Sunday, May 15, 2011


            Ammianus called it the "Mother of All Cities" though it is doggone hard to figure out why.  St. Ambrose of Milan lived in Sirmium for 5 years as a court lawyer.  His brother Satyrus may have gone with him and in the same capacity.  They did seem to be working the same track to success, he was at least nearby.  Ambrose, at least, got his appointment due to a favorable reference to Senator Probus, who was then consularis of the province.  Notably, Probus was a Christian (though he seems not to have worked very hard at it).  This appointment speaks something of the prestige of Ambrose's family name (and wealth) which must have survived intact whatever fate had befallen his father under Constantius in Trier.  Certainly it was only a first posting, but it was to an important place that had an imperial residence.

            Sirmium is now known as Sremska Metrovica (phonetic till you get to "c" pronounced as an "s").  It is a very old city, indeed it is claimed to be the oldest city in Europe (oddly enough, Trier too makes that claim).  In any case it was pre-Roman and Celtic.  It was Romanized over the course of the II* and by the IV* it was one of the great capital cities of the empire.  No fewer than five emperors were born here, which is also a record matched by no other city--I am not even sure that Rome gave birth to 5 of her emperors.  Like Trier, Milan, and Aquileia it was near the frontier and like them it was a relatively small capital city, at least compared to Rome, boasting perhaps 1/2 million people, but again like them, it had an impressive aqueduct fed bath, an imperial palace adjacent to a circus that was linked to the walls.  It sat on the banks of the broad and navigable Sava River not far from its confluence with the Danube...the barbarian frontier.

            Today it takes up more land but has far fewer people, not more than 40,000.  It has turned its back on the Sava, preferring the prudent flood wall to the view.  It takes about 30 minutes to walk from the river all the way across town to the bus station (the train station is also right there, but I was advised against the trains due to their unreliability: the bus ride from Belgrade was easy and the station had a constant flow of busses in and out.

            Ambrose returned there at least once, maybe twice, after becoming bishop of Milan.  We know that he influenced the selection of a proper Nicaean bishop and he may have been present at a council held here.  During the bus ride in, I got to wondering what his reception would have been like the second time, since he would have been well known and recognized by the locals.  At least the Nicaean Christians would have greeted him warmly and may well have claimed him as one of their own because, although not yet baptized when he lived there, he clearly carried himself as a man of faith.  When he left to become consularis of Milan, his mentor Probus was said to have quipped "go: act not like a governor, but like a bishop."  Enigmatic for sure and odd advice for one who certainly did not follow his own council but it does speak to Ambrose's disposition.

            Ambrose's Sirmium is hard to make out in the rather sleepy blue-collar town that is Sremska.  Most of the archaeology is still underneath the ground.  I was walking down a street that I knew to be in the vicinity of where the circus had been and sure enough I found a great sign with a map that revealed that I had been walking right down the "spina" (spine, in English: it is that low wall that runs length of the circus separating the outbound track from the inbound track, so to speak).  But of the circus itself nothing is above ground.  Later I tracked down what was supposed to have been a ruin and once again it was just a sign telling me that I was standing where the aqueduct ran into the city.  I didn't even bother the back streets for evidence.  Besides the palace there is one small neighborhood adjacent to a fragment of the wall and that is really about it.  The local museum is really a dusty old barn with things (mostly sarcophagi) stacked on top of one another.  The upstairs exhibition rooms are...quaint: a few scant relics mounted or sitting on tables with some signs, in Serbian only.  Unlike every other museum I've ever been in, no one seemed to care what I was about and ignored me.  I took what photos I wanted (not many) and I suppose I could have walked off with a vase or coin if I'd been inclined.

            In this regard, as in others, Sirmium is the anti-Aquileia: there emperors died and the city retains much of its archaeological heritage.  Here emperors were born and most traces of the Roman presence remain underground.  Sirmium never actually died, but the intervening history has left so many marks that Roman Sirmium is just one photo in the family album.  This stands to reason: the point of making it a capital was that it was near the frontier--that is to danger--and it was more vulnerable even than the other frontier capitals.   No one I met seems to know (or care) that its one-time magistrate would become the most powerful churchman of the Latin Church of the IV century and one of the most important bishops in all of Catholic Christianity's history.  "Metrovica" refers to "Demetrius" the martyr-saint who is also associated with Thessaloniki.  He may have been born here and devotions transferred to there, or perhaps he was brought here from one really knows, but this martyr is indelibly linked to both cities.  Sremska may be a derivation of Sirmium.

            Of course, no one who knew him then would have thought that much about his future fame.  It was Ambrose's job to interpret and enforce the laws in what had been an imperial city since the time of Diocletian.  The imperial palace here is preserved within an impressive modern structure that puts the whole thing under one roof, along with a modest gift shop and a tidy little bar and a 3rd floor gathering space.  A rather stunning departure from the archaeology-as-sign I'd already come to expect.  Various emperors occupied the palace for at least a fraction of their reign (from the III* on emperors were perapetic, which meant that they had to be where the most immediate threat was).

            Because of the long gaps between actual imperial residence, it is conceivable that the authority of the city rested with its governor and his staff.  I have no idea whether or not they would have used the palace as their headquarters, but it stands to reason that the place would not have been locked up between imperial visits.  It was the temporary seat of government for Diocletian. Licinius, Constanatine, Constantius II, Julian, Valentinian, Gratian, and Theodosius.  At the period when Ambrose was magistrate no emperor was resident, Valentinian being in Trier and Valens off to Persia.  Valentinian I and Valens had met here to officially divide the East and the West between them, Sirmium was just inside the Western Empire.

