St. Ambrose: copycat, rookie, disliked by St. Jerome

St. Ambrose was a titanic figure in the Church in Italy in the 4th century.  Here is a post I wrote some time ago about him and another great figure of the patristic era, St. Jerome.

In the ancient world, invective was a standard tool of debate.  Interlocutors would often pour acid on each other in a way we today… well, perhaps not some who read blogs today… find quite unsettling.

St. Jerome (+420), not known for his easy-going, gentle character, genuinely had if out for St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) and didn’t spare him one little bit.

My conjecture is that Jerome was jealous of Ambrose, who had “made it” in the Church in Italy, whereas Jerome always played second fiddle. But I digress.

What’s with Jerome about Ambrose?

To get at this we have to bring in a third character, Tyrannius Rufinus of Aquileia.

You are no doubt aware that Jerome and his old friend of his youth Rufinus (+410) had a titanic clash over the writings and teachings of the early Alexandrian exegete Origen.

When Jerome and Rufinus were young, they were very close, forming part of a group of dedicated Christians at Aquileia and then later at Jerusalem. They began to argue over the theology of Origen, but they patched things together before Rufinus left Palestine for Italy.

However, once in Italy Rufinus began to translate Origen Peri archon (De principiis). In his preface Rufinus made the mistake of assuming that just because Jerome had translated some of Origen’s work, therefore Jerome was a fan of Origen. People around Jerome also thought Rufinus purposely made Origen sound more orthodox than he was. These folks wrote to Jerome to let him know what they thought Rufinus was up to and asked Jerome to explain what was going on.

In response Jerome translated Origen himself.

In a letter he strongly denied being a partisan of Origen’s theology, even though he admired Origen’s skill. Jerome focused his laser on Origen’s statements about the resurrection and the preexistence of souls, and how the Persons of the Trinity related to each other which made him sound like a subordinationist. Jerome, in this second phase of translation, interpreted Origen in a very strict and harsh way.

St. JeromeWhen you look at the way Jerome spoke of Origen the first time around, 12 years before, and what he did to him in the second round, it is pretty clear that this was a reaction to Rufinus’s written assumption about Jerome. Jerome was afraid that his own reputation was going to be damaged by a positive association with ideas which seemed very strange to many people, especially in the West.

In short, Jerome turned savagely on both Origen and Rufinus in order to defend his reputation. In defending himself Jerome was a little less than sincere.

Rufinus responded, of course. He had to. Rufinus pointed out, for example, that in a commentary on Ephesians Jerome had referred without objection to ideas of Origen about the preexistence and fall of souls into bodies. There are other points as well. Jerome responded with vitrolic force saying that some people (e.g., Rufinus), “love me so well that they cannot be heretics without me.”


Of course the ways of saints are strange and fraught with problems.

The postal service, or lack of one, actually plays an importance role in all of this.

Jerome wrote a friendly letter to Rufinus assuring him of his high esteem and speaking of their past friendship and the passing of his mother. He expressed his desire to avoid a public fight.

The letter never reached Rufinus. Jerome’s “friend” Pammachius kept it, and published instead a letter of Jerome which accompanied his translation of Origen’s De principiis.

Not having seen Jerome’s irenic gesture, Rufinus published his Apology, in response to Jerome the attacker.

And now we arrive finally at the point of this entry.

In Book II of his Apology, Rufinus points out how Jerome had attacked Ambrose. He mentions Ambrose’ work De Spiritu Sancto. Thus, Rufinus about Jerome’s view of Ambrose.

Rufinus relates more of Jerome’s disdain for his “rival” in Milan (Apology 2,23-25) as he digs into accusations of plagiarism which were being hurled around.

Rufinus says in 2, 23 that Jerome referred to Ambrose as a raven, a bird of ill omen, croaking and ridiculing in an strange way the color of all the others birds on account of his own total blackness…

praesertim cum a sinistro oscinem corvum audiam croccientem et mirum in modum de cunctarum avium ridere coloribus, cum totus ipse tenebrosus sit.”

