The Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan
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saint ambrose of milan

“Who Won: Rome or Christianity?”


by Jake Schertz

Saint Ambrose of Milan was a true Roman, through and through. He was brought up with the finest education a Roman could have. He was well versed in the literature of Romans and the Greeks before them. The flourishing culture of Rome surrounded him. The position he had worked up to gave him great power within the empire. So the sudden appointment to bishop of Milan Ambrose received without a doubt created a sudden shock to him. He was instantly expected to practice the values of a religion he did not fully understand. His assimilation into his new role would create a very unique synergistic bond between Rome and Christianity. This new blend would pave the way for the masses of Rome to be converted to Christianity easily, and forever changed both the Christian and Roman cultures.

Being of the wealthy patrician class, Ambrose had a very different childhood than the Roman plebian class. He was provided a sterling education that included the literary works of both Roman and Greek philosophers. All of this came at a time in his life when people form the foundations which they will spend the rest of their lives. To try to turn his back completely on his upbringing would be naive. His Roman upbringing was a part of him that he could never rewrite. In addition, Rome would be very resilient to drastic changes. Romans held many of the same traditions for the better part of a millennium. These traditions were ingrained within every Roman for their entire lives. Because of this, the entire empire could not be expected to go cold turkey with their habits.

Ambrose saw this obstacle, especially due to his first-hand knowledge of Roman traditions. In order to combat this problem, Ambrose, whether intentionally or not, proceeded to place a Christian veil over Roman culture. His rewritten version of De Officiis, instructing his priests, was based directly off of the great Roman poet Cicero, who wrote a book by the same title to instruct his son. Ambrose claimed, "But whence have [Romans] got such ideas but out of the Holy Scriptures?...So Roman philosophers have learnt from our writings that all things were made subject to man, and, therefore, they think that all things were produced also for man's sake" (De Off. XXVIII.133). In this passage, Ambrose explicitly claims that Roman philosophers have deduced their views from the Bible. By doing this, Ambrose is not condemning, but rather connecting Rome to Christianity. Ambrose also knew of the four Roman virtues, temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice. Rather than try and supplant these honorable traits every Roman aspired to, he simply added three Christian virtues, faith, hope, and love. By doing this, Ambrose was able to again connect Rome and Christianity. He also was able to produce order by simply altering the common practice of patron-client relationship into a hierarchy whereby Christians would answer to the clergy. He was even able to see a change to the most noble of Roman values, Romanitas. Leo, watching the parade for Theodosius, proclaimed, "It was an exquisite and intoxicating demonstration of the Romanitas Christiana: Rome was declaring herself reborn in the blood of Peter and Paul and so asserted that she is still the Eternal City" (Grant, 246). Ambrose had created a variation on Romanitas by changing the perception of Romans from their love of Rome to their love of Rome under Christianity.

Ambrose was able to greater the power of the church in the empire in a way that few others could. His plan to change the course of Rome was similar to a train. Instead of trying to stop the culture, then attempting to change the entire culture in a very different direction, he simply used the momentum of Rome and used a railroad switch in order to change the course of Rome. Rather than making drastic changes, Ambrose focused on finding ways to relate Christianity to Romans. Much in the way churches based some hymns off of folk songs in order to lure a specific audience, Ambrose used familiarities with Romans in order to convert masses of pagans. These small concessions meant that the church no longer would appear the same, but also meant much greater influence within the empire, evidenced by Ambrose's numerous reprimands of several emperors.

Ambrose was an undeniable innovator in the Christian church. He successfully created a vessel with which to transport countless pagans to Christianity. He effectively converted the majority of the Western world to the young religion. Christianity was forever altered due to the works of Saint Ambrose of Milan.