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AD 378-380.


The Huns, a Tartar race, had, after a defeat by an Emperor of China about a century BC, been gradually moving westward. They had reached and crossed the Volga, defeated the Alani, a tribe of Scyths who then occupied the country of the Don Cossacks, and joining the Alan warriors with their own forces, had descended upon the Goths, who occupied the tract north of the Danube, the modern Roumania. These last, after an unsuccessful resistance, determined to place the Danube between them and their savage conquerors, and entreated permission of Valens to settle themselves in Thrace, the modern Bulgaria and Roumelia.

The leave was given, but the Gothic refugees were received with indignities which set their spirits on fire; and the Romans found too late that they had introduced into their territory not a band of slaves but a host of enemies. Under Fritigern their leader, and aided by some of their old foes, the Huns and Alani, the Gothic warriors encountered the Romans, commanded by Valens in person, about twelve miles from the city of Adrianople, and routed them completely. According to one account, the emperor was killed in battle, and so mutilated that his body could not be recognized; others allege that he was carried by his attendants into a cottage, which was surrounded by the enemy and reduced to ashes with all who were in it, only one youth escaping to tell the tale. This terrible reverse, from which—though it took place in the East—some date the commencement of the fall of the Roman Empire, happened on the 9th August, 378. Ambrose saw in it a judgment on the heresy of Valens.

The Goths did not fail to push their advantage. They overran and laid waste the country towards the west, as far as the Julian Alps. Devastation was naturally followed by famine, and famine as naturally by pestilence.

The Bishop of Milan, at this time, when, to use his own expression, everything was in confusion through dread of barbaric invasion, was, in addition to his grief at the reverses and sufferings of his countrymen, visited with a domestic sorrow. Immediately on his consecration he had placed all his property in the hands of his brother Satyrus, who undertook to perform those secular duties which would have been an interruption to the spiritual work of a prelate. The dishonesty of a certain Prosper, who thought that he might easily evade payment of a debt to an ecclesiastic, rendered it desirable for Satyrus to undertake a journey across the Mediterranean in order to recover a sum of money due from him. Ambrose was very loth to allow his brother to go, probably knowing his health to be delicate, and fearing the roughness of the voyage in the late part of the year. Satyrus, however, insisted upon running the risk. He reached Africa, but was shipwrecked and in great jeopardy; he transacted his business, and returned to Milan with the money. But his brother’s fears had been too well founded. He had scarcely reached his home before he was taken dangerously ill, and in a few days he expired in the bishop’s arms, who was himself just recovering from a sharp attack of illness, through which he had been tenderly nursed by Marcellina. Two discourses, the one perhaps pronounced, the other composed, on the occasion, testify to the tender affection which the brothers felt for one another, and the sure and certain hope entertained by the survivor of a blissful reunion, which should be clouded by no fear of separation.

Gratian was far from underrating the stupendous difficulties which environed an Emperor of East and West, and from overrating his own ability to cope with them. He was but twenty when his uncle’s death left him—for his partner in the purple was a child of seven—practically the sole head of a double empire. Before six months had expired, he called to his aid the ablest of his subjects, whose talents and virtues have given a lustre to the imperial name. On the 19th January, 379, at Sirmium, now Mitrovicz, the capital of Pannonia, he bestowed—some say forced—the diadem, the purple, and the title of Augustus, on Theodosius, a Spaniard of Italica (Old Seville), the birthplace of Trajan and Hadrian; a worthy son of that great general Theodosius, whom his jealous ministers had done to death not three years before for the high crime of success in Britain and Africa. To the new emperor was assigned as his portion the dominion of Valens; there were added to it, however, Dacia and Macedonia, then under the power of the victorious Goths, and calling piteously for a protector as well as a ruler. The year had not ended before he had gained successes over the Goths, which Ambrose considered as both a fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy against Gog, and a punishment for their Arianism. Theodosius received baptism shortly after.

