The Altar of Victory

Epistle XVII

by St. Ambrose of Milan


Among the Fathers of the Church St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-370) is particularly important for the subsequent development of Catholic Social Teaching. On many questions his teaching constitutes both a precious witness to the perennial tradition, and a solid foundation on which subsequent teachers built. For example, he gives one of the clearest patristic witness to the principle of the universal destination of goods. But perhaps his most important contribution was to the question of the relation of spiritual and temporal power. A talented politician, as well as a great pastor and theologian, Ambrose expounded his teaching in direct confrontation with several Christian emperors at a time in which the persecutions of the Christians had but recently ended, and Christianity was becoming the majority religion of the empire.

Epistle XVII, written in the Summer of the year 384 to the young emperor Valentinian, was occasioned by a controversy over the altar of the goddess Victoria in the Curia Julia, the Senate house in Rome. The altar, with its statue of the goddess, had been removed by Constatius II, restored by Julian the Apostate, and removed again by Gratian. Conservative, pagan aristocrats in the Senate asked the young emperor to restore the altar. It appeared to be the prudent and generous thing to do— a sign of respect to the old, pagan aristocracy by a young, Christian emperor who could use their support. But St. Ambrose protests vigorously against the request. Christian senators, he argued, would be forced by the erection of the altar to take part in pagan worship. But more fundamentally, he lays down a principle that contains the germ of all subsequent Catholic integralismThe Christian emperor is a servant of God, and must promote the true religion. He must be “zealous for the true faith,” and not give equal rights to error. Political justice cannot be reduced to a balance of interests in which various influential groups are conceded something of what they want. Rather, justice consists in giving what is truly due to each, especially in giving the one, true God what is His due. “I myself advise you to defer to the merits of illustrious men, but undoubtedly God must be preferred to all.”

Sources: Latin: Intratext. English: New Advent.


Ambrosius episcopus beatissimo principi, et christianissimo imperatori Valentiniano.

1. Cum omnes homines, qui subditione Romana sunt, vobis militent imperatoribus, terrarum atque principibus, tum ipsi vos omnipotenti Deo et sacrae fidei militatis. Aliter enim salus tuta esse non poterit, nisi unusquisque Deum verum, hoc est, Deum christianorum, a quo cuncta reguntur, veraciter colat; ipse enim solus verus est Deus, qui intima mente veneretur: Dii enim gentium daemonia, sicut Scriptura dicit (Psal. XCV, 5).

Ambrose, Bishop, to the most blessed Prince and most Christian Emperor Valentinian.

1. As all men who live under the Roman sway engage in military service under you, the Emperors and Princes of the world, so too do you yourselves owe service to Almighty God and our holy faith. For salvation is not sure unless everyone worship in truth the true God, that is the God of the Christians, under Whose sway are all things; for He alone is the true God, Who is to be worshipped from the bottom of the heart; for the gods of the heathen, as Scripture says, are devils.

