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Ambrose of Milan
Bishop 374-397

"It is not improbable that he is really the author of the Latin translation and paraphrase of Josephus (De Bello Judaico), known in the Middle Ages as Hegesippus or Egesippus, a distortion of the Greek name of the original author (Iosepos). "

Annotations on the New Testament: Compiled from the Best Critical Authorities (1829)

LETTER XL. [A.D.388.]

In the year 388 A.D. the synagogue of the Jews at Callinicum in Mesopotamia was burnt by the Christians, at the instance, it was asserted, of the Bishop. Some monks also in the same district, having been insulted by some Valentinian heretics, while singing Psalms in processsion on the Festival of the Maccabees, (Aug. 1st.) had burnt their conventicle. Theodosius had ordered that the Bishop should re-build the synagogue at his own cost, and that the monks should be punished, and the whole matter carefully sifted, and justice done. This Letter is written by S. Ambrose to remonstrate. He urges his plea with the boldest importunity, and, as he tells his sister in the following letter, Theodosius eventually yielded.



6.  The military Count of the East 28 reported that a synagogue had been burnt, and that this had been done at the instigation of the Bishop. You decided that the others should be punished, and that the synagogue should be rebuilt by the Bishop himself. I will not insist on the propriety of calling for the Bishop's own statement; for the clergy are wont to check disturbances and desirous of peace, |260 save when they are themselves moved by some offence against God or insult to the Church. But suppose this Bishop to have been too eager in setting fire to this synagogue, and now to grow timid before the judgment-seat, has your Majesty no fear, lest he should acquiesce in your sentence, no apprehension of his becoming apostate?

7.  Do you not fear, what will certainly be the case, that he will meet your officer with a refusal; and so he will be obliged to make him either an apostate or a martyr, and both of these are adverse to your interests and savour of persecution, that he should be forced either to become an apostate or undergo martyrdom. You see then whereunto this matter tends; if you think the Bishop firm, avoid driving his firmness to martyrdom; if you think him frail, shun exposing his frailty to a fall. For a heavy responsibility lies on him who has caused one who is weak to fall.

8.  Under these circumstances I suppose that the Bishop will say that he himself kindled the fire, gathered the crowd, collected the people; so as not to lose an opportunity of martyrdom, and in place of the weak to offer up a bolder victim. O happy falsehood; obtaining for others acquittal, for himself Grace. This is my request also to your Majesty, that you would turn your vengeance upon me, and, if you consider this a crime, impute it to me. Why do you order the absent to be punished? you have the guilty person before you, you hear his confession, I openly affirm that I myself set the synagogue on fire, or at least, that I ordered others to do so; that there might be no place in which Christ is denied. And if it be objected, why did I not set it on fire in this very city? It began to be burnt, I reply, by the Divine judgment, my work was superseded. And to speak the truth, I was the less zealous because I expected no punishment. Why should I do that which being unavenged would also be unrewarded? These words are a shock to modesty, but they also bring back grace; they provide against the commission of that which may offend Almighty God.

9. But suppose that no one will cite the Bishop to do this; for this is what I have begged of your Clemency, and |261 though I have not yet read that the edict is revoked, I will nevertheless assume it to be so. But what if other more timid persons, from a fear of death offer to rebuild the synagogue from their own funds, or the Count, finding this previously ordained, should himself command it to be restored at the expense of the Christians? Your Majesty will then have an apostate Count, and you will entrust your victorious banner, your labarum, which is consecrated by the name of Christ, to one who is the restorer of the synagogue which knows not Christ. Command the labarum to be carried into the synagogue, and let us see if they do not resist.

10.  Shall then a building be raised for perfidious Jews out of the spoils of the Church, and shall that patrimony, which by Christ's mercy has been assigned to Christians, be transferred to the temples of the unbelieving? We read that temples were in former days erected from the spoils of the Cimbri and other enemies of Rome. Shall the Jews inscribe this title on the front of their synagogue: 'The temples of impiety built from the spoils of Christians?'

11.  But the maintenance of discipline is perhaps what influences your Majesty. Is the show of discipline then weightier than the cause of religion? Police should give place to religion.

12.  Has your Majesty never heard that when Julian commanded the temple at Jerusalem to be restored, they who cleared away the rubbish were destroyed by fire from heaven? Are you not afraid lest this should now happen? Surely you ought not to have commanded what Julian commanded.

13.  But why are you thus moved? Is it generally because a public building has been burnt, or because it is a synagogue? If you are moved by the conflagration of the meanest edifice, (and what else could there have been in so obscure a town,) does not your Majesty remember how many prefects' houses have been burnt at Rome, and yet no man enacted vengeance for them? Nay, if any Emperor had desired to punish such an act severely, he would rather have injured the cause of those who had suffered so great a loss. Which then is the more fitting, that the partial |262 burning of some houses at Callinicum 29, or the burning of the city of Rome should be punished, if indeed either of them ought to have been so. At Constantinople, a while ago, the Bishop's 30 house was burnt, and your Majesty's son interceded with you, that you would not avenge the wrong done to him, the youthful Emperor, nor the burning of the Bishop's palace. Your Majesty should consider, that, if you should in like manner command this act to be punished, he may again intercede to prevent it. The former boon however was happily obtained from the father by the son, for it was only fitting that he should first remit the injury to himself. A good distribution of favour and well allotted it is, that the son should be petitioned for his own loss, and the father for the offence against his son. In this case there is nothing which you need keep back on your son's account, beware also lest you derogate ought from God.

14.  There is then no adequate reason for any such commotion, that the people should be so severely punished for the burning of any building; much less seeing that it is a synagogue that has been burnt, a place of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of madness, which God Himself hath condemned. For thus we read what the Lord our God spake by the mouth of Jeremiah, Therefore will I do unto this house, which is called by My Name, wherein ye trust, and unto the place which I gave to you, and to your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh. And I wilt cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brethren, even the whole seed of Ephraim. Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to Me, for I will not hear thee. Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah? God forbids him to intercede for those whom you think worthy of being avenged.

