The Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan
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“Bridging the Gap: Paganism and Christianity in IV Century Rome”


by Ashley Quade

In the Fourth Century CE, Paganism was the main form of expressing one's faith. Temples were scattered throughout the city of Rome, the scent of burning incense lingered in the air, and old traditions were carried on through empty rituals, their meaning long forgotten. During this time, Christianity was beginning to rise, but was persecuted due to its unfamiliarity. In attempts to bridge the communication gap between Paganism and Christianity, Ambrose shows that the virtues behind the now empty Pagan rituals are at the very foundation of Christianity. This revelation ultimately turns Rome Christian.

The ancient traditions of Pagan Rome were based on the four cardinal virtues: Temperance, Fortitude, Justice, and Prudence. Temperance is the art of taking everything in moderation. Fortitude is the mentality to never give up or give in. Justice is equality and fairness. Prudence is the use of careful, cautious judgment. Pagans took these virtues as their own, but are they not virtues that everyone, Pagan or other, strives for? These virtues cannot be claimed by one belief system because they belong to all. Ambrose realized that the four cardinal virtues the Pagans took as their own were "hinged" on the three theological virtues named by Paul in the New Testament. The three theological virtues are faith, hope, and caritas, which are the basis for living a moral, and more importantly, Christian life. Ambrose grew up with a deep sense of Romanitas, but as he matured, his sense of Romanitas turned into Christian Romanitas, a fusion of his past and present. That is to say, that the virtues held fast by Romans were the virtues that were the basis for Christianity, just by a different name. With Rome and all her ideals on one side and Christianity on the other, Christian Romanitas became the bridge that connected the two, in order for communication to take place.

Christianity was a new concept to the people of Rome, which is part of the reason they rejected it. But because of the similarities between Pagan virtues and Christianity, it was not difficult to convince the people of Rome. The four cardinal virtues are universal virtues that apply to everyone, so Ambrose used these virtues to try to explain to Pagans what Christianity was all about.

The use of the Latin word, apologia, is necessary; it means explaining oneself in order for others to understand. Ambrose took the traditions that the Pagans already knew, and used them to explain Christianity, in hopes that they could see the connection and realize that Christianity was based on the ideals they already lived their lives by. But as much as the Romans wanted to believe, Paganism was full of empty rituals based on traditions that no longer severed a purpose. "Ambrose, nevertheless, performed well in demonstrating that paganism no longer had a following..." (Cesare Pasini, 8) An example of the lost meaning is the parade in celebrating Theodosius. "Only a few could discern the arcane origins of the laurel crown, the painted faces, the white-clad virgins, the doves, the flame..." "Nothing is quite as pathetic as an empty ritual." (Robert Grant, Pontifex, pg 245) Ambrose just showed the Roman people a new way to access the virtues they so desperately worked to defend; that new way was Christian Romanitas.

Several facts on this matter support that Rome became Christian, starting with the baptism of Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose grew up with a Christian mother, and a very deep sense of Romanitas, but wasn't baptized. When he was called to become Bishop of Milan, he accepted his role and was baptized by a Catholic Bishop. His Romanitas was then baptized into Christian Romanitas, the bridge between Rome and Christianity. More examples are found in the book written by Ambrose, de Officiis, the book's contents based on a book by a Pagan senator, Cicero. Ambrose had a tendency to cite Pagan sources, despite attempts to stop at one point in his life. He does, however, point out that the four cardinal virtues are found in several places in the Bible, suggesting that Pagans took them from Christians in the first place. In Book I, chapter XXIV, Ambrose cites several different stories from the Bible, including those containing Joseph, Job, and David, that use the four cardinal virtues. Each of these men showed justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence:

"What duty connected with the chief virtues was wanting in these men? In the first place they showed prudence, which is exercised in the search of the truth, and which imparts a desire for full knowledge; next, justice, which assigns each man his own, does not claim another's, and disregards its own advantage, so as to guard the rights of all; thirdly, fortitude, which both in warfare and at home is conspicuous in greatness of mind and distinguishes itself in the strength of the body; fourthly, temperance, which preserves the right method and order in all things that we think should either be done or said." (Ambrose, de Off., Book I, Ch. XXIV, p. 115)

Ambrose built a bridge between the very familiar Roman Traditions and the new ideals of Christianity. He took virtues that were the hinge for life as Romans and applied them in such a way that gave Romans a new way to defend Romanitas, but call it by another name, Christian Romanitas. As Pasini said, "But his [Ambrose's] brilliance consisted in knowing to propose a new plan without taking anything away from the Roman tradition and its ancient values of courage, dedication, and honesty. This was the true tradition, which was not to be lost..." (Pasini, 8).