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A Tale of Two Bishops and a Brilliant Saint

Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice/Scala/Art Resource
Vittore Carpaccio: Saint Augustine in His Study, circa 1502

This review is about three persons who played a major part in the emergence of a confident ascetic Christianity in the Roman world of the late fourth and early fifth centuries CE: Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom of Antioch and Constantinople, and Augustine of Hippo.

Of these three, one man in particular has long been considered decisive. He was Ambrosius, a maverick senator and son of a high official who had been executed for treason in a time of civil war. He is now known to us as Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan from 374 to 397. Wolfgang Liebeschuetz, in his book Ambrose and John Chrysostom, has brought him back to us in his full vigor. He does this by comparing Ambrose with an equally vivid, but less successful, younger contemporary—John Chrysostom of Antioch, who, for a few cliff-hanging years, between 398 and 404, was bishop of Constantinople.

Their careers were very different. After Ambrose became bishop of Milan, no one knew if he would last. He persistently defied the court of the boy emperor Valentinian II; he imposed public penance on an emperor, and he lashed out against the rich in his sermons. Yet he died in place, the Grand Old Man of Italy. John Chrysostom, by contrast, was handpicked by the emperor Arcadius to be bishop of Constantinople. Within a few years, he had run afoul of the empress Eudoxia. He was deposed in 404, and died three years later as the result of the rigors of a vengeful exile.

Their backgrounds also were different. Ambrose came from a senatorial family down on its luck, which he had hoped to reverse by government service. In 374, to everybody’s surprise, powerful backers shoehorned him into the see of Milan, while he was still the imperial governor of the region. His letters have been translated and commented on with rare independence of mind by Liebeschuetz in his Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches. Carefully designed by Ambrose to publicize his own achievements, they show a master diplomat at work.

John, by contrast, was reared in Antioch, the “Big Easy” of the later empire. He was a star rhetorician. His early works were typical of a restless generation, drawn to the monastic counterculture established in the hills above the city. In the 370s he “wrote like a student radical might write—or rant—today.” He ranted largely in favor of virginity and the monastic life.

As Liebeschuetz shows, John’s service as a priest in Antioch, from 386 onward, modified his earlier contestataire poses. Yet when he departed from Antioch in 398, he still retained the insouciant high-mindedness that had made him so popular there.

It is the particular virtue of Ambrose and John Chrysostom that Liebeschuetz (who knows his Antioch better than any living scholar) should pre- sent these two very different men from very different regions of the empire—one Latin and one Greek—as no longer living in separate worlds. For both had been touched by the huge notional weight of the desert, in the very first generation of the flowering of the monastic movement in the Middle East. Liebeschuetz’s book is very much a study of “Clerics between Desert and Empire.”

Of these two, Ambrose is probably the most difficult to see in true proportion. He has become iconic to the point of caricature. He is often regarded as the prime example of the bully bishop. When visiting the Duomo of Milan in 1764, Edward Gibbon viewed the wooden bas-reliefs that showed Ambrose in action. They included the famous incident in which Ambrose imposed penance on the emperor Theodosius for ordering a massacre of the inhabitants of Thessalonica in 391:

The work is of great beauty, and I imagine that every ecclesiastic must consider with pleasure the scene where the great emperor Theodosius is humbled at the feet of a proud prelate.

But Liebeschuetz reminds us that Ambrose was not a “proud prelate” at the time. He had entered on new, as yet uncertain ground. He “defied the emperor as few individuals, who did not become outright rebels, had ever defied any Roman emperor.” But he was far from sure of success. He spoke so loud and so vehemently so as to be heard at all. It was only in later centuries that his taut language came to be echoed with orotund certainty by the spokesmen of a well-established Catholic Church.

One of the greatest breakthroughs in recent scholarship on the political culture of the later empire has been to cut Ambrose down to size. Liebeschuetz follows gratefully the innovative study of Neil McLynn, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital.* McLynn’s Ambrose is no longer a heavyweight. He is a nimble bantamweight. He is a bluffer and a master of “spin.” But Liebeschuetz, rightly, wants more than “spin.” What he probes in Ambrose are those resources of willpower and of courage that made the bishop of Milan both the last of the great Stoic dissidents of the Latin world and the first of its monk-bishops.

To establish the true weight of Ambrose, Liebeschuetz reaches back in time to the long roots of his thought and action in a Stoic moralism that enjoyed a new flowering in Christian circles as a result of the ascetic movement. He also reaches eastward in space to Ambrose’s near contemporary in the Greek world, John Chrysostom. For what the two men had in common was a remarkable development. In their hands, long-established codes of living in this world (propounded by philosophers since classical times) were transformed. They came to be seen as divinely sanctioned precepts with which to achieve entrance to the other world.