Again, going on about Jerome’s accusation against Ambrose of plagiarism, in 2,25 Rufinus continues about Jerome’s treatment of Ambrose with his own counter charges:

25. You observe how (Jerome) treats Ambrose. First, he calls him a crow and says that he is black all over; then he calls him a jackdaw who decks himself in other birds’ showy feathers; and then he rends him with his foul abuse, and declares that there is nothing manly in a man whom God has singled out to be the glory of the churches of Christ, who has spoken of the testimonies of the Lord even in the sight of persecuting kings and has not been alarmed. The saintly Ambrose wrote his book on the Holy Spirit not in words only but with his own blood; for he offered his life-blood to his persecutors, and shed it within himself, although God preserved his life for future labours.

Suppose that (Ambrose) did follow some of the Greek writers belonging to our Catholic body, and borrowed something from their writings, it should hardly have been the first thought in your mind, (still less the object of such zealous efforts as to make you set to work to translate the work of Didymus on the Holy Spirit,) to blaze abroad what you call his plagiarisms, which were very possibly the result of a literary necessity when he had to reply at once to some ravings of the heretics. Is this the fairness of a Christian?

Is it thus that we are to observe the injunction of the Apostle, “Do nothing through faction or through vain glory”? But I might turn the tables on you and ask, Thou that sayest that a man should not steal, dost thou steal?

I might quote a fact I have already mentioned, namely, that, a little before you wrote your commentary on Micah, you had been accused of plagiarizing from Origen. And you did not deny it, but said: “What they bring against me in violent abuse I accept as the highest praise; for I wish to imitate the man whom we and all who are wise admire.” Your plagiarisms redound to your highest praise; those of others make them crows and jackdaws in your estimation. If you act rightly in imitating Origen whom you call second only to the Apostles, why do you sharply attack another for following Didymus, whom nevertheless you point to by name as a Prophet and an apostolic man?

For myself I must not complain, since you abuse us all alike. First you do not spare Ambrose, great and highly esteemed as he was; then the man of whom you write that he was second only to the Apostles, and that all the wise admire him, and whom you have praised up to the skies a thousand times over, not as you say in two, but in innumerable places, this man who was before an Apostle, you now turn round and make a heretic.

Thirdly, this very Didymus whom you designate the Seer-Prophet, who has the eye of the bride in the Song of Songs, and whom you call according to the meaning of his name an Apostolic man, you now on the other hand criminate as a perverse teacher, and separate him off with what you call your censor’s rod, into the communion of heretics. I do not know whence you received this rod. I know that Christ once gave the keys to Peter: but what spirit it is who now dispenses these censors’ rods, it is for you to say. However, if you condemn all those I have mentioned with the same mouth with which you once praised them, I who in comparison of them am but like a flea, must not complain, I repeat, if now you tear me to pieces, though once you praised me, and in your Chronicle equalled me to Florentius and Bonosus for the nobleness, as you said, of my life.

And from Jerome’s own pen we have this vicious attack on Ambrose (ep. 69,9).

Jerome was writing in the year of Ambrose’ death, 397, to a Roman named Oceanus who wanted Jerome to help him fight against a bishop in Spain who had married a second time. Jerome tells Oceanus to drop it, since that bishops’ first marriage had been before baptism.

However, Jerome uses the occasion to take a somewhat less than oblique swipe at Ambrose.

Ambrose had been popularly proclaimed bishop in Milan in 374 even though he had not even been baptized and had no theological training. The emperor, who wanted peace, acceded and within a week Ambrose was baptized and consecrated bishop.

Jerome, who had probably been disappointed that he hadn’t been made bishop of Rome, surely felt the sting of this meteoric rise of Ambrose.

In any event, listen to Jerome:

One who was yesterday a catechumen is today a bishop; one who was yesterday in the amphitheater is today in the church; one who spent the evening in the circus stands in the morning at the altar: one who a little while ago was a patron of actors is now a dedicator of virgins. Was the apostle ignorant of our shifts and subterfuges? Did he know nothing of our foolish arguments?

