THE PENITENCE OF THEODOSIUS.
"Be wise now, therefore, O ye kings; be learned, ye that are judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice unto Him with reverence. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and so ye perish from the right way."
It is very satisfactory to find that the Christian fortitude of St. Ambrose was not thrown away upon Valentinian. This young prince, who died prematurely, nay, before his baptism, gave signs duringseveral of his last year3, of a very altered state of mind towards the Church and her vigorous champion. Such was the fruit of braving the frown of royalty in a good cause. Perhaps St. Ambrose would not have done as much by what men call more prudent conduct; by temporizing and conceding. There is no sort of doubt, that had the scene been laid in England in the nineteenth century, not to speak in very generosity of the sixteenth, courtliness would have been the order of the day. The Basilica would have been surrendered to the heretics; yet I fear without that change of heart being wrought in prince or prime minister, by a timid policy in the Church to which Valentinian was led by meeting with resistance. Certainly we have not made great men more religious by letting them have their own way. As for Valentinian, he was cut off under very sad yet interesting circumstances. Being engaged in Gaul in an attempt to reduce the power of Arbogastes, the Frank, who was secretly conspiring against him, he wrote to St. Ambrose to come to him, both to assist him in his negotiations and to baptize him. Before Ambrose could arrive, Arbogastes had murdered the emperor.
But, leaving Valentinian, let us turn to the consideration of a still more striking and salutary instance of episcopal vigour, exerted in the case of a more powerful emperor; I mean the conduct of St. Ambrose towards Theodosius, on occasion of the massacre at Thessalonica. This is the most instructive passage in his history; nay, perhaps in the history of the whole Church; for what sight can be more edifying "to the Christian, or more impressive to the world at large, than that of a bishop conscientiously and calmly rebuking a great warrior, and that warrior and sovereign humbly confessing and repenting of his sin?
The circumstances which led to this memorable display of Apostolical severity were as follows:— Theodosius was of a choleric temper, which hurried him on to visit, with the power of an emperor, insults which every one, prince and subject, naturally feels. In the year 390, a tumult took place in Thessalonica on some supposed grievance, such as commonly excites a populace, which ended in the murder of the commander of the imperial forces, who had given the offence, and other officers. The first burst of the emperor's indignation was overcome by the interposition of the clergy, particularly Ambrose; and he promised to pardon the Thessalonians. But his ministers considered the outrage too great to be passed over with safety to the empire: a similar tumult had lately been pardoned at Antioch; and, in the present instance, there had been no tyranny or impolitic rigour on the part of the unfortunate general who had been the victim of the insurrection. So far, their judgment was doubtless right; but the sentence, which they succeeded in recommending to their sovereign, was so shocking, as sufficiently to account for the previous intercession of the Church in behalf of the offenders. The purpose of vengeance was kept secret; the Thessalonians were invited to the circus, which was silently surrounded by soldiery; and, when they expected the races to commence, a signal was given, and a promiscuous massacre followed. It continued for three hours; and 7000, without discrimination of age or sex, are said to have been slaughtered. Theodosius had revoked the cruel order soon after it was given, but too late to prevent its execution.
These events took place in the early spring; and soon afterwards Theodosius returned to Milan. Ambrose had been in the custom of attending the court on its arrival; but now he retired into the country two or three days beforehand. Thence he despatched the following letter to the emperor, who seems to have expressed surprise at his absence :—
"Augustissimo Imperatori Theodosio, Ambrosils episcopus.
"I bear an affectionatememoryof your former friendship towards me, and of your great condescension in so often granting favours to others at my instance. Accordingly, it is not ingratitude that leads me to shun a presence which hitherto has ever been most coveted by me. I will briefly explain to you my reasons for doing so.
