Chapter VI

Emperor, Prefect and Bishop


Christianity was suppressed until the time of Emperor Constantine where he

defeated his rival, Maxentius, outside the city at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, A.D. 312. Constantine started to rebuild churches in the first months of A.D. 313 reigning between A.D. 306 and A.D. 337.

Following are some of the things that happened with Constantine:

Constantine was sure that victory in battle lay in the gift of the God of the Christian. Roman senate erected in his honour the Arch that stands today by the Coliseum, depicting the drowning of Maxentius’ troops and proclaiming in its inscription that Constantine won 'by the prompting of the deity." The deity to whom they referred was the Unconquered Sun.[1]

Constantine was not aware of any mutual exclusiveness between Christianity and his faith with Unconquered Sun.[2]

            Around A.D. 315, Constantine, a supporter of Caecilian, had been informed of a division in the African church. One group recognized Caecilian, who had been consecrated by traditor bishop, as bishop of Carthage and others elected a rival bishop.

In the spring of 317 C.E., Constantine issued an edict against the Donatists[3], exiling their leaders and confiscating their property.

After a victory on the Cosphorus in September A.D. 324, Constantine became sole ruler and wanted Christian Orthodoxy.

May 20 A.D. 325, 218 out of 220 bishops signed 'Nicene Creed', but were not universally accepted.

Arian controversy had developed and split between East and West then

Arianism was suppressed under Theodosius I A.D. 381.

Constantine was not baptized until he lay dying in A.D. 337 because it was

unusual to have an infant baptism until Pelagianism, around A.D. 411.

Looking at the table below, information is provided about the system of the Roman Empire Emperors. As shown, the previous emperor did not die before the successive emperor was put in office.






Valentinian I

321 AD

Elected to replace Jovian by the army

Feb. 26 364 AD

Nov. 17 375 AD

Nov. 17 375AD

Natural causes


328 AD

Brother of

Valentinian I


Mar. 28 364 AD

Aug.9 378 AD

Aug. 9 378 AD

Killed in battle


359 AD

Son of Valentinian I

Junior Augustus

Aug.4 367 AD

Aug. 25 383 AD

Aug. 25 383 AD


Valentinian II

371 AD

Son of Valentinian I

Nov. 17 375 AD

May 15 392 AD

May 15 392 AD

Murdered or commit suicide

Theodosius I

347 AD

Son-in-law of Valentinian I

Jan.1 379  AD

Jan. 17 395 AD

Jan. 17 395 AD

Natural causes.


It was a time of transition where paganism was suppressed and new Christianity was taking over.

            There was an office in the Roman Empire called the “prefect”. He was the guardian of the city, its welfare and its finance.  As the Emperor’s representative, he was invested with the Emperor’s delegated power and answerable only to the Emperor.

In A.D. 373, Symmachus was appointed as proconsul of Africa by emperor Valentinian I, father of Valentinian II.

A few months before Symmachus was appointed prefect, his friend Praetextatus had become praefectus praetorio of Italy. Emperor Valentinian ordered the restoration of the temples and for Symmachus this seemed to be a sign of revival of the pagan party.

Romans believed that Rome had grown great under divine guidance.  Symmachus’ friend Praetextatus resisted Christianity and thought the ancient Roman cults as the religion of the state, and recognized the gods as its authors and sustainers.

But from A.D. 381, Emperor Gratian confiscated the revenue of the Vestal Virgins and other ancient Roman priesthoods.

After the battle of Actium Augustus, September 02, 31 B.C., war between Julius Caesar’s adopted son and biological great-nephew Augustus, with Cleopatra, set up a statue and Altar of Victory in the senate-house to celebrate the triumph of the Roman spirit. But this altar was removed and re-erected by several emperors. Constantius removed, and Gratian removed the altar last also.

In 382 B.C., Symmachus was sent by the senate to plead with Gratian for the re-erection of the Altar of Victory in the senate house, but due to the influence of Ambrose, he was refused.

Between July 384 and January 385 A.D, Symmachus served as the prefect.

            Like Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, authority of Christianity grew in size equal to that of paganism. Like Symmachus, prefect, their position became more difficult.

Symmachus’ letters to the Emperor was called “Relations”. The forty-nine “Relations” were the official dispatches sent by Symmachus. All the Relations, with the exception of 9 and 42, were written for the attention of Valentinian II. 

