(This essay was written for History 202.3, University of Saskatchewan, 1 December 1998 )
It has been said that no one had more influence on Christianity between the time of the Apostle Paul and the Reformation than Augustine of Hippo. In his time, he played an important role by leading the theological battle against the Donatists, the Manichees and the Pelagians. He also developed concepts that became very important in the future, as Church doctrine was formulated. He developed the concept of original sin, explained the nature of evil, and stressed the importance of grace in salvation. His writings have been read and interpreted by influential churchmen like Pope Gregory the Great, Martin Luther and John Calvin. As a result, both Catholics and Protestants claim Augustine as a theological forefather.
Yet, it was not always this way. For the first thirty-two years of his life, Augustine was not even a Christian, preferring to subscribe to the heresy of Manicheeism and fulfilling his sexual desires. Bishop Ambrose of Milan had a major influence on Augustine’s life as he journeyed from heresy to orthodoxy and from sexual immorality to celibacy. This essay will outline the life histories of Augustine and Ambrose up to the time of Augustine’s baptism and then detail the interaction between the two of them. By doing this, it will be shown that Ambrose, by living an exemplary life worthy of Augustine’s admiration, was able to attract him to his services. There he was able to help Augustine overcome his disdain for the Old Testament Scriptures by the use of allegorical interpretation to reveal the deeper meanings of the Bible passages.
Augustine was born in AD 354 in the town of Thagaste, which is modern day Souk Ahras in Algeria. His mother, Monica, was a devoted Christian, but his father, Patricius, was a pagan who did not accept Christianity until shortly before his death, when Augustine was about seventeen. For reasons that not even Augustine knew, he was not baptized as an infant. As a young boy, Augustine fell deathly ill and his mother prepared to have him baptised. However, Augustine recovered and the sacrament was again delayed, for the sins committed after baptism were considered a deeper stain on the soul than those before. Augustine’s salvation was always a concern for his mother. Monica became especially concerned when Augustine passed through puberty into manhood, for she feared that he would commit the sexual sins of fornication. He ignored her warnings and committed with impunity the very acts she feared he would. Sexual sin would continue to be problem for Augustine until he finally committed wholeheartedly to the Catholic faith.
Augustine was educated in his home town of Thagaste until he was seventeen. Then, he left Thagaste to go to Carthage to complete his studies. Carthage was a major city in the Empire at the time, and Augustine gave himself over to the physical lust that was rampant in the city. About this time, he took a concubine with whom he had a son, Adeodatus, the next year. Though Augustine does not name her, they were together for fifteen years. When she was sent home to facilitate Augustine’s engagement to a rich young heiress, Augustine’s heart “which clung to her, was broken and wounded and dropping blood.”
While in Carthage, at the age of nineteen, Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius, which is no longer extant. This book changed his life and caused him to begin seeking both truth and wisdom. At about this time, perhaps because of his quest for truth, Augustine falls in with a group of people called the Manichees. The Manichees were a secretive group that believed in a dualism of good and evil. Man’s soul, which was good, was created by the passive and impotent “Kingdom of Light” which is the source of all good things. However, this “good soul” is imprisoned and constrained by the force of evil, which is created by the active and powerful “Kingdom of Darkness.” The Manichee must recognise the distinction between the two principles and be aware of the existence of both principles within all humans, even a Manichee. Their religion consisted of preventing their evil nature from corrupting their good nature so that, at the end of time, their evil nature would be split off, defeated and discarded, leaving a purely good nature. The Manichees were very antagonistic towards Judaism and Christianity for they considered the Jehovah of the Old Testament to be an evil demon, and the Old Testament Patriarchs to be perverted men revelling in sexual immorality, procreation and killing. They were also very rationalistic, and Augustine himself would often defeat Christians who defended their faith in debates with him.
Augustine taught rhetoric in Carthage for two years until he was twenty-one, when he returned home for a year to teach literature. He then returned to Carthage where he again taught rhetoric for the next six years. At the end of this period, when he was twenty-eight years old, Augustine was finally able to meet the Manichaean bishop Faustus. Augustine had been a Manichee for nine years and for most of that time he had been looking forward to meeting Faustus. For years Augustine had questions about Manichaeism that he sought to have answered. However, whenever he raised his concerns, his fellow Manichees would suggest that he wait until Faustus comes for they promised that he would be able to answer all of his concerns. When Augustine was finally able to raise his questions with Faustus, he was very disappointed, for though Faustus was charming and smooth, Augustine realised that he was not speaking the truth. Also, Faustus was ignorant of the same liberal arts which Augustine had been told he was wise.