15.  Were I pleading according to the law of nations, I should assuredly recount how many Churches the Jews burnt in the time of Julian's reign: two at Damascus, one |263 of which is but just repaired, and that at the expense, not of the synagogue, but of the Church, while the other is still a mass of shapeless ruins. Churches were likewise burnt at Gaza, Ascalon, Berytus, and nearly every town in that region, and yet no man asked for vengeance. At Alexandria too the most beautiful Church of all was burnt down by the Gentiles and Jews. The Church has not been avenged, shall then the synagogue be?

16.  And shall the burning of the temple of the Valentinians likewise be punished? For what but a temple is the place where Gentiles assemble? The Gentiles indeed reckon twelve gods, the Valentinians worship thirty two Aeons 31, whom they call gods. Concerning these I am informed that they have called for punishment upon some monks. For the Valentinians having endeavoured to stop them as they were going in procession according to ancient custom, chanting psalms, to celebrate the festival of the Maccabees, the monks exasperated by this affront, set fire to one of their rudely constructed temples in some country village.

17.  How many have to offer themselves to this choice, remembering that in Julian's time he who threw down the altar and disturbed the sacrifice was condemned by the judge, and suffered martyrdom. And accordingly the judge who tried him was never considered other than a persecutor, no man would associate with him, no man deemed him worthy of a kiss of greeting. Were he not now dead, I should fear your Majesty's taking vengeance upon him. Nevertheless he escaped not the Divine vengeance, but saw his son die before him.

18.  But it is reported that the judge was ordered to take cognizance of the matter, and was informed that he ought not to have reported upon it, but to have punished it, that the offerings which had been taken away were to be demanded back. Other particulars 1 will omit; but when the Jews burnt our Churches, nothing was restored, nothing demanded, nothing sought for. But what could the synagogue possess in that distant place, when everything in it was but of little value, nothing precious or abundant. |264 In short of what could a fire deprive the treacherous Jews? These are devices of the Jews who wish to accuse us falsely, that through their representations an extraordinary military tribunal may be appointed, and an officer sent, who perhaps will say what one said here before your accession, 'How shall Christ help us, when we fight for the Jews against Christ? when we are sent to take vengeance on their behalf? They have lost their own armies, and they wish to destroy ours.'

19.  Nay, what are the calumnies into which they will not rush, who by false witnesses have slandered Christ Himself? who are false even in matters relating to God? Whom will they not charge with the guilt of this sedition? whom will they not thirst after, even though they know them not? They desire to see rank after rank of Christians in chains, to see the necks of the faithful placed under the yoke, the servants of God hidden in darkness, smitten with the axe, delivered to the fire, or sent to the mines, that their pains may be slow and lingering.

20.  Will your Majesty give this triumph to the Jews over the Church of God? this victory over the people of Christ, this joy to the unbelievers, this felicity to the Synagogue, this grief to the Church? They will place this solemnity among their feast-days; numbering it among those wherein they triumphed over the Ammonites, or Canaanites, or over Pharaoh king of Egypt, or which delivered them from the hands of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. This festival they will add in memory of the triumph they have gained over Christ's people.

21.  Although they refuse to be bound by Roman laws, deeming them even criminal, they now pretend to claim vengeance according to those laws. Where were those laws, when they burnt the roofs of the consecrated Basilicas? If Julian avenged not the Church because he was an Apostate, will your Majesty, being a Christian, avenge the injury done to the Synagogue?

22.  And what will Christ hereafter say to you? Do you not remember what he said to holy David by the prophet Nathan? 'I have chosen thee the youngest of thy brethren, and from private life have made thee Emperor. |265 I have placed thy offspring upon the Imperial throne. I have put barbarous nations under thy feet, I have given thee peace, I have delivered thine enemy captive into thy hands. Thou hadst no corn to support thy army, I opened to thee the enemies' gates, the enemies' granaries, by their own hand; they gave thee the very stores which they had provided for themselves. I confounded the counsels of thy enemy, so that he laid bare his own plans. The very usurper of thy empire I so bound, and so fettered his mind, that although he had the means of flying from you he shut himself in with all his followers, as if fearing lest any should escape you. His lieutenant32 and his forces on the other element, whom I had before dispersed to prevent their combining to make war on thee, I now called together again to render thy victory complete. Thy army, an assemblage of many fierce nations, I caused to keep faith and peace and concord, as if they had been one nation. And when there was imminent danger lest the perfidious plots of the barbarians should penetrate the Alps, I gave thee victory within the very barrier of the Alps, that thy victory might be without loss. Thus I made thee to triumph over thy enemy, and thou art giving my enemies a triumph over my people.'

23. Was it not the very reason why Maximus was abandoned, that before he set out on his expedition, hearing that a synagogue had been burnt at Rome, he sent an edict thither, acting as if he were the guardian of public order. Wherefore the Christians said, No good awaits this man. That king is become a Jew, and we have heard of him as a protector of order, but Christ, who died for sinners, shortly after put him to the proof33. And if this was said of words only, what will be said of actual punishment? So he was soon defeated by the Franks and by the Saxons, in Sicily, at Siscia 34, at Petavio, and in every |266 quarter of the globe. What has a devout man in common with an unbeliever? The precedents of his impiety ought to be obliterated together with the impious man himself. That which injured the vanquished, that at which he stumbled, the victor ought to condemn, not to imitate.

24.  Now I have recounted these things to you not as though you were ungrateful; rather I have spoken of them as being rightly bestowed, that reminded thereby you may love much, as being one on whom much has been bestowed. To Simon's answer our Lord thus replied, Thou hast rightly judged; and then, turning straightway to the woman who had anointed His feet with ointment, and was the type of the Church, He said to Simon, Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. This is that woman who entered the house of the Pharisee, and cast out the Jew, but gained Christ. For the Church shut out the Synagogue, and why is it now attempted, that, with the servant of Christ, that is, from the breast of faith, and abode of Christ, the Synagogue should shut out the Church.

25.  It is from affection and regard for your Majesty, that I have introduced these things into my pleading. The beneficence which has led you, at my request, to liberate many persons from exile, from prison, from the extreme penalties of death, obliges me to incur the danger of offending you for the sake of your own good, rather than lose in one moment that privilege of every Bishop which I have for so long possessed. For no man can feel greater confidence than he who zealously loves, no man certainly ought to injure him who is careful for his well-being. And yet it is not the loss of favour I deprecate, but the danger to salvation.

