Friday, January 28, 2011

Thessaloniki II

            I have only been here a couple of days, so it might seem odd that Thessaloniki would get two entries, but I left a lot unsaid that needs to be addressed.  I wonder what the city looked like when Theodosius brought his family here?  It had been an imperial residence for 50 years or so, so much of the necessary building had been done for him.  Yesterday I stood in the imperial palace (free entrance, and I was the only visitor...the caretaker had to leave his warm little kiosk to check on me, wondering, I suppose, why I was taking so long on such a cold windy day to poke around).  It was something to be in the place that he lived, that is all.

            Besides the round audience hall and the baths and the peculiar courtyard and the basilica that he converted into, well, a basilica, and the cisterns, there was a massive race track that ran along one side of the complex.  It shared one wall with the basilica and the other with the city walls.  This is uncanny, in a way: the same lay out is found in the imperial palace in Milan.  I suppose it makes sense, even in Rome the great Circus Maximus sits just below the brow of the Palatine (hence 'palace') Hill.  The point is that the emperor was expected to be seen by the public at the races.

            Romans took their races as seriously as we do the Super Bowl (has that happened yet?)  and the emperor was expected to exhibit his down-home demeanor by getting as into it as everyone else.  The great stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius once nearly caused a riot because he was seen to be working on matters of state while in the imperial box.  I guess they thought he was being elitist.  Have we always mistrusted smart leaders?

            According to a little book I bought today at the nicely done archaeological museum, the people of Thessaloniki never did take to Theodosius.  I doubt there is any evidence for this, to be honest, but it might make sense.  As I mentioned in the last post, Theodosius had had to make some very difficult choices and had enlisted a great number of barely integrated barbarian Goths into the army.  Moreover, it had been a long trend that governors would be taken, not from the traditional Senate class, but from among the best of the rising new men from the ranks...this had been going on for 100 years, so the fact that Theodosius employed such men as Arbogastes, Stilico, and Richomer doesn't mean that they were barbarians...these were Romanized tribals from the Franks, Saxons, and Roman as folks like General Patraeus are Americans.

            But perhaps there was an anti-barbarian undertone to the crowds.  After Hadrianopolis, this would have been understandable.  Anyway, to the point...
Theodosius had moved to Constantinople after his self-imposed internship at Thessaloniki.  He had stabilized the East and was beginning to pay more and more attention to the goings on in the West.  In fact, he was on his way to Milan when he received word of a crisis in Thessaloniki that demanded an immediate response.

            The city's favorite athlete had been arrested by the governor of the province (apparently for having pursued the same girl who was the object of the governor's desire).  This was just before the great race was to be run and the city went crazy...they stormed the prison, liberated their hero, and managed to exact vigilante justice on the governor...they killed him. 

            Governors, like Ambrose in Milan, knew themselves to be in very precarious positions.  They were to keep the peace, but they never had access to the forces necessary to ensure it.  There were assorted constabularies at their disposal, but no trained "national guard" so to speak.  When a riot broke out (euphemistically, and chillingly, this was called a "situation that called for arrows") their options were not good.   We know that various stratagems were employed, including one governor using his own children as a human shield, another simply ran.  Only one that I know of actually used violence: when a riot broke out over food in Rome the Prefect of the Annonea plunged into the crowds with a few guards, picked out the ring leaders, and hung them on the worked.  Did Ambrose, when he was governor, ever use violence?  His great critic these days, one Neil McLynn, shrugs in saying that he must have: it was part of his job, but the evidence suggests otherwise...virtually no other governor did, and he was disinclined to it by his own convictions.  Anyway, if he had, surely one of his many critics would have brought it up (it was, in fact, a disqualifier for religious orders).

            Back to Thessaloniki.  The crowds won the day, but Theodosius was livid.  Without stopping to think he issued an order to the local army (Thessaloniki, like Milan, seems to have had a standing army presence because of its Imperial status, this was not the case in Antioch, say).  They were to round up those responsible and execute them.

