Writings of Ambrose

Advanced Information

Some of The Principal Works of St. Ambrose, Translated by The Rev. H. De Romestin, M.A.
of St. John's College, and Rector of Tiptree, Essex,

with the Assistance of The Rev. E. De Romestin, M.A. of New College, Oxford,
and The Rev. H. T. F. Duckworth, M.A. of Merton College, Oxford.

Published in 1886 by Philip Schaff, New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co.

Translator's Preface.

Although, according to the plan of this "Library," Commentaries on Holy Scripture are omitted, and the field of selection is thus somewhat lessened, it has been no easy matter to decide which of St. Ambrose's many treatises should be chosen and which omitted.

Obviously the great work on the Faith, De Fide, must be included, and this implied the addition of that on the Holy Spirit. Then the treatise on the Duties of the Clergy, as throwing much light on the ideas of the Fourth Century as to what was expected of ecclesiastics, seemed to claim a place. And after these the difficulty becomes very great. It is unfortunate that the limitations of space do not admit of the inclusion of all the dogmatic and ascetic treatises. Similarly, one would have been glad to insert the addresses on the deaths of the two Emperors Valentinian and Theodosius. More, also, of his letters might well have been added, though, as they have appeared in full in the Oxford "Library of the Fathers," this is a matter for less regret.

Text Font Face
Text Size
(for printing)
BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet Our List of 2,300 Religious Subjects
As will be seen, I have availed myself of the assistance of my son, the Rev. E. de Romestin, of New College, and of the Rev. H. T. F. Duckworth, of Merton College, each of whom took high honours in the Theological School at Oxford.

The work has been carried out under some difficulties, and not the least has been the loss in travelling of a considerable portion of the manuscript, the whole of which had to be translated anew.

Prolegomena to St. Ambrose.


§1. Editions.

All the Editions of the works of St. Ambrose which preceded that of the Benedictines are very inadequate. Of these the chief are the following:

1. Venice, a.d. 1485.

2. Cribellius, a.d. 1490.

3. Auerbach, Basel, a.d. 1492, reprinted in 1506, with a full Index. These are very faulty Editions.

4. Erasmus, Basel, a.d. 1527, reprinted and re-edited by different persons, in various places [by Baronius amongst others, a.d. 1549].

5. Gillot Campanus, Paris, a.d. 1568.

6. Felix de Montalto [afterwards Pope Sixtus V.], Rome, a.d. 1580-1585, reprinted at Paris, a.d. 1603.

7. The Benedictines of St. Maur, Paris, a.d. 1686-1690, reprinted at Venice, a.d. 1748 and 1781, as well as with additions by Migne, Patres Latini, Vols. XIV.-XVII.

8. A new edition by Ballerini, Milan, a.d. 1875-1886, founded on that of the Benedictines, but by no means superior to it.

There is still room for a critical edition of the works of this great Father, which are unfortunately very corrupt, but in many points it is not likely that the work of the Benedictine editors can be improved upon.

9. There are separate editions of some of the treatises of St. Ambrose, as of the Hexaëmeron and De Officiis Clericorum, in the Bibliotheca Patrum Eccl. Latinæ Selecta, Leipzig, Tauchnitz. The De Officiis has also been edited, with considerable improvements in the text, by Krabinger, Tübingen, 1857, and the De Fide and De Poenitentia, by Hurter in the Vienna selections from the Fathers.

§2. Translations.

There seems to have never been any attempt to translate the works of this great Christian Father and Doctor in full.

Some few treatises, De Officiis, De excessu fratris Satyri, De Virginitate, and several other short ones, appear in German, in the select writings of the Fathers, published by Kosel of Kempten. The Epistles have been translated into French by Bonrecueil, Paris, a.d. 1746; and the De Officiis and Epistles into English, the former by Humfrey, London, a.d. 1637; the latter in the Oxford "Library of the Fathers," revised by E. Walford, London, 1881; whilst the De Mysteriis appears in a little volume of Sacramental Treatises, published by Messrs. J. Parker & Co., Oxford, under the supervision of the Editor of this volume. There is a very valuable little monograph entitled Studia Ambrosiana, chiefly critical, and unfortunately brief, by Maximilian Ihm. Leipzig, Teubner, 1889.

§3. Biographies and Authorities for the Life of St. Ambrose.

(a.) Ancient.