26. Yet how important it is that your Majesty should not think of enquiry or punishment in a matter with regard to which no one up to this time has ever held enquiry or inflicted punishment! It is a grievous thing to hazard your faith for the sake of Jews. When Gideon killed the consecrated calf, the Gentiles 35 said, Let the gods |267 themselves avenge this affront towards them. Who is to avenge the Synagogue? Christ Whom they slew, Whom they denied? Or will God the Father avenge them, seeing that by rejecting the Son they have rejected the Father also. Who is to avenge the heresy of the Valentinians? how will your Piety be able to avenge them, seeing that you have commanded them to be shut out, and forbidden them to meet together? And should I bring forward to you the example of King Josiah as approved of God, will you condemn in this case that for which he is praised.

27.  But if you do not place sufficient confidence in me, let your Majesty command the presence of those bishops whom you do approve, and let the question be discussed, what ought to be done so as not to injure the Faith. If in financial matters you consult your Courts, how much more fitting is it that in the cause of religion you should consult the Bishops of the Lord?

28.  Let your Clemency consider what dangerous spies and liers in wait the Church has against her, if they find ever so small an opening they will plant a dart therein. I speak after the manner of men; but God is feared more than men, and is rightly preferred to Emperors themselves. If any man thinks obedience should be paid to a friend, a parent, or a neighbour, am I wrong in deeming that God should be obeyed, and that in preference to all others. Let your Majesty consult for your own well-being, or suffer me to consult for mine.

29.  What shall I hereafter answer, if it shall appear that by an edict issued from hence Christians have been slain by the sword, or beaten to death with clubs or thongs loaded with lead? How shall I justify such an act, how shall I excuse it to those Bishops who having discharged the office of the priesthood for thirty years, nay for many more, have now bitterly to bewail, being deprived of their sacred functions and called to undertake municipal offices. If 36 those who fight for you are set free after a certain period of service, how much more ought you to consider those |268 who fight for God! How I repeat, shall I defend this to the Bishops who complain in behalf of the clergy, and write word that the Churches are overborne by violent oppression.

30.  This however I desired should be made known to your Majesty; about this you will deign to deliberate and direct according to your will; but as to that which distresses and rightly distresses myself, exclude and reject it from your consideration. You do yourself whatsoever you have commanded to be done; even if he 37 do it not, I would rather that you should be merciful than that he should refuse to do what he has been commanded.

31.  Here are persons in dealing with whom you ought still to invite and earn the Clemency of God towards the Roman empire; here are persons for whom rather than for yourself you have to hope; let their grace, their well-being, appeal to you in what I now say. I fear your entrusting your cause to the judgement of others. As yet you are committed to nothing. Herein I will pledge myself for you to our God, fear not your oath. That change cannot be displeasing to God which is made for His honour. You have no need to alter your former letter whether it be yet dispatched or not, but command another to be written which shall be replete with faith and piety. It is open to you to change, it is not open to me to keep back the truth.

32.  You have forgiven the people of Antioch 38 their offence against you, you have recalled the daughters of your enemy 39, you have committed them to be nurtured by their relative, you have bestowed money from your treasury on the mother of your enemy. This great piety, this great faith towards God will be obscured by your present act. Having thus spared your armed foes, and preserved your enemies, do not, I beseech you, so eagerly seek for vengeance upon Christians. |269 

33. And now I entreat your Majesty not to disdain to listen to my fears both for yourself and myself; for it is the saying of an holy man, Woe is me, wherefore was I born to see this misery of my people? is it that I should incur the risk of offending God? Assuredly I have done what is most respectful to you: I have sought that you should listen to me in the palace, that you might not have to listen to me in the Church.

[Footnotes moved to the end and numbered]

1. a The English Version has 'The partridge sitteth on eggs and hatcheth them not.' S. Ambrose is referring to § 11 of the preceding Letter, where he applies the text to Satan. He makes the same application of it in Letter xlvi. 14.

2. 1 perdendo.

3. 2 contrarius. 

4. 3 judicio.

5. 1 judicio.

6. 2judicium

7. b 'Cornici oculum effodere' was a familiar Latin proverb for overcoming craft with craft. See Cic. pro Mur. 11, pro Flacco, 20.

8. 1 primitivus.

9. 2 primogenitus. 

10. a Horontianus appears to have been, like Irenaeus, a pupil of S. Ambrose, and to have been ordained by him, and to have been, as the Benedictine Editors say, 'In clericorum contubernio educatus ab infantia.' Nothing more is known of him. See Letter lxx. 25.

11. 1 e0ntele/xeia.

12. 1 propria corporis.

13. 2 Sun, E. V. Sol, Vulg.

14. 1 primitias.

15. 2 primogenita.

16. a The difference in the original is only the punctuation; in the first case, 'Natu quod videt quis quid, et sperat:' in the second, 'Nam quod videt quis, quid et sperat? '

17. a S. Ambrose is evidently referring to his mission to Maximus, and the persecution of Justina.

18. b There is another reading of several MSS., 'et ille profecto gemitus,' which seems to offer a better sense, 'and that groaning is indeed truly unutterable, etc'

19. 1 Canaan E.V.

20. a The Vulgate has, 'Trahitur antem sapientia de occultis.' The B. V. is, 'The price of wisdom is above rubies.'

21. b This is referred by the Benedictine Editors to Prov. xxii. 7. but it does not agree with either the Sept. or Vulgate.

22. c tou~ pneu&matoj is inserted in a few MSS, and Spirit us is in the Vulgate.

23. a The story of Calanus and Alexander is related in Arian vii.2. It is also more briefly alluded to by Putarch. Alex. 65. Neither writer mentions this letter.

24. 1  vibulamina. Gr. mosxeu&mata.

25. 2 i. e. the three children in the furnace.

26. a S. Ambrose is here imitating the consolation ottered by Ser. Sulpicius to Cicero on the death of his daughter. See Up. ad Div. iv, 5, 4.

27. 1 distonxisti ei

28. a 'Oriens' or 'the East' was the title of the great civil 'diocese' which included Syria, Palestine, Cilicia, Cyprus, Mesopotamia, and some adjacent districts, and corresponded to the Patriarchate of Antioch in the ecclesiastical division. It was originally under one chief called 'Comes orientis,' but it would appear from this passage, as is asserted by Gothofred, that the civil and military functions had been divided, and there were now two officers, 'Comes orientis militarium partium,' and 'Comes orientis civilium partium.' The subject is somewhat obscure.

