Bishop Ambrose of Milan and the Relationship between Church and Emperor: A Snapshot

For contemporary Western democracy, the idea that the Church and state should remain separate entities free from mutual influence enjoys popular acceptance. In a religiously plural and multicultural country such as Australia, it is widely thought that the Government administration has a duty to formulate laws and policy for the common good of all, not just a particular religious or interest group that enjoys the good fortune of being able exert influence over political decision-making. Yet for much of our shared history the mutual relationship between the Church and State administration has been strong, and often assumed. The political and religious life of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan from 374-97 CE,  is a fascinating example of the close relationship between the Church Catholic and Roman governance in the 4th century CE. During this period the Church was able to exert powerful influence over state political life and decision making. This brief essay will offer a biographical sketch of Ambrose’s theological and political development and his subsequent influence on Roman leadership. I will conclude with some remarks about how the study of Ambrose sheds interesting light on the emergence and development of Christianity.

A Biographical Sketch of Ambrose

According to biographer Paulinus of Milan, that the youthful Ambrose was destined for great things was exemplified in a popular anecdote from his early childhood. In this story, the infant Ambrose is resting in his cradle when a swarm of bees suddenly covered his face and started to fly in and out of his mouth. Alerted to the child’s cries, Ambrose’ father interpreted the event prophetically and restrained a maid from rescuing the boy, saying that ‘if this child lives, he will be something great. (1)

Paulinus’ inclusion of this anecdote  is indicative of the way in which those surrounding Ambrose saw in him the potential for leadership long before he realised these qualities for himself. Ambrose was born in 339 CE in Augusta Trevororum. His father, Aurelius Ambrosius, was a Praetorian Prefect of a vast province that included modern France, England and Spain. Raised in the beliefs and practices of Nicene Christianity (although having postponed Baptism), Ambrose first embarked on a military career and eventually became the Governor of Milan, which at the time was the chief Imperial province in the Western empire. Having proved his leadership acumen, Ambrose may well have continued to distinguish himself within the military. The year 373 CE, however, would represent a significant turning point in his life.

The Christian community in Milan had gathered to choose the new Bishop. The community was heavily divided between the ‘orthodox’ Nicenes and those who supported the so-called ‘Homoean compromise’, which was in reality a milder theological expression of Arianism designed to unite Christendom and soften the negative perceptions of a more pure form of the Arian heresy. (2) It was on this occasion that we have another testimony to Ambrose’s natural leadership appeal. Ambrose was in attendance at the gathering in the capacity of event security. Alongside a delegation of troops, Ambrose was busy dishing out military discipline to the fiery crowd when (so the story goes) a child’s voice called out ‘Ambrose for Bishop.’ (3) The chant caught on, and before long the crowd were unified in demanding Ambrose for the Bishopric of Milan. Paulinus describes this event with all the pomp and grandeur of one truly enamored with his biographical subject, (4) assigning to it the providence and blessing of God. Despite his clear literary embellishment, however, it is clear that this remarkable event was to considerably alter the course of Christianity in the Latin West.          

It is said that Ambrose was reluctant to accept the role of Bishop, although once he had made the decision to accept the role he was rushed through (in 8 days) a period of religious and ecclesial instruction as well as the all-important Baptism. (5) As soon as he was firmly established in the role, Ambrose undertook his tasks with an unrelenting commitment to Christian orthodoxy and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of energy. In terms of his tenure as Bishop, Diarmaid MacCulloch describes Ambrose as a leader who ‘constantly won.’ (6) In this he is referring to the strength of  Ambrose’s political and spiritual convictions and his uncanny ability to influence (including through coercion) others to accommodate his will. Yet before we can explore the ways in which Ambrose was so effective in influencing Roman Emperors, we will need to establish the religious context of his time, particularly in relation to the emergence of Arianism.

The Religious Context of Ambrose’s Bishopric

A full understanding Ambrose’s strong views on the relationship between Church and Emperor can only be grasped when seen through the lens of the Arian and Nicene controversies of the 3rd and 4th centuries. In these theological and political struggles we find the rationale and basis for much of Ambrose’s practical actions as Bishop.

