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E05211: Ambrose of Milan, writing in Latin in Milan (northern Italy) in c.386, in his Letter 77 narrates the discovery of the relics of *Gervasius and Protasius (martyrs of Milan, S00313) and their subsequent translation to the Basilica Ambrosiana in Milan.

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posted on 2018-03-18, 00:00 authored by frances
Ambrose of Milan, Letter 77

Ambrose addresses this letter to his sister. When he came to dedicate the newly built basilica in Milan, he was asked to ‘consecrate this as you did the Roman basilica' (sicut in Romana basilicam dedices). He said he would if he found the relics of martyrs (1). Motivated by a prophetic inspiration, he bade the clergy to clear earth from before the chancel screen at the shrine of *Nabor and Felix (soldiers and martyrs, buried in Milan, S00609) at it was apparent they were at a holy burial place (2).

Inveni signa convenientia; adhibitis etiam quibus per nos manus imponenda foret sic sancti martyres imminere coeperunt ut adhuc nobis silentibus arriperetur una et sterneretur prona ad locum sancti sepulchri. Invenimus mirae magnitudinis viros duos ut prisca aetas ferebat. Ossa omnia integra, sanguinis plurimum. Ingens concursus populi per totum illud biduum. Quid multa? Condivimus integra ad ordinem, transtulimus vespere iam incumbente ad basilicam Faustae; ibi vigiliae tota nocte, manus impositio. Sequenti die transtulimus ea in basilicam quam appellant Ambrosianam. Dum transferimus caecus sanatus est.

‘I found promising signs. When some persons were brought up on whom I was to perform the laying on of hands, the martyrs began to make their presence felt to such effect that instantly, without a word from me, a woman was seized and flung headlong towards the site of the tomb. We found two men of amazing stature, such as were produced in the old days. All the bones were intact. There was abundance of blood. There was a great thronging together of people throughout that two-day period. To be brief: we tidied up the remains, taking care to leave them intact and as evening was falling transferred them to the basilica of Fausta. All night there was a vigil and laying on of hands. On the following day we transferred the relics to the basilica which is known as the Ambrosian. During the transfer a blind man was healed.’

Ambrose then gives the text of a sermon he preached at the deposition of the relics. He states that the discovery of the relics is a sign of God’s favour (3-4), affirms the sanctity of the martyrs (5-7), and identifies the martyrs as Gervasius and Protasius (7). The fact that the skeletons survived whole, and are accompanied by a profusion of blood, marks these men out as martyrs. They will be buried in the spot beneath the altar previously reserved for Ambrose himself (12-13):

Eruuntur nobiles reliquiae e sepulchro ignobili, ostenduntur caelo tropaea. Sanguine tumulus madet, apparent cruoris triumphalis notae, inviolatae reliquiae loco suo et ordine repertae, avulsum humeris caput. Nunc senes repetunt audisse se aliquando horum martyrum nomina titulumque legisse. Perdiderat civitas suos martyres quae rapuit alienos. Etsi hoc dei munus est, tamen gratiam quam temporibus sacerdotii mei dominus Iesus tribuit negare non possum; quia ipse martyr esse non mereor hos vobis martyres acquisivi.
Succedant victimae triumphales in locum ubi Christus est hostia. Sed ille super altare qui pro omnibus passus est, isti sub altari qui illius redempti sunt passione. Hunc ego locum praedestinaveram mihi, dignum est enim ut ibi requiescat sacerdos ubi offerre consuevit; sed cedo sacris victimis dexteram portionem: locus iste martyribus debebatur. Condamus ergo reliquias sacrosanctas et dignis sedibus invehamus totum que diem fida devotione celebremus".
‘The glorious relics are dug out of an inglorious tomb, the trophies are exhibited to heaven. The burial is moist with blood. The marks of the triumphant blood appear, the relics are found in their proper place and arrangement, the heads torn from the shoulders. Now old men relate that they had sometime or other heard the names of these martyrs, and read their inscriptions. The city which stole the martyrs of others had lost its own. Although this is a gift of God, I cannot deny the act of grace which the Lord Jesus conferred on the times of my episcopacy; because I do not deserve to be a martyr, I have acquired these martyrs for you.