2. Huic igitur Deo vero quisquis militat, et qui intimo colendum recipit affectu, non dissimulationem, non conniventiam, sed fidei studium et devotionis impendit. Postremo si non ista, consensum saltem aliquem non debet colendis idolis, et profanis ceremoniarum cultibus exhibere. Nemo enim Deum fallit, cui omnia etiam cordis occulta manifesta sunt. 2. Now everyone is a soldier of this true God, and he who receives and worships Him in his inmost spirit, does not bring to His service dissimulation, or pretence, but earnest faith and devotion. And if, in fine, he does not attain to this, at least he ought not to give any countenance to the worship of idols and to profane ceremonies. For no one deceives God, to whom all things, even the hidden things of the heart, are manifest.
3. Ergo cum a te, Imperator christianissime, fides Deo vero sit exhibenda, cum ipsius fidei studium, cautio atque devotio, miror quomodo aliquibus in spem venerit, quod debeas aras diis gentium tuo instaurare praecepto, ad usus quoque sacrificiorum profanorum praebere sumptum; quod enim jamdudum vel fisco vel arcae est vindicatum, de tuo magis conferre videbere, quam de suo reddere. 3. Since, then, most Christian Emperor, there is due from you to the true God both faith and zeal, care and devotion for the faith, I wonder how the hope has risen up to some, that you would feel it a duty to restore by your command altars to the gods of the heathen, and furnish the funds requisite for profane sacrifices; for whatsoever has long been claimed by either the imperial or the city treasury you will seem to give rather from your own funds, than to be restoring what is theirs.
4. Et de dispendiis queruntur, qui numquam nostro sanguini pepercerunt, qui ipsa Ecclesiarum aedificia subruerunt. Petunt etiam ut illis privilegia deferas, qui loquendi et docendi nostris communem usum Juliani lege proxima denegarunt, et privilegia illa, quibus saepe decepti sunt etiam christiani: nonnullos enim illis privilegiis partim per imprudentiam, partim propter publicarum necessitatum molestias declinandas irretire voluerunt; et quia non omnes fortes inveniuntur, etiam sub principibus christianis plerique sunt lapsi. 4. And they are complaining of their losses, who never spared our blood, who destroyed the very buildings of the churches. And they petition you to grant them privileges, who by the last Julian law denied us the common right of speaking and teaching, and those privileges whereby Christians also have often been deceived; for by those privileges they endeavoured to ensnare some, partly through inadvertence, partly in order to escape the burden of public requirements; and, because all are not found to be brave, even under Christian princes, many have lapsed.
5. Sed haec si jam sublata non essent, auferenda tuo imperio comprobarem: at cum per totum fere orbem a pluribus retro principibus inhibita interdictaque sint, Romae autem a fratre clementiae tuae, augustae memoriae Gratiano, fidei verae ratione sublata sint, et datis antiquata rescriptis; ne quaeso, vel fideliter statuta convellas, vel fraterna praecepta rescindas. De negotiis civilibus, si quid statuit, nemo putat esse temerandum; et praeceptum de religione calcatur. 5. Had these things not been abolished I could prove that they ought to be done away by your authority; but since they have been forbidden and prohibited by many princes throughout nearly the whole world, and were abolished at Rome by Gratian of august memory, the brother of your Clemency, in consideration of the true faith, and rendered void by a rescript; do not, I pray you, either pluck up what has been established in accordance with the faith, nor rescind your brother’s precepts. In civil matters if he established anything, no one thinks that it ought to be treated lightly, while a precept about religion is trodden under foot.
6. Nullus obrepat juniori aetati tuae: sive ille gentilis est, qui ista deposcit, non debet mentem tuam vinculis suae superstitionis innectere: sed proprio studio docere et admonere te debet, quemadmodum verae fidei studere debeas; quando ille tanto motu veri vana defendit. Deferendum meritis clarorum virorum et ego suadeo: sed Deum certum est omnibus praeferendum. 6. Let no one take advantage of your youth; if he be a heathen who demands this, it is not right that he should bind your mind with the bonds of his own superstition; but by his zeal he ought to teach and admonish you how to be zealous for the true faith, since he defends vain things with all the passion of truth. I myself advise you to defer to the merits of illustrious men, but undoubtedly God must be preferred to all.