"I found that I was forbidden, I alone of your whole court, the natural right of hearing what went on about me, with a view of depriving me of the privilege of speaking. I know you have not unfrequently been displeased at my knowledge of measures which were determined on in your council. Thus I am deprived of this liberty, though the Lord Jesus says, that 'there is nothing hid, but shall be made manifest.' However, I acquiesced in the imperial will with all dutifulness; and I took measures for obviating your displeasure, by providing that no news about the imperial statutes should be brought me.
"What else then could I do? Not hear? as if my ears could be closed with the wax which ancient fables speak of. Say what I heard? I could not without hazarding by my words what I feared in your counsels,—some act of blood. Be silent? This would be most wretched of all—to have one's conscience bound and one's lips closed. Is it not written, 'If God's minister fail to speak to the sinner, the latter shall die in his sin; but he shall answer for not speaking?'
"Suffer me, gracious emperor. You have zeal for the faith, I own it: and the fear of God, I confess it; but you have an impetuosity of nature at offenders, which a counsellor may either soothe into compassion, or stimulate till self-government is almost lost. O that those about you were as backward in rousing as they are in appeasing it! I would gladly leave it altogether to your own management; since you can recover yourself, and get the better of this violence of nature by an effort to be merciful.
"I thought it best to leave your own reflections to overcome it, instead of running the risk of increasing it by some public interposition. So I resolved rather to be wanting in my duty towards my office, than in my deference towards my sovereign; and that the world should think me deficient in episcopal vigour rather than that you should accuse my loyalty, so that repressing your anger, you might have free opportunity for determining your course of action. I excused my attendance on the plea of my health, which indeed was severely tried, and which men of merciful minds alone could improve; yet I would rather have died than have been behindhand by a day or two in presenting myself on your arrival. But I knew not what to do.
"A deed has been perpetrated in Thessalonica, which has no parallel in history; which I in vain attempted to prevent; yes, which I protested would be most atrocious, in the frequent expostulations I addressed to you beforehand; nor could I extenuate a deed which you, by your unsuccessful attempts to hinder it, have confessed to be heinous. When the news came, I was engaged in a synod, held on the arrival of the Gallic bishops. All assembled deplored it, none viewed it leniently; your friendship with Ambrose weighed nothing in your favour. Surely the odium of the crime would fall even more heavily on me, should no reconciliation to Almighty God be required of you.
"O emperor, why should you feel shame to act as David acted,—he who was a prophet as well as a king, and a forefather of Christ according to the flesh? A parable was set before him; and, when he found that by it he himself was condemned, he said, 'I have sinned before the Lord.' Take it not ill, then, 0 emperor, if the same words are used towards you as the prophet used to David—' Thou art the man.' For if you give due attention to them, and answer ' I have sinned against the Lord,' if you utter that royal and prophetic strain, ' O come, let us worship, and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker,' then it will be said to you, ' Since it repenteth thee, the Lord putteth away thy sin: thou shalt not die.'
"I have written this, not to overpower you, but to induce you, by a royal example, to put away this sin from your kingdom,—that is,—by humbling your soul to God. You are a man; temptation has come upon you: get the better of it. Tears and penitence are the only remedy for sin, neither angel nor archangel can take it away; the Lord Himself, who alone can say, 'I am with you always,' even He pardons not except upon penitence.
"I entreat, I demand, I exhort, I admonish; for it sorrows me to think that one, who was a pattern of singular mercy, who was remarkable for clemency, and rescued even individual culprits from their difficulties, should now feel no remorse at the death of a guiltless multitude. Successful as you have been in battle, and great in other respects, yet it was mercy which crowned all your doings. The devil has envied your chief excellence. Overcome him while you have the means. Add not one sin to another by conduct from which too many suffer,
"For my part, debtor as I am to your clemency in all other things, grateful as I must ever be to it, greater as I have ever thought it than that of all other emperors but one, and unsuspicious though I am as yet of contumacy on your part, still I have apprehension; I dare not offer sacrifice if you resolve to attend. Is that lawful when many innocents have bled, which is not lawful in a solitary murder? I trow not.
