Do as the Romans do… says who?

by Annie
Sts Augustine and Ambrose, tempera and gold on wood (ca 1437), Fillippo Lippi, L'Accademia Albertina, Torino, Italy

Sts Augustine and Ambrose, tempera and gold on wood (ca 1437), Fillippo Lippi, L'Accademia Albertina, Torino, Italy
Sts Augustine and Ambrose, tempera and gold on wood (ca 1437), Fillippo Lippi, L’Accademia Albertina, Torino, Italy

Ever heard the expression, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?

Of course you have.

Do you know the expression’s origin? St. Ambrose, way back in 387 A.D.

As the story goes, when St. Augustine arrived in Milan to assume his role as Professor of Rhetoric for the Imperial Court, he observed that the Church did not fast on Saturdays as it did in Rome.

Confused, Agostino consulted with the wiser and older Ambrogio (Ambrose), then the Bishop of Milan, who replied: “When I am at Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am at Milan I do not. Follow the custom of the Church where you are.”

In 1621, British author Robert Burton, in his classic writing Anatomy of Melancholy, edited St. Ambrose’s remark to read: “When they are at Rome, they do there as they see done.”

Down through the years, Burton’s turn of the St. Ambrose quote was further edited, anonymously, into what is widely repeated today on a daily basis by some traveler, somewhere, trying to adjust to his/her new or temporary surroundings.

View of Rome from Gianicolo Hill | ©Tom Palladio Images

Now, I wonder who authored that popular, and highly graphic, modern-day Roman expression where one fella, obviously very perturbed at another, threatens to lay waste the other guy along with three-quarters of the residents living in his apartment building.

Hmm. I’ll have to look into that.

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