Shortly after this, with the encouragement of his friends, Augustine left Carthage for Rome, seeking personal fame and fortune. He also hoped to exchange the unruly students of Carthage for what he had heard were much better behaved students in Rome. Augustine’s mother, Monica, had wanted to go with him, but he deceived her and left without her. Upon arriving in Rome, Augustine fell deathly ill but he was able to recover. He credited his recovery to his mother’s prayers and the mercy of God. When he began teaching in Rome, he found that the students were better behaved. However, they would conspire to break their pledges and leave their professor for another, and thus avoid paying their first professor. For this practice, Augustine hated them.
While in Rome, Augustine was still in fellowship with the Manichees, even though his interest in their doctrine had waned. They encouraged and supported him in applying for the position of professor of rhetoric in Milan when it became available. After speaking on a set topic, Symmachus, the Prefect of Rome, gave his approval and in the autumn of AD 384, at the age of thirty, Augustine left for Milan. It was here that he was to encounter Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan.
Ambrose was born fifteen years before Augustine in AD 339 in what is modern day Trier in western Germany, to a distinguished Roman family. His father, Aurelius Ambrosius, was the Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls, the highest rank in the Roman civil service, when Ambrose was born. Ambrose had a brother, Uranius Satyrus, and a sister, Marcellina, who were both older than he was. The home was a Christian one, but Ambrose and Satyrus were not baptised as infants. His sister, Marcellina, the oldest child in the family, dedicated herself to a life of virginity when Ambrose was fourteen years old. By this time, his mother was widowed and the family had moved to Rome. Here, Ambrose’s mother, his sister and another consecrated virgin lived an ascetic life devoted to good works, study and devotional exercises. 
Ambrose was educated in the manner that was typical for the time. He would have begun with elementary school at about age seven where basic reading, writing, arithmetic and Greek grammar were taught under the tutelage of a pedagogue. Then he would have continued on to grammar school to learn classic Greek and Latin literature. Finally, he would enter the school of a rhetorician at about age fourteen or fifteen to learn the skill of oratory. He may have also studied philosophy for he appears to be familiar with Plato, Epicurus, Aristotle and, especially, Cicero. Because the instructors at the schools were usually pagans, Christian families would often also send their son to the local clergyman for an education in the basic elements of Christianity. Ambrose was sent for this purpose to the well educated and scholarly presbyter Simplician, who was very knowledgeable about both philosophy and theology. Later, when Ambrose was elected Bishop of Milan, it was Simplician who came to prepare him for baptism and ordination. After Ambrose died, it was Simplician who succeeded him as Bishop of Milan. Under Simplician, Ambrose would have studied the Scriptures and the basic tenets of Christianity. However, the instruction would have been superficial because Ambrose intended to embark on a secular career, not a religious one.
When he was about twenty-six years old, Ambrose and his brother Satyrus went to Sirmium to serve as lawyers at the court of the Italian Prefect. When the Prefect died in AD 368, a wealthy friend of Ambrose and Satyrus, Sextus Petronius Probus, was appointed Prefect. In about AD 370, he rewarded Ambrose and Satyrus for their friendship by appointing both of them to governorships. Satyrus became governor of an unnamed province, and Ambrose became governor of Aemilia-Liguria, headquartered at Milan.
At the time of Ambrose’s ascendancy to the governorship in Milan, the Bishop there was an Arian named Auxentius who had strong ties to the court of the Emperor Constantius, who was also an Arian. When Auxentius died in AD 373, the question of who should succeed him became a point of contention between Catholics, who sought to regain the bishopric, and Arians, who sought to retain it. Fearing an outbreak of hostilities, Ambrose, acting as governor, attended the meeting held for the election of the new bishop. During his address to the assembled crowd, through which he sought to defuse the potentially explosive situation, legend has it that a child cried out, “Ambrose Bishop!” Those in the crowd, both Arians and Catholics, forgot their differences and took up the chant, “Ambrose Bishop! Ambrose Bishop!”