Many of his own writings.--Life of St. Ambrose by Paulinus, [1] a deacon of the Church of Milan.--St. Augustine, Confessions, V. 23, 24; VI. 1-6; IX. 13-16; and many other passages in his writings.--St. Jerome, De Scriptoribus Ecclesiasticis, c. 134.--Rufinus, Ecclesiastical History, XI, 11, 15, 16, 18.--Socrates, Eccl. History, IV. 30; V. 11.--Sozomen, Eccl. History, VI. 24; VII. 13, 25.

(b.) Modern.

Baronius, Annals, a.d. 397, n. 25-35; Life of St. Ambrose in the prolegomena to the Roman Edition of his works.--The Life of St. Ambrose gathered from his own writings, in the Benedictine Edition (excellent).--Hermant, Vie de St. Ambroise, Paris, 1678.--Tillemont, Mémoires, etc., Tome X. St. Ambroise [pp. 78-386], and notes, pp. 729-770.--Ceillier, Histoire générale des Auteurs sacrés, Tome V. pp. 328 ff. Ed. 2, Paris, 1860.--Dupin, Tome ii. pp. 438-515. [This writer says that the text of St. Ambrose is more corrupt than that of any other Father. See Alzog, Patrologie, p. 296. Ed. i.]--Cave, Hist. Lit. Vol. I. 262.--Schoeneman, Biblíotheca historica PP. Lat. I. 388-419.--Silbert, Leben des heiligen Ambrosius, Vienna, 1841--Baunard, Histoire de St. Ambroise, Paris, 1872 [translated into German, Freiburg, 1873].--Life of St. Ambrose, by Archdeacon Thornton, London, and other shorter sketches.--Fessler [Jungmann], Institutiones Patrologiæ, I. 655 [also Patrologies of Moehler, Alzog, etc.]. Articles in the Freiburg Kirchen-Lexikon, the Dictionary of Christian Biography, and other encyclopædias.


[1] Paulinus, who had been in constant attendance on St. Ambrose, and was with him at his death, wrote this life a few years after that event, at the request of St. Augustine.

II. Notes on Secular and Church History During the Latter Part of the Fourth Century.

After the Council of Nicæa, a.d. 325, the faith of the Catholic Church was established, but a considerable time was to elapse, and the tide of heterodoxy was to ebb and flow many times before peace should finally ensue. The "conversion" of the Emperor Constantine, though not followed, till he was dying, by baptism, led not merely to the toleration but to the protection and, as it were, the "establishment" of the Christian religion. This very naturally was followed by a large influx of worldliness into the Church, and bishops began to be time-servers and courtiers. St. Ambrose, however, was not of this number, but whether in defence of the Catholic faith, of the property of the Church, or, as in his legations to Maximus, for the protection of those in peril or anxiety who sought his aid, he braved every danger, even that of death itself.

During the greater part of the life of St. Ambrose many of those in power, amongst others the empress mother Justina, were Arians. Julian, though too early to affect the actions of the bishop, apostatized to paganism, which also numbered many supporters of high station. On the other hand, the influence of St. Ambrose, exercised even with severe strictness, was all-powerful with Theodosius, known as the emperor who subdued the Arian heresy and abolished the worship of idols in the Roman Empire.

The various historical events during the lifetime of St. Ambrose will be found entered under the different years in the subjoined table; it remains only here to give some account of his burial-place.

St. Ambrose having discovered the bodies of SS. Cosmas and Damian, a.d. 389, placed them under the right side of the altar in his basilica, and desired that he should be himself buried near them to the left, which was done a.d. 397. In the year 835 the Archbishop of Milan, Angilbert II., caused a large porphyry sarcophagus to be made in which he laid the body of St. Ambrose between the other two under the altar. In 1864 some excavations and repairs revealed in situ a magnificent sarcophagus nearly four and a half feet in length, three in width, and nearly two in height, without the covering, placed lengthwise. Further excavations brought to view two other tombs, one to the right and one to the left, lined with marble and placed east and west, not as the sarcophagus, north and south. In the one to the left were a few pieces of money, one of Flavius Victor, one of Theodosius, with some fragments of cloth of gold and other things. These were evidently the original resting-places of St. Ambrose and of SS. Cosmas and Damian, and the sarcophagus that constructed under Lothair, a.d. 835, by Angilbert.

III. Historical Summary and Chronological Tables.


340. Birth of St. Ambrose (probably at Trèves), youngest son of Ambrose, Prefect of the Gauls. Constantine II. killed at Aquileia. Death of Eusebius.

341. Seventh Council of Antioch. Second exile of St. Athanasius.

343. Photinus begins teaching his heresy.

347. Birth of St. John Chrysostom. Council of Sardica. St. Athanasius restored.

348. Birth of Prudentius the Christian poet.

349. Synod of Sirmium against Photinus.

350. Death of the Emperor Constans. St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers. Magnentius proclaimed Emperor of the West.

