Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.28

Kirsten Groß-Albenhausen, Imperator christianissimus. Der christliche Kaiser bei Ambrosius und Johannes Chrysostomus. Frankfurter Althistorische Beiträge, Band 3.   Frankfurt am Main:  Marthe Clauss, 1999.  Pp. 223.  ISBN 3-934040-00-4.  

Reviewed by Robert Rollinger, Institut für Alte Geschichte und Altorientalistik, Universität Innsbruck

This book is a revised version of the author's doctoral dissertation which was supervised by Manfred Clauss and accepted by the Fachbereich Philosophie und Geschichtswissenschaften der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main in 1997. There is a short preface, followed by an introduction (pp. 11-28) in which G.-A. reviews the trends of scholarly debate, especially of the last 50 years, concerning State-Church relations during the fourth century A.D. In this she follows Hendrik Berkhof, who held the view that there existed two fundamentally different attitudes of the Church towards Emperor and State during the fourth century A.D., which became dogmatic in character with Ambrose of Milan.1 Berkhof described these two belief systems as "theocratic" in the West (where the State was dominated by the Church) and "Byzantine" in the East (where the Church had become an integral part of the State). This picture represents the basis of G.-A.'s work. Since Berkhof regarded Ambrose as a turning point for the development of "theocracy" in the West, G.-A. concentrates on the bishop's views regarding Emperor and State relations; and, because Berkhof perceives the divergence of East and West as a fact, G.-A. searches for a figure in the East comparable to the West's Ambrose whom she thinks she has found in the figure of John Chrysostom. By resisting the temptation to take the two bishops' writings at face value G.-A. takes an approach that is far more critical than that of more traditional researchers who deal with the bishops' works from a much too Christian and apologetic perspective.

G.-A.'s book falls into two parts. The first and more comprehensive part is dedicated to Ambrose (pp. 29-143). It starts with a short overview of his life and work and introduces also the sources which form the basis of G.-A.'s analysis (p. 29-35). This analysis is presented in eight chapters arranged according the chronology of Ambrose's career. The first chapter deals with Ambrose and Gratian ("Das Verhältnis zu Kaiser Gratian und den 'Arianern'", pp. 36-62). G.-A. draws a picture of a politically ambitious bishop taking every opportunity to interfere in matters that are not part of his area of responsibility. Ambrose is not portrayed as a paternal adviser and friend of Gratian. On the contrary, G.-A. emphasizes the distance between emperor and bishop. Thus Ambrose's de fide is not thought to be a treatise where Gratian asks the bishop of Milan for advice but as one where the bishop has to render an account of his personal beliefs. In this respect G.-A. also minimizes the alleged influence of Ambrose on the emperor's actions. Thus the concept of the divine rights of the ruler ("Gottesgnadentum") already evident in this early phase of Ambrose's political and religious engagement (see p. 52) is a doctrine developed not in cooperation with but in opposition to the emperor. This critical attitude of not believing the bishop's own statements concerning an alleged proximity ("Nahverhältnis") to the royal court dominates the other chapters of the book as well. In chapter 2 G.-A. reexamines the controversy over the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Curia ("Der Streit um den Victoria-Altar", pp. 63-78). The crucial part of this chapter is the confrontation with Symmachus' view "Uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum" which G.-A. interprets as an argument based on tradition and justice (p.73) whereas Ambrose answers with intolerance by not accepting any other way than the (orthodox) Christian one. The next chapter focuses on the "Basilica Conflict" between Ambrose and Imperial Court ("Der Mailänder Kirchenstreit", pp. 79-93). G.-A. interprets the conflict between Ambrose and the non-baptized emperor Valentinian II, who displayed leanings towards Arianism, as a struggle for power: the emperor accuses the bishop of acting like a tyrannus, i.e. usurper (pp. 84f.).2 Attention is then drawn to the impact on Ambrose of Milan being home to both bishop and emperor as well the importance of the support Ambrose gained from his congregation and by part of an army that was divided by differences of creed. During this confrontation Ambrose utters his famous admonition: "imperator enim intra ecclesiam, non supra ecclesiam est" (ep. 75 a [21 a] 36). The next two chapters focus on two episodes in the life of Ambrose which so far have attracted little attention in modern research. The first one (ch. 4, "Die Gesandtschaften zu Maximus", pp. 94-98) analyses Ambrose's two missions to the usurper Magnus Maximus which are the theme of two letters of the bishop. G.-A. underlines the opportunistic attitude of the bishop, who prefers to have a non-orthodox and non-baptized emperor Valentinian II in Milan rather than an orthodox and baptized Maximus in Trier (cf. p. 94). She also draws attention to the fact that Ambrose characterizes Maximus in his letters as princeps and thus obviously did not question the legitimacy of his rule. The next chapter is dedicated to Ambrose's engagement concerning emperor Theodosius I's measures after the destruction of the synagogue in Callinicum ("Die Affaire von Callinicum", pp. 99-112). G.-A. stresses the fact that Ambrose's letters regarding this incident have been passed over in embarrassed silence by modern research ("mit peinlichem Stillschweigen übergangen", p. 99).3 She judges Ambrose's intervention on behalf of the perpetrators as revealing an inadequate sense of justice ("mangelndes Rechtsgefühl"). Ambrose claims authority in all matters of religion, an attitude which G.-A. characterizes as "Episkocaesarismus" (p. 105). The Thessalonian Massacre is dealt with in the following chapter ("Das Blutbad von Thessalonike", pp. 113-119). G.-A. elaborates on the moralizing as well as the aggressive behaviour of Ambrose in denying the Eucharist to the emperor, putting him under pressure. The bishop thus claims a right to be involved in acts of government (cf. 118). The last two chapters focus on two further episodes in the life of Ambrose. First, G.-A. evaluates the bishop's letters concerning his behaviour towards the usurper Eugenius ("Das Verhalten gegenüber dem Usurpator Eugenius", pp. 121-124). Second, she analyses the funeral orations for Valentinian II and Theodosius ("Die Leichenreden auf Valentinian II und Theodosius", pp. 125-133). The first episode is very informative since Ambrose tries to pass over in silence his inappropriate behaviour by having originally accepted the usurper Maximus as legitimate emperor. According to G.-A. Ambrose in the two obituaries styles himself a close friend and advisor of Valentinian and Theodosius -- a position he never had in reality. A summary concludes this first part of the book (pp.134-143).

