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.


Gianni Dagli Orti/Art Archive/Art Resource

Saint Matthew and Saint John Chrysostom, from a Greek codex at the Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai, Egypt, 1042–1050

But there is more to the contrast between the two men than the balance of violence between court and church in their respective cities. Ambrose has often been portrayed as having humbled emperors. But in reality, he energized them. He gave them a job. His distinctive brand of ascetic Stoicism ensured that emperor, bishop, and subjects alike were joined in a common militancy for the plans of God:

As all people that are under the dominion of Rome serve you,… so you yourselves serve almighty God and the holy faith…. Now everyone is in the service of this true God.

Furthermore, Ambrose went out of his way to know the court and to establish personalized relations with each ruler. Not so with John. The palace loomed above him at an emotional distance. For all his complex and well-known relations with the empress Eudoxia, the emperor himself (Arcadius, the young husband of Eudoxia) remained a blank to him. Arcadius was no more robust a figure than was Valentinian II in Milan. He seemed to his critics to live in the depths of the palace, like a luminous jellyfish at the bottom of the ocean. But that was precisely the secret of Arcadius’ power. In many ways, he represented an older world than that created by Ambrose at the court of Milan. He still stood for a mysterium tremendum of imperial power—for an awesome, uncanny indeterminacy in which religious and secular had not yet come to be disengaged from each other. He did not need to be told to do a specific job in order to prove that he served God. His job was simply to be—to be like God come down to earth. John could get no purchase on so formidable a conglomerate, supported as it was by an entire establishment of courtiers. As a result, his time ran out quickly. By 404 the squeaky bishop was deemed to be dispensable. In 407, John died as an exile in eastern Anatolia.

The third of these men is Augustine. Readers who wish to make the transition from the world of Ambrose to that of Augustine can now turn to Garry Wills’s Font of Life. This unusually instructive book places Ambrose firmly in Milan. We meet him as the hero of a great Italian city: even today, local tortellini are called raviolata d’Ambrogio. We walk around modern Milan, viewing the churches that Ambrose himself had built or defended. Above all, Wills leads us down, beneath the west end of the great Duomo, to the excavated remains of the baptistery in which Ambrose, as bishop of Milan, baptized Augustine on Easter Day, 387. Augustine had barely known Ambrose up to that time. It was only then, in the mysterious, surging waters of a pool, that Ambrose truly stood face to face with the only man who would overshadow him in the memory of Catholic Europe. This pool is the center of Wills’s book.

Wills confesses that “there is a certain romance to archaeology, the dream of delving downward to bring up a lost world.” But he does more than bring us down from the fairy-tale roof of the Duomo of Milan (the usual goal of tourists) to the ruins that now lie hidden beneath the ground. He takes us for a vertiginous drop of almost 1,800 years into a Christianity profoundly different from our own.

In 387, the baptistery stood out as a high octagon a short distance from the Christian cathedral. It (and those like it) were the direct ancestors of il bel San Giovanni in fonte that still stands outside the cathedral of Florence. But this baptistery was not open to all. It was an arcane building, as closed against the uninitiated as was the cave of any pagan mystery cult. In it new things began. Their bodies greasy with perfumed oil, the Christian initiates (men in one shift and women in another) stood around stark naked. They did so with the insouciant glee of Roman citizens enjoying the public baths. For these were the bodies of proud new citizens of heaven. They did so in an atmosphere charged with the presence of sinister powers. The ceremony began with an act of solemn exorcism. The culmination of the ritual involved a breaking of the boundaries between heaven and earth. Like Elijah in his fiery chariot, each believer was swept, for a moment, into a world beyond the stars. It was a rite that “broke open the incandescence of eternal life.”

Little did they know it, but in 387 the two men stood at a parting of the ways. For Ambrose, baptism remained a baroque affair—a moment of rapture and unearthly light set against the darkness of a still-pagan world. Augustine, as a bishop in North Africa, manning a tiny baptistery (compared with that of Milan), came to a very different view of the same ritual. For him, baptism no longer stood out in high relief. The baptized Christian could not expect to be buoyed up by the sense of having been transformed by a single, dramatic rite. Human nature did not change so fast. Each believer remained like a leaky ship on the high seas, kept afloat by the constant creak of the bilge pump. The salt water of small, insidious sins dripped through its timbers. If not pumped out by constant acts of penance, prayer, and almsgiving, these small trickles of sin could sink the ship. In this, Augustine preached a doctrine for the long haul, suited to a gray world where almost everyone was a Christian and very few of them were good Christians. It was the doctrine that would steer Latin Christendom throughout the long centuries of the Middle Ages.