In spite of the wishes of the congregation, Ambrose had no intention of becoming the bishop. He returned to his court, and had some prisoners tortured in the hopes that those favouring his appointment as bishop would be dissuaded by a show of violence. When that failed, he announced that he intended to retire and spend the rest of his days in meditating in solitude. When that did not work, he had some prostitutes brought to his home, but the crowd saw through that ruse as well. Next, Ambrose tried to flee Milan at midnight, but he became lost in the dark and never got very far. To prevent him from trying to flee again, the people of Milan captured him and kept him under guard at his own house. Meanwhile they sent a message to Emperor Valentinian, who was at Trier, asking him to ratify their choice as bishop. Valentinian, pleased that there was an unanimous choice, willingly agreed, but, in the meantime, Ambrose had escaped and fled to the country estate of a friend, Leontius. The Pope then issued a proclamation which threatened anyone harbouring Ambrose with severe punishment. Leontius confessed and Ambrose was taken back to Milan. Even when the appointment was confirmed, Ambrose tried to have the ordination delayed. Finally, Valentinian promised Ambrose that he would not be harmed by the Arians and Ambrose agreed to serve as Bishop of Milan. He was baptised on November 24, AD 373, went through various levels of the priesthood during the next six days, and was consecrated bishop on the following Sunday, December 1.
By all accounts, Ambrose took to his new duties as bishop with commitment and vigour. He spent several hours each day in prayer and he led a simple and austere lifestyle. Along with administering baptism, penance, discipline of clergy, and civil judicial duties, Ambrose also supervised the charities of the church and defended those who were oppressed. When throngs of Roman men and women were taken prisoner by the Goths after the defeat at Hadrianople in AD 378, Ambrose used church wealth to ransom them. When people were condemned to death, he would often plead for mercy on their behalf. During Emperor Gratian’s reign, he successful lobbied the emperor for a pardon for a condemned pagan noble. Word of Ambrose’s reputation spread so that by AD 384, even Augustine was aware of the greatness of the Bishop of Milan. Augustine writes, “At Milan I came to Bishop Ambrose, who had a world-wide reputation, was a devout servant of yours [referring to God] and a man whose eloquence in those days gave abundantly” of the spiritual riches of God to the people of Milan.
While at Milan, Augustine only had superficial contact with Ambrose. Ambrose had greeted Augustine warmly and welcomed him to Milan and was very kind and generous towards him, but he was also a very busy man. Augustine writes,
I was not able to ask him the questions I wanted to ask in the way I wanted to ask them, because I was prevented from having an intimate conversation with him by the crowds of people, all of whom had some business with him and to whose infirmities he was a servant. And for the very short periods of time when he was not with them, he was either refreshing his body with necessary food or his mind with reading. When he was reading, his eyes went over the pages and his heart looked into the sense, but voice and tongue were resting. Often when we came to him (for no one was forbidden to come in, and it was not customary for visitors even to be announced) we found him reading, always to himself and never otherwise; we would sit in silence for a long time, not venturing to interrupt him in his intense concentration on his task, and then we would go away again….
Anyhow, I was given no chance of making the inquiries I wished to make from that holy oracle of yours [referring to God], his breast. I could only ask things that would not take long in the hearing.
In spite of their brief and superficial personal contacts, Ambrose was able to have a great impact on Augustine through his sermons and his exemplary life. To understand how he was able to do this, one has to go back in Augustine’s life to AD 373 when he was a young man of nineteen in Carthage.
As mentioned above, Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius at the age of nineteen. It filled him with a love for philosophy and a zeal for wisdom. The work no longer exists, but perhaps it contained sentiments similar to those in On Duties (II):
For surely to be wise is the most desirable thing in all the world. It is quite impossible to imagine anything better, or more becoming for a human being, or more appropriate to his essential nature. That is why the people who try to reach this goal are called philosophers, because that is precisely what philosophy means, the love of wisdom. And wisdom … signifies the knowledge of all things, divine and human, and of the causes which lie behind them.
Seeking truth and wisdom, Augustine turned to the Scriptures. However, he was unimpressed by what he read. He felt that, in style, they were unworthy of comparison with Cicero, and were better suited for children to study and learn. They were certainly far beneath him. Because of his contact with Manichean philosophy, he was likely repelled by the vindictiveness and earthiness found in the Old Testament. The unworthiness of the Christian Scriptures was one of two major objections that Augustine to the orthodox Christian religion. The second was the problem of evil. However, this essay will not deal fully with the second objection for it would require an essay on its own to cover it properly.
Ambrose was the catalyst that allowed Augustine to overcome his first objection in two ways. First, Ambrose’s exemplary life, as a devoted servant, a knowledgeable philosopher and a powerful ecclesiastical lord, dearly loved and admired by all who knew him, made him a role model to Augustine. Augustine dearly wanted to be like Ambrose, and so he attended his services, listened to his sermons and sought his counsel whenever he could. Second, during his sermons, by using allegorical interpretation of the Bible, Ambrose was able to reveal to Augustine the deeper truth contained within the texts.
