Tuesday, February 22, 2011


            Trier.  Ambrose was born here.  So, funny enough, was Carl Marx.  I was able to find the actual birthplace of the latter, and barely a sign of the former.  There is one relief on a wall inside the 3rd floor of the "Portus Niger" and a street named Gervasiusstrasse and that is about all I found...at least explicitly...  Of course part of the problem is that both the Episcopal and the State museums are closed indefinitely, so I am sure I missed things there.  In any case, the city provided some fantastic IV century experiences.

            Of the dowager capitals of the Roman Empire, Trier is unique...she is neither the capital of a modern country (Istanbul, Rome) nor a complete backwater town (Vienne, Aquileia).  It is somewhere in between.  I am surprised by how many people don't know about it.  Trier is the oldest city in Germany.  It sits on the Mosel River--home to the famed Riesling wines.  The Catholic diocese of Trier is one of the most completely documented, and longest, genealogies in our tradition.  In some ways, it is like many other small cities in Germany...a lot of "drippy gold leaf" rococo everywhere, pastel buildings, god-awful garden statuary, and fantastic pastries, coffee, worstel, and beer. 

            Ambrose's Trier was a bustling, thriving, growing, and confident city near the 'limes' or frontier.  It was celebrated by a contemporary of his, one Decimus Magnus Ausonius in his poem "Mosella" (which, in my view, suffers not a little from the Latin version of drippy gold leaf).  It had been given a huge boost by Maximinian, who started building the imperial palace.  As in other places, Constantine came along and changed all the signs and made sure that his fingerprints were everywhere.  The city still features the famed basilica along with other parts of the imperial palace, an impressive amphitheater, two sets of baths, some walls and the multi-story Portus Niger (the famed 'black gate' though as near as I can figure, it is only black because it is covered in a coat of soot or car exhaust). 

            I should mention too that tradition has it that a house owned by St. Helen (the mother of Constantine) is said to be here, and that it was given by her to the church.  This is one of those stories that seem suspiciously recurrent to me: the exact same thing is said of the place that has become St John Lateran in Rome.  Still, archaeologists have found a very elaborate private Roman house under and very near the city's "Dom" which is itself quite obviously a Roman building...not a building made of re-used Roman materials, but a Roman building that was massive even before it was re-worked by the bishops of this extremely important diocese (the Bishop of Trier became one of the Electors of the Holy Roman Emperor).  Anyway, Helen (or whoever) seems to have contributed no small bit to what would have been the imperial palace.

            Ambrose, as I think I’ve mentioned, was born here, the youngest of three children, because his father was an official serving at the imperial court.  Tradition has his father as the Consularis, but we aren't really sure.  Nor do we know what happened to him.  We know that he died and that his wife took three small children back to Rome.  One interesting theory is that he was caught up in the purge of Constantinius II...the last surviving son of Constantine and rather vicious against anyone by whom he felt threatened...including his own brothers.  If so, it is notable that his memory was not damned, his property confiscated, and thus the family ruined in both name and finances.  For Ambrose's family remained wealthy and well connected.

            The more well-known connection between Ambrose and Trier, and in many ways, the more important (certainly more telling of Ambrose's character) is that which took place decades later.  Let me set this up.

            Ambrose is the Bishop of Milan and has already asserted his influence at Aquileia and through his theological writings.  The Battle of Hadrianopolis is over, but the consequent troubles in the East are ongoing.  Theodosius has been named Emperor and is struggling to deal with the huge numbers of freely ranging Goths.  The West has its own problems with the German tribes and the young emperor, Gratian, is based in Trier, and is having some success, despite what seems to be the lukewarm enthusiasm for him by the troops.  One of the reasons for that seems rather trivial from our long view, unless we spend a few minutes thinking about how often important matters are triggered by trivialities.  It was this: Gratian had selected a troop of Alani to be his body guards.  These were associated with the Goths who had ravaged the East, so to many it looked like "Roman-killers" were now being favored by the Roman Emperor.  This is a scent of the larger "anti-immigrant" movement that seems to have pervaded both the military culture and secular society.  If you wanted to slur a rival, one need only allude to his non-Roman sounding name.  On the other hand, non-Roman sounding name owners had been ascendant in the Military for at least half a century.  In any case, while Gratian--and Theodosius, for that matter--was negotiating such delicacies, Gratian’s much younger half-brother, Valentinian II is with his mother, sometimes in Aquileia, but very often in Milan.  It was almost at this time exactly that Justina and Ambrose knock heads over the Portiana Basilica.

