Ambrose and Augustine in Milan


Thou hadst pierced our heart with Thy love, and we carried Thy words, as it were, thrust through our vitals.”

St Augustine, Confessions


“If you demand my person, I am ready to submit; carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist but I will never betray the church of Christ…I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it.”

St Ambrose

How does one write about two great Doctors of the Church?  With humility.  From those who know more about these saints, I beg understanding and toleration, so that those who do not know them may.  What follows is but a brief summation of both St Ambrose’s and St Augustine’s time in Milan.  (Editor’s Note: For more detailed reading of Ambrose and Augustine, see references at the end of the article.)

St Ambrose’s biography was written by his secretary Deacon Paulinus of Nola at the suggestion of St Augustine.  Some say it is disappointing as literature; I have read Paulinus’s account, and it is certainly not the same level of prose as Sulpicius Serverus’ “The Life of St Martin” of Tours. However, Paulinus prefaces his biography with comments on the limitations of his writing skills. In any case, for today’s readers it should be read as an introductory eye witness first-hand account of this fourth century saint.

We know much about St Augustine from his own writing and from others such as his friend of forty years, St Possidius.  Possidius’s account is called “The Life of St Augustine”, written within two to three years of St Augustine’s death. Possidius’s is a truthful account of someone who shared the same roof for seven or eight years with a friend of 40-plus years. 

He says of St Augustine that he was “the best of bishops, predestined from eternity to be given to us when his time came…” 

THE EARLY LIFE OF AMBROSE: He was born probably in Trier about 339 to parents of ancient Christian ancestry.  He was born Aurelius Ambrosius, gens Aurelia from his mother and Ambrosius from his father.   His father, also Ambrosius, was Prefect of Gallia.

After his father died, the family moved to Rome about 340. As Ambrose was destined for civil service, he received a liberal arts education, studying the classics, Greek, Latin, literature, philosophy, music and rhetoric. Later, he studied law. 

AUGUSTINE’S EARLY LIFE:  Augustine was born at Tagaste (now Souk-Ahras, Tunis) on 13 November, 354 to Patricius and Monica.  Patricius was a pagan of the curialis (senatorial and landholding) rank; his mother, Monica, was a devout Christian.  Augustine received his early education in Tagaste, then studied at Carthage, a pagan town, in 370. His subjects would have included Latin, Greek, rhetoric, philosophy, and literature, among others.

PRE-CHRISTIAN GODDESS: Augustine, like so many who leave benevolent parental influence when very young, became seduced by the glamour and sinfulness of a pagan world.  Caught up in the pride of his own success as a brilliant student, by the time he was 18 (372 AD), he was a father, living with the woman who bore him his son, Adeodatus.  

Augustine reports, in his Confessions: I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from Your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake. “

AMBROSE DISTINGUISHED HIMSELF: In 365 at about the age of 26,  Ambrose and his brother became lawyers at the court of Sirmium (in the modern day Republic of Serbia), which was the headquarters and administrative offices of the praetorian prefect.  Ambrose distinguished himself in court, and came under the favor of the praetorian prefect, Anicius Probus.  Probus made Ambrose a member of his council.  About 370, they both were appointed to governorships, with Ambrose going to Milan. 

AUGUSTINE EMBRACES MANI: Augustine developed skills in rhetoric, and regarded its practice as his profession, though he continued to study philosophy out of love.  About 373, he became enamored of Manicheanism, essentially a religion that tried to include all the truths of all previous religions.   Augustine tells us that he was enticed by their ‘free philosophy unbridled by faith.’  Augustine embraced the Manicheans, read all their books, and defended their positions. He also studied astrology. 

AUGUSTINE IN ROME: In 383, at age 29, Augustine decided to leave Carthage for Rome, and took a job teaching rhetoric.   But in leaving Carthage, he lied to his mother Monica. Successfully deceiving her, he sailed to Rome, leaving his family behind.  However, he actually became physically sick in Rome, to the point where he thought he was on his death bed.  To add to his troubles, Augustine soon found Roman students taking advantage of him and finding ways of not paying him.  When some officials of Milan came to Rome looking for a teacher of rhetoric, Augustine applied, and was accepted.

AUGUSTINE’S EPIPHANY REGARDING MANICHEANISM happened when he met Faustus, a bishop of this sect; in his writings Augustine calls him the snare of the Devil.  For nine years, the elders (or select) of the sect referred Augustine to Faustus for clarification of doctrinal inconsistencies.  Augustine found Faustus to be an ordinary man gifted in speech, but ignorant of Truth.  Augustine became disenchanted with Manicheanism as he learned that it did not reveal the Truth he sought.   

AMBROSE IN MILAN: Having arrived in Milan about 370, Ambrose was told by Probus:  “Go, and conduct yourself not as judge, but as a bishop.” These words turned out to be prophetic.  When Ambrose arrived in Milan, Arians and Christians were both present, as were pagans of the cult of Mithra.  Ambrose’s many jobs as governor included being responsible for the public order.  He was a judge of the first order.  He was also a member of the Senate, and he supervised a large number of public servants.  He was beloved by the people. 

In 374, the bishop of Milan died, after 20 years of Arian rule.  The Catholics saw their chance to put one of their own on the bishop’s chair.  The historian Rufinus of Aquileia tells us that as governor, Ambrose foresaw a great clash coming between the two sides.