The second and much shorter part of the book is devoted to John Chrysostom. It starts with an overview of the bishop's life (pp. 144-156). After a short introduction ("Die Schriften über das Kaisertum", p. 157) it presents three chapters in chronological order analyzing the bishop's statements about State and Emperor. The first chapter deals with Chrysostom's early work and his time in Antioch ("Die theoretischen Überlegungen zu Kaiser und Kaisertum", pp. 158-169). During this time Chrysostom, while searching for a Christian way of life by living that of a hermit and ascetic, developed a critical attitude towards the state in his treatises and sermons. The next chapter focuses on Chrysostom's famous Homilies to the Statues ("Der Statuenaufstand von Antiochia und die 'Statuenhomilien'", pp. 170-183), written when Golden Mouth was still presbyter in Antioch but already exhibited a remarkable change in his actions. He acted as an advocate for his community by petitioning the emperor. In doing so he had to accept the role of the state and emphasize that without emperor and empire life would lose its order. The last chapter examines Chrysostom's work while he was bishop and before he was forced to go into exile ("Die Ereignisse in Constantinopel", pp. 184-200). There his way of thinking underwent a complete change in attributing to the emperor qualities he originally wished to ascribe only to the priest. Chrysostom's conception of power and rule thus became Pauline. Important aspects of the bishop's conceptions, especially his attitude towards the empress, however, depend on the controversial question whether the Sermo cum iret in exsilium (PG 52, 435-438) is regarded as authentic, as G.-A. believes (cf. pp.193). This second part again concludes with a summary (pp. 201-203). The final chapter of the book ("Ambrosius und Chrysostomus -- Spiegelbild des Westens und des Ostens?", pp. 204-207) offers a comparison of Ambrose and Chrysostom, referring back to the central question of the introduction. G.-A. hesitates to view the two bishops as representing East and West. Indeed, she explains the differences more in terms of personality and individuality. There is also a bibliography (pp. 208-216) and an index including persons, places, sources and important key words (pp. 217-223).

G.-A. has written an important book. While some sections may seem monotonous and repetitive 4 and the individual chapters are often close to being no more than a retelling of the sources, the chapters designated as "summaries" present wide-ranging analysis. Overall, however, her critical attitude towards the sources is persuasive.5 Often G.-A. convincingly refutes scholars whose conclusions she does not accept. In other cases, however, her criticism may be too harsh.6 She takes into account a huge mass of literature, not only German but also English, French and Italian, and there are only minor errors.7

There is only one aspect of the book which is confusing, namely, the logic of G.-A.'s approach of taking Berkhof's views as her starting point and inspiration. G.-A. then proceeds to attempt to answer the question whether the differences between the views of Ambrose and Chrysostom can be explained merely on a personal level or whether the answer must be sought on a regional level already reflecting the division of West and East (p. 21). She does not reflect on the question whether this difficult matter can be answered at all by looking at only two specific personalities as representing East and West. While it may not come as a surprise that in the end she concludes that most of the differences between the two bishops can be explained on a personal level, she leaves the reader confused. Is Berkhof's view still valid? Is the deep divide between East and West which Berkhof posits fact or fiction? The introduction thus loses its connection with the rest of the book. The reader might ask for an answer to what G.-A. originally declared as one of the major objectives of her study: are the differences between Ambrose and Chrysostom differences of personality or are the two bishops representative ("Abbilder") of East and West?