7. Si de re militari est consulendum, debet exercitati in praeliis viri exspectari sententia, consilium comprobari: quando de religione tractatus est, Deum cogita. Nullius injuria est, cui Deus omnipotens antefertur. Habet ille sententiam suam. Invitum non cogitis colere, quod nolit; hoc idem vobis liceat, Imperator, et unusquisque patienter ferat, si non extorqueat imperatori, quod moleste ferret, si ei extorquere cuperet imperator. Ipsis gentilibus displicere consuevit praevaricantis affectus; libere enim debet defendere unusquisque fidele mentis suae et servare propositum. 7. If we have to consult concerning military affairs, the opinion of a man experienced in warfare should be waited for, and his counsel be followed; when the question concerns religion, think upon God. No one is injured because God is set before him. He keeps his own opinion. You do not compel a man against his will to worship what he dislikes. Let the same liberty be given to you, O Emperor, and let every one bear it with patience, if he cannot extort from the Emperor what he would take it ill if the Emperor desired to extort from him. A shuffling spirit is displeasing to the heathen themselves, for everyone ought freely to defend and maintain the faith and purpose of his own mind.
8. Quod si aliqui nomine christiani tale aliquid decernendum putant, mentem tuam vocabula nuda non capiant, nomina cassa non fallant. Quisquis hoc suadet, sacrificat, et quisquis hoc statuit: tolerabilius tamen est unius sacrificium, quam lapsus omnium. Totus hic christianorum periclitatur senatus. 8. But if any, Christians in name, think that any such decree should be made, let not bare words mislead your mind, let not empty words deceive you. Whoever advises this, and whoever decrees it, sacrifices. But that one should sacrifice is more tolerable than that all should fall. Here the whole Senate of Christians is in danger.
9. Si hodie gentilis aliquis, Imperator, quod absit, aram statueret simulacris, et eo convenire cogeret christianos; ut sacrificantibus interessent, ut oppleret anhelitus et ora fidelium cinis ex ara, favilla de sacrilegio, fumus ex busto: et in ea curia sententiam diceret, ubi jurati ad aram simulacri in sententiam cogerentur (propterea enim interpretantur aram locatam, ut ejus sacramento, ut ipsi putant, unusquisque conventus consuleret in medium, cum majore jam curia christianorum numero sit referta), persecutionem esse crederet christianus, qui cogeretur tali optione ad senatum venire: quod fit plerumque; nam et injuriis convenire coguntur. Te ergo imperatore, christiani in aram jurare cogentur? Quid est jurare, nisi ejus quem testaris fidei tuae praesulem, divinam potentiam confiteri? Te imperatore, hoc petitur et postulatur; ut aram jubeas elevari, sumptum sacrificiis profanis dari? 9. If today any heathen Emperor should build an altar, which God forbid, to idols, and should compel Christians to come together there, in order to be among those who were sacrificing, so that the smoke and ashes from the altar, the sparks from the sacrilege, the smoke from the burning might choke the breath and throats of the faithful; and should give judgment in that court where members were compelled to vote after swearing at the altar of an idol (for they explain that an altar is so placed for this purpose, that every assembly should deliberate under its sanction, as they suppose, though the Senate is now made up with a majority of Christians), a Christian who was compelled with a choice such as this to come to the Senate, would consider it to be persecution, which often happens, for they are compelled to come together even by violence. Are these Christians, when you are Emperor, compelled to swear at a heathen altar? What is an oath, but a confession of the divine power of Him Whom you invoke as watcher over your good faith? When you are Emperor, this is sought and demanded, that you should command an altar to be built, and the cost of profane sacrifices to be granted.
10. Sed hoc non potest sine sacrilegio decerni; unde rogo te ne id decernas, statuas, vel in ejusmodi decreta subscribas. Convenio fidem tuam Christi sacerdos: omnes conveniremus episcopi, nisi incredibile hoc et repentinum ad aures pervenisset hominum, quod tale aliquid esset vel in consistorio suggestum tuo, vel a senatu petitum. Sed absit ut hoc senatus petisse dicatur: pauci gentiles communi utuntur nomine. Nam et ante biennium ferme, cum hoc petere tentarent, misit ad me sanctus Damasus Romanae Ecclesiae sacerdos, judicio Dei electus, libellum quem christiani senatores dederunt, et quidem innumeri, postulantes nihil se tale mandasse, non congruere gentilium istiusmodi petitionibus, non praebere consensum: questi etiam publice privatimque se non conventuros ad curiam, si tale aliquid decerneretur. Dignum est temporibus vestris, hoc est, christianis temporibus, ut dignitas christianis senatoribus abrogetur; quo gentilibus profanae deferatur voluntatis effectus? Hunc libellum ego fratri clementiae vestrae direxi; unde constitit non senatum aliquid de superstitionis impensis mandasse legatis. 