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«Virginity Discourse and Ascetic Politics in the Writings of Ambrose of Milan by Ariel Bybee Laughton Department of Religion Duke University Date:_ ...»

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Virginity Discourse and Ascetic Politics in the Writings of Ambrose of Milan


Ariel Bybee Laughton

Department of Religion

Duke University




Dr. Elizabeth A. Clark, Supervisor


Dr. Lucas Van Rompay


Dr. J. Warren Smith


Dr. J. Clare Woods


Dr. Zlatko Pleše Dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Religion in the Graduate School of Duke University ABSTRACT Virginity Discourse and Ascetic Politics in the Writings of Ambrose of Milan by Ariel Bybee Laughton Department of Religion Duke University Date:_______________________



Dr. Elizabeth A. Clark, Supervisor ___________________________

Dr. Lucas Van Rompay ___________________________

Dr. J. Warren Smith ___________________________

Dr. J. Clare Woods ___________________________

Dr. Zlatko Pleše An


of a dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Religion in the Graduate School of Duke University Copyright by Ariel Bybee Laughton ABSTRACT Ambrose, bishop of Milan, was one of the most outspoken advocates of Christian female virginity in the fourth century C.E. This dissertation examines his writings on virginity in the interest of illuminating the historical and social contexts of his teachings.

Considering Ambrose’s treatises on virginity as literary productions with social, political, and theological functions in Milanese society, I look at the various ways in which the bishop of Milan formulated ascetic discourse in response tothe needs and expectations of his audience. Furthermore, I attend to the various discontinuities in Ambrose’s ascetic writings in the hope of illuminating what kinds of ideological work these texts were intended to perform by the bishop within Milanese society and beyond.

In the first part of this dissertation, I consider the mechanisms of language and rhetoric promoting virginity in context of the Nicene-Homoian debate, highlighting the fluidity and flexibility of ascetic language in the late fourth century. While in his earliest teachings Ambrose expounds virginity in ways that reflect and support a Nicene understanding of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, his later ascetic writings display his use of anti-Homoian rhetoric in order to support his virginal ideals when they are challenged by Jovinian and others. In the second part, I examine some of the various ways in which the bishop formulated his teachings of virginity in response to the complaints and criticisms of lay members of the Christian community in Milan and elsewhere. I scrutinize the bishop’s rhetorical expositions of Biblical figures such as Mary, Eve, the bride of the Song of Songs, and the Jews as a means of furthering his ascetic agenda, and consider his adaptation of a female voice to avoid incurring further

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in the so-called Altar of Victory controversy of 384. Largely at stake in Ambrose’s dispute with the Roman senator Symmachus, I argue, were the rights and privileges of the Vestal Virgins, a well-established pagan ideology of virginity whose continued prominence and existence was largely unconscionable to the bishop. Ambrose’s involvement in the controversy was partly attributable to his interest in ensuring the restriction of Vestal privileges as he perceived the cult to be in direct social and ideological competition with Christian virginity. Together, these three parts attempt to demonstrate the highly fluid and flexible nature of virginity discourse in the late fourth century and to draw attention to some of the socio-theological negotiations that took place as the cult of virginity gained increasing prominence in the Christian church.

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Introduction: The Gift of Bees

1. Virginity and Post-Nicene Controversy: Against the Heretics..................15

2. Negotiating Virginity in Milan, Part I:

De virginibus and De virginitate

3. Negotiating Virginity in Milan, Part II:

De institutione virginis and Exhortatio virginitatis

4. The Veil and the Fillet: Virginity against the Pagans




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In the years that I have been a graduate student, I have had the opportunity sit at the feet of many fine scholars of early Christian history. The most influential of these upon my studies has been Elizabeth Clark, to whom I owe the greatest thanks. As a young undergraduate, my interest in female ascetics in early Christianity first was sparked when I stumbled across a copy of Liz’s Ascetic Piety and Women’s Faith. Her ongoing passion for Late Antiquity, and her special concern for the “vanished” women of the past, has continued to fuel my own interests throughout the course of my studies.