St.-AmbroseThe controversies centred on the pre-existence of the person of Christ. Arianism was a view that was first expressed by Alexandrian Presbyter Arius (250-336 CE), which held that although Jesus Christ was the Son of God, he was created at a specific point in time and did not always exist with God, and was therefore distinct from him. (7) As a school of theological thought Arianism enjoyed considerable growth and influence, resulting in its first round of denunciations at a Synod in Arius’ native Alexandria. Despite the intentions of the Synod, however, Arianism continued to grow and spread in theological influence. The situation reached a boiling point in 325 CE, with the then Emperor Constantine instigating an assembly of Bishops that has come to be called the first council of Nicea. The sole intention of this council was to formulate a specific definition of the relationship between Jesus and the father, and in particular the substance of this relationship (the Greek term used was Homoousios). (8) It was at this council that the Western Church arrived at its fullest theological expression of orthodoxy in response to Arius, who was officially labelled a heretic. The culmination of the theological outcomes of the council was the now-famous Nicene Creed.

After the establishment of the creed the Emperor Constantine zealously ensured it was complied with, excommunicating those who had been disciples of Arius or who had refused to submit to its doctrinal authority. In this he was rather successful, and as a result eliminated the influence of many so-called heretics from the life of the Church, including the deacon Euzoios and the Libyan Bishops Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais. Also included in Constantine’s theological hit-list was any Bishop who had refused to sign the creed. Arius himself was quite obviously excommunicated, and copies of his book of teachings-the Thalia– were burned. And here the history of Arianism might well have ended, were it not for the fact that as determined as Constantine’s anti-Arian mission was, he was primarily a politician, not a theologian. Despite the post-Nicene crackdown on Arianism, it was still an influential philosophy. As a politician, Constantine’s interests lie in keeping the peace amongst differing Christian fractions, and in time his tough stance on Arianism mellowed and he eventually allowed various people previously connected with Arianism back into the community of the Church. Arianism, then, still had ongoing influence throughout the 4th century.  

As Bishop of Milan, Ambrose had inherited the legacy of these Arian controversies- controversies that were still playing themselves out in the Western Church during his tenure, and to which he needed to use every ounce of influence and energy to extinguish.

Relationship with the Emperor: Ambrose’s Views and Experiences

Having reviewed Ambrose’s personal rise to the role of Bishop and Milan’s theological context in the 4th century CE, we can now turn to exploring his complex views on the relationship between Church and state.

Throughout his tenure as Bishop of Milan, Ambrose was in close personal communication with the Emperor’s that resided there. Milan was the administrative centre of the Western Empire at the time, and as such the potential for Ambrose to develop influence over the decision making of the Emperor was greatly heightened. (9) He was, essentially, the Bishop at the heart of Western Christianity. A combination of proximity to the corridors of power, a fierce commitment to orthodoxy as well as a naturally strong personality meant that the time was ripe for the Church to start heavily influencing the state. Two examples will suffice to demonstrate Ambrose’s ability to dictate an Emperor’s decision-making or course of action.

The Roman Emperor Gratian (Son of Valentinian I) ruled from 375 to 383 CE and had achieved a number of key military victories over Rome’s opponents that had helped cement his reputation as a strong leader. Gratian was known to have favored the Christian faith over Roman religion, and so the potential for Ambrose to influence him was clear. They met in Milan in 379, and Ambrose immediately set about exerting his influence over the young Emperor. An initial issue for Ambrose was that Gratian had inherited a sense of religious tolerance from his Father, which was simply not acceptable to the fiery Bishop. Through a process of flattery toward the Emperor in his sermons, Ambrose was able to win the Emperor over to orthodoxy to the extent that Gratian passed his first anti-heretical law in late 379. (10)

The massacre of Thessalonica also demonstrates Ambrose’s uncanny boldness and ethical conviction when rebuking an Emperor in the face of tragic decision-making. The massacre was the response of Emperor Theodosius I to a citizens revolt in Thessalonica in 390, in which a number of Roman authorities had been killed. The resulting massacre of revenge, carried out by the Goths at Theodosius’ instruction, is thought to have claimed the lives of around 7,000 citizens, including women and children. (11) Ambrose’s response was to write a particularly stern and audacious letter of rebuke to the Emperor. He also refused to share mass with him until such time as he had repented for the dastardly act.   

