Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Prudentius, Marcus (?) Aurelius Clemens
Prudentius, Marcus (?) Aurelius Clemens, the chief Christian poet of early times, born a.d. 348 (Praef. 24, cf. Apotheosis, 449), somewhere in the N. of Spain, near the Pyrenees (Peristeph. vi. 146). His name, education, and career imply that he was of good family; he was educated in rhetoric and law, and his poems shew an exact knowledge of the Latin classical poets, especially Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and Juvenal; he seems to have known little Greek and no Hebrew. He speaks of his early life as stained with much sinfulness, but must have been held in high respect, for after practising as an advocate, he twice held an important civil office, and was at last raised to some high position at the emperor's court (cf. Kayser, p. 254 n.; Brockhaus, p. 16 n.; Faguet, p. 17). Late in life he received some deep religious impression, in consequence of which he gave up public life. Some expressions of his seem to imply that he joined a religious society (Cath. ii. 45; iii. 56; cf. Psych. 551–573). He has no longer any money to relieve the poor; the only offering he can make to God is his poetry (Epil. 10). To this and to prayer he devoted his life, seeking to spread among the educated classes a correct knowledge of Christianity, or, like a "Christian Pindar," to sing the triumphs of the martyrs on their festal days and so win them greater honour. At some period of great anxiety to himself he visited Rome; as he passed Imola he poured out his soul in prayer before the picture of St. Cassian in the church (Perist. x. 103, 104). At Rome his anxiety was increased by illness; and he implored the intercession of St. Hippolytus (xi. 127). His prayer was answered. At Rome he was deeply impressed with the memorials of the martyrs in the catacombs and churches (xi.) and composed his poem on the deaths of SS. Peter and Paul (xii.). There he probably became acquainted with the poems of pope Damasus, which influenced some of his own. Returning to Spain, he wrote his poems on St. Cassian (ix.) and St. Hippolytus, requesting his bishop to introduce the observance of the latter saint's festival into Spain (xi.) In 403 or 404 he wrote the second book contra Symmachum; and in 405 published an edition of his poems, with a preface shewing that all his extant works, except the Dittochaeon and perhaps the Psychomachia, were then written. Of his later life and death nothing is known.
His character, judging from his writings, was very lovable. He was a loyal Roman, proud of the empire, seeing in its past conquests and capacity for government a preparation for the kingdom of Christ, and looking for greater conquests under the banner of the cross (Perist. ii. 1–35, 413–484, x. passim; c. Symm. i. 415–505, ii. 577–771). He has a great fondness for art, wishing to keep even pagan statues if regarded only as ornaments (c. Symm. i. 505). He had an intellectual horror of heresy, though with a personal tenderness for heretics (ib. ii. Prel.). He was loyal to all church customs and ordinances, and had a strong appreciation of spiritual truth; see his lofty conception of the Nature of God (Cath. iv. 7–15; Apoth. 84–90; Ham. 27 seq.; c. Symm. i. 325; Perist. x. 310), of the True Temple (Cath. iv. 16–21; c. Symm. ii. 249; Apoth. 516), the True Worship (Perist. x. 341), the True Nobility of Birth (ib. 123), the True Riches (ib. ii. 203), the True Fast (Cath. vi. 201–220), the True Reward (c. Symm. ii. 750). He shews a pious tenderness of spirit (cf. Apoth. 393), kissing the sacred books (ib. 598) and the altar (Perist. ix. 100), and a deep personal humility which does not venture to contend with Symmachus (i. 609); which offers his verses to Christ, though they are but the "earthen vessel" (Epil. 29) of a "rustic poet" (Perist. ii. 574, x. 1); which has no merit in itself, but pleads for the intercession of the saints that he may be transferred from Christ's left hand to His right on the judgment day (ib. ii. 574, vi. 162, x. 1136), content if he be saved from the fires of hell and gently purified for the lowest place among the saved (Ham. 931). (Authorities—his own works, especially the Preface, and Gennadius, de Vir. Ill. c. 13).
Works.—His extant works are (a) lyrical, (b) apologetic or didactic, (c) allegorical; their most remarkable characteristic being their variety. All the poems have a considerable literary value; they are written on the whole in good classical Latin, with many new words needed for church purposes and with a touch of archaic forms and words characteristic of this period. The prosody is fairly correct. The lyrical poems spew great originality in the metres used, and are influenced both in form and phrase by Horace, Ambrose, and Damasus.
