Monday, March 7, 2011



            This will be the last entry of this blog for several months, as I will put up my feet at least till May, when I hope to add a site or two to the Ambrose trail.  And anyway, this will be a curious post, as Ambrose never set foot in Scotland, where I am now sitting by a coal fire in a country house overlooking the island of Mull on the west coast...possibly my favorite area of Scotland...but why is it relevant? Not only did Ambrose never visit here, I am, for the first time in 2 months, outside the Roman Empire...though it's influences are to be readily seen in such things as the Harry Potter bridge--a tressal not far from here that you'd recognize if you've seen the films--which is essentially aqueduct technology.  Then there is the mound of earth that still runs through Falkirk...remnants of Aurelian's wall.  Ideas, such as Romanitas, may be harder to spot but are no less evident, and were broadly diffused.  So was Roman Christianity.  How?

            You will remember Magnus Maximus from earlier posts.  He was the Spanish born usurper who killed Gratian and with whom Ambrose had contended to save Valentinian II and to avert or at least mitigate an impending civil war.  Scotland explains the rise of Maximus from a not particularly successful career as a military man to a not particularly successful usurper.  Scotland also tells something of the story of the dissemination of Rome's new faith.

            Valentinian I had a rough relationship with his generals because he was in constant dread of being bumped off by one of them.  This was not pure paranoia.  I believe that only one emperor in the III century died a natural death, and those since Constantine in the IVth hadn't done much better.  In any case he had sacked a certain Theodosius (the father of the future emperor of the same name) but had had to restore him because of Scotland. 

            It is known as the "Great Uprising" and it involved a coordinated attack on the Roman diocese of Britannia by the Scoti and Attacotti of Ireland, the Picts of Scotland and the Saxons of Germany.  Further, it seems to have been masterminded by a certain Valentinus, a rogue Roman soldier who had been disgraced and discharged.  One curious problem that the Romans struggled with is how all these disparate parties could have coordinated so well.  Ammianus Marcelinus, the chronicler of the age, concluded that it was the Areani...sailors by trade, spies by vocation.  They were used by the Roman administration as informers, but it seems that in this case they turned coats.  Theodosius rounded up as many of them as he could find, bound them to stones and cast them into the English Channel.

            It took two campaign seasons for the Romans to finally put down the threat, the whole North having been ravaged with local governors dead or missing.  He reorganized the political structure of Britannia and was himself named Comes Britannia: Count of Britain.  He didn't have long to enjoy that position, however, as he had to dash off to Africa to extinguish another uprising.  In this case the corrupt official on the ground, one Romanus, was extorting the locals so badly that in frustration, they rose up.  The situation was complicated by the fact the leader of the rebellion had a brother who was an ally of Romanus.  Further, Firmus (I think that was his name) had been mantled in purple by his troops, thus translating him from a righteously indignant victim of official corruption to a usurper.  Theodosius handled this situation as he had Britannia and as his son would the Goths.  He used equivocation, bribery, stall tactics, and ruthless strikes to destroy the native insurgency and punish the corrupt Romanus.  His right hand in both campaigns was Magnus Maximus.

            Shortly after this campaign a number of strange and unclear events took place.  Young Theodosius was shamed when some troops under his command broke in a skirmish.  The emperor, Valentinian I, may have tried to have the young man executed and his father may have intervened.  Then there is the case of the Ouija board...some courtiers in Constantinople apparently participated in some sort of magic ritual in the course of which a pointer moved around a board "landing" on certain letters of the alphabet.  It had been asked the question: "Who will be the next emperor?" and the thing spelled the letters Theta, epsilon, omega, delta...or "Theo..."  Soon afterward the elder Theodosius was put to death and the son sent off to banishment in Spain.  Magnus Maximus, who had survived his own scandal already (he had been part of the Batavia Legion, which had broken in battle, which resulted in a humiliating defeat and heavy losses for the Romans.  Valentinian had ordered the entire legion to be crucified, but had been talked out of it.  The pendulum now swung wildly after that: Maximus was named Comes Britannia.  Then, in an almost comical episode, Valentinian died of an apoplectic seizure while screaming madly at a bunch of Saxon chieftains whom he accused of duplicity.  The troops raised his teen aged son Gratian to the crown while certain influential courtiers simultaneously offered co-emperor position to his toddler half brother Valentinian II. 

            It gets crazier: Valens was very soon afterward defeated at Hadrianopolis and Gratian had to recall the younger Theodosius from exile to take over the Eastern Empire which was without an army or an economy.  It would take him three years to fix things in the East.  The moment seemed opportune for Magnus to act: he launched his own bid for the thrown of the West and, in so doing, left the recently subdued Britannia with a skeleton defense; he moved first to Paris, picking up allies, luring disaffected officers from Gratian, then assassinating the young emperor.  From there he went to Trier.

