Saint Ambrose in His Study,
In matters of
exegesis he is, like Hilary, an Alexandrian. In dogma he follows Basil of
Caesarea and other Greek authors, but nevertheless gives a distinctly
Western cast to the speculations of which he treats. This is particularly
manifest in the weightier emphasis which he lays upon human sin and divine
grace, and in the place which he assigns to faith in the individual
Writings of St. Ambrose.
The extant writings
of St. Ambrose may be divided under six heads.
I. Dogmatic; II. Exegetic; III. Moral; IV. Sermons; V. Letters; VI. A few
Dogmatic and Controversial Works.
fide ad Gratianum Augustum (On Faith, to Gratian Augustus)
of these are the Five Books on the Faith,
of which the two first were written in compliance with a request of the
Emperor Gratian, a.d. 378. Books III.-V. were written in 379 or 380, and
seem to have been worked up from addresses delivered to the people [V. prol.
9, 11; III. I43; IV. 119]. This treatise vindicates the Divinity of Christ
from the attacks of the Arians.
Spiritu Sancto (On the Holy Ghost)
books on the Holy Spirit may be considered as a continuation of the above
treatise, and were also addressed to Gratian in compliance with his request,
a.d. 381. In this treatise St. Ambrose shows that the Holy Spirit is God,
and of one nature and substance with the Father and the Son. He makes use of
the Greek writers, SS. Didymus, Basil the Great, and Athanasius, and was on
this ground attacked by St. Jerome. See Rufinus, Apol. adv. Hieron. II.
incarnationis Dominicae sacramento (On the Sacrament of the Incarnation of
on the Mystery of the Lord's Incarnation owed its origin to a challenge to
dispute publicly given to St. Ambrose by two Arian chamberlains of Gratian.
The treatise is a very valuable argument in defence of our Lord's Divinity
and Eternity, and that He is perfect God and perfect Man
mysteriis (On the Mysteries)
valuable treatise on the Mysteries, under which title St. Ambrose includes
Baptism, with its complement, Confirmation, and the Eucharist.
duo de paenitentia. (Freedom through Penitence)
books on Penitence were written about a.d. 384, against the Novatians.
In the first book the writer proves that the power of forgiving sins was
left by Christ to His Church.
In the second book, insisting on the necessity of repentance and
confession, he also refutes the Novatian interpretations of Heb. vi. 4-6 and
St. Matt. xii. 31-32.
This treatise has also underservedly been questioned on doctrinal grounds by
II. Exegetical Works.
(Six Days of Creation);
treatise, expounding the literal and moral sense of the work of the six days
of creation [Gen. i. 1-26], consists of nine addresses to the people of
Milan, delivered in the last week of Lent, probably a.d. 389, and is now
divided into six books. The writer has studied Origen, but followed rather
the teaching of St. Hippolytus and Basil the Great, though he expresses
himself often quite in a different sense.
paradiso (On Paradise);
the earliest or one of the earliest of the extant writings of St. Ambrose,
though the exact date is uncertain. In it he discusses what and where
Paradise was, and the question of the life of our first parents there, the
temptation, fall and its results, and answers certain cavils of the Gnostics
and Manichees. He also enters into an allegorical exposition comparing
Paradise with the human soul.
Cain et Abel. (On Cain and Abel)
treatise is now divided into two books, but the division is too inartistic
to have been made by the writer. As to the date, it was later than the last
treatise, but probably not many months. The interpretations are very
mystical, and touch upon moral and dogmatic questions.
De Noe et Arca. (On Noah and the Ark)
treatise has reached us in a mutilated condition. It was written probably
before the De Officiis and De Abraham, but after the works on Paradise and
Cain and Abel, though the exact date cannot be determined. The exposition is
literal and allegorical.
De Patriarchis. (The Patriarchs)
books preached and written at various dates about 387 or 388. The same kind
of interpretation is followed in these as in the former treatises.
6. De fuga saeculi.
about a.d. 389-390. An instructive treatise setting forth the desirability
of avoiding the dangers of the world, and for those who must live in the
world, showing how to pass through them most safely.
De Elia et jejunio. (On Elijah and Fasting);
composed from addresses delivered during Lent, certainly after a.d. 386,
De Tobia.(On Tobias)
quoted by St. Augustine (C. Jul. Pelag. I. 3, 10), consisting of sermons on
the story of Tobias, and chiefly directed against the practice of usury.
