New College, University of Edinburgh

Outwitting Caesar With His Own Denarius

Saint Ambrose’s biographer Paulinus of Milan relates that as an infant, a swarm of bees descended upon Ambrose. (Vita Ambrosii 3.3) For Paulinus, this classically allusive event presaged Ambrose’s honey-tongued persuasiveness as Bishop of Milan. (Neil McLynn, Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capitol, 1994, 33) While this essay will not attempt to match Paulinus’s dramatic intuition or style, it will offer the opinion of a former lawyer and (putative) ecclesiastical historian that Ambrose’s legal background might have supplemented his infantile blessings in preparing him to negotiate with emperors as bishop of Milan.

It is well known that before serving as bishop of Milan, Ambrose had a successful career as a legal advocate and judge. It is equally well known that Ambrose had a talent for publicity. A wonderful account of Ambrose’s cunning and persuasiveness can be found in McLynn’s Ambrose of Milan and I will rely heavily on McLynn in what follows. But this essay will focus more narrowly on the polemical aspects of Ambrose’s dispute with the child emperor Valentinian II (c. 385/386). Specifically, the dispute about the emperor’s command that Ambrose hand over a basilica for the use of one of Ambrose’s theological opponents, Auxentius. Ambrose and his congregation faced off against the emperor and – while there are conflicting scholarly accounts of events – Ambrose seems to have gotten the better of Valentinian.

It was in the context of these events that Ambrose preached his wily Sermon contra Auxentius and defended his refusal to turn over the church to the emperor by appealing to Christ’s analogy of the tribute denarius found in Matthew 22:16-21 and the famous dominical command in v. 21: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” After recounting the passage, Ambrose rhetorically asked his opponents, “Can they, in seizing the basilicas of the church offer Caesar’s penny?” In response to his own question he remarked, “[I]n the church I only know of one image, that is the image of the unseen God.” Later, Ambrose admitted, “Tribute is due to Caesar, we do not deny it.” But then added: “The Church belongs to God, therefore it ought not to be assigned to Caesar. For the temple of God cannot be Caesar’s by right.”

The challenge in interpreting Ambrose’s argument arises when one examines carefully the seemingly disingenuous manner in which Ambrose uses scripture for political ends (something we can be confident no modern theologian would ever do!). At the outset of his argument Ambrose places himself in the mold of Christ and boldly challenges his opponents to produce for him a tribute denarius. But ostensibly any such penny would have the image and inscription of the emperor on it and thus might actually serve to undermine Ambrose’s argument against handing over the church to the emperor! Before he allows his opponents the mental opportunity to produce the coin, Ambrose quickly shifts the analogy by asking to be shown the church (which has quietly and subtly taken the place of the penny) and asking whose image and inscription is engraved on the church. With respect to the church, Ambrose reminds his listeners he “only know[s] of one image… the image of the unseen God.” To complicate matters further, Ambrose goes on to volunteer that he would submit any of his own property and the church’s estates to the emperor as part of a lawful tax. But, Ambrose steadfastly refuses to surrender the church. In a letter written to his sister, Marcellina (Ep. XX) Ambrose recounts these events. However, his analysis appears even more cold and calculating. Ambrose reports to his sister his rationale as follows: ”[T]he palaces belong to the emperor, the churches to the Bishop [Not God].” Which causes us to ask: have we caught the old lawyer Ambrose in a moment of mendacity?

While there are many possible explanations for Ambrose’s polemical style, I would like to look at this argument from the admittedly anachronistic perspective of a modern lawyer. In particular, I believe that the apparently inconsistent and self-serving nature of Ambrose’s polemic can be analogized to a contemporary legal device known as a plea in the alternative. The plea in the alternative is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as a form of pleading whereby the pleader alleges two or more independent claims or defenses that are not necessarily consistent with each other. This style of pleading allows the pleader to prevail under one of a number of mutually exclusive factual scenarios. Coincidentally, it is styles of pleading such as this which tend to give lawyers a bad reputation. See for example, the defense: “I did nothing wrong. But even if I did, you did too.” See also, any statement by someone holding political office.

Armed with this modern juridical perspective, my examination of Ambrose’s clever appropriation of Christ’s analogy causes me to respect Ambrose’s rhetorical mastery, even looking back at him across the gulf of many centuries. For Ambrose appears to be arguing that under any set of available facts, he would be justified in refusing to hand over the church to the emperor. Thus, if the church is the property of God’s alone, it would be a grave sin for Ambrose to hand over the church to the emperor. Loosely stated, Ambrose is saying: “It is not mine to hand over to you.” But, in the alternative, if the church is indeed Ambrose’s own, he is still justified in refusing to hand over the church to the emperor. Simply put: “In the alternative, if the church is mine, I still refuse to hand it over.”   Under either factual scenario: “If your name is Valentinian, you lose.”

In conclusion, perhaps the best clue for understanding Ambrose’s crafty denarius analogy comes from the end of his sermon. Ambrose closes by referencing Christ’s rhetorical question to his challengers in Luke 20:4: “The baptism of John, was it from heaven or men?” Christ’s question about the baptism of John silenced his opponents; and perhaps Ambrose’s cunning application of the analogy of the denarius is intended to produce the same effect: to silence, rather than to persuade, his critics, then and now. But should we expect anything less from the lawyer blessed with a tongue of honey?


Written By Joshua Bruce



  • CSCO Team,
  • 2nd January 2017


  • Allan, 4th January 2017 at 3:16 am | Reply

    Don’t you think that when Ambrose says, “[T]he palaces belong to the emperor, the churches to the Bishop,” he’s counting on his hearers to understand that the Bishop is God’s agent and simply represents and speaks for God?

    • Joshua Bruce, 4th January 2017 at 3:34 pm | Reply

      Very interesting and thought-provoking comment! It’s especially interesting given that Ambrose seems to have divested himself of direct control over his own substantial holdings when he became a bishop. So I think your comment is directly on point. On a related note, I have found his sermon “On Naboth” quite helpful for gleaning some sense of Ambrose’s views on (for lack of better terminology) “private property.” Thanks for commenting here!

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