(Heri catechumenus, hodie pontifex; heri in amphitheatro, hodie in ecclesia; uespere in circo, mane in altari; dudum fautor strionum, nunc uirginum consecrator: num ignorabat apostolus tergiuersationes nostras et argumentorum ineptias nesciebat?)

Okaayyyy! That’s a big “NO!” vote from Jerome.

Regardless, today is the feast of St. Ambrose, who seemed to bring out both the worst and the best in people.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. JPManning says:

    “a bishop in Spain who had married a second time.”

    I thought that bishops were not allowed to marry at all. I know that priestly celibacy is a discipline that can be dispensed with but I thought episcopal celibacy was an imperative. Can anybody here educate me about the practice of the early Church. Did they have married bishops, were bishops allowed to get married in those times?

  2. Patruus says:

    Someone else Jerome had disagreements with was Augustine, in particular over the translation of the Bible into Latin –

  3. irishgirl says:

    Wow…St. Jerome sure had an acid tongue….and an acid pen!
    Reading this, I thought to myself, ‘saint fight! saint fight!’

  4. Mary Jane says:

    Fascinating, Fr Z!

  5. AnAmericanMother says:

    But by now hopefully they have embraced and made up, and had a good laugh about the vainglory of the world and human respect . . . .

  6. Pledger says:

    To be fair, a lot of people were disliked by Jerome….he was a fierce defender of the faith & orthodoxy, brilliant scholar, and giant jerk.

  7. Maltese says:

    I’m sure Jerome and Ambrose are now laughing about this in heaven! But, in fairness to Jerome, if Ambrose was made a bishop before being baptized, I believe that would cause a little scandal even today… [Ambrose was baptized before being consecrated as bishop.]

  8. John UK says:

    I rather like the terseness of Jerome’s Latin:
    Heri catechumenus, hodie pontifex; heri in amphitheatro, hodie in ecclesia; uespere in circo, mane in altari; dudum fautor strionum, nunc uirginum consecrator:
    Yesterday a catechumen, today a bishop; yesterday in the amphitheatre, today in church; last night [by evening] in the circus, [this] morning at the altar; just then a patron of actors, now the consecrator of virgins:

    And Jeome’s comment, in the letters Patruus pointed out, have a resonance for our own time, do they not?
    In that version I was translating from the Greek: but in the later version, translating from the Hebrew itself, I have expressed what I understood it to mean, being careful to preserve rather the exact sense than the order of the words. . . .
    Kind regards,
    John U.K.

  9. Supertradmum says:

    I love both of these saints. Jerome stated somewhere that if it were not for the fact that he slept with a rock as a pillow, he would be in hell. He knew his own failings. I see daily a fantastic Caravaggio of St. Jerome Writing, which would melt the heart of any critic of the great saint. Here is the link.

  10. @JP Manning: “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour…” — St Paul, 1 Timothy 3:2. Paul could be talking about monogamy vs polygamy here, or that the bishop can’t be divorced and remarried, or that if a bishop’s wife dies he can’t remarry.

  11. AvantiBev says:

    A swipe at actors and the theater as the locus of all things evil, huh, Jerome? Well 1700 years later and we actors are still blamed by the self-righteous, holier-than-Thou bunch. But since we hold the mirror up to YOUR nature, don’t blame us for you not liking your reflection.

  12. Gail F says:

    Not to take away from St. Ambrose, whose book on the Holy Spirit certainly seems to have been written by someone who caught up on his theology training… But I have loved this poem about St. Jerome since I heard it about a year ago:

    I think it was Chesterton who said that God doesn’t make holy people the same, he takes all sorts of people and makes them holy. There is hope for any of us if cranky Jerome became a saint!