De Nabuthe Jezraelita (On Naboth);
One or two
sermons against avarice, probably written about a.d. 395.
10. Libri iv. de interpellatione Job et David. (Interpretations on Job and
and third books have Job, the second and fourth David, for their subject,
and formed a course of sermons the date of which is uncertain.
prophetae David ad Theodosium Augustum.
A number of addresses delivered, it would seem, about a.d. 384, quoted also
by St. Augustine.
12. Enarrationes in xii. Psalmos Davidicos. Commentaries on Psalms 1, 35-40,
43, 45, 47, 48,
61 (according to St.
Ambrose's numbering). These seem to have been partly preached, partly
dictated at various dates, and much in them is borrowed from St. Basil.
13. Expositio Psalmi cxviii.
(Exposition of Psalm 118)
This treatise is one of the most carefully worked out of all the writings of
St. Ambrose and consists of twenty-two addresses to the faithful, each
address comprising one division of the Psalm. From various allusions, it
would seem that the completed work dates from about a.d. 388.
14. Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam. (Exposition of the Gospel of Luke)
books of this commentary consist likewise of sermons in which St. Ambrose
explained the Gospel during a period of one or two years, in 386 and 387.
III. Ethical Writings.
Among the ethical or
moral writings of St. Ambrose, the first place is deservedly assigned to:
De Officiis Ministrorum (On the Offices of Ministers, an ecclesiastical
handbook modeled on Cicero's De Officiis.)
books, which are translated in this series.
De virginibus (On Virgins);
books concerning Virgins, addressed to his sister Marcellina in the year
377, probably, like most of the treatises of St. Ambrose, revised from
addresses, the first of which was delivered on the festival of St. Agnes,
January 21. This would seem to have been perhaps the very earliest of the
writings of St. Ambrose, judging from the opening chapter. The treatise is
referred to by St. Jerome, St. Augustine, Cassian, and others.
De viduis (On Widows);.
shorter work, concerning Widows, was probably written not very long after
the last mentioned treatise.
De virginitate (On Virginity);
De Institutione Virginis. (On the Institution of Virgins)
on the training and discipline of a Virgin, addressed to Eusebius, either
bishop or a noble of Bologna, after St. Ambrose had admitted his niece to
the rank of Virgins, probably about a.d. 391 or 392.
Exhortatio virginitatis (Exhortation to Virginity);
commendation of Virginity preached on the occasion of the consecration of a
church at Florence by St. Ambrose, a.d. 393 or 394.
IV. Sermons and Addresses.
Contra Auxentium. (A sermon against Auxentius)
giving up the basilicas to the Arians, usually inserted between the
twenty-first and twenty-second of the letters of St. Ambrose.
De Excessu fratris Satyri. (On the death of Satyrus)
addresses on the occasion of the death of St. Ambrose's brother Satyrus,
translated in this volume.
De obitu Valentiniani Consolatio. (Consolation on the Death of Valentianian)
Emperor Valentinian having been murdered by Arbogastes, Count of Vienne, his
body was brought to Milan, and remained two months unburied. At last
Theodosius sent the necessary rescript, and at the funeral solemnities St.
Ambrose delivered the address entitled the "Consolation."
De obitu Theodosii oratio. (Oration on the Death of Theodosius)
discourse delivered forty days after the death of the Emperor Theodosius
before the Emperor Honorius at Milan.
The Letters of St. Ambrose.
1. To the Emperor
Gratian, in reply to his request for a treatise on the Faith. Written a.d.
379, before August, as Gratian came to Milan in that month.
2. To Constantius, a
bishop, on episcopal duties, and commending to him the care of the vacant
see of Forum Cornelii, or Imola. Probably written about a.d. 379.
3, 4. To Cornelius,
Bishop of Comum, the first a friendly letter, the second containing also an
invitation to the consecration of a church by Bassianus, Bishop of Laus
Pompeia, now Lodi Vecchio, near Milan. Written probably after a.d. 381.
5, 6. To Syagrius,
Bishop of Verona. On a charge falsely brought against the Virgin Indicia.
They may have been written a.d. 380.