On the other hand G.-A. presents a critical and very stimulating analysis of the works of two important Christian thinkers of late antiquity which indicates the direction in which future research ought to move. The bishops' statements are treated with a profound knowledge of Quellenkritik, thereby revealing their interests and motives and questioning the alleged positions they claim to have held. But with her renewed focus on the sources the res gestae also assume greater importance. They are treated only partially to the reader's satisfaction by G.-A. Why was Ambrose entrusted with the mission to Maximus in Trier immediately after the Basilica Conflict, and how does this square with G.-A.'s concept of a "Fernverhältnis" between bishop and emperor? Why did Theodosius accede to his interventions concerning the punishment of the agitators in the destruction of the synagogue in Callinicum? This question may also be asked regarding Theodosius' reaction to the Thessalonian Massacre. The emperor's act of repentance is difficult to understand if the bishop of Milan did not have the status of a personal advisor (cf. p. 114 where G.-A. tries to adduce possible motives for the emperor's behaviour, which are not totally convincing). Finally G.-A. does not explain how this act of repentance manifested itself (cf. pp. 118f.). So G.-A. has written a stimulating book, but there are still some major questions left unanswered.


1.   Hendrik Berkhof, Kirche und Kaiser. Eine Untersuchung zur Entstehung der byzantinischen und der theokratischen Staatsauffassung im vierten Jahrhundert. Zürich 1947.
2.   Cf. E. Flaig, Für eine Konzeptualisierung der Usurpation im spätrömischen Reich, in: François Paschoud / Joachim Szidat (eds.), Usurpationen in der Spätantike (Historia Einzelschriften 111). Stuttgart 1997, pp. 15-34.
3.   See also p. 117 n. 19 where she complains about the traditional "hagiographische Betrachtungsweise", and p. 121 n. 10.
4.   Thus, every source discussed in detail is introduced in the notes by the phrase "Die im folgenden in Klammern angegebenen Zahlen bezeichnen die Paragraphen" which appears more than 25 times. Cf. also p.81 and 85 n. 35 re Auxentius of Durostorum.
5.   In this respect she could have referred to N. B. McLynn, Ambrose of Milan. Church and Court in an Christian Capital (The Transformation of the Classical Heritage 22). Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 1994, and J.N.D. Kelly, Golden Mouth. The Story of John Chrysostom. Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop. London 1995. D. H. Williams, Ambrose of Milan and the End of the Arian-Nicene Conflicts. Oxford 1995 could not be consulted.
6.   See e.g. p. 23 where she distances herself from G. Gottlieb, Ambrosius von Mailand und Kaiser Gratian (Hypomnemata 40). Göttingen 1973; p. 203 where she suggests that Chrysostom's behaviour was inconsistent, having begged for the benedictions of the metropolis during his exile ("bettelte Ch. um die Segnungen der Großstadt"). See also p. 49 n. 78.
7.   Naboth (see 3 Re 21) is not a prophet (p. 88). The identification of ancient names with modern ones is sometimes misleading. It might be helpful, not only for the non-German speaker, to give names of places, rivers, etc., in their present local languages rather than in German. Thus (p. 120), the identification of the Frigidus with Wippach is not totally correct (it is the Wippach/Vipava and the Hubl/Hubelj, which are regarded in antiquity to be one river (see M. Springer, Die Schlacht am Frigidus als quellenkundliches und literaturgeschichtliches Problem, in: Rajko Brato (ed.), Westillyricum und Nordostitalien in der spätrömischen Zeit (Situla, Band 34). Ljubljana, 1996, pp. 45-94., 47), and it might also be difficult to find the river on modern maps since it runs through Slovenia and has the name Vipava. Also the identification of Callinicum with "Ar-Rakka am Euphrat" could be more precise (p. 100 n. 7). One wonders why G.-A. in her discussion of the bishops' behaviour towards Eugenius does not deal in detail with the bishops' view of the battle at the Frigidus since this episode reveals a central aspect of Ambrose's conceptions (see p. 132 where she passes over the relevant section 7 of the oratio de obitu Theodosii in silence). Only an emperor with the "right" belief is able to govern the empire successfully. On the other hand it is strange that concerning this battle she refers to the article by Seeck and Veith (O. Seeck and G. Veith, Die Schlacht am Frigidus, Klio 13, 1913, pp. 451-467 [p. 120 n. 4]) which exactly exhibits the uncritical attitude towards the sources G.-A. wants to overcome. (This was recently demonstrated by Springer, see above.)

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