The Roman emperor Septimus Severus (193-211) in the tenth year after his power was secured against his various rivals (202) appears to have accepted the fact of some persecution (Frend 1967: 239-242), though with respect to Christians, “persecution at this time was due to private and/or local initiative” (Grant 1970: 100) in contrast to the impression given by Eusebius (H.E. VI.1). “Apart from the years 202-203, and the situation which had developed between the Christians and pagans in Carthage, the reigns of Septimus Severus and his son Caracalla (211-217) were tolerant” as recognized by Tertullian (Frend 1967: 242; cf. Grant 1970: 97-100). However, persecution was severe in Alexandria, under Quintus Maecius Laetus, prefect of Egypt, where it touched the life of an adolescent whose father, Leonides, was executed, and who, but for his mother’s hiding of his clothes, would have followed in his father’s path. That youth was the budding biblical scholar, Origen (c. 185-254), who became in spite of his tender age the director of the greatest Christian school, in Alexandria from 203 to 231. Origen subsequently spent occasional time in other locales, ending up finally at Caesarea in Palestine, though dying at Tyre in Syria in his sixty-ninth year [ J 54; NPNF 2 III (1892) 373-374; cf. Q2.1.4 pp. 37-40].
But accompanied by his principal benefactor, Ambrosius, Origen came to Rome within the decade after the death of Severus, to hear lectures given by Hippolytus (c. 155-235) “On the Praise of the Lord Our Savior.” When Origen returned to Alexandria, Ambrosius not only provided funding for secretarial staffing, including his own service in various dictational roles, but also encouraged Origen to emulate Hippolytus in the production of biblical commentaries and other works against critics of Christianity, especially those of greatest intellectual impact like Celsus (Smith 1988: 1000). Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of John, initiated at Alexandria between 226 and 229, is specifically dedicated to Ambrosius (Q2.1.4, p. 49). The treatise “On Prayer” written in 233-234 was composed in Caesarea “at the suggestion of his friend” Ambrosius. The preface to Origen’s Contra Celsum, dated about 246, not only makes clear that Ambrosius had “asked his teacher to answer” but that he was still alive.
The church historian, Eusebius (c. 260-340), bishop of Caesarea, writing less than a century later, identified Ambrosius as one who originally had “held the views of the heresy of Valentinus” but having come under the influence of Origen “gave his adhesion to the true doctrine as taught by the Church” (H.E. VI.18.1; Oulton 1927: 191). As a consequence, Ambrosius made available to Origen “more than seven shorthand-writers, who relieved each other at fixed times, and as many copyists, as well as girls skilled in penmanship” (H.E. VI.22.2; Oulton 1927: 196), so that from him came the most prodigious output of anyone in the early church. Origen’s work Exhortatio ad martyrium is addressed to Ambrosius, and Prototectos a presbyter of the community at Caesarea, for in the resumption of persecution under Maximinus Thrax (235-238), they were arrested and threatened with death (H.E. VI.28; cf. Q2.1.4, pp. 69-73; Frend 1967: 287), though Eusebius seems to suggest erroneously their death occurred at this time.
A century after Eusebius, the Latin biblical scholar, Jerome (c. 347-419), in his De viris inlustribus (“Lives of Illustrious Men”) repeats the vagueness of Ambrosius’ original background, now identifying him as a follower of Marcion “set right by Origen,” who then became a “deacon in the church” at Alexandria and ultimately “gloriously distinguished as confessor of the Lord.” Jerome specifies the aid given to Origen as “industry, funds, and perseverance” so that Origen could dictate “a great number of volumes,” and says that Ambrosius himself was of “literary talent, as his letters to Origen indicate,” though none of these survive. A letter from Origen to Julius Africanus written about 240 originated in the house of Ambrosius then at Nicomedia (Q2.1.4, p. 74). As Origen had found it necessary to leave Alexandria, so had Ambrosius moved with him (Carrington 1957: II.462). His death before that of Origen, Jerome says, was “condemned by many, in that being a man of wealth, he did not at death, remember in his will, his old and needy friend” [ J 56; NPNF 2 III (1892) 374], but no exact date can be established (perhaps c. 250, presumably under Decius, who reigned from September 249 to June 251 when he was killed in battle against the Goths, cf. Lawlor 1928: 213-214). Jerome also in his identification of Hippolytus confirms that Hippolytus was aware of “speaking in the church in the presence of Origen,” just as Jerome further affirms the correlation of Hippolytus with Origen, whom he knew had called Hippolytus his “Taskmaster.” In this context Ambrosius is again recalled as the one who “urged Origen to write, in emulation of Hippolytus, commentaries on the Scriptures” [ J 61; NPNF 2 III (1892) 375].
Clyde Curry Smith
Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):
FOTC 100 83; OEEC 28 (HCrouzel)
Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes.
Frend 1967 Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church: A Study of a Conflict from the Maccabees to Donatus, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. New York: New York University Press.
Grant 1970 Augustus to Constantine: The Thrust of the Christian Movement into the Roman World, by Robert McQueen Grant. New York, Evanston, and London: Harper and Row.
Lawlor 1928 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume II: Introduction, Notes, and Index, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor.
NPNF 2 III 1892 Jerome, De viris inlustribus, translated by Ernest Cushing Richardson, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo and New York: Christian Literature. Series 2, Volume III, pp. 359-384.
Oulton 1927 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume I: Translation, by John Ernest Leonard Oulton. (Specific references also cited as H.E. with book and chapter).
Smith 1988 “Hippolytus of Rome”, by Clyde Curry Smith. In Great Lives from History: Ancient and Medieval Series, edited by Frank Northen Magill. Pasadena: Salem Press, Inc. Volume III, pp. 999-1004.
This article, received in 2001, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.