7, 8. To Justus,
perhaps Bishop of Lyons. On holy Scripture. If the conjecture that Justus
was the Bishop of Lyons is correct, written about 380 or 381.
concerning the Council of Aquileia, held a.d. 381, to the bishops of the
provinces of Gaul, to the Emperor Gratian and his colleagues. Two men,
Palladius and Secundianus, held Arian opinions, and the former appears to
have asked Gratian to convoke a General Council, pleading that he was
unjustly condemned. St. Ambrose pointed out to the Emperor that such a
question as the orthodoxy of two persons could be settled by a local council
in Italy; and as a result, by the Emperor's mandate, a council of Italian
bishops met at Aquileia, other bishops having also permission to attend.
Palladius and Secundianus were condemned, and these letters have reference
to the proceedings at the council. They were probably written by St. Ambrose
in the name of the council, a.d. 381.
13, 14. Two letters
addressed to Theodosius, the former relating the decisions of a council,
probably held at Milan, on the Meletian schism at Antioch, and the latter
further expressing the desire of the bishops for a council on this subject,
and also on the opinions of Apollinaris. Written a.d. 381 or 382.
15. To the Bishops of
Macedonia, in reply to their notification of the death of Acholius, Bishop
of Thessalonica, who baptized Theodosius, and had met St. Ambrose at a
council in Rome. Written a.d. 383.
16. To Anicius, on
his election to succeed Acholius, whose labours and life are commended by
St. Ambrose. Written a.d. 383.
17, 18. On the
occasion of the attempt of Symmachus and the heathen senators to procure the
restitution of the image and Altar of Victory in the Roman Senate-house,
frustrated by St. Ambrose, a.d. 384.
19. To Vigilius,
Bishop of Trent, subsequently martyred, written probably about a.d. 385.
20. To his sister,
Marcellina, giving an account of the frustrated attempts of the Arian and
imperial party to gain possession of a basilica at Milan, a.d. 385,
21. To the Emperor
Valentinian II., declining the challenge to dispute with the Arian Auxentius
before lay judges. a.d. 386.
22. To his sister
Marcellina, giving an account of the finding of the bodies of SS. Gervasius
and Protasius, and of the consequent miracles. Written a.d. 386.
23. To the bishops of
the province of Aemilia, on the proper date for the observance of Easter, in
387. Written a.d. 386.
24. To Valentinian
II., with an account of St. Ambrose's second mission to Maximus on his
behalf. Written probably a.d. 387.
25, 26. Inscribed the
former to Studius, the second to Irenaeus, but from internal evidence these
appear to be the same person. It deals with the question, how far a judge
being a Christian may lawfully sentence any one to death. Written probably
about a.d. 388.
27-33. Addressed to
Irenaeus, on various questions. Written about a.d. 387.
34-36. To Orontianus,
a cleric, on the soul and other questions. Written after 386.
37, 38. To
Simplicianus, who became the successor of St. Ambrose in the see of Milan,
setting forth that holiness is perfect freedom.
39. To Faustinus, on
the occasion of the death of a sister. Written probably after a.d. 387.
40. To Theodosius.
The Jewish synagogue at Callinicum in Mesopotamia having been destroyed by
the Christians, and a meeting-house of the Valentinian heretics also burnt
by the Catholics, Theodosius ordered that the bishop should rebuild the
synagogue at his own expense, and the monks be punished. St. Ambrose
remonstrates with the Emperor, and it would seem, from the following letter
to his sister, at first unsuccessfully.
41. To his sister
Marcellina, relating the circumstances alluded to above, and telling her of
his sermon before the Emperor, and of his subsequent refusal to celebrate
the Eucharist, until the Emperor had promised to rescind the order. The date
of the two letters is a.d. 388.
42. Reply of St.
Ambrose and a synod at Milan to the notification of Pope Siricius announcing
the sentence of excommunication passed upon Jovinian and his followers.
43, 44. To
Horontianus, in reply to his inquiries on some points connected with the
45. To Sabinus,
Bishop of Placentia, in answer to questions concerning Paradise.
46. To the same, on
the subject of an Apollinarian heretic.
47-49. To the same,
with books and on private matters.
50. To Chromatius,
probably Bishop of Aquileia, explaining how evil men may be used to utter
51. To Theodosius,
after the massacre at Thessalonica. Written a.d. 390.