But that, of course, is not all that we know about Augustine. He is the subject of yet another gem of a little book by Garry Wills, Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, published by Princeton University Press as part of a new series, Lives of Great Religious Books. He is also the subject of a careful study by Andrea Nightingale, Once Out of Nature: Augustine on Time and the Body.

At the time of Augustine’s baptism by Ambrose in 387, as Garry Wills makes clear, “Ambrose did not give him the time of day.” His lack of knowledge of Greek (the sign of a provincial education) rendered him deaf to the riches of the Greek world.

From 396 to 430 Augustine was bishop of Hippo (Bône/Annaba in modern Algeria). It was not for nothing that the name “Hippo” derived from the Punic word for port—ubon. Hippo was the largest harbor west of Carthage on the long coast of North Africa. Much of the grain for Rome poured from the hinterland through its docks. Augustine was well placed to ensure that his voice would soon come to be heard in the great echo chamber of a Mediterranean Latin Christianity. In around 397—that is, in the year that Ambrose died and just before John set out on his fateful journey to Constantinople—Augustine produced the Confessions. Wills describes brilliantly the manner in which this strange work seeped slowly through literary circles. Most would have heard it read aloud to circles of listeners, like the great serial novels of the Victorian Age. Listening to this “meditative spell” for the first time, they would have realized that “no one had ever written anything like this book.”

Wills writes to make sure that we get its message right. His book is a passionate plea that we should read Augustine’s strange book as it was first heard, and in the light of the purposes for which it was first written: “People try to read it as something other than the unique thing it is.” Indeed, few Great Religious Books have been so thoroughly mauled by subsequent readers. It is usually treated as no more than the piquant autobiography of a converted sinner. This ensures that its last four books (in many ways, the most challenging of them all) are seldom reached. The autobiographical parts of the Confessions have fallen prey to the most absurd certainties of modern psychoanalysis. Its philosophical ruminations have been subjected to many forms of pretentious modern punditry. Wills disposes of these misreadings with vigor and good sense. The remedy that he proposes is simple: like Vergil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divina Commedia, the Confessions should be read from beginning to end. Like the Aeneid and the Divina Commedia, the book is the story of a journey. “People rarely complete these journeys.” They tend to be selective. In the case of the Confessions, they tend to linger on Augustine the young sinner. Yet the clue to the purpose of all three books lies in where their journeys end: Aeneas in Italy, Dante in Heaven, and Augustine sighing for the Heavenly Jerusalem of the future.

The Confessions was a single, mighty incantation. Past and present; baby in the cradle and bishop poised above the Scriptures; loved ones departed and present-day colleagues; scenes of agony and inspiration in gardens or above still courtyards: they all tumble into the great prayer that leads both them and all future hearers of the Confessions beyond space and time, to find their rest in God: “We ascend the heart’s ascents and sing the climbing song.”

Coming after Wills’s lucid exposition and deeply thought-through translation of the Confessions, Andrea Nightingale’s study, Once Out of Nature, enables us, in the case of Augustine, to glimpse the inner spaces of an ascetic’s mind.

We do not find what we might expect. Asceticism, for Augustine, did not mean simple flight from the material world. Instead, he faced an unresolved dilemma that Nightingale has deftly unraveled. She has found a thread in Augustine’s complex thought that has become more visible to us, in recent years, due to modern preoccupations with embodiment and with the place of humans in the ecosystem.

As she presents him, Augustine finds that he has to live both in a body and with a soul. Yet he can be at home in neither. Each is as unstable as the other. Every day the body is eroded by the thousand little deaths associated with the aging process. It is part of the “earthly food chain.” (And Nightingale speaks of the “horrifying” implications of this fact with a somber insistence worthy of the Manichaean missionaries of the fourth century.) But he realized that the soul was no better. It was not a fixed point. It was constantly changing. It could lose itself in the depths of its own memory, through amnesia. It scattered itself between past and present. It swayed between good and evil like a heaving sea. If “memory creates the self,” then this creation, in the words of the Duke of Wellington on the Battle of Waterloo, was a “dam’ close run thing.” “I…have been disarticulated into time…my very thoughts are shredded, my soul inwardly unstrung.”

