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Ambrose: a mosaic of a white man with a short beard and his name written over him in Latin

Bishop Ambrose of Milan

Who was Bishop Ambrose?

By the later 300s AD, the Roman emperors were all Christians. So more and more of the people of the empire converted to Christianity. One of the most important men who encouraged people to convert was Ambrose, the bishop of Milan in northern Italy.

The Roman Emperor Theodosius
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Would emperors, or bishops, run the Church?

Ambrose worked hard to define what sort of relationship Roman emperors would have with the Christian church. Ambrose (AM-broze) insisted that even Roman emperors had to do what the church told them to do. Otherwise the emperors would go to hell when they died and burn forever. The emperors, who were used to being treated like gods themselves, did not like this idea. But in the end Ambrose found ways to force them to do what he told them to do.

Theodosius I: a marble carving of a beardless white man

The Roman emperor Theodosius I

Christians burn down a Jewish synagogue

This was how they fought it out: in the 380s AD, the emperor Theodosius heard a lawsuit brought by some Jews. The Christian bishop of that Roman town had told his followers to go and burn down the Jewish synagogue. Sure enough, the Christians had burned down the synagogue.

What is a bishop?
Jewish synagogues
Jews in the Roman Empire

Should the Christians rebuild it?

Early synagogue at Capernaum, Israel

Early synagogue at Capernaum, Israel

The Jews appealed to Theodosius for justice. After he heard the case, Theodosius said that the bishop should pay to rebuild their synagogue. But Ambrose wrote to Theodosius and said that was wrong, because Christian money shouldn’t be used to pay for Jewish things.

Ambrose and the Interdict

Theodosius still thought that it was right to pay for what you had broken. So Ambrose threatened to not let anybody in Milan take Communion until Theodosius let the bishop off. He would excommunicate them all. And in the end, Theodosius did let the bishop off (though he punished the Christians who had actually burnt down the synagogue).

What is Communion?
And what’s excommunication?

Ambrose and Theodosius fight again

Roman chariot mosaic from Vienne, France

Roman chariot mosaic from Vienne, France

Soon after that, Ambrose and Theodosius had another fight. Some people in Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, had murdered some Roman soldiers who were acting as security guards. They were just angry because their favorite charioteer wasn’t going to be in the horse race they had come to see. Theodosius was angry that people had attacked Roman soldiers and killed them, and he wanted to teach them a lesson. He ordered that all the people at the races on a certain day should be killed to pay them back. And Roman soldiers did go and kill all those people, even old people and children who hadn’t done anything – seven thousand people altogether.

Roman chariot racing
The Roman army

Ambrose wins again

Well, a lot of those people in Thessaloniki were Christians. Thessaloniki had had Christians for a long time, because it was one of the places that Saint Paul went to when he was converting people. When Bishop Ambrose heard about these Christians being killed, he was very angry himself. He told the emperor Theodosius that he had to say he was sorry, in public, for killing those people, before he could go to heaven anymore. Ambrose said he would excommunicate Theodosius if he didn’t apologize. Theodosius really didn’t want to say he was sorry, but finally Ambrose made him do it.

Ambrose and Augustine

Ambrose was also one of the teachers of Augustine.

Learn by doing: visit a synagogue
More about Augustine

Bibliography and further reading about Ambrose:

More about Augustine
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