29. b Callinicum was in Osrhoene, a name given to the north-western part of Mesopotamia.

30. c Socrates, B v. ch. 13., mentions that Nectarius' house was burnt by the Arian party in the same year in which this letter was written.

31. d See a note in Newman's Fleury, p. 160.

32. e Andragathius, who commanded a fleet in Maximus' interest expecting Theodosius to come to Italy by sea.

33. f The Benedictine editors say 'tota luce pericope in uno Cod. Reg. desideratur: forte non male.' It is difficult to elicit any sense from it.

34. g Siscia, now Sissek, was a large town in upper Pannonia, on the south bank of the Save. Petavio, now Pettau, was on the Drave. It seems likely that 'in Sicilia' should he omitted, as being only a false meaning for 'Sciscia.' There is no mention of Sicily being in any way connected with the war. But see Tillemont, Theod. art. xlv.

35. h S. Ambrose is quoting from memory and slightly varies the facts from the narrative in book of Judges.

36. i See a learned note in Newman's Fleury vol. 1 p. 162, on the exemption of the Clergy from municipal offices, compare also letter xviii. 14, and the note there.

37. k i. e. the Count of the East.

38. l This refers to the famous sedition at Antioch, when the mob, enraged at the imposition of new taxes, overthrew the Emperor's statues, and dragged them through the eity. After a period of suspense, during which S. Chrysostom preached the Homilies on the Statues, Theodosius, who had at first been violently enraged, sent them a free pardon. This was in the previous year.

39. m i. e. of Maximus.


Samuel Mosheim Schmucker
"An illustration of the prevalent spirit of hostility between the Jews and Christians, which existed at this period, will be found in an event which occurred in the town of Callinicum, on the confines of Persia. The Christian Bishop of the place, taking some offense at the Jews, stirred up the populace to burn their synagogue, together with the church of the Valentinian heretics. The deed of violence was done ; but the Roman Governor of Callinicum immediately ordered the turbulent prelate either to rebuild the edifices, or to pay the damage which had been occasioned. This demand was appealed from, but the sentence was confirmed by the decree of the Roman Emperor. At this crisis the matter, came to the knowledge of the celebrated Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who, in consequence of his superior zeal and talents, was at that period regarded as the most distinguished prelate in the Christian Church, and exercised very great influence at the imperial court. He addressed a letter to the then reigning Emperor Theodosius, reproving him for his edict in favor of the Jews ; and declaring that had he been in the place of the Bishop of Callinicum, he would have acted precisely as he did. It serves to illustrate both the weakness of the character of Theodosius, and the perverted influence which such an unscrupulous enthusiast as Ambrose had attained, that he succeeded in bending the purpose and the power of the monarch to his will ; and the outrage upon the Jews remained unpunished and unatoned for. During the progress of this dispute, Ambrose described a synagogue as being an impious place, the abode of perfidy and insanity, and asserted that, should the demolished structure be rebuilt, it should have inscribed upon it the words : " This is a temple of ungodliness, erected from the plunder of the Christians." Subsequently, however, Theodosius seems to have become ashamed of the tyranny exercised over him by Ambrose ; and before his death he decreed that the Christians should not plunder or demolish the synagogues, and expressly ordered the Governors of provinces to see to it that the decree was properly obeyed. At the same time he permitted the Christians to destroy the remaining temples of the Pagans, and the edifices of those Christian sects who were stigmatized as heretics by the majority. Nevertheless the Jews were still forbidden by law to enter the precincts of Jerusalem." (A History of the Modern Jews, p. 46)


Bishop of Milan from 374 to 397; born probably 340, at Trier, Arles, or Lyons; died 4 April, 397. He was one of the most illustrious Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and fitly chosen, together with St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Athanasius, to uphold the venerable Chair of the Prince of the Apostles in the tribune of St. Peter's at Rome.

The materials for a biography of the Saint are chiefly to be found scattered through his writings, since the "Life" written after his death by his secretary, Paulinus, at the suggestion of St. Augustine, is extremely disappointing. Ambrose was descended from an ancient Roman family, which, at an early period had embraced Christianity, and numbered among its scions both Christian martyrs and high officials of State. At the time of his birth his father, likewise named Ambrosius, was Prefect of Gallia, and as such ruled the present territories of France, Britain, and Spain, together with Tingitana in Africa. It was one of the four great prefectures of the Empire, and the highest office that could be held by a subject. Trier, Arles, and Lyons, the three principal cities of the province, contend for the honour of having given birth to the Saint. He was the youngest of three children, being preceded by a sister, Marcellina, who become a nun, and a brother Satyrus, who, upon the unexpected appointment of Ambrose to the episcopate, resigned a prefecture in order to live with him and relieve him from temporal cares. About the year 354 Ambrosius, the father, died, whereupon the family removed to Rome. The saintly and accomplished widow was greatly assisted in the religious training of her two sons by the example and admonitions of her daughter, Marcellina, who was about ten years older than Ambrose. Marcellina had already received the virginal veil from the hands of Liberius, the Roman Pontiff, and with another consecrated virgin lived in her mother's house. From her the Saint imbibed that enthusiastic love of virginity which became his distinguishing trait. His progress in secular knowledge kept equal pace with his growth in piety. It was of extreme advantage to himself and to the Church that he acquired a thorough mastery of the Greek language and literature, the lack of which is so painfully apparent in the intellectual equipment of St. Augustine and, in the succeeding age, of the great St. Leo. In all probability the Greek Schism would not have taken place had East and West continued to converse as intimately as did St. Ambrose and St. Basil. Upon the completion of his liberal education, the Saint devoted his attention to the study and practice of the law, and soon so distinguished himself by the eloquence and ability of his pleadings at the court of the praetorian prefect, Anicius Probus, that the latter took his into his council, and later obtained for him from the Emperor Valentinian the office of consular governor of Liguria and Æmilia, with residence in Milan. "Go", said the prefect, with unconscious prophecy, "conduct thyself not as a judge, but as bishop". We have no means of ascertaining how long he retained the civic government of his province; we know only that his upright and gently administration gained for him the universal love and esteem of his subjects, paving the way for that sudden revolution in his life which was soon to take place. This was the more remarkable, because the province, and especially the city of Milan, was in a state of religious chaos, owing to the persistent machinations of the Arian faction.

