This is not the place where Ambrose was born, nor was it where he of Rome or the theology of the Church. We are not sure when he arrived or how many years he stayed. In fact, we don't know much at all about that period of his life (though Doctor Chiara Somezi, a researcher at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, has been researching this period with exciting results and with more to come). We are sure that these early years were formative, because we know that those same years are formative for us all. Rome was where Ambrose grew up, was educated, and first entered the public scene.
The first night, to keep the students awake in a battle with jet-lag, we took a long 'giro'--a "spin" through the Campus Martius--that part of the city that stood outside the old Severian Walls built hundreds of years before Christ and still extant in remarkable bits and stretches, such as under and alongside Stazione Termini, jutting out of the Aventine hill, spanning a road near Piazza Cavour, and stuck in the middle of a large traffic circle near the Markest of Trajan. The 'campus' (field or meadow in Latin) was here. The Republican Roman men and boys trained for the wars that would give them an empire and swell the urban population to over 1.2 million people--the largest city in the Western World and a feat not to be repeated until Victorian London.
It is a great walk through narrow streets, delightful discoveries (here a marble foot, there a column from the baths of Nero), the breathtaking Pantheon, the stadium of Domitian (now Piazza Navona). By Ambrose's time this area would have been built up as much as it is now...the meadow long since given way to the urban sprawl that required Emperor Aurelian to build a much longer wall...about 70% of which is, remarkably, still extant. Ambrose would have known this area for the baths, the banks, the Eastern cult temples, and perhaps as well for the first archives of the Church, which Bishop Damasus would construct near the shrine-church to St. Lawrence--a place no doubt frequented by the genius, if irascible, Jerome during his years in the city.
A day or two later I met with Mons. Cesare Pasini, the Prefect of the Vatican Library, whose important biography of Ambrose I am charged with translating. We discussed details of the work, how to cite sources, how to render his intimate and congenial Italian into something that reads well in English without losing his voice, deadlines by which our work should be at various stages, that sort of thing. He mentioned that he would make a few, but important, changes to the text, explicitly mentioning the discoveries of Dr. Somezi who, among other things, has demonstrated that Ambrose is the author of the important translation of Josephus into Latin. Ambrose, we know, was as comfortable in Greek as in English...a rare and thus invaluable skill for the future Churchman.
I'd left the students in the able care of Dr. Ethan Gannaway, my co-instructor on this leg of the journey, for their visit to the scavi: that is the archaeological remains under St. Peter's Basilica. They found themselves on a Roman street in a 'city of the dead' outside the walls of the ancient city and adjacent to the Circus of Nero: one of the great chariot tracks of the city, complete with the massive Egyptian obelisk that would have risen from the 'spina'--that wall that ran the length of the track. They saw house-like tombs designed as much for the living who visited as for the dead who rested there. Some of the tombs still bear witness to the fact that Christians were buried there too. Of course the most famous tomb is that of St. Peter himself, some of whose remains can still be seen in a delicate glass casket directly under the altar, and thus also directly under the point of Michelangelo’s dome.
Constantine had build an honorary basilica over the pre-existing monument to the saint and without question, Ambrose would have visited the site with his devout mother, his pious older sister Marcellina and devoted older brother, Satyrus. Ambrose was the youngest in his family, and grew up in the company of priests, deacons, and even the Bishop of Rome who visited his house.
Dr. Aron Palutla, a professor at St Ambrose University, and his wonderful family joined us afterward for yet another giro through the city. All 25 of us trekked our way across the Tiber, down the Via Giulia, past the Villa Farnese, through the Campo dei Fiori, around the charming 'turtle' fountain, and around the corner to the so-called Domus Ambrosius...said to be the childhood home of his widowed mother and her family. It is currently the residence of a religious order, and contains numerous reflections of the family so long associated with it. According to Fr. Ambrose (that is really his name), who is the current rector of the place, and validated with the archaeology he showed me a year ago, it is almost certainly not Ambrose's house...since the place had been occupied by the portico of Octavia, the two temples inside it, and the adjacent portico of Philip the Arab. Still, Ambrose lived somewhere, and I, personally, respect this kind of association that clings to places.
