The Library of Original Sources, Vol 4


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Suppression of Heresy and Heathenism

Letter of St. Ambrose to Valentinian

Ambrose, bishop, to the most blessed prince and clement emperor, Valentinian Augustus.

When that most illustrious man, Symmachus, prefect of the city, urged it upon your clemency that the altar which was taken away from the Senate chamber of the city of Rome should be restored to its place, and you, emperor, although still young in experience and years, yet a veteran in the power of faith, did not grant the prayer of the brethren; I presented at the very moment I heard of it, a little work, in which, although I included such suggestions as seemednecessary, yet I asked that a copy of the memorial might be given to me.

2. And so, not as one doubtful of your faith, but rather foreseeing the need of care, and sure of a kindly consideration, I reply in this letter to the claim of the memorial, asking only that you took not at elegancies of expression, but at the force of facts. For the speech of men wise in letters, as the divine scripture teaches, is golden, and, being enriched with jewelled words and shining with the brilliancy of glowing eloquence, it fascinates the eyes of the mind by its appearance of beauty and dazzles with its form. But if you handle this gold carefully, you discover it is precious on the outside but only common metal within. Consider, I beseech you, and examine the sect of the heathen; their speech sounds precious and grand, but they defend things empty of truth; they speak of God, they worship an idol.

3. That most illustrious prefect of the city set forth three arguments which he considered of great weight; that Rome, as he says, desires her old worship again, that compensation should be given to her priests and vestal virgins, and that public famine would follow up the denial of payment to the priests.

4. In the first proposition, Rome bemoans, herself in tearful complaining, asking, as he says, for the forms of her old ceremonies. These sacred rites, he says, repulsed Hannibal from the walls, and the Senones from the capitol. Thus at the same time that the power of the sacred rites is proclaimed, their weakness is betrayed. For Hannibal long insulted the sacred rites of Rome, and in spite of the gods fighting against him, came in his conquest to the very walls of the city. How was it that those for whom the arms of their gods were fighting, were suffered to be besieged?

5. And why should I mention the Senones, whom the renmant of the Romans could not have prevented from penetrating the very inmost parts of the capitol, if a goose had not betrayed their presence by its terrified cackling.

6. But why should I deny that the services of their worship benefited the Romans? For Hannibal worshipped the same gods; so let them choose which they will: if their sacred rites conquered in the Romans, they were defeated in the Carthaginians; if they were victorious in the person of the Carthaginians, they were surely of no help to the Romans.

7. So let that querulous complaint of the Roman people cease; Rome has not demanded it. She appeals to them with other words:"Why do you daily stain me with the cruel blood of the innocent flock. Trophies of victory are not found in the entrails of cattle, but in the strength of warriors. By a different discipline have I subjugated the world. Camillus fought for me, he who brought back to the capitol the captured standards, and slew the victors of the Tarpeian rock; valor overthrew the foe whom religion had not kept off. What shall I say of Attilius, who gave the service even of death? Africanus won his triumph not at the altars of the capitol, but in the midst of the lines of Hannibal. Why do you proffer the example of the ancients? I abhor the rites of the Neroes. Why should I speak of the emperors of two months, and the deaths of rulers following close upon the beginning of their reign? Or perchance there is something new in the crossing of its frontiers by barbarians. Were they Christians, too, who by a new and wretched example demonstrated that their ceremonies which promised victory had deceived them, the one a captured emperor, and under the other, a captive world? Was there at that time no altar to victory? I mourn for my fallen state, my old age blushes for the shameful bloodshed. I do not blush that I am converted along with the whole world now that I am old. Surely no age is too old to learn. Let that old age blush, which is not able to mend its ways. It is not the old age of years that deserves praise, but the old age of good morals. There is no shame in turning to better things. I have this alone in common with the barbarians, that formerly I knew not God. The ceremony of your sacrifice is the sprinkling with the blood of beasts. Why do you seek the Word of God in slain cattle? Come, learn the heavenly warfare on earth; we live here, but we fight there. Let God Himself Who created me teach me the mystery of heaven; not man, who knows not even himself. Whom will I believe concerning God rather than God Himself? How can I believe you who confess that you know not what you worship?"