In December A.D.384, his friend Praetextatus, praefectus praetorio of Italy, died. Symmachus asked to be relieved of his post and served as the last pagan prefect. He was succeeded by a Christian, praefectus urbi Pinianus. 

Ambrose, Bishop of Milan

At the birth of Ambrose, A.D. 340, his mother Monica had him signed with the cross and entered as a catechumen (At this period it was still unusual for infants to be baptized.) He went to Rome A.D. 353, with his sister Marcellina where she received veil from pope Liberius.

Ambrose was the son of the praetorian prefect at Trier who was a provincial governor at Milan. In A.D. 373, according to Tyrannius Rufinus’ HE 11.11, Historia Ecclesiae, Ambrose was forced to be a bishop from the tribunal of his provincial governorship. He was influential with the religious policy of the three Western emperors, Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius.

Ambrose obtained a copy of Relation 3 from the emperor Valentinian, even though the text of Symmachus was meant to be derived to Theodosius, but how did Ambrose respond to it?

Symmachus’ Relation #3

I can not post this translation because of copy right material. I have a permission to publish this content on my book.

            Here is letter number Eight (8), Ambrose sent to the emperor Valentinian Augustus, in response for Symmachus’ Relation #3.


#8        Ambrose, bishop, to the most blessed prince and most clement Emperor Valentinian Augustus (Autumn, 384)

The illustrious prefect of the city, Symmachus, has made an appeal to your Clemency that the altar which was removed from the senate House in the city of Rome be restored to its place. You, O Emperor, still young in age, a new recruit without experience, but a veteran in faith, did not approve the appeal of the pagans. The very moment I learned this I presented a request in which, although I stated what seemed necessary to suggest, I asked that I be given a copy of the appeal. Not doubtful, therefore, regarding your faith, but foreseeing the care that is necessary, and being confident of a kindly consideration, I am answering the demands of the appeal with this discourse, making this one request that you will not expect eloquence of speech but the force of facts. For, as holy Scripture teaches, the tongue of the wise and studious man is golden, decked with glittering words and shining with the gleam of eloquence, as though some rich hue, capturing the eyes of the mind by the comeliness of its appearance, dazzling in its beauty. But this gold, if you examine it carefully, though outwardly precious, within is a base metal. Ponder well, I beg you, and examine the sect of the pagans. They sound weighty and grand; they support what is incapable of being true; they talk of God, but they adore a statue. The distinguished prefect of the city has brought forth in his appeal three points which he considers of weight; namely, that (according to him) Rome is asking again for her ancient rites, that the priests and vestal virgins should be given their stipends, and since these stipends have been refused to the priests there has been general famine. According to the first proposal, as he says, Rome is shedding tears with sad mournful complaints, asking again for her ancient ceremonies. The sacred objects, he says, drove Hannibal from the city and the Senones from the capitol. But at the same time as the power of the sacred objects is proclaimed, their weakness is betrayed. Hannibal reviled the sacred objects of the Romans for a long time, and while the gods warred against themselves the conqueror reached the city’s walls. Why did they allow themselves to be besieged when the weapons of their gods did battle for them? Why should I make mention of the Senones, whom, when they penetrated the innermost recesses of the Capitol, the Roman forces could not have withstood had not a goose (with its frightened cackling) betrayed them. See what sort of protectors guard the Roman temples. Where was Jupiter at that time? Was he making a statement through a goose? Why do I refuse to admit that their sacred objects warred in behalf of the Romans? Hannibal, too, worshiped the same gods. Let them choose whichever they wish. If these sacred objects conquered in the Romans, then they were overcome in the Carthaginians. If they triumphed in the Carthaginians, they certainly did not help the Romans.[1]

Ambrose and the altar of Victory, letter #8, Page 39-40:

In those wretched and strange cases when an emperor was held captive, and then a world held captive under an emperor, was it the Christians who revealed the fact that the ceremonies which promised victory were falsified? Was there then no altar of Victory? I lament my downfall. My old age is accompanied by shame over that disgraceful bloodshed. But I am not ashamed to be converted in my old age along with the whole world.[2]

Ambrose about Christ, letter #8, Pages 40-41:

But if you say that Christ is not God because you do not believe that He died (for you do not realize that that was a death of the body not of the divinity, which has brought it about that no believer will die), why is this so senseless to you who worship with insult and disparage with honor, thinking that your god is a piece of wood? O worship most insulting! You do not believe that Christ could have died. O honorable stubbornness![3]

Ambrose continued complainer’s demand and his opinion, letter #8:

They do not believe that their ceremonies can continue unless donations continue. Let the Vestal virgins, he says, keep their privileged state. Let men say this who are not able to believe what virginity can do without reward. Let them derive encouragement from gainful means, having no confidence in virtue. How many virgins get the rewards promised to them? About seven Vestal virgins are accepted. Lo! that is the whole number of those attracted by fillets and chaplets for the head, or purple-dyed robes, the pomp of a litter surrounded by a group of attendants, greatest privileges, great gains, and a set period of virginity. Let them raise the eye of the mind and of the body and see a nation of modesty, a people of purity an assembly of virginity. Fillets are not the adornment of the head but a veil in common use, ennobled by chastity.[4]

Ambrose’s letter, #7, was sent to same Emperor Valentinian, questioning his treatment between Christian Virgins and Vestal Virgins.

What will you answer the priest who says to you: “The Church does not want your gifts because you adorned the heathen temples with gifts. The altar of Christ spurns your gifts since you have made an altar for Idols. Yours is the voice, yours the hand, yours the signature, yours the work. The Lord Jesus scorns and spurns your worship since you have worshiped idols, for He said to you: “You cannot serve two masters.” Virgins consecrated to God have no privileges from you, and do Vestal virgins lay claim to them? Why do you ask for God’s priests to whom you have brought the unholy demands of the pagans? We cannot be associated with another error.’[5]

The ban on pagan cult was never lifted after A.D.391, but the cult continued for some centuries.

The office of Vestal Virgins remained in high prestige until A.D. 394 when non-Christian cults were banned by Theodosius.

Ambrose wrote a few more treatises about virgins.




De virginibus

Concerning virgins 377A.D.


De virginitate

On virginity

La virginidad

De institutione virginis

Training of virgin  391 A.D.

La Educación de la virgen

Exhortatio virginitatis

Accommodation of virginity

393 or 394 A.D.

Exhortación a la virginidad


As learned earlier, Vestal virgins were an honoured, prestigious, and highly-visible virginity tradition in the Latin West around the time Ambrose was bishop.

Having his own father hold office as prefect, then himself holding the office of a provincial governor at Milan, Ambrose would have been well aware of the tradition of Vesta.

He recognized the wish for Roman virgins, especially Christian virgins, to serve but not follow the same pagan system; Bishop Ambrose had to come up with a new ideology.

Compare Symmachus’ Relation #3 and Ambrose’s letter #8 about virgins, Vestal Virgins, fillets and veils.

            Ambrose’ comparison between the two, Vestal virgins and Christian virgins, is in his treatise De virginitate (On Virginity) III-13:

            You will admit that a traditional and respected virginity exists among the pagans   for the service of their altar and the hearth. Although they have no piety of merit       or integrity of mind, yet even there a carnal virginity is publicly honoured. No one             prevents these virgins from participating in profane ceremonies; is virginity to be excluded from the Church of God?  In paganism, maidens are forced to accept             what is not common pagan teaching; is it to be forbidden to mention in the             Church what (in fact) one is under obligation to teach? The pagans bribe young         girls to refrain from marriage; among us are virgins to be forced, by blows, into    marriage? The pagans do violence to ensnare maidens; are we to do violence to       prevent a public profession of virginity? How long will the patience of the priests refrain from vindicating the "sacrifice" of virginity, even to the point of death if             that be necessary?[6]

Ambrose cited from First Corinthians 7:34 in the same treatise VI-31:

In other treatise, De virginibus, Concerning Virgins, Ambrose compares two, Vestal virgins and Christian virgins.

Concerning Virgins, Book I. Chap. IV. 15:

Who will allege to me the virgins of Vesta, and the priests of Pallas? What sort of chastity is that which is not of morals, but of years, which is appointed not for ever, but for a term! Such purity is all the more wanton of which the corruption is put off for a later age. They teach their virgins ought not to persevere, and are unable to do so, who have set a term to virginity. What sort of a religion is that in which modest maidens are bidden to be immodest old women? Nor is she modest who is bound by law, and she immodest who is set free by law.[7]

Concerning Virgins, Book I. Chap IV. 17-19:

Ambrose thinks Christian virgins are stronger than Vestal virgins or other.

A certain Pythagorean virgin . . . But the same virgin . . .

How much stronger are our virgins

Concerning Virgins, Book I. Chap. XII. 65:

Ambrose talks about virgins, and receiving “bridal veil”. 

