After the defeat and death of Maximus in July, A.D. 388, Theodosius remained for three years in Italy, During this period the masterful Emperor was brought by circumstances into close relationship with the masterful Bishop of Milan. Between two such natures, sooner or later, some collision was almost inevitable: it is not surprising, therefore, that on two occasions, during these years, they came into direct and open conflict.
F. Homes Dudden, The Life and Times of St. Ambrose (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), p. 371.
The first of these conflicts took place in December, A.D. 388. Ambrose had gone to Aquileia, probably to conduct the funeral of Bishop Valerian and preside at the election and consecration of his successor, Chromatius. A little while before, news had come of a religious riot which occurred at Callinicum (Ar-Rakka), a town of considerable military and commercial importance, on the Euphrates. The Count of the East had reported that the Christians of this place, at the instigation of the bishop, had burnt a Jewish synagogue after abstracting sundry valuable properties therefrom; and further, that some orthodox monks, provoked by an interruption of their procession on the 1st of August, when they were celebrating the Festival of the Maccabees, had burnt a village chapel, situated in the midst of a sacred grove, which belonged to the Gnostic sect of Valentinians. Such breaches of public order-particularly the destruction of synagogues-had recently become far too common in all parts of the Empire, and it was clearly desirable that vigorous measures should be taken for their repression. Theodosius, therefore, after considering the report, forwarded a rescript to the Count of the East, directing that the Bishop of Callinicum should rebuild the synagogue at his own expense (since he was admittedly the instigator of the act of incendiarism), that the abstracted properties should be restored, and that the monks and others implicated in the disturbances should be punished. The sentence, though severe, was just; and it might have been expected that Ambrose, who had himself been a magistrate and appreciated the importance of putting a stop to lawless outbreaks, would have given it his approval. Unfortunately he thought fit to take a different line.
When intelligence of the rescript reached Ambrose at Aquileia, he addressed to Theodosius (who was then at Milan) an extraordinary letter, wherein he urged, and indeed insisted, that the order should be rescinded. It is true that he approached the subject delicately, with obvious anxiety to avoid giving offense.
'An emperor', he wrote, 'must not deny freedom of speech, nor must a bishop refrain from saying what he thinks. For there is nothing so amiable in a sovereign as to encourage those in his service to speak with freedom; and there is nothing in a bishop so offensive alike to God and man as to refrain from declaring freely his opinions. I am not an officious meddler in things outside my province; I do not intrude in matters with which I have no concern; but I am obliged to do my duty and obey the commands of God. In God's cause, whom will you hear, if not the bishop? Who will dare to tell you the truth, if the bishop does not? I know that you are pious, merciful, mild, and gentle, having at heart the faith and fear of the Lord; but often some things escape our notice. I know your piety towards God, your leniency towards men; I am myself indebted to your favour for many benefits. Therefore I fear the more and am the more anxious, lest hereafter even you yourself should condemn me for having failed, through lack of frankness or through flattery, to save you from a fall.'
After this preface, however, he proceeded to register a vehement protest against the imperial decisions. The Bishop of Callinicum had been ordered to rebuild a Jewish synagogue. But to build a place of worship for the enemies of Christ was equivalent to apostasy. Hence, if the bishop obeyed the order, he would be an apostate; if he refused to obey and suffered the penalty of disobedience, he would be a martyr. 'You see to what issue the matter tends. If you think the bishop firm, beware lest you drive him to martyrdom; if you consider him frail, do not tempt him to a fall.' Doubtless the bishop would rejoice in a sentence of martyrdom; Ambrose himself would gladly take his place. He himself would assume responsibility for the bishop's action.
'This, Sir, is my request--that you turn your vengeance upon me, and, if you consider this act a crime, that you impute it to me. Why order the absent to be punished? I am present here before you, and confess my guilt. I proclaim that I set the synagogue on fire, or at least ordered others to do so, that there might not be left a building in which Christ is denied. If you ask me why I have not burned the synagogue in my neighbourhood, I answer that its destruction has already been begun by the judgement of God'--possibly the synagogue had been struck by lightning--'so that there was no need for me to intervene. And, to tell the truth, I did not bestir myself to do this deed, because I did not suppose that you would punish it. And why should I do a thing for which, as I imagined, there would be no punishment, and consequently no martyr's reward?'
Even if the Bishop of Callinicum were personally excused, it would still be monstrous if a Jewish synagogue were to be restored at the expense of the Christian State or of the Christian citizens of Callinicum.