This dissertation would have never been undertaken, much less completed, without Liz’s concerned mentorship, her constant support, and her unfailing good faith that I could do it.

I would also like to thank the other members of my dissertation committee for their many critical contributions to this project and to my Duke education in general. I owe much of my enthusiasm for Ambrose of Milan to Warren Smith, who has generously nurtured my own interests in this area with his own significant knowledge of the bishop’s writings. Luk Van Rompay has made many helpful suggestions to my drafts and patiently provided guidance on my Latin translations. Zlatko Pleše and Clare Woods have each shared their significant knowledge of both antiquity and ancient languages with me on several occasions.

I also have benefitted greatly from the collegiality and friendship of several young scholars and scholars-in-the-making during my time at Duke. Susanna Drake, Kyle Smith, Christie Luckritz Marquis, Maria Doerfler, Matthew Grey, Jared Anderson, Jason

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others have offered support, feedback, and inspiration along the way.

I wish to extend special thanks to April DeConick and the faculty and staff of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University who generously extended to me a Visiting Scholar appointment from 2008 to 2010. It would have been impossible for me to complete this dissertation without the access this appointment provided me with to Rice’s significant research resources.

In addition to the great academic support I have benefitted from while writing this dissertation, I have been lucky enough to enjoy tremendous personal support from wonderful friends and family. While it would be impossible to name each of these here, there are a few who cannot go without mentioning. One of these is my mother, JoAnn Jensen Moulton, who has supported me with the greatest enthusiasm and love for the past thirty-three years. Another is my daughter Charlotte Lily, whose birth near the beginning of this project has presented both challenges and opportunities for great personal growth.

I have regularly received the encouragment of her tiny fists pounding on my office door, reminding me to focus and work hard so that I might come out and play later.

Last but never least, my husband Adam has been an inexhaustible source of support, strength, and understanding for me during the past five years. While busy with his own studies at law school and then the demands of his career, he has followed me to conferences, proofread my research papers, attended lectures on ancient studies, and listened to me fret over preliminary exams, presentations, and chapters. For his unfailing love and great sacrifices on my behalf, I wish to dedicate this dissertation to him.

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From birth, it seems, Ambrose of Milan was destined to be teacher par excellence of Christian virginity. In his history of the bishop’s life, Paulinus of Milan recounts a miraculous encounter between the infant Ambrose and a swarm of bees which bore record early on that it would be so. As the baby lay in his cradle in the courtyard of his father’s house, a cloud of bees suddenly approached, covering his face and flying in and out of his mouth as his parents watched nearby. The bees did no harm but were merely “implanting the honey-combs of his later works, which would proclaim the heavenly gifts and direct the minds of men from earthly to heavenly things.” From this event, Ambrose’s father predicted that his son would be something great.1 Paulinus likely borrowed this miraculous event from the famous vitae of other esteemed men of the ancient world in order to enhance the prestige of the bishop of Milan. According to their biographers, Plato and Sophocles had both been alighted upon by bees while yet in their cradles.2 Yet Paulinus also may have had in mind Ambrose’s

particular praise of the bees in his De virginibus many years earlier:

Let, then, your work be as it were a honeycomb, for virginity is fit to be compared to bees, so laborious is it, so modest, so continent. The bee feeds on dew, it knows no marriage couch, it makes honey. The virgin’s dew is the divine word, for the words of God descend like the dew. The virgin’s modesty is an unstained nature. The virgin’s produce is the fruit of the lips, without bitterness, Paulinus of Milan, Vita Ambrosii 2.3 (in Michele Pellegrino, ed., Paolino: Vita di S. Ambrogio [Verba Seniorum 1] (Rome: Editrice Studium, 1961), 53-54).

See Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, A Dictionary of Miracles: Imitative, Realistic, and Dogmatic (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1894), 368-369. Brewer notes that a similar event is included in the seventhcentury life of Isidore of Seville.

abounding in sweetness. They work in common, and their fruit is in common.

How I wish you, my daughter, to be an imitator of these bees, whose food is the flower, whose offspring is collected and brought together by the mouth.3 For writers of the ancient world such as Ambrose and Paulinus, the bee symbolized not only eloquence and pedagogical skill but also the model ascetic life.

Modest, industrious, virginal, and living communally, the bee represented an ideal to which each Christian virgin should aspire. In his account of the chaste bees alighting upon the mouth of the infant Ambrose, Paulinus may have envisioned their bestowal of the honey of the sweet and heavenly teachings of the virginity that the bees modeled in both body and practice. After all, few in the fourth century had preached the ascetic life with more eloquence, dedication, and urgency than the bishop of Milan.

From the time of his ordination in 374 until his death in 397, Ambrose’s dedication to the ascetic cause, and its particular perpetuation among Christian women, was unwavering. The first official treatise of his career as bishop, De virginibus (377), was dedicated exclusively to the praise of female virgins with the hope of recruiting other Christian women to the ascetic life. Three subsequent treatises in his corpus, De virginitate (378), De institutione virginis (392), and Exhortatio virginitatis (394), continued this initial project in various ways, always with attention to the exaltation and Ambrose, De virg. 1.8.40-41 (Gori, I, 140): Fauum itaque mellis tua opera componant: digna enim uirginitas quae apibus comparetur, sic laboriosa, sic pudica, sic continens. Rore pascitur apis, nescit concubitus, mella componit. Ros quoque uirgini est sermon diuinus, quia sicut ros dei uerba descendunt.

Pudor virginis est intemerata natura. Partus uirginis fetus est labiorum expers amaritudinis, fertilis suauitatis. In commune labor, communis est fructus. Quam te uelim, filia, imitatricem esse huius apiculae, cui cibus flos est, ore suboles legitur, ore componitur.

Perhaps Ambrose was influenced by Virgil here not only in his assertion of the chastity of both bees and virgins but in their production of their fruits with their mouths: “Most you shall marvel at this habit peculiar to bees—That they have no sexual union: their bodies never dissolve lax into love, nor bear with pangs the birth of their young. But all by themselves from leaves and sweet herbs they will gather their children in their mouths, keep up the kingly succession and the birthrate, restore the halls and the realms of wax.” (Virgil, Georgics, 4.97-202).

promotion of female virginity. His letters are also liberally infused with this ascetic agenda. To bishops, congregations, and emperors, Ambrose defended virginity’s superior blessedness and the special privileges of Christian virgins.4 Among these, his letters to the emperor Valentinian II in 383 against the pagan senator Symmachus (Ep.

72-73) are especially remarkable for their outspoken assertion of the Christian virgin’s superiority to all pagan practitioners of virginity. Throughout Ambrose’s career, the bishop promoted female asceticism to the highborn and lowly, the rich and the poor, the Christian and pagan alike.

Reared in Rome by his widowed Christian mother and his elder sister Marcellina, a consecrated virgin, Ambrose’s investment in the ascetic cause was probably personal in some respects. Marcellina’s auspicious veiling ceremony, performed by the bishop of Rome Liberius on Christmas Day, and her acts of ascetic discipline would long remain with Ambrose and would shape his own perceptions of virginity for years to come.5 At the same time, Ambrose may have perceived in the promotion of virginity an avenue to political, social, and theological ascendancy. While women’s asceticism was the subject and focus of much of his ascetic writing, women were by no means Ambrose’s only, or perhaps even primary, audience. The works of Christian thinkers and writers such as Jerome, Zeno of Verona, and Augustine of Hippo demonstrate their familiarity with, and The most important of these include Ep. 72, 73, 56, 57 and Ep. extra coll. 14, 15. All numbering of Ambrose’s letters refers to the CSEL edition [CSEL 82.1-4].

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