52. A private letter
53. To Theodosius, to
express the sorrow of St. Ambrose at the death of Valentinian II., slain by
54, 55. To Eusebius,
not, it would seem, the Bishop of Bologna who was present at the Council of
Aquileia, but rather a lay friend to whom St. Ambrose wrote his treatise on
the training of a virgin. Probably written a.d. 392 or 393.
56. To Theophilus.
The troubles of the church of Antioch through the Meletian schism might have
terminated on the death of Paulinus, had he not on his deathbed consecrated
Evagrius as his successor in violation of the canons. Theodosius, being
pressed by the Western bishops, now summoned a council at Capua, commanding
Flavian to attend, which command he however disobeyed. The council referred
the matter to Theophilus of Alexandria and the bishops of Egypt. But
Flavian, as Theophilus had informed St. Ambrose, refused to submit to their
decision. This is the reply of St. Ambrose advising Theophilus to summon
Flavian once more, and communicate the result to Pope Siricius. The letter
must have been written quite at the end of a.d. 391, or the beginning of
57. To Eugenius the
usurper, to avoid whom St. Ambrose had left Milan, and to whose letters he
had sent no reply. Written a.d. 393.
58. To Sabinus,
Bishop, on the resolution of Paulinus and Therasia to forsake the world.
Written probably a.d. 393.
59. To Severus,
Bishop probably of Naples, telling him of James, a Persian priest, who had
resolved to retire from the world into Campania, and contrasting this with
his own troubles, owing to the invasion of Eugenius, a.d. 393 or 394.
60. To Paternus,
against a proposed incestuous marriage.
61. To Theodosius,
after his victory over Eugenius. Written a.d. 394.
62. To the same,
urging him to be merciful to the followers of Eugenius. Written in the same
63. To the Church at
The second division
of the letters, being those which cannot be dated, begins here in the
64. To Irenaeus, on
65. To Simplicianus,
on Exodus xxiv. 6.
66. To Romulus, on
Aaron's making the calf of the golden earrings.
67. To Simplicianus,
showing how Moses yielded to Aaron in matters relating to his priestly
68. To Romulus.
Explanation of the text Deut. xxviii. 23.
69. To Irenaeus,
answering a question as to the prohibition under severe penalties in the
Mosaic law, of disguising the sex by dress.
70, 71. To
Horontianus, on part of the prophecy of Micah.
72. To Constantius,
on the rite of circumcision.
73-76. To Irenaeus.
Why the law was given, and the scope of the Epistle to the Ephesians. The
letter numbered 75 is plainly a continuation of 74, although inscribed to
Clementianus, a difficulty similar to that about letter 26.
77, 78. To
Horontianus, contrasting the condition of the Jew and the Christian.
79, 80. To Bellicius,
on recovery from sickness, and on the miracle of healing the man blind from
81. To certain
clergy, against despondency.
82. To Marcellus,
concerning a lawsuit.
83. To Sisinnius,
commending him for forgiving his son, who had married without consulting
84. To Cynegius.
85, 86. To Siricius,
with thanks for letters, and commending Priscus.
87. To Segatius [more
probably Phaebadius], Bishop of Agens, and Delphinus, Bishop of Bordeaux.
Polybius, mentioned in the letter, was proconsul of Africa between the years
380 and 390.
88. To Atticus.
Commendation of Priscus.
89. To Alypius.
Acknowledgment of letters.
90. To Antonius. On
the mutual affection of himself and St. Ambrose.
91. To Candidianus,
probably a fellow-bishop. A letter of affection.
VII. Doubtful and Spurious Works.
This volume cannot of
course comprehend the arguments and discussions necessary for any critical
examination of certain works whether doubtful or certainly spurious, but
their names may be given and certain conclusions stated.
1. Five books on the
Jewish war, ordinarily attributed to Hegisippus. This is a translation into
Latin and a condensation in part of the well-known work of Josephus. Ihm, a
very thorough student of St. Ambrose, seems quite disposed to maintain after
careful examination that this is the work of St. Ambrose.
