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The travellers apparently stopped in Milan after leaving Gaul.[23] Although Severus fails to mention a Milanese visit prior to their stay in Rome, his reliability is here compromised by complicated polemical motives: by suggesting that Priscillian and his companions appealed first to the Roman and Milanese bishops and only subsequently sought the support of the secular authorities at the imperial court, he intends to contrast them favorably with their opponents, who—like members of an opposing faction in his own time—rashly involved secular judges from the start.[24] Priscillian's letter to Damasus, in contrast with Severus' account, seems to posit at least a brief sojourn in Milan prior to the Roman visit, during which the letter was presumably composed, since it makes it clear that Priscillian and his companions had already made attempts to appeal their case at the imperial court.[25] Priscillian protests to Damasus that his opponents have prejudiced the quaestor, who, "although he said the requests were fair, was slow to respond."[26] Chadwick's suggestion that the quaestor mentioned by Priscillian might be identical with the Gregory who was praetorian prefect of the Gauls in 383 is intriguing, inasmuch as this same Gregory subsequently intervened in the conflict on behalf of Ithacius.[27] Another fragment of the social networks within which this controversy played itself out seems to emerge into view here.


Whether or not they also attempted to see Ambrose during this probable first stop in Milan, Priscillian and his companions must have concluded that his support was not going to be forthcoming. The Milanese bishop had been "completely deceived" by Hydatius' story, Priscillian writes to Damasus, and indeed he seems to imply that Ambrose had been instrumental in procuring the rescript directed against Priscillian and his circle.[28] Although Ambrose never mentions Priscillian by name in his extant writings, Severus' report seems to confirm the bishop's early opposition to Priscillian, which thus appears to be a crucial factor in the unfolding of the controversy—a factor that must be contextualized, not only in terms of the extralocal networks of alliance and opposition in which the aristocratic bishop of Milan was embedded, but also in terms of the dynamics of the local Milanese community, whose pressures conditioned the bishop's relationships with other powerful men and women.[29] Fortunately, the Christian community of late-fourth-century Milan is significantly better known than that of contemporary Bordeaux, and here it is possible to discern still more clearly points of overlap or resonance between the Spanish conflict and the conflicts in the local communities visited by Priscillian and his friends. Particularly striking is the manner in which the rhetorical and topographical manipulation of public and private space shaped the ecclesiastical politics of Milan and set the terms for the reception of Priscillian by that community and its bishop.

Perceptions of the Milanese Christian community and of Ambrose's position within that community have shifted significantly as the bishop's aura of invincible authority has begun to dissipate in recent scholarship; both the strength of the anti-Nicene community and the consequent vulnerability of Ambrose's episcopacy in the late 370s and early 380s have sprung into sharp relief. Indeed, it now seems fairly clear that the first two books of Ambrose's early treatise On the Faith , probably written in the winter of 378–79, constitute an apologetic libellus responding to a pointed request that Ambrose defend himself against damaging accusations of heresy.[30] In other words, the basic rhetorical context of this work is not unlike that of Priscillian's own Apology , demanded and produced some two years later. The request for self-defense in this case came directly from the emperor Gratian, mediating opposition both from local opponents of Ambrose and from the Homoian bishops of Illyricum with whom they were allied.[31] The situation was thus structurally parallel to the one that emerged in the Meridan conflict, although Gratian took both a more cautious and a more active mediatory role in relation the bishop of Milan, a city obviously of central importance to the western emperor. Indeed, by the spring of 379, Ambrose had received a letter from Gratian indicating


his favorable receipt of the defense and inviting a further development of Ambrose's arguments on the Holy Spirit.[32]

Gratian's signal of cautious support for the Milanese bishop came as a great relief to the beleaguered Ambrose; nevertheless, little progress had been made toward the resolution of the Milanese conflict. Before Ambrose could respond to the new imperial request, he found himself again facing attacks, which necessitated extending his apologetic On the Faith with three new books, probably sent to the emperor sometime during the autumn of 380 and therefore closely contemporaneous with the Council of Saragossa.[33]