Ambrose, meanwhile, was not idle, nor, alas! at peace. The next year to that which witnessed the elevation of Theodosius brought him into direct collision with the empress dowager. The death of the Bishop of Sirmium had rendered it necessary for him to repair thither to take part in the consecration of a successor. This city being the metropolis of Pannonia and Illyricum, it was of the utmost importance that its chief pastor should be free from all suspicion of heresy. Justina, who was residing at the place, used all her influence, coupled with that of her youthful son Valentinian, to procure the election of an Arian, and to exclude the Bishop of Milan, who was recognised as the leader of the Catholics, from the churches. So high ran party feeling, that personal violence was resorted to, and a girl of the Arian faction actually laid hands upon the prelate himself. The Catholics, however, carried their point, and their candidate Anemius was chosen and consecrated. But Justina never forgave Ambrose his victory, and kept up a continual intrigue for his removal from Milan.



AD 380-383.


About the end of 377 or the beginning of 378, Gratian, when on the eve of going eastwards to assist Valens in his troubles, had requested Ambrose to furnish him with some written instruction on the subject of the Nicene faith, which his stepmother, his uncle, and his uncle’s Gothic enemies agreed in rejecting. Ambrose replied by sending him two books “On the Faith”.

The emperor returned the work, and was so pleased with it, that, after the load of government had been lightened by the elevation of Theodosius, he wrote a letter with his own hand to Ambrose, begging him to send him the volume again, and also to visit him, and afford him more instruction.

The teaching of Macedonius had rendered it needful that the Deity of God the Holy Ghost should be explained and proved, and Gratian was anxious to be enlightened on this point as well as on the special doctrine of the Council of Nicaea. Ambrose sent the two books “on the Faith” as requested, and subsequently added to them three more books, supplementing the two he had already produced on the coequal Deity of the eternal Son. To the emperor’s letter he replied in the first—or at least the first to which a definite date can he assigned—which we have of a long series extending to within a few months of his decease.

The tone and diction of the bishop’s letter are peculiar, and scarcely what we should expect from what we know of his character. They savour more of the courtly consular of Liguria than of the stern ascetic prelate of Milan. He excuses himself for not immediately resorting to the imperial presence, and asks to be permitted to defer the writing of the desired work, promising to set about it in process of time (we know that he had the three books “on the Faith” in hand); and ends with a flourish about glory and peace which would sound almost like a sarcasm were it not coupled with a benediction. The promise was fulfilled in less than two years. Early in 381 Gratian received the three books “on the Holy Ghost”.

The results at once of this teaching and of the election of an orthodox bishop of Sirmium were speedily seen. Two Illyrian bishops, Palladius and Secundianus, were known to be of the party which declined to accept the Nicene creed; and their new metropolitan lost no time in bringing them to trial. A synod of bishops, from Illyricum, Gaul, and Italy, was summoned; and it is worthy of remark that it was convoked by the emperor’s authority, his rescript, addressed apparently to the vicarius of each of the diocceses, or civil departments, from which the members of the synod came, being formally read by a deacon at the opening of the synodical proceedings. By the advice of Ambrose, this document states, who thought it unnecessary to bring together a large number, the aged and infirm bishops, and those who were not in good circumstances, were excused from attendance. The synod met at Aquileia on the 3rd September, 381. This city appears to have been chosen in preference to Milan, not only as being more central, but because there was less fear of such a tumult there as might easily have been excited in the metropolis of northern Italy. Thirty-three bishops took their seats, three of them, the bishops of Marseilles, Orange, and Lyons, being commissioners from Gaul, and two, Felix and Numidius, from Africa : two presbyters also took part in the council. The chair was taken (to use our own familiar expression) by Valerian, bishop of Aquileia; but the proceedings were conducted almost exclusively by the bishop of Milan.

Palladius demurred to the authority of the synod, and complained of the absence of the bishops of the East, who, he thought, would have taken his part; appealing to a full council, before which he professed himself ready to plead. But Ambrose disregarded all his excuses, and simply put to him the question, “Will you. or will you not, repudiate Arius and his errors?” To this question Palladius refused an answer. He entered, however, into a verbal contest with Ambrose, and one or two of the other bishops, in which he admitted that Christ is the Son of God, and spoke of His “divinity”, but declined to admit Him to be true God, or to speak of Him as equal to the Father. His companion Secundianus tried a little skirmish, but in vain. After a sitting which lasted from early morning till 1 p.m., both were, as we might expect, condemned by a unanimous vote, together with a presbyter named Attalus, who, after signing at Nicaea, had fallen away from the faith.