            A few days later he realized he had over reacted and issued a retraction, but it was too late.  The Gothic army deemed as many as 7000 people to be "responsible" and killed them.  Tradition has it that they were taken to the circus next to the imperial residence to execute the order (some historians think this logistically improbable, but we know that the circus of Rome was used for capital punishment...there is no documented evidence that Christians were killed in the coliseum, but there is for the Circus).

            I forgot to mention something critical here.  While in residence at Thessaloniki, Theodosius had gotten gravely ill and thought he was going to die, so he was baptized--by a Nicaean.  With this slaughter on his hands he may well have considered that he had put his eternal salvation at was common to believe that sins committed after baptism could not be forgiven, which is why so many delayed baptism till their death beds, as had Constantine and, he thought, Theodosius himself.

            Word got round fast that the man responsible for the safety of his people had executed thousands of citizens without a trial.  Word reached Ambrose in Milan even as Theodosius himself was approaching the city.  What to do?  Ambrose sent a discrete and appropriately obsequious letter that laid out his plan: Ambrose would absent himself from the city so as not to have to insult the emperor by not greeting him and, more importantly, refusing him the Eucharist.  This would give the emperor time to consider his options and consider an act of public penance.  If he agreed, they could meet in private and work through this terrible offense.

            And that, simply, is what happened.  Theodosius entered the church after a period (till Christmas? till Easter?) of quite public penance where he had to sit with the other repentant sinners in simple garb on Sundays and not receive the sacrament.  He was barefoot and without any imperial trappings.  He entered the church and knelt down before the altar (NOT before Ambrose, as the 17th century Catholic counter-reformation artists have recorded it).  Ambrose met him, raised him, embraced him, and the people of the city were ecstatic: the crisis was over, the emperor was redeemed and, through him, the empire itself forgiven.

            It is time to end this blog, but we should consider how important the idea of forgiveness is to us.  I remember once saying to my students that the best thing the Church as given humanity is the idea that they can be forgiven.  This comment was met with the most exquisite silence of appreciation and acknowledgment.  We know this.  Ambrose himself writes about his own need for forgiveness very often.  He wrote beautifully--I think it is his best theological work, personally--against those heretics who insisted that there could be no forgiveness after baptism.  Theodosius?  I believe that he knew his sin and desperately believed that he was damned.  He embraced the Church's offer of forgiveness the way you would water in a desert.  Furthermore, I believe that Ambrose was a genuine saint in all of this:  he must have considered that his actions might well have resulted in his death (this guy had, after all, just killed thousands); he loved the man in the emperor enough to offer him a way out; he worked with him as a spiritual director throughout this period.  I believe that they were bonded to one another through this crisis.  I imagine both of them weeping at the final reconciliation...between God and emperor, ruler and his people, bishop and king...and, I want to think, for those sad victims of omnipotent despotism.  I wish I could say that such episodes are only historical, even as I marvel that the forgiveness of sin is as yearned for today as it ever was.  To Ambrose we owe some debt: he fought against the ultimate intolerance which refuses to forgive.

            Today, outside the great round building intended as Galerius' tomb, I saw a carefully stacked set of tomb coverings.  They struck me because they were from the graves of Jews.  Since St. Paul (a Jew, remember) visited the agora 2000 years ago, Thessaloniki has enjoyed the reputation of religious tolerance.  When Jews were expelled from re-Christianized Spain they came here.  Jews have come here for centuries knowing they were accepted.  When under Ottoman control, Thessaloniki was home to more Jews than either Christians or Muslims.  The city has been called the "Mother of Israel" since it nurtured so many for so long.  It was only with the Nazi occupation during WWII that ended that extraordinary beacon of religious harmony.  Over 90% of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki was sent to the death camps.  Today only a few hundred remain, along with a very few Muslims.  After WWII Greece won this region back from the Turks who then expelled Greek Christians from Turkey...they came here.

            The city is strewn with beautiful Greek Cross churches, but I found no mosques and no synagogues (though I am sure there are both).  Yesterday I entered the church of Thessaloniki's great martyr Saint Demetrius.  I stood in the entry, feeling as awkward in an Orthodox Church as if I had been in a mosque.  A woman had entered in front of me and had immediately set to kissing the feet of the iconic images of George, John, Jesus, and a couple of others.  She turned to frown at me and said, in Greek, "Aren't you a Christian?!"  I nodded that I was.  She nearly spat out the words that I did not need to translate to understand.  She was saying, "then why don't you act like one."  I have not entered another church since.

Thessaloniki I

            Thessaloniki.  Don't worry that you don't recognize that spelling, apparently there is very little agreement on what to call this city, let alone how to spell it.  That is what happens, I suppose, when your town dates back to the time of Alexander the Great--the city is named for his half sister, the wife of one of his generals, who founded the city.  Ambrose, as far as I know, never visited here or anywhere in the Greek speaking empire, for that matter.  So why am I here?

           Theodosius, in a word.  Of all the emperors that Ambrose dealt with (5, in all, presuming that he dealt exclusively with Valentinian II and never with his ill fated brother Valens) Ambrose was closest to Theodosius.  At the oration he delivered for the emperor's funeral he spontaneously revealed that, despite their famous conflicts, "I loved this man."  I do believe that the two had grown an astonishing bond, not despite, but because of what happened here one awful day, at the hippodrome.

            I came here myself on the same day that our group of Ambrose Alumni headed back to the states.  They had had a vigorous 10 day experience of Ambrose's Italy--one participant who had a pedometer clocked us in at an average of 11 miles a day, including 2 half-marathons.  But heck, there was a lot to see in 10 days!  I confess that I simultaneously miss them and the students who preceded them--at 10 miles a day for almost 3 weeks themselves--while at the same time I have enjoyed a bit of a rest myself.  Thessaloniki, as it turns out, is a fairly small Roman city.  My hotel sits a few blocks from the Western walls build by Theodosius, and the imperial palace that he occupied for the first 3 years of his reign leans into the Eastern walls.  It is a 20 minute walk from one to the other, esp. on a day blown by winds coming off the not particularly wine-dark sea of the Aegean.

            Though it was an important city in Greek speaking Thessaly, Thessaloniki came to one of its many high points (which, note, implies as many low points!) under the late Roman Empire.  Diocletian had constructed a system of government that included two emperors, each with a 'caesar' as an assistant.  Though this did NOT mean a geographical division between east and west, it did mean that there was imperial presence in both the east and the west at the same time, if that makes sense.  Galerius was selected first as caesar and then as emperor with residence in the East and he claimed this city as his base.  So he built an imperial residence, a circus/hippodrome (race track), a triumphal arch for himself, and a mausoleum that he never had the chance to use (he had the good sense to die just before having to take on the inexorable Constantine).  All three used to line up in a row, and all are still evident--the mausoleum, indeed, is intact and looks a great deal like that of Constantia, the daughter of Constantine, in Rome, though larger.  It survived, as most   pagans Rome did, by being converted into a church (and later, a mosque).  It was, of course, closed up tight when I went to visit it.

            But the agora (Latin would call it a forum) was open and free.  So was the Imperial palace.  The arch is mostly gone, but there are a few great marble bas reliefs that show elephants and camels as part of the scene of Persia's humiliation at the hands of Galerius.  Though hard to see in the remnants, the arch was deep and had "sides" that were themselves of these is all that remains, inadvertently changing the important-to-understand axis of the original structure).

            It is a bit weird being here alone after having had a large troop with me for the past month.  It is also a good reminder of what it is like to not speak the language (my rudimentary koine Greek--that used in the New Testament--does little more than allow me to transliterate the signs: I certainly can't speak to anyone, and if I did they might look at me oddly if I offered them "Grace and Peace from our Lord Jesus Christ!" in imitation of St. Paul, who visited the place).  The city is the 2nd largest in Greece.  As part of the Ottoman Empire it was "First After the First" city--Istanbul.  But it has suffered and if I needed any evidence of the inequities exposed by Greece's debt crisis I couldn't have gotten any better than to see vast McPalaces in the country with pools and fences and well lit compounds and the city itself with uncollected garbage, wild dogs scrounging for survival, unemployed men clustered in wind-whipped public places, closed up shops, crumbling or unfinished buildings everywhere, graffiti of all sorts even across shop windows, and shacks leaning against Theodosius' walls.  In honesty, this feels more like an African failed state than a member of the European Community.