8. It is not possible, he (Symmachus) says, to arrive at the understanding of so great a secret by one road. But what you are ignorant of, we have known by the voice of God; and what you seek after by vague feeling, we have found by means of the very wisdom and truth of God. Therefore your ways are not compared to ours. You pray the emperors for peace for your gods, we pray to Christ for peace for the emperors themselves. You adore the works of your own hands, we hold it an insult that anything made by hands should be considered as God. God wishes not to be worshipped in stones.Even your philosophers have laughed at that.

9. But if you deny, Christ is God, because you do not believe he is dead (for you do not understand that that death was of the body, not of the divinity which has now brought it about that no one of the believers should die), what can be more foolish, for you worship with insult, and you dishonor with honor. You think your God is made of wood, an insulting reverence; you think Christ could not die, a reverential perversity.

10. But, he says, the old altars should be restored to the images, and the old ornaments to the shrines. Let them be demanded from a partaker in superstition, the Christian emperor knows how to honor the altar of Christ alone. Why do they force pious hands and faithful lips to do the service of their sacrilege? Let the voice of our emperor speak of Christ, and call upon Him alone whom he knows; for "the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord." Did a heathen emperor ever raise an altar to Christ? Even when they demand again the things which have been, they show by their example how great reverence Christian emperors ought to show to their religion, since the heathen emperors offered everything to their superstitions.

We glory in the blood that we have poured forth, they are distressed by a matter of expense. We count these things victories, they think them an injury. Never did they do more for us than when they ordered Christians to be beaten and proscribed and slain. Religion has made a reward of that which unbelief thinks to be a punishment. Behold their magnanimity! We have increased through injury, through want, through punishment; they do not believe their worship can be kept up without contributions.

11. Let the vestal virgins, he says, have their privileges. They would say this who cannot believe that virginity can be a free offering; they entice with rewards, who are distrustful of virtue. But how many virgins have their promised rewards gained! Scarcely seven vestal virgins are received. Lo, this is the whole number that the chaplets and fillets for the head, the colors of purple robes, the pomp of the litter surrounded by a troop of servants, the greatest privileges, immense profits, and a limited time of virginity have been able to bring together.

12. Let them lift up the eyes of mind and body, and see a populace of modesty, a people of integrity, an assemblage of virginity. No fillets adorn their heads but a veil common in use, but made nobleby charity; the enticement of beauty is not sought for, but renounced; no purple insignia, no luxury of delicacies are theirs, but the practice of fasting; they have no privileges, no rewards; all things which you would think would prevent their enjoyment are put away while they practice their duties. But the practice of their duties gives them enjoyment. This charity increases with their discomforts. That is not purity which is bargained for at auction for money for a set time. The first triumph of chastity is to conquer the desire for riches, for the love of gain is a temptation to modesty. Let us grant, however, that bounties should be given to virgins; what payments will be made to Christians? What treasury can supply so great resources? Or if they think this should be given only to vestal virgins, does it not shame them that they who claimed everything for themselves under heathen emperors do not allow us to, have a common share under Christian emperors?

13. They complain also that public support is not considered due to their priests and ministers. What a tumult of words has burst forth about this! But on the other hand even the favor of private succession has been denied us by recent laws, and no one complained; for we do not count it an injury, since we do not mourn the loss. If a priest seeks release from municipal burdens, he must give up his ancestral and all other property. How the heathen, if they had to suffer this, would make complaint that a priest had to purchase freedom for his service by the loss of his patrimony and by the right to practice his public service at the expense of all his private means: and that, offering the vigils for public safety, he is rewarded by private want, because he did not sell his service, but bought a favor.

14. Compare the cases. You are willing to excuse a decurio [from municipal burdens] although the church may not excuse a priest. Bequests are made to ministers of the temples, no one is excepted, whether profane, or of lowest rank, or shamelessly immodest; only the priest, by whom alone common prayer is offered for all, the public office performed for all, is excluded from the enjoyment of their common right: no legacies from sedate widows, no gifts are allowed. So when no fault is found in the character, a penalty is prescribed for the office. What a Christian widow leaves to the priest of a heathen temple is valid; what she leaves to the servants of God is not valid. I do not say this to complain, but that they may know of what things I do not complain. I prefer to be poor in money than in grace.