The hexameter poems are much indebted to Virgil, and in a less degree to Lucretius and Juvencus. All shew great fluency, relieved by dramatic vividness (e.g. Perist. v.; c. Symm. ii. 654 sqq.), rhetorical vigour of description (e.g. Apoth. 450–503; c. Symm. i. 415), considerable power of satire (Apoth. 186–206; Ham. 246) and humour (Perist. ii. 169, 407, ix. 69, 82), and much epigrammatic terseness of expression; but he dwells on unpleasant details in the accounts of martyrdoms (e.g. ib. x. 901) and of the coarsenesses of heathen mythology (Cath. vii. 115 sqq.). They are full of typical adaptations of Bible history (e.g. prefaces to Ham., Psych., and i. ii. Symm.). In this way, and in the substance of their arguments, they have a theological value, as shewing the tone of thought common at the time. Their lack of originality of thought makes them even more valuable for this purpose. (For the substance of the theology v. Brockhaus, c. vii.) But perhaps their historical value is the greatest. They give considerable information about heathen antiquities, e.g. the kinds of torture in use (Perist. i. 42), methods of writing (ib. ix. 23), the corn supplies of Rome (c. Symm. ii. 920), the gladiatorial shows (ib. i. 384, ii. 1909), the religious rites (ib. i. ii. passim; Perist. x.), and still more about Christian antiquities: the luxury and avarice of the times (Ham. 246; Apoth. 183, 210, 450), the position of deacons and archdeacons at Rome (Perist. ii. 37, v. 29), the times and details of fasting (Cath. iii. 57, vii. viii. 9), the use of anointing (ib. vi. 125, ix. 98; Apoth. 357 493; Psych. 360), the sign of the cross (Cath. vi. 129, ix. 84; Apoth. 493; c. Symm. ii. 712), lights in churches, especially on Easter Eve (Cath. v.), funeral rites (ib. x. 49), and the veneration for the saints (Perist. passim. esp. i. 10–21, ii. 530 sqq., x. ad fin., xi. ad in.. xii.). Especially do they illustrate the art of the time. We have mention of the Lateran church (c. Symm. i. 586), that of St. Laurence (Perist. xi. 216), of buildings over the tombs of SS. Peter and Paul (xii.) and of the catacombs (xi. 153) at Rome; of a church at Merida (iii. 191), and a baptistery apparently at Calahorra (viii.); of a picture of the martyrdom of St. Cassian in the church at Imola (ix.), of St. Hippolytus in the catacombs (xi. 123), and of St. Peter (xii. 38). The Dittochaeon consists of titles for pictures, and nearly all the symbols which he uses (the Dove, the Palm, the Good Shepherd, etc.), as well as the Bible scenes illustrating his poems, are found on gems or on the walls of the catacombs, so that he may have derived his use of them from thence (Brockhaus c. ix.).
From the first his poems were held in great honour; they are quoted with high praise by Sidonius Apollinaris, Avitus, Leo, Isidore, Rabanus Maurus, Alcuin, etc. In the middle ages the Psychomachia and the Cathemerinon were special favourites, and the MSS. of them are very numerous. The best eds. of the poems are those of Areval, 1788 (reprinted in Migne, lix., lx.); Chamillard (in the Delphin classics, with useful index), 1687; Obbar, 1845; Dressel, 1860. The Apotheosis is separately printed in Hurter, Patrum Opuscula Selecta, xxxiii. Translations of selected poems were made by F. St. J. Thackeray (1890); a study of the text by E. O. Winstedt in Class. Rev. 1903; a metrical study by E. B. Lease (Baltimore, 1895); and an excellent monograph by Brockhaus, A Prudentius ins einer Bedeutung für die Kirche seiner Zeit (Leipz. 1872). We give a fuller account of each poem.
A. Lyrical. (a) Cathemerinon (i.e. καθημερίνων ὕμνων), described in the Pref. 37, 38; a collection of hymns for the hours of the day and for church seasons. Though necessarily too long for public worship, extracts were made at least as early as 9th cent., and are found frequently in the Mozarabic Liturgy (cf. v. vi. vii. ix. x.), and a few in the Roman and Salisbury breviaries; on Tues., Wed., Thurs. at Lauds (i. ii.), Compline at Christmas (ix.), Compline on Good Friday (vi.), Easter Eve (v.), Epiphany, the Holy Innocents, and the Transfiguration (xii.). (Daniel, i. 119, and Kayser, Gesch. d. Kirchenhymnen, 275–336.)