Can any better veil, she said, cover me better than the altar which consecrates the veils themselves? Such a bridal veil is most suitable on which Christ, the Head of all, is daily consecrated.[8]


Concerning Virgins Book I, Chap. XI. 57:

            Then, too, virgins come from Placentia to be consecrated, or from Bononia, and     Mauritania, in order to receive the veil here.[9]

So, Ambrose may be suggesting virgins to wear bridal veil like Festus’ story.

It was claimed that the wife was thus called from nubere [to veil, to marry. In this last sense it was only used for women because women put on a veil on the day of their nuptials (marriage).][10]


There is another story from Festus:

The women, when they got married, were adorned with six braids of hair, because this kind of embellishment is very ancient (the oldest).  According to others this came about because the Vestal virgins adorned themselves with such an ornament and because newly married women committed themselves to keep a chastity comparable to the one observed by the Vestal virgins to their husbands.[11]

Why veil and not a fillet?

Symmachus, in his Relation #3, 11:

The privileges of the Vestal Virgins have been taken away from them, and what does the benefit to your sacred treasury amount to? Is it to be said that generous emperors refused what parsimonious emperors granted? Their sole glory lies in their enlistment, so to speak, in the service of chastity; but the outward expression of their priesthood is held to be freedom from ‘state-services’, very much as the bands [vittae] they wear give distinction to their heads.


Ambrose, in his letter #8:

How many virgins get the rewards promised to them? About seven Vestal virgins are accepted. Lo! that is the whole number of those attracted by fillets [vittae] and chaplets for the head, or purple-dyed robes, the pomp of a litter surrounded by a group of attendants, greatest privileges, great gains, and a set period of virginity. Let them raise the eye of the mind and of the body and see a nation of modesty, a people of purity an assembly of virginity. Fillets [vittae] are not the adornment of the head but a veil in common use, ennobled by chastity.[12]

Ambrose’s preference was to use a veil over Vestal’s traditional fillets.

Ambrose wrote to Irenaeus, letter # 78:

What shall we say of those who consider it a sign of luxury to have in their service slaves wearing curls and ornaments, while they themselves have long beards and the slaves have streaming hair? It is to be expected that chastity will be lost where the distinction of the sexes is not observed, and where nature lays down definite instruction, as the Apostle says: ‘Does it become a woman to pray to God uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear his long hair is degrading; but for a woman to wear her hair long is a glory to her? Because her hair has been given her as a covering.’ You must thus answer those who make inquiries. Farewell, and love us as a son, because we as a parent love you.[13]

Ambrose says more about the virgin, Mary, Mother of God, in three books of, De virginibus, Concerning Virgins.

Concerning Virgins, Book II. Chapter II. 6:

            Let, then, the life of Mary be as it were virginity itself, set force in a likeness,         from which, as from a mirror, the appearance of chastity and the form of virtue is            reflected.[14]

Concerning Virgins, Book II. Chap. II. 7:

            What is greater than the Mother of God? What more glorious than she whom         Glory Itself chose?[15]

[1] Mary Melchior Beyenka, Saint Ambrose Letters, (Fathers of the Church, Inc 1954), pp. 37-9

[2] Ibid, pp. 39-40

[3] Ibid, pp. 40-41

[4] Ibid, pp. 41-42

[5] Mary Melchior Beyenka, Saint Ambrose Letters, (Fathers of the Church, Inc 1954), pp. 35-36

[6] Daniel Callam, On Verginity, (Peregrina Publishing Co, 1980) pp. 12-13

[7] H. DE. Romestin, Some of the Principle Works of St. Ambrose, (Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1955)pp.365-66

[8] Ibid, p. 373

[9] Ibid, p. 372

[10] Auguste Savagner, Sextus Pompeius Festus, De La Signification Des Mots, Volume 1 (C. L. F. Panckoucke, Editeur, 1846)p. 291

[11] Auguste Savagner, Sextus Pompeius Festus, De La Signification Des Mots, Volume 2, (C. L. F. Panckoucke, Editeur, 1846). p.605

[12] Mary Melchior Beyenka, Saint Ambrose Letters, (Fathers of the Church, Inc 1954), p.42

[13] Ibid, p. 437

[14] H. DE. Romestin, Some of the Principle Works of St. Ambrose, (Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1955) p. 374

[15] Ibid,

[1] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, (Penguin Books, 1967) p. 125

[2] Ibid, p.126

[3] Donatists, See page 28