Bishop of Milan

Ever since the heroic Bishop Dionysius, in the year 355, had been dragged in chains to his place of exile in the distant East, the ancient chair of St. Barnabas had been occupied by the intruded Cappadocian, Auxentius, an Arian filled with bitter hatred of the Catholic Faith, ignorant of the Latin language, a wily and violent persecutor of his orthodox subjects. To the great relief of the Catholics, the death of the petty tyrant in 374 ended a bondage which had lasted nearly twenty years. The bishops of the province, dreading the inevitable tumults of a popular election, begged the Emperor Valentinian to appoint a successor by imperial edict; he, however, decided that the election must take place in the usual way. It devolved upon Ambrose, therefore, to maintain order in the city at this perilous juncture. Proceeding to the basilica in which the disunited clergy and people were assembled, he began a conciliatory discourse in the interest of peace and moderation, but was interrupted by a voice (according to Paulinus, the voice of an infant) crying, "Ambrose, Bishop". The cry was instantly repeated by the entire assembly, and Ambrose, to his surprise and dismay, was unanimously pronounced elected. Quite apart from any supernatural intervention, he was the only logical candidate, known to the Catholics as a firm believer in the Nicene Creed, unobnoxious to the Arians, as one who had kept aloof from all theological controversies. The only difficulty was that of forcing the bewildered consular to accept an office for which his previous training nowise fitted him. Strange to say, like so many other believers of that age, from a misguided reverence for the sanctity of baptism, he was still only a catechumen, and by a wise provision of the canons ineligible to the episcopate. That he was sincere in his repugnance to accepting the responsibilities of the sacred office, those only have doubted who have judged a great man by the standard of their own pettiness. Were Ambrose the worldly-minded, ambitious, and scheming individual they choose to paint him, he would have surely sought advancement in the career that lay wide open before him as a man of acknowledged ability and noble blood. It is difficult to believe that he resorted to the questionable expedients mentioned by his biographer as practised by him with a view to undermining his reputation with the populace. At any rate his efforts were unsuccessful. Valentinian, who was proud that his favourable opinion of Ambrose had been so fully ratified by the voice of clergy and people, confirmed the election and pronounced severe penalties against all who should abet him in his attempt to conceal himself. The Saint finally acquiesced, received baptism at the hands of a Catholic bishop, and eight day later, 7 December 374, the day on which East and West annually honour his memory, after the necessary preliminary degrees was consecrated bishop.

He was now in his thirty-fifth year, and was destined to edify the Church for the comparatively long space of twenty-three active years. From the very beginning he proved himself to be that which he has ever since remained in the estimation of the Christian world, the perfect model of a Christian bishop. There is some truth underlying the exaggerated eulogy of the chastened Theodosius, as reported by Theodoret (v, 18), "I know no bishop worthy of the name, except Ambrose". In him the magnanimity of the Roman patrician was tempered by the meekness and charity of the Christian saint. His first act in the episcopate, imitated by many a saintly successor, was to divest himself of his worldly goods. His personal property he gave to the poor; he made over his landed possessions to the Church, making provision for the support of his beloved sister. The self-devotion of his brother, Satyrus, relieved him from the care of the temporalities, and enabled him to attend exclusively to his spiritual duties. In order to supply the lack of an early theological training, he devoted himself assiduously to the study of Scripture and the Fathers, with a marked preference for Origen and St. Basil, traces of whose influence are repeatedly met with in his works. With a genius truly Roman, he, like Cicero, Virgil, and other classical authors, contented himself with thoroughly digesting and casting into a Latin mould the best fruits of Greek thought. His studies were of an eminently practical nature; he learned that he might teach. In the exordium of his treatise, "De Officiis", he complains that, owing to the suddenness of his transfer from the tribunal to the pulpit, he was compelled to learn and teach simultaneously. His piety, sound judgment, and genuine Catholic instinct preserved him from error, and his fame as an eloquent expounder of Catholic doctrine soon reached the ends of the earth. His power as an orator is attested not only by the repeated eulogies, but yet more by the conversion of the skilled rhetorician Augustine. His style is that of a man who is concerned with thoughts rather than words. We cannot imagine him wasting time in turning an elegant phrase. "He was one of those", says St. Augustine, "who speak the truth, and speak it well, judiciously, pointedly, and with beauty and power of expression" (De doct. christ., iv,21).

His Daily Life

Through the door of his chamber, wide open the livelong day, and crossed unannounced by all, of whatever estate, who had any sort of business with him, we catch a clear glimpse of his daily life. In the promiscuous throng of his visitors, the high official who seeks his advice upon some weighty affair of state is elbowed by some anxious questioner who wishes to have his doubts removed, or some repentant sinner who comes to make a secret confession of his offenses, certain that the Saint "would reveal his sins to none but God alone" (Paulinus, Vita, xxxix). He ate but sparingly, dining only on Saturdays and Sundays and festivals of the more celebrated martyrs. His long nocturnal vigils were spent in prayer, in attending to his vast correspondence, and in penning down the thoughts that had occurred to him during the day in his oft- interrupted readings. His indefatigable industry and methodical habits explain how so busy a man found time to compose so many valuable books. Every day, he tells us, he offered up the Holy Sacrifice for his people (pro quibus ego quotidie instauro sacrificium). Every Sunday his eloquent discourses drew immense crowds to the Basilica. One favorite topic of his was the excellence of virginity, and so successful was he in persuading maidens to adopt the religious profession that many a mother refused to permit her daughters to listen to his words. The saint was forced to refute the charge that he was depopulating the empire, by quaintly appealing to the young men as to whether any of them experienced any difficulty in finding wives. He contends, and the experience of ages sustains his contention (De Virg., vii) that the population increases in direct proportion to the esteem in which virginity is held. His sermons, as was to be expected, were intensely practical, replete with pithy rules of conduct which have remained as household words among Christians. In his method of biblical interpretation all the personages of Holy Writ, from Adam down, stand out before the people as living beings, bearing each his distinct message from God for the instruction of the present generation. He did not write his sermons, but spoke them from the abundance of his heart; and from notes taken during their delivery he compiled almost all the treatises of his that are extant.

Ambrose and the Arians

It was but natural that a prelate so high-minded, so affable, so kind to the poor, so completely devoting his great gifts to the service of Christ and of humanity, should soon with the enthusiastic love of his people. Rarely, if ever, has a Christian bishop been so universally popular, in the best sense of that much abused term, as Ambrose of Milan. This popularity, conjoined with his intrepidity, was the secret of his success in routing enthroned iniquity. The heretical Empress Justina and her barbarian advisers would many a time fain have silenced him by exile or assassination, but, like Herod in the case of the Baptist, they "feared the multitude". His heroic struggles against the aggressions of the secular power have immortalized him as the model and forerunner of future Hildebrands, Beckets, and other champions of religious liberty. The elder Valentinian died suddenly in 375, the year following the consecration of Ambrose, leaving his Arian brother Valens to scourge the East, and his oldest son, Gratian, to rule the provinces formerly presided over by Ambrosius, with no provision for the government of Italy. The army seized the reins and proclaimed emperor the son of Valentinian by his second wife, Justina, a boy four years old. Gratian good-naturally acquiesced, and assigned to his half-brother the sovereignty of Italy, Illyricum, and Africa. Justina had prudently concealed her Arian view during the lifetime of her orthodox husband, but now, abetted by a powerful and mainly Gothic faction at court, proclaimed her determination to rear her child in that heresy, and once more attempt to Arianize the West. This of necessity brought her into direct collision with the Bishop of Milan, who had quenched the last embers of Arianism in his diocese. That heresy had never been popular among the common people; it owed its artificial vitality to the intrigues of courtiers and sovereigns. As a preliminary to the impending contest, Ambrose, at the request of Gratian, who was about to lead an army to the relief of Valens, and wished to have at hand an antidote against Oriental sophistry, wrote his noble work, "De Fide ad Gratianum Augustum", afterwards expanded, and extant in five books. The first passage at arms between Ambrose and the Empress was on the occasion of an episcopal election at Sirmium, the capital of Illyricum, and at the time the residence of Justina. Notwithstanding her efforts, Ambrose was successful in securing the election of a Catholic bishop. He followed up this victory by procuring, at the Council of Aquilein, (381), over which he presided, the deposition of the only remaining Arianizing prelates of the West, Palladius and Secundianus, both Illyrians. The battle royal between Ambrose and the Empress, in the years 385,386, has been graphically described by Cardinal Newman in his "Historical Sketches". The question at issue was the surrender of one of the basilicas to the Arians for public worship. Throughout the long struggle Ambrose displayed in an eminent degree all the qualities of a great leader. His intrepidity in the moments of personal danger was equalled only by his admirable moderation; for, at certain critical stages of the drama one word from him would have hurled the Empress and her son from their throne. That word was never spoken. An enduring result of this great struggle with despotism was the rapid development during its course of the ecclesiastical chant, of which Ambrose laid the foundation. Unable to overcome the fortitude of the Bishop and the spirit of the people, the court finally desisted from its efforts. Ere long it was forced to call upon Ambrose to exert himself to save the imperilled throne.

Already he had been sent on an embassy to the court of the usurper, Maximus, who in the year 383 had defeated and slain Gratian, and now ruled in his place. Largely through his efforts an understanding had been reached between Maximus and Theodosius, whom Gratian had appointed to rule the East. It provided that Maximus should content himself with his present possessions and respect the territory of Valentinian II. Three years later Maximus determined to cross the Alps. The tyrant received Ambrose unfavourably and, on the plea, very honourable to the Saint, that he refused to hold communion with the bishops who had compassed the death of Priscillian (the first instance of capital punishment inflicted for heresy by a Christian prince) dismissed him summarily from his court. Shortly after, Maximus invaded Italy. Valentinian and his mother fled to Theodosius, who took up their cause, defeated the usurper, and put him to death. At this time Justina died, and Valentinian, by the advice of Theodosius, abjured Arianism and placed himself under the guidance of Ambrose, to whom he became sincerely attached. It was during the prolonged stay of Theodosius in the West that one of most remarkable episodes in the history of the Church took place; the public penance inflicted by the Bishop and submitted to by the Emperor. The long-received story, set afoot by the distant Theodoret, which extols the Saint's firmness at the expense of his equally pronounced virtues of prudence and meekness - that Ambrose stopped the Emperor at the porch of the church and publicly upbraided and humiliated him - is shown by modern criticism to have been greatly exaggerated. The emergency called into action every episcopal virtue. When the news reached Milan that the seditious Thessalonians had killed the Emperor's officials, Ambrose and the council of bishops, over which he happened to be presiding at the time, made an apparently successful appeal to the clemency of Theodosius. Great was their horror, when, shortly after Theodosius, yielding to the suggestions of Rufinose and other courtiers, ordered an indiscriminate massacre of the citizens, in which seven thousand perished. In order to avoid meeting the blood-stained monarch or offering up the Holy Sacrifice in his presence, and, moreover, to give him time to ponder the enormity of a deed so foreign to his character, the Saint, pleading ill-health, and sensible that he exposed himself to the charge of cowardice, retired to the country, whence he sent a noble letter "written with my own hand, that thou alone mayst read it", exhorting the Emperor to repair his crime by an exemplary penance. With "religious humility", says St. Augustine (DeCiv.Dei.,V,xxvi), Theodosius submitted; "and, being laid hold of by the discipline of the Church, did penance in such a way that the sight of his imperial loftiness prostrated made the people who were interceding for him weep more than the consciousness of offence had made them fear it when enraged". "Stripping himself of every emblem of royalty", says Ambrose in his funeral oration (c. 34), "he publicly in church bewailed his sin. That public penance, which private individuals shrink from, an Emperor was not ashamed to perform; nor was there afterwards a day on which he did not grieve for his mistake." This plain narrative, without theatrical setting, is much more honourable both to the Bishop and his sovereign.

