In the year 390, after the murder of one of his generals in Thessalonica, the Christian emperor of Rome Theodosius I (born January 11, 347; died January 17, 395) ordered a brutal retaliation. A chariot race was announced, but after townspeople arrived to watch, they were locked in the stadium and attacked by imperial soldiers. Within three hours, 7,000 citizens were dead.Ambrose, bishop of Milan, felt constrained to protest, and in so doing initiated a way of looking at Christianity and politics that would influence the Roman Empire into the Middle Ages. He wrote a letter to Theodosius, which reads in part: "What, then, could I do? Should I not hear? But I could not close my ears. … Should I keep silence? But then my conscience would be bound, my speech taken away, which would be the most wretched condition of all. And where would be that text? If the priest does not speak to someone who errs, he who errs will die in his sin, and the priest will be liable because he failed to warn the errant man." Ambrose then recalls the story of Nathan confronting David, as well as other biblical passages on repentance.The bishop had good reason to believe his letter would find its mark in the emperor's heart. Theodosius had been raised in a Christian family, was the first emperor to decline the title pontifex maximus (supreme guardian of the Roman cults), and believed the Nicene Creed. He went so far in his support of the creed, as well as in his opposition to paganism and Arianism, to make its tenets binding: all the empire's subjects were mandated to recognize the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of one substance, and practice "that religion that Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans." And Theodosius had accepted Ambrose's authority before, when the bishop criticized his punishment of orthodox fanatics who had burned a synagogue and a pagan shrine. Still, rebuking an emperor was not without peril.Toward the end of his letter, Ambrose makes his impassioned plea: "I exhort, I beg, I entreat, I admonish you, because it is grief to me that the perishing of so many innocent people is no grief to you. And now I call on you to repent." Theodosius hesitated, but he eventually performed the prescribed public penance and was readmitted to the church at Christmas 390. Modern observers point out that the emperor's repentance was not an example of the church ruling the state, nor was it purely a political move. Ambrose introduced the medieval concept of a Christian emperor as dutiful "son of the church serving under orders from Christ," but for the rest of his reign, Theodosius pursued a legislative agenda that kept the state free from control by clergy. He did this while maintaining a good relationship with both the church and Ambrose, in whose arms he died. It was that relationship, more than any church/state struggle, that led Theodosius to publicly repent. Even discounts an ulterior motive, calling the event "a demonstration of the power of atonement over the penitent sinner."The concept of a political official demonstrating genuine religious conviction seems almost unthinkable today. Marxist thought has us looking for a power play behind every act, and leaders (such as President Clinton) whose spiritual sincerity is questionable at best fuel our cynicism. In the current issue of Christianity Today, author David P. Gushee wisely advises, "Christians of all political persuasions need to become much more shrewd in noting and discounting hypocritical shows of public Christianity." But unless we're willing to posit that fourth-century Rome has no relation whatsoever to the current political realm, we have to leave room for piety in public office. Theodosius could yet have another heir.

Related Elsewhere

More Christian History, including a listing of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.netA translation of Ambrose's full letter can be found in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.See more on Ambrose and Theodosius at, the Catholic Encyclopedia.