He therefore entered Milan cathedral where all were gathered, his object was to calm the masses. (After all, he was responsible for public order).  While Ambrose was addressing those present, Paulinus tells us that a cry was heard, said to be a child’s voice, saying “Ambrose for Bishop!” Then the whole crowd — Arians and Catholics alike — began chanting these same words, “Ambrose for Bishop!” 

Ambrose did not want this; he was only a catechumen at the time.  He felt himself unworthy and unprepared.  Ambrose left the cathedral, and Paulinus tells us, contrary to his usual practice, put some prisoners to torture, hoping to dissuade people by this show of violence.

In response, the crowd shouted “Your sin be upon us.”  Ambrose then tried to tarnish his reputation by having prostitutes in his house.  The crowd, undeterred, again shouted “Your sin be upon us.” 

Ambrose saw that these last two acts were futile.   He then tried to leave Milan, not once, but twice.  On his first attempt to leave, the people captured him.   He then put off his decision about a month by seeking the emperor’s approval.   While awaiting the emperor’s decision, he tried to escape again, staying at a friend’s house.  But, when the emperor’s message arrived –approving Ambrose– the friend turned Ambrose over to the authorities. Only then did Ambrose recognize that it was God’s will.

Ambrose insisted on a Catholic Bishop for baptism.   Ambrose was baptized on November 30, 374 at the age of 40.  (It was the custom in those days to be baptized later in life.  Ambrose later came to look on his youthful years without the sacraments as a time when “he had been lost.”)  He completed the other stages of ecclesiastical hierarchy, and was made bishop on Sunday December 7, 374.

Augustine in Milan

Augustine lived in Milan from autumn 384 to May 387.  He taught rhetoric in the pagan schools there, still holding fast to his Manichean beliefs, even after the Faustus experience. 

Yet, Augustine, still seeking the Truth, began reading Holy Scripture. But, scripture was not enough; initially, a skeptical Augustine was unimpressed with holy writ.  He thought it better suited to children. Further, he still had issues with the concept of evil that he thought Christianity did not fully address.

Then, Monica along with Augustine’s mistress of twelve years and their twelve year old son, arrived in Milan.

Monica sent Augustine’s mistress away, as she wanted Augustine to have a legitimate marriage; in response, Augustine found another mistress.   It was during this time that  Augustine famously prayed, “Make me chaste and continent, but not yet.” 

TOWERS OF THE CHURCH THEY KNEW: Ambrose and Augustine Met in Milan: when Ambrose was in his fifties; Augustine was 30.  Ambrose was a member of the Roman aristocracy, and had been Bishop of Milan for ten years. In contrast, Augustine was an obscure African rhetorician, a follower of Mani.  


ANCIENT MOSAIC OF AMBROSE (center) , created very soon after he died. Augustine was attracted to Ambrose through his style of speech.  In his Confessions, Augustine relates that “I took no trouble to learn what he said, but only to hear how he said it…”  However, Augustine experienced much anguish as he processed what he was learning.  Also, in Confessions, Augustine tells us about this story: One day, I heard the voice of a child in the yard next door singing, “Take it and read it, take it and read it.” He picked up a nearby copy of the Scriptures, opened and read the first passage he saw, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying:  but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in concupiscence

Immediately after reading this passage, Augustine no longer had any doubt as to what he should do.  He had overcome his final objection.   Through the grace of God, Monica’s prayers, and Ambrose’s friendship along with his sermons, Augustine eventually turned away from the falsehood of the Manicheans, and became a catechumen.

AUGUSTINE, HIS SON ADEODATUS, AND HIS FRIEND ALYPIUS WERE ALL BAPTIZED BY BISHOP AMBROSE on the Easter Vigil, April 24-25 387. He was 32. Monica, who was present, must have been overjoyed.  Shortly after this in May, 387, Augustine and his family departed Milan to return to his African home.  On the way, Monica caught a deadly fever and a few days later expired in the Roman port city of Ostia.

Over the centuries, we can still hear Monica’s last words: “Son, for myself I have no longer any pleasure in anything in this life. Now that my hopes in this world are satisfied, I do not know what more I want here or why I am here. There was indeed one thing for which I wished to tarry a little in this life, and that was that I might see you a Catholic Christian before I died. My God hath answered this more than abundantly, so that I see you now made his servant and spurning all earthly happiness. What more am I to do here?”

Ambrose’s greatest triumph was perhaps in helping Augustine overcome his intellectual barriers and pride in order to accept Catholicism.   Augustine surely needed this strong Catholic Bishop at this time in his life.  

Possidius writes: “through Ambrose, Augustine received both the teachings of salvation within the Catholic Church and the sacraments which effect that salvation.” 

Augustine, in his own words in Confessions, reports “So I came to Milan and to Bishop Ambrose…. He was a devout worshiper of you, Lord, and at the same time his energetic preaching provided Your people with the choicest wheat and the joy of oil and the sober intoxication of wine. Unknowingly, I was led by You to him, so that through him I might be led, knowingly, to You.”

Article by Harry Stevens

Photos by Harry Stevens, Beverly Stevens and Erica Mc Cullagh


Confessions St Augustine

Saint Ambrose: His Life and Times, by Angelo Pardee, University of Notre Dame Press, 1964

The Life of St Ambrose,  Deacon Paulinus in The Western Fathers, Sheed and Ward, 1954

The Life of St Augustine, Bishop Possidius in The Western Fathers, Sheed and Ward, 1954

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