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…

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