascribes the whole work to the Holy Spirit, Who seals us in our hearts, as we receive the outward sign in our bodies. Through the Holy Spirit we receive a share of the grace of adoption. Christ was perfect according to the fulness of His Majesty; we are perfected by a continual progress in virtue.5

With regard to baptism, he taught in accordance with the received belief of his day that it is the sacrament of adoption and regeneration, wherein sin is forgiven,6 and the Holy Spirit confers new life upon the soul and joins it mystically to Christ. As to the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, his doctrine is no less definite. In his treatise on the Faith he says of the elements that they "are transfigured [transfigurantur]7 by the mystery of the sacred prayer in to flesh and blood."8 He interprets various texts, also, in many places in the same sense. In a like spirit he maintains that the power of forgiving sins on repentance is vested in the ministry of the Church.9 The intercession of the saints, and up to a certain point their invocation, is likewise upheld.10

There was a Latin version made from the Septuagint, including the Apocrypha, in Africa, and in use there at the end of the second century, very barbarous, and copying even Greek constructions. Of this text SS. Ambrose and Augustine used a recension. But our author seems to have been very independent, and to have made use of several different versions of holy Scripture, translating, as it would seem, often for himself from the Septuagint, referring also to Symmachus, Theodotion, and Aquila, though thinking less of the latter. When the prophets, he says, were moved by the Holy Spirit, they were troubled and darkened with their own ignorance.11 Prayer, he asserts, is necessary for understanding holy Scripture.12 Each Testament is not equally easy, and we are not to criticise what we do not understand.13 He speaks of the Hebrew as the truth,14 but states that the Septuagint added much that is useful.15

The Arians are repeatedly charged by St. Ambrose with falsifying and manipulating Scripture for their own ends, not always, it would seem, very justly, but the same charge is a common one against all heretical bodies in early days. As to the Canon, he would seem to have no very definite rule. He admits Tobit as prophetic, Judith as canonical, nor does he distinguish between canonical and deuterocanonical, while the sapiential books are all attributed to Solomon. He quotes Baruch as Jeremiah, and refers to the History of Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and other apocryphal works as "Scripture." Ezra, he says, re-established holy Scripture by memory,16 and he quotes the fourth book of Esdras.

V. Life of St. Ambrose.

St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, one of the four Latin doctors of the Church, was descended from a Roman family of some distinction, some time Christian, and counting martyrs as well as state officials amongst its members.

His father, likewise named Ambrosius, was prefect of the Gauls, an office the jurisdiction of which extended over Spain, Britain, Cis- and Trans-Alpine Gaul. His chief official residence was Trèves, where probably St. Ambrose was born, as seems most likely, a.d. 340.17

After his father's death, his mother and his elder brother, Satyrus, went with St. Ambrose to Rome, not earlier than 353, where his elder sister, Marcellina, received the veil at Christmas from Pope Liberius, the exact year being uncertain.

Here the future bishop devoted himself to legal studies, in which he met with great success. His skill in law and general reputation soon led to his advancement, and about a.d. 370 he was appointed by the Praetorian Prefect Probus governor of Liguria and Aemilia, with the rank of consular.18 On this occasion Probus is said to have closed an address to St. Ambrose with the words, "Go and act, not as a judge, but as a bishop." This advice was so well followed by Ambrose, that owing to his equity and kindness the people came to look up to him rather as a father than as a judge.19

After some few years Auxentius,20 the intended Arian Bishop of Milan, died, a.d. 374, and it is said that during the discussion as to the appointment of his successor a child cried out in the assembly, "Ambrose Bishop," and, although he was but a catechumen and so canonically unqualified, the multitude immediately elected him by acclamation.

St. Ambrose did all in his power, even, if we accept the statements if his biographer Paulinus, probably a clerk of Milan, resorting to some questionable expedients, to escape from the dignity laid upon him, but when his election was ratified by the Emperor Valentinian, he recognized his appointment as being the will of God, and insisted on being baptized by a Catholic priest. Eight days later, December 7, a.d. 374, he was consecrated Bishop.

The first care of the new bishop was at once to divest himself of his worldly property, giving his silver and gold to the poor and the Church, and committing the management of his estates, except a life interest for his sister, to his brother Satyrus, who gave up his own office to come to his assistance, and enable him to devote himself wholly to theological study and his other episcopal duties.