2. De lege Dei. This
treatise, a sort of compendium of Roman law in the fourth century, and
comparison of it with the law of Moses, is ascribed, in a translation
published by Mai,(24) to St. Ambrose, who is said to have undertaken the
work at the command of Theodosius. On the authenticity, however, of this
treatise there probably will always remain much doubt.
3. Among works more
or less doubtful are De Sacramentis, admitted by the Benedictines, but
rejected, and apparently on sufficient grounds, by Ihm.
4. Apologia David
altera. Suspected by Erasmus, Tillemont, and Ihm.
5. De lapsu Virginis
consecratae. A severe castigation of a fallen virgin and of her seducer. The
treatise seems to have been written by a certain Bishop of Nicetas, and a
ms. at speaks of it as having been revised by St. Ambrose.
6. There are further
three brief addresses ascribed by some persons to St. Ambrose, touching on
the question of selling all and giving to the poor. Some of the matter is
like St. Ambrose, but the same cannot be said of the diction and style.
VIII. Lost Writings of St. Ambrose.
1. Expositio Isaiae
prophetiae, referred to by St. Augustine as well as by St. Ambrose himself.
2. Liber de
Sacramento regenerationis sive de philosophia, referred to by St. Augustine.
3. Libellus ad
Pansophium puerum, written a.d. 393-4, according to Paulinus in his life of
4. Libri quatuor
regnorum, referred to in the introduction to the work on the Jewish war.
5. Expositio fidei,
quoted by Theodoret and others as a writing of St. Ambrose.
Ambrose (AD 338-397),
appears to have been the first person in Europe who could read without
moving his lips; or, at least, that’s the interpretation generally given to
this passage from the Confessions of St Augustine of Hippo.
‘When [Ambrose] read,
his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his
voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely
and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit
him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.’
Although there are
various references to it in antiquity
Henry Chadwick says that it was ‘uncommon, but not unknown’ – e.g. it is
attributed by Plutarch to Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, and there
are characters in Greek plays who read silently on stage, silent reading
seems to have been a lost art in Europe in Ambrose’s time.
We should not forget
that books were expensive and rare with its unavailability to common man.
Thus the only form of reading is the loud ones. Churches used the reading
of the Scripture as a part of the worship for the same reason.
The fame of Bishop
Ambrose and his actions attracted to him many followers from other lands.
Just as Solomon's wisdom attracted people from all over the world, from as
far away as Persia learned men came to him to ask questions and learn
from his wisdom. Even like the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon to learn
Fritigelda (Frigitil), the queen of the Germanic tribe of the Markomanni,
which often had attacked Mediolanum, came to seek instruction from the
Bishop. The saint in his letter to her expounded the dogmas of the
Church with such clarity that eventualy she became and believer in Jesus and
brought her husband also into it. This led to a treaty of peace with the
Saint Ambrose, the Father of Western Hymnody
heretical teachings of Arianism were spread, in part, through popular
music. Arius had reportedly been something of a musical genius who had
taken the popular music and melodies of his day and created popular church
songs that spread his doctrine.
St. Ambrose also
composed hymns that countered Arianism and expressed the Catholic orthodox
teachings on the Trinity. It was Ambrose who introduced hymnody to the
liturgies in the west, and the Te Deum is attributed to his authorship (in
our icon, St. Ambrose holds a scroll featuring this hymn).
traditionally credited but not actually known to have composed any of the
repertory of Ambrosian chant also known simply as "antiphonal chant", a
method of chanting where one side of the choir alternately responds to the
other. (The later pope Saint Gregory I the Great is not known to have
composed any Gregorian chant, the plainsong or "Romish chant".) However,
Ambrosian chant was named in his honor due to his contributions to the music
of the Church; he is credited with introducing hymnody from the Eastern
Church into the West.
several original hymns as well, four of which still survive, along with
music which may not have changed too much from the original melodies. Each
of these hymns has eight four-line stanzas and is written in strict iambic
tetrameter (that is 4 x 2 syllables, each iamb being two syllables). Marked
by dignified simplicity, they served as a fruitful model for later times.
persecutions stirred up by the Arian Empress Justina, a.d. 385-6, referred
to in his 20th letter, St. Ambrose and the faithful spent the whole night in
the basilica, and the holy Bishop employed the people in singing psalms and
hymns. A large number of hymns have been attributed to St. Ambrose, the
number having by some editors been brought down to twelve, of which,
however, only four are certainly his compositions.
