Chapter XXV.—Intrepid Bearing of St. Ambrose in the Presence of the Emperor Theodosius. Massacre at Thessalonica. Narrative of the other Righteous Deeds of this Saint.
After the death of Eugenius, the emperor went to Milan, and repaired towards the church to pray within its walls. 1566 When he drew near the gates of the edifice, he was met by Ambrose, p. 394 the bishop of the city, who took hold of him by his purple robe, and said to him, in the presence of the multitude, “Stand back! a man defiled by sin, and with hands imbrued in blood unjustly shed, is not worthy, without repentance, to enter within these sacred precincts, or partake of the holy mysteries.” The emperor, struck with admiration at the boldness of the bishop, began to reflect on his own conduct, and, with much contrition, retraced his steps. The occasion of the sin was as follows. When Buthericus was general of the troops in Illyria, a charioteer saw him shamefully exposed at a tavern, and attempted an outrage; he was apprehended and put in custody. Some time after, some magnificent races were to be held at the hippodrome, and the populace of Thessalonica demanded the release of the prisoner, considering him necessary to the celebration of the contest. As their request was not attended to, they rose up in sedition and finally slew Buthericus. On hearing of this deed, the wrath of the emperor was excited immediately, and he commanded that a certain number of the citizens should be put to death. The city was filled with the blood of many unjustly shed; for strangers, who had but just arrived there on their journey to other lands, were sacrificed with the others. There were many cases of suffering well worthy of commiseration, of which the following is an instance. A merchant offered himself to be slain as a substitute for his two sons who had both been selected as victims, and promised the soldiers to give them all the gold he possessed, on condition of their effecting the exchange. They could not but compassionate his misfortune, and consented to take him as a substitute for one of his sons, but declared that they did not dare to let off both the young men, as that would render the appointed number of the slain incomplete. The father gazed on his sons, groaning and weeping; he could not save either from death, but he continued hesitating until they had been put to death, being overcome by an equal love for each. I have also been informed, that a faithful slave voluntarily offered to die instead of his master, who was being led to the place of execution. It appears that it was for these and other acts of cruelty that Ambrose rebuked the emperor, forbade him to enter the church, and excommunicated him. Theodosius publicly confessed his sin in the church, and during the time set apart for penance, refrained from wearing his imperial ornaments, according to the usage of mourners. He also enacted a law 1567 prohibiting the officers entrusted with the execution of the imperial mandates, from inflicting the punishment of death till thirty days after the mandate had been issued, in order that the wrath of the emperor might have time to be appeased, and that room might be made for the exercise of mercy and repentance.
Ambrose, no doubt, performed many other actions worthy of his priestly office, which are known, as is likely, only to the inhabitants of the country. Among the illustrious deeds that are attributed to him, I have been made acquainted with the following. It was the custom of the emperor to take a seat in assemblies of the church within the palisades of the altar, so that he sat apart from the rest of the people. Ambrose, considering that this custom had originated either from subserviency or from want of discipline, caused the emperor to be seated without the trellis work of the altar, so that he sat in front of the people, and behind the priests. The emperor Theodosius approved of this best tradition, as did likewise his successors; and we are told that it has been ever since scrupulously observed.
I think it necessary to make a record of another action worthy of mention performed by this bishop. A pagan of distinction insulted Gratian, affirming that he was unworthy of his father; and he was in consequence condemned to death. As he was being led out to execution, Ambrose went to the palace to implore a pardon. Gratian was then engaged in witnessing a private exhibition of the hunt, such as the emperors were wont to celebrate for their private pleasure, and not for the public pastime. On finding this to be the case, the bishop went to the gate where they led in the beasts; he hid himself, and entered with the hunters who took charge of the animals, and did not intermit, although Gratian and his attendants resisted, till he had obtained an immediate and saving consent of the emperor, which released the man who was to be led out to death. Ambrose was very diligent in the observance of the laws of the Church, and in maintaining discipline among his clergy. I have selected the above two incidents from among the records of his numerous magnanimous deeds, in order to show with what intrepidity he addressed those in power when the service of God was in question.
An independent chapter. Cf. Theodoret, H. E. v. 17, 18; Ruf. H. E. ii. 18; Ambrose, Epp. Cl. i. 51.394:1567