St Ambrose of Milan (c. 340 – 397) may have had a man crush on Theodosius I (347-395). If so, there are just two degrees of separation between me and the imperial throne. Theodosius I died in Milan on January 17, 395. Following the example of Jacob (Genesis 50:2-3), the emperor laid in state for forty days. On February 25, 395, the fortieth day of the Theodosius’ death, Ambrose delivered a funeral oration in honor of the Christian emperor (De Obitu Theodosii or On the Death of Theodosius).
For Ambrose, Theodosius’ virtue lay in his ability to pardon others:
‘If it is a great thing to find anyone who is merciful or faithful, how much more so an emperor whom power impels toward vengeance, but whom, nevertheless, compassion recalls from taking vengeance? What is more illustrious than the faith of an emperor whom power does not exalt, pride does not elevate, but piety bows down? . . . Therefore what a great thing it is to lay aside the terror of power and to prefer the sweetness of granting pardon’ (12).
Above all, Theodosius’ earthly witness was echoed in the scriptural phrase: ‘I have loved’ (cf. Psalm 116:1, Romans 13:10, Romans 8:38-39 and John 21:15-18).
Ambrose, who patterned his own life upon the same scriptural virtues, not to be outdone. Ambrose, likewise, has loved, and the object of his affections was the man in the box.
Ambrose boasts: ‘I have loved a merciful man, humble in power, endowed with a pure heart and a gentle disposition’ (33).
‘I have loved a man who esteemed those who reprove more than those who flatters. [Theodosius] threw on the ground all the royal attire that he was wearing. He wept publicly in church for his sin. . . He prayed for pardon with groans and with tears. What private citizens are ashamed to do, the emperor was not ashamed to do, namely, to perform penance publicly’ (34).
I have loved a man who in his dying hour kept asking for me with his last breath. I have loved a man who, when he was already being released from the body, was more concerned about the condition of the Church than about his own trials. I have loved him, therefore, I confess, and for that reason I have suffered my sorrow in the depths of my heart’ (35).
‘I have loved, and so I accompany him to the land of the living, and I will not abandon him until, by my tears and prayers, I shall lead the man whither his merits summon, unto the holy mountain of God, where there is eternal life, where there is no corruption, no sickness, no mourning, no sorrow, no companionship with the dead’ (37).
At the end of his message, Ambrose addresses the long funeral procession that would now depart for Constantinople and, in particular, Theodosius’ young eight-year-old son, Honorius, who, as the heir to the Western half of the empire, had to remain in Milan.
‘Now let us come to the transportation of the illustrious body. You weep, Honorius, illustrious scion, and give testimony of your filial love by your tears. You are sending the body of your father on a long and distant journey, for it still lacks the honor of a tomb (54) . . . You weep, also, august Emperor, because you yourself will not escort the honored remains to Constantinople. We are both in the same situation. We all shall accompany them with due sorrow’ (55).
In many ways, Ambrose’s lament must have been for the city of Milan, which was now losing the holy presence of the saintly emperor to distant Constantinople. Ambrose had been creating Milan as a public Christian city by building churches and digging up old dead saints. Some physical relics of the deceased Christian warrior would have worked wonders in his urban design. Apparently, Ambrose resisted the temptation to pocket some sacred flesh, although he must have keep some possessions of his imperial parishioner.
In any case, he was admittedly wistful of Constantinople, which along with heavenly New Jerusalem, were the clear winners in the death of Theodosius:
‘Blessed are thou, Constantinople, for thou art receiving a citizen of paradise, and thou wilt possess in the august hospice of his buried body a dweller of the celestial city’ (56).
Ambrose survived Theodosius by only two years, dying on April 4, 397.
Nothing like a dead emperor to spice up Milan’s carnival season. In 395, Easter fell on March 25. Consequently, the forty days of Theodosius’ (January 17 – February 25) overlapped with the pre-Easter season of Lent.
I am writing this blog on Emperor Theodosius while watching the closing ceremony of the XXII Winter Olympics games in Sochi, Russia. Ironically, Theodosius appears to have been responsible for bringing the Ancient Olympic games to an end.
In 393, the last recorded year for the Olympic games, Theodosius issued a law prohibiting non-Christian public customs.
On February 27, 380, Theodosius issued the so-called Edict of Thessalonica, which made Nicene Christianity the one and only official religion of the Roman Empire. This document was in sharp contrast to the Edict of Milan (February 313), which granted religious freedom to all subjects.