An Ancient Bishop Rebukes His Emperor for Crimes Against Life: A Story of St. Ambrose and the Emperor Theodosius

There is a remarkable event that took place between the Emperor Theodosius and St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. What makes it remarkable is that it shows an ancient Bishop interacting with an ancient politician over the dignity of human life. In this case the politician was the Emperor and he had the power of life and death over Ambrose the Bishop. St. Ambrose knew he had to correct the Emperor but also knew this might endanger his life or freedom. Nevertheless he did it and wrote a personal letter of rebuke to the Emperor. Let’s look at this remarkable incident, what Bishop Ambrose did and what the outcome was.

 The Offending Incident –Theodosius, Roman Emperor from 378 – 392 was in many ways and extraordinary Emperor. He had successfully dealt with the Goths and other tribes and brought greater unity to the troubled Empire in the West. But the Emperor  was also famous for having a bad temper. In 390 AD in Thesolonica, a bad riot broke out which resulted in the death of the Captain of the Roman Garrison there. It seems a certain charioteer  had become very popular with the crowds. Now he also lived a rather debauched life. This offended the Captain  of the Roman Garrison, a Goth,   and also a very upright and disciplined man. The  name of the Garrison Captain was   Botheric. He had the charioteer arrested for debauchery .  The crowds in turn rose up in favor of the athlete and rioted. In addition to the arrest there may also have been ethnic jealously involved on both sides since the Roman Garrison was comprised largely of Goths and the town was largely Greek. In the riot Botheric, the Captain was killed.

 When Theodosius  heard of this he was incensed and his temper flared and he ordered  the Roman Army to round up the whole town and place them in the stadium  and have them all killed.  7000 were killed that day!  The day after issuing the order when his temper had cooled Theodosius regretted his decision and sent another messenger to try and stop it but it was too late.

 Theodosius  was mortified and went to Milan to seek solace from St. Ambrose. But Ambrose, fearing the Church was  just be used as a political prop or fig leaf left the city before Theodosius  arrived and in effect refused to meet with the Emperor.  This surely endangered Ambrose for it risked inflaming the Emperor’s infamous temper once more.

Ambrose then wrote  to the Emperor a private letter (now known as Letter 51). You can read the whole letter here:   The Letter is a respectful but clear call to public repentance by the Emperor and a refusal to admit him to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or to celebrate it in his presence until such public repentance had occurred. Here are excerpts:

 The memory of your old friendship is pleasant to me, and I gratefully call to mind the kindnesses which, in reply to my frequent intercessions, you have most graciously conferred on others. Whence it may be inferred that I did not from any ungrateful feeling avoid meeting you on your arrival, which I had always before earnestly desired. And I will now briefly set forth the reason for my acting as I did…..

 Listen, august Emperor. I cannot deny that you have a zeal for the faith; I do confess that you have the fear of God. But you have a natural vehemence [i.e. temper] , which….if any one stirs it up, you rouse it so much more that you can scarcely restrain it……Would that….no one may inflame it! …. restrain yourself, and overcome your natural vehemence by the love of piety….

  This vehemence of yours I preferred to commend privately to your own consideration, rather than possibly raise it by any action of mine in public…..

 There was that done in the city of the Thessalonians of which no similar record exists, which I was not able to prevent happening; which, indeed, I had before said would be most atrocious when I so often petitioned against it, and that which you yourself show by revoking it too late you consider to be grave, this I could not extenuate [i.e. minimize]  when done. When it was first heard of….there was not one who did not lament it, not one who thought lightly of it; your being in fellowship with Ambrose was no excuse for your deed…..

 Are you ashamed, O Emperor, to do that which the royal prophet David, the forefather of Christ, according to the flesh, did? ….he said: I have sinned against the Lord. Bear it, then, without impatience, O Emperor, if it be said to you: You have done that which was spoken of…. say: I have sinned against the Lord. If you repeat those words of the royal prophet: O come let us worship and fall down before Him, and mourn before the Lord our God, Who made us. [I]t shall be said to you also: Since you repent, the Lord puts away your sin, and you shall not die.

  Holy Job, himself also powerful in this world, says: I hid not my sin, but declared it before all the people…..

 I have written this, not in order to confound you, but that the examples of these kings may stir you up to put away this sin from your kingdom, for you will do it away by humbling your soul before God. You are a man, and it has come upon you, conquer it. Sin is not done away but by tears and penitence. Neither angel can do it, nor archangel. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say, I am with you, Matthew 28:20 if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent….

  I urge, I beg, I exhort, I warn, for it is a grief to me, that you who were an example of unusual piety, who were conspicuous for clemency…, The devil envied that which was your most excellent possession. Conquer him while you still possess that wherewith you may conquer. Do not add another sin to your sin by a course of action which has injured many.

 I, indeed, though a debtor to your kindness, for which I cannot be ungrateful, that kindness which has surpassed that of many emperors…. but have cause for fear; I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.

