- Ambrose of Milan: Deeds and Thoughts of a Bishop by Cesare Pasini
Cesare Pasini’s biography of St. Ambrose of Milan was originally published in Italian in 1996. In the foreword, translated here, Pasini expressed a desire “to let the texts speak for themselves” and anticipated that readers might even find that he [End Page 586] as author disappeared into the work (p. xii). Ambrose himself took a similar line in his exegetical sermons, assembling a collage of biblical quotations and allusions that seemed more to re-present than to interpret the biblical text for his audience. Of course, neither Pasini nor Ambrose in fact relinquished control of his work, and Pasini remains conspicuously present on almost every page of this biography. We find him addressing the reader, weighing the evidence for its plausibility and its degree of accordance with his idea of Ambrose, and unashamedly using imagination and tradition to fill in the gaps.
This is not unusual—historians always select, interpret, and comment on their evidence, and biography in particular abhors a vacuum. The result in this case is an Ambrose familiar in outline and often in detail from previous scholarship, but who clearly reflects the sympathies of a humane, Catholic, and Milanese biographer. We find a bishop who prefers consensus to confrontation, who avoided “personal attacks on individuals” (p. 114), and who was “patient and understanding toward [his] opposition but consistent and adamant in not yielding to any compromise” (p. 76). This latter stance, however, is trickier to pull off than Pasini allows; like his Ambrose, he tries to be generous and even-handed in dealing with doctrinal controversy—and he does a better job than Ambrose of fairly characterizing opposing views—but he cannot shrug off his own conviction that there was really nothing to argue about. Hence, the homoeans are “obdurate and contrary” and pursue “strategies” to get their way, whereas Ambrose’s Nicenes are “conscientious” and “vigilant” (pp. 42–43).
This is problematic when it comes to dealing with events such as the Council of Aquileia, at which Pasini’s scruples require him to admit that Ambrose “effectively abused the situation” (p. 88), and especially in the ill-conceived attempt to defend Ambrose against the charge of antisemitism. The case made by Ambrose in response to the burning of a synagogue in Callinicum by Christians was not merely that church and state should be kept separate, as Pasini would like to think, but that individual clergymen should be beyond the reach of secular justice even when implicated in violent criminality. This is misguided in itself, but it also cannot be disregarded that Ambrose founds his case on the imagined iniquity of the Jews as a people. This cannot be dismissed as mere rhetoric, as if it were therefore inconsequential; nor is it best justified by reference to Jewish “obduracy” (p. 178) or to paranoia regarding an unlikely conspiracy of “Arians, pagans and Jews” (pp. 87, 174). Ambrose’s small-minded intolerance indeed can be understood in the context of his time, but it is not on that account to be minimized or legitimated.
The translation captures Pasini’s original tone, although sometimes at the cost of sounding awkward in English. The only really confusing parts are the initial discussions of doctrine, where in addition to the usual homoeanism we find the unattested homeoism (p. 42) and homiois (p. 2), and “the phrase homeo” (p. 2). There also is some uncertainty over the role of a late-antique Praetorian prefect (pp. 16, 20) and frequent errors and Italianisms in names. Thus “Leonitus” and “Secundus” appears throughout for Leontius and Secundianus, and (among others) “Vittricius” [End Page 587] and “Alipius” for the more familiar Victricius and Alypius. Nevertheless, Pasini’s Ambrose emerges clearly and is, for the most part, a likable figure. It is evident that, for both author and translator, this project represented a labor of love, and that is a thing that Ambrose himself...