His chief studies were holy Scripture and ecclesiastical writers, especially St. Basil the Great and Didymus of Alexandria, from whom no less a man than St. Jerome accused him of plagiarizing. His natural abilities and thorough knowledge of Greek stood him in good stead, when, as he says himself,21 he had to learn and to teach at the same time.

The life of St. Ambrose was a pattern of the discharge of episcopal duties. He spent much time daily in study and devotion, besides the more public duties of his office.22 He preached every Sunday and at certain seasons daily. His labours in preparing catechumens for baptism were blessed with great success, amongst those taught by him being St. Augustine.

But the zeal and courage of the new Bishop were soon tried. The Empress mother Justina was still an Arian, but had little influence during the life of the Emperor Gratian, who was much attached to St. Ambrose. After his murder, however, a.d. 383, his brother Valentinian II., a boy of only twelve years of age, ascended the throne and was naturally much under his mother's influence. Justina led him to support a demand of the Arians for the use of the Portian basilica, situated outside the walls of Milan. This being refused, a second application was made for the large and newer basilica within the city. Ambrose replied, "The Emperor has his palaces, let him leave the churches to the Bishop." Soldiers were sent to secure the delivery of the basilica, but St. Ambrose with the faithful occupied the building and remained within, singing psalms and hymns till the soldiers retired.

St. Ambrose was no less successful in his zeal against the expiring heathenism of Italy than against Arianism. One of the many remnants till recent times of heathen worship had been the Altar of Victory in the Senate-house at Rome, which was removed under Gratian; the prefect of Rome, Symmachus, himself a heathen but a friend of St. Ambrose, appealed to Valentinan II. that it might be restored, and Ambrose successfully opposed this appeal in two Epistles (17, 18) addressed to the young Emperor. Yet again, when Theodosius assumed the imperial power [a.d. 387], a renewed attempt was made and once more frustrated. Later on, Eugenius the usurper judged it politic to take the heathen's side,23 the Altar of Victory was once more set up, and the temples stood open as in the days of old. But this triumph lasted only for a brief period. When Theodosius defeated the usurper at Aquileia, in the spring of 394, he also defeated paganism, which sank to rise no more as a public religion, though it long lingered in private amidst indifference, toleration, and at times persecution.

The influence exercised by Ambrose upon the rulers of his day is sufficiently manifested by these facts, but he had the courage to use not only influence, but, when needed, rebuke and Church discipline.

Only a few months after his elevation to the see of Milan, he remonstrated with Valentinian I. concerning the severity of his rule and other abuses, and required amendment. The Emperor's reply did him honour: "Well, if I have offended, prescribe for me the remedies which the law of God requires." Again, on another occasion, in 390, Theodosius had put down a seditious movement in Thessalonica with great severity, causing some 7,000 persons to be slain. St. Ambrose at once, disregarding the possible consequences to himself, wrote him a letter (Ep. 51) on the subject, exhorting him to repentance, and pointing out that he could not permit him to be present at the celebration of the Mysteries, till he had openly testified his sorrow. At another time when the same Emperor had ventured into the sanctuary or chancel of the church, which was the right of the clergy alone, St. Ambrose rebuked him and caused him to retire.

These acts of ecclesiastical discipline were also accompanied by others in which the great Bishop was able in temporal matters to assist the imperial family.

Twice on behalf of the young Emperor Valentinian II. he undertook a mission to Trèves, to see the usurper Maximus, and when Valentinian died, St. Ambrose delivered a striking oration at his funeral, recording his many virtues. Theodosius did not survive his victory over Eugenius for many months. In January of the following year [a.d. 395], he died at Milan, and the funeral oration which St. Ambrose pronounced over him is also extant.

Yet whilst thus devoting much time to weighty affairs of State, the Bishop never neglected the duties of his office. He preached every Sunday, at great festivals, once or more often, every day. He celebrated the Holy Mysteries daily. His life was marked by perfect purity, sympathy, energy, and devotion. He was always ready to help those requiring assistance, and so when Augustine came to Milan to teach rhetoric, a.d. 384, he was kindly received and fascinated. Probably he owed his conversion even more to the life and character than to the teaching of St. Ambrose.

On subject St. Ambrose never tired of recommending was Virginity; and such was the power of his exhortations that mothers used to forbid their daughters to attend his sermons and addresses.

