St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) is a Father and doctor of the Church. He was born in Augusta Treverorum (Trier) to a Roman Christian family. Following his father’s death, Ambrose’s family moved to Rome, where he was educated. Like his father, he served as a public official in the Roman administration and rose up the ranks. Around 372, he was appointed governor of the province of Aemilia et Romana, whose see was Milan. There, he became a leading figure at the court of Emperor Valentinian I. As governor, he worked to settle disputes between Arians and Catholics and earned the respect of each group. When Auxentius, the bishop of Milan and an Arian, died in 374, Ambrose attended the episcopal election to quell any dangers to the public order. By popular acclamation, he was elected as the new bishop. During his episcopacy, he countered Arianism with his teachings and resisted political pressure to make concessions to its adherents. He also reminded Christian leaders of their duties, most famously when he denied communion to Theodosius until the emperor made public penance for the Massacre of Thessolonica. His preaching contributed to the conversion of St. Augustine, whom he baptized. His hymns continue to be recited in the liturgy.

In this interview, Fr. Brian Dunkle SJ discusses Ambrose’s life, writings, and recommends some books by him and on him.

Fr. Brian Dunkle SJ is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at the Gloria L. and Charles I. Clough School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. He regularly offers philosophy courses at the St. Joseph Scholastic in Vietnam and offers pastoral assistance at local parishes and the correctional institutes of Concord, MA. He has translated St. Ambrose’s Treatises on Noah and David and is the author of Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan (Oxford University Press).


  1. Theological and Dogmatic Works
    by St. Ambrose
  2. Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan
    by Brian Dunkle SJ
  3. Ambrose of Milan: Deeds and Thought of A Bishop
    by Caesare Pasini
  4. Ambrose
    by Boniface Ramsay OP
  5. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God 
    by Robert Louis Wilken
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links in this post.

What are the main events of Saint Ambrose's life?
The main event was his rapid ascendancy to prominence in the church in Milan, beginning with his election in 373/74. He went from being the governor of a major region of Northern Italy, Aemilia Romana, to becoming bishop of Milan, the main see of Italy at the time and, therefore, prominent in the Western Church.

This turn of events was quite dramatic. According to various accounts, he was a catechumen, if that. So, he was not especially involved in the life of the Church. However, by popular acclamation, he was elected bishop. He was baptized and ordained bishop the following November or December 7 instead of April 4, the date of his birth to eternal life. Often, Easter overrides the latter date. The Church, therefore, has decided to commemorate the beginning of his ecclesiastical career.

Through distant sources, we know about certain events of his childhood.

He was brought up in a prominent family of the empire. He was probably the son of a governor. He was born in Trier and trained in Rome and embarked upon a career in politics.

His active career started in the 370s, but we know very little about its beginnings.

From there on, we have a pretty good account of the other major events of his life.

He trained hard to become a learned bishop rather than just an administrator. In the late 370s he began to write his works, such as On Virgins, and those related to the various doctrinal disputes of the day, including his great work On the Christian Faith (De fide) and The Sacrament of the Incarnation of the Lord.

At the same time, he became a prominent figure in what we would now call Church-State relations: the relation between ecclesiastical and political affairs.

Given his background in politics and his former career as a governor, he had a special insight into the workings of imperial affairs and the way in which the Church would need to function in relation to the Imperial court.

So, beginning around 380, he assumed a very prominent role in negotiating and dealing with the threats from the Arians against the Nicene Church of Milan. The Arians were both prominent in northern Italy and Gaul, as well as in Rome. They were attempting to gain some control of the Church in Milan.

Throughout the 380s, the controversies in which he was engaged often involved the Emperor or his representatives in the West.

Prominent among these was his dispute over the Altar of Victory in Rome. This became a hot-button issue around 384. Certain pagan senators hoped to reinstitute an ancient practice of giving reverence to this altar, which depicted the winged Victory. Ambrose, and those in his party, argued that the moment had passed and this kind of devotion no longer had a place in a Christian empire.

The next major events of his life centered on the role of the Church vis-à-vis the empire. These culminated in 386, when the Church of Milan was threatened by Arians who wanted to use one of the city’s basilicas for their worship. Ambrose and his people led a resistance movement. He used his hymns and songs to rally the faithful to his cause and promote the orthodoxy of Nicaea against these outside forces.

Toward the end of his career, he focused primarily on writing. During the 390s he was writing and revising some of his commentaries and preaching to catechumens.

All this comes to an end with his death in 397.

As governor of Aemilia et Romana and bishop of Milan, Ambrose came into close contact with various emperors. Why was the emperor based in Milan at the time rather than Rome?
Over the third and fourth centuries, the political center of the Empire tended to gravitate eastward. The most dramatic case was Constantine's founding of the new Rome, Constantinople, in 325.

This manifested itself in another way: the gravitation of political activity toward the borders, where the threats were.

Rome remained the traditional, cultural, symbolic head of the empire. However, the politics,  negotiations, meetings with ambassadors, and all the various other ways in which government runs, were centered more and more in the North. There it was possible to interact with rival forces. There you could have armies ready where they were needed.

Little by little, especially by the end of the fourth century, this led to a flow from Rome to Milan.

This changed dramatically in the fifth century, when forces from the north overran the Italian peninsula, all the way into North Africa.

