The experience of Athanasius showed plainly that while a pagan emperor might be a dangerous enemy to the Church, a Christian emperor might be a very inconvenient friend.
Not many of the rulers of Rome declared so bluntly as Constantius that they meant to rule the Church, but that was the intention of most of them. They wished to use the Church as a general uses an army, and the first necessity was obedience. It took hundreds of years to work out the idea, under which we live, that the state is to attend to matters political, and the Church to matters religious.
Meanwhile, the Church and the State fought for the mastery. The beginning of that long struggle, in which the Church was defeated in the East and the State was defeated in the West, appears in the lives of Chrysostom and Ambrose.
In the city of Milan, they were electing a bishop. Some of the Christians were Arians, some were Athanasians, and there was much excitement. The great church was crowded with people, shouting the names of their favorite candidates. In the high seat where the bishop was accustomed to sit, sat the Roman governor Ambrose, presiding over the assembly to keep order. Back in the church, a man had lifted his small child to his shoulder to give him a good look over the crowd, and the child saw Ambrose, in his robes of office, in the bishop's chair. In his surprise, he called out in his shrill voice, over all the noise, "Ambrose is bishop!" Immediately the words were taken up, and in a moment all the other names were set aside, and everybody was shouting: "Ambrose is bishop! Ambrose is bishop!"
Nothing was further from the plans of Ambrose. He was a great Roman noble. His father, as Prefect of Gaul, had been ruler over the greater part of Europe, and Ambrose was following in his steps. He was interested, indeed, in the Christian religion; but he had never been baptized. He had never even thought of the possibility of entering into the work of the Christian ministry. He was both astonished and displeased. He refused to consent to the demand of the people. Still the crowd shouted, and, though the governor dismissed the assembly, and sent them home, they besieged him as the Christians of Carthage had besieged Cyprian. Finally, much against his will, he agreed to do as they desired. He was baptized, confirmed, admitted to the Holy Communion, ordained deacon, ordained priest, and consecrated bishop of Milan, all in one week.
Ambrose found that, as bishop of Milan, he was in a place of as much public importance as had been held by his father who ruled Europe. He took a great part in three notable contentions of his time: against paganism, against Arianism, and against the emperor.
Ambrose saw the end of paganism. He was himself concerned in one of its last defeats, and the others occurred during his lifetime. His own fight against the old gods was over the Altar of Victory. In the senate house at Rome had stood from times immemorial an Altar of Victory. Above it was a winged figure with hands uplifted, standing on a globe,—Victory herself, the goddess of the Good Luck of Rome, in shining gold. This altar a Christian emperor had taken away, and the statue with it.
But the senate was still, for the most part, pagan. The great and ancient Roman families were pagan. However much or little they still cared for the old religion, they cared greatly for the old ways of their ancestors. They loved the customs which were glorified in the literature and sculpture of Old Rome. They felt toward the Christians as people of long descent and gentle breeding are tempted to feel to-day toward new neighbors, rich but ill-educated, with new ways.
The senate, therefore, petitioned for the return of the Altar of Victory. The humble terms of their request showed how completely the old era of pagan power had passed. They asked only for permission to keep a few of the ancient ceremonies and to say their own prayers in their own way. "Let us have one altar out of the destruction of the old religion. Pestilence and famine are abroad, and the barbarians are pressing down across the Danube and the Rhine; let us who are still of the old faith implore the protection of the gods who in the ancient days saved Rome when the Goths besieged it."
Against this petition Ambrose protested. The gods, he said, had nothing to do with the saving of old Rome; it was the geese whose cackling waked the guard. And the altar was not replaced.
But the conflict was not over. In Alexandria, the Christians and the pagans fell to fighting, as they fought in the days of the persecutions; but now the pagans were on the defensive. The Christians attacked the mighty pagan temple, the Serapium, high on vast stone terraces in the midst of the city, approached by an ascent of a hundred steps. In the shrine stood the great image of Serapis, at whose fall, men said, the world itself would fall. Up went the victorious Christians, clambering with clubs and axes over the hundred steps, and breaking at last into the splendid shrine. Here they stopped, and for a little space nobody dared to proceed further. What if the ancient legend should prove true, and Serapis should avenge the insult to his image by earthquake, and lightning, and destruction! At last a soldier raised his ax and struck the idol full in the face. The cheek of Serapis was broken, and out swarmed a troop of frightened mice whose nest in the idol's head had been thus invaded. Then the silence of the destroyers changed to great laughter and shouts of derision; the image was pulled down and dragged about the streets. And there was no more public paganism in Alexandria.
