Ambrose was born into a Roman Christian family between about 337 and 340 and was raised in Trier. He was the son of a praetorian prefect of Gallia Narbonensis; his mother was a woman of intellect and piety. Ambrose's siblings, Satyrus (who is the subject of Ambrose's De excessu fratris Satyri) and Marcellina, are also venerated as saints. There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and honeyed tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in the saint's symbology.
After the early death of his father, Ambrose followed his father's career. He was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Praetor Anicius Probus first gave him a place in the council and then in about 372 made him consular prefect of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which was then beside Rome the second capital in Italy.
Ambrose was a governor in northern Italy before he became the Bishop of Milan. Ambrose never married.
There was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan as well as the rest of the Church between the pro-Nicenes and the Subordinationists (often wrongly termed 'Arians'.) In 374, Auxentius, bishop of Milan, died, and the Subordinationists challenged the succession. The prefect went personally to the basilica where the election should take place, to prevent an uproar which was probable in this crisis. His address was interrupted by a call "Ambrose for bishop!" which was taken up by others upon which he was univocally elected bishop.
Ambrose was known to be personally pro-Nicene, but also acceptable to Subordinationists due to the charity shown in theological matters in this regard. At first he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared: Ambrose was neither baptized nor formally trained in theology. Upon his appointment, St. Ambrose fled to a colleague's home to seek hiding. Upon receiving a letter from the Emperor praising the appropriateness of Rome appointing individuals evidently worthy of holy positions, St. Ambrose's host gave Ambrose up. Within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained and duly installed as bishop of Milan.
As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only provision for his sister Marcellina, and committed the care of his family to his brother. Saint Ambrose also wrote a treatise by the name of "The Goodness Of Death".
In the confrontation with Subordinationists, Ambrose sought to theologically refute their propositions, considered as heretical. The Subordinationists appealed to many high level leaders and clergy in both the Western and Eastern empires. Although the western Emperor Gratian held orthodox belief in the Nicene creed, the younger Valentinian, who became his colleague in the empire, adhered to the Subordinationist creed. Ambrose did not sway the young prince's position. In the East, Emperor Theodosius I likewise professed the Nicene creed; but there were many adherents of Subordinationism throughout his dominions, especially among the higher clergy.
In this contested state of religious opinion, two leaders of the Subordinationists, bishops Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Singidunum, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Gratian to call a general council from all parts of the empire. This request appeared so equitable that he complied without hesitation. However, Ambrose feared the consequences and prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops. Accordingly, a synod composed of thirty-two bishops was held at Aquileia in the year 381. Ambrose was elected president and Palladius, being called upon to defend his opinions, declined. A vote was then taken, when Palladius and his associate Secundianus were deposed from the episcopal office.
Nevertheless, the increasing strength of the Subordinationists proved a formidable task for Ambrose. In 386 the emperor and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially military, professed the Subordinationist faith. They attempted to turn over two churches in Milan, one in the city, the other in the suburbs, to the Subordinationists. Ambrose refused and was required to answer for his conduct before the council. He went, his eloquence in defense of the Church reportedly overawed the ministers of Emperor Valentinian, so he was permitted to retire without making the surrender of the churches. The day following, when he was performing divine service in the basilica, the prefect of the city came to persuade him to give up at least the Portian church in the suburbs. As he still continued obstinate, the court proceeded to violent measures : the officers of the household were commanded to prepare the Basilica and the Portian churches to celebrate divine service upon the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the ensuing festival of Easter.
In spite of Imperial opposition, Bishop Ambrose declared:
If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.
The imperial court was displeased with the religious principles of Ambrose, however his aid was soon solicited by the Emperor. When Magnus Maximus usurped the supreme power in Gaul, and was meditating a descent upon Italy, Valentinian sent Ambrose to dissuade him from the undertaking, and the embassy was successful.
On a second attempt of the same kind Ambrose was again employed; and although he was unsuccessful, it cannot be doubted that, if his advice had been followed, the schemes of the usurper would have proved abortive; but the enemy was permitted to enter Italy; and Milan was taken. Justina and her son fled; but Ambrose remained at his post, and did good service to many of the sufferers by causing the plate of the church to be melted for their relief.
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.
Theodosius I, the emperor of the East, espoused the cause of Justina, and regained the kingdom. Theodosius was threatened with excommunication by Ambrose for the massacre of 7,000 persons at Thessalonica in 390, after the murder of the Roman governor there by rioters. 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 (see entry Theodosius I).
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. He was succeeded as bishop of Milan by Simplician. Ambrose's body may still be viewed in the church of S. Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated — along with the bodies identified in his time as being those of Sts. Gervase and Protase — and is one of the oldest extant bodies of historical personages known outside Egypt.
He was liberal to the poor; it was his custom to comment severely in his preaching on the public characters of his times; and he introduced popular reforms in the order and manner of public worship. It is alleged, too, that at a time when the influence of Ambrose required vigorous support, he was admonished in a dream to search for, and found under the pavement of the church, the remains of two martyrs, Gervasius and Protasius. The saints, although they would have had to have been hundreds of years old, looked as if they had just died. The applause of the people was mingled with the derision of the court party.
Ambrose was a Christian universalist; he believed that all people would eventually achieve salvation. He argued:
Our Savior has appointed two kinds of resurrection in the Apocalypse. 'Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection,' for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved unto the second resurrection, these shall be disciplined until their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection.
Ambrose's intense episcopal consciousness furthered the growing doctrine of the Church and its sacerdotal ministry, while the prevalent asceticism of the day, continuing the Stoic and Ciceronian training of his youth, enabled him to promulgate a lofty standard of Christian ethics. Thus we have the De officiis ministrorum, De viduis, De virginitate and De paenitentia.
The powerful mariology of Ambrose of Milan influenced contemporary Popes like Pope Damasus and Siricius and later, Pope Leo the Great. His student Augustine and the Council of Ephesus were equally under his spell. Central to Ambrose is the virginity of Mary and her role as Mother of God.
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 Christian life.
Ambrose is traditionally credited but not actually known to have composed any of the repertory of Ambrosian chant also known simply as "chant, a method of chanting, or one side of the choir alternately responding to the other, much as the later pope St. 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. Catching the impulse from Hilary and confirmed in it by the success of Arian psalmody, Ambrose composed 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 dimeter (that is 2 x 2 iambs). Marked by dignified simplicity, they served as a fruitful model for later times.
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.
This is a celebrated passage in modern scholarly discussion. The practice of reading to oneself without vocalizing the text was less common in antiquity than it has since become. In a culture that set a high value on oratory and public performances of all kinds, in which the production of books was very labor-intensive, the majority of the population was illiterate, and where those with the leisure to enjoy literary works also had slaves to read for them, written texts were more likely to be seen as scripts for recitation than as vehicles of silent reflection. However, there is also abundant evidence that silent reading did occur in antiquity and that it was not usually regarded as freakish.
Ambrose himself I esteemed a happy man, as the world counted happiness, because great personages held him in honor. Only his celibacy appeared to me a painful burden.
Not until the fifth century in the West did celibacy come to be widely regarded as a requirement for all higher ranks of clergy; even then, and for long afterward, the rule was not generally enforced. To make celibacy a condition for full Christian profession by one who did not expect to take holy orders was even more extreme.
Several of Ambrose's works have recently been published in the bilingual Latin-German Fontes Christiani series (currently edited by Brepols).
Several religious brotherhoods which have sprung up in and around Milan at various times since the 14th century have been called Ambrosians. Their connection to Ambrose is tenuous-->