            Along comes a Roman general with a name like a video game villain: Magnus Maximus.  He was a Spaniard stationed in Britannia, where there had been a very serious series of attacks on the empire a few years before.  Now, and without order,
he brought his legions to Gaul and somehow lured the young and apparently unsuspecting Gratian into a trap and arranged for him to be murdered, perhaps by his own body guard, the hated Alani.  At the very least, they were an obvious scapegoat.  Maximus immediately moved his forces to Trier to seize this crucial center of power in the West.  At the same time he sent diplomatic letters in an effort to consolidate and legitimize his gains.  One letter went to Theodosius in the East, seemingly suggesting that they were related--they both being Spaniards.  Another letter went to the Court at Milan asking that they send the young Valentinian II to Trier so that he could look after him...he wouldn't want anything awful to happen to him as had happened to his unfortunate older brother.  Still another letter was addressed to Ambrose in Milan wherein the usurper reminded the good Bishop of his Nicaean credentials and suggested not so subtlety that he would be a lot easier to work with than that Aryanizing Justina and her boy-Emperor.  I suppose one does not try to take over an empire if one is not audacious.

            As I mentioned, it is at this precise time that Ambrose and Justina are involved in an intense squabble over the jurisdiction of the Portiana Basilica in Milan.  Ambrose had courted disaster by denying access to it for the Homoeans (he'd call them Arians) to celebrate Easter mass.  Maximus was essentially suggesting treason to the Bishop.  The situation was stunningly dangerous and exceedingly complex.  Ambrose had been loyal to the dynasty since Valentinian I, for whom he worked as Consularis of Aemelia and Liguria. He had developed an important relationship with Gratian as well.  The exact nature of that relationship is still contested, ranging from Ambrose as mentor to Ambrose as sycophant.   But it was a real relationship in the course of which Ambrose was trusted and of increasing influence.  But Valentinian II was being raised by his widowed mother as a Homoean, in Milan, and having even invited an 'Arian' anti-Bishop who even called himself Auxentius (the name of the long serving predecessor of Ambrose).  Ambrose as thoroughly committed to the end of Homoean/Arian Christianity in any place whereat he could exert his influence.  He was willing to die for this cause and one could imagine him legitimizing any strategy necessary to achieve that goal.  Now the Nicaean who killed Gratian AND the Homoean clan of Gratian were both soliciting his support.  Here's what he did.

            As I mentioned, the Constantinian basilica of Trier is still standing, though it is a few meters shorter, being sunk into the ground (or rather, as with so many other places, the ground having risen around it).  It had had a long and varied history...built by Maximinian, claimed by Constantine, a sometime church, palace, castle, an arms warehouse, stripped back to its ancient naked form by Napoleon--who was busy desecrating Catholic chuches all over his Empire (I don't know what was Napoleon's over-all impact on Trier, but I do know that his stripping the basilica and the Porta Niger back to their pre-churched architecture have been important to the city's tourism).  The basilica was bombed in World War II and lost its roof.  It was rebuilt and the building given to the Evangelical church, which has done a beautiful job of creating a space at once holy and pristine...which is to say, no drippy gold leaf.

            The basilica was originally an audience hall.  It was part of a massive imperial palace complex.  The entrance was a long narrow porch with an apse on one end (this is by now a really familiar shape...San Vitale in Ravenna to the mausoleum of Constantia in Rome).  One entered into a very long single nave building that would have been covered in marble.  At the far end was an apse separated from the hall by an enormous arch.  The apse was studded with windows that would have ensured that the emperor, whose throne was located there, would have caught any light there was at any time of day.  The walls would have been white marble, the better to capitalize on what Umberto Eco calls the "splendor" of the natural light reflected onto the throne.  The whole point of this massive building is to impress and intimidate.  Ambrose was neither.

            He crossed the Alps in early winter, patiently waited for an audience, finally made it to the waiting room (that long narrow porch, apse on one end), and then the hall itself.  There would have been dozens of people in attendance including bureaucrats whose ready knowledge of some detail might be needed, the body guard, visiting dignitaries such as Senator Semachus (whom we know had visited some years earlier), the Court, including family--Magnus had a son for whom he had dynastic aspirations--and artists like Ausonius.  Of course there were also representatives of the Church, almost certainly the local bishop (which suggests that Ambrose, at Milan, was also a frequent courtier). 

            Ambrose enters, walks the psychological gauntlet of the long hall, greets Maximus with the proper gesture (kneel, bow, prostrate?  I am not sure) and waits to be spoken to.  Eventually the wannabe emperor takes notice of him (no doubt Ambrose had taken that time to take the measure of the man he faced) and they negotiate.  Ambrose, speaking for Justina, thanks Magnus for his magnanimity in inviting Valentinian to Trier and indicates that this will be done...but not now: the winter is upon them and the Alpine passes will soon be closed.  And of course, when he does come, Ambrose makes clear, he will be accompanied by his mother, the redoubtable Justina.  We are not sure what convinced Maximus to accept this delay...it may well have been that he did not know how to deal with the Empress.  But the ploy worked and Maximus did not insist that the boy join him immediately, nor did he make any move on his own to take Milan.  This was a fatal mistake on his part, and Ambrose pulled it off.

            Flash forward till the spring when Maximus is beginning to consider the very real likelihood that he has been fooled.  He has lost his greatest opportunity to move swiftly on the empire while the Emperor of the East is distracted by the Gothic problem.  Enter Ambrose again.  He returns to Trier (I wonder if he got as tired of travelling as I do.  He may have had to go by wagon in all weather, but at least he didn't have to put up with airport lounges and late trains) and this time he is in a huff.