The indefatigable zeal of the great Bishop further exhibited itself in the number of his writings. Many of them consist of addresses subsequently worked up into treatises, and are on all subjects, dogmatic, controversial, exegetical, and ascetic. There remain also a large number of valuable letters, and some hymns, probably from four to twelve of those ascribed to him being genuine, and in use to the present day.

But besides his writings and his resistance to the attacks of Arianism, heathenism, or the secular power, St. Ambrose devoted himself to actively defending the cause of the Church and of orthodoxy wherever he had the opportunity. Although the death of Satyrus, a.d. 379, must have greatly added to the troubles of St. Ambrose, he was as watchful as ever against all possibilities of heretical aggression. To his care and opposition to the party of the Empress Justina it was owing that the city of Sirmium was preserved in a.d. 381 from receiving an Arian bishop. And in the same year, when the Arians, hoping for large support from the East, had almost persuaded the Emperor to summon a general council at Aquileia, St. Ambrose prevailed upon him to summon only the neighbouring bishops, and what might have been a serious evil was avoided.

In such ways the holy man, embracing in his far-seeing care the interests of religion far and wide, spent his days in unceasing labour till his health failed in the year 397, when, as is related by Paulinus, Count Stilicho, saying that the loss of such a man threatened destruction to Italy, persuaded the nobles of the city to request St. Ambrose that he would pray for longer life. But the Saint replied: "I have not so lived amongst you as to be ashamed of living, and I do not fear to die, for we have a good Lord." As some of the bystanders were discussing in whispers who would be St. Ambrose's successor, and mentioned Simplicianus, he overheard them, and said, "An old man, but good." For the last few hours of his life Ambrose lay with his arms extended in the form of a cross, praying. Honoratus, Bishop of Vercellae, lying in another room, heard himself called thrice, and coming down, offered him the Body of the Lord, after receiving which St. Ambrose breathed his last, on Good Friday night, April 4-5, a.d. 397, and was laid to rest on Easter morning in the Ambrosian basilica at Milan, where he still is reverenced, and in which the Ambrosian liturgy and rites, differing considerably from the Roman use of the rest of the churches of Italy, continue to this day, though doubtless with many modifications subsequent to the time of St. Ambrose.

VI. Writings of St. Ambrose.

The extant writings of St. Ambrose may be divided under six heads. I. Dogmatic; II. Exegetic; III. Moral; IV. Sermons; V. Letters; VI. A few Hymns.

I. Dogmatic and Controversial Works.

1. De Fide. The chief of these are the Five Books on the Faith, of which the two first were written in compliance with a request of the Emperor Gratian, a.d. 378. Books III.-V. were written in 379 or 380, and seem to have been worked up from addresses delivered to the people [V. prol. 9, 11; III. I43; IV. 119]. This treatise vindicates the Divinity of Christ from the attacks of the Arians, and has always enjoyed the highest reputation, being quoted and referred to again and again.

2. De Spiritu Sancto. The three books on the Holy Spirit may be considered as a continuation of the above treatise, and were also addressed to Gratian in compliance with his request, a.d. 381. In this treatise St. Ambrose shows that the Holy Spirit is God, and of one nature and substance with the Father and the Son. He makes use of the Greek writers, SS. Didymus, Basil the Great, and Athanasius, and was on this ground attacked by St. Jerome. See Rufinus, Apol. adv. Hieron. II. 23-25.

3. De Incarnationis Dominicae Sacramento. The book on the Mystery of the Lord's Incarnation owed its origin to a challenge to dispute publicly given to St. Ambrose by two Arian chamberlains of Gratian. On the day appointed they were, as Paulinus relates in his life of St. Ambrose, thrown out of the chariot which was conveying them and killed. On the next day, that the people might not be disappointed, this discourse was delivered, but the reference made to the absence of the challengers hardly suits the story of Paulinus. The treatise is a very valuable argument in defence of our Lord's Divinity and Eternity, and that He is perfect God and perfect Man. In rewriting the address the Bishop added a refutation of the argument that the Begotten and the Unbegotten could not be of one nature and substance. The treatise may be considered as a supplement to that concerning the Faith.

4. De Mysteriis. A valuable treatise on the Mysteries, under which title St. Ambrose includes Baptism, with its complement, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. It is somewhat similar to the Catecheses Mystagogicae of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, expounding the doctrine and ceremonies of these sacraments. On doctrinal grounds the authenticity of the work has been impugned by some modern writers, but there is no sufficient foundation for their arguments, as the teaching may be paralleled in many other passages of St. Ambrose. The date is not certain, but may be about a.d. 387.

