Why Theodosius vs Ambrose really matters…

Posted by on Oct 16, 2015 in Blog | 3 comments


Federico Barocci (1603) St Ambrose forces Theodosius 1 to make penance after the Thessaloniki massacre.

Heard about the dispute between the Roman Emperor Theodosius and Bishop Ambrose of Milan back in 390?

I thought not…

Before you yawn a little too obviously and quote Henry Ford’s ‘history is bunk’, let me assure you that this case finds its way onto the pages of this blog because in my judgment it is one of those critical turning points in history – a little ah ha moment after which we all understand some aspects of faith more clearly.

For those who are at the ‘Theodosius who?’ stage, he was the Roman Emperor famously (or not so famously if you have never heard of him) credited for declaring Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire – this by the Edict of Thessalonica, in 380. Whereas Christianity was no longer illegal after the conversion of Constantine (c312), this was a far more significant step. Post Theodosius, you had to be a Christian if you had any serious ambitions for your future. It appears that Theodosius took this step because he was a genuine believer, and wanted all to have a complete trust in Jesus. Which makes what happens next so intriguing…

This is how I tell it in my book, The Big Picture (55).

In 390 a charioteer in Thessalonica was accused of homosexual behaviour. The governor of the district had him imprisoned, but the people of the area, who enjoyed his charioteering skills, demanded his release. The governor refused, leading to an uprising in which the governor was killed and the arrested man released. Incensed on hearing this, Emperor Theodosius, who had been instrumental in having Christianity decreed as the official religion of the Roman Empire, ordered that the residents of the area be punished. At a chariot race in Thessalonica Theodosius’s soldiers trapped those attending inside, and within three hours had slaughtered around 7000 people.

Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, was appalled at this indiscriminate slaughter, and in the name of the church called on Theodosius to repent. Initially Theodosius refused, and consequently Ambrose would not give him Communion. Theodosius stayed away from church for a while, but his commitment to the faith made this situation untenable. He reluctantly accepted Ambrose’s terms for reconciliation, which included the promotion of a law which required a delay of 30 days before any death sentence passed would be enforced. In front of a crowded congregation Theodosius took off his imperial robes and asked for forgiveness of his sins. Ambrose initially declined to offer this, but after Theodosius had repeatedly requested it, at a church service on Christmas day Ambrose gave Theodosius the sacrament.

Shelley comments on the significance of this, ‘It required unusual courage to humiliate a Byzantine emperor. Ambrose had hit upon the weapon – the threat of excommunication – which the Western church would soon use again and again to humble princes.'(98) The emperor could frighten people into obedience with the sword, but the church could determine their eternal destiny. This made the church more powerful than the emperor.

Most commentators then focus on later Church-State struggles, and the growing power that the Church gained. And fair enough. This is a good incident to point back to. After all, you can hardly have imagined a Nero or a Diocletian crawling on hands and knees to beg forgiveness of a bishop of the church. Roman Emperors considered themselves to answer to no one. They were considered one of the gods, so why would they?

However, instead of running decades ahead and pontificating about the later implications of this encounter, we should evaluate it against its own time.

Reflect upon the courage it took for Ambrose to confront a Roman Emperor and to excommunicate him – especially as this was the emperor who had declared Christianity the official religion of his empire. Theodosius might have been sympathetic to the work of the church, but it was improbable that he would be so sympathetic that he would not react to this challenge to his behaviour and authority. Ambrose’s action was undoubtedly brave – but was it not also reckless, perhaps even irresponsible? He could have catapulted the church back into an era of persecution and oppression. You simply did not confront a Roman Emperor and live. No exceptions…

So why did Ambrose excommunicate this essentially pious emperor?

Ambrose himself wrote of the event: ‘When a priest does not talk to a sinner, then the sinner will die in his sin, and the priest will be guilty because he failed to correct him.’ In short, I am a priest, the emperor was a sinner, I spoke to him as someone needing to find forgiveness. The tone is pastoral as is the motivation. But why did Ambrose see this as such a great evil? This wasn’t 2015. Life was cheap – tragedy was common. So why was Ambrose so outraged?

Because 7000 people had been slaughtered. While Ambrose did not know each person killed, he knew that each was known to God. And he knew that every person is precious to God and made in God’s own image. And he knew that if this now supposedly Christian empire was to stand for anything, it needed a higher standard of justice and compassion than this. He knew that no one could be above the law, because no one is above God – not even the emperor. In short, his Christian convictions compelled him to act, regardless of the risk.

Today we are outraged when we hear of atrocities and injustice. And rightly so. But from where does that outrage flow? Ambrose vs. Theodosius reminds us that when the Roman Empire embraced Christianity it embarked upon a journey that had never previously been trodden. It was a journey where every life mattered, and where no one was above the law. Holding power was no longer seen as an excuse for abusing power. To the contrary, to hold power was to hold a sacred trust from God, and therefore to be eternally accountable.

Thank you Ambrose for your extraordinary courage in seeing questions of justice so clearly. And thank you Theodosius that even though you were Emperor, when you failed so dismally, you had the integrity and courage to seek the forgiveness of God – who knows and understands every human heart.

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Thanks Brian. This type of courage is often needed not just when facing Byzantine Emperors but maybe just the boss at work! In today’s increasingly anti-Christian society, many of us may need similar courage to stand up for what is right and true.

  2. Thank you Brian. It inspires me to read more about the church history, and face them like sitting together chat live in their time. I did not fully catch what you said about the story of this in the class on week 6, as you normally speak softly and a little fast, only because English is not my first language.

  3. Thank you, Brian: your Blog made very interesting reading and served to expand perspective on a recent study of the same subject matter.

    I note the reply from Phllip Nash; and would extend this into our own Christian communities. There are times, when as Christians we fail to stand up for what is good and true amongst ourselves, especially when our faith has become luke warm. It can take courage to stand up and say, ‘we are at risk here of gossiping, shall we move on, or change the subject?’ or, ‘Instead of talking about them, how about one of us drops by to see how they are?’. Just as with the example of the Boss, where we may risk losing our job, in community, we may believe we are at risk of losing friends or family. In both cases we have the choice to make it about ourselves (retaining a quiet discomfort), or for the greater good whilst at risk to ourselves. Ambrose certainly leads by example, here. When convicted in Christ, risk and fear are, possibly, absent in that timely moment of courage.

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