In the West, the conflict came to an end in a mountain battle beside the Frigidus. The pagans had chosen a pagan emperor, and he went out at the head of an army to fight with Theodosius, not only for his throne, but for his religion. As they passed Milan, the pagans promised that when they returned they would stable their horses in the church of Ambrose. Thus the battle was joined; a fierce storm of snow beat in the faces of the pagan army, and they fled in hopeless defeat. It was the last stand of the old religion.
Meanwhile, Ambrose was contending with the Arians. There were not many of them in Milan, and they were discouraged by the gradual and general failure of their cause; but they had the Empress Justina on their side. She was the mother of the young emperor of whose domains, in the division of the empire, Milan was the capital. The Arians had been turned out of their churches, as the pagans had been turned out of their temples. But Justina was an Arian still. She asked the permission of Ambrose to have for herself and those who were of her belief, a single church in Milan. Ambrose refused to give it.
The long fight of the Arians against the Nicene Creed had been fought and lost. It had filled the Church with clamor and bitterness and division and tragedy. Now it was ended, and Ambrose would give no opportunity for beginning it again. He told the empress that she could not have a church. The empress, thereupon, proposed to take one. She had her imperial soldiers, and she gave them orders to drive Ambrose out of the city and to seize such churches as she wished. The bishop took refuge in a church, and his people gathered about him. There they guarded him day and night, passing the time in singing psalms.
At last, the bishop had a dream. He dreamed that beneath another church two martyrs of some old persecution had been buried. So men went to the place and dug into the ground with spades, and there, sure enough, they came upon the bones of these forgotten saints! And immediately the saints' bones began to work the most astonishing miracles. The lame were made to walk, and the blind to see. The whole city was filled with new excitement. It was plain, men said, that heaven and the saints were on the side of Ambrose. In the face of such reinforcements the empress prudently retreated. Thus was fought the last battle with the Arians in Milan.
The Roman emperors, after Constantine, were most of them weak rulers, sometimes quite young men, like Constantine's own sons, and, for the most part, governing only a portion of the empire. It was divided into east and west, with an emperor for each division; and each of these divisions was parted into imperial provinces. But there was one strong emperor, who in his time ruled the world. That was the great Theodosius.
But Theodosius had a hasty temper, and it brought him into a memorable conflict with Ambrose.
The people of that time were tremendously interested in athletic games. They went in great crowds to the vast amphitheaters where gladiators fought, and the circuses where chariot races were run. One side was for the Blues, the other for the Greens. In every city these sports brought together thousands of spectators.
Now it happened that in Thessalonica, a very popular charioteer had committed a crime, and had very properly been put in prison for it. The time for the races approached, and there was the charioteer still in the prison, and with no likelihood of release. The people, for the sake of the race, demanded of the governor that he should pardon the charioteer and let him out. But the governor refused. Thereupon a mob arose. They attacked the governor's house, and killed him, and dragged his body about the streets; and they released the charioteer.
Tidings of these disorders came speeding to the ear of Theodosius. The murdered governor had been his intimate friend. His anger knew no bounds. Straight he sent messengers to a commander of his troops with orders to avenge this tragedy upon the whole people of Thessalonica. The soldiers found the races in full swing. The immense circus was crowded to the topmost seat. The avengers entered, closed the gates and drew their swords, and proceeded to kill everybody in sight. For three hours they murdered the unarmed people. Seven thousand men, women, and children fell before them.
The story is still remembered of a father who had taken his two boys to the races, and begged the murderers to spare one, and to this they agreed, but he could not decide which one. He could not choose either of his sons to be put to death before his eyes. So the hasty soldiers killed them both, and their father with them.
Ambrose immediately wrote a letter to Theodosius. "You are a Christian," he said, "and have done this horror. Into this has your hasty anger led you. As for me, I pray for you, but you and I cannot stand together in the same church. Do not venture to appear where I am present. You have done the most horrible thing that was ever heard of. Repent before God, ask His pardon as David did. May He be merciful to your sinful soul."
In spite of the letter, the emperor came to church. The bishop met him in the outer porch. "You may not enter," he said. "This is no place for such as you, unless they come in the deepest shame and sorrow. Go back to your palace. Your hands drip with blood. Repent! repent! and then come; but not now."
It is one of the noblest scenes in history. Never has the Church stood out more splendidly against the world. There were later times, as we shall see, when bishops made themselves masters of kings, but sometimes their victory was spoiled by pride and selfishness. The triumph of Ambrose was a triumph of the Christian conscience. He was strong because he was right. And the great emperor knew it. He did repent. He humbled himself before God. In the church, in the presence of the people, he bowed himself to the ground with tears. "My soul cleaveth to the dust," he said "O God, quicken me according to Thy word." He made a law, which still holds in all civilized countries, that no capital sentence should be carried into effect until thirty days after the condemnation.
Thus in the West, in the person of Ambrose, the Church asserted the rights of man against the injustice and tyranny of the State, and prevailed over the power of kings.