"O emperor, I much regret that, in the beginning of this business, I left it to the risk of your temper instead of moving in it myself. When I consider that your pardon is suddenly given, suddenly recalled, as often before, it would appear that you have been overtaken, and I have not averted what it was not right perhaps to anticipate. But thanks be to God, who is pleased to chastise His poor servants lest He lose them altogether. This is my lot in common with the prophets; be it yours in common with the saints.
"Do not I love the father of Gratian more even than my own eyes? Your other innocent children seem to intercede for you also. I mention that beloved youth, not to exclude, but to represent the rest. You have my love, my affection, my prayers. If you have confidence in me, obey me, and allow what I say: if not, make allowance for what I do, in that I prefer God to my sovereign. Gracious emperor, may you and your dear children enjoy everlasting peace."
This letter, which is written rather with the familiarity and affection of a friend than with the measured precision of an ecclesiastical censure, is thus summarily treated by the historian Gibbon :— "His epistle is a miserable rhapsody on a noble subject. Ambrose could act better than he could write. His compositions are destitute of taste or genius,"—a remark which may be taken as one instance out of many of obliquity of mind or rapidity of judgment in that able writer. In spite of his apparent candour, few persons have been such practical haters of Christianity and the Church; and Ambrose was one of those who most especially merited his disgust, by the intrepidity with which he thrust the claims of sacred truth upon the world,—claims, which unbelievers would fain have shut up in the library of the theologian, or within the precincts of consecrated ground.
There is nothing to show how Theodosius bore the remonstrance of Ambrose on the first receipt of it. We next hear of him as attempting to attend divine service at Milan, where Ambrose officiated, having by this time returned to the city. He was met at the entrance by the man of God, who thus addressed him:—
"Surely your majesty is not aware of theheinousness of the slaughter which has taken place. Passion is over; yet reason does not yet estimate the crime. Perchance kingly rule is an obstacle to repentance, and sovereignty prevents reflection. Yet it is as well for a man to feel his perishable nature, and remember that dust is his beginning and his end, in spite of that gorgeous purple which may beguile the heart, but cannot reverse the feebleness of the frame it covers. Your subjects, emperor, are your fellowcreatures; I should rather say, your fellow-servants, —servants of one universal Lord and King, the Maker of the universe. Dare you, then, look upon His shrine, who is Lord of low as well as high ?— dare you tread His holy pavement ?—dare you stretch forth hands, which are yet reeking with the blood of innocent victims ?—dare you receive in them the most holy body of your Lord ?—dare you taste His precious blood with lips which have spoken their rage in an unjust slaughter? Go hence; add not a new offence to what is past; submit to the bond which is placed upon you according to the will of the Most High. Take it as medicine to restore your soul."
Theodosius yielded to the voice of the Church;— he retired home, where he remained suspended from Christian communion for eight months.
Christmas was now come, and the emperor made a second attempt to join in public worship, considering doubtless that he had already suffered a sufficient penance for his crime. His minister, Ruffinus, who had been the adviser of the massacre, had found him in tears; and on inquiring the cause of his grief, had been reminded of his state of separation from the Church. "Servants and beggars," said the emperor, "may enter freely to join in prayer; but against me the gates of heaven are shut; for well I know what the Lord has so clearly said, 'Whom ye bind shall be bound in heaven.'" Ruffinus per
suaded him to let him go to Ambrose; and Theodosius, impatient at his delay, set out towards the church before his return. When he had got as far as the forum, he was met by his minister, who reported to him the ill success of his mission; on which, with a noble resolution, he declared he would proceed onwards, and undergo the shame which he had deserved.
The bishop's apartments, as has already been noticed, were contained within a range of buildings, of which the Basilica formed a part; and thither, not to the Basilica, Theodosius now betook himself. In the interview which followed, he consented to undergo a public penance; and promised to pass a law that thirty days should, in future, intervene between sentence and execution in all cases of death and confiscation. On these terms he reconciled himself to the Church.
