Was the Catholic Church simply a new way for the Romans to rule their empire? The traditional conquest model didn’t work any more, so was this another way to keep control in the same hands? It is a thought that has occurred to more than one person over the centuries. If you were looking for evidence to support the idea you’d be off to a good start with the career of St Ambrose. His father was the governor of a large province in Gaul. Ambrose was educated in Rome with the intention of following in his father’s foot steps. And he started off doing exactly that, being the governor of a region including Milan. Rome was still the nominal capital, but Milan was where the emperors lived and so that was where the real power was.
His position both socially and geographically put Ambrose close to the centre of imperial power. He knew Valentinian, the emperor, and he got on particularly well with his son Gratian. In 374 the bishop of Milan, an Arian called Auxentius, died. Auxentius had been parachuted into Milan by political chicanery, and had spent his time promoting the cause of Arianism in the West. He was quite good at it, in a low cunning sort of a way. He managed to get a council of the western churches at Rimini to nominally come out in support of Arianism – though it was done with such subtlety that many of the clergy took a while to realise what had happened. I suppose God knew.
But playing politics and pulling stunts didn’t alter the fact that the majority of the punters in the pews were orthodox Catholics. They were becoming increasingly cheesed off with the heretics running the show. It was important for any number of reasons to get a bishop who could calm things down. Valentinian, an emperor who favoured straight forward solutions, turned to the secular, unbaptised Ambrose. He was a safe pair of hands and his competence, intelligence and energy made him a popular choice. There is a story that the congregation in the cathedral spontaneously started calling his name indicating their preference for him. He then went and hid to try and avoid the summons. This sounds like a post event justification, but nonetheless the people were obviously happy to get finally get someone in authority who reflected their views.
He was a man who knew what he wanted and was prepared to go to great lengths to obtain it. But he doesn’t seem to have wanted money. He gave away his ample personal wealth. And he was fairly relaxed about the monetary assets of the church as well. He happily handed over ecclesiastical treasures to ransom individuals if the occasion required it. But he was adamant about the power of the church and uncompromising in his battles with Arianism and Paganism. And he was more than happy to stir up the mob or oppose the emperor when it suited his purposes. And as we shall see, he was far from scrupulous about the means he used to achieve his ends.
As it turned out, Ambrose had taken over just before a series of tumults would rock the Roman world. First of these was the death of Valentinian. This looked like good news for Ambrose because his protegé Gratian was now in charge in the West beyond the Alps. In Italy itself things weren’t quite as much to Ambrose’s likeing. Gratian’s half brother Valentinan II was appointed as the emperor. This arrangement had been proposed by some army generals in Italy, and had basically been conceded because being generals they had the troops to enforce it. Valentinian was still a child so the shots were called by his mother Justina. Mother and son were both Arians.
This was a problem, but Ambrose was strong minded and resourceful. And he had already taken control in Milan itself making the rites in all the churches strictly orthodox. This set up a conflict. Justina requested a couple of churches be set aside for the Arian minority. Given that the emperor himself was an Arian you would have thought this was the least they could do. It certainly didn’t seem an unreasonable request. But that wasn’t how Ambrose saw it. As far as he was concerned the church decided on dogma, and any deviation was heretical no matter who was doing the deviating.
Matters came to a head in 385 when Justina was insisting on having somewhere to worship in time for Easter. Ambrose was having none of it, and eloquently rebuffed the suggestion, saying basically that the empress would only have her way over his dead body. This was Rome so this was not necessarily a metaphor. But although he claimed that he would not resist the will of the authorities, portraying himself as someone who simply could not disobey the dictates of Heaven, he actually played every card in his hand to resist the spread of Arianism.
He stirred up the people against the Arians in inflammatory tirades from the pulpit. It was soon unsafe or Arian clergy to walk the streets. He also carried out a most extraordinary stunt. In a dream he was informed of the whereabouts of two martyrs from several hundred years before. He had the location dug, and the bodies were duly found, with their heads cut off. Being saints, their bodies were undecayed and still flowed with blood that was able to perform miracles. The whole affair was a very public one. Ambrose obviously stage managed the whole business for maximum impact. One of the witnesses was a youthful Saint Augustine who later added an account to his Confessions. Gibbon is not impressed, and I don’t suppose many modern readers will be either.
Milan was a big city, so I suppose it was possible that Ambrose came by the two corpses he needed for this scam without resorting to murder. The burying of bodies was after all one of the church’s functions. I can’t help wondering though. It would have been necessary to find a pair of suitable individuals who were both dead and who didn’t have anyone in particular talking an interest in them. But it is simply the mendacity of the project that really turns the stomach. Ambrose was deceiving his own supporters as well as his enemies. And this was not some isolated bad apple. Ambrose is an acknowledged key figure in the development of the church. He is a saint. He is one of only four doctors of the church. And it hardly reflects well on another key figure in church history, St Augustine, that he was either deceived by this charade or was possibly even complicit in it.
But it cemented Ambrose as the favourite of the local faithful and gave him the authority he needed to frustrate Justina’s plans. Even deploying troops, Arian supporting Goths, couldn’t persuade the locals to allow one of their churches to be used by the wrong sort of Christian. But to be fair to Ambrose, once you stop judging him as a holy man and weigh him up as a politician has was masterful. When Gratian was overpowered by Maximus, Ambrose visited his court and persuaded him to respect the borders of Italy. This was a significant achievement, though in the event a short lived one. A few years later the threatened invasion happened, and this time Ambrose’s mission failed to save the day.
Ambrose stayed on in Milan as Maximus moved into the city, while Justina and her son fled to the safety of the east. He used his influence to make the best of the situation for his flock – this is when he liquidated some of the church’s portable wealth to ransom citizens taken prisoner.
It is easy to despise someone like Ambrose. He was ruthless, partisan and and deceitful. But he wasn’t without principles. albeit they are hardly ones that anyone would support today. His actions were devoted to building up the power and prestige of the church rather than to feathering his own nest. In the uncertain times in which he lived it his talents were useful and gave him a big role on the political stage. He didn’t make his own life easy and was willing to take on the big men of his time, at some risk to himself. So he was a bit more than simply a cynical operator. He deserves his accolades as a builder of the church. But if I were a Christian at the time, the question I would be asking myself is what kind of church is someone like Ambrose going to build? 1600 years later we know the answer. You can make your own mind up.
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