 Lastly, I am writing with my own hand that which you alone may read….Our God gives warnings in many ways, by heavenly signs, by the precepts of the prophets; by the visions even of sinners He wills that we should understand, that we should entreat Him to take away all disturbances, to preserve peace for you emperors, that the faith and peace of the Church, whose advantage it is that emperors should be Christians and devout, may continue.

 You certainly desire to be approved by God. To everything there is a time, Ecclesiastes 3:1 as it is written: It is time for You, Lord, to work. It is an acceptable time, O Lord. You shall then make your offering when you have received permission to sacrifice, when your offering shall be acceptable to God. Would it not delight me to enjoy the favor of the Emperor, to act according to your wish, if the case allowed it….when the oblation would bring offense, for the one is a sign of humility, the other of contempt.  For the Word of God Himself tells us that He prefers the performance of His commandments to the offering of sacrifice. God proclaims this, Moses declares it to the people, Paul preaches it to the Gentiles. ….Are they not, then, rather Christians in truth who condemn their own sin, than they who think to defend it? The just is an accuser of himself in the beginning of his words. He who accuses himself when he has sinned is just, not he who praises himself.

…..But thanks be to the Lord, Who wills to chastise His servants, that He may not lose them. This I have in common with the prophets, and you shall have it in common with the saints….If you believe me, be guided by me…..acknowledge what I say; if you believe me not, pardon that which I do, in that I set God before you. May you, most august Emperor, with your holy offspring, enjoy perpetual peace with perfect happiness and prosperity.  

 Assessment – So here is a Bishop speaking the truth to the Emperor and calling him to repentance. Remember there were no laws protecting Ambrose from execution or exile for doing this. An Emperor could act with impunity doing either. Yet St. Ambrose speaks a rebuke meant to provoke sincere repentance. Neither would Ambrose allow the Church to be used as a prop for some false and flattering acclamation. What was need was sincere and public repentance. He rebukes both with the Emperor’s salvation in mind as well as the good of the faithful. He used the Shepherd’s staff (which is a weapon used to defend the Sheep) to defend the flock from damnation, error and discouragement. He insisted on truth when it could have gotten him killed by the wolf.

 So what did Emperor Theodosius do?He went to the Cathedral of Milan and brought his whole entourage. Ambrose agreed to meet him there. The emperor walked into the door of the Cathedral and shed all his royal robes and insignia and bowed down in public penance. One year later in 391 he personally went to Thessolonica and asked forgiveness. He died in 395 at the age of 48 and likely saved his soul by listening to Ambrose and placing his faith higher than his civil authority.

 A remarkable story of the power of the gospel to transform the hearts of all. A remarkable story of what risking to speak the truth can do. May God be praise.

Disclaimer – I do not relate this story to critique the modern struggle of some bishops (and priests) to speak the truth to those in power. I write rather to encourage us all by an epic tale from the past. It remains true that every bishop has to make prudential judgments in each situation based on the individual politician or prominent person involved, what is best for the faithful, and the common good. Some have judged to speak forth as Ambrose. Others in different circumstances are still pursuing quiet measures. Still others judge that public rebukes in the circumstances they face will only make heroes of the one rebuked.  It is a prudential judgment that every bishop has to make. A bishop in the Midwest may face one set of circumstances, a bishop in the northeast another set. The faithful do well to encourage their bishops and priests and pray for them to make good judgments in this regard.

 Finally, I am indebted to Rev. Michael John Witt, Church History Professor at Kendrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis for the background on the this story. He has a wonderful Church History site here:  The site includes hundreds of mp3 lectures on Church history that are engaging and inspiring as well as manifesting a love for the Church.

Priests too face challenges in speaking forthrightly to their congregations and need to courage to announce that which may not always be popular or may be out of season. In this clip the famous preacher Vernon Johns (who preceded Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham) seeks to rouse a sleepy congregation to realize its own role in perpetuating injustice. Even as bishops and priests are called to speak up, so too are the laity. The clip is an remarkable glimpse at what a prophet often must sound like.

12 Replies to “An Ancient Bishop Rebukes His Emperor for Crimes Against Life: A Story of St. Ambrose and the Emperor Theodosius”

  1. Dear Father,
    Thanks so much for this piece from ancient Church History. Also the embedded site details which give me a lot to read. Indeed, your write-up should stir the conscience of every clergyman to guard his flock and take care of his spiritual and temporal needs in a manner that befits his role as a shepherd of his flock. Sadly, today, many priests do not speak up on every aspect of life, whether it is women’s clothing, the need for the sacraments and the frequency of it and our lifestyles. Most Catholics also feel that a priest who corrects is intruding into their private space. Most see the views of the Holy Father as being too orthodox and uncalled for and inviting controversy. We want our priests to be okay with Abortion, Euthenasia, Divorce, Live-in-relationships, lesser and lesser clothing on women’s bodies and extravagant lifestyles. I also see lesser and lesser priests using the pulpit to talk about these issues. Most feel that they would get into unnecessary controversies and do not want to stir the hornet’s nest. So it is ‘You are ok’ and ‘I am ok’ and so ‘All are ok’. Many priests even feel that talking too much on controversial issues might prompt many to keep away from church ot leave it all-togather. But under the garb of all these apprehensions, I feel, priests are shying away from their prime responsibility of saving souls and bringing salvation. Our Lord was never accepted for speaking the truth, then how can His apostles be received well? But Jesus spoke fearlessly. Should his apostles then not follow suit? A priest is called to reprimand and correct albeit not with a stick but by his words. But correct, he must because he is answerable for the flock he has been given by Jesus, Himself. This write-up must be an eye-opener for lukewarm priests. It is better to invite the wrath of a few men on earth than to be cast into eternal fire!!

