Holy Alliance Bishop Ambrose and the Emperor Qratian

In the administrative and military milieu of northern Italy in the fourth century, Aurelius Ambrose (337 or 339-397 C.E.) had held office as an imperial governor in several regions of northern Italy before being acclaimed the new bishop of Milan in 374 C.E. His hagiographer Paulinus, a vir ecclesiasticus, or "deacon," of the church of Milan, recorded the event. He tells us that Ambrose, as governor, had been summoned to Milan at the death of the Arian bishop Auxentius to keep order during the contentious election of a new bishop. Although Ambrose himself was only a catechumen, "under religious instruction," a child in the crowd is said to have shouted "Bishop Ambrose!" as the governor entered the cathedral. According to Paulinus, a throng of voices, Arians and Catholics, quickly took up the chant. His elevation was endorsed immediately, both by the clergy and the emperor Valentinian I. Within a week he was baptized and consecrated as bishop. Ambrose's family was aristocratic, Roman, and Christian: his father, also named Ambrose, was Prefect of Gaul, and in 353 C.E., when the family had returned to Rome from Gaul at his death, Ambrose' sister, Marcellina, was consecrated as a virgin dedicated to God (something very like a modern nun) by Pope Liberius.

When Ambrose became bishop of Milan in 374 C.E., the city was part Arian and part Catholic. In the first years of his episcopacy, he was largely preoccupied with what he considered the Arian problem and intervened in several bishoprics to ensure that Catholic bishops replaced Arians. In order to instruct the emperor Gratian in the orthodox faith and thereby win his allegiance in these doctrinal battles, Ambrose dedicated his anti-Arian work called the De fide (380 C.E.) to him. In this work, the emperor's impending military campaign against the Goths along the Danube in the Illyrian provinces was likened to a crusade against heresy, that is, the religion of the Arian barbarians. The emperor should avoid defeat, Ambrose advised, by championing the Nicene orthodoxy of the west. Subduing the Arian heresy, according to Ambrose, would ensure military victory. This clever (if transparent) analogy and its sophisticated rhetorical treatment made the work appealing to the literate Ausonians at court even as it established the west's political theology for the upcoming council of bishops at Aquileia.

In 380 C.E., Gratian planned to remove his court to Milan from Trier, a move calculated to ease the military hardship of traveling such great distances to the Illyrian front. By March of 381 C.E., now in Milan, he planned to convene a grand council of bishops from the east and the west at Aquileia that summer. Undoubtedly, he hoped to establish an ecclesiastical hierarchy loyal to him as the senior Augustus and to ensure that orthodoxy prevailed. However, his co-Augustus in the east, Theo-dosius, beat him to it. Theodosius convened a meeting of the eastern bishops in Constantinople in May of 381 C.E., in advance of the larger council Gratian had planned for the summer. Gratian must have been embarrassed. Not only had Theodosius undermined his imperial authority as senior Augustus but he had also staked a preemptive claim to the loyalty of those eastern bishops. Gratian's plan to establish the primacy of the west in the realm of theological doctrine had been superseded by Theodosius's council and there was nothing Gratian could do to reassert his authority.

Ambrose's immediate reaction—to proceed with the council but to include only the western bishops—had effective political outcomes. He convincingly advocated Nicene orthodoxy, he restored credibility to Gra-tian's senior status, and he acquired political clout. After the meeting in Aquileia, in a letter to Theodosius (Letter 14), Ambrose rewrote the sequence of events to his own advantage. He thanked Theodosius for convening the eastern bishops to address the unrest in the east and he made it plain that there was no similar unrest in the west where the true champions of orthodoxy—Ambrose and Gratian—already had defeated the Arian heretics. For his diplomatic victory in this imperial struggle between the two emperors, Ambrose had won the gratitude of Gratian. For his part, Gratian was clever enough to recognize the advantage of relocating his court from Trier to Milan. In Ambrose, he had found a politically astute, cultured, and resourceful ally.

Ambrose dominated the court at Milan. Rhetorician, diplomat, and bishop, he was the consummate Roman Christian patrician, a politician at the center of imperial court society. In one stroke, he had trumped Theodosius in the affair with the bishops and reclaimed the preeminence of the western court. Gratian was under his sway. Whether he feigned a new and more orthodox Catholicism or whether he was genuinely converted, Gratian's new and more severe policies against heretics and anti-Catholics (to the benefit of the imperial treasury) signalized his final years as emperor.

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