  13. digdigby says:

    Just as Father Damian of Molokai, that ignorant, pig-headed, bad-tempered peasant is a shining light to all ignorant pig-headed bad-tempered rednecks everywhere…. once you get past the soul-chilling hagiography we discover saints are HUMAN. Agnes Reppelier in her essay “Goodness and Gayety” Quotes St. Gregory teasing St. Basil (his dear friend) who has complained about his cold, damp and muddy lodgings. He calls him “a clean-footed, tip-toeing, capering man”. I love this essay by a great and forgotten Catholic American writer.

  14. Centristian says:

    As I, myself, often lack caution when writing and am prone to be uncharitable in my remarks to (and thoughts about) others, it’s something of a relief to discover that God may be pleased to make of such a rash and disagreeable person a very great saint. What the mercy of God cannot achieve.

  15. mattdiem says:

    I read somewhere that the real problem between the two arose because St. Ambrose was a dog person whereas St Jerome only loved cats…


    St. Jerome in his study kept a great big cat,
    it’s always in his pictures,
    with its feet upon the mat.

    Did he give it milk to drink, in a little dish?
    When it came to Friday’s, did he give it fish?

    If I lost my little cat, I’d be sad without it;
    I should ask St. Jerome what to do about it.

    I should ask St. Jerome, just because of that,
    for he’s the only saint I know who kept a kitty cat.

    Traditional English Nursery Rhyme

  16. AnAmericanMother says:


    Some kitty cat!

    St. Philip Neri had a pet cat, and of course there is the current occupant of the Chair of Peter . . . .

  17. catholicmidwest says:

    I really like St. Jerome. Yes, he was cranky, but he knew what was at stake (besides his reputation, that is). He translated the Scriptures, helping to preserve them for us.

  18. jbpolhamus says:

    Oh, these Fathers of the Church, how they loved one another! Lets face it, St. Jerome was the hammer not only of heretics, but of everybody within reach! A beloved, but bumptious Father of the Church!

  19. Dismas says:

    Stories like this give me greater hope. When I see these kinds of struggles, holiness and virtue doesn’t seem quite as far out of reach or unattainable. Modern hagiography seems to gloss over saints’ struggles with concupiscent human nature. This is a good reminder that saints also struggled and helps narrow the chasm.

  20. Dr. Sebastianna says:


    Thank you for using the word “bumptious.” You made my day.

    : )

  21. Sam Urfer says:

    “I thought that bishops were not allowed to marry at all. I know that priestly celibacy is a discipline that can be dispensed with but I thought episcopal celibacy was an imperative. Can anybody here educate me about the practice of the early Church. Did they have married bishops, were bishops allowed to get married in those times?”

    Marriage of bishops is, like that of priests, disciplinary rather than dogmatic. There is a pretty strong tradition that bishops were expected to be continent, and the practice of appointing married priests as bishops fell off pretty much universally. St. Peter was married, as was St. Phillip the Apostle (at least, his daughters are martyrs). St. Theosebia may or may not have been St. Gregory of Nyssa’s wife.

  22. Tony Layne says:

    Saint Jerome is the patron of one of my blogs, and a reminder that “The difference between the sinner and the saint is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future”.

    Funny … for it being St. Ambrose’s day, we’re sure talking about St. Jerome a lot ….

  23. James Joseph says:

    What a way cool entry, Fr. Ziti!

    I so greatly admire Jerome that I can’t tear myself from the Vulgate.

  24. AvantiBev —

    To be an actor or actress in the Roman theater was much closer to being a member of the porn industry today than, say, being a chorus member in Athens or an actor in Shakespeare’s time. A lot of those involved were slaves and/or prostitutes, and it didn’t matter much if you were male or female when the audience wanted to use you before or after the show. Some Roman kinds of theatrical acts were pretty nasty for any time and place. And of course a lot of theaters were in pagan temples for various allied reasons (like Pompey’s theater that was part of the Temple of Venus in Rome).

    Most Roman popular entertainments took place under the protection and worship of the gods and involved serious immorality or violence as well, which was why most Christians tried to avoid most Roman popular entertainments.

