The Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan
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“How Can Rome be Rome if Rome is Not Pagan?”


by Sasha Peterson


Rome during Ambrose' time dealt with many controversies with religion and state. The Emperors' ability to elect the bishops it made it harder for the state and church to interact without conflict. The belief of paganism became slowly obsolete with the help of Christianity and because of this Rome can be Rome without complete beliefs in paganism.

In describing paganism the greatest work to look at would be The Relatio written by Symmachus for Valentinian II. In this letter he is requesting that the old religion practices should be brought back into use and the Altar of Victory be used outside the senate. "We defend the institutions of our ancestors, and the rights and destiny of our country, than to the glory of these times, which is all the greater when you understand that you may not do anything contrary to the custom of your ancestors." (ibid, P3) He says this to show how the Altar of Victory is nothing different than promoting our ancestors and living in the glory of the times that the Romans of Symmachus's time once had. By bringing the Altar of Victory back Symmachus believed they would once again be living out there glory times. As Symmachus says, "we beseech you, as old men to leave to posterity what we received as boys. The love of custom is great." (The Memorial, P5)

In Symmachus' mind, religion is everywhere and it seems he believes that the Romans of this time need to learn to accommodate different religions and beliefs. "By what religious sanction shall the false mind be terrified, so as not to lie in bearing witness? All things are indeed filled with God, and no place is safe for the perjured, but to be urged in the very presence of religious forms has great in producing a fear of sinning. The altar appeals to the good faith of each." (ibid, P6) By looking at this Symmachus is showing that all religions are not safe from sin, that we need to learn to accommodate different beliefs and that the altar will be fine for the ones that are in good faith with any religion, because we are accommodating different religions and understand that people have different customs.[1] By showing this view he then tells Valentinian II that he needs to "let men dictate their wills without anxiety, and know that what has been written will be undisturbed under princes who are not avaricious. Let the happiness in this point of all men give pleasure to you for precedents in this matter have begun to trouble the dying." (ibid, P13) He is informing Valentininan II that these customs are important to the people.

The Altar of Victory was not just an issue for the pagans. The Christians had beliefs that it conflicted with as well. The Altar of Victory was outside where the Senate met. Doing a pagan custom, incense would be put into the altar for the goddess of victory, Nike. A plume of smoke would go out into the air. In order for the senators and the other people to get into the building they would have to walk through the smoke even if their religion was not traditional paganism. Besides just using incense the Altar of Victory also had a statue of Nike. Christians did not have an issue with the statue but the issue was the incense and having to walk through it even if you didn't believe the pagan beliefs. [2] (Class notes, 11/4/10)

The main figure that was against the idea of the Altar of Victory was St. Ambrose. His first letter to Valentinian II was written even before Valentinian II had received The Memorial from Symmachus. In his first letter he is urging the Emperor to defend religion. Ambrose's main reason that the Altar of Victory should not be put back into use is God. "He alone is the true God, who is to be worshipped from the bottom of the heart." (Ambrose, Letter 17, 1) Ambrose's beliefs are that we must think of God and protect his name and beliefs. "Everyone is a soldier of this true God. And if he does not attain to this, at least he ought not to give any countenance to the worship of idols and to profane ceremonies. For no one deceives God, to whom all things, even the hidden things of the heart, are manifest." (ibid, P2) He lets it be known that worship of idols is wrong and shows that you are not truly treating God how he should be treated, as the one true God.[3]

On the topic of Military conflict Ambrose believed that God is with us in faith but he is not the one to control who wins or loses the battle. "No one is injured because God is set before him, he keeps his own opinion." (ibid, P7) One of the reasons that pagans wanted the Altar of Victory back into practice was to help win battles. Pagans believed that with these sacrifices to the goddess of victory, Nike, there would be a better chance of them winning. Symmachus had been looking back at the wars that they had been fighting with use of the Altar of Victory and a few after they had stopped using it, he had noticed that for some reason it looked like we were doing better with the use of the Altar of Victory and because of this he writes The Memorial requesting to bring the Altar of Victory back into practice. (Class notes, 11/4/10)

Ambrose had one last major point in his first letter to Valentinian II, The Altar of Victory can alter our thoughts, "the smoke from the burning might choke the breath and throats of the faithful; and should give judgment in that court where members were compelled to vote after swearing at the altar of an idol." (ibid, P9) Being faithful requires a clear mind with no distractions from God. "The Lord Jesus refuses and rejects your service because you have served idols, for he said to you: 'you cannon serve two masters', Mathew 6:24." (ibid, P14) By providing a use to the Altar of Victory the Christians that had to walk through the plume of smoke would be showing service to two Gods, even if they only believed in the Christian God, they would be practicing the pagan tradition of walking through the plume of smoke.[4]