10. But this cannot be decreed without sacrilege, wherefore I implore you not to decree or order it, nor to subscribe to any decrees of that sort. I, as a priest of Christ, call upon your faith, all of us bishops would have joined in calling upon you, were not the report so sudden and incredible, that any such thing had been either suggested in your council, or petitioned for by the Senate. But far be it from the Senate to have petitioned this, a few heathen are making use of the common name. For, nearly two years ago, when the same attempt was being made, holy Damasus, Bishop of the Roman Church, elected by the judgment of God, sent to me a memorial, which the Christian senators in great numbers put forth, protesting that they had given no such authority, that they did not agree with such requests of the heathen, nor give consent to them, and they declared publicly and privately that they would not come to the Senate, if any such thing were decreed. Is it agreeable to the dignity of your, that is Christian, times, that Christian senators should be deprived of their dignity, in order that effect should be given to the profane will of the heathen? This memorial I sent to your Clemency’s brother, and from it was plain that the Senate had made no order about the expenses of superstition.
11. Sed fortasse dicatur: Cur dudum non interfuerint senatui, cum ista peterentur? Satis loquuntur quid velint, qui non interfuerunt: satis locuti sunt, qui apud imperatorem locuti sunt. Et miramur tamen si privatis resistendi Romae eripiunt libertatem, qui nolunt esse liberum tibi non jubere, quod non probas; servare, quod sentis. 11. But perhaps it may be said, why were they not before present in the Senate when those petitions were made? By not being present they sufficiently say what they wish, they said enough in what they said to the Emperor. And do we wonder if those persons deprive private persons at Rome of the liberty of resisting, who are unwilling that you should be free not to command what you do not approve, or to maintain your own opinion?
12. Et ideo memor legationis proxime mandatae mihi, convenio iterum fidem tuam, convenio mentem tuam; ne vel respondendum secundum hujusmodi petitionem gentilium censeas, vel in ejusmodi responsa sacrilegium subscriptionis adjungas. Certe refer ad parentem pietatis tuae principem Theodosium, quem super omnibus fere majoribus causis consulere consuesti. Nihil majus est religione, nihil sublimius fide. 12. And so, remembering the legation lately entrusted to me, I call again upon your faith. I call upon your own feelings not to determine to answer according to this petition of the heathen, nor to attach to an answer of such a sort the sacrilege of your subscription. Refer to the father of your Piety, the Emperor Theodosius, whom you have been wont to consult in almost all matters of greater importance. Nothing is greater than religion, nothing more exalted than faith.
13. Si civilis causa esset, diversae parti responsio servaretur; causa religionis est, episcopus convenio. Detur mihi exemplum missae relationis, ut ego plenius respondeam; et sic de omnibus consultus clementiae tuae parens respondere dignetur. Certe si aliud statuitur, episcopi hoc aequo animo pati et dissimulare non possumus; licebit tibi ad Ecclesiam convenire: sed illic non invenies sacerdotem, aut invenies resistentem. 13. If it were a civil cause the right of reply would be reserved for the opposing party; it is a religious cause, and I the bishop make a claim. Let a copy of the memorial which has been sent be given me, that I may answer more fully, and then let your Clemency’s father be consulted on the whole subject, and vouchsafe an answer. Certainly if anything else is decreed, we bishops cannot contentedly suffer it and take no notice; you indeed may come to the church, but will find either no priest there, or one who will resist you.
14. Quid respondebis sacerdoti dicenti tibi: Munera tua non quaerit Ecclesia, quia templa gentilium muneribus adornasti? Ara Christi dona tua respuit, quoniam aram simulacris fecisti; vox enim tua, manus tua; et subscriptio tua, opus est tuum. Obsequium tuum Dominus Jesus recusat et respuit, quoniam idolis obsecutus es; dixit enim tibi: Non potestis duobus dominis servire (Matth. VI, 25). Privilegia tua sacratae Deo virgines non habent, et vindicant virgines Vestae? Cur sacerdotes Dei requiris, quibus petitiones profanas gentilium praetulisti? Alieni erroris societatem suscipere non possumus. 14. What will you answer a priest who says to you, “The church does not seek your gifts, because you have adorned the heathen temples with gifts. The Altar of Christ rejects your gifts, because you have made an altar for idols, for the voice is yours, the hand is yours, the subscription is yours, the deed is yours. The Lord Jesus refuses and rejects your service, because you have served idols, for He said to you: You cannot serve two masters. The Virgins consecrated to God have no privileges from you, and do the Vestal Virgins claim them? Why do you ask for the priests of God, to whom you have preferred the profane petitions of the heathen? We cannot take up a share of the errors of others.”
