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E05285: Ambrose of Milan, writing in Latin in Milan (northern Italy) in the later 380s, praises the virtues of *Laurence (deacon and martyr of Rome, S00037), the *Maccabean martyrs (pre-Christian Jewish martyrs of Antioch, S00303), the Holy *Innocents (children killed at the order of Herod, S00268) and *Agnes (virgin and martyr of Rome, S00097) in his De Officiis, a tract on the virtues expected of the clergy.

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posted on 2018-04-04, 00:00 authored by dlambert
Ambrose of Milan, De Officiis 1.41


Ambrose discusses the importance of fortitude for members of the clergy. He opens with a description of the glorious death of Judas Maccabaeus, in battle. When facing 20,000 men in battle with an army of only 900, he fought all day and was fatally wounded when pursuing those fleeing from the battle. His brother Jonathan also managed to drive back a much larger force with a small number of troops. The suffering of the Maccabean martyrs is, according to Ambrose, even greater than the fortitude of their leaders in battle. They stood, surrounded by the forces of the king and faced tortures. One had the skin of his head pulled off, and one offered his tongue to be cut out. The mother of the martyrs looked with joy at the corpses of her children. Ambrose then praises the children killed in Bethlehem and Agnes, who remained chaste until death.

A longer account of Laurence’s martyrdom is then provided. Laurence witnesses the martyrdom of *Xystus/Sixtus II (bishop and martyr of Rome, S00201), and laments his death; Sixtus assures him that he will soon follow him in martyrdom. This duly happens: after three days he is placed on a grate and burned. He mocked his executioner as he did so, telling him that: ‘the flesh is cooked, turn it and eat' (Assum est, inquit, uersa et manduca).

Ambrose of Milan, De Officiis 2.28

Ambrose considers how the riches of the church ought to be used. He recounts the acts which led to Laurence’s martyrdom. Laurence was commanded to gather together the riches of the church. He brought the poor together and, when asked why, stated that: ‘these are the treasures of the church' (Hi sunt thesauri Ecclesiae). In this Laurence was right because he spent gold on the poor rather than keeping it for his persecutors. As a result, he received the crown of martyrdom.

Summary: Frances Trzeciak.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Laurence/Laurentius, deacon and martyr of Rome : S00037 Agnes, virgin and martyr of Rome : S00097 Innocents, children killed on the orders of Herod : S00268 Maccabean Martyrs, pre-Christian Jewish martyrs of Antioch : S00303

Saint Name in Source

Laurentius Agnes Bimuli Machabaei pueri

Type of Evidence

Literary - Theological works


  • 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 - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Composing and translating saint-related texts

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops Ecclesiastics - lesser clergy


A treatise on the duties of the clergy, composed by Ambrose of Milan in the later 380s. It is based on Cicero’s treatise De Officiis and outlines the virtues expected of members of the clergy. These virtues are split into three groups: what is honourable (decorum); what is expedient (utile); and what is both honourable and expedient. Each group is considered in a separate book. Ambrose closes his first book – the consideration of virtues which are honourable – with a discussion of the cardinal virtues – Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. The martyrs are used as examples of the third virtue, Fortitude. The second book – on the virtues which are expedient – focuses more heavily on practical concerns. Thus, Laurence is referred to in a discussion of how the wealth of the church should be treated.


This is one of the earliest surviving narratives of Laurence’s martyrdom. It includes many of the same details as two slightly later accounts: Prudentius’ hymn on the same martyr composed around 400 (E00782) and the Martyrdom composed in Rome probably in the fifth century (see E02513). A similar narrative can be found in a hymn, probably composed in the later 380s or 390s by Ambrose, in honour of Laurence (E05216). In particular, Ambrose includes a reference to a joke Laurence reportedly made shortly before his death, as he told the executioner that he was cooked and could be turned over to be eaten. The same joke appears in Prudentius' hymn and Laurence's Martyrdom. It is not clear where Ambrose heard or read this detail, but it seems likely all three works drew on some common source. The devotion of Ambrose and his family to this martyr can be noted elsewhere: Ambrose describes how his brother was briefly restored to health after praying to Laurence, probably in Rome, on a journey back to Milan; see E05147.


Edition and translation: Davidson, I., Ambrose: De Officiis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Further Reading: Dunkle, B., "Appendix," in: Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). McLynn, N., Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). 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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