17. See, they say, a public famine has avenged this impious deed, namely, that the supplies for the support of the priests have been turned to the common use of all. On account of this, they say, was the bark torn from the bushes, and the sap sucked up eagerly by the lips of fainting men. On this account did they substitute the Chaonian acorn for grain and return to the food of cattle and the nourishment of wretched provisions, and solace their hunger in the woods by shaking the oaks. Forsooth there were new prodigies on the earth, which had never happened before, while the superstition of the heathen was in force in the whole world? Verily, when before did the crop mock the prayers of the eager farmer with empty straw, and the stalk of grain sought in the furrows deceive the hope of the countrymen.

19. But surely it is now many years since the rights of the temple have been taken away throughout the whole world; has it just how come to the minds of the heathen gods to avenge their wrongs? On this account did the Nile fail to overflow its accustomed course; to avenge the losses of the priests of the city, when it had not avenged the wrongs of its own priests?

20. But if they think the injuries of their gods were revenged in the past year, why are they ignored this year? For now the rural peoples are not feeding on roots torn up from the ground, nor are they seeking refreshment from the berries of the woods, nor plucking their food from thorns; but joyful in their successful labors, and wondering at their harvest, they have made up for their hunger by the satisfaction of all their desire; and earth has given up her produce with usury.

22. There remains the last and most important point: whether, oh emperors, you ought to restore these helps which have profited you: for he says: "Let them defend you, and be worshipped by us." This is the thing, most faithful prince, that we cannot endure: that they should taunt us that they pray to their gods in your name, and thus commit sacrilege without your command, interpreting your silence for consent. Let them have their own protecting gods, and let these defend them if they can. For if they cannot give help to those by whom they are worshipped, how shall they aid you who do not worship them?

23. But the ceremonies of the ancients, he says, ought to be preserved. But why so, if all things have progressed into something better? The world itself, which at first grew out of the germs of the elements brought together into an unstable sphere in the void, and was involved in the confused darkness of the work as yet without order;did it not afterwards receive the form of things, when the sky, sea and earth were separated? The lands freed from the misty darkness smiled back at the new sunlight. Daylight does not break forth in splendor at the dawn, but as time proceeds shines with increasing light and glows with increasing warmth.

30. If the old rites were so pleasing, why did Rome herself take up foreign ones? I pass over the question of the ground covered with costly buildings, and the shepherd’s huts gleaming with ignoble gold. To reply to the one thing they complain of, why have they eagerly received the images of captured cities, the conquered gods, and foreign ceremonies from the rites of an alien superstitition? Whence now is the example of Cybele washing her chariots in a river pretended to be the Almo? Whence came the Phrygian seers, and the divinities of unrighteous Carthage, always hated by the Romans? And whence came her worship whom the African worship as Colleste, the Persians as Mithra, and most people as Venus, according to a variety of name but not of divinity. So they believed victory, to be a goddess, which is a gift, not a power; it is given, it does not rule; it is the gift of legions, not the force of religions. Is she a great goddess, whom the mob of soldiers claim for themselves, or whom the outcome of battles establishes?

31. They ask that her altar be set up in the Senate chamber of the city of Rome, where most of those who gather there are Christians. In all the temples are altars, and an altar is in the temple of Victories. Since they delight in numbers, they celebrate their sacrifices everywhere. Why do they claim a sacrifice on this altar, unless it be to insult the faith? Must it be borne that a heathen should sacrifice and a Christian be present?

32. Where, he asks, Shall we swear to obey your laws and your commands? Does then your purpose which is included in the laws receive assent and faithful observance by means of heathen rites? The faithfulness of the absent as well as of the present is attacked, and what is more your authority is attacked, oh emperors, for your command compels obedience. Constantius of august memory, although not yet initiated into the sacred mysteries, thought he would be contaminated if he saw that altar there. He ordered it to be taken; and did not order it to be restored. The first action has the authority of an act, the second has not that of a command.

39. I have answered those who attack me not as one attacked; for it was my purpose to answer the memorial, not to expose the follyof superstitition. But let their memorial, oh emperor, make you more cautious. For when they have told of the former princes, that the first part of them kept up the rites of the fathers, and the later part did not put them away, and have added that if the religion of the ancients did not form a precedent, at least the connivance of the later ones did; they teach you plainly what you owe to your faith, that is, not to follow the example of heathen rites; and what you owe to affection, that is, not to violate the decrees of your brother. For if for their part they have praised only the dissimulation of the princes who, although Christians did not abolish heathen decrees, how much more ought you to defer to brotherly love, to the extent that you, who should overlook some things which you do not approve lest you detract from the statutes of your brothers, should also hold to that which you judge to be consistent with your faith and the bond of brother hood.—St. Ambrose, Epist. XVIII.