5. Libri duo de paenitentia. These books on Penitence were written about a.d. 384, against the Novatians. In the first book the writer proves that the power of forgiving sins was left by Christ to His Church. In the second book, insisting on the necessity of repentance and confession, he also refutes the Novatian interpretations of Heb. vi. 4-6 and St. Matt. xii. 31-32. This treatise has also underservedly been questioned on doctrinal grounds by some moderns.

These treatises are all translated in this volume.

II. Exegetical Works.

St. Ambrose was in the habit of explaining various books of holy Scripture in courses of lectures, which he subsequently worked up, often at the request of friends, into treatises in the shape in which they have come down to us. Of the class we have:

1. Hexaëmeron. This treatise, expounding the literal and moral sense of the work of the six days of creation [Gen. i. 1-26], consists of nine addresses to the people of Milan, delivered in the last week of Lent, probably a.d. 389, and is now divided into six books. The writer has studied Origen, but followed rather the teaching of St. Hippolytus and Basil the Great, though he expresses himself often quite in a different sense.

2. De Paradiso. This is the earliest or one of the earliest of the extant writings of St. Ambrose, though the exact date is uncertain. In it he discusses what and where Paradise was, and the question of the life of our first parents there, the temptation, fall and its results, and answers certain cavils of the Gnostics and Manichees. He also enters into an allegorical exposition comparing Paradise with the human soul.

3. De Cain et Abel. The treatise is now divided into two books, but the division is too inartistic to have been made by the writer. As to the date, it was later than the last treatise, but probably not many months. The interpretations are very mystical, and touch upon moral and dogmatic questions.

4. De Noe et Arca. This treatise has reached us in a mutilated condition. It was written probably before the De Officiis and De Abraham, but after the works on Paradise and Cain and Abel, though the exact date cannot be determined. The exposition is literal and allegorical.

5. De Patriarchis. Seven books preached and written at various dates about 387 or 388. The same kind of interpretation is followed in these as in the former treatises.

6. De fuga saeculi. Written probably about a.d. 389-390. An instructive treatise setting forth the desirability of avoiding the dangers of the world, and for those who must live in the world, showing how to pass through them most safely.

7. De Elia et jejunio. A treatise composed from addresses delivered during Lent, certainly after a.d. 386, possibly 389.

8. De Tobia. A work quoted by St. Augustine (C. Jul. Pelag. I. 3, 10), consisting of sermons on the story of Tobias, and chiefly directed against the practice of usury.

9. De Nabuthe Jezraelita. One or two sermons against avarice, probably written about a.d. 395.

10. Libri iv. de interpellatione Job et David. The first and third books have Job, the second and fourth David, for their subject, and formed a course of sermons the date of which is uncertain.

11. Apologia prophetae David ad Theodosium Augustum. A number of addresses delivered, it would seem, about a.d. 384, quoted also by St. Augustine.

12. Enarrationes in xii. Psalmos Davidicos. Commentaries on Psalms 1, 35-40, 43, 45, 47, 48, 61 (according to St. Ambrose's numbering). These seem to have been partly preached, partly dictated at various dates, and much in them is borrowed from St. Basil.

13. Expositio Psalmi cxviii. This treatise is one of the most carefully worked out of all the writings of St. Ambrose and consists of twenty-two addresses to the faithful, each address comprising one division of the Psalm. From various allusions, it would seem that the completed work dates from about a.d. 388.

14. Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam. The ten books of this commentary consist likewise of sermons in which St. Ambrose explained the Gospel during a period of one or two years, in 386 and 387.

III. Ethical Writings.

Among the ethical or moral writings of St. Ambrose, the first place is deservedly assigned to:

1. De Officiis Ministrorum. In three books, which are translated in this series.

2. De Virginibus. Three books concerning Virgins, addressed to his sister Marcellina in the year 377, probably, like most of the treatises of St. Ambrose, revised from addresses, the first of which was delivered on the festival of St. Agnes, January 21. This would seem to have been perhaps the very earliest of the writings of St. Ambrose, judging from the opening chapter. The treatise is referred to by St. Jerome, St. Augustine, Cassian, and others.

3. De Viduis. This shorter work, concerning Widows, was probably written not very long after the last mentioned treatise.

4. De Virginitate. A treatise on Virginity, the date of which cannot certainly be fixed, but the writing De Viduis is referred to in chapter 9.

