Biography of Saint Ambrose of Milan, Father of the Church

St. Ambrose of Milan portrait.

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Ambrose was the second son of Ambrosius, the imperial viceroy of Gaul and part of an ancient Roman family who numbered several Christian martyrs among their ancestors. Though Ambrose was born at Trier, his father died not long after and he was brought to Rome to be raised. Throughout his childhood, the future saint would be acquainted with many members of the clergy and would regularly visit with his sister Marcellina, who was a nun.

Fast Facts

Known For: Bishop, Philosopher, Theologian, Religious Leader, Saint, Teacher, Writer

Born: April 4, 397, Colombia

Ordained: December 7, c. 340

Died: April 4,397

Father: Ambrosius

Died: April 4, 397

Notable Quote: "If you are at Rome live in the Roman style; if you are elsewhere live as they live elsewhere."

Saint Ambrose as Bishop of Milan

At about age 30, Ambrose became the governor of Aemilia-Liguria and took up residence in Milan. Then, in 374, he was unexpectedly chosen as bishop, even though he was not yet baptized, to help avoid a disputed election and keep the peace. The choice proved fortunate for both Ambrose and the city, for though his family was venerable it was also somewhat obscure, and he did not pose much of a political threat. He was ideally suited to Christian leadership and exerted a favorable cultural influence on his flock. He also displayed a rigid intolerance toward non-Christians and heretics.

Ambrose played an important role in the struggle against the Arian heresy, standing against them at a synod in Aquileia and refusing to turn over a church in Milan for their use. When a pagan faction of the senate appealed to Emperor Valentinian II for a return to regular pagan observances, Ambrose responded in a letter to the emperor with sound arguments that effectively shut the pagans down.

Ambrose frequently helped the poor, secured pardons for the condemned, and denounced social injustices in his sermons. He was always happy to educate people interested in becoming baptized. He frequently criticized public figures, and he advocated chastity to such an extent that parents of marriageable young women hesitated to let their daughters attend his sermons for fear they'd take the veil. Ambrose was enormously popular as bishop and on the occasions when he butted heads with imperial authority, it was this popularity that kept him from suffering unduly in consequence.

Legend has it that Ambrose was told in a dream to search for the remains of two martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius, which he found under the church.

Saint Ambrose the Diplomat

In 383, Ambrose was engaged to negotiate with Maximus, who had usurped power in Gaul and was preparing to invade Italy. The bishop was successful in dissuading Maximus from marching south. When Ambrose was asked to negotiate again three years later, his advice to his superiors was ignored. Maximus invaded Italy and conquered Milan. Ambrose stayed in the city and helped the populace. Several years later, when Valentinian was overthrown by Eugenius, Ambrose fled the city until Theodosius (the Eastern Roman emperor) ousted Eugenius and reunified the empire. Though he did not support Eugenius himself, Ambrose petitioned the emperor for pardons for those who had.

Literature and Music

Saint Ambrose wrote profusely. Most of his surviving works are in the form of sermons. These have often been exalted as masterpieces of eloquence and are the reason for Augustine's conversion to Christianity. The writings of Saint Ambrose include the "Hexaemeron" (“On the Six Days of Creation”), "De Isaac et anima" (“On Isaac and the Soul”), "De bono mortis" (“On the Goodness of Death”), and "De officiis ministrorum," which expounded on the clergy's moral obligations.

Ambrose also composed beautiful hymns, including "Aeterne rerum Conditor" (“Framer of the earth and sky”) and "Deus Creator omnium" (“Maker of all things, God most high”).

Philosophy and Theology

Both before and after his rise to the bishopric, Ambrose was an avid student of philosophy and he incorporated what he learned into his own particular brand of Christian theology. One of the most notable ideas he expressed was of the Christian Church building its foundation on the ruins of the declining Roman Empire, and of the role of Christian emperors as dutiful servants of the church — making them, therefore, subject to the influence of church leaders. This idea would have a powerful impact on the development of medieval Christian theology and the administrative policies of the medieval Christian Church.

Saint Ambrose of Milan was known for being a Doctor of the Church. Ambrose was the first to formulate ideas about church-state relations, which would become the prevalent medieval Christian viewpoint on the matter. A bishop, teacher, writer, and composer, St. Ambrose is also famous for having baptized St. Augustine.

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Snell, Melissa. "Biography of Saint Ambrose of Milan, Father of the Church." ThoughtCo, Sep. 22, 2021, Snell, Melissa. (2021, September 22). Biography of Saint Ambrose of Milan, Father of the Church. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Biography of Saint Ambrose of Milan, Father of the Church." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).