The decision of the synod was announced in a short letter to the churches of Gaul, and in a longer one to the three emperors (Gratian, Valentinian, and Theodosius), in which the members of the synod thank them for convening it, and beg them to earn-out its decrees. They also request that the Photinians in Sirmium may be prevented from holding meetings.


We are struck with the unqualified manner in which this letter to Valentinian (now ten years old) denounces the religion which his mother was teaching him. This synodical was followed by a second, denouncing Ursinus, the old opponent of Damasus, now Bishop of Rome; and a third, requesting that a council might be held at Alexandria to put down the Arians.

The Aquileian synod was not the only one that met in the year 381. Theodosius, immediately after his baptism in 380 by the hand of Ambrose’s dear friend Ascholius, bishop of Thessalonica, began to take steps to check the progress of Arianism. He banished the principal adherents of that heresy, with Demophilus, the Arian bishop of Constantinople, at their head; and with the approval of a number of bishops invited the great Gregory of Nazianzus to fill the vacant post. For some reason or other, this eminent man had been first appointed by his metropolitan St. Basil to the obscure see of Sasima, and then placed in his father’s almost equally obscure see of Nazianzus : his translation to the primacy of the East was objected to on the ground of its being contrary to an ancient canon that a bishop should be removed from one diocese to another. In the year 380, how­ever, Gregory was Archbishop and Patriarch of Con­stantinople, though he shortly afterwards retired to Nazianzus. In May of the year 381 Theodosius summoned the Eastern bishops to meet at the capital, and deal with the Arian and other Church questions; especially the heresy of Macedonius, the deposed predecessor of Demophilus, who denied the personal Deity of the Holy Ghost. This synod is reckoned as the second of the Ecumenical Councils, its determinations having been accepted and endorsed by the whole Church, although the 150 prelates who composed it belonged to the eastern portion of the empire.

A large assembly of western bishops met at Rome in the next year (382) in a synod, which was attended, among others, by the celebrated St. Jerome, and formally proposed that a council should be held at Rome. This scheme had already been pressed, in a less formal way, on Theodosius in two letters from the Italian bishops; and it appears that Ambrose was the leading spirit among them. In the earlier of the two documents the Italians show themselves to be laboring under a strange misconception of the state of Church politics at Constantinople. They are ready to give up Gregory Nazianzen, and incline to take the part of Maximus, the Apollinarian heretic, against the orthodox Nectarius, who had been chosen to fill the high post from which the gentle and peace-loving Gregory had determined to retire. They fancy the consecration of Nectarius to have been irregular. As he was elected and consecrated much in the same manner as Ambrose himself, being chosen by the popular voice while holding the office of praetor, the Western bishops could not with any fairness complain. In their second letter they still ask for the Council, but apologize for their errors.

The prelates of Constantinople replied to the proposal by a synodical letter, showing the great difficulty of carrying out the scheme; and called upon their brethren in the West to acquiesce in their statement of the Christian faith, and especially of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as enunciated at Nicaea. The epistle is addressed “To the noble lords and pious brethren and fellow-ministers, Damasus, Ambrose, Brito, Valerian, Ascholius, Anemius, Basil, and the other holy bishops assembled in the great city of Rome”. The name of the bishop of Milan, we see, stands second in the list, next after that of the bishop of Rome.

During this stay in the city where his youth had been spent, Ambrose had not only the great pleasure of meeting his friend Ascholius, and of visiting his sister Marcellina, but also the satisfaction of witnessing the removal of one of the last relics of paganism.