To make matters worse, body and soul have come to be trapped in a cat-and-dog marriage. After the Fall, the “sweet marriage bond of body and soul” had turned sour. But for Augustine, the old escape route, open to the ancient sages, was blocked. “The soul simply cannot leave the premises.” It could no longer float up to a heaven in the stars, as it did in pagan times, leaving the gross body behind to sink into the earth.

Instead of disembodied souls, Augustine had to think about souls intimately linked (for good or ill) to bodies. As a result, when he thought of the perfect human person, his horizon was bounded, at both ends of time, by the image of mighty figures in whom body and soul were joined, but without the instability of time. For Adam and Eve before the fall, time had stood still. The resurrection of the body at the end of time restored the saints to the same state. Both examples of humanity stood outside time and, hence, outside nature. Nightingale calls these somewhat eerie figures “transhumans.” In the words of her title, taken from W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” they achieved a fin de siècle state, like iridescent Tiffany glass. They were “out of nature.” The poignancy of the present is that we are betwixt and between: “Though their bodies are (temporarily) ‘in’ nature, humans are not ‘of’ nature.”

In our estimate of Augustine, much depends on how we think he viewed these tantalizing alternatives to his present condition. Here we must be careful. There is a danger that we imagine him to be yearning for no more than a state of suspended animation. In this way Eden becomes a caricature of ascetic morality. Nightingale suggests, for instance, that sex in Eden must have been “lackluster”—an aseptic affair, totally subject to the control of the will. But this is to forget that Augustine thought of Eden itself as a place not of complete control but of perfect balance. The fact that there were no seasons there did not show that weather was excluded. Rather, it showed that the air itself had reached a gentle equilibrium. It was this sweet, dynamic balance of the air that ancients celebrated when they spoke of a caelum serenum—the magical blue of a Mediterranean sky at high noon. In the same way, the physical joy of Adam and Eve might be seen, more generously, as the product of perfect poise—something like the unforced high note reached by a singer.

But what matters for the historian is that it is precisely the intensity of this exercise of thinking about the unthinkable that exposed the great anomaly with which ascetic Christians wrestled, each in their different way: Where to put a body that would not go away? How could a body, made for the earth, become “unearthly”—as it had once been in Eden and as it would be at the end of time?

Here I would suggest that the answer did not come only from the studios of theologians. It came from all over the Mediterranean. The Christian people, and especially their bishops, decided which parts of nature were “unearthly” and which were not. Ambrose led the way. In 386, he consolidated his hold on the basilicas of Milan by the discovery of the long-buried relics of two saints—Gervasius and Protasius. Pulled out of the morbid earth of a graveyard, they were declared “unearthly.” They were removed from the grave and installed in the burial basilica that Ambrose had built for himself and his family, the modern Ambrogiana of Milan. In her fifth chapter, “Unearthly Bodies,” Nightingale shows that Augustine later followed suit. By a daring feat of imaginative inversion, applied to the relics of Saint Stephen in Hippo, he insisted that “the region of the living” was to be found where one would least expect it—“in the dust of the dead.”

I would suggest that this was a crucial turning point. The cult of saints (as Nightingale expounds it, in terms of the tension between being “in” nature and “out” of nature) ensured that the “unearthly” was given a concrete future in this world. A series of sacred places were set up—such as the shrine of Saint Felix, at Cimitile, Nola (near Naples), built by the converted millionaire Paulinus, where great candelabra filled with scented oil made the gilded roof shimmer like the waves of a golden sea—each of which appeared to reach forward to the end of time, like the path of a moonbeam on water. At such places, the future did not simply lie in heaven, beyond the high stars. A powerful imaginative alchemy had brought bits of the future down to earth.

The cult of saints, celebrated in shimmering basilicas filled with blazing light, was shot through with desire to participate a little, in the here and now, in the future joy and stability that would be granted to “transhumans” at the end of time. By this means, the Christian communities created what any thrusting institution needs—the sense of a future on earth touched by the shadow of eternity.

It was this sense of the future that rose to the top in the age of Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Augustine. For well over a millennium, it remained the future of the majority of Western Europeans. Only recently has it, perhaps, come to be our past.