When Augustine was about twenty-six or twenty-seven, he wrote a two or three books called The Beautiful and the Fitting. In them, he laid out his personal philosophy regarding those qualities which man desires and the interrelationships of those various qualities. He dedicated these books to Hierus, a very popular orator in Rome, even though he had never seen him. In analysing his own actions, Augustine writes,
I had never seen the man, but I had come to love him because of his very great reputation for learning, and I had heard and very much admired some of the things he had said. But the greater part of my admirations came from the fact that others admired him. He was praised to the skies and people were astonished that he, a Syrian who was brought up as a master of Greek oratory, would later become such a wonderful speaker in Latin and should also possess such a wide knowledge of philosophy. So he was praised and, without ever having been seen, was loved. Does this kind of love come into the heart of the hearer straight from the words of praise which he hears? Not at all. What happens is that love is kindled by love. We only love someone whom we hear praised when we believe that the praise comes from a sincere heart, that is to say, when the man who gives the praise loves the man whom he is praising.
In the same way that Augustine had admired the unseen Hierus in AD 380, he admired the Bishop of Milan four years later. The love of the people of Milan for Bishop Ambrose kindled admiration for Ambrose within the heart of Augustine. In separate passages of The Confessions, Augustine notes the “world wide reputation” of Ambrose and that he “was honored by people of such importance, a lucky man by worldly standards.” The admiration turns to affection, as Augustine says, “I began to love him at first not as a teacher of the truth (for I had quite despaired of finding it in your Church) but simply as a man who was kind and generous to me.”
Augustine states that he came to listen to Ambrose preach, not because he thought that he would hear the truth, but because he was evaluating Ambrose’s eloquence to see if it was up to his reputation. Augustine could have quite easily made a proper evaluation in one session and, yet, he kept coming back repeatedly to hear Ambrose preach. Though he maintains that such is not the case, the evidence suggests that he, perhaps subconsciously, had additional motives for coming to hear Ambrose. The admiration and love of the people of Milan for Ambrose kindled admiration and affection within Augustine for Ambrose. This admiration and affection, combined with his ongoing quest for truth, are likely the additional motives that Augustine had for continuing to come to church to hear Ambrose preach.
As Augustine listened to Ambrose’s sermons, something quite unexpected began to happen. He writes,
Together with the language, which I admired, the subject matter also, to which I was indifferent, began to enter into my mind. Indeed I could not separate the one from the other. And as I opened my heart in order to recognize how eloquently he was speaking it occurred to me at the same time (though this idea came gradually) how truly he was speaking. First I began to see that the points which he made were capable of being defended. I had thought that nothing could be said for the Catholic faith in the face of the objections raised by the Manichees, but it now appeared to me that this faith could be maintained on reasonable grounds — especially when I had heard one or two passages in the Old Testament explained, usually in a figurative way, which when I had taken them literally, had been a cause of death to me.
Through Ambrose’s use of allegorical interpretation, Augustine was able to overcome his first major objection to Christianity, the unworthiness of the Scriptures. Later he writes,
I was glad … that the old Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets were set before me in such a way that I could now read in a different spirit from that which I had had before, when I used to criticize your holy ones for holding various views which, plainly, they never held at all. And I was happy when I heard Ambrose … recommend most emphatically … this text as a rule to go by: The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. So he would draw aside the veil of mystery and explain in a spiritual sense the meanings of things which, if understood literally, appeared to be teaching what was wrong.
From this point onward, Augustine “began to prefer the Catholic faith.”
It is very important to note that Augustine still had some obstacles to overcome before he was able to fully commit to Christianity. He still had to work out in his mind how it was possible for evil to exist in the presence of an omnipotent God. Also, he had to determine what the nature of evil was. After studying with some Platonist philosophers at Milan, Augustine was able to develop an explanation which became very important to Christianity. Evil is not a physical substance, or a force that limits God’s power. Evil is “a perversity of the will turning away from you, God, the supreme substance, toward lower things.” He further explained how evil works within humans by developing what became known as the doctrine of original sin. Referring to the struggle between good and evil within humans, Augustine writes, “It was not I … who caused it, but the sin [that] dwells in me, and, being a son of Adam, I was suffering for his sin which was more freely committed.” By coming to these conclusions, Augustine was able to overcome his second major objection to Christianity.