There is a subtle dichotomy at work in terms of Ambrose’s relationship with the Roman state and its Emperors. It is common throughout the scholarly literature dealing with Ambrose’s life to find a repeated insistence that Ambrose’s core belief was that the Church’s authority lay over and above that of the state, and that all attempts by the state to place itself above the Church are to be resisted as being contrary to the will of God. All of this is of course completely correct. Yet a gentle reminder is necessary, in that for all his dismissing of the state as an influence on Church conduct, Ambrose needed the state-,and particularly his relationship with the Emperor- to facilitate the future of orthodoxy. As such, one suspects that the dynamic of the relationship between the two is a little more nuanced than is often credited in the Church-over-state hypothesis.

Concluding Remarks

Ambrose’s impact on the development of orthodox Latin theology is undeniable. Whatever we might make of the results of this influence, that he was a motivated by and acted in line with his genuinely held convictions is admirable. It seems clear that Ambrose was cunning and forward-thinking enough to realise the benefits of maintaining close ties the Roman Government, despite the risks involved. In essence, Ambrose used the State to further the orthodox cause, with very little needed in terms of sacrifice of his own position. In this respect Ambrose’s religious activities did not represent a compromise between the spiritual and temporal realms of God and State, but were in reality an example of what both religious and interest groups must do if a missionary element is present. We can see the same kinds of lobbying tactics taking place in the current political sphere, whether these be religiously motivated or otherwise. The deeper question here relates less to the specific dangers involved when Christianity merges with state power, but whether the separation of the state and any form of proselytising ideology is in fact possible. It seems to me that whilst the influence of Christianity over state politics is decreasing in much of the West, the ideal of a Government free from ideological influence remains a myth.




  1. Paulinus, “The Life of St. Ambrose,” in The Fathers of the Church: Early Christian Biographies Vol.15, edited by Roy J. Deferrari (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1981), 35.
  2. See: Diarmaid MacCulloch. A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Penguin, 2010), 216-17.
  3. See: James Stevenson & W.H.C. Frend, eds., Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church AD 337-461 (Michigan: SPCK, 1989), 120.
  4. Paulinus, 36-7. For a thought-provoking review of Paulinus’ influence on the study of Ambrose see: Neil McLynn. Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014), 1-52.
  5. See: W.H.C. Frend. The Rise of Christianity (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1983), 618.
  6. MacCulloch, 299.
  7. For a thorough introduction to Arianism see: Maurice Wiles. Archetypal Heresy: Arianism Through the Centuries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)
  8. See: Leo D. Davis SJ. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils 325-787: Their History and Theology (Liturgical Press, 1983), 33-79.
  9. For more on this, see: S.L. Greenslade, ed., Early Latin Theology Vol. V: Library of Christian Classics (London: SCM Press, MCMLVI), 176.
  10. Frend, 620.
  11. See: Theodoret. Ecclesiastical History (Aeturna Press, 2016), 5.17


Moorhead, John. Ambrose: church and society in the late Roman world. Longman, 1999.

Power, Kim. E., “Ambrose of Milan: Keeper of the Boundaries,” Theology Today Vol. 55 Issue 1 (1998): 15-34.


About Ryan Buesnel

Welcome to my page! I am a writer and musician from Melbourne who enjoys reading philosophy, theology and military history. I am a Ph.D. Candidate through Charles Sturt University, with my thesis exploring the activities of the German State Church during the Third Reich-era.
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1 Response to Bishop Ambrose of Milan and the Relationship between Church and Emperor: A Snapshot

  1. Pingback: List of some of the important beliefs of the early Christians – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

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