Towards the end of his life bishop Ambrose of Milan, by then a veteran commentator on the Old Testament, wrote a work in which he considered passages within that text that could be used to illustrate the topic of flight from the world, the De fuga saeculi. After a short introduction he discussed six cities of refuge mentioned in the Book of Numbers that God ordered the children of Israel to establish, to which those guilty of homicide could flee. The biblical narrative prompted a number of questions: Why were these cities located in the area of the Levites? Why were there just six of them? Why were three beyond the Jordan and three in the region of Canaan? And why could people enjoy refuge in them only until the high priest died? Having dealt with these matters, Ambrose then turned from the theme of refuge to that of flight, examining two occasions on which Jacob fled, the first to his uncle Laban in Mesopotamia after his falling out with his brother Esau and the second when he left Laban. He then examined the figure of David, with reference to his utterances in various psalms, being careful to distinguish between passages that were spoken in the voice of Christ and those spoken in David’s own voice. Moving away from analysing portions of Scripture in their own right, Ambrose then considered, in a general and somewhat disjointed manner, the themes of fleeing from the evil that God permits to occur in this world and turning towards the good that is on high, before returning to the figure of Jacob, whom he now interpreted as one who found wisdom. After briefly mentioning Susannah, who is envisaged as having fled from the world and entrusted herself to God, Paul, whose flight took the form of being let down from a window in a basket, and Lot, who fled from Sodom, Ambrose concluded by recommending to his readers that they flee from the wrath to come by means of repentance and faith.
Summarized in this way, the work gives the impression of being a hodgepodge of material that does not fully cohere. Its chunky nature reflects its being a reworking of sermons delivered on different occasions, and it retains an air of exhortation, the word fugiamus occurring remarkably frequently. In the introduction to her fine edition and its accompanying translation into French, Camille Gerzaguet shows the difficulty of establishing the composition of the audience of the sermons. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that some of the preaching may have been delivered to people who were not yet baptized, and in this respect those who heard the sermons can be contrasted with the readers of the book that Ambrose based on them, for these were clearly people who had been baptized. They were also interested in philosophical issues. At a strategic point towards the end of the work, Ambrose accused Plato of having based some of his teaching on the Old Testament. The point was by no means an original one, but Gerzaguet reminds us that there were a number of Christians in Milan at that very time who were interested in Neoplatonism, and when Ambrose insisted on the priority of biblical teaching it will have been with them in mind. She also provides a very worthwhile discussion of the date of the work. The key piece of evidence is a citation of Sallust that seems to depend on a work that may well have appeared in 395, or perhaps later, which Ambrose uses to defend the Latinity of St Paul, a surprising ploy, for he was well aware that the Latin text before him was a translation of the original Greek the Apostle had written. Gerzaguet sets this use of Sallust beside the potential relevance to a work on the topic of flight of Ambrose’s own flight from Milan a few years earlier when the usurper Eugenius had been in power, and similarities between the De fuga and two other items written by Ambrose at that period, a letter that can be dated to between Christmas 394 and Easter 395 and his De Isaac, that she feels was written in about 396. On the basis of this evidence she is able to build a strong case for placing the composition of the De fuga in 395 or 396, and so at the very end of Ambrose’s life.
Gerzaguet also very helpfully locates Ambrose’s thought against the background of earlier thinking. She demonstrates his sustained debt to Philo’s exegesis of the Old Testament, and the fleeting uses to which he put Origen, Plato and Plotinus; portions of Philo’s De fuga et invention that are given in Greek with a French translation allow readers to see just how Ambrose dealt with this source. Ambrose was concerned to bring the doctrines of the philosophers into some kind of harmony with those of the Bible. Hence, he felt that Plato’s teaching on the need for assimilation (ομοίωσις) unto God to the extent that this was possible (Theaet. 176ac) was to be interpreted in the light of the biblical notion of man being made in the image and likeness (καθ’ ‘ομοίωσιν) of God (Gen 1:26); he elsewhere writes of the believer being a new creation having the likeness of Christ, having been buried with him in likeness of his death and taken up the likeness of his life; it may have been worthwhile noting that Ambrose is drawing here from a passage in Paul concerned with baptism (Rom 6: 4-5). Similarly, the dichotomy between the soul and the body that had been familiar since the time of Plato could be understood in the light of Paul’s distinction between the spirit and the flesh, or, as Ambrose put it, the heart and the body, although he did not hold, like Plato, that the body was evil because it was material; rather, the problem was that it was marked by sin. Such manoeuvres, which Gerzaguet helpfully describes as a decomposition and reconstruction of the expressions of pre-Christian philosophy, can read like unconvincing attempts to bring one body of thought into harmony with another which was quite dissimilar to it, but she points out that that, given Ambrose’s understanding of the biblical origin of much of what the philosophers said, he would have seen himself as doing no more than placing their ideas in their native context.
The Latin text printed here marks an advance on its predecessors, for the editor is able to bring forward a manuscript not hitherto used, one copied in Milan between 860 and 875, and hence the oldest one emanating from Ambrose’s city, where textual memory of his works was carefully maintained. The critical edition that has hitherto been standard, that of Schenkl (1897), relied too heavily on the two oldest manuscripts, for these represented one family, the French, to the neglect of a Germano-Italian family, to which the Milanese manuscript belongs. In manuscripts belonging to this family the De fuga occurs as one of a group of seven works of Ambrose that Cassiodorus was already familiar with, a circumstance that suggests the antiquity of this family. She therefore proposes a number of readings different to those adopted by Schenkl, although some of them were anticipated by Gabriele Banterle in the lightly revised version of Schenkl’s edition he published in 1980. An important change is made at 2.8, where she reads publicas leges in place of publicare leges; rather than seeing the church as not publishing its own laws, Ambrose thought of it as ignoring civil laws, an amendment that calls into question arguments advanced by some recent scholars. A fascinating section of Notes Critiques at the end of the book justifies her textual decisions. There is also a short commentary on the afterlife of the work that discusses the uses to which it was put during the Pelagian crisis, when Augustine found its emphasis on God’s grace useful, and the Carolingian period, while pointing out the apparent lack of interest taken on the work by later ascetic authors. This discussion is not particularly satisfying, for as Gerzaguet points out a good deal of work remains to be done in this area, but it is clear that this work did not enjoy the success in the Middle Ages that some of Ambrose’s other works did.
The same is true of the modern period, for the De fuga is not one of Ambrose’s better known works, and the abstract nature of its content limits its use for historians; despite the title of his book, David Natal Villazala is able almost entirely to avoid it in his study Fugiamus ergo forum: asceticism y poder en Ambrosio de Milan (2010). Its interest rather lies in its handling of philosophical themes. Gerzaguet’s most worthwhile evaluation of these, as well as the philological acumen of her work, will ensure that this new edition will henceforth be the standard one.