'Shall a building be erected for perfidious Jews out of the spoils of the Church? Shall the patrimony which by the favour of Christ has been acquired for Christians be transferred to the treasury of unbelievers? If such a thing were done, the Jews might well inscribe on the front of their synagogue the title, Temple of Impiety erected out of the spoils of the Christians.'
To the contention that public order must be maintained and the wanton destruction of public buildings punished, Ambrose replied, 'Which is more important-the parade of discipline or the cause of religion? The maintenance of civil law is secondary to religious interests.' With really astounding perversity he argued that, because in the past gross breaches of public order had been left unpunished, the present outrage also might with propriety be passed over. In former years mansions belonging to high officers of State had been burned in Rome, and in that very summer the palace of Bishop Nectarius had been burned at Constantinople during an Arian riot; yet no notice had been taken by the Government of these incidents. Again, in Julian's reign many churches had been destroyed by Jews and heathen-two at Damascus, an exceptionally beautiful one at Alexandria, others in Gaza, Ascalon, Berytus, and numerous cities-and the crimes had not been punished. Why, then, should there be such commotion about the burning of a mean provincial synagogue--'a haunt of infidels, a home of the impious, a hiding-place of madmen, under the damnation of God Himself'--and of a virtually heathen temple, wherein the misguided Valentinians worshipped their 'two-and-thirty aeons'? As for the restoration of the abstracted properties, or the refunding of their value, it was not to be thought of It was inconceivable that a squalid synagogue in that far-distant town could really have possessed any treasures. The charges of robbery had been trumped up by the perfidious Jews, who hoped to procure the appointment of a military Commission of Inquiry, before which Christians might be arraigned, and by which, on perjured Jewish evidence, they might be condemned to the prison, to the mines, to the axe, and to the fire.
'Will you give the Jews this triumph over the Church of God? this victory over the people of Christ? Will you give, Sir, this joy to unbelievers, this festival to the Synagogue, this sorrow to the Church? The Jews will place this solemnity among their feast-days, numbering it among those which commemorate their triumphs over the Amorites and the Canaanites, or their deliverance from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. This festival, I say, they will add to their list in memory of the triumph which they won over Christ's people.'
If Theodosius were to bestow such a favour on the Jews, what would Christ say to him hereafter?
'"I chose thee, youngest of thy brethren, and from a private person made thee emperor. I placed thy offspring [Arcadius] on the imperial throne. I made barbarian nations [the Goths] subject to thee. I gave thee peace [in A.D. 382]. I delivered thine enemy [Athanaric] captive into thy power. The usurper of the Empire himself [Maximus] I so conquered and so fettered his mind, that, although he still had the means of effecting his flight, he nevertheless shut himself up with all his followers, as if he feared lest one of them should escape thee. His lieutenant [Andragathius] and forces on the other element, whom I had before dispersed, I brought together again to complete thy victory. Thus I made thee to triumph over thy enemy; yet thou dost give My enemies a triumph over My people."
Let the Emperor be warned by the fate of Maximus, who, on the plea of preserving public order, had impiously ordered that a synagogue burnt at Rome should be rebuilt; let him not 'hazard his faith' for the sake of the Jews! 'If you do not trust me summon to your presence such bishops as you consider trustworthy; discuss with them what ought to be done, so that the Faith be not injured. On matters of finance you consult the officials of the Treasury; much more ought you to consult the priests of the Lord on matters of religion." The letter ended with a threat. 'I beseech you, Sir, do not disdain to listen to me, who fear both for you and for myself. In making this remonstrance, I have certainly treated you with the greatest possible respect, that you might hear me in the palace, and not place me under the necessity of making myself heard in the church.'
When Ambrose dispatched this singular effusion--which shows how religious prejudice could so warp the judgement of a good and wise man as to cause him to condone the crimes of robbery and arson, and actually plead the unpunished outrages of brutal mobs and heathen persecutors as precedents for pardoning fanatical Christian criminals--Theodosius had already come to the conclusion that his sentence had been too harsh, and had caused a fresh and less rigorous order to be prepared. His new decision-of which Ambrose, at the time when he wrote his letter, seems to have heard a rumour--was that the Bishop of Callinicum should not be required to rebuild the synagogue himself, but that this should be done at the expense of the State or of the city; further, that the stolen valuables should be restored and the authors of the outrages punished. The compromise, however, was not acceptable to Ambrose. He stood obstinately by his view that no reparation whatsoever ought to be made to the Jews, whether by individual Christians or by the Christian community, and that no punishment should be inflicted on the Christian rioters.