Ambrose learned his classics in Latin and Greek. He memorized long tracts and learned how to recite them with eloquence and form. He learned and practiced the virtues of a Roman: Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. He developed a devotion to Romanitas--that untranslatable sense of what it meant to be the light of culture to the world (which, it must be said, not only meant illuminating minds but firing a few bolts, if called for). He is said to have tried to make the women of his house kiss his ring-hand, as he had seen them do the hand of the Bishop Liberius, when he visited. A foreshadowing, I think Paulinus (his biographer) must have intended in the telling of that anecdote.
It was in Rome too that Ambrose, by then a graduate whose talents had been recognized, came to the attention of one Probus--a powerful and rich man who had climbed the cursus honorarium (the ladder of success, we might say) with impressive results. A bust of Probus, looking rather surprised and simple-faced in the 4th century style, is to be seen in the 'Room of the Emperors' in the Capitoline Museum, which is where our walk through the city was directed.
The students climbed the Capitioline Hill, passed between the colossal statues of Castor and Pollux--twin deities and pagan patrons of Rome--and into the museum. They saw the remnants of the even more colossal statue of Constantine, the emperor who legalized Christianity and finally joined it himself, allowing his pious mother license to explore for relics of the True Cross and nails (the latter of which she had hammered into a bridle and a crown to remind her royal son to be reined by Christ), to build churches and tombs (including her own: we'd see its ruins a day or two later), and to give property to the Church (St. John Lateran, her gift, is still the 'parish church' of the Pope).
Also amidst the great sculptures, busts, artifacts, and paintings at the Capitoline is also to be seen a bust of a rather sad young boy, said to be the Emperor Honorarius. He was the son of Theodosius, the emperor whom Ambrose loved, served, chastised, educated, and contradicted. At the rather sudden death of Theodosius, just a few weeks after his crucial and historically significant victory at the Battle of Frigidus, Ambrose took it upon himself to care for Honorarius and his brother, Arcadius. Theodosius was the last Roman emperor to rule the whole empire alone, the last to defeat an army of Romans, lead by would-be usurpers who fought under pagan banners. He had made Christianity the official religion of the Empire--sort of finishing what Constantine had started decades earlier when he legalized Christianity and, if we are to believe the Latin inscription at the base of the obelisk at St. John Lateran, baptized by Bishop Sylvester (some historians suggest that, if he was baptized, it may have been in Constantinople by an arianizing priest).
The museum took quite a while and the students were ready to be cut loose so, after a "team photo" in front of the tremendous reclining figure of the Mediterranean Sea personified (as all such images: a half-nude reclining male, bearded, with symbols that identify the body of water, in this case a conch) we let them go. Ethan and I went for another look through the museum and made a great discovery of what is said to be an altar dedicated to the Emperors Valentinian and Valens. This is surprising because these two brothers were Christian (Valens, who ruled the East, was Arian; Valentinian, of the West, a Nicaean) and shouldn't be having pagan altars dedicated to them. Maybe it wasn't an altar, but some sort of statue base. We recorded the Latin to be translated later.
This business of keeping all the emperors, usurpers, wives, and generals straight is really difficult. We made a game of making the students memorize the first 12 (but only got through the Julio-Claudians so far). Yesterday, on our annual "church walk" where we cover the most ancient Christian churches in town, we met a very passionate care-taker of the ancient house-church of Saint Pricilla...which is still used. He showed us around otherwise locked areas, and turned on lights to better show us unusual building characteristics. He also chatted--a lot--. Later we stopped in a park where one of the five villas of Senator Semachus may have been--on the Calean Hill behind the Colosseum--for a couple of very good presentations on the role of women in the ancient and medieval church. We came to no agreement, but the women of the group--15 of 18 students--seemed in general agreement that the new Christian options for celibacy and vowed virginity for women were both faith-based choices and astute means of maintaining control over their own bodies, and thus their futures. Certainly the women about whom they spoke seemed intent on both their faith and their role in history, from the early martyrs, to IV century empresses and VI century queens.