It is significant that these last three books of On the Faith , like the first two, were addressed to the emperor during a period when he was resident at Sirmium and in conversation with the Homoian bishops of Illyricum, above all Palladius of Ratiaria, author of an attack on the initial books of Ambrose's On the Faith . Given the fragile position of the Nicene community in Milan, Ambrose perceived himself to be directly threatened by any show of sympathy for the rival party. He thus employed an aggressive rhetoric, whose intent was to erode a relatively tolerant imperial religious policy. In a period of military crisis, Ambrose suggested that any openness toward the theological enemy was a sign of either a traitor's betrayal or a coward's flight: if Gratian was not with him, the bishop insinuated, he was against Christ. Conflating his Homoian opponents with the Goths advancing on Italy, Ambrose moved boldly to construct an image of Gratian as the champion of orthodoxy. "This emperor has no slippery mind, but a firmly fixed faith," he proclaims at the end of book 2, seemingly contrasting Gratian with the pro-Homoian Valens, while praising him for his steady defense of Italy against "barbarian" attack. Sometime later, Ambrose takes up the same theme in book 3, here identifying his own position as bishop with Gratian's as emperor by noting that he had written the first two books hastily, "being like one on the eve of battle," but now writes at greater length, so as not to seem to have doubted and abandoned the defense of his earlier propositions—an implied challenge to Gratian not to prove himself "slippery" after all.[34]

If Gratian's relations with the Illyrican bishops were much on Ambrose's mind between 378 and 380, this concern was, as I have suggested, fueled by tensions within the local Christian community. Although Ambrose's unexpected election to the episcopacy in 374 came to be seen as a victory for the Nicene community of Milan, which had previously suffered almost twenty years under a bishop hostile to Nicea, the strength of the anti-Nicene party in this city was far from broken; nor was Ambrose's uncompromising allegiance to the Nicene cause a foregone conclusion at


the time of his election.[35] The late 370s had brought the Homoian bishop Julian Valens from Illyricum to Milan, and through both the ordination of followers and the cementing of alliances with powerful figures like Ursinus, formerly a contender for the Roman episcopacy, Valens seems to have established a strong local network.[36] Indeed, in the period immediately following the arrival of the anti-Nicene empress Justina in late 378, the Homoian community was emboldened to request a basilica for its own use. Gratian's response was carefully neutral: "sequestering" the basilica so as to remove it from Nicene control, he may even have made it accessible to the Homoians.[37]

Access to public space has recently been identified as a highly significant factor in the Milanese conflict, which is bracketed chronologically by two attempts on the part of the Homoian party to move out of private meeting places through the acquisition of basilical space: the effort in the late 370s resulting in Gratian's ambiguous "sequestering" of the basilica, and a later attempt in 386 that ended in a more conclusive defeat for the Homoian party.[38] Indeed, Ambrose's success at solidifying his episcopal authority in Milan can literally be "mapped" upon the surface of a city that included, on the one hand, a growing number of prominent basilicas built and occupied with ever-greater confidence by the Nicene party and, on the other hand, a contrastingly privatized network of Homoian meeting places.[39] Crucial to the establishment of a strong Nicene episcopacy in Milan was Ambrose's ability not only to control access to public space but also to enhance its power of authorization through sacralizing rituals. During the conflict over the basilica in 386, for example, Ambrose is said to have introduced novel liturgical practices to the Nicene community gathered within the walls of the disputed public building, including "antiphons, hymns, and vigils."[40] Despite the previously noted parallels between Ambrose's and Priscillian's positions in relation to the emperor Gratian, these strategies of episcopal self-authorization align Ambrose rather with Hydatius and the other bishops who gathered at Saragossa in order to undercut the authority of a privately centered asceticism by constructing an alternative, more centralized congregational "discipline" that would enhance the authority of a publicly defined episcopacy.[41] As Harry Maier notes, that Ambrose "devoted so much energy to establishing orthodoxy in a public domain is an indication of the danger of an Arian community which stubbornly survived for over a decade in private space, and the degree to which sacred space was coming to function as a source of legitimation and authority in the last decades of the fourth century."[42]

