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E05207: Ambrose of Milan, writing in Latin in Milan (northern Italy) in c.388/9, in his Letter 74 describes monks celebrating the feast of the *Maccabean martyrs (pre-Christian Jewish martyrs of Antioch, S00303), in the hinterland of Antioch (northern Syria). They were interrupted by a Gnostic group and attacked the Gnostic place of worship in retribution.

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posted on 2018-03-18, 00:00 authored by frances
Ambrose of Milan Letter 74.16

Vindicabitur etiam Valentinianorum fanum incensum? ... Nam et de ipsis comperi relatum et praeceptum, ut in monachos vindicaretur qui prohibentibus iter Valentinianis quo psalmos canentes ex consuetudine usu que veteri pergebant ad celebritatem Machabaeorum martyrum moti insolentia incenderunt fanum eorum in quodam rurali vico tumultuarie conditum.

‘Will punishment be exacted also for the burning of a temple of the Valentinians? ... For when the Valentinians blocked the route along which the monks were advancing in procession to the festival of the Maccabean martyrs, chanting psalms, as was their ancient practice and custom, the monks were angered by such insolence, and set fire to a Valentinian shrine which had been hastily constructed in some country village.’

Text: Zelzer 1982. Translation: Liebeschuetz 2005.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Maccabean Martyrs, pre-Christian Jewish martyrs of Antioch : S00303

Saint Name in Source

Machabei martyres

Type of Evidence

Literary - Letters


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Italy north of Rome with Corsica and Sardinia

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Milan Sardinia Sardinia Sardegna Sardinia

Major author/Major anonymous work

Ambrose of Milan

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Procession

Cult activities - Festivals

  • Saint’s feast

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Monarchs and their family Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits Heretics


Letter 74 of the letter collection of Ambrose of Milan. This letter was addressed to the emperor Theodosius. Ambrose’s letters have been transmitted in ten books, but scholars disagree over whether this was a decision made by Ambrose or by a later editor. This letter dates from c. 388/9. The letter is preserved in the Maurist collection as Letter 40. See Patrologia Latina, vol. 16, 855D-867B for a discussion of this alternative order, which is based on the date of composition rather than the order of letters in the manuscript tradition.


Ambrose wrote this letter to intervene in a specific case. The Jewish synagogue at Callinicum in Mesopotamia was destroyed by a gang of Christians. Theodosius had ordered that the synagogue should be rebuilt at the expense of the local bishop. Ambrose intervened, claiming that this would contravene a bishop’s duty to not support non-Christian worship. Specifically, he discusses the danger of making a martyr of the bishop if he were to refuse this order. After Theodosius had relented over forcing the bishop to fund the new synagogue in Callinicum, Ambrose edited and reissued this letter, demanding that the Christians who burned the synagogue should not be punished. As part of this argument, in both letters, Ambrose refers to a separate case, which is the subject of the passage given here. A group of monks attacked a Gnostic chapel (referred to as a 'temple of the Valentinians' in the letter) in the hinterland of Antioch, Syria, as they celebrated the feast of the Maccabean martyrs. Ambrose argues that these monks should not be punished.


Edition: Zelzer, M., Sancti Ambrosii Opera: Epistulae et Acta (Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 82.3; Vienna: Hoelder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1982). Translation: Liebeschuetz, J. H. W. G., Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches (Translated Texts for Historians 43; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005). Further Reading: Canellis, A. (ed.), La correspondance d’Ambroise de Milan (Saint-Étienne: Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, 2012). McLynn, N., Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Nauroy, G., "The Letter Collection of Ambrose of Milan," in: C. Sogno, B. Storin and E. Watts (eds)., Late Antique Letter Collections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 146-156.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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