            But because of imperial patronage, the Thessaloniki of Theodosius was in boom mode, with new construction going on all around--including the walls that he had the foresight to order as soon as he'd become emperor.  Not that it took a great deal of prescience, mind you.  Theodosius' father had been a very successful general under Valentinian I, who ruled from Trier in Germany--Ambrose's father must have been an important member of that court.  He had put down a serious triple revolt in Brittania and was shipped off to do the same thing in western North Africa.  The son and future emperor seems to have been held back as a sort of hostage, though he was allowed to serve in the legions along the Danube.

            Something happened that may have made Valentinian want to kill Theodosius...there had been a surprise raid and Romans fled, Theodosius was blamed.  His father may have taken his life into his own hands by stepping up to the emperor to defend his son.  We know that Valentinian was famously and toxically hot tempered (he would die of apoplexy while yelling at German chieftains) and he may have been looking for an excuse to rid himself of a too-successful general: he had Theodosius the elder killed (it is very confusing, but the evidence seems to have been a magic spell that was cast to ask the name of the next emperor, this Ouija board instrument had begun to spell out t-h-e-o-d...).  In any case the father was killed and the son was exiled back to Spain, from which the clan had originated.

            Incidentally, we don't know what happened to Ambrose's father but it seems plausible that he too was a victim of Valentinian's temper.  He died and the family was allowed to return to their Rome.  Ambrose was just an infant.  It is a curious parallel between the two future great men, if true.

            But then there was a crisis of unprecedented effect.  I strongly encourage you to read the account by Ammianus, which reads like a Hollywood script for the sequel to Gladiator.  Tribes of Goths wanted to cross the Danube, being pursued by Huns.  Valens, Emperor of the East and brother of Valentinian I, ordered them to be admitted, but corrupt local officials who demanded fees, refused to supply food or sanitary camps for the refugees, and forgot to disarm them, were finally overrun.  Local Roman troops were of Gothic blood and they understandably sided with their kin.  Valens had to abort an invasion of Persia to deal with this uprising, but he wouldn't wait for help.

            Valentinian I had died already, leaving his teen aged son Gratian as emperor of the West.  This one appealed to his uncle to wait for help, but was ignored.  The result was the 2nd worst defeat of a Roman army in its 1000 year history.  Valens was killed near the city of Hadiranopolis and the entire East was exposed to thousands of well armed (and Arian, by the way) Goths.  In desperation, Gratian recalled the son of the great general and asked him to take over the eastern part of the empire.                                                 
            Theodosius...what would have been his reaction?  He was asked to work for the son of the man that killed his father and very well might have been intending to kill him.  He was asked to take control of a vast region that was overrun by barbarian hoards who could act with near impunity (they could not, it turns out, attack walled cities, not having the experience, technology, or tools) and without a tax base: all the farms were either destroyed or controlled by the enemy.

            He accepted.  He moved to Thessaloniki.  Constantinople was just a few kilometers from the site of the defeat outside of Hadrianopolis and so unsafe.  He spent 3 years at the palace here bargaining--he had no army with which to threaten, only the impetus of 1000 years of Roman power--bribery, setting one chief against another, and finally--when he had the resources at hand--ruthlessly striking at pockets of resistance.  The results, it must be admitted, are mixed.

            On the one hand, he restored the East to Rome.  But he had to make some awful concessions.  Rome typically accepted foreigners into the legions, but their process was carefully thought out: remove them from their tribes and their language group and the lands nearest their family settlements.  The result was the Romanification of the barbarian.  But Theodosius had no such luxury.  He admitted whole tribes to the legions, under the leadership of their chieftains, near the lands granted their families as homesteads.  Did they learn to be Romans?  Did they even learn Latin?  Did they fight for Rome or for their farms?  Did they obey the emperor of their chief?  Theodosius knew what he was doing; he just didn't have any other choice.  Some say that the Battle of Hadrianopolis marks the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.

            But that is another example of the historian's sin of hindsight.  First of all, this all happened in the East, not the West.  Secondly, while flawed and the source of future troubles, Theodosius' solution was the best he could have achieved. As I walk around the walls and through the great audience hall and even through the private baths and bathrooms of the imperial palace, I feel close to this man.  He had not yet met Ambrose in person, though he would soon.  He was employing the tricks he'd learned from his clever and solution-minded father.  He had brought his family (a wife and 2 sons) to this city wedged between the forested hill country of the north (now a national forest) and the sea.  It was a beautiful place and about the size of Trier (I think: I'll let you know once I visit there) and of the other major cities of the Roman frontier.  I wonder if he spoke Greek or was as mystified as am I by the language that sounds uncannily like Italian in some ways.  He was a Spaniard who spoke Latin, but the official language of the empire--East and West--was Latin.  He could have gotten along quite well in the circles in which he worked daily without ever having to learn Greek. 

            Indeed, after finger pointing and smiling, English is a decent back up strategy today.  If anyone knows any other language, it will be English.  Latin was (somewhat ironically) the Lingua Franca of the whole ancient world.  Even after the demise of the empire in the West, Latin would remain the official language of the Eastern/Byzantine court for centuries.   Tonight I was out looking for a restaurant.  I'd gone to a place recommended by the hotel concierge last night and it was great: I’d never have known it was a restaurant if I'd not been told.  It was decorated in newspaper accounts from the great fire of 1917 that destroyed most of the ancient city center, musical instruments like bag pipes and drums that were clearly made out of animal guts, and a pelt of some feline that I am sure is endangered, while mid-eastern music was played quite loudly over the TV. news.  I was the only person in the place that didn't look like I lived in it.  The young man who was called upon to help me (it being evident that St. Paul's Greek was never used to order food) used the word "fish."  I seized on that and received a huge heap of 3" fish, fried and spiced up nicely.  Along with potatoes (the Greek is "potato") and a funky local wine it was a great meal.  It was done with English, not Greek.

            Tonight, being the first time I considered eating since then, I refused to eat at the same place--pride, I suppose, inspired by a dear friend who is my model for taking risks in foreign places--I wondered all over the city in the dark and did not feel particularly safe, I might say: lights are dim or not on at all and I didn't relish sharing dark streets with the few people who were out.  I ended up in a fast-food gyro shop (by the way, it is pronounced G, as in great, erho, not as  we are taught in America "hero" or "ghero."  Just as the Italian word Bruschetta is pronounced "brusketa" in Italian and NOT as young waitresses in America are fond of correcting me "brushetta.").  My Gyro was phenomenal and if I hadn't been the only one in the shop and worried that I was keeping the owner busy waiting for me, I'd have ordered another.  He wasn't too bothered, by the way, as he was watching with amusement what seemed to be the Greek version of the old black and white Honeymooner's show.  He was very nice and when I thanked him--in English--he said "me too."  My point?  English is the new Latin.  The US is the new Rome...we should ponder what that means, for better or worse.  All civilizations seem to experience the highs and lows of Thessaloniki, but this is not an inevitable biological cycle.  We can and ought to learn from the past.  There is more to say about Ambrose, Theodosius, and Thessaloniki, but for tonight, this seems like an important enough place to end.  Besides, the nice Greek wine I got from the local store is finished.  Some things never change.


            Of course there is far too much to say about Ambrose's Milan than is reasonable for this format.  He lived here from the time he was appointed provincial governor until his death as the most celebrated of the many great bishops of this city.  We can begin the same way I do with the students and now I can say also with the Alumni, since the students are all safely home and the alumni safely arrived in the home of the man that binds one group to the other.  Whenever we get to a new city I let the folks take just a few minutes to get into their rooms and we hit the streets.  My goal is to give them a feeling for the place, even if my meanderings are far too random for them to get much of a geographical orientation.  Let me see if I can walk you through Ambrose's Milan (with help from the insights and research of a friend and colleague (thanks Ethan!).

            Today's Milan sprawls across the Po River Valley for miles upon miles.  From the air one can discern a series of concentric rings around the city "centro."  The widest ring  is marked with a number of gates-cum-triumphal arches, all that is left of the Medieval walls.  A number of churches that Ambrose will have built lay near these gates.  Inside that ring is a much smaller and less architecturally defined circle that would have demarked the Roman city.  It is remarkably compact.

            Of course the forum would have marked the center of the city, but already by Ambrose's time that center had shifted slightly but significantly from the forum...which lies under the Bibloteca the piazza of the Duomo, under which sleeps the remains of 2 churches, a baptistery, an episcopal residence complex, and a few other assorted church buildings.  So, considering the Duomo as the center of a clock, we can put the Imperial residence at about 8:00.  It was a massive complex of buildings that included a race track with a grandstand.  The walls of the city incorporated the exterior walls and tower of that circus.  Beyond the home of the emperors, and so outside the wall, was the church already known as the Ambrosiana before Ambrose even died.  He is the first bishop, by the way, to be buried beneath the altar of a church.  Moving even further out in the same direction is the imperial mausoleum.  It had a hexagonal wall around a pre-existing cemetery and a hexagonal mausoleum proper within it.  It is under St. Victor's, and admission is free when it is open, which isn't often.  It, and a number of other important archaeological sites, is managed by a fantastic volunteer corps.

            At about 6:00 and again just outside the Roman walls, is St. Lawrence's.  Many scholars think that this is the famous "portiana" church which the Empress Justina demanded from Ambrose for her use--Ambrose denied her because she was, in his words, an "Arian" (meaning simply that she did not accept the Niceaen Creed).  I'll tell this great story later, and not nearly so well as does Mons. Cesare Pasini in his great biography of Ambrose.  Still at 6:00 and a bit further out is the ancient church and cemetery complex of St. Eustorgio.  Both these buildings are, on the exterior, great piles of red brick and white marble slabs in the unmistakable "Lombardian" style of IV and V century churches.  Lawrence, on the inside, is a hexagon and just simply perfect.  The hexagon, you'll note, is used for mausoleums and baptisteries...ponder that coincidence.

            Between 6 and 8 and always outside the wall, was a good sized amphitheater. Bits of it were re-used in the foundations of a chapel affixed to S. Lawrence (which causes many scholars to doubt that it could be the Portiana--would the amphitheater have been dismantled for use by Christians already in the IV century?  Rome's great amphitheater will be used for public games for almost 200 more years, despite criticism from many Christians). 

            At about 2:00, and inside the walls this time, was the great Baths of Hercules.  Across town, at 9:00, was the theatre and some massive ware houses.  The town was home to great houses and cheap apartments: the wealthy and the poor living "cheek by jowl" as my mother would say.  Though geographically small by our standards, it was one of the Empire's great cities, thanks to the fact that the emperors often lived here...Rome hadn't been the permanent residence of an emperor for almost 100 years and anyway, emperors needed to be near the frontier, which benefited cities like Trier in Germany, Aquaelea in Italy, Sirmium in Bosnia, Thessaloniki in Greece, and of course Milan.

            Other churches ring ancient Milan along the major roads out of the city.  Ambrose was rather currishly accused of besieging the city with basilicas and martyrs.  S. Nazaro at 4:00, along the famous Via Romana--lined with an impressive portico and capped with a triumphal arch (now all gone), S. Simplician at a11:00...and others (I am going from memory here, as I sent my maps back with the students.

            Much of what happened in the Milan of Ambrose's day revolved around these churches.  The bishop of Milan, Auxentius, had been in that See for well over 20 years and managed to keep the various factions quiet, even if not pacified.  He was called an Arian, but was rather simply one of those theologians who found the language of Nicea unsatisfactory.  Let's back up a ways to sort out this. 

            Constantine had one of his key battles against his enemies under the patronage of his mother's God--Christ.  Therefore, when he did finally emerge as the emperor, he extended his affiliation with Christianity in dramatic ways.  He legalized it (Diocletian, who had been the emperor just prior to the civil wars that preceded Constantine's rise, had been a fierce persecutor, so the shift in fortunes was rather shocking), he extended certain rights and privileges to bishops, such as using the imperial post and hearing civil court cases, and he sought to end the in-fighting among Christians concerning the definition of their faith.  He seems not to have been too awfully impressed with any particular theological solutions; he just wanted a church that wasn't killing itself.  By the way, more Christians were killed by fellow Christians over these disputes than were killed by any pagan pogroms.  That gives one pause, doesn't it.

            The problem was that Christians couldn't agree on certain fundamental theological questions: how can we believe in a Trinity while remaining monotheists?  Was Jesus a man?  A man who became a god?  A god who took over a man?  Part man and part god?  As God, is he equal to or subordinate to God the Father?  Arius, a priest from Antioch, argued that there was a time when Christ was not, therefore, while he is Divine, he is subordinate to the Father.  Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, scripted what will become the Nicean Creed which insisted--using the language of Greek philosophy as being more precise that the admittedly contradictory language of the New Testament--that Christ and the Father are co-eternal and of the same substance.  Constantine accepted this, and it was ratified at a council he called in Nicea (near Istanbul), but it left an awful lot of people dissatisfied, and the strife continued. 

            Constantine, by the way, was probably baptized, and probably by a Niceaen priest, but some scholars suggest otherwise: perhaps he never was baptized, and there is some evidence that if he was, it was by an Arian priest.  Carved into the base of the obelisk of Ramses II outside John Lateran in Rome is the assertion that he was baptized in Rome by the bishop of Rome.  This is, of course, an assertion, not proof.  At the same time I should say that I, for one, have no doubt that Constantine was a Christian by conviction and not, as some historians would assert, by convenience.  For one thing, there would have been little obvious gain in joining a persecuted minority, for another thing, he had--or at least believed he had--a vision or a dream that changed his fortunes, and he identified that with Christ.  His faith might seem a bit shallow from our point of view, but that is anachronism: it fit the standard logic of his age, which is to say that he put his confidence in the Christian God and that worked out for him, so he stayed with it...hmmm all of a sudden, putting it like that, his faith seems no more shallow than that of many today.

            Ambrose, of course, expected more of himself and of others who called themselves Christian.  When the empress Justina demanded a church in the name of her son, the child-emperor Valentinian II, Ambrose flat out denied her and used all his skill as a well trained Roman lawyer to combat her in the law and his talent for oratory to challenge her in the court of public opinion.  It was a stunningly bold and exceedingly dangerous thing to do: bishops had lost their freedom and their lives for a lot less at the hands of "Christian" emperors (it should be noted that emperors were still entitled as "Pontifex Maximus," that is, High Priest of the Cult of Rome, so they had absolutely no compunction in interfering with Church affairs--why should they?)  Ambrose refused and there was a military standoff that lasted a whole week--Holy Week, as it happened.  Ambrose was surrounded by troops in one church; Nicean Christians were also occupying the contested church some distance away.  Messages ran back and forth, and it looked like it could come to violence, esp. when some children playing (they would have been bored in Church, of course) pulled down the Imperial banners that had been set in place in anticipation of the Emperor's attendance.  This was treason, plain and simple.  But still Ambrose persisted and in the end, Justina blinked...she packed up the court and used Constantine's old portable chapel to celebrate Easter mass while en route to Aqueleia...another imperial city near modern day Trieste.

            I am not doing justice to this drama that played itself out in daily and even hourly drama--Tom Brockaw himself would have been announcing live for the whole of that week, unshaven and tie was that riveting.

            One point to end with.  By then Ambrose had already claimed Milan for the Church and used all the talents he had spent a life time developing to hold it.  He had no idea that he would succeed and would rather have been inclined to think he would end up in exile--if he were lucky.  His tenacity was of conviction, not confidence; he was committed to the truth, not convinced he would prevail.  Certain modern historians who try to use this episode as an example of Ambrose's power grabbing simply miss the whole point.  Unfortunately, in the English language, most historians have rather uncritically accepted that (dare I say silly) interpretation.  This has to be addressed.