    Now, there were people who went to the theater for the plays; and some Christians would go and try to ignore all the crud involved. But frankly, if you loved theatrical literature but had Christian or old-school Roman values, you probably stayed home and read, or maybe went to Greece or an old Greek colony city to go see real plays.

    OTOH, there were some forms of Roman theater which were sometimes more “family friendly”, like the ad libbing, “pantomime”, masked actors and actresses who busked in non-theater settings or on platforms out near the street. (Sort of like commedia dell arte — they improv’d most lines, but memorized certain punchlines and play outlines.) These folks often put on plays with morals to the story; and we even have a book of punchlines and morals by one of these guys from Julius Caesar’s time, which was copied and recopied by Christians till it came down to us.

    So Jerome had real concerns; but we don’t know why he called Ambrose a fautor strionum (histrionum). Presumably, the Christians of Milan weren’t too concerned about whatever it was that he’d done for the actors, so it must have been pretty blameless. He may have just helped them out in some entanglement with the government, or given money to some actor in need.

  25. RJS says:


    The following quote from Denzingers shows that the married clergy in the early years were to remain celebate.

    “The Celibacy of the Clergy:

    “Let us come now to the most sacred orders of the clergy, which we find so abused and so disorderly throughout your provinces to the injury of venerable religion, that we ought to say in the words of Jeremias:Who will water to my head, or a fountain of tears to my eyes? and I will weep for this people day and night( Jer. 9:1). . . . For we have learned that very many priests and levites of Christ, after long periods of their consecration, have begotten offspring from their wives as well as by shameful intercourse, and that they defend their crime by this excuse, that in the Old Testament it is read that the faculty of procreating was given to the priests and the ministers.

    “Whoever that follower of sensual desires is let him tell me now: . . . Why does [the Lord] forewarn those to whom the holies of holies were to be entrusted saying: Be ye holy, because I your Lord God am holy [ Lev. 20:7;1 Pet. 1:16]? Why also were the priests ordered to dwell in the temple at a distance from their homes in the year of their turn? Evidently for this reason that they might not be able to practise carnal intercourse with their wives, so that shining with purity of conscience they might offer an acceptable gift to God. . . .

    “Therefore also the Lord Jesus, when He had enlightened us by His coming, testifies in the Gospel, that he came to fulfill the Law, not to destroy it[ Matt. 5:17]. And so He has wished the beauty of the Church, whose spouse He is, to radiate with the splendor of chastity, so that on the day of judgment, when He will have come again, He may be able to find her without spot or wrinkle [Eph. 5:27] as He instituted her through His Apostle. All priests and levites are bound by the indissoluble law of these sanctions, so that from the day of our ordination, we give up both our hearts and our bodies to continence and chastity, provided only that through all things we may please our God in these sacrifices which we daily offer.”But those who are in the flesh,”as the vessel of election says, “cannot please God”[ Rom. 8:8 ].

    ” But those, who contend with an excuse for the forbidden privilege, so as to assert that this has been granted to them by the Old Law, should know that by the authority of the Apostolic See they have been cast out of every ecclesiastical office, which they have used unworthily, nor can they ever touch the sacred mysteries, of which they themselves have deprived themselves so long as they give heed to impure desires. And because existing examples warn us to be on our guard for the future should any bishop, priest, or deacon be found such, which henceforth we do not want) let him now understand that every approach to indulgence is barred through us, because it is necessary that the wounds which are not susceptible to the healing of warm lotions be cut out with a knife”.

  26. boko fittleworth says:

    Another Tyrann who seems to have been a bit of a honey badger, like LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu.

  27. irishgirl says:

    An American Mother: Wow, ‘some kitty cat’, indeed! Looks like St. Jerome is taking a thorn out of the beastie’s paw, a la Androcles of Greek mythology!
    Speaking of Sts. Ambrose and Jerome, aren’t their statues at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica? It would be rather funny if they were, seeing that they ‘sparred’ (in a epistolary way, of course) during their lives on earth!

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