The altar of victory which used to stand in the Senate-house had been, some thirty years before, removed by the order of the Emperor Constantius, who, though persuaded to take the part of the Arians, had no fondness for heathenism; Theodoret, indeed, thinks that he was a Catholic at heart. Julian had, naturally enough, ordered it to be replaced, and there it had remained till this year (382), when Gratian, who, we may remember, was under the guidance, sought by himself, of the Bishop of Milan, commanded that it should be taken away. The non-Christian or neutral senators, we understand, disapproved of this, as we might expect; but we gather from a letter of Ambrose to Valentinian in the next year that a petition for its removal had been drawn up by the Christian senators, sent to Damasus, Bishop of Rome, and by him entrusted to Ambrose, probably as being most in communication with the imperial court.

This was the last work that the pious emperor was permitted to do for Christianity. His zeal for the orthodox faith had brought upon him the hatred of those who still adhered to the paganism of Augustus, Diocletian, and Julian, and of the half-Christian followers of Arius and his disciples. We almost seem to trace in the accusations brought against him the secret influence of Justina, who hated her stepson with a stepmother's hatred, and Ambrose, his trusted adviser, as one by whom her intrigues at Sirmium had been foiled, and whose retention of the episcopal throne at Milan was a continued and unpleasing proof of her own weakness, and the popularity of himself and his faith.

Gratian’s youthful spirits (he was not five-and-twenty) led him to indulge freely, perhaps too freely, in the pleasures of the chase. He was interested in the strange customs and dress of the Alani, whom the Gothic victory at Adrianople in 378 had brought under his observation. With the heedlessness of youth, he took a body of these barbarians into his service as yeomen of the guard, and was unwise enough to appear from time to time arrayed for sport in the Scythic hunting-dress. These errors in judgment, or failures in good taste, venial in a private nobleman, were exaggerated into criminality in an emperor. And Gratian was too mild and gentle to hold firmly the government of an empire composed of discordant elements, and ready to fall to pieces from its own unwieldiness. Discontent, once suggested, flew rapidly from west to farther west; and the soldiery of Britain and Gaul were soon roused to revolt.

They were headed by Maximus, a Spaniard, a disappointed rival of his countryman Theodosius. He was in command in Britain; but to rule in our islands was not then the glorious office which God’s providence and fifteen centuries have since made it, and he longed for a higher title and wider power. With little difficulty he induced his soldiers to compel him to assume the imperial purple, and forthwith invaded Gaul.

Gratian went to meet him; but, deserted by his troops, fled to Lyons, where he was led to believe that he would find himself in safety. The promises he relied on were untrustworthy. Andragathias, one of the officers of Maximus, gained access to him by an unworthy stratagem. Enclosing himself in a carriage drawn by mules, such as ladies were accustomed to travel in, and giving out that it contained the wife of the Emperor, he met Gratian just as he was about to cross the Rhone and enter the city. The guards were deceived, and permitted him to approach, an opportunity of which he instantly availed himself by putting the Emperor to death : the victim in his last moments called on his beloved Ambrose. This tragic event happened on the 25th August, 383. One feels almost glad to know that the assassin perished by his own act about five years after.



AD 383-385


Theodosius had only just succeeded (October, 382) in reversing the result of the terrible battle of Adrianople. He had brought the Goths to terms, but the Eastern Empire was as yet in no condition to take vengeance on a successful rebel in the West. He preferred to temporize.

The empress-mother was compelled at this conjuncture to lay aside her open enmity to Ambrose. Much as Justina detested the Bishop of Milan, it was to him that she was compelled to entrust the delicate duty of meeting and making terms with the conqueror. His diplomacy was at once dignified and successful; and it was arranged, with the consent of Theodosius, that Maximus should confine himself to the farther side of the Alps, taking Treves for his capital, and that Valentinian should retain Italy, Africa, and Illyricum.

Maximus at first rather demurred to these conditions, and demanded that the boy-emperor and his mother should at once repair to his court; but Ambrose was firm in refusing to accede to this proposal; he remained in Gaul till a messenger had been sent to Milan and returned with a decided negative, and Maximus felt himself compelled to give way. The body of the murdered emperor, however, remained in the possession of the conqueror, who was unwilling to allow it to be conveyed to Italy, lest the soldiery should be exasperated at the sight; and the bishop was unable to persuade him to surrender it to his relatives.