5. De Institutione Virginis. A treatise on the training and discipline of a Virgin, addressed to Eusebius, either bishop or a noble of Bologna, after St. Ambrose had admitted his niece to the rank of Virgins, probably about a.d. 391 or 392.

6. Exhortatio Virginitatis. A commendation of Virginity preached on the occasion of the consecration of a church at Florence by St. Ambrose, a.d. 393 or 394.

IV. Sermons and Addresses.

1. Contra Auxentium. A sermon against Auxentius, concerning giving up the basilicas to the Arians, usually inserted between the twenty-first and twenty-second of the letters of St. Ambrose.

2. De Excessu fratris Satyri. The two addresses on the occasion of the death of St. Ambrose's brother Satyrus, translated in this volume.

3. De obitu Valentiniani Consolatio. The Emperor Valentinian having been murdered by Arbogastes, Count of Vienne, his body was brought to Milan, and remained two months unburied. At last Theodosius sent the necessary rescript, and at the funeral solemnities St. Ambrose delivered the address entitled the "Consolation."

4. De obitu Theodosii oratio. A discourse delivered forty days after the death of the Emperor Theodosius before the Emperor Honorius at Milan.

V. The Letters of St. Ambrose.

The Benedictine Editors of St. Ambrose have divided his Epistles into two classes: the first comprising those to which they thought it possible to assign dates; the second those which afford no data for a conclusion. Probably in many cases the exact year is not so certain as the editors have made it appear, but they seem arranged in a fairly probable consecutive order.

The Letters.

1. To the Emperor Gratian, in reply to his request for a treatise on the Faith. Written a.d. 379, before August, as Gratian came to Milan in that month.

2. To Constantius, a bishop, on episcopal duties, and commending to him the care of the vacant see of Forum Cornelii, or Imola. Probably written about a.d. 379.

3, 4. To Cornelius, Bishop of Comum, the first a friendly letter, the second containing also an invitation to the consecration of a church by Bassianus, Bishop of Laus Pompeia, now Lodi Vecchio, near Milan. Written probably after a.d. 381.

5, 6. To Syagrius, Bishop of Verona. On a charge falsely brought against the Virgin Indicia. They may have been written a.d. 380.

7, 8. To Justus, perhaps Bishop of Lyons. On holy Scripture. If the conjecture that Justus was the Bishop of Lyons is correct, written about 380 or 381.

9-12. Letters concerning the Council of Aquileia, held a.d. 381, to the bishops of the provinces of Gaul, to the Emperor Gratian and his colleagues. Two men, Palladius and Secundianus, held Arian opinions, and the former appears to have asked Gratian to convoke a General Council, pleading that he was unjustly condemned. St. Ambrose pointed out to the Emperor that such a question as the orthodoxy of two persons could be settled by a local council in Italy; and as a result, by the Emperor's mandate, a council of Italian bishops met at Aquileia, other bishops having also permission to attend. Palladius and Secundianus were condemned, and these letters have reference to the proceedings at the council. They were probably written by St. Ambrose in the name of the council, a.d. 381.

13, 14. Two letters addressed to Theodosius, the former relating the decisions of a council, probably held at Milan, on the Meletian schism at Antioch, and the latter further expressing the desire of the bishops for a council on this subject, and also on the opinions of Apollinaris. Written a.d. 381 or 382.

15. To the Bishops of Macedonia, in reply to their notification of the death of Acholius, Bishop of Thessalonica, who baptized Theodosius, and had met St. Ambrose at a council in Rome. Written a.d. 383.

16. To Anicius, on his election to succeed Acholius, whose labours and life are commended by St. Ambrose. Written a.d. 383.

17, 18. On the occasion of the attempt of Symmachus and the heathen senators to procure the restitution of the image and Altar of Victory in the Roman Senate-house, frustrated by St. Ambrose, a.d. 384.

19. To Vigilius, Bishop of Trent, subsequently martyred, written probably about a.d. 385.

20. To his sister, Marcellina, giving an account of the frustrated attempts of the Arian and imperial party to gain possession of a basilica at Milan, a.d. 385,

21. To the Emperor Valentinian II., declining the challenge to dispute with the Arian Auxentius before lay judges. a.d. 386.

22. To his sister Marcellina, giving an account of the finding of the bodies of SS. Gervasius and Protasius, and of the consequent miracles. Written a.d. 386.