15. Quid respondebis his verbis? Puerum esse te lapsum? Omnis aetas perfecta Christo est; omnis Deo plena. Pueritia fidei non probatur: parvuli etiam Christum intrepido adversus persecutores ore confessi sunt. 15. What will you answer to these words? That you who have fallen are but a boy? Every age is perfect in Christ, every age is full of God. No childhood is allowed in faith, for even children have confessed Christ against their persecutors with fearless mouth.
16. Quid respondebis germano tuo? Nonne tibi dicet: Victum me esse non credidi, quia te imperatorem reliqui: mori non dolui, quia te haeredem habebam: imperio me decedere non ingemui; quia imperia mea, praesertim de religione divina, omnibus saeculis mansura credebam? Hos ergo titulos piae virtutis erexeram, has de saeculo manubias, haec spolia de diabolo, has ego de adversario omnium exuvias offerebam, in quibus aeterna victoria est. Quid mihi plus potuit meus hostis auferre? Abrogasti decreta mea: quod adhuc ille qui contra me levavit arma, non fecit. Nunc gravius telum corpore recipio, quod a fratre mea statuta damnantur. Meliore parte mei apud te periclitor; illa enim mors corporis, ista virtutis est. Nunc mihi abrogatur imperium, et quod est gravius, abrogatur a tuis, abrogatur a meis: et id abrogatur, quod in me etiam mei adversarii praedicarunt. Si volens acquievisti, damnasti fidem meam: si invitus cessisti, prodidisti tuam. Ergo, quod gravius est, et in te periclitor. 16. What will you answer your brother? Will he not say to you, “I did not feel that I was overcome, because I left you as Emperor; I did not grieve at dying, because I had you as my heir; I did not mourn at leaving my imperial command, because I believed that my commands, especially those concerning divine religion, would endure through all ages. I had set up these memorials of piety and virtue, I offered up these spoils gained from the world, these trophies of victory over the devil, these I offered up as gained from the enemy of all, and in them is eternal victory. What more could my enemy take away from me? You have abrogated my decrees, which so far he who took up arms against me did not do. Now do I receive a more terrible wound in that my decrees are condemned by my brother. My better part is endangered by you, that was but the death of my body, this of my reputation. Now is my power annulled, and what is harder, annulled by my own family, and that is annulled, which even my enemies spoke well of in me. If you consented of your own free will, you have condemned the faith which was mine; if you yielded unwillingly, you have betrayed your own. So, too, which is more serious, I am in danger in your person.”
16*. Quid respondebis etiam patri, qui te majore dolore conveniet, dicens: De me, fili, pessime judicasti, qui putasti quod ego gentilibus conniventiam praestitissem: nemo ad me detulit aram esse in illa Romana curia; numquam tantum nefas credidi, quod in communi illo christianorum gentiliumque concilio sacrificarent gentiles, hoc est, insultarent gentiles praesentibus christianis, et inviti christiani interesse sacrificiis cogerentur. Multa et diversa crimina, me imperante, commissa sunt, ultus sum quaecumque sunt deprehensa: si quis tunc latuit, debet ergo dicere me probasse, quod ad me nemo detulerat? De me pessime judicasti, si mihi superstitio aliena, non fides mea servavit imperium. 16. (bis) What will you answer your father also? Who with greater grief will address you, saying, “You judged very ill of me, my son, when you supposed that I could have connived at the heathen. No one ever told me that there was an altar in the Roman Senate House, I never believed such wickedness as that the heathen sacrificed in the common assembly of Christians and heathen, that is to say that the Gentiles should insult the Christians who were present, and that Christians should be compelled against their will to be present at the sacrifices. Many and various crimes were committed while I was Emperor. I punished such as were detected; if any one then escaped notice, ought one to say that I approved of that of which no one informed me? You have judged very ill of me, if a foreign superstition and not my own faith preserved the empire.”
17. Unde cum id advertas, Imperator, Deo primum, deinde patri et fratri injurias irrogari, si quid tale decernas; peto ut id facias, quod saluti tuae apud Deum intelligis profuturum. 17. Wherefore, O Emperor, since you see that if you decree anything of that kind, injury will be done, first to God, and then to your father and brother, I implore you to do that which you know will be profitable to your salvation before God.

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