Anti-paganism influenced by Saint Ambrose

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Saint Ambrose and emperor Theodosius by Van Dyck.

Saint Ambrose influenced the anti-paganism policy of several late Roman emperors including Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I.[1][2][3][4] Under the influence of Saint Ambrose, Theodosius issued, in the year 391, the "Theodosian decrees," a declaration of war on paganism,[2][5] and the Altar of Victory was removed by Gratian. Ambrose prevailed upon Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius to reject requests to restore the Altar.

Altar of Victory removal[edit]

Ambrose was equally zealous in combating the attempt made by the upholders of the old state religion to resist the enactments of Christian emperors. The pagan party was led by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, consul in 391, who presented to Valentinian II a forcible but unsuccessful petition praying for the restoration of the Altar of Victory to its ancient station in the hall of the Roman Senate, the proper support of seven Vestal Virgins, and the regular observance of the other pagan ceremonies.

To this petition Ambrose replied in a letter to Valentinian, arguing that the devoted worshipers of idols had often been forsaken by their deities; that the native valour of the Roman soldiers had gained their victories, and not the pretended influence of pagan priests; that these idolatrous worshipers requested for themselves what they refused to Christians; that voluntary was more honourable than constrained virginity; that as the Christian ministers declined to receive temporal emoluments, they should also be denied to pagan priests; that it was absurd to suppose that God would inflict a famine upon the empire for neglecting to support a religious system contrary to His will as revealed in the Holy Scriptures; that the whole process of nature encouraged innovations, and that all nations had permitted them even in religion; that heathen sacrifices were offensive to Christians; and that it was the duty of a Christian prince to suppress pagan ceremonies. In the epistles of Symmachus and of Ambrose both the petition and the reply are preserved.

To support the logic of his argument, Ambrose halted the celebration of the Eucharist, essentially holding the Christian community hostage, until Theodosius agreed to abort the investigation without requiring reparations to be made by the bishop.

Influence on Theodosius I[edit]

Theodosius I, penitent after having been excommunicated by Ambrose for the Massacre of Thessaloniki, was much under Ambrose's influence.[6][7][8][9][10][11] Ambrose told Theodosius to imitate David in his repentance as he had imitated him in guilt — Ambrose readmitted the emperor to the Eucharist only after several months of penance. This incident shows the strong position of a bishop in the Western part of the empire, even when facing a strong emperor — the controversy of John Chrysostom with a much weaker emperor a few years later in Constantinople led to a crushing defeat of the bishop.

Ambrose's influence upon Theodosius is credited with eliciting the enactment of the "Theodosian decrees" of 391 which were the most systematic attack on paganism to that date.[2][5]

In 392, after the death of Valentinian II and the acclamation of Eugenius, Ambrose supplicated the emperor for the pardon of those who had supported Eugenius after Theodosius was eventually victorious. Soon after acquiring the undisputed possession of the Roman empire, Theodosius died at Milan in 395, and two years later (April 4, 397) Ambrose also died.


  1. ^ Byfield 2003, pp. 92–4: ‘In the west, such [anti-Pagan] tendencies were less pronounced, although they had one especially powerful advocate. No one was more determined to destroy paganism than Ambrose, bishop of Milan, a major influence upon both Gratian and Valentinian II. [...] The man who ruled the ruler — Whether Ambrose, the senator-bureaucrat-turned-bishop, was Theodosius's mentor or his autocrat, the emperor heeded him—as did most of the fourth-century church.’
  2. ^ a b c MacMullen 1984, p. 100.
  3. ^ Roldanus 2006, p. 148.
  4. ^ Hellemo 1989, p. 254.
  5. ^ a b King 1961, p. 78.
  6. ^ MacMullen 1984, p. 100, 163: ‘The law of June 391, issued by Theodosius [...] was issued from Milan and represented the will of its bishop, Ambrose; for Theodosius—recently excommunicated by Ambrose, penitent, and very much under his influence—was no natural zealot. Ambrose, on the other hand, was very much a Christian. His restless and imperious ambition for the church's growth, come what might for the non-Christians, is suggested by his preaching.’
  7. ^ Palanque 1933.
  8. ^ Gaudemet 1972.
  9. ^ Matthews 1975.
  10. ^ King 1961.
  11. ^ Attwater, Donald; John, Catherine Rachel (1993), The Penguin Dictionary of Saints (3rd ed.), New York: Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-051312-4 .