            He is again kept waiting in the outer room.  Again he is finally admitted.  This time, however, he does not enter meekly and obsequiously.  Quite the contrary.  He storms into the hall already talking and deliberately omits the gesture of submission. He demands to know why he is being so publicly humiliated by having to wait and then to appear in a public assembly.  His position, he asserts, requires that he be met in a private audience.  Maximus is a bit stunned and confused by this attitude and points out that the bishop had had no such concerns a few months ago.  The conversation does not improve from there.  Ambrose marches out of the hall--well wishers unobtrusively advising him to get out of town quickly or hide, as the emperor will no doubt demand his head.       

            Ambrose knows this is no idle threat, though no Christian bishop has--yet--been killed by a Christian emperor.  But that is all about to change.  Ambrose saw, among the courtiers, a number of bishops who were there, he knew, to offer the Judas kiss to one of their own, one Pricillian, a French bishop and a heretic.  He, like the Donatists, Novitians and others, insisted that a baptized person could not be forgiven for their sins after baptism.  Further, he demanded a harsh nearly Manichaean asceticism that not only disciplined the body, but considered bodily appetites to be evil in themselves.   Now Ambrose had written compellingly, powerfully and (in my opinion this is his best effort) theologically in favor of forgiveness.  Moreover, Ambrose and Damasus (of Rome) had led the fight to get Pricillian silenced.  Perhaps Maximus thought he could ingratiate himself to these Nicaean bishops by doing their dirty work for them.  He had had Pricillian arrested, put on trial and convicted.  It was at this time precisely that the would-be emperor of the west becomes the first Christian monarch to convict a Nicaean bishop of a capital crime and put him to death...for what was an internal doctrinal issue.

            As Ambrose left Trier several thoughts were on his mind.  He was very sorry that the heretical bishop was being turned over to state authorities, though he himself was one of his harshest critics.  He believed that this was an internal matter to be handled by the Church without government interference.  He was also thinking that if Maximus could kill one bishop he didn't like, then he could kill others.   Ambrose had many enemies, even within the Church, who might have provided the same veneer of legitimacy to such a move as others had done in the case of Pricillian and his followers.  He must also have been wondering if he had played his cards correctly.  He could be arrested at any moment.  He may have backed the wrong claimant.  He might not get any good at all out of what he had precipitated, which is nothing less than the invasion of Italy by the armies of an usurper.  I imagine him looking over his shoulder one last time at the great basilica and the palace complex behind it as he passed through the walls and around the great baths complex and headed home.

            It is both obvious and difficult to keep in mind that Ambrose was as clueless about the future as any of us are.  His future being our long past, we are tempted to imagine that he saw it all playing out in some grand scheme, but of course that is as ridiculous as it would be for any of us to be asked what our lives, our nations, our religion will be like, even if we are working hard to direct all of these in a certain general direction.  Did Ambrose know that Magnus Maximus would invade?  Yes, probably, and he began preparing his people to receive the inevitable war refugees.  Did he know that he would not be caught up in a program and killed?  He could not have, though he might have been astute enough to have considered it an unlikely threat.  Did he know that Theodosius would prevail in a series of battles against Maximus, have him and his son Felix (an unfortunate name: it means "Lucky") killed; that he would marry the sister of Valentinian II; that the boy emperor whose life he had saved would die soon afterward, leaving the empire in the hands of a single emperor for the last time in its history; that this death would trigger yet another civil war that would pit Christians against Pagans; that, in prevailing Theodosius would divide the empire between his two young sons and then promptly die?  No.  He knew none of that and, as formidable an intellect as he was, he could have guessed little of what happened.

            How, then, did he choose his battles?  On what basis did he act, if not to ensure, or at least advance, his version of the future?  I suggest a tentative hypothesis that, like his great pagan mentor Cicero before him, Ambrose acted out of a sense of duty.  His beliefs were informed by his faith, his conscience, and his intellect (not to mention his education, his culture, his family, and his temperament).  In a word, his character, not the outcomes, determined his choices.  He acted, I think, not to achieve a given end, but because he believed a certain course of action to be required by Truth.

            So Ambrose headed home to his community.  That thought must have been comforting to him and sped him along his way.  The road was not without perils and he was not without enemies, but he was headed home.  He anticipated great things coming and was unflagging in the energy he would commit himself to safeguard the good and combat its threats, so he wasn't going home to retire.  But I suspect he was anticipating a bit of a break...perhaps a good bath, some great old home cooking, and the companionship of his closest friends such as Simplician and Marcellina.  His work was not finished, far from it, but when is it ever, for any of us?  I realize I am now in the realm of pure projection, but I can see him turning his eyes away from Trier's walls and down the homeward bound road and murmuring in what was as much a prayer of petition as of thanksgiving: "I love my life!"

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