Last Days of Ambrose

The murder of his youthful ward, Valentinian II, which happened in Gaul, May, 393, just as Ambrose was crossing the Alps to baptize him plunged the Saint into deep affliction. His eulogy delivered at Milan is singularly tender; he courageously described him as a martyr baptized in his own blood. The usurper Eugenius was, in fact, a heathen at heart, and openly proclaimed his resolution to restore paganism. He reopened the heathen temples, and ordered the famous altar of Victory, concerning which Ambrose and the prefect Symmachus had maintained a long and determined literary contest, to be again set up in the Roman senate chamber. This triumph of paganism was of short duration. Theodosius in the spring of 391 again lead his legions into the West, and in a brief campaign defeated and slew the tyrant. Roman heathenism perished with him. The Emperor recognized the merits of the great Bishop of Milan by announcing his victory on the evening of the battle and asking him to celebrate a solemn sacrifice of thanksgiving. Theodosius did not long survive his triumph; he died at Milan a few months later (January 395) with Ambrose at his bedside and the name of Ambrose on his lips. "Even while death was dissolving his body", says the Saint, "he was more concerned about the welfare of the churches than about his personal danger". "I loved him, and am confident that the Lord will hearken to the prayer I send up for his pious soul" (In obitu Theodosii, c. 35). Only two years elapsed before a kindly death reunited these two magnanimous souls. No human frame could long endure the incessant activity of an Ambrose. One instance, recorded by his secretary, of his extraordinary capacity for work is significant. He died on Good Friday. The following day five bishops found difficulty in baptizing the crowd to which he had been accustomed to administer the sacrament unaided. When the news spread that he was seriously ill, Count Stilicho, "fearing that his death would involve the destruction of Italy", despatched an embassy, composed of the chief citizens, to implore him to pray God to prolong his days. The response of the Saint made a deep impression on St. Augustine: "I have not so lived amongst you, that I need be ashamed to live; nor do I fear to die, for we have a good Lord". For several hours before his death he lay with extended arms in imitation of his expiring Master, who also appeared to him in person. The Body of Christ was given him by the Bishop of Vercelli, and, "after swallowing It, he peacefully breathed his last". It was the fourth of April, 397. He was interred as he had desired, in his beloved basilica, by the side of the holy martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius, the discovery of whose relics, during his great struggle with Justina, had so consoled him and his faithful adherents. In the year 835 one of his successors, Angilbert II, placed the relics of the three saints in as porphyry sarcophagus under the altar, where they were found in 1864. The works of St. Ambrose were issued first from the press of Froben at Basle, 1527, under the supervision of Erasmus. A more elaborate edition was printed in Rome in the year 1580 and following. Cardinal Montalto was the chief editor until elevation to the papacy as Sixtus V. It is in five volumes and still retains a value owing to the prefixed "Life" of the Saint, composed by Baronius. Then came the excellent Maurist edition published in two volumes at Paris, in 1686 and 1690; reprinted by Migne in four volumes. The career of St. Ambrose occupies a prominent place in all histories, ecclesiastical and secular, of the fourth century. Tillemont's narrative, in the tenth volume of his "Memoirs", is particularly valuable. The question of the genuineness of the so-called eighteen Ambrosian Hymns is of secondary importance. The great merit of the Saint in the field of hymnology is that of laying the foundations and showing posterity what ample scope there existed for future development.

Writings of Saint Ambrose

The special character and value of the writings of St. Ambrose are at once tangible in the title of Doctor of the Church, which from time immemorial he has shared in the West with St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory. He is an official witness to the teaching of the Catholic Church in his own time and in the preceding centuries. As such his writings have been constantly invoked by popes, councils and theologians; even in his own day it was felt that few could voice so clearly the true sense of the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church (St. Augustine, De doctrinâ christ.,IV,46,48,50). Ambrose is pre-eminently the ecclesiastical teacher, setting forth in a sound and edifying way, and with conscientious regularity, the deposit of faith as made known to him. He is not the philosophic scholar meditating in silence and retirement on the truths of the Christian Faith, but the strenuous administrator, bishop, and statesman, whose writings are only the mature expression of his official life and labours. Most of his writings are really homilies, spoken commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, taken down by his hearers, and afterwards reduced to their present form, though very few of these discourses have reached us exactly as they fell from the lips of the great bishop. In Ambrose the native Roman genius shines out with surpassing distinctness; he is clear, sober, practical, and aims always at persuading his hearers to act at once on the principles and arguments he has laid down, which affect nearly every phase of their religious or moral life. "He is a genuine Roman in whom the ethico-practical note is always dominant. He had neither time nor liking for philosophico-dogmatic speculations. In all his writings he follows some practical purpose. Hence he is often content to reproduce what has been already treated, to turn over for another harvest a field already worked. He often draws abundantly from the ideas of some earlier writer, Christian or pagan, but adapts these thoughts with tact and intelligence to the larger public of his time and his people. In formal perfection his writings leave something to be desired; a fact that need not surprise us when we recall the demands on the time of such a busy man. His diction abounds in unconscious reminiscences of classical writers, Greek and Roman. He is especially conversant with the writings of Virgil. His style is in every way peculiar and personal. It is never wanting in a certain dignified reserve; when it appears more carefully studied than is usual with him, its characteristics are energetic brevity and bold originality. Those of his writings that are homiletic in origin and form betray naturally the great oratorical gifts of Ambrose; in them he rises occasionally to a noble height of poetical inspiration. His hymns are a sufficient evidence of the sure mastery that he possessed over the Latin language." (Bardenhewer, Les pères de l'église, Paris, 1898, 736 -737; cf. Pruner, Die Theologie des heil. Ambrosius, Eichstadt, 1864.) For convenience sake his extant writings may be divided into four classes: exegetical, dogmatic, ascetico-moral, and occasional. The exegetical writings, or scripture-commentaries deal with the story of Creation, the Old Testament figures of Cain and Abel, Noe, Abraham and the patriarchs, Elias, Tobias, David and the Psalms, and other subjects. Of his discourses on the New Testament only the lengthy commentary on St. Luke has reached us (Expositio in Lucam). He is not the author of the admirable commentary on the thirteen Epistles of St. Paul known as "Ambrosiaster". Altogether these Scripture commentaries make up more than one half of the writings of Ambrose. He delights in the allegorico-mystical interpretation of Scripture, i.e. while admitting the natural or literal sense he seeks everywhere a deeper mystic meaning that he converts into practical instruction for Christian life. In this, says St. Jerome (Ep.xli) "he was disciple of Origen, but after the modifications in that master's manner due to St. Hippolytus of Rome and St. Basil the Great". He was also influenced in this direction by the Jewish writer Philo to such an extent that the much corrupted text of the latter can often be successfully corrected from the echoes and reminiscences met with in the works of Ambrose. It is to be noted, however, that in his use of non-Christian writers the great Doctor never abandons a strictly Christian attitude (cf. Kellner, Der heilige Ambrosius als Erklärer das Alten Testamentes, Ratisbon, 1893).

