| Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages|
|by George Hodges|
| An excellent introduction to the history of the church through portraits of twenty of the most important saints and heroes of the faith from the third century A.D. to the time of the Reformation. Includes Cyprian, Athanasius, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Benedict, Greg-ory the Great, Columba, Charlemagne, Hildebrand, Anselm, Bernard, Becket, Langton, Dominic, Francis, Wycliffe, Hus, and Savonarola. Ages 11-14 |
 THE experience of Athanasius showed plainly that while a
pagan emperor might be a dangerous enemy to the Church,
a Christian emperor might be a very inconvenient
Not many of the rulers of Rome declared so bluntly as
Constantius that they meant to rule the Church, but
that was the intention of most of them. They wished to
use the Church as a general uses an army, and the first
necessity was obedience. It took hundreds of years to
work out the idea, under which we live, that the state
is to attend to matters political, and the Church to
Meanwhile, the Church and the State fought for the
mastery. The beginning of that long struggle, in which
 was defeated in the East and the State was defeated in
the West, appears in the lives of Chrysostom and
In the city of Milan, they were electing a bishop.
Some of the Christians were Arians, some were
Athanasians, and there was much excitement. The great
church was crowded with people, shouting the names of
their favorite candidates. In the high seat where the
bishop was accustomed to sit, sat the Roman governor
Ambrose, presiding over the assembly to keep order.
Back in the church, a man had lifted his small child to
his shoulder to give him a good look over the crowd,
and the child saw Ambrose, in his robes of office, in
the bishop's chair. In his surprise, he called out in
his shrill voice, over all the noise, "Ambrose is
bishop!" Immediately the words were taken up, and in a
moment all the other names were set aside, and
everybody was shouting: "Ambrose is bishop! Ambrose is
 Nothing was further from the plans of Ambrose. He was
a great Roman noble. His father, as Prefect of Gaul,
had been ruler over the greater part of Europe, and
Ambrose was following in his steps. He was interested,
indeed, in the Christian religion; but he had never
been baptized. He had never even thought of the
possibility of entering into the work of the Christian
ministry. He was both astonished and displeased. He
refused to consent to the demand of the people. Still
the crowd shouted, and, though the governor dismissed
the assembly, and sent them home, they besieged him as
the Christians of Carthage had besieged Cyprian.
Finally, much against his will, he agreed to do as they
desired. He was baptized, confirmed, admitted to the
Holy Communion, ordained deacon, ordained priest, and
consecrated bishop of Milan, all in one week.
Ambrose found that, as bishop of Milan, he was in a
place of as much public
im-  portance as had been held by his father who ruled
Europe. He took a great part in three notable
contentions of his time: against paganism, against
Arianism, and against the emperor.
Ambrose saw the end of paganism. He was himself
concerned in one of its last defeats, and the others
occurred during his lifetime. His own fight against
the old gods was over the Altar of Victory. In the
senate house at Rome had stood from times immemorial an
Altar of Victory. Above it was a winged figure with
hands uplifted, standing on a globe,—Victory
herself, the goddess of the Good Luck of Rome, in
shining gold. This altar a Christian emperor had taken
away, and the statue with it.
But the senate was still, for the most part, pagan.
The great and ancient
families were pagan. However much or little they still
cared for the old religion, they cared greatly for the
 of their ancestors. They loved the customs which were
glorified in the literature and sculpture of Old Rome.
They felt toward the Christians as people of long
descent and gentle breeding are tempted to feel to-day
toward new neighbors, rich but ill-educated, with new
The senate, therefore, petitioned for the return of the
Altar of Victory. The humble terms of their request
showed how completely the old era of pagan power had
passed. They asked only for permission to keep a few
of the ancient ceremonies and to say their own prayers
in their own way. "Let us have one altar out of the
destruction of the old religion. Pestilence and famine
are abroad, and the barbarians are pressing down across
the Danube and the Rhine; let us who are still of the
old faith implore the protection of the gods who in the
ancient days saved Rome when the Goths besieged it."
 Against this petition Ambrose protested. The gods, he
said, had nothing to do with the saving of old Rome; it
was the geese whose cackling waked the guard. And the
altar was not replaced.
But the conflict was not over. In Alexandria, the
Christians and the pagans fell to fighting, as they
fought in the days of the persecutions; but now the
pagans were on the defensive. The Christians attacked
the mighty pagan temple, the Serapium, high on vast
stone terraces in the midst of the city, approached by
an ascent of a hundred steps. In the shrine stood the
great image of Serapis, at whose fall, men said, the
world itself would fall. Up went the victorious
Christians, clambering with clubs and axes over the
hundred steps, and breaking at last into the splendid
shrine. Here they stopped, and for a little space
nobody dared to proceed further. What if the ancient
legend should prove true, and Serapis should avenge the
insult to his
 image by earthquake, and lightning, and destruction!
At last a soldier raised his ax and struck the idol
full in the face. The cheek of Serapis was broken, and
out swarmed a troop of frightened mice whose nest in
the idol's head had been thus invaded. Then the
silence of the destroyers changed to great laughter and
shouts of derision; the image was pulled down and
dragged about the streets. And there was no more
public paganism in Alexandria.