Let the triumphant victims take their place where Christ himself is the sacrifice, but he above the altar, since he has suffered for all, they below it since they have been redeemed by his suffering. In fact I had designed this place for myself, for it is right that a priest should repose where he was wont to make his offering. But I yield the right-hand site to the holy victims. That place was owed to the martyrs. Let us therefore bury the sacred relics, and carry them to a resting place worthy of them, and let us celebrate the whole day with loyal devotion.’

Ambrose states that the congregation demanded that the deposition of the martyrs be postponed until the Lord’s Day, but it was agreed it would take place the next day. He gives the text of the sermon he preached at the deposition. Here, he deals with the doubt of the Arians, comparing them to the Jews who denied that Christ was the son of God (16-17).

Et nunc audistis clamantes daemones et confitentes martyribus quod poenas ferre non possent et dicentes: "Quid venistis ut nos tam graviter torqueatis?" Et Arriani dicunt: "Non isti martyres nec torquere diabolum possunt nec aliquem liberare", cum tormenta daemonum ipsorum voce prodantur et beneficia martyrum remediis sanatorum et absolutorum indiciis declarentur.

Negant caecum illuminatum, sed ille non negat se sanatum. Ille dicit: "Video qui non videbam", ille dicit: "Caecus esse desivi" et probat facto. Isti beneficium negant qui factum negare non possunt. Notus homo est, publicis cum valeret mancipatus obsequiis, Severus nomine, lanius ministerio; deposuerat officium postquam inciderat impedimentum. Vocat ad testimonium homines quorum ante sustentabatur obsequiis, eos indices suae visitationis arcessit quos habebat testes et arbitros caecitatis. Clamat quia ut contigit fimbriam de veste martyrum qua sacrae reliquiae vestiuntur redditum sibi lumen sit.

‘And even now you have heard the evil spirits shouting and confessing to the martyrs that they were unable to bear the punishment, and saying: ‘Why have you come to torture us so severely?’ And the Arians say: ‘Those people are not martyrs, neither can they torture the devil, nor set anyone free’, although the torments of the evil spirits are made known by their own voices, and the benefits of the martyrs are declared by cures of those healed, and the testimonies of those set free.

They deny that the blind man has been given back his sight, but he does not deny that he has been healed. He says: ‘I see, who used not to see’, he says: ‘I have ceased to be blind’, and he proves it by his action. They who cannot deny the action, deny the benefit. The man is well known. When he was well he was obligated to public duties. Severus was his name, a butcher by trade. He had given up his occupation after the disability had befallen him. He calls in evidence the men by whose dutiful assistance he had previously been supported. He summons as witnesses of his recovered sight the same men whom he had to give evidence and testimony of his blindness. He shouts that as soon as he touched the fringe of a garment of the martyrs with which the sacred relics were covered, light was restored to him.’

Ambrose continues by describing how the evil spirits tormented by the martyrs provide evidence of their genuine nature (20-22). Yet even more persuasive than this is the testimony of those who have been cleansed (absoluti) by the martyrs and the blood present at the tomb.

Text: Zelzer 1982. Translation: Liebeschuetz 2005.
Summary: Frances Trzeciak.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Gervasius and Protasius, martyrs of Milan : S00313 Nabor and Felix, martyrs in Lodi, ob. c. 303-305 : S00609

Saint Name in Source

Gervasius, Protasius Felix, Nabor

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 - Places

Martyr shrine (martyrion, bet sāhedwātā, etc.)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Scepticism/rejection of specific relics

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle after death Healing diseases and disabilities Saint aiding or preventing the translation of relics Exorcism

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Other lay individuals/ people Heretics Demons

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - entire body Bodily relic - blood Discovering, finding, invention and gathering of relics Transfer, translation and deposition of relics Touching and kissing relics