23. To the bishops of the province of Aemilia, on the proper date for the observance of Easter, in 387. Written a.d. 386.

24. To Valentinian II., with an account of St. Ambrose's second mission to Maximus on his behalf. Written probably a.d. 387.

25, 26. Inscribed the former to Studius, the second to Irenaeus, but from internal evidence these appear to be the same person. It deals with the question, how far a judge being a Christian may lawfully sentence any one to death. Written probably about a.d. 388.

27-33. Addressed to Irenaeus, on various questions. Written about a.d. 387.

34-36. To Orontianus, a cleric, on the soul and other questions. Written after 386.

37, 38. To Simplicianus, who became the successor of St. Ambrose in the see of Milan, setting forth that holiness is perfect freedom.

39. To Faustinus, on the occasion of the death of a sister. Written probably after a.d. 387.

40. To Theodosius. The Jewish synagogue at Callinicum in Mesopotamia having been destroyed by the Christians, and a meeting-house of the Valentinian heretics also burnt by the Catholics, Theodosius ordered that the bishop should rebuild the synagogue at his own expense, and the monks be punished. St. Ambrose remonstrates with the Emperor, and it would seem, from the following letter to his sister, at first unsuccessfully.

41. To his sister Marcellina, relating the circumstances alluded to above, and telling her of his sermon before the Emperor, and of his subsequent refusal to celebrate the Eucharist, until the Emperor had promised to rescind the order. The date of the two letters is a.d. 388.

42. Reply of St. Ambrose and a synod at Milan to the notification of Pope Siricius announcing the sentence of excommunication passed upon Jovinian and his followers.

43, 44. To Horontianus, in reply to his inquiries on some points connected with the Creation.

45. To Sabinus, Bishop of Placentia, in answer to questions concerning Paradise.

46. To the same, on the subject of an Apollinarian heretic.

47-49. To the same, with books and on private matters.

50. To Chromatius, probably Bishop of Aquileia, explaining how evil men may be used to utter true prophecies.

51. To Theodosius, after the massacre at Thessalonica. Written a.d. 390.

52. A private letter to Titianus.

53. To Theodosius, to express the sorrow of St. Ambrose at the death of Valentinian II., slain by Arbogastes.

54, 55. To Eusebius, not, it would seem, the Bishop of Bologna who was present at the Council of Aquileia, but rather a lay friend to whom St. Ambrose wrote his treatise on the training of a virgin. Probably written a.d. 392 or 393.

56. To Theophilus. The troubles of the church of Antioch through the Meletian schism might have terminated on the death of Paulinus, had he not on his deathbed consecrated Evagrius as his successor in violation of the canons. Theodosius, being pressed by the Western bishops, now summoned a council at Capua, commanding Flavian to attend, which command he however disobeyed. The council referred the matter to Theophilus of Alexandria and the bishops of Egypt. But Flavian, as Theophilus had informed St. Ambrose, refused to submit to their decision. This is the reply of St. Ambrose advising Theophilus to summon Flavian once more, and communicate the result to Pope Siricius. The letter must have been written quite at the end of a.d. 391, or the beginning of 392.

57. To Eugenius the usurper, to avoid whom St. Ambrose had left Milan, and to whose letters he had sent no reply. Written a.d. 393.

58. To Sabinus, Bishop, on the resolution of Paulinus and Therasia to forsake the world. Written probably a.d. 393.

59. To Severus, Bishop probably of Naples, telling him of James, a Persian priest, who had resolved to retire from the world into Campania, and contrasting this with his own troubles, owing to the invasion of Eugenius, a.d. 393 or 394.

60. To Paternus, against a proposed incestuous marriage.

61. To Theodosius, after his victory over Eugenius. Written a.d. 394.

62. To the same, urging him to be merciful to the followers of Eugenius. Written in the same year.

63. To the Church at Vercellae.

The second division of the letters, being those which cannot be dated, begins here in the Benediction Edition.

64. To Irenaeus, on the Manna.

65. To Simplicianus, on Exodus xxiv. 6.

66. To Romulus, on Aaron's making the calf of the golden earrings.

67. To Simplicianus, showing how Moses yielded to Aaron in matters relating to his priestly character.

68. To Romulus. Explanation of the text Deut. xxviii. 23.

69. To Irenaeus, answering a question as to the prohibition under severe penalties in the Mosaic law, of disguising the sex by dress.

70, 71. To Horontianus, on part of the prophecy of Micah.