Theodosius ignored the Bishop's letter, and, when the latter returned to Milan, seems to have refused even to grant him an audience. Hence Ambrose felt it his duty to carry out his threat of making his voice heard in the church. One day, soon after his return, he preached in the cathedral, in the presence of the Emperor. The beginning of the sermon was dull enough. Basing his remarks on the lessons which had been read, the preacher rambled on disjointedly and painfully for several minutes; then he managed, though not without awkwardness, to turn his discourse to the subject of Nathan's rebuke to David. Suddenly a thrill ran through the congregation. Men awoke to the astounding fact that the preacher, speaking in the very presence of the Augustus, was suggesting a parallel between him and the Hebrew monarch, reproved by the prophet for his sin.
'I chose thee, the youngest of thy brethren; I filled thee with the spirit of gentleness; by the hand of Samuel, in whom was My Spirit and My Name, I anointed thee to the kingship; I took away that former king [Valens], whom an evil spirit instigated to persecute the priests of the Lord; and from an exile I made thee a conqueror. I exalted one of thy seed to be, in thy lifetime, the partner of thy throne. I made even strangers subject to thee, that they who warred upon thee might be thy servants. Wilt thou now deliver My servants into the hand of My enemies? Wilt thou brand thyself with sin, and give My adversaries occasion to triumph, by taking away that which belongs to a servant of Mine?'
Ambrose was now worked up, and at this point he addressed the Emperor directly.
'Therefore, Sir--for I will not now speak only about you, but will address my discourse to you--seeing how severe the Lord's censures are wont to be, take care that, as you become more glorious, you submit yourself the more humbly to your Maker. You, like the Israelites, have entered the promised land: say not, "By my own strength and righteousness obtained I these good things", but "the Lord God gave them to me, Christ in His mercy conferred them on me". Cherish, therefore, the body of Christ, which is the Church; pour water on His feet, and kiss them, not merely forgiving those who have been taken in sin, but also by your pardon restoring them to peace and rest; anoint His feet, that the whole house wherein Christ reposes may be filled with the odour of your ointment, and that all who sit at meat with Him may be delighted with its fragrance. In plain words, honour the least of Christ's disciples and pardon their faults, that the angels may rejoice, that the apostles may exult, that the prophets may be glad. Every member of Christ's body is necessary to the body. Do you, therefore, protect the whole body of the Lord Jesus, that He also of His Divine mercy may preserve your kingdom.'
When Ambrose had finished his sermon, he descended from his throne in the apse and stood before the Emperor; who said to him, 'You have been preaching about me!' 'Yes', he replied; 'but the sermon was meant for your good.' The Emperor said, 'I own that my order about the rebuilding of the synagogue by the bishop was somewhat harsh; but that has been corrected. As for the monks, they are constantly offending.' At these words, General Timasius, a blunt and irritable soldier, who was in attendance, burst into violent abuse of the monks; but Ambrose brusquely interrupted him. 'With the Emperor', he said, 'I confer, as in duty bound, because I know that he fears God; but with you, who speak so rudely, I shall deal differently.' For a few moments he stood in silence; then he said to Theodosius, 'Set my mind at rest; let me offer the Sacrifice for you with a clear conscience.' The Emperor, who was seated, gave a nod of assent, but did not speak; seeing, however, that the Bishop remained standing before him, he said at last, 'I will amend the order.' 'Put a stop to the whole inquiry', Ambrose urged, 'lest the Count of the East make it a pretext for inflicting injury on Christians.' Theodosius yielded, and promised that this should be done. 'I celebrate in reliance on your honour', said the Bishop; and he repeated impressively, 'in reliance on your honour'. 'You may celebrate', replied the Emperor, 'in reliance on my honour.' Ambrose then proceeded to the altar--which he afterwards declared that he would never have done, had he not obtained the imperial promise--and offered the Sacrifice with an unusually vivid sense of the Divine Presence and approval.