            Ambrose would have gotten to know this region, then known as Pannonia Inferiore, and one could imagine that he would have travelled a bit during that time.  Though officially part of the West, he was closer to Constantinople and Thessaloniki than to Milan or Rome.  The region is broad and flat agricultural land.  Beyond the Danube to the North it is still heavily wooded hill country, giving one the impression of how valuable (and vulnerable) this area would have been to those who were being pushed from behind by the inexorable pressure of the Huns.

            Ambrose would have considered it small and provincial to his experience of Rome, but it was also closer to power...emperors rarely visited Rome, but they resided least occasionally.  The record of his time here is scant, but not that hard to imagine: he had to balance his disdain for a frontier posting against the odds that he would be noticed by the emperor and so rise to new heights.  This was the path of the Cursus Honorus...the route to power.  There is no reason to suspect Ambrose of any other ambitions than that.  Evidence of Christian influence at this time is scant and unclear.  There is a sarcophagus from the mid IV century that portrays a Roman magistrate with scroll in hand in one medallion and his wife with a dove in her hand in another.  This dove may represent a vague hint of the woman's Christian faith but it is worth noting that even in the IV century such an association was still "coded" and not explicit.  The first bishop of Sirmium was one Iranaeus, who was tortured and thrown into the Saba several decades before Ambrose came there.

            In the end, the archaeological traces of IV century Roman Sirmium are as obscure as the historical record of Ambrose's time here.  It was crucial to his formation, being his first official posting.  He was here for 5 years and went from here directly to Milan.  Here, though there is little evidence of it, Ambrose would have cut his teeth.   He would have learned the difference between official law and common practice, the gap that separated the rule from application, the ideal from the real.  He would have wanted to prove himself, but without (as Probus' comment suggests) acting contrary to his faith.  Though as of yet an unprofessed Christian, he acted like one and this means that while he had the power to torture and to execute, he very likely resorted to neither of these. 

            Sirmium in Ambrose's time was a scary place.  There were constant threats from the frontier and the defeat of Valens is just a few years in the future.  There was increasing pressure from Goths in the East...just across the border from Sirmium...and Ambrose would have been hard pressed to maintain public order and discipline against the urging of panic among his fellow citizens.  He would have been consoled by the near presence of his brother Satyrus but both would have been terribly pressured to deal with increasing threats from across the border.  He was in his mid-30's at the time and would have used this crucial time to balance the difference between learned theory and actual practice.  This, of course, is the most crucial phase in the education of anyone.

            Threats aside, Sirmium was not over-run until the Avars of the VI century.  There is a sad brick plaque in the archaeological "museum" that reads in abbreviated and sloppy Latin: "CHRIST OUR LORD, help our city to halt the Avars, protect the Roman Empire and he who has written this.  Amen."

            That prayer was not answered.

            The record seems to be pretty blank, to be quite blunt.  We can use our analogical imaginations (borrowing from David Tracy) but of course that is suspect.  Ambrose and perhaps also his brother would have learned how to think on their feet and make quick adjustments to the exigencies of place and time.  He would have had to figure out how to interpret the law and to maintain order, all without violating his own personal faith convictions.  He would have juggled the honor of an imperial appointment with the lived practice of mundane responsibilities.  He would have come face to face with the contradictions between his faith and his position, his beliefs and his loyalties.  Here too he reinforced his loyalties to the family of Valentinian, despite that one's obvious hands-off attitude toward matters of religion and his own brother's heresy.  He would have developed the cardinal virtues of the Roman as well as probity and the Christian virtues he had picked up from his mother and elder sister.  Mostly, I suspect, his experience was mundane...the daily tasks of interpreting the law, keeping the peace, and explaining it all in a way that was both compelling and non-contradictory to his convictions.  He solved problems between land owners; he interpreted tax laws; and he prosecuted those who sought to avoid military service for themselves or their farm workers.  He decided what was traitorous from what was merely opinion.  He must have had a very hard time being balanced when the protagonists were Christian and pagan or Jew, but I would like to believe that he maintained fairness, he being the administrator of justice, after all.  There is a clue to his fairness in that later, in Milan, he was the unanimous popular choice of both Nicaeans and Homoeans.  Of course Jews and pagans didn't have a vote and there will be his decidedly intolerant rhetoric about the Callinicum affair. 

            In the end, it is not particularly obvious that I have gained any insight into Ambrose from having visited this, his home for 5 years.  The geography is important for what it says about its allure to barbarian incursions.  Its political location as one of the great frontier imperial cities goes without mention.  Its amenability and also its unimpressive comparison with Rome are also evident.  We can speak in broad generalities about what he would have faced, but that is about it.  Perhaps the most concrete thing that can be said is bare and lacking in detail:

He held power for the first time, representing Roman law
He saw firsthand the threats of the frontier
He had to be both a Roman administrator and a (closet) Christian
He was still climbing the ladder of success and would go where it led
He would not do anything that openly contradicted his (covert) faith
He may well have visited, and was certainly in communication with, the East, including Constantinople and Thessaloniki as well as points west: Aquileia and Milan.

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