End of the Arians

With his position within the city of Rome itself finally firmly secure, Damasus needed to further establish himself by extending his power beyond the confines of the city. This entailed dealing with the aftermath of the Arian crisis which had so dramatically affected his predecessor Liberius. Liberius had allegedly agreed to the problematic creed formulated at the Council of Arminum under Constantius II. Once Liberius had safely returned to Rome, he repudiated the creed in a letter that Socrates preserved in the text of his historical work. One of the few bishops who still supported the Arian creed was Auxentius, the bishop of the imperial city of Milan.

Eusebius of Vercelli and Hilarius of Potiers, who like Liberius had suffered exile under Constantius, worked hard to remove Auxentius. Their efforts to do so were thwarted in A.D. 364 by the emperor Valentinian I who, while personally Nicene, advocated a policy of harmony and toleration among the Christian factions. In A.D. 371, Damasus called a synod of Western bishops in Rome that repudiated all the decrees passed at Ariminum. No doubt this was at least partially motivated by the controversy which still surrounded the memory of Liberius that the followers of Lucifer of Cagliari were using to their advantage. In an epistula addressed to the bishops of Illyria, Damasus wrote that “Those who devise strange doctrines ought not to be followed…Auxentius, bishop of Milan, has been publically declared to be condemned preeminently in this matter.” Nevertheless, even the full weight of the authority of the Roman see was not enough to dislodge Auxentius from his own, until his death in A.D. 374.


Ambrosius Aurelius was the consularis of the province of Aemelia-Liguria, of which Milan was the capital. He came from a Christian family but was still a catechumen. Foreseeing a heated dispute over the episcopal succession that would likely generate significant unrest, Ambrose went to the church where the election was occurring, ostensibly to maintain order. Neil McLynn has argued that Ambrose’s intervention had a pro-Nicene slant and that he took over the proceedings to ensure that the Nicenes at least had a voice in the proceedings. The Nicenes viewed this action as support for their cause and acclaimed Ambrose as bishop. He initially dramatically refused and went to extraordinary lengths to avoid being consecrated, but reluctantly took up the episcopal office when Valentinian ordered him to do so.

For the decade between his consecration as bishop and the death of Damasus, Ambrose proved himself to be the foremost ally of Damasus in the West. Theodoret invariably pairs Ambrose with Damasus in his writings, both historical and epistolary. Ambrose himself stressed his allegiance and adherence to Rome, to the point that one of his opponents even referred to him as the “servant” or mouthpiece of Damasus. Ambrose also shared the conviction of Damasus that to be truly Christian was to be Roman. It was at some point during the time when Damasus ruled over Rome and Ambrose ruled over Milan, that the church in both cities began to formulate a standard liturgical text. Whereas the liturgy had originally been in Greek, the new prayers were written in Latin. Mauren Lafferty argued that, “An examination of Ambrose’s anti-Arian writings reveals that Ambrose repeatedly figures the Arians in Milan as uncivilized, non-Latinate barbarians, despite the reality that both Latin-speakers and Greek speakers…also belonged to the Arian community there.” In order for the arguments of both Ambrose and Damasus in this case to hold, the identity of Rome as a Christian city had to be maintained

The Altar of Victory

A significant threat to such a maintenance came in the last year of the pontificate of Damasus. Augustus had installed the Altar of Victory in the Curia in 27 B.C. to commemorate his victory at Actium. It remained there until Constantius II removed it in 357. His successor Julian subsequently restored it. In A.D. 382, Gratian removed the Altar for a second time and when a group of pagan senators rebuked him for thus neglecting his duties as pontifex maximus, the emperor rejected the title. After the assassination of Gratian the next year, a group of senators presented a relatio to the new emperor Valentinian II, in which they protested the removal of the Altar and requested its reinstallation. The relatio, authored by Symmachus, argued that the disasters which had befallen the Empire in the later part of the fourth century, particularly the defeat at Adrianople, were the result of neglecting the ancestral rites of the Romans. In response to this petition by Symmachus, Ambrose wrote a letter to Valentinian, in which called him “most Christian emperor,” to argue against putting the Altar back. Ambrose mentioned to the emperor that Damasus had sent him a memorandum from the Christian senators protesting that they did not support “the request of the heathen.” The senators also threatened to boycott Senate meetings if Valentinian restored the Altar. Convinced that the Senate was not unanimous in its request, Gratian rejected the restoration request.

This passing mention is the solitary reference to Damasus in the Epistulae of Ambrose. Nevertheless, it depicts Damasus and Ambrose closely collaborating in the context of a significant event with both political and religious implications. Such close collaboration was clearly the norm and was not exceptional. Ambrose was a staunch and invaluable ally of Damasus in increasing the power of the papacy, in no small part because the proximity of Milan to Rome meant that an increase in Rome’s prestige helped increase that of Milan as well.

Theodosius the Great and Thessalonica

Damasus exerted a subdued, but nonetheless significant influence on Theodosius. Damasus was at the very least of Spanish extraction and Theodosius certainly was born in Hispania, in what is now the city of Coca.  However, the most significant influence exerted on Theodosius by Damasus was in the person of Acholius, the bishop of Thessalonica. Acholius baptized Theodosius following a serious illness that left the emperor near death in A.D. 380. Thus, it is no accident that in that same year, Theodosius issued the famous edict Cunctos Populos from Thessalonica, for which reason it is also known as the edict of Thessalonica. The Edict established orthodox Christianity, defined as “that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter…and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria” as the state religion of the empire. It is likely that this definition on the part of Theodosius was a result of the influence of Acholius, who was in regular communication with Damasus.

Challenging the Emperor

This new “favored faith” status for Christianity did not prevent Ambrosius from speaking truth to power. Ambrosius outlived Damasus by fourteen years. During that time, his see of Milan, rather than Rome, served as the Western imperial capital and thus was frequented by the emperor. Ironically, in the same place in which he declared Christianity to be the faith of the Empire, Theodosius committed his most egregious offense against its tenets. In response to a revolt that broke out in Thessalonica and cost the Roman governor his life, Theodosius massacred 7,000 inhabitants of the city.

Ambrosius physically barring Theodosius from entering the cathedral

Ambrosius physically barring Theodosius from entering the cathedral

Despite having closely collaborated with a man who himself had been born during the Great Persecution and made it his life endeavor to maintain the memory of the martyrs, Ambrosius was unafraid to risk imperial ire and possible retribution. He excommunicated Theodosius and called him to repentance, going so far as to refuse to celebrate Mass in the presence of the emperor and physically bar the emperor from entering the cathedral at Milan. Only after eight months did Ambrosius decide that Theodosius had demonstrated the appropriate amount of repentance and readmitted him to Communion.

In this time of doctrinal and confusion, let us pray that more bishops follow the example of Ambrosius in defending the truth of the Faith and its proper practice.