(b) Peristephanon (i.e. περὶ στεφάνων, de Coronis Martyrum) described in Pref. 42; a collection of 14 lyrical poems, all (except viii. which is an inscription for a baptistery) in honour of martyrs. The choice of the martyrs is inspired by circumstances of the poet's life; the details perhaps taken from existing Acta Martyrum. Half are connected with his own native church of Spain (i. ii. (?) iii.–vi. xiii.), the rest are saints whom he found specially honoured at Rome (ii. vii: x. (?) xi. xii.) or on his journey thither (ix.).
B. Apologetic (referred to in Pref. 39). (a) Apotheosis = ἀποθέωσις, perhaps The Deification of Human Nature in Christ (cf. Pref. 8, 9, and 176, 177; c. Symm. ii. 268). The writer deals with Patripassian, Sabellian, Ebionite, and Docetic errors on our Lord's Nature.
(b). Hamartigenia = ἀμαρτιγενεία A treatise on the origin of sin; discussed in a polemical argument against Marcion. The poem falls into two parts. (1) 1–639. God is not the creator of Evil. The existence of good and evil does not justify Marcion's theory of two Gods, for unity is essential to our conception of God. (2) 640–931. God permits evil but does not sanction it. The whole object of the Incarnation was to save man from evil (640–669). The cause of evil is man's free will, but this was needed to secure moral goodness and his power of ruling creation. The thought is mainly based on Tertullian, adv. Marcionem. The language shews reminiscences of Vergil, Persius (384), and Juvenal (763). Like the other poems, it is full of O.T. illustrations, mystically applied (Pref. 409, 564, 723). The full description of hell and paradise, and also the graphic portraiture of Satan, are especially noteworthy as the earliest in Christian literature, and so probably of great influence upon later art and literature. Both Dante and Milton may indirectly be indebted to them.
(c) Libri c. Symmachum (described in Pref. 40, 41). In 384 Symmachus had presented a petition to Valentinian II. for the restitution of the altar of Victory in the senate-house, which had been removed by Gratian, and also of the incomes of the vestal virgins. Through the influence of St. Ambrose (Epp. 17, 18) this had been refused. In 392 the altar was restored by Eugenius; in 394 again removed by Theodosius, After his death the heathen party, encouraged by the invasion of the Goths, which they attributed to the neglect of heathenism, again attempted to have it restored by Arcadius and Honorius. Prudentius wrote these books to counteract their influence. The date of bk. ii. is fixed, as after the battle of Pollentia in a.d. 403, and before the abolition of the gladiatorial games, a.d. 404 (ii. 710, 1114). Bk. i. deals generally with the history and character of heathenism (cf. ii. 1–3). Bk. ii. also has a preface, with a prayer to Christ to help the poet as He once helped St. Peter on the water. The poet then deals in detail with the arguments of Symmachus. The poem is very interesting and of great historical value for the circumstances of the time and for the details of Roman mythology and religious rites. The prefaces consist of the typical use of Scripture, but there is no scope for it in the body of the books. They are full, however, of a sense of Rome's majesty, of vigorous description, and of high moral scorn. The language recalls Vergil (passim), Ovid, Juvenal, Horace, and Claudian (ii.704). Plato is quoted in i. 30. The subject-matter is influenced in parts by Tertullian (i. 396) and Minucius Felix (i. 48), but mainly by St. Ambrose, whose arguments are at times reproduced almost verbally.
C. Allegorical.—Psychomachia = Ψυχομαχία, De Compugnantia Animi (Gennadius) (the Spiritual Combat). The Preface consists of a mystical application of Gen. xiv. As Abraham with his 318 servants freed Lot, was blessed by Melchizedek, then begat Isaac; so the Christian, with the aid of Christ's cross (τιη, 318 = the cross (τ) of Ἰησοῦς), frees his soul, wins Christ's blessing, and brings forth good works. The poem opens with a prayer to Christ to shew how the soul is aided in its conflict (1–20), which is then described.
D. The Dittochaeon, διττόχαιον, (?) δίττος, ὀχή, the double food, or double Testament, stands by itself, and can scarcely be called a poem. It comprises 49 sets of 4 verses on scenes from O. and N. T. They are dry and jejune, and chiefly interesting as apparently composed to describe a series of paintings. See Lanfranchi, Aur Prud. Clem. Opp. 1896, 1902, 2 vols. (Turin).