The year 381 was a crucial turning point in the conflict between the Homoian and Nicene parties in Milan. In the early spring of that year,


Gratian was in Milan and finally returned the sequestered basilica to the Nicene party, thereby demonstrating, if somewhat belatedly, at least a measure of openness to Ambrose's rhetorical construction of the orthodox imperial role. With Gratian present, Ambrose now published the treatise on the Holy Spirit that the emperor had earlier requested, praising Gratian's recent, seemingly spontaneous decision to return the basilica as a sign of the working of the Spirit itself.[43] A still more significant event was the Council of Aquileia, which Gratian convoked in September of the same year, not as the balanced "general council" the emperor had originally envisioned, but rather as a local gathering packed with Ambrose's pro-Nicene allies, who moved quickly to interrogate and condemn several of the Homoian clergy of Illyricum as "Arians."[44] The deep shock and anger of the condemned Homoians is reflected in the fragments of Palladius' Apology —yet another apologetic libellus almost precisely contemporaneous with Priscillian's work.[45] While there is evidence that the Homoians continued to press Ambrose both in Milan and Illyricum, and that Gratian was still far less adamantly pro-Nicene than his bishop, the Council of Aquileia remained a significant victory for Ambrose and the pro-Nicene party of northern Italy.[46]

This brief survey of the history of Milanese Christianity in the years leading up to 381 provides some insight into the religio-political climate that shaped Ambrose's response to Priscillian. The rescript seems most easily datable to the period of Gratian's sojourn in Milan in the spring of 381 or the months immediately following, when Gratian was living in northern Italy, while Priscillian's subsequent visit to Italy must have taken place somewhat later, in 381 or perhaps 382.[47] During this same period, both Ambrose's actions and his rhetorical self-presentation suggest the bishop's dominant preoccupation with his emerging role as the western champion of an anti-Arian orthodoxy. It was a time marked for Ambrose both by optimism, in the light of Gratian's increasing willingness to support the pro-Nicene party in Milan, and by the caution of one who had to consolidate gains carefully in the face of continued opposition from the Milanese Homoians, as well as of enemies further afield, such as Palladius of Ratiaria. We can easily imagine, then, that both Ambrose's own vulnerability to charges of heresy and his self-conscious orthodoxy would have inhibited him from risking the potential embarrassment of association with a Spaniard accused of heresy. Indeed, the timing of Priscillian's visit could scarcely have been worse.

In addition, it appears unlikely that Ambrose would have recognized in Priscillian a natural ally, whatever their similar commitments to asceticism. Ambrose's perception of Priscillian was probably shaped not only


by Hydatius' report but also by rumors transmitted through Gallic colleagues like Delphinus.[48] The heresiological catalogue of Ambrose's neighbor and pro-Nicene ally Filastrius of Brescia, generally dated to the early 380s, may well reflect what was "known" locally of the Priscillianists at this point.[49] Filastrius refers to certain heretics "in the Gauls, the Spains, and Aquitaine" who reject marriage and abstain from certain foods. Not sure who these heretics are, he calls them "abstinents, so to speak" and identifies them as followers of the gnostics and the Manichaeans and proponents of the doctrine that creation is the work of the devil. Apparently uncertain whether to classify the Gallo-Hispanic ascetics as Manichaeans or to place them in a category of their own, Filastrius elsewhere mentions Manichaeans "lurking in both Spain and Gaul."[50]

As a former imperial official who used language, ritual, and architecture to articulate a distinctly public orthodoxy in direct competition with a privatized rival bishop in Milan, Ambrose would have felt little sympathy for one introduced to him as a "pseudo-bishop" and associated with the subversive privacy and alienated asceticism of the Manichaeans.[51] Indeed, to accentuate the illegitimacy of the private, partly feminized networks that supported Priscillian would have far better suited the strategies of a bishop who, when she attempted to secure basilical meeting space for the Homoian Christians and their bishop, was later to compare a female patron—the empress Justina herself—to Jezebel and Herodias; "those temptations are more severe that arise through women," remarked Ambrose.[52]

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