72. To Constantius, on the rite of circumcision.

73-76. To Irenaeus. Why the law was given, and the scope of the Epistle to the Ephesians. The letter numbered 75 is plainly a continuation of 74, although inscribed to Clementianus, a difficulty similar to that about letter 26.

77, 78. To Horontianus, contrasting the condition of the Jew and the Christian.

79, 80. To Bellicius, on recovery from sickness, and on the miracle of healing the man blind from his birth.

81. To certain clergy, against despondency.

82. To Marcellus, concerning a lawsuit.

83. To Sisinnius, commending him for forgiving his son, who had married without consulting him.

84. To Cynegius.

85, 86. To Siricius, with thanks for letters, and commending Priscus.

87. To Segatius [more probably Phaebadius], Bishop of Agens, and Delphinus, Bishop of Bordeaux. Polybius, mentioned in the letter, was proconsul of Africa between the years 380 and 390.

88. To Atticus. Commendation of Priscus.

89. To Alypius. Acknowledgment of letters.

90. To Antonius. On the mutual affection of himself and St. Ambrose.

91. To Candidianus, probably a fellow-bishop. A letter of affection.

VI. Hymns.

During the persecutions stirred up by the Arian Empress Justina, a.d. 385-6, referred to in his 20th letter, St. Ambrose and the faithful spent the whole night in the basilica, and the holy Bishop employed the people in singing psalms and hymns. A large number of hymns have been attributed to St. Ambrose, the number having by some editors been brought down to twelve, of which, however, only four are certainly his compositions.

1. Eterne rerum Conditor, referred to by St. Augustine, Retract. I. 21, and by St. Ambrose himself, Hexaëm. V. 24, 88. The hymn is still in use at Lauds on Sunday.

2. Deus Creator omnium. Quoted by St. Augustine, Conf. IX. 12, 32.

3. Jam surigil hora tertia. Also quoted by St. Augustine.

4. Veni Redemptor gentium. A Christmas hymn, quoted by Pope Celestine, a.d. 430, in a sermon against the Nestorians, preached before a synod at Rome, and also by other writers.

Of other hymns one commencing, Illuminans Altissimus, is quoted by Cassiodorus as an Epiphany hymn by St. Ambrose, and the same author refers to another, Orabo mente Dominum. The Benedictine Editors admit six other hymns, but they are supported by no authority anterior to Venerable Bede.

VII. Doubtful and Spurious Works.

This volume cannot of course comprehend the arguments and discussions necessary for any critical examination of certain works whether doubtful or certainly spurious, but their names may be given and certain conclusions stated.

1. Five books on the Jewish war, ordinarily attributed to Hegisippus. This is a translation into Latin and a condensation in part of the well-known work of Josephus. Ihm, a very thorough student of St. Ambrose, seems quite disposed to maintain after careful examination that this is the work of St. Ambrose.

2. De lege Dei. This treatise, a sort of compendium of Roman law in the fourth century, and comparison of it with the law of Moses, is ascribed, in a translation published by Mai,24 to St. Ambrose, who is said to have undertaken the work at the command of Theodosius. On the authenticity, however, of this treatise there probably will always remain much doubt.

3. Among works more or less doubtful are De Sacramentis, admitted by the Benedictines, but rejected, and apparently on sufficient grounds, by Ihm.

4. Apologia David altera. Suspected by Erasmus, Tillemont, and Ihm.

5. De lapsu Virginis consecratae. A severe castigation of a fallen virgin and of her seducer. The treatise seems to have been written by a certain Bishop of Nicetas, and a ms. at speaks of it as having been revised by St. Ambrose.

6. There are further three brief addresses ascribed by some persons to St. Ambrose, touching on the question of selling all and giving to the poor. Some of the matter is like St. Ambrose, but the same cannot be said of the diction and style.

VIII. Lost Writings of St. Ambrose.

1. Expositio Isaiae prophetiae, referred to by St. Augustine as well as by St. Ambrose himself.

2. Liber de Sacramento regenerationis sive de philosophia, referred to by St. Augustine.

3. Libellus ad Pansophium puerum, written a.d. 393-4, according to Paulinus in his life of St. Ambrose.

4. Libri quatuor regnorum, referred to in the introduction to the work on the Jewish war.

5. Expositio fidei, quoted by Theodoret and others as a writing of St. Ambrose.

Previous PageTop Of PageNext Document

Click Your Choice