Not many months were permitted to elapse after the death of Gratian before an attempt was made to induce his brother to reverse the decision respecting the altar of victory in the Senate-house. Ambrose wrote at once most strongly to the emperor, entreating him not to think of doing such an indignity to the memory of his father and brother, and to God. The matter was formally brought forward in a document presented by Symmachus, the Prefect of Rome, to Valentinian, Theodosius, and his son Arcadius, who had been already associated with his father in the Eastern empire.

It sounds strangely, this last dying groan of imperial heathendom; and the very fact of its being addressed in the first instance to Valentinian, who was known to be under his mother’s influence, leads us to surmise that the antagonism between the half-Christianity of the Arians and the refined paganism of Julian was felt to be far from hopeless. That Jesus must be all, or is nothing, is a truth which we read in almost every page of the Church’s history, as it may be recognized in almost every moment of our spiritual life. Symmachus pleads, with a show of reason, that Valentinian I, a fervent Christian, left the old arrangement untouched, and that Valentinian II might fairly follow his example. But even an Arian would scarcely be moved by his argument that the famine which had lately visited Italy was a punishment for the sacrilege of disendowing the vestal virgins.

The paper was forwarded to Ambrose, who sent a crushing rejoinder. He addressed himself to Valentinian only, who was still unbaptized, and under Arian teaching; he was quite sure of Theodosius, the spiritual child of his saintly friend Ascholius. Symmachus had written much concerning the protection afforded to Rome by her tutelary gods, the dignity and purity of her priests and virgins. Ambrose shows that the old gods of Rome more often than not failed to defend their worshippers; contrasts the Christian priests and virgins with the vestals and sacrificuli of the pagan system; reminds the emperor that the famine in south Italy could scarcely be considered a proof of Divine wrath, since in the same year north Italy had a fair harvest, Rhaetia, Pannonia, and Gaul one considerably above the average; and ends with an argumentum ad verecundiam, which retorts a similar argument used by Symmachus : “If those Christian emperors are commended who refrained from altering the arrangements of their pagan predecessors, much more will you be commendable if you decline to reverse the decision of your Christian predecessor”. It need scarcely be said that the plaint of the pagan party was uttered in vain.

The calling forth of Ambrose's address to the emperor was not the only advantage done by Symmachus to the Church unwittingly. In this same year (384) the Milanese  being in want of a public teacher of rhetoric, applied to Rome, with a request that one might be sent them. The Prefect selected a man of some thirty years of age, an African by birth, but of high abilities, who had been teaching in Rome with great success. He was not exactly a pagan, but he was a Manichean, which was, in the Prefect’s view, nearly as good. He gladly accepted the appointment, the more so as he hoped to make the acquaintance of Ambrose, whose rhetorical powers—though the possessor himself made light of them—had a wide reputation. His name was Aurelius Augustinus. The providence of God has brought it about, through his meeting with Ambrose, that he is known to us as Saint Augustine. The bishop received his visitor courteously, and seems to have fascinated him at once. Far superior to Faustus, the great Manichean preacher, he supplied the doubter with what he had been yearning after. While the philosopher had nothing but a vain and unsatisfying deceit to offer to that hungering soul, the man of God strengthened and refreshed it with the truth as it is in Jesus. “Read Isaiah, the evangelical prophet”, was his advice to the neophyte; “study his words carefully, but remember that the letter killeth, the spirit giveth life. The things of God must be spiritually discerned”.

Soon Ambrose was visited by the mother of his Manichaean scholar, the saintly Monica. She was now to see the son of so many tears (as a worthy bishop many years before had termed him) brought into the true fold, persuaded of the true faith, lighted by the true light. The well-known tale of Augustine’s wonderful conversion belongs to his life rather than to that of Ambrose. It was not till two years later, the Easter of 387, that the wanderer was finally received into the Church; and we read with enhanced interest the instruction which Ambrose is then believed to have delivered for the benefit of the catechumens, and especially the exposition of the doctrine of the two sacraments, which is preserved for us under the title “Of the Mysteries”.