In the West, the conflict came to an end in a mountain
battle beside the Frigidus. The pagans had chosen a
pagan emperor, and he went out at the head of an army
to fight with Theodosius, not only for his throne, but
for his religion. As they passed Milan, the pagans
promised that when they returned they would stable
their horses in the church of Ambrose. Thus the battle
was joined; a fierce storm of snow beat in the faces of
the pagan army,
 and they fled in hopeless defeat. It was the last
stand of the old religion.
Meanwhile, Ambrose was contending with the Arians.
There were not many of them in Milan, and they were
discouraged by the gradual and general failure of their
cause; but they had the Empress Justina on their side.
She was the mother of the young emperor of whose
domains, in the division of the empire, Milan was the
capital. The Arians had been turned out of their
churches, as the pagans had been turned out of their
temples. But Justina was an Arian still. She asked
the permission of Ambrose to have for herself and those
who were of her belief, a single church in Milan.
Ambrose refused to give it.
The long fight of the Arians against the Nicene Creed
had been fought and lost. It had filled the Church
with clamor and bitterness and division and tragedy.
Now it was ended, and Ambrose would give no
 opportunity for beginning it again. He told the
empress that she could not have a church. The empress,
thereupon, proposed to take one. She had her imperial
soldiers, and she gave them orders to drive Ambrose out
of the city and to seize such churches as she wished.
The bishop took refuge in a church, and his people
gathered about him. There they guarded him day and
night, passing the time in singing psalms.
At last, the bishop had a dream. He dreamed that
beneath another church two martyrs of some old
persecution had been buried. So men went to the place
and dug into the ground with spades, and there, sure
enough, they came upon the bones of these forgotten
saints! And immediately the saints' bones began to
work the most astonishing miracles. The lame were made
to walk, and the blind to see. The whole city was
filled with new excitement. It was plain, men said,
that heaven and
 the saints were on the side of Ambrose. In the face of
such reinforcements the empress prudently retreated.
Thus was fought the last battle with the Arians in
The Roman emperors, after Constantine, were most of
them weak rulers, sometimes quite young men, like
Constantine's own sons, and, for the most part,
governing only a portion of the empire. It was divided
into east and west, with an emperor for each division;
and each of these divisions was parted into imperial
provinces. But there was one strong emperor, who in
his time ruled the world. That was the great
But Theodosius had a hasty temper, and it brought him
into a memorable conflict with Ambrose.
The people of that time were tremendously interested in
athletic games. They went in great crowds to the vast
amphitheaters where gladiators fought, and the
 circuses where chariot races were run. One side was
for the Blues, the other for the Greens. In every city
these sports brought together thousands of spectators.
Now it happened that in Thessalonica, a very popular
charioteer had committed a crime, and had very properly
been put in prison for it. The time for the races
approached, and there was the charioteer still in the
prison, and with no likelihood of release. The people,
for the sake of the race, demanded of the governor that
he should pardon the charioteer and let him out. But
the governor refused. Thereupon a mob arose. They
attacked the governor's house, and killed him, and
dragged his body about the streets; and they released
Tidings of these disorders came speeding to the ear of
Theodosius. The murdered governor had been his
intimate friend. His anger knew no bounds. Straight
he sent messengers to a
com-  mander of his troops with orders to avenge this tragedy
upon the whole people of Thessalonica. The soldiers
found the races in full swing. The immense circus was
crowded to the topmost seat. The avengers entered,
closed the gates and drew their swords, and proceeded
to kill everybody in sight. For three hours they
murdered the unarmed people. Seven thousand men,
women, and children fell before them.
The story is still remembered of a father who had taken
his two boys to the races, and begged the murderers to
spare one, and to this they agreed, but he could not
decide which one. He could not choose either of his
sons to be put to death before his eyes. So the hasty
soldiers killed them both, and their father with them.
Ambrose immediately wrote a letter to Theodosius. "You
are a Christian," he said, "and have done this horror.
Into this has your hasty anger led you. As
 for me, I pray for you, but you and I cannot stand
together in the same church. Do not venture to appear
where I am present. You have done the most horrible
thing that was ever heard of. Repent before God, ask
His pardon as David did. May He be merciful to your
In spite of the letter, the emperor came to church.
The bishop met him in the outer porch. "You may not
enter," he said. "This is no place for such as you,
unless they come in the deepest shame and sorrow. Go
back to your palace. Your hands drip with blood.
Repent! repent! and then come; but not now."
It is one of the noblest scenes in history. Never has
the Church stood out more splendidly against the world.
There were later times, as we shall see, when bishops
made themselves masters of kings, but sometimes their
victory was spoiled by pride and selfishness. The
triumph of Ambrose was a triumph of the Christian
 conscience. He was strong because he was right. And
the great emperor knew it. He did repent. He humbled
himself before God. In the church, in the presence of
the people, he bowed himself to the ground with tears.
"My soul cleaveth to the dust," he said "O God, quicken
me according to Thy word." He made a law, which still
holds in all civilized countries, that no capital
sentence should be carried into effect until thirty
days after the condemnation.
Thus in the West, in the person of Ambrose, the Church
asserted the rights of man against the injustice and
tyranny of the State, and prevailed over the power of
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics