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Aerterne rerum conditor

Arianism cast a shadow over Ambrose’s episcopate from the beginning. He inherited

a diocese divided enough that the Christians there were willing to accept an unbaptized

governmental official in the hope of some form of neutrality. But Ambrose was firmly

Nicene in his faith—he began his episcopate with the reception of the sacraments from a

Nicene bishop.1 Like the founder of the Arian sect,2 Ambrose composed poetry didactically;

he catechized his people in orthodox Christian thought by his verses.

In this paper I will take one of Ambrose’s hymns, the Aeterne rerum conditor, and

elucidate the text stanza by stanza. I will return as a point of focus to the relation of the

poem to Ambrose’s aforementioned struggles with Arianism.

Aeterne rerum conditor,


noctem diemque qui regis,
et temporum das tempora,
ut alleves fastidium;

Eternal founder of all things,


Who rule night and day
And gives times of times
So that you might alleviate loathing

So begins Ambrose’s aeterne rerum conditor. As den Boef notes, this poem is about

time.3 In this vein, then, it is fitting that the very first word of the poem is “aeterne”—God,

1 Biographical details from Hans von Campenhausen The Fathers of the Latin Church. Adam & Charles Black:
London 1964
2 Lyman, J. Rebecca. "Arius and Arianism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Donald M. Borchert. 2nd ed. Vol. 1.

Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. 282-284. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.
3
Jan den Boeft, “Aeterne Rerum Conditor: Ambrose’s Poem about ‘Time’”. From Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome;
Studies in Ancient Cultural Interactions in Honour of A. Hilhorst. Leiden 2003, 27-28
since he is outside of time, can found all things within time. In the time of Ambrose, the

participation of the different members of the Trinity in eternality stood at the center of the

Arian controversy; the Arians believed that time existed before the Son.4 While previous

Christian authors denied the divinity of the Son in varying degrees (e.g. Origen), even they

did not believe “that the Logos had a beginning of existence.”5 Thus the theological position

of the Arians stemmed from the fact that the Son was not eternal; and because of this

Ambrose’s incipit already has a certain theological weight. Even if the reference is to the

Father (though it may refer to the Son—Augustine writes “ipsam religionem Christianam,

ipsam ciuitatem Dei, cuius rex est et conditor Christus”6), the verbal baggage exists.

Den Boef remarks that “temporum das tempora” likely refers to the division of time

into hours, days, etc., which follows Prudentius’ Cathmerinon 5:2 “qui certis vicibus

tempora dividis”.7 Pranger mentions this, but adds that the polyptoton may also express a

certain repetition (time being cyclic, in “nights and days”), which is reinforced by fastidium

(which Pranger understands as “boredom”).8

Stylistically the first line alliterates with “r”, and there is the aforementioned

polyptoton (for which Pranger calls Ambrose “the master of polyptoton).9

Praeco diei iam sonat,


noctis profundae pervigil,
nocturna lux viantibus

4
De Clercq, V. C. "Arianism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 660-664. Gale
Virtual Reference Library. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.
5
Ibid.
6
Civ. Dei 17.4
7
Jan den Boeft 2003 27-28
8
Pranger, M. “Time and the Integrity of Poetry: Ambrose and Augustine.” Poetry and Exegesis in Premodern Latin
Christianity. Pg. 51
9
Ibid. 55
a nocte noctem segregans

The herald of the day sounds,


Sleepless through deep night,
A nocturnal light to travellers
Separating night from night.

As den Boef comments, “The rest of the poem focuses on daybreak, the very first sign

of which is gallicinium, depicted in these four words: Praeco diei iam sonat ‘The herald of

day’, who makes himself heard, is Ambrose’s own creation. That is a different perception

from the familiar sound of the cock’s crow.”10

This stanza focuses on night—a form of nox occurs four times. Pranger cites Civ. Dei

XI.7, where Augustine expresses his own anxieties about the night.11 Augustine writes,

“Denique scriptura cum illos dies dinumeraret ex ordine, nusquam interposuit uocabulum

noctis. Non enim ait alicubi: Facta est nox; sed: Facta est uespera et factum est mane dies

unus. Ita dies secundus et ceteri.”12 (And so the scripture, when it demarcates those days

from the order, never uses interpolates a vocabulary of night. For it does not sometimes say,

“night was made”, but “evening was made” and “morning was made, the first day.” Thus

also the second day and the others.)