351. Photinus condemned by a semi-Arian synod.

352. Liberius, Pope in succession to Julius.

353-4. About this date St. Ambrose is taken by his mother to live at Rome, where his sister Marcellina received the veil at the hands of Liberius at Christmas, either a.d. 353, or more probably 354. Suicide of Magnentius the Emperor.

354. Birth of St. Augustine. Death of the Emperor Gallus.

355. Liberius the Pope, Dionysius, Bishop of Milan, and Lucifer, Bishop of Cagliari, banished by an Arian synod at Milan. Third exile of St. Athanasius.

356. Banishment of St. Hilary of Poitiers.

357. Liberius subscribes (as the Arians say) an Arian Creed, and returns to Rome a.d. 358.

359. Council of Ariminum. Macedonius of Constantinople deposed. Eudoxius consecrated Bishop.

361. Julian Emperor.

362. Fourth exile of St. Athanasius.

363. Death of the Emperor Julian. St. Athanasius restored. Felix Pope.

364. Death of the Emperor Jovian. Valentinian and Valens Emperors.

366. Death of Liberius in September. Damasus elected in his place, but the see is also claimed by Ursinus.

367. Gratian, though only a boy, declared Augustus by his father Valentinian.

368-74. Successful career of St. Ambrose in legal business and as "consular."

370. St. Basil, Bishop of Cæsarea.

372. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Susium.

373. Death of St. Athanasius.

374. Death of Auxentius, the Arian Bishop of Milan, and election of St. Ambrose, though still only a catechumen, by acclamation. St. Martin Bishop of Tours.

374-5. St. Ambrose sends a deputation of clerics to St. Basil to ask for the body of St. Dionysius, late Catholic Bishop of Milan. [St. Basil, Ep. 197.]

375. Death of Valentinian in November. His son Valentinian is admitted by Gratian to be Emperor of the East, though only four years old.

377. St. Ambrose writes the three books, De Virginibus; one, De Viduis; which is followed by the book, De Virginitate.

378. The first two books, De Fide, written at the request of Gratian, who was setting out to the relief of Valens against the Goths. Valens is overcome and killed at Adrianople. Many Christians having been made captives, St. Ambrose sells Church plate to redeem them.

379. Theodosius is proclaimed Augustus. Death of St. Basil and of St. Ephrem Syrum. Gratian, on his way back from Thrace, requests St. Ambrose to come to meet him and receives the first two books of the treatise De Fide, and asks for a further one of the Holy Spirit; the latter was written two years later. Death of Satyrus, brother of St. Ambrose. The two treatises on his death written.

379-80. Famine in Rome.--See De Off. III. 46-48.

380. Baptism of Theodosius at Thessalonica. Books III.-V. of the De Fide written about this time. The basilica which had been sequestered by Gratian is restored to the Church.

380. Synod at Rome under Damasus at which St. Ambrose was present. Probably in the same year St. Ambrose consecrated Anemius Bishop of Sirmium in spite of Arian opposition.

381. Death at Constantinople of Athanaricus, leader of the Goths. The three books, De Spiritu Sancto, written. Death of Peter, Bishop of Alexandria. The OEcumenical Council of Constantinople commences under the presidency of Meletius of Antioch. Also at Aquileia a council, at which St. Ambrose took a leading part, was held against the heretics Palladius and Secundianus. An account is given of the proceedings in Epistles 9-12.

381-2. St. Ambrose presides over a council of Italian bishops to take into consideration the troubles at Antioch and Constantinople. Epistles 13, to Theodosius, and 14, his reply, state the proceedings. Theodosius summoned a council to consider the same matters at Constantinople.

382. Gratian orders the removal of the image of Victory from the forum at Rome. [Ep. 17, 18.] Acholius, Bishop of Thessalonica, dies and is succeeded by Anysius.

383. The Priscillianists endeavour in vain to gain Damasus and St. Ambrose to their side by means of a visit to Rome and Milan. On the 25th of August Gratian is assassinated at Lyons by the instigation of Maximus. A great dearth at Rome. [De Off. III. 7, 49; Ep. 18.]

383-4. First legation of St. Ambrose to Maximus on behalf of Justina the Empress and her son Valentinian II.

384. The memorial of Symmachus the prefect of the city to Valentinian, requesting the restoration of the Altar of Victory, and the reply of St. Ambrose. [Ep. 17, 18.] A synod at Bordeaux against the Priscillianists. Death of Damasus, who is succeeded by Siricius as Pope.