The ancient codes of living had never been easy. They had always called for courage in the face of bullies, for respect for the integrity of the soul in a violent and stratified society, and, above all, for the need to maintain a high-pitched hierarchy that placed the soul firmly above the body. “Dualism” is not a popular notion nowadays. The ancient insistence on the absolute superiority and separateness of the soul from the body has lost its edge. But the sharp division between mind and body served for millennia to help the desperate—the victims of torture, of illness, and of bereavement—to raise themselves, if only a little, above the huge pain of the world. Christian congregations expected their preachers to harp on these themes. As Liebeschuetz shows, in a series of penetrating analyses of their tracts and sermons, both Ambrose and John Chrysostom obliged them handsomely. Indeed, congregations would continue to demand such preaching until well into the modern age.

What Liebeschuetz goes on to describe is the way in which, with Ambrose and John Chrysostom, these codes changed direction. They “flipped” upward, as it were, toward heaven. It was not enough that precepts of courage, continence, and self-denial should help to steer men and women through the dangers and temptations of this life alone. These virtues, if practiced with heroic abandon, were held to lead directly to heaven—to “the true days, full of light and everlasting brilliance.”

The result was not as we might expect. For Ambrose and John, asceticism did not mean flight from the world. It meant engagement in the world in the name of another world, more brilliant, more enduring, and more certain than their own. Both emerged from the ascetic battle against the “inertia of flesh and blood” with their traditional codes not abandoned but transformed. They took on the hardness of an industrial diamond. Both “believed that they knew God’s plan for the human race.” To bring these plans to fruition, both strove to combine the classical tradition of public courage, summed up in the long-cherished virtue of outspokenness—parrésia—with the tone of a Hebrew prophet bearing a message from God.

As we have seen, each fared very differently. Liebeschuetz tells us why, in a series of memorable character sketches: Ambrose “armed with charm, cunning, and, when the situation seemed to call for it, ruthlessness”; Chrysostom truly a Golden Mouth, but crippled by a “psychological handicap” when dealing with women in positions of power. This is hardly a handicap calculated to gain him much sympathy from modern readers. Liebeschuetz tells the story of John’s notorious face-off with the empress Eudoxia with zest, as a clash between two “highly emotional people.”

But a reviewer can, perhaps, risk saying more. The tale of the two bishops is the tale, also, of two cities. And these cities were very different. Milan was a fragile place. The imperial court of Valentinian II established there was overshadowed by two mighty rivals—by Maximus, who had taken over Gaul and Spain, and by the eastern emperor, Theodosius I. And in Milan, Ambrose had power on the ground. Liebeschuetz understands this power very well:

It is fashionable to belittle the seemingly astonishing political feats of Ambrose, but there can surely be no doubt that he gained a remarkable hold over a large part of the population of Milan. Without this his defiance of the court would have been impossible.

We must never forget the extent to which, for all their formidable military power, Roman emperors walked on eggshells when they entered the cities of their empire. All cities were dangerously underpoliced. The populations were left to police themselves, through neighborhood associations and through mobilizing the influence of leading residents. It was a systemic weakness in the distribution of power throughout the Roman world of which the Christian bishops had long been aware. All over the empire, they had been invited to act as partners in the constant business of governing potentially ungovernable cities. As a result, Ambrose was untouchable. He knew it, writing:

For it is normal for bishops to restrain crowds and to be lovers of peace, except when they are themselves roused by some wrong done to God, or by an insult to the Church.

Written to the emperor Theodosius in defense of a Christian bishop who had set the mob on a Jewish synagogue, the veiled threat of violence from below reveals Ambrose at his most sinister.

By contrast, John found himself in Constantinople, the capital of a world empire in its first flush of growth. It was a vast city compared with semirural Milan. And it was more effectively policed. Armies levied directly from the rough lands of the Danube had little scruple about “collateral damage” inflicted on the civilian population. At the height of the crisis, the troops sent into the basilica to arrest John were new recruits from Thrace. Hard men from the backwoods, they were probably pagan and may not even have spoken Greek. They had no scruples about dragging a bishop from his altar. By contrast, the Goths who had been sent to cordon off Ambrose’s basilica in 386 had been on Roman soil for at least a decade. They were already wanna-be Romans. They melted away and joined the demonstrators in Ambrose’s church.

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    University of California Press, 1994. 

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