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Saint Ambrose

Saint - Trier 339-340 397


Ambrose was a strong and energetic character who gave great impetus to the Church in its early stages and his influence continued to be felt even after his death. Ambrose, who would later become patron saint of Milan, was born in 339/340 to a high imperial official who was posted at the Trier court in Germany at the time. When his father died, his mother returned to Rome with Ambrose and his siblings, Marcellina and Satyrus.

As he was being groomed for a career in the imperial administration, Ambrose received extensive bilingual schooling in rhetoric, literature and law and in around 370, he became a consularis, or civil governor, of the province of Liguria and Emilia whose headquarters were located in the city of Milan. At the time, the Church was plagued by internal strife over the Arian controversy.

To further add to its troubles, in October 374 A.D., Auxentius, who held the Episcopal see, passed away and a crisis of succession erupted in the city. The bishops of the province could not reach agreement, and the people, in favour of restoring the faith in line with the Council of Nicaea, wished to make their voices heard.

Ambrose took part in the turbulent assemblies to oversee their legality. The people, impressed with his conduct, let out cries of “Ambrose for bishop!” Seized by panic, he initially attempted to flee, but he later returned to accept the prestigious appointment.

It didn’t take long for Ambrose’s fame to spread after his appointment as bishop. Augustine would rush to listen to his rich sermons (384-386) and was so impressed that he converted. He would later become one of the most celebrated personalities of the Catholic Church.

Ambrose challenged the relationship between religious and political authority on several occasions throughout his life. When Emperor Theodosius had seven thousand innocent inhabitants slaughtered (August 390) as vindication for the murder of the commander of the Thessalonika outpost, the bishop not only denounced the massacre, but imposed a public penance on him.

The episode occurred towards the end of his life and it was in February 397, while returning from Pavia, that Saint Ambrose became ill and died.

Anecdotes and curiosities

Two episodes stand out in particular. In 385, the Arian Bishop, who took his name from his predecessor, Auxentius, asked the Catholics for a basilica in which the Arians could worship. Ambrose refused, and the people backed him through an uprising. The following year, however, an edict granted the Arians freedom of worship. They made a new request for the basilica, but during Holy Week, Ambrose and his followers locked themselves in the church of San Vittore al Corpo in order to prevent it being taken. Here, they were besieged by soldiers and to keep up the resistance, Ambrose had the people sing his Hymns in church.

The second event of great importance was his demand for the public penance of Emperor Theodosius.

Related places


Became Consularis of the Roman Empire under the reign of Emperor Valentinian I.

Place where the church Sant’Ambrogio ad Nemus stands

370, Ambrose became lost in the woods.

Baptistery of Santo Stefano alle Fonti

Ambrose was baptized in 374 under the northern sacristy of the cathedral (Duomo). Archaeological remains still present.

Martyrum Basilica (now Basilica di Sant’Amborgio)

Still survives today but the structure has been modified over the centuries. It was founded in 379 and consecrated January 13th 386 by Ambrose.

Apostolorum Basilica or Saint Nazaro

Still survives today but the structure has been modified over the centuries. In 381-382 the basilica was consecrated and Ambrose deposited several relics of the Apostles, given to him by the Pope. In 395 Ambrose deposited relics of the martyr Nazarius here.

Porziana Basilica or San Vittore al Corpo

Still survives today but the structure has been modified over the centuries. Ambrose met with Saint Monica, mother of Augustine during Holy Week in 386.

Basilica di Santa Tecla, Baptistery of San Giovanni alle Fonti

Here Ambrose baptized Augustine April 24th, 387. Remains of the church still exist under the present cathedral (Duomo).

Virginum Basilica now Saint Simpliciano

Founded by Ambrose in 393. Still survives today but the structure has been modified over the centuries.

Sources and documents

Alle radici della Lombardia, Milano, Mudima, 2000.

Pagani S., Storie e leggende di Milano, Milano, Meschina, 1970.

Pizzolato L. F., Ambrogio da Milano, in Il grande libro dei Santi,Milano, Edizioni San Paolo, 1998.

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