After the talk I arranged the students to form a living family tree: each one literally standing in for an emperor. We had Constantine with his four sons Crispus, Constantius II, Constantine II, and Constans (all of whom managed to get killed until only Constantius II was left). We had Julian the "apostate" and Jovian, who choked to death eating. Then Valens and Valentinian. Valens died at the Battle of Hadrianopolis and Valens had 3 children, Gratian by his first wife, and Valentinian II and Galla by Justina. Gratian was killed by the usurper Magnus Maximus just after appointing Theodosius his co-emperor. Theodosius killed Maximus and shoved Valentinian II off to the side where he committed suicide. Theodosius married Galla and ruled alone till his death, leaving the empire to Arcadius (East) and Honorarius (West). Arcadius' daughter Eudoxia ruled well through her brother and then husband, Honorarius was dominated by Galla Placidia, his sister (?). Ambrose dealt intimately with most of these folks.
The students had a good laugh and began referring to one another as daughter, son, father...whatever our mock-genealogy dictated. We saw a few "Ambrosian" sites...the church of San Vitale has a statue of him and is dedicated to saints intimately connected to Ambrose, the martyrs Vitalis, Valaria, Gervasius and Protasius. Ambrose may well have attended councils held at St. Martin on the Hill. He must have visited St. John Lateran, as it had been the bishop's residence since Constantine's mother, Helen, had given the property to the Church. The students jumped a metro for the hotel, so Ethan and I went back to take a closer look at things, finding a IV century ecclesial library perhaps built on and from property belonging to the family of Pope Gregory the Great, but stocked with books from a much older collection. It is now a shell sitting back from an obscure side street near SS John and Paul.
The day before, while poking our way around the ancient port city of Ostia Antica, we found a IV century Church and private house. We noted the place where Augustine's mother, Monica, died waiting for a boat to take the whole clan back to Africa from Milan. Augustine had been baptized by Ambrose, quit emperial service, and was headed home. Within a few years his brother, son, and best friend would all be dead and he would be seized and made bishop of Hippo. He would comment on the Sack of Rome (one of the students presented well on that topic the other day).
Today, our last day in the city, we visited the Vatican Museum. As maddening as it is predictable, the staff began blocking off parts of the museum for no apparent reason other than to force the huge crowds into ever smaller exhibition space. We got the students to the Raphael rooms, though, and really had them to ourselves for several minutes. The Sistine Chapel was already pretty full, and choked by the time we'd had our fill of the indescribable. The Paleo-Christian room was open long enough to see the allegory ridden sarcophagi of wealthy Christians...Peter with his crow and magic wand, Adam and Eve with symbols of agriculture (meaning paradise is over), a mostly beardless Christ teaching, handing over power to Peter (and sometimes Paul), and performing miracles such as turning water into wine, making the blind see, and raising the dead. OT themes relevant to death and resurrection include Noah, Jonah, Daniel, and the three boys thrown into the fires.
The students may still be at the Vatican. We'll meet for a team dinner tonight, perhaps at dal Pancrazio near the Campo dei Fiori: this is built into the ancient Theatre of Pompey, which is still visible in the lower dining rooms. It was here, on the Ides of March, that Julius Caesar was murdered (the Senate was being renovated, so the senators were meeting in this space).
Mid IV century Rome would still have been rich, congested, and with monumental architecture side-by-side with 5 story tall apartment buildings. There'd have been great aqueduct-fed fountains, recently renovated Temples, and new Christian construction going on, especially over the tombs of the saints and martyrs outside the walls, and probably no great concern about the fact that no emperor had dwelt in the city for any great length of time in almost 100 years. It was noted for its schools, its cosmopolitan tolerance, its still self-important senate class, and a new class of military bred "equites" who were stirring things up. Ambrose would have lived among Christians in the midst of a vibrant pagan dowager capital. His education would have been thorough and classical, even while he was raised in the newly emerging confidence of just legalized sect. I wonder if he already felt the tension between the two.