Friday, January 28, 2011


            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.

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