            Britannia was not completely abandoned, but the writing was on the wall.  Caesar had crossed the channel briefly, Claudius had subdued it.  Aurelius had built an earthen and timber wall---parts of which can still be seen in neighborhoods around Glasgow and Falkirk in Scotland--but Hadrian's more permanent wall marked a more sustainable line which runs roughly from Carlisle in the West to Newcastle on the East.  Even so, Britannia had never really paid for itself.  It was expensive to maintain and the exports were not vital: tin, mostly, and agricultural produce.  Local Britans (Celtic) and colonists were building cities like London, Bath, York, Chester, Lincoln and others.  The military was building important roads and defenses.  Lucky week-end treasure hunters are still discovering hoards of Roman coins while archaeologists find surprisingly elaborate villas and tombs (including one, recently, of gladiators--one of whom was a woman).  But in general the diocese was a drain on the exchequer.  In just a few decades after Magnus depleted the frontier troops the great general Stilicho, who was managing the West for Theodosius' son and grandson against what turned out to be insurmountable odds, would write the famous letter to the good Romans of Britannia explaining that they were on their own...the lights of the empire began to extinguish like abandoned hearths.

            But not before one other important event happened.  Britannia had not only been Romanized, it had even more thoroughly been Christianized.  Tribal Celts took to the new religion with passion, devotion, and with their own peculiar stamp on things.  Their missionaries went beyond the empire (as, indeed, other Roman Christians had gone to Persia/Parthia, Gothica, and Burber North Africa).  The Celtic Christians introduced their faith to the tribes in Ireland.  When Christian Britannia was finally overrun by the pagan Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, and Vikings, Celtic Christianity was preserved in and then re-imported to Scotland and England by the Irish.  St. Patrick, they say here in the west of Scotland, was a local boy, born appropriately, at Kilpatrick.  King Arthur (whose full name, intriguingly, was Arturus Aurelius Ambrosianus) was probably a Celto-Roman warlord whose niche in history is that he gave Britannia 50 years of respite from foreign invasion...enough time for the Gospel to spread like clover in Ireland.  Celtic gods and goddesses, such as the marvelous Winifred of Holywell, Wales, at whose holy well I once spent a great summer as a volunteer, became Christian saints, the ancient sites continued to attract pilgrims.  Place names and legends morphed and merged pre-Christian stories with the lives of the saints.  The many mutations of Merlin's name include Aneurin, Myrdden, Talesian, and Emrys---the last of which is a form of the word Ambrose. 

            The Irish missionaries came first to Iona, the little island just beyond Mull, and then to Lindesfarne, so close to the east coast of England that we drove our car out across the causeway...mindful of the time of the incoming tide.  Such remote sites were chosen for two reasons, Celtic monasticism was as rigorously ascetical as the Egyptian anchorites...though they lived in community...and then there were the Viking raids.  Even centuries later, the Border wars between the kingdoms of Scotland and England made life very difficult indeed. I found a poem of rather dark humor on that subject:

From Goswick we've geese
From Cheswick we've cheese
From Buckton we've venison in store
From Swanhoe we've bacon,
But the Scots have it taken,
And the priory is longing for more.

Despite these problems, the two holy islands became the launching points for missionaries that would spread across Europe and beyond.  It was a form of Christianity that would have seemed strange to Ambrose, and indeed, at the council of Whitby in 664, it had to be rather aggressively forced to integrate to what was, by then, Roman Catholicism. 

            Ambrose's own practice of Christianity was thoroughly loyal to the broader, even if the so-called Ambrosian Rite is noticeably different from what most of us know as the norm.  Regional idiosyncrasies were mostly eliminated but Ambrose's reputation was such that Milan got to retain something rather distinct, to this day.  I don't know what he would have made of the Celtic Christianity that he, indirectly, helped nurture (without his interventions, I believe, the West would not have lasted as long as it did.  Besides, and of this I am more confident, Ambrose was the advocate or, if not the inventor of, what we now can call Roman Catholicism--this stands to reason, he being both thoroughly Roman and completely Catholic...which means, in essence, that he found ways for indigenous culture to be converted and thus not destroyed.  In an odd way, this is what Aiden and Columbanus and other Celtic missionaries were all about.

            The dissemination of the faith was part of Ambrose's agenda--that is why he took relics to such places as Florence from Bologna.  It is why I had to go as far away as Efes in Turkey and Vienne in France to look for his finger prints.  It worked.  It still works.  The other day one of my dearest friends and I went for a walk up into the braes above the place we were staying.  We found a miraculous little pool of tranquil water perfectly reflecting the bare branches of the winter trees above it, except for the odd dapples caused by the softest rain--the kind that doesn't even let you know that you are getting wet.  It was surrounded by old pines covered in moss and vines.  I would not have been in the least surprised if a woman's hand had risen out of the pool bearing a sword for me.  My friend commented that he used to consider the likes of Tolkein and Joyce as genius but now he realizes they were just describing what they saw.  The murky pools of the past continue to allure and intrigue as they had well before Christianity ever reached these shores.  But the Lady of the Lake was a Christian, or at least Arthur was a Christianized take what was there and convert it to the faith's understanding of the world is exactly in line with what Ambrose was all about.

            I have spent several days now in the company of great people, many of whom were educated by the Catholic Church.  None of them are priests or nuns, but they all bear the imprint of their learning in discipline, tradition, liberal arts, and faith.  They are now leaders in their societies: teachers, professors, lawyers, engineers, nurses, accountants and computer technologists, even wine buyers and designers.  Ambrose is just one person, one leader who led a long time ago, but he cut a groove that we are still pouring through, or rather, that the Spirit is still pouring through.

            Tonight I am in Milan on my way home (don't ask) and I made a trip down town to see the saint one more time.  It is comforting to see his image so prominently and proudly displayed here in his city after all these centuries, and I am encouraged to help make his story told to others who, knowing it or not, are in some small way influenced by this great disseminator of the faith.