His first appearance in public worship after his absolution, had itself the character of a penance. With all signs of vehement grief, he prostrated himself upon the pavement, and applied the words of the Psalmist to his own situation,—" My soul cleaveth unto the dust: quicken Thou me, according to Thy word." It so happened when the time came for presenting the oblation at the altar, instead of retiring from the chancel, he remained, through forgetfulness, within the rails, according to the custom of the Eastern Church, there to receive the sacrament. Ambrose ventured not to relax one tittle of the stern discipline of the Latins, even to reward a penitent monarch. He sent his archdeacon to signify to him that none but ordained persons were allowed to remain in the sanctuary; on which the emperor promptly retired. Some writers, however, consider that this took place on his first arrival at Milan from the East.
Theodoret adds, that, on his return to Constantinople, one day after making his offering at the altar as usual, he retired, as he had learned from Ambrose, without the rails, and was recalled by the Patriarch Nectarius. Upon this he observed, "Of all whom I have met, Ambrose is the only Bishop."
Perhaps an unlearned reader might imagine Theodosius some weak prince, such as might be expected in the latter days of Rome, the offspring and the instrument of her degeneracy. For such an one I will quote the unsuspicious evidence of the historian Gibbon :—
"The wisdom of his laws, and the success of his arms, rendered his administration respectable in the eyes both of his subjects and of his enemies. He loved and practised the virtues of domestic life, which seldom hold their residence in the palaces of kings. Theodosius was chaste and temperate; he enjoyed, without excess, the sensual and social pleasures of the table; and the warmth of his amorous passions was never diverted from their lawful objects. The proud titles of imperial greatness were adorned by the tender names of a faithful husband, an indulgent father. His uncle was raised, by his affectionate esteem, to the rank of a second parent. . Theodosius embraced, as his own, the children of his brother and sister; and the expressions of his regard were extended to the most distant and obscure branches of his numerous kindred. His familiar friends were judiciously selected from among those persons who, in the intercourse of private life, had appeared before his eyes without a mask; the consciousness of personal and superior merit enabled him to despise the accidental' distinction of the purple; and he proved, by his conduct, that he had forgotten all the injuries, while he most gratefully remembered all the favours and services, which he had received before he ascended the throne of the Roman empire. The serious or lively tone of his conversation was adapted to the age, the rank, or the character of his subjects whom he admitted into his society; and the affability of his manners displayed the image of his mind. Theodosius respected the simplicity of the good and virtuous; every art, every talent of an useful, or even of an innocent nature, was rewarded by his judicious liberality; and, except the heretics, whom he persecuted with implacable hatred, the diffusive circle of his benevolence was circumscribed only T>y the limits of the human race. The government of a mighty empire may assuredly suffice to occupy the time and abilities of a mortal: yet the diligent prince, without aspiring to the unsuitable reputation of profound learning, always reserved some moments of his leisure for the instructive amusement of reading. History, which enlarged his experience, was his favourite study .... His disinterested opinion of past events was usefully applied as the rule of his own actions; and Theodosius has deserved the singular commendation, that his virtues always seemed to expand with his fortune; the season of his prosperity was that of his moderation; and his clemency
appeared the most conspicuous after the danger and success of the civil war. But the emperor showed himself much more attentive to relieve the innocent than to chastise the guilty. The oppressed subjects of the West, who would have deemed themselves happy in the restoration of their lands, were astonished to receive a sum of money equivalent to their losses; and the liberality of the conqueror supported the aged mother, and educated the orphan daughter of Maximus. A character thus accomplished might almost excuse the* extravagant supposition of the orator Pacatus,—that, if the elder Brutus could be permitted to revisit the earth, the stern republican would abjure, at the feet of Theodosius, his hatred of kings; and ingenuously confess, that such a monarch was the most faithful guardian of the happiness and dignity of the Roman people."
Such was the Great Theodosius;—such in his virtues, in his offence, and in his penitence.