If Ambrose is here alluding to Genesis, where God divides light from darkness, then “a

nocte noctem” is a striking departure. It may allude to the re-creation of all things through

the Son, who is “a light shining in the darkness”13 as John writes in the opening of his gospel,

10 den Boef, Jan, 2008 “Delight and Imagination: Ambrose’s Hymns” Vigiliae Christianae, 62, 5, 425-440(16)
11 Pranger 55
12 de Civ. Dei XI.7. Cf. Gen. I
13 Jn. 1:5
which imitates the opening of Genesis. It also fits in with the first stanza, since God “rules

night and day.” As it relates to the Trinitarian themes in Ambrose, if by the Johannine

reference the preaco is Christ, then Christ participates in the Conditor’s ruling of the night

and day—he can separate nights from each other, and is himself light.

The themes of light and darkness also appear in Ambrose’s Grates tibi, Iesu. In that

work Ambrose makes a parallel between the light/dark dichotomy and sight/blindness14:

“caecus receptor lumine” & “lumen refulsit illico/fugitque pulsa caecitas.” The connection

of darkness/blindness is thus in Ambrose’s poetic imagination; in aeterne rerum conditor,

the light guides the journeyer, who would be blind in his way otherwise.

Hoc excitatus lucifer


solvit polum caligine,
hoc omnis errorum chorus
vias nocendi deserit.

By him the light-bearer, woken up,


Loosens heaven from darkness,
By this each chorus of the errant
Forsakes the ways of harming.

O’Daly suggests that the “chorus of the errant” are connected with “lapsis” of the 6th

stanza, and that these may refer to the Arians.15

“Caligo” is an unusual word for darkness/mist. Its first hit in the Vulgate is Genesis

15:7: a dark mist appears when God promises Abram (Abraham) that his seed would

inherit the land from the Nile to the Euphrates. The use of caligo to describe an encounter

14As discussed in class


15O’Daly, Gerard. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. New York: Oxford University Press 2012 pg.
57
between heaven and earth continues through the Vulgate (cf. Exodus 22:21, Deuteronomy

4:11, 2 Samuel 22:10, Psalm 17:10, etc.). Interestingly God speaks from a caligo in Genesis

(“ait ei Dominus iam nunc veniam ad te in caligine nubis” (Ex. 19:9) “Moses autem accessit

ad caliginem in qua erat Deus” (Ex. 20:21)). So in this stanza, heaven will be cleared of the

mysterious cloud that conceals God from humans, with the result that Arians (errorum

chorus) will turn away from their errors.

This stanza, like the one before it, considers “lux” and its connection to “via”. Taken

together, Christ is a light for “those on the way” (viantibus), but compels those in error to

leave their way.

Stylistically Ambrose uses alliteration with “c” and “l”. There is enjambment

between the first two lines, and between the last two lines. The use of polus instead of

caelum is also unusual (the Vulgate never uses polus). Ambrose may have used polus

instead of caelum to fit the meter. But unlike caelum, polus has a direct Greek equivalent,

πόλος. This may also represent the trend in Christian Latin to use Greek vocabulary (e.g.

angelus, baptisma, etc.)

Hoc nauta vires colligit


pontique mitescunt freta,
hoc ipsa petra ecclesiae
canente culpam diluit.

By him the sailor gathers strength


And the ragings of the sea are mellowed
By him the very rock of the church
Washed off his guilt at the singing

This stanza has some biblical references. In the first two verses, Ambrose seems to
refers to Christ calming the sea (Matthew 8:23-27, Mark 4:25-41, Luke 8:22-25). But since

Ambrose then refers to Peter (petra ecclesiae), the reference is more likely to Jesus walking

on water, then summoning Peter to do so, and then calming the storm (Matthew 14:27-32).