Enactments From the Codex Theodosianus

Let the course of all law suits and all business cease on Sunday, which our fathers have rightly called the Lord;s day, and let noone try to collect either a public or a private debt; and let there be no hearing of disputes by any judges either those required to serve bylaw or those voluntarily chosen by disputants. And he is to be held not only infamous but sacrilegious who has turned away from the service and observance of holy religion on that day.—Codex Theodosianus, XI. 7, 13. Time of Emperors Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius.

On the Lord’s day, which is the first day of the week, on Christmas, and on the days of Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, inasmuch as then the [white] garments [of Christians] symbolizing the light of heavenly cleansing bear witness to the new light of holy baptism, at the time also of the suffering of the apostles, the example for all Christians, the pleasures of the theaters and games are to be kept from the people in all cities, and all the thoughts of Christians and believers are to be occupied with the worship of God. And if any are kept from that worship through the madness of Jewish impiety or the error and insanity of foolish paganism, let them know that there is one time for prayer and another for pleasure. And lest anyoneshould think he is compelled by the honor due to our person, as if by the greater necessity of his imperial office, or that unless he attempted to hold the games in contempt of the religious prohibition, he might offend our serenity in showing less than the usual devotion toward us; let no one doubt that our clemency is revered in the highest degree by humankind when the worship of the whole world is paid to the might and goodness of God.—Codex Theod. XV. 5. Time of Emperors Theodosius and Caesar Valentinian.

Bloody spectacles are not suitable for civil ease and domestic quiet. Wherefore since we have proscribed gladiators, those who have been accustomed to be sentenced to such work as punishment for their crimes, you should cause to serve in the mines, so that they may be punished without shedding their blood.—Cod. Theod. XV. 12, I. Time of Emperor Constantine.

We desire that all the people under the rule of our clemency should live by that religion which divine Peter the apostle is said to have given to the Romans, and which it is evident that Pope Damasus and Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity, followed; that is that we should believe in the one deity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with equal majesty and in the Holy Trinity according to the apostolic teaching and the authority of the gospel.—Cod. Theod. XVI. 1, 2. Time of Emperors Gratian, Valentinian and Theodosius.

It is necessary that the privileges which are bestowed for the cultivation of religion should be given only to followers of the Catholic faith. We desire that heretics and schismatics be not only kept from these privileges, but be subjected to various fines.—Cod. Theod. XVI. 5, 1. Time of Emperor Constantine.

Whenever there is found a meeting of a mob of Manichaeans, let the leaders be punished with a heavy fine and let those who attended be known as infamous and dishonored, and be shut out from association with men, and let the house and the dwellings where the profane doctrine was taught be seized by the officers of the city.—Cod. Theod. XVI. 5, 3. Time of Emperors Valentinian and Valens.

The ability and right of making wills shall be taken from those who turn from Christians to pagans, and the testament of such an one, if he made any, shall be abrogated after his death.—Cod. Theod. XVI. 2, 1. Time of Emperors Gratian, Valentinian, and Valens.

It is decreed that in all places and all cities the temples should be closed at once, and after a general warning, the opportunity of sinning be taken from the wicked. We decree also that we shall ceasefrom making sacrifices. And if anyone has committed such a crime, let him be stricken with the avenging sword. And we decree that the property of the one executed shall be claimed by the city, and that rulers of the provinces be punished in the same way, if they neglect to punish such crimes.—Cod. Theod. XVI. 10, 4. Time of Emperors Constantine and Constans.


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Chicago: "Suppression of Heresy and Heathenism," The Library of Original Sources, Vol 4 in The Library of Original Sources, ed. Oliver J. Thatcher (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: University Research Extension Co., 1907), 63–71. Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024,

MLA: . "Suppression of Heresy and Heathenism." The Library of Original Sources, Vol 4, in The Library of Original Sources, edited by Oliver J. Thatcher, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, University Research Extension Co., 1907, pp. 63–71. Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , 'Suppression of Heresy and Heathenism' in The Library of Original Sources, Vol 4. cited in 1907, The Library of Original Sources, ed. , University Research Extension Co., Milwaukee, Wisconsin, pp.63–71. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from