385. Priscillian and his companions are condemned to death at Trèves at the instigation of the Spanish Bishops Idacius and Ithacius. The Ithacians consecrate Felix as Bishop. [Ep. 42-51.] The persecution at Milan of Catholics by Justina in Holy Week. [Ep. 20.] The law of Valentinian II., granting Arians equal rights with Catholics. Auxentius claims the see of Milan. [Sermon against Auxentius and Ep. 21.] The deposit which a widow had entrusted to the Church at Trent having been carried off by imperial order, St. Ambrose succeeds in procuring its restitution. [De Off. II. 29, 150, 151.] New basilica at Milan consecrated.

386. Finding of the bodies of St. Gervasius and Protasius [Ep. 22]. Epistle 23 to the bishops of the province of Æmilia on the right day for the observance of Easter.

386-7. The exposition of the Gospel according to St. Luke written.

387. Baptism of St. Augustine at Milan by St. Ambrose at Easter. Second mission of St. Ambrose to Maximus. [Ep. 24.] Expulsion of St. Ambrose from Trèves because of his refusal to communicate with the murderer of his sovereign. In the later part of the year Maximus crosses into Italy and enters Milan.

388. At Constantinople the Arians destroy the residence of the Catholic Bishop Nectarius. [Ep. 40, § 13.] Death of Justina, and conversion of Valentinian II. by Theodosius. Theodosius marches against Maximus, who is everywhere defeated [Ep. 40, § 23], and executed at Aquileia. Third application concerning the Altar of Victory.

390. The excessive cruelty with which Theodosius punished a sedition at Thessalonica brought on him exclusion from communion, and a severe rebuke at the hands of St. Ambrose. The Emperor's penitence and readmission to communion. A synod is held at Milan against the Ithacian heretics, and Felix, Bishop of Trèves. [Ep. 51.]

391-2. The deputation of part of the Roman Senate to Valentinian to request the restoration of the Altar of Victory in the Forum. [Ep. 57, § 5.] The treatise De institutione Virginis, written about this time, as also, De Officiis.

392. Valentinian II. killed at Vienne by Arbogastes [Ep. 53, § 2; De ob. Valent. 25 ff.]. His body is brought to Milan. The address, Consolatio de ob. Val. A further delegation from the Senate is sent to Eugenius respecting the Altar of Victory [Ep. 57, § 6 ff.].

393. On the arrival of Eugenius at Milan St. Ambrose leaves the city for Bononia Faventia and Florence. The letters to Eugenius and Sabinus written about this time.

393-4. At Florence St. Ambrose dedicates a basilica, in which he deposits the bodies of the martyrs Vitalis and Agricola, which he had brought from Bononia. His address on this occasion was that which is inscribed, Exhortatio Virginitatis. He writes Ep. 59.

394. Theodosius sets out from Constantinople against Eugenius. About the beginning of August St. Ambrose returns to Milan. Eugenius defeated by Theodosius and slain, Sept. 6. St. Ambrose intercedes and obtains pardon for the followers of Eugenius. After this St. Ambrose writes the Enarrationes on Psalms 35-40 and Ep. 61, 62.

395. Death of Theodosius at Milan. St. Ambrose's oration De obitu Theodosii. Honorius and Arcadius Emperors. St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Death of Rufinus.

396. Dissensions at Vercellæ, the occasion of writing Ep. 63, and of a visit to that Church.

397. St. Ambrose consecrates a bishop for Ticinum, and shortly after falls ill. He commenced the Enarratio on Psalm 43, which he left unfinished; and died in the night between Good Friday and Easter Eve, having recommended Simplicianus as his successor.

IV. On the Doctrine of St. Ambrose.

There is a very complete agreement on the part of St. Ambrose with the Catholic teaching of the universal Church. St. Augustine speaks of him as "a faithful teacher of the Church, and even at the risk of his life a most strenuous defender of Catholic truth," [2] "whose skill, constancy, labours, and perils, both on account of what he did and what he wrote, the Roman world unhesitatingly proclaims." [3] In matters both of faith and morals by his words and writings he greatly benefited the Church and was called by St. Jerome "a pillar of the Church." [4]

In his dogmatic treatises, more particularly in his books on the Faith, he shows great skill and penetration, and his reasoning is full and clear, meeting the most subtle objections with patient industry. Scarcely any ancient writer has treated the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the theological difficulties connected with it more clearly and convincingly than St. Ambrose in his De Fide and De Spiritu Sancto.