The most influential of his ascetico-moral writings is the work on the duties of Christian ecclesiastics (De officiis ministrorum). It is a manual of Christian morality, and in its order and disposition follows closely the homonymous work of Cicero. "Nevertheless", says Dr. Bardenhewer, "the antitheses between the philosophical morality of the pagan and the morality of the Christian ecclesiastic is acute and striking. In his exhortations, particularly, Ambrose betrays an irresistible spiritual power" (cf. R. Thamin, Saint Ambroise et la morale chrétienne at quatrième siècle, Paris, 1895). He wrote several works on virginity, or rather published a number of his discourses on that virtue, the most important of which is the treatise "On Virgins" addressed to his sister Marcellina, herself a virgin consecrated to the divine service. St. Jerome says (Ep. xxii) that he was the most eloquent and exhaustive of all the exponents of virginity, and his judgment expresses yet the opinion of the church. The genuineness of the touching little work "On the Fall of a Consecrated Virgin" (De lapsu virginis consecratæ) has been called in question, but without sufficient reason. Dom Germain Morin maintains that it is a real homily of Ambrose, but like so many more of his so-called "books", owes its actual form to some one of his auditors. His dogmatic writings deal mostly with the divinity of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Ghost, also with the Christian sacraments. At the request of the young Emperor Gratian (375-383) he composed a defence of the true divinity of Jesus Christ against the Arians, and another on the true divinity of the Holy Ghost against the Macedonians; also a work on the Incarnation of Our Lord. His work "On Penance" was written in refutation of the rigoristic tenets of the Novatians and abounds in useful evidences of the power of the Church to forgive sins, the necessity of confession and the meritorious character of good works. A special work on Baptism (De sacramento regenerationis), often quoted by St. Augustine, has perished. We possess yet, however, his excellent treatise (De Mysteriis) on Baptism, Confirmation, and the Blessed Eucharist (P.L. XVI, 417-462), addressed to the newly baptized. Its genuineness has been called in doubt by opponents of Catholic teaching concerning the Eucharist, but without any good reason. It is highly probable that the work on the sacraments (De Sacramentis, ibid.) is identical with the preceding work; only, says Bardenhewer, "indiscreetly published by some hearer of Ambrose". Its evidences to the sacrificial character of the Mass, and to the antiquity of the Roman Canon of the Mass are too well known to need more than a mention; some of them may easily be seen in any edition of the Roman Breviary (cf. Probst, Die Liturgie des vierten Jahrhunderts und deren Reform, Münster, 1893, 232-239). The correspondence of Ambrose includes but a few confidential or personal letters; most of his letters are official notes, memorials on public affairs, reports of councils held, and the like. Their historical value is, however, of the first order, and they exhibit him as a Roman administrator and statesman second to none in Church or State. If his personal letters are unimportant, his remaining discourses are of a very high order. His work on the death (378) of his brother Satyrus (De excessu fratris sui Satyri) contains his funeral sermon on his brother, one of the earliest of Christian panegryics and a model of the consolatory discourses that were henceforth to take the place of the cold and inept declamations of the Stoics. His funeral discourses on Valentinian II (392), and Theodosius the Great (395) are considered models of rhetorical composition; (cf. Villemain, De l'éloquence chrétienne, Paris, ed. 1891); they are also historical documents of much importance. Such, also, are his discourse against the Arian intruder, Auxentius (Contra Auxentium de basilicis tradendis) and his two discourses on the finding of the bodies of the Milanese martyrs Gervasius and Protasius.

Not a few works have been falsely attributed to St. Ambrose; most of them are found in the Benedictine Edition of his writings (reprinted in Migne) and are discussed in the manuals of patrology(e.g. Bardenhewer). Some of his genuine works appear to have been lost, e.g. the already mentioned work on baptism. St. Augustine (Ep. 31, 8) is loud in his praise of a (now lost) work of Ambrose written against those who asserted an intellectual dependency of Jesus Christ on Plato. It is not improbable that he is really the author of the Latin translation and paraphrase of Josephus (De Bello Judaico), known in the Middle Ages as Hegesippus or Egesippus, a distortion of the Greek name of the original author (Iosepos). Mommsen denies (1890) his authorship of the famous Roman law text known as the "Lex Dei, sive Mosaicarum et Romanarum Legum Collatio", an attempt to exhibit the law of Moses as the historical source whence Roman criminal jurisprudence drew its principal dispositions.

Editions of his Writings

The literary history of the editions of his writings is a long one and may be seen in the best lives of Ambrose. Erasmus edited them in four tomes at Basle (1527). A valuable Roman edition was brought out in 1580, in five volumes, the result of many years' labour; it was begun be Sixtus V, while yet the monk Felice Peretti. Prefixed to it is the life of St. Ambrose composed by Baronius for his Ecclesiastical Annals. The excellent Benedictine edition appeared at Paris (1686-90) in two folio volumes; it was twice reprinted at Venice (1748-51, and 1781-82). The latest edition of the writings of St. Ambrose is that of P.A. Ballerini (Milan, 1878) in six folio volumes; it has not rendered superfluous the Benedictine edition of du Frische and Le Nourry. Some writings of Ambrose have appeared in the Vienna series known as the "Corpus Scriptorum Classicorum Latinorum" (Vienna, 1897-1907). There is an English version of selected works of St. Ambrose by H. de Romestin in the tenth volume of the second series of the "Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers" (New York, 1896). A German version of selected writings in two volumes, executed by Fr. X. Schulte, is found in the "Bibliothek der Kirchenväter" (Kempten, 1871-77).


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