In that incident Peter exhibits a lack of faith in Christ, a theme carried in the last line of this

stanza. There, the reference is to Peter betraying Christ, and then the rooster crowing

(canente).16

Den Boef comments on this stanza, “Peter’s repentance at the herald of day’s crow is

intrinsically linked to that specific moment. The verbal form diluit supports this: as a

perfect tense it denotes a historical event of three and a half centuries ago (Peter purged

his guilt at daybreak on a particular day), but as a present tense it happens now.”17 He

argues that this makes creation “a living entity”, whose creator gave “temporum tempora,

the variety of moments suitable for human response, such as Peter’s repentance.”18 The

vividness of this scene augments this mood, when Ambrose uses such concrete imagery: a

sailor, raging seas, a rock, and the verb washing. This stands in contrast to the first stanza

(for example), where there is no concrete image but Conditor (if that is even concrete), or

the second stanza, where the only concrete image is night.

The hoc that has formed the beginning of four lines now stands out. Henry

comments that this “gives strength and knits together in consecutive order the several

achievements of ‘the native bell-man of the night.’”19

Surgamus ergo strenue!


Gallus iacentes excitat,

16 ibid.
17 Den Boef 2008
18 ibid.
19 Henry, T.H. “The Hymn ‘Aeterne rerum conditor’” American Ecclesiasticla Review 1900 Pg. 366
et somnolentos increpat,
Gallus negantes arguit.

Let us vigorously arise!


The rooster stirs those who are lying down
And rattles the drowsy
The rooster censures those who deny.

The biblical point of reference here is the Garden of Gethsemene.20 There are three

calls: surgamus, excitat, and increpat, which stand for the three calls of Christ in the Garden,

and the rooster’s censure would seem to point to Peter, who denied Christ.21 The plural is

odd, which x explains as keeping the Petrine reference subtle; though I think the

pluralization, in light of the previous stanzas, may point to the Arians divinitatem Christi

negantes.

The syntax of this stanza is very simple in a few ways. Ambrose frames the word as

Subject-Object-Verb, maintaining neutral word order; all the verbs are in present tense;

Gallus is the subject of the last three lines; and diverging from the pattern of the last few

stanzas there is no enjambment. The result is a very punchy stanza, which recalls the hard

words of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Could you not wait one hour with me?”

As for the rooster, we saw that it originally referred to the rooster that stirred

Peter’s conscience when he denied Christ. But now the rooster is far exceeding that role: it

stirs and rattles people, and is even a source of censure. The rooster appears to be a sort of

allegory for Christ; and if we apply that retroactively, we see that Ambrose sees the rooster

as standing in for Christ in the previous stanza. It stirs Peter to repentance, and is lumped

21 ibid.
in the same stanza in which Christ works a miracle.

Gallo canente spes redit,


aegris salus refunditur,
mucro latronis conditur,
lapsis fides revertitur.

Hope returns with the rooster having sung,


Health is poured back to the sick
The sword of the thief is sheathed,
Faith is returned to the fallen.

We see that the song of the rooster restores the world to a former state: Ambrose

uses the prefix “re” thrice here. The Garden of Gethsemene theme is continued with a

sword being sheathed—this may refer to the sword that Peter used to cut off Malchus’ ear.

As mentioned above, some believe that lapsis here occurs to the Arians; the implication is

that part of the supernatural restoration that will take place when the rooster’s (i.e.

Christ’s) voice is heard will be Arians abandoning Arianism to return to the faith of

Ambrose.

This stanza contains a figura etymologica to the title of the poem: conditur. The

restoration that comes about as a result of the rooster’s song is thus connected to the

action of the Father.


Works Cited

De Clercq, V. C. "Arianism." New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
660-664. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

Hans von Campenhausen The Fathers of the Latin Church. Adam & Charles Black: London
1964

Henry, T.H. “The Hymn ‘Aeterne rerum conditor’” American Ecclesiasticla Review 1900

Jan den Boeft, “Aeterne Rerum Conditor: Ambrose’s Poem about ‘Time’”. From Jerusalem,
Alexandria, Rome; Studies in Ancient Cultural Interactions in Honour of A. Hilhorst. Leiden
2003, 27-40

Lyman, J. Rebecca. "Arius and Arianism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Donald M.


Borchert. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. 282-284. Gale Virtual
Reference Library. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

O’Daly, Gerard. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. New York: Oxford
University Press 2012 pg. 57

Pranger, M.B. “Time and the Integrity of Poetry: Ambrose and Augustine.” From Poetry and
Exegesis in Premodern Latin Christianity.