Augustine also had to overcome his resistance to committing himself to celibacy. From Ambrose and Ponticianus, a visitor from Africa, Augustine knew that if he was to commit to Christianity, it should be a life of celibacy, which Augustine considered too much of a burden to bear. He used to pray, “Make me chaste and continent, but not yet.” One day, he underwent mental anguish as he agonized over what he should do. He heard the voice of a child in the yard next door singing, “Take it and read it, take it and read it.” He picked up a nearby copy of the Scriptures opened and read the first passage he saw, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in concupiscence.“ Immediately after reading this passage, Augustine no longer had any doubt as to what he should do. He had overcome his final objection. On the night before Easter, AD 387, Augustine, Adeodatus, and a friend of Augustine’s, Alypius, were baptised by Bishop Ambrose.
Ambrose continued serving as Bishop of Milan until his death in AD 397. Augustine left Milan to go back to North Africa shortly after his baptism. He was ordained a priest in Hippo in AD 391, and became Bishop of Hippo a few years later. Besides serving as priest and bishop, Augustine also wrote many important theological works, numerous sermons, letters, treatises, The Confessions and City of God. Though their contact with each other was relatively brief, Ambrose had a major and long lasting impact on Augustine. Ambrose was able to show Augustine the truth of Christianity so that he might accept it, and serve as a role model that Augustine was able to emulate, and eventually, outshine.
Ambrose of Milan. “To the Church at Vercelli.” No. 59 [Benedictine No. 63]. In Letters. Translated by Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka. 321-363. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954.
Ambrose of Milan. “To Valentinian.” No. 9 [Benedictine No. 21]. In Letters. Translated by Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka. 52-56. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954.
Augustine of Hippo. The Confessions. Translated by Rex Warner. New York: Mentor, 1963.
Cicero. “On Duties (II).” In Cicero: On the Good Life. Translated by Michael Grant. 117-171. London: Penguin, 1971.
Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. London: Faber & Faber, 1967.
Dudden, F. Homes. The life and Times of St. Ambrose. 2 volumes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1935.
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, The. Edited by F. L. Cross. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.
Oxford Dictionary of Saints, The. Edited by David Hugh Farmer. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), p. 19.
 Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, translated by Rex Warner, (New York: Mentor, 1963), Bk. 1.11.
 Conf. 2.3.
 Brown, p. 38.
 Conf. 3.2.
 Conf. 6.16.
 Conf. 3.4
 Cicero, “On Duties (II),” in Cicero: On the Good Life, translated by Michael Grant, 117-171, (London: Penguin, 1971), p. 122.
 Conf. 3.6.
 Brown, pp. 46-47.
 Brown, pp. 48-50.
 Brown, p. 50.
 Brown, p. 48.
 Conf. 4.2
 Brown, p. 53.
 Brown, p. 64.
 Conf. 5.6.
 Conf. 5.3.
 Conf. 5.7.
 Conf. 5.8.
 Conf. 5.9.
 Conf. 5,12.
 Conf. 5.10.
 Conf. 5.13.
 Brown, pp. 69-70.
 F. Homes Dudden, The life and Times of St. Ambrose, 2 volumes, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1935), Vol. 1, pp 1-2.
 Dudden, Vol. 1, p. 3.
 Dudden, Vol. 1, p. 4.
 Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 5-9.
 Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 13-14.
 Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 57-58.
 Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 58, 60-62.
 Dudden, Vol. 1, p. 64.
 Dudden, Vol. 1, p. 66.
 Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 66-68.
St. Ambrose, “To the Church at Vercelli,” No. 59 [Benedictine No. 63], in Letters, translated by Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka, 321-363, (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954), p. 345.
 Ambrose, “To Valentinian,” No. 9 [Benedictine No. 21], in Letters, translated by Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka, 52-56, (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1954), p. 53.
 Dudden, Vol. 1.3, p. 68.
 Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 107-115.
 Dudden, Vol. 1.3, pp. 115-126.
 Conf. 5.13.
 Conf. 6.3.
 Conf. 3.4.
 Cicero, p. 122.
 Conf. 3.5.
 Conf. 4.14.
 Conf. 5.13.
 Conf. 6.3.
 Conf. 5.13.
 Conf. 5.13.
 Conf. 10.24.
 Conf. 5.14.
 Conf. 6.4.
 Conf. 6.5.
 Conf. 7.16.
 Conf. 8.10.
 Conf. 8.6.
 Conf. 8.11.
 Conf. 6.3.
 Conf. 8.7.
 Conf. 8.12.
 Conf 8.12. (cf. Romans 13:13).
 Conf. 8.12.
 Brown, p. 124.