When Ambrose replies to Symmachus's letter he makes sure to show that Roman traditions have nothing to do with paganism and that we can still celebrate somewhat like the Romans use to. (Class notes 11/4/10) "Paganism no longer had a significant social impact: in the past it may have been important in the daily life of ancient Rome and the military operations of the Republican era, but among the people of the time it had been substituted by the mystery cults, because in them the people wished to be able to seek refuge and to find relief from the struggles of life and in the face of sadness and death; ultimately, further, the ancient religion was ever more marginalized by the diffusion of Christianity." (Pasini, Chapter 8, P20) Ambrose then talks about how the Christians have been open to other beliefs. "No one, however, has denied gifts to the shrines, and legacies to the soothsayers, their land alone has been taken away, because they did not use religiously that which they claimed in right of religion." (Ambrose, Letter 18, P16) Ambrose is showing that the church has been open and respectful to the pagan beliefs. One might believe that the church taking pagan holidays and making some of them religious holidays in the Christian faith so that it would be easier for the pagans to convert to the Christian faith and both the Christians and the pagans would be able to celebrate on the same day as a done out of respect. The Christians actually did not do this out of respect. It was more of a way to make the Christian lifestyle easier to live. The Christians were not the only ones that showed a few difficulties in other beliefs, the pagan have not been open to Christian beliefs. Ambrose does not understand how Symmachus is requesting sympathy when it is the pagans "who destroyed the very buildings of the churches." (Ambrose, Letter17, P4) and gave less sympathy to the Christians by having "the last Julian law denied us the common right of speaking and teaching, and those privileges whereby Christians also have often been deceived." (ibid, P4) Ambrose brings up a good point, "if the old rites pleased, why did Rome also take up foreign ones?" (Ambrose, Letter 18, P30) Ambrose is telling Valentinian II that if paganism was so strong and believed by all why would Christianity now have intense followers and why would they have left the pagan ways to find new ones. [5]

One might wonder why should they care about Pagan and Christianity. Paganism even though not fully in Christianity has history in the development of Christianity. Pagans and Christians can live together, it is just a matter of letting each religious group follow their own customs and not make them follow beliefs they do not believe in. We have learned through Ambrose that Rome can be Rome without full beliefs in Paganism but with a strong government and openness to faith.

With looking at the influences and conflicts about Paganism one might wonder how Ambrose would react to today's conflicts and ideas of religious tolerance with Muslims and Jews. Would he understand the faith of others? Would he try to conform the believers of these faiths to Christian? A controversial topic that one could understand Ambrose better would be the construction of a mosque right near ground zero.

Many of today's Americans would feel that the construction of a mosque near ground zero would promote anti American beliefs, Americans also feel that a mosque being built will take away from the remembrance of September 11th and the destruction of the world trade center. The attack on September 11th also vocalized the idea of terrorism. With terrorisms becoming vocalized it made it easier for Americans to judge others based on their beliefs.

People of today would right away assume that Ambrose would not be open to other religious faiths. Ambrose was against the use of the Altar of Victory outside of the senate, a Pagan custom. He disliked the idea of a Jewish synagogue being built near a Christian Church. From looking at these right away we would assume that Ambrose is a lot like us today. Us as Americans dislike the idea of a mosque being built near ground zero. Some of the reasoning behind both could be looked at as similar.

Ambrose had a different outlook when it came to the idea of different religions. He believed that any person that believed religions other than Christianity could believe their faith. He was open to other beliefs. With an example from earlier on in my paper, "No one, however, has denied gifts to the shrines, and legacies to the soothsayers, their land alone has been taken away, because they did not use religiously that which they claimed in right of religion." (Ambrose, Letter 18, P16) Ambrose's beliefs during today's time would help because it would help vocalize that everyone can believe their own beliefs and that it is important though not to push customs or beliefs on anyone else. Besides showing that there is an openness for other people to believe their own faith, he shows that the Christians should not mock or harm others of different faith. In today's world we are not so lucky. Many people mock other religions and take for granted the ability to believe a faith without ridicule. If we as Americans would listen to what Ambrose was trying to say we would understand the importance of communication between people of different faiths. Ambrose would be surprised at how similar and yet how different the United States is to Rome of his time. Religion is a major turning point in anyone's life. In today's world there probably will never become a time where there isn't conflicts between religions.

[1] "For everyone has his own customs, everyone his own rites" (Symmachus, The Memorial, P8)

[2] Christians had many issues with the Pagan ancestors already for persecuting Christians for their religion (Class notes, 11/4/10)

[3] "I myself advise you to defer to the merits of illustrious men, but undoubtedly God must be preferred to all." (Ambrose, Letter 17, 6) Ambrose is trying to prove that God is the most important object and should be thought of when making this decision.

[4] "If you decree anything of that kind, injury will be done, first to God, and then to your father and brother, I implore you to do that which you know will be profitable to your salvation before God."

[5] Symmachus was not granted his request in bringing back the use of the Altar of Victory though he tried. Each Emperor that he went to and asked for the change to better Rome said no, Valentinian II had ties with Ambrose and also believed a Christian lifestyle. Theodosius was also an avid Christian. (Class notes, 11/4/10)



  • Symmachus. (n.d.). The Memorial. Retrieved October 28, 2010, from
  • Ambrose. (n.d.). Letter 17. Retrieved October 28, 2010, from
  • Ambrose. (n.d.). Letter 18. Retrieved October 28, 2010, from
  • Pasini., C. Roman Tradition and Christian Innovation. Chapter 8. Retrieved December 6, 2010, Trans: R. Grant
  • Grant, R (November 4, 2010). The Altar of Victory. St. Ambrose of Milan.