The Education of St. Ambrose

by Joseph Parkinson

St. Ambrose (AD 340-397)

The life of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church, is known from his writings, and from the Life written by Paulinus, his secretary. St. Ambrose belonged to an old and noble Roman family, and among his ancestors were both Christian martyrs and distinguished magistrates. At the time of his birth, in 340 AD, his father was Prefect of Gallia, an office of the highest rank.

In about the year 354 his father died and the family went to live in Rome. His sister Marcellina, who was a consecrated virgin, assisted his mother greatly in his upbringing. Such was the source of his early religious instruction.

While at Rome, St. Ambrose completed the course of his secular studies. In his Life of St. Ambrose, Paulinus writes that the Saint was ‘thoroughly instructed in the liberal disciplines’ (edoctus in liberalibus disciplinis; Paulin. Vita Ambr. 5). He attained a mastery of the Greek language and its literature, and was an accomplished poet and orator. In the Catholic Encyclopedia we read that ‘His writings are to this day a standing proof how vigorously he applied himself to human literature.’ He then undertook the study and practice of law, and so great was his eloquence at court that he was taken into the council of the praetorian prefect of Italy, and was soon made consular governor of Liguria and Aemilia, with his residence at Milan. He was made Bishop of that city in the year 374.

The ‘liberal disciplines’ which we read of in Paulinus were the standard course of instruction received by educated Romans. These were the liberal arts and sciences, which the Greeks considered the only general education, and which by the time of Cicero ‘had passed over to Rome and become the groundwork of the education of the Roman liber homo, or gentleman’ (West, p. 6). The exact number of liberal arts was not yet fixed in the fourth century, but there is no doubt that St. Ambrose would have begun with the study of Grammar, and then progressed to the study of Dialectics (Reasoning), and Rhetoric, in which he excelled. These language arts were the basis of a man’s oratorical training, so necessary in public life.

The standard Latin authorities on the liberal arts in St. Ambrose’s time (Cicero, Varro, Quintilian, and Seneca) list further studies beyond these three, and four are always included: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. It may be that not all students passed on to these studies, or completed all four of them (West, p. 6), but it would be reasonable to assume that St. Ambrose mastered the art of Music, given his contribution to the history of Church music, and this would require a mastery of Arithmetic.

Such then was the education of this holy bishop and Doctor of the Church.

Joseph Parkinson studied Latin and Ancient HIstory at the University of Sydney and is an adult student in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. This article was originally posted on his Classical Catholic Studies blog.


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