Born in the city of Trier (modern Germany), Ambrose of Milan became a noted theologian, biblical critic, and hymnist, later canonized as a saint and considered the father of liturgical music. He is also known as the spiritual teacher who converted and baptized Augustine of Hippo [q.v.]. Ambrose’s father, the praetorian prefect of Gaul, died soon after Ambrose’s birth, and he was taken by his mother to Rome, where he was educated in rhetoric, classical literature, and in Stoic thought. Ambrose entered politics and in about 370, he became governor of Aemilia-Liguria, a province in northern Italy. Four years later, Ambrose was unexpectedly acclaimed bishop of Milan by the people—he received baptism and was consecrated bishop one week later. He served as bishop for 23 years until his death in 397. As bishop, Ambrose was committed to establishing orthodox Christian doctrine, defining Church authority, and disestablishing pagan state religion. When in 388 a local bishop instigated a mob that burned and looted a synagogue at Callinicum in Syria, Ambrose held, against the emperor Theodosius’s order that the bishop rebuild it, that it would be apostasy for the bishop to rebuild a place of worship for the enemies of Christ and that religious interests should prevail over the maintenance of civil law; after a stadium massacre in Thessalonica engineered by Theodosius, Ambrose threatened to excommunicate the emperor, though he later became Theodosius’ ally in the Church.
Ambrose was extremely influential in forming Christian discussion of church-state relations. As a Christian intellectual, he was also influential in integrating faith and reason within church theology, and was an important figure in the Arian controversy. His principal works include “On Faith” (380), a defense of orthodoxy against Arianism; “On the Duties of the Clergy” (386), a treatment of Christian ethical obligations; numerous Biblical commentaries, including Hexaemaeron (“On the Six Days of Creation”); “On the Goodness of Death”; and sermons and hymns, including Aeterne rerum Conditor (“Framer of the earth and sky”) and Deus Creator omnium (“Maker of all things, God most high”).
The following selection from Ambrose’s Of Virgins is a letter to his elder sister Marcellina. In 353, on the feast of the Epiphany, in the presence of the Pope, Marcellina had dedicated her virginity to God and vowed to live an ascetic life; she and her mother formed the core of one of the first groups of patrician women in Rome who renounced the world for their Christian beliefs. As virginity became increasingly celebrated, the issue of whether a virgin might kill herself to escape sexual violation had become an increasingly controversial matter. The view that rape was the worst thing that could befall a Christian woman had become widespread; for Christians, as Tertullian [q.v.] had put it, “. . . a stain upon chastity is reckoned among us as more dreadful than any punishment and any death.” Eusebius [q.v.] had narrated the story of the woman of Antioch and her two daughters who had drowned themselves in the river to avoid rape; his implicit evaluation of the incident is equivocal. Here, Ambrose relates with similar imagery the story of the 15-year-old Pelagia, later venerated as a saint, who together with her mother and sisters also seek death by drowning rather than be raped. Ambrose, clearly regarding them as virtuous rather than sinful, interprets these suicides as a form of martyrdom to be revered.
St. Ambrose, “Concerning Virgins,” Book III, ch. 7:32-39. From A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, Vol. 10, pp. 386-387. Available online from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library
from OF VIRGINS: LETTER TO MARCELLINA
As I am drawing near the close of my address, you [Marcellina] make a good suggestion, holy sister, that I should touch upon what we ought to think of the merits of those who have cast themselves down from a height, or have drowned themselves in a river, lest they should fall into the hands of persecutors, seeing that holy Scripture forbids a Christian to lay hands on himself. And indeed as regard; virgins placed in the necessity of preserving their purity, we have a plain answer, seeing that there exists an instance of martyrdom.
Saint Pelagia lived formerly at Antioch, being about fifteen years old, a sister of virgins, and a virgin herself. She shut herself up at home at the first sound of persecution, seeing herself surrounded by those who would rob her of her faith and purity, in the absence of her mother and sisters, without any defence, but all the more filled with God. “What are we to do, unless,” says she to herself, “thou, a captive of virginity, takest thought? I both wish and fear to die, for I meet not death but seek it. Let us die if we are allowed, or if they will not allow it, still let us die. God is not offended by a remedy against evil, and faith permits the act. In truth, if we think of the real meaning of the word, how can what is voluntary be violence? It is rather violence to wish to die and not to be able. And we do not fear any difficulty. For who is there who wishes to die and is not able to do so, when there are so many easy ways to death? For I can now rush upon the sacrilegious altars and overthrow them, and quench with my blood the kindled fires. I am not afraid that my right hand may fail to deliver the blow, or that my breast may shrink from the pain. I shall leave no sin to my flesh. I fear not that a sword will be wanting. I can die by my own weapons, I can die without the help of an executioner, in my mother’s bosom.”
She is said to have adorned her head, and to have put on a bridal dress, so that one would say that she was going to a bridegroom, not to death. But when the hateful persecutors saw that they had lost the prey of her chastity, they began to seek her mother and sisters. But they, by a spiritual flight, already held the field of chastity, when, as on the one side, persecutors suddenly threatened them, and on the other, escape was shut off by an impetuous river, they said, what do we fear? See the water, what hinders us from being baptized? And this is the baptism whereby sins are forgiven, and kingdoms are sought. This is a baptism after which no one sins. Let the water receive us, which is wont to regenerate. Let the water receive us, which makes virgins. Let the water receive us, which opens heaven, protects the weak, hides death, makes martyrs. We pray Thee, God, Creator of all things, let not the water scatter our bodies, deprived of the breath of life; let not death separate our obsequies, whose lives affection has always conjoined; but let our constancy be one, our death one, and our burial also be one.
Having said these words, and having slightly girded up the bosom of their dress, to veil their modesty without impeding their steps, joining hands as though to lead a dance, they went forward to the middle of the river bed, directing their steps to where the stream was more violent, and the depth more abrupt. No one drew back, no one ceased to go on, no one tried where to place her steps, they were anxious only when they felt the ground, grieved when the water was shallow, and glad when it was deep. One could see the pious mother tightening her grasp, rejoicing in her pledges, afraid of a fall test even the stream should carry off her daughters from her. “These victims, O Christ,” said she, “do I offer as leaders of chastity, guides on my journey, and companions of my sufferings.”
But who would have cause to wonder that they had such constancy whilst alive, seeing that even when dead they preserved the position of their bodies unmoved? The water did not lay bare their corpses, nor did the rapid course of the river roll them along. Moreover, the holy mother, though without sensation, still maintained her loving grasp, and held the sacred knot which she had tied, and loosed not her hold in death, that she who had paid her debt to religion might die leaving her piety as her heir. For those whom she had joined together with herself for martyrdom, she claimed even to the tomb.
But why use instances of people of another race to you, my sister, whom the inspiration of hereditary chastity has taught by descent from a martyred ancestor? For whence have you learnt who had no one from whom to learn, living in the country, with no virgin companion, instructed by no teacher? You have played the part then not of a disciple, for this cannot be done without teaching, but of an heir of virtue.
For how could it come to pass that holy Sotheris should not have been the originator of your purpose, who is an ancestor of your race? Who, in an age of persecution, borne to the heights of suffering by the insults of slaves, gave to the executioner even her face, which is usually free from injury when the whole body is tortured, and rather beholds than suffers torments; so brave and patient that when she offered her tender cheeks to punishment, the executioner failed in striking before the martyr yielded under the injuries. She moved not her face, she turned not away her countenance, she uttered not a groan or a tear. Lastly, when she had overcome other kinds of punishment, she found the sword which she desired.