Letter 77 of the letter collection of Ambrose of Milan. This letter was addressed to his sister. 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 was written soon after the events it describes, which took place in summer of 386. The events of this letter can only be understood in the context of the conflict between Nicene and Homoian/Arian Christians in Milan in the later fourth century. This conflict came to a head in 385 and 386 when Ambrose refused to allow the Homoian imperial household the use of any of Milan’s churches. In 385 Ambrose was asked to hand over a Milanese basilica, the Basilica Portiana, for the emperor's use. Since the imperial family subscribed to the Arian/ Homoian creed, Ambrose refused. His church was surrounded by soldiers and he came under pressure to leave Milan. This conflict bubbled on into the following year. A law, which allowed freedom of assembly for Homoians, was passed and Ambrose was summoned to debate with Auxentius, Ambrose's Homoian predecessor as bishop of Milan. Ambrose refused and preached Contra Auxentium, which described the conflict of the previous year (see E05208). The imperial court then demanded another Milanese basilica - the Basilica Nova - as well as the Basilica Portiana to use to celebrate Easter in 386. Again, Ambrose refused and received support from the people of Milan who occupied the Basilica Portiana and kidnapped and Homoian priest. A tense week followed as Nicene Christians loyal to Ambrose occupied the besieged Basilica Nova. Troops surrounded this church and the Basilica Vetus, in which Ambrose celebrated mass. Punitive measures were enacted against Ambrose’s prominent supporters, who were fined and imprisoned. By the end of Holy Week, the imperial court rescinded any demands to the basilicas and withdrew all troops. The discovery of the relics of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius in June 386 – and the triumphant ceremony which accompanied their translation and deposition in the newly built Basilica Ambrosiana in Milan – is often seen as the closing act of this conflict which finally secured Ambrose’s victory. Indeed, in the sermon given at the end of the letter, Ambrose tackled Arian doubt in the martyrs’ legitimacy head on. He marshalled witnesses to the miracles effected by the relics. The discovery of the relics was a sign of God’s favour and the veracity of the Nicene position. Scholars have disagreed over the severity of this conflict between Nicene and Homoian Christians in Milan. For some – for example Neil McLynn and Daniel Williams – this struggle was very real and Nicene success was never a foregone conclusion. According to this reading, the discovery of Gervasius and Protasius' relics was a decisive and triumphant final act. Others - for example Michael Willliams – do not view the conflict in such terms. He argues that Milanese Homoian Christians were not as coherent or threatening as Ambrose's writings implied. Instead, Ambrose invented this conflict in order to shore up his own authority and cast all and any challengers as heretics. In this view, the discovery of the relics was a piece of power play, but not one which was challenged in any meaningful way by the Homoian Christians.


At the beginning of the letter, Ambrose refers to the consecration of the Basilica Romana. Here he had deposited in the altar relics of apostles, imported from Rome, as there were no available local martyrs. The discovery of the relics of Gervasius and Protasius changed this. This case is a striking early example of elite involvement in and manipulation of the cult of martyrs. Indeed, Felice Lifshitz argued that this elite involvement was an appropriation of the predominantly female interaction with the tombs of martyrs. Indeed, Augustine described how his mother eagerly feasted at the tombs of martyrs in Milan before being reprimanded by Ambrose (see Confessions 6.2). The reference to Ambrose’s own burial place (13) is also interesting. It suggests that he was laying the groundwork for his own cult as he constructed the basilica in 385 and 386. The fact that he faced threats from the imperial court at this time was not coincidental. He had effectively created his own martyrium, around which devotion to his memory and opposition to the imperial court could coalesce. This was a challenge to the court which made any attack on Ambrose very dangerous indeed. The discovery of these relics is also the topic of a hymn, probably composed by Ambrose. See E05215.


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). Kaufman, P.I., "Diehard Homoians and the Election of Ambrose," Journal of Early Christian Studies 5:3 (1997), 421-440, with responses from Daniel Williams and Neil McLynn, ibid. 441-450. Lifshitz, F., "The martyr, the tomb and the matron: Constructing the (masculine) "Past" as a female power base," in: G. Althoff, J. Fried, and P. Geary (eds.), Medieval Concepts of the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 311-341. 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. Spieser, J.-M., "Ambrose’s Foundations and the Question of Martyria," in: idem (ed.), Urban and Religious Spaces in Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 1-12. Williams, D., Ambrose of Milan and the End of the Arian-Nicene Conflicts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). Williams, M., The Politics of Heresy in Ambrose of Milan: Community and Consensus in Late Antique Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

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