Eterne rerum Conditor,
referred to by St. Augustine, Retract. I. 21, and by St. Ambrose himself,
Hexaëm. V. 24, 88. The hymn is still in use at Lauds on Sunday.
Deus Creator omnium.
Quoted by St. Augustine, Conf. IX. 12, 32.
Jam surigil hora tertia.
Also quoted by St. Augustine.
Veni Redemptor gentium.
A Christmas hymn, quoted by Pope Celestine, a.d. 430, in a sermon against
the Nestorians, preached before a synod at Rome, and also by other writers.
Of other hymns one commencing, Illuminans Altissimus, is quoted by
Cassiodorus as an Epiphany hymn by St. Ambrose, and the same author refers
to another, Orabo mente Dominum. The Benedictine Editors admit six other
hymns, but they are supported by no authority anterior to Venerable Bede.
The additional eight
hymns credited to the Saint by the Benedictine editors are:
lux beata Trinitas";
porta Christi pervia".
sancte nobis spiritus";
potens, verax Deus";
Deus Tenax Vigor";
est dies verus Dei";
Nabor, Felix pii";
tibi Jesu novas";
Saint Ambrose was
also traditionally credited with composing the hymn "Te Deum", which he is
said to have composed when he baptised Saint Augustine of Hippo, his
Ambrose of Milan and his Anti-Arian Hymns
hymns as a means of instructing his people in a way that they would
appreciate and understand; he wrote hymns which they could sing, as heretics
had already done before him. This last observation is important as the
reader must first understand that Ambrose did not invent the Christian hymn
itself, just a particular form of hymnody.
The hymns of Ambrose
could be easily learned and sung. More importantly, their doctrinal content
“was simple and basic, such that even the uneducated could grasp it.”
Boeft observes, “He
did not compose beautiful songs which were gratifying to the ears, but
authentic poetry which could move men’s hearts.”
It was only fitting
that Ambrose turn to hymnody, as this had been the strategy of Arius years
before. One author conjectures that it is possible that Auxentius introduced
Arian hymns in Milan; Arian’s Thalia being particularly famous. The
diffusion of Arianism is often explained by the use of verse. Ballads were
sung “ad nauseam by sailors, merchants, and travelers in the streets and
harbors.” It is only natural for a man such as Ambrose to appropriate his
opponent’s method and employ it for his own means. The erudite pastor was
keen on using whatever means necessary to arrest heresy and promote
Soon after the
Christianity became legal, I began to develop ritualistic music and people
from different ethnic groups, religions and cultures influenced it.
The two main trends
of the early Christian chants – the Greek musical theory and the Jewish
psalmody – were flanked by elements coming from the East, especially from
Hebrew, Armenian and early Syrian Christian liturgies.
“The real history of
ancient Latin Christian hymns in the West, therefore, begins with St.
Historically it is
identified when Ambrose and his congregation refused to vacate the basilica
under the orders of the Emperor in the spring of 386. The church was
surrounded by soldiers. Ambrose implored his people to continue to sing
hymns and during the course developed a new form of singing in two groups
alternatively as response to each other. It is proper to say that it was by
his hymns, more than his theological works that Ambrose was able to triumph
over the enemies of orthodoxy, while likewise producing a profitable
instrument to be used in the church’s liturgy. They contained the essence
In 386 Saint Ambrose,
introduced the use of chants not derived from psalms and composed texts and
music of his hymns, made innovations in the style and chose the jambic
dimeter. The most notable and beautiful hymns attributed to St. Ambrose are:
Deus creator omnium;
Aeterne rerum conditor; Iam surgit hora tertia; Veni redemptor gentium.
The melodic structure
of the Ambrosian chant is simple but rich in mystical and contemplative
charge and in expressive power. There are several traits native to Ambrosian
chants and not typically Gregorian.
Unlike the Gregorian
chants, the Ambrosian ones are not stylistically uniform for any liturgical
category. The Ambrosian chants are not written in any mode whereas a given
Gregorian chant is in one of the eight church modes. The Ambrosian psalm
tones ( formulas for intoning psalms) differ from the Gregorian psalm tones
in that the former has no middle cadence ( stopping point) and have a
greater choice of reciting tones and terminations.