Bologna, as we now call it, was destined to almost continuous prosperity and growth for about 600 years under Roman governance. It was in a rich agricultural area and was one of the hubs of a great northern road built by the Consul Flaminius. It had walls, of course (and, as is usual, these are mostly traceable along road routes rather than surviving architecture) and the typical Roman features: baths, a circus, a theatre, and amphitheater, a forum, and temples to all the divinities that found their way to cosmopolitan Rome. The archaeological museum here shows the usual suspects, Mithras, Ephesian Artemis, Serapidus, Judaism, and, of course, Christianity.
But by the time of Ambrose, that flowering of the city had stalled and even reversed. Remember that the III century had been one of nearly continuous civil war among would-be emperors, even while Rome was also fighting an increasingly desperate defensive war along its impossibly long frontier. And none of this precluded a series of mostly failing attempts to deal with an increasingly resurgent Persia. Indeed, one emperor will be captured and enslaved while others are shown in Persian propaganda art as offering supplication to the God-King of the Parthians (the successors of the "Persian" rulers).
This meant, for Romans of the interior, all sorts of things, all of which happened in Bologna. Taxes were raised to the point that productivity was impacted. Farm laborers were of such high commodity that the plantation owners would deliberately mutilate the young men by cutting off the finger needed to draw a bow (the weapon used by unskilled conscripts of the Roman Army and, by the way, almost the only weapon known to any of their enemies--Persia/Parthia exempted, Hollywood be damned). It seems that, as with most affluent societies, population growth had stalled so that, just as more and more people were needed for the armies and the bureaucracy of the state, there were fewer men (and, yes, all men) in the pool.
The standard solution, applied for ages, was to accept barbarian auxiliaries into the army. They were paid less, put in more vulnerable situations, less well armed, and deliberately separated from their families, their language-group, and their chiefs. The point was to make them into Romans. It worked as long as that strategy could be informed. Did you know that non-citizens make up one of the largest groups, percentage wise, of the US military?
By the IV century, the policy of taking young raw barbarian conscripts and injecting them into a thoroughly Romanized military environment was becoming impractical. Too many were needed, and too many were unwilling to be shipped off far from the lands that their families had been ceded (giving land to barbarian tribes was a win-win: it Romanized an otherwise difficult demographic and it cultivated lands that were otherwise going fallow; while if offered great opportunity and security and that ineffable condition of "Romanitas" so desired by new immigrants. But the civil wars, the foreign wars, the defensive wars, all being fought at once, finally demanded more expedient and expeditious strategies...allowing kids to join the army, but stationed near their tribal lands and serving under tribal chieftains. Theodosius most fully exploit this dangerous but, by then, necessary strategy because the armies of the East had been virtually obliterated when Valens lost a catastrophic battle to the Goths at the Battle of Hadrianopolis...just a few k.s from Constantinople. Hiring one's enemies seems ludicrous but Theodosius, who inherited this crisis, had little choice: he had no army, he had no budget, and he had no time...and, it worked, sort of.
But one effect was that newly enlisted barbarians were granted power and freedom of movement within the empire. Local people resented their presence and tensions ran high between the barely Latin speaking Goths and thoroughly Romanized Celts and other tribals of Rome's vast history of expansion and inclusion. I read in an Italian newspaper the other day that "White" births in the US is now below that of so-called "minority" groups. I suppose there are those who would see this with the same xenophobic and a-historical hysteria that must have gripped many in the ancient world.
In any case: Bononia/Bologna, by the time Ambrose visited, was suffering a terrible economic crisis...agricultural production had fallen off, and the rural hinterlands that fueled the urban economy were beginning to shun markets in favor of a more immediate hand to mouth and barter system. Public systems, such as the aqueducts and sewers, were in disrepair and the city was hemorrhaging population. Ambrose described it as a city where corpses were found littering the streets. I read too, in that Italian paper, that when Chicago city crews began dealing with the last big blizzard they found the bodies of people abandoned in the storm. Great image for us...
Now the reason Ambrose was in Bononia was because he was avoiding Magnus Maximus, the usurper whom Ambrose had personally set up (great story, but for the Trier installment) and so one whom he had good reason to dodge. Maximus had come from Great Britain with an army, killed Emperor Gratian, then demanded that Ambrose give him the dead emperor's half brother, the boy emperor Valentinian II. Now he had finally lost patience and had moved on Italy. Ambrose just got out of his way.