In his expositions of Holy Scripture he treats of the threefold sense, the literal, the moral, and the mystical, devoting more pains, however, and time to the latter than to the former. He gives special consideration to the mystical interpretation of such passages as may seem to contain in a literal sense anything diverging from sound morality. Many of his other mystical interpretations of plain, simple matters of fact have much beauty, as in his treatment of the story of the building of the ark, the marriage of Isaac, and the blessings of the Patriarchs. The literal sense is followed specially in the Hexaëmeron, the treatise on Paradise, Noah and the Ark, and the Exposition of the Gospel according to St. Luke. The moral sense, though referred to throughout his writings, is more particularly sought out in the Expositions of the Psalms.

St. Ambrose was a diligent student of the Greek writers, whom he often follows largely, especially Origen and Didymus, as also St. Basil the Great and St. Athanasius, and he has also adapted many points of allegorical interpretation from Philo. He is fond of alleging scriptural proofs, and when he argues from reason often confirms his argument by some quotation or reference, a task easy for him who, from his consecration, was so diligent a student of holy Scripture.

As to justification, St. Ambrose ascribes the whole work to the Holy Spirit, Who seals us in our hearts, as we receive the outward sign in our bodies. Through the Holy Spirit we receive a share of the grace of adoption. Christ was perfect according to the fulness of His Majesty; we are perfected by a continual progress in virtue. [5]

With regard to baptism, he taught in accordance with the received belief of his day that it is the sacrament of adoption and regeneration, wherein sin is forgiven, [6] and the Holy Spirit confers new life upon the soul and joins it mystically to Christ. As to the Real Presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, his doctrine is no less definite. In his treatise on the Faith he says of the elements that they "are transfigured [transfigurantur] [7] by the mystery of the sacred prayer into flesh and blood." [8] He interprets various texts, also, in many places in the same sense. In a like spirit he maintains that the power of forgiving sins on repentance is vested in the ministry of the Church. [9] The intercession of the saints, and up to a certain point their invocation, is likewise upheld. [10]

There was a Latin version made from the Septuagint, including the Apocrypha, in Africa, and in use there at the end of the second century, very barbarous, and copying even Greek constructions. Of this text SS. Ambrose and Augustine used a recension. But our author seems to have been very independent, and to have made use of several different versions of holy Scripture, translating, as it would seem, often for himself from the Septuagint, referring also to Symmachus, Theodotion, and Aquila, though thinking less of the latter. When the prophets, he says, were moved by the Holy Spirit, they were troubled and darkened with their own ignorance. [11] Prayer, he asserts, is necessary for understanding holy Scripture. [12] Each Testament is not equally easy, and we are not to criticise what we do not understand. [13] He speaks of the Hebrew as the truth, [14] but states that the Septuagint added much that is useful. [15]

The Arians are repeatedly charged by St. Ambrose with falsifying and manipulating Scripture for their own ends, not always, it would seem, very justly, but the same charge is a common one against all heretical bodies in early days. As to the Canon, he would seem to have no very definite rule. He admits Tobit as prophetic, Judith as canonical, nor does he distinguish between canonical and deuterocanonical, while the sapiential books are all attributed to Solomon. He quotes Baruch as Jeremiah, and refers to the History of Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, and other apocryphal works as "Scripture." Ezra, he says, re-established holy Scripture by memory, [16] and he quotes the fourth book of Esdras.


[2] Cont. Jul. Pelag. II. 32. [3] Cont. Jul. Pelag. I. 40. [4] Adv. Rufin. I. 2. [5] De Sp. S. I. 79, 80; De Fide, V. 91. [6] De Poen. I. 36. [7] For the force of the word transfigurantur in early ecclesiastical Latin, compare Tertullian, adv. Praxeam, c. 27: "Transfiguratio interremptio est pristini. Omne enim, quodcunque transfiguratur in aliud desinit esse quod fuerat, et incipit esse quod non erat." [8] De Fid. IV. 124. [9] De Poen. II. 12, etc. [10] Ep. 22 De ob. Theod. 41-51; De Viduis., 55. [11] De Abrah. II. 61. [12] Ps. cxviii. 59. [13] Ep. 63-78, De Parad. II. 7. [14] De Noe et Arca, XII. 60. [15] Hexaëm. V. 20. [16] Ep. 63, 30.

Also, see links to 3500 other Manuscripts:

E-mail to: BELIEVE

The main BELIEVE web-page (and the index to subjects) is at: BELIEVE Religious Information Source - By Alphabet http://mb-soft.com/believe/indexaz.html