What drew you to study St. Ambrose from among the Church Fathers?
That's interesting. I had a long-standing interest in the imaginative literature of the Early Church, which includes its poetry and hymns.

As much as I was taken by doctrinal issues, or the philosophical and biblical background of patristic thought, I believed that there was also much to be found in the verse and popular life of the faithful.

To my mind, no one exemplified that more than Ambrose, even though he was quite learned by the end of his career.

He had read widely in Greek theology and was the conduit for so much theology to the Church of the West.

Nevertheless, he probably expressed himself most enduringly and foundationally in his hymns.

As a personality, he seemed to have so many different parts. This intrigued me and I believed that he captured and pulled together many of those parts in his hymns, which were passed on and were deeply influential on all Western and Latin hymnody.

Initially, I approached him through his songs. Little by little, I grew to know him as a political, theological, and ecclesiastical figure. I find each of these parts infinitely intriguing because of what they show us about the life of the Church and the mind of this genius.

"He had no pretense of being an original thinker in the way we might conceive of one. In fact, he would have thought originality was precisely an enemy of good theology."

You have mentioned how St. Ambrose was the conduit for much of the Greek patristic thought and theology into the West. On which Greek Fathers did he draw mainly?
Early in his career, he seems to have drawn very heavily on the thought of a non-Christian, Philo the Jew.

Five of his works are often identified as Philonian because of how heavily they are influenced by the thought of this first-century exegete. In some cases, he is just translating directly from Philo.

Of course, Philo had a huge influence on many of the earlier Christian thinkers, both the Latins, but primarily the Greeks, including Origen of Alexandria. This was mainly because of his allegorical, spiritual reading of the Old Testament.

Initially, Ambrose relied heavily on Philo. At the same time, he read Origen very closely, names him once or twice in his writings, and drew heavily on his thought. At times, he is simply translating passages from Origen, adding a few minor tweaks, and bringing them into circulation in Latin.

Third, there is the thought of Basil of Caesarea. Fourth, there is Didymus the Blind.

They were near contemporaries of Ambrose. They were very influential on developments in the theology of the Holy Spirit.

Ambrose's own work The Holy Spirit draws very heavily on them. Sometimes this work is dismissed as derivative or even a plagiary, a charge that goes back as far as the fourth century, to Jerome, sometimes a friend of Ambrose’s, sometimes an enemy.

My understanding and reading of it is different. Ambrose is translating and rendering accessible thought that he recognized as authoritative. He saw this doctrine as a treasure and wanted to make it available to his people. He had no pretense of being an original thinker in the way we might conceive of one. In fact, he would have thought originality was precisely an enemy of good theology. He wanted to be loyal to Tradition.

Even so, Ambrose may be original in any way without necessarily intending to be. Is Ambrose’s teaching as a Church Father original or merely derivative?
Absolutely. The originality or novelty often occurs whenever he translates thought that he has received and supplements it for his context.

His readings of Philo are a clear example of this. Ambrose consistently introduces the figure of Christ, not just in terms of the parables or events of the New Testament, but Christ as proclaimed by the creeds, the Creed of Nicaea in particular.

Ambrose regarded Philo’s exegesis of Moses and Abraham as reliable. At the same time, he always stresses how these figures point to their fulfillment in Christ, the Word who assumed a human nature. So, he takes an exegetical insight and then renders it according to the orthodoxy of the period. He thereby creates something that is quite original in its own right.

While he draws on heavily on Philo and the Greek Fathers, does he also exemplify certain characteristics typical of the Latin Church Fathers and early Western Christianity?
Yes, in many ways he was at the headwaters of this synthetic Latin theology that was coming together at the end of the fourth century.

There were major figures before him, such as Tertullian in North Africa and his near contemporary Hilary of Poitiers.

However, Ambrose had a special genius for understanding and incorporating the Roman philosophical tradition into his thought. He thereby became deeply influential.

He was a student of Roman Stoicism. As to the philosophical tradition of ancient Rome, he clearly knew Seneca but above all Cicero.

Much of his project is to Christianize that Roman philosophy and to baptize Cicero's instructions on good, virtuous behavior.

He does this most prominently in a work from the mid-380s: On Duties (De officiis ministrorum). In that work, he at times paraphrases and translates Cicero’s guide for his own son, On Duties, and renders it into a guide to the duties of ministers.

However, he consistently substitutes Cicero's use of pagan models, such as the great heroes of Rome’s past, with figures from Scripture. No longer do we have Scipio or some other Roman luminary, but David for instance.

Again and again, Christ is at the heart of the work. For Ambrose, Christ is the model of virtuous behavior in a way that he certainly would not have been for the ancient Roman tradition.

This is a distinctively Western, Latin work and it becomes deeply influential on subsequent Latin theology.

"I always suggest that people first encounter Ambrose through his works on the mystagogies: The Mysteries and The Sacraments."


The first book you have selected is entitled Theological and Dogmatic Works. It contains translations of The Mysteries (De mysteriis), The Sacraments (De sacramentis), The Holy Spirit (De Spiritu Sancto), The Sacrament of the Incarnation of the Lord (De Incarnationis Dominicae Sacramento). Are these Ambrose’s most important works or simply the ones it is worth starting with?

This post is for paying subscribers only

Sign up now and upgrade your account to read the post and get access to the full library of posts for paying subscribers only.

Sign up now Already have an account? Sign in