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  • Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital Transformation of the Classical Heritage
  • D. H. Williams
Neil B. McLynn Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital Transformation of the Classical Heritage, vol. 22. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Pages xxiv + 406. $45.00.

It has been a good year for Ambrose of Milan. Not since Paredi’s 1960 monograph, S. Ambrozio, E La Sua Età (ET by M. J. Costelloe, Saint Ambrose: His Life and Times [Notre Dame, 1964]) has there been so much attention paid to the bishop in his own right. Now three major studies on Ambrose have appeared, two of these providing more specific analyses on his conflict with western Homoians (D. H. Williams, Ambrose of Milan and the Nicene-Arian Conflicts [Oxford, 1995] and C. Markschies, Ambrosius von Mailand und die Trinitatstheolozie: Kirchen- und theologiegeschictliche Studien zu Antiarianimus und Neuarianismus bei Ambrosius und im lateinischen Westen (364–381 n. Chr.) [Mohr, 1995]), both differing from McLynn’s which offers a general reconstruction of the bishop’s entire career. As a result of this new assessment a much more vulnerable and yet wily Ambrose has emerged completely replacing the portrait drawn by Homes Dudden over 60 years ago.

The book is the revised product of an Oxford D.Phil. thesis and is eminently readable. Indeed, McLynn has the enviable gift of transforming a mass of historical data and complexities into a lively and engaging narrative without glossing over the significant problems. McLynn is a classicist by training and one of the strengths of this new study is that the author brings to the fore those intricacies of Roman politics and society which often lay veiled behind the many forces that propelled Ambrose to act and write as he did. Detailed attention is paid to Ambrose’s relationships—the give and take in Roman society of amicita and negotia with Pagan aristocrats, heretical antagonists or fellow bishops, and the constant maneuvering of his position in relation to successive emperors (Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius). “The bishop belongs ultimately within the rough-and-tumble of political life, not above it” (xxii). We are confronted therefore with an Ambrose who knew all too well the importance of image and posturing which, McLynn argues, explains the “massive certainties” radiating from the bishop’s own writings, writings that have influenced all subsequent portraits of the great bishop. For this reason the reader is asked to review the documentary evidence with the recognition that what we are given is more of a facade depicting a poised and resolute figure rather than the true persona of the bishop which eluded even the admiring Augustine: “His true greatness resides [End Page 112] here in his stagecraft, in his ability to control the interpretation that was given to his actions” (376).

It is this approach which McLynn brings to bear on Ambrose’s early episcopate, a notoriously murky stage of the bishop’s career by reason of the paucity of sources and further complicated by the longstanding tendency to read Ambrose’s later advantages of influence and stability into his early years. By integrating Gryson’s edition of the scholia ariana into the historical picture, McLynn demonstrates how opposition of the “Arians” (a term used by the author as functionally descriptive) in Milan and from Illyricum thwarted the new bishop’s ability to consolidate support for his newly elected position. From the beginning of his epsicopate, Ambrose had intended, not to obtain harmony between anti- and pro-Nicenes, as it is usually explained, but to legitimize the Nicenes’ bid for foiling Auxentian succession (13). Now that he was the bishop, opposition eventually mounted against him. So successful were the attacks of Palladius of Ratiara (88f), that Ambrose was called upon by the emperor to defend his faith—an imposition which revealed no particular favoritism toward Ambrose on Gratian’s part, and no less an openness to the claims of the western Homoians. That Ambrose wrote his De fide, not as an apology but as an official statement of orthodoxy presenting himself as the emperor’s spiritual spokesman, “a splendid display of sophistry, misrepresentation on an heroic scale” (103...