Thus fanaticism triumphed. Theodosius gave way before the importunity of the Bishop, and cancelled even his second and amended order, though it was eminently fair and reasonable. This he did, not from weakness, nor on religious grounds, nor because he was convinced by Ambrose's artificial pleadings, but from political necessity. Having only recently arrived in Italy, where his person was unknown and his authority not yet firmly established, he dared not take the risk of antagonizing that formidable prelate, who had the power (as had been proved in the conflict with Valentinian) of stirring up and setting in opposition to him the whole Catholic population. In short, he yielded, grudgingly and resentfully, in order to avoid what would almost certainly have been a very dangerous political crisis. By yielding, however, he set an unfortunate precedent. The impunity accorded to the rioters of Callinicum naturally encouraged both contemporary and later Christian bigots to perpetrate similar atrocities, particularly against the Jews. The persecutors of this unhappy people, from this time onwards through the Middle Ages, could claim immunity from punishment on the ground that such acts of violence had been condoned by Theodosius. As regards Ambrose, the episode is little to his credit. That he acted conscientiously, in what he conceived to be the interests of the Church, is not disputed. There is no reason to suppose that he was animated by any personal passion for domination or by any desire to demonstrate that the authority of the priest was superior to that of the sovereign. But the unbalanced zeal which induced him to step outside his proper province, and inflict an undeserved humiliation on a monarch who was doing his best to secure the maintenance of public order and the observance of the laws, is as regrettable as it is (in a man of his character and antecedents) surprising. 'Ambrose conquered, but the historian of the Church must deeply deplore his victory.'
After this incident there appears to have been some coldness in the relations between Theodosius and Ambrose. It was, perhaps, partly to remove himself from the neighbourhood of the overbearing Bishop that the Emperor, in the summer of the following year, A.D. 389, made a prolonged stay in Rome. On the 13th of June he entered the city in state, accompanied by his five-year-old son, Honorius. Soon after his arrival he listened complacently in the Senate-House to the fulsome outpouring of the sycophantic rhetorician, Latinus Pacatus Drepanius, who had come from Gaul to congratulate him on his victory over Maximus. With the lack of reserve and good taste which marked this period of decadence, the orator laid on his flatteries superabundantly--launching out into an interminable eulogy of his illustrious auditor, first as a man, and then as a monarch, and not shrinking even from characterizing him as 'the visible God'. After portraying in lurid colours the desperate condition of affairs under Maximus, and sketching the course of the campaign which terminated in the usurper's death, he went on to describe the visit of the conqueror to Rome--his triumphal entry into the venerable city, his charming affability in the Forum and the Senate-House, his condescension in honouring private dwellings with his 'divine' presence, and the fearless confidence with which, unattended by imperial guards, he used to stroll on foot about the streets. The orator could hardly find words wherewith to express his own felicity in having been an eye-witness of such marvels. He pictured himself, on his return to Gaul, surrounded by a multitude of envious fellow countrymen, to whom it would be his privilege to say, 'I have seen Rome; I have seen Theodosius; I have seen the father of Honorius; I have seen the avenger of Gratian; I have seen the restorer of Valentinian.' 'Distant cities', he cried in conclusion, 'will flock to me; men of letters will take down from my lips the story of all that Theodosius has done; poets will receive from me a grand subject for their verses; historians will compose their narratives, using me as their authority. Fear not, Sir, that I shall be unequal to your fame; even if I myself have uttered concerning you nothing worthy of being studied by posterity, I shall at least supply material to others whose writings will be read.
On the 1st of September the Emperor left Rome, and, after visiting various cities in Northern Italy, took up his residence again at Milan. Here he experienced another instance of Ambrose's importunity. At the end of this year, or early in A.D. 390, the Senate, encouraged by the Emperor's amiability when in Rome, sent a deputation to request--for the third time--the repeal of Gratian's anti-pagan legislation. Being informed of this, Ambrose went in person to the palace, and exhorted the Emperor to dismiss the petition. Theodosius was irritated by this unsolicited intervention. He appears to have administered a rebuff to the Bishop, who, in consequence, absented himself from the presence for several days., But the Emperor, though annoyed by Ambrose's officiousness, had no intention whatsoever of assenting to the petition, which was unacceptable both on religious grounds and by reason of the expense which it would have entailed on the Treasury. When, therefore, after an interval, Symmachus appeared in the Consistory and with insinuating eloquence ventured to urge the Senate's prayer, Theodosius not only ordered him to leave the audience-chamber but even directed that the discomfited orator should be placed forthwith in a peasant's cart and carried away beyond the hundredth milestone from the city. Yet he continued to resent Ambrose's interference on this occasion, and even issued a stern injunction to the members of the Consistory, forbidding them on pain of death to communicate to the Bishop the secret deliberations of that body. Ambrose, on his side, acquiesced in the decision to exclude him from inner knowledge of imperial affairs, and for a while ceased to appear at Court. Such was the situation when the second direct conflict between the Emperor and the Bishop occurred.
F. Homes Dudden, The Life and Times of St. Ambrose (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), p. 371-81.