At Bononia Ambrose seems to have picked up on a local tradition concerning two martyrs buried in the local Jewish cemetery. The story, as Ambrose repeats it, was that a certain patrician, Agricola, had been turned in to Diocletian as a Christian. His slave, Vitalis, was also a Christian and turned himself in to the authorities. Presumably as a strategy to get the otherwise upstanding citizen to recant, the slave was subjected to the worst kinds of torture before being killed. Ambrose says that he had 'more wounds than limbs.' It didn't work: Agricola had to be put to death, by crucifixion. Ambrose found their bodies and had them reinterred in a Church built for them over the site of their deaths...the local amphitheater (it is worth noting that, if this episode is true, then the amphitheater was itself a victim of the socio-economic crisis of the age, otherwise it could never have been converted to such a purpose).
But did this happen? How could Ambrose, whose testimony is the first written record of the martyr's existence, have known about it? He was a brief and transitory guest of the city whose patron-bishop was himself well established and already powerful. Why did it take Ambrose to uncover this story? We know that he took some of the sacred relics with him and these ended up in Florence, where a rich widow had donated the means of providing a church for them (probably St. Lorenzo...who was a favorite saint of Theodosius and his defendants). Other relics of the martyrs were sent to Ravenna, where there still stands two monumental columns; Agricola in the guise of a teacher, Vitalis dressed as a soldier (that is a "soldier of Christ"). The church of San Vitale is to this day one of the most remarkable pieces of architecture I have yet seen, but that too is for another installment.
To the point: is this whole thing made up? Did Ambrose make it up? Why? It served a useful purpose, it must be said. The church had already been empowered by Constantine's legalization and was given a huge boost by the Edict of Thessaloniki, by which Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Armed with the bodies of the martyrs, the power of which no one doubted, the church of Bononia stepped into the increasingly wide gap left by the retraction of the pagan elites to their rural estates (at least in part to avoid the huge expenses required of them to maintain public services). The Bishop of Bononia, who, by the way, was subordinate to the Church of Milan, became the not so unofficial ruler of the city. For the next few hundred years, well into the Gothic Kingdom of Italy, the bishops made sure that the city was taken care of, well governed, and managed in respect to the sometimes abruptly shifting broader authorities. So...Ambrose's fortuitous discovery of martyrs came at just the right moment to inject life into the city and power into the Church. Clever.
But not by half: this sort of thinking is the worst kind of history, despite it also being the current trend in histories of this period. It is bad history for two reasons: first, it completely negates any but the most self-serving and disreputable motives of the Church...as if it was only and always concerned about concentrating power to itself. Secondly, because it is baldly--embarrassingly so, to be honest--anachronistic. Put simply: there is no way that Ambrose could have predicted, let alone orchestrated, the trajectory of history. He too, remember, lived in those uncertain times. He was not a master mind who saw the long view and made his version of events happen...no one has been that, not even Christ, for crying out loud.
So, how can I explain the origin of the martyr story with Ambrose and not before? I can only offer conjecture, but at least it is conjecture that neither supposes devious motives nor master plottings of Ambrose. Couldn't it just be that everyone knew the ORAL tradition of the martyrs but that no one acted on it? Along comes Ambrose, who is already well known for his interest in such stories, and of course he would be told the local history by those who had heard it from their families (including, apparently, Jewish citizens who participated in the exhumation). If Ambrose heard the local story and pursued the threads back to their sources (it had been only a few decades, right, and such stories as those of martyrs are likely to have had a long shelf life) it would not have been so difficult to find where the bodies had been laid. That Ambrose's own experiences are so well documented in the written tradition pretty much assured that the legend would pass from the Oral to the Written form.
Does that mean that I believe that I saw, in the crypt which the nice elderly gentleman opened for me under the Church of SS Vitale e Agricola, something of the actual bodies of martyrs? How confident can we be--could Ambrose have been--that he had exhumed the right bodies, even supposing that there were bodies to be exhumed? I claim no certainty and frankly, don't need it. We do like to have physical and tangible "things" to associate with our stories (that is what the whole industry of China-made souvenirs of Roman civilization is based on). It is good to be able to make a pilgrimage to a place and to see something once we get there. But our faith does not rely on the authenticity of, or even the actuality of, physical relics. We know that there was a time when people died for their faith...it was that important to them. They did not strike out (calling suicide bombers "martyrs" is an obscene perversion of any one's religion) but they did not back down. By their blood others were strengthened---are still strengthened--in their faith commitments. Ambrose had it right, whether or not he had the right bodies, we need to be reminded that Faith is not convenient, easy, or to be taken for granted. It makes demands, it calls forth from us a commitment, it insists that we die to our own desires, dreams, ambitions, goals, fears, anxieties, and worries.