  2. As I am familiar with the story, it is your disclaimer that caught my mind. While I agree that each bishop makes prudential judgments about pastoral issues in his diocese as the local ordinary, he needs to consider that with the digital age the only thing local are donations. Hence, the bishop needs to be cautious of not being in-bred or falling into the Stockholm syndrome as he chooses popular courses of action for the “well-being of the local church”. Perhaps, he needs to expand that prudential judgment to weigh the impact on all the Churches in North America or the world for that matter e.g.. most if not all pro-lifers know about the Apostolic Asignatura’s interpretation of canon 915 so if another bishop in the NE dispenses with that, then the global church is wounded.

    1. I think you are correct that bishops cannot think merely in local manner, at least not in this day and time. There are prudential judgments to be made with many things in consideration however and I, as priest just want to be clear I not attempting to critique every bishop by this story.

  3. Here’s favourite bishop story from the Early Church….

    The Emperor Valens was a resolute supporter of the Arians. He planted Arianism in other provinces in Asia Minor and came to Cappadocia with the same aim. He sent the Prefect Modestus to Bishop Basil in order to convince him to join the Arians. Modestus threatened him with ruin, exile, tortures and even death. Basil’s response:

    “You threaten me with the confiscation of property, but it means nothing for the man who possesses nothing, unless you desire to receive this modest clothing and a few books which make up all my estate.

    Exile? – but I do not know it, since I am not limited by space. If this ground on which I stand right now does not belong to me, then the whole earth belongs to God, Whose temporary guest I am.

    Torments? – but they do not have power over one not having flesh, except perhaps for the first blow, which you are free to make.

    Death? – but it will be deliverance for me, since it will quickly bring me to God, for Whom I live and to a greater extent have died, and to Whom I hasten to come…

    Tell the Emperor that neither violence nor persuasion will force me to accept a wrong teaching.”

    Basil’s adamant negative response prompted Modestus to say that no one had ever spoken to him in that way before. Basil replied, “Perhaps you have never yet had to deal with a bishop…”


  4. Any suggestions on where to start. They threw the baby out with the bath water starting with LBJ’s great society.There were no more boundaries safe from the social sacred cow and morality became the target of the ACLU. The federal government has run amuck in righting social wrongs to the point where the world views of right and wrong are upside down. Not that much has ever changed when it comes to corruption other than who in society is getting the shaft. Some could call it poetic justice but truth is, the moral majority let it’s guard down and lacked the clarity and moral leadership to stand up against and confront a degenerate movement hellbent on having things their way. It takes a concerted effort with clear goals and princiles. The Church hasn’t done a very good job since the inception of Vatican II and neither has the world society as a whole. There is no teaching of respect for elder experience. It;s more about promoting the youthful agenda which is inexperienced; under educated, and easily manipulated by sense pleasures and self gratification. Culture became a bigotted concept with racial overtones. Now we have the academia who use the system to draw moral eqivalence and teach tollerance for anything slightly different or contrary to the principles that made us a Christian nation or faith for that matter. Most all are on some form of government funding or controlled to some degree by it. What if they decided to do away with religious tax exemptions? Some in congress have suggested as much. So where do you start?

  5. Fascinating story and makes me wish that we had Bishops and priests today that would stand for Truth. Sadly I look around and I see the Catholic Church disarmed by the current of the age. They have lost all moral power, if they ever had any, in our culture with all the scandals. And when the Bishops and priests will not stand with “one voice” how can we hope for anything more than confusion? Where are the prophets of old in the Catholic Church today? I see none! Not even one! I wish it were otherwise. We wonder why our youth are leaving in droves? It’s because we have no real leaders. The shepherds have left their flocks to be eaten by the wolves. The wolves have infiltrated the ranks of the leadership. There are some good Bishops and priests around but they are far and few between as far as I can tell. I think we have laypeople out here more discerning and more bold than our leaders. That is truly a sad state to be in. I pray that the Lord Jesus will do whatever it takes to purify His church. It will probably mean great reduction in the ranks but what will be left will at least be the real deal.


    1. Philologus – This should help change your paradigm. Google Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. You may be surprised.

  6. Either double major with journalism and creative writing, or a “good” school in an urban area where I could major in journalism and minor in creative writing? I’m only a sophmore in high school but I know I love to write and I don’t know what I’d enjoy more as an actual career, journalism or creative writing. What would be the best college for someone like me?.

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