Prudentius


Prudentius
(Aurelius Prudentius Clemens)
(348–after 405)
   Prudentius was the first great Christian poet in Latin.He wrote SAINTS’ LIVES, hymns (some of which are still sung today), and the first narrative poem in Europe written entirely as an allegory—the PSYCHOMACHIA (War within the soul). His works became classics of Roman Christianity, and he is the only layperson considered to be a father of the Roman Church.
   Prudentius was born in Spain in 348, probably to a Christian family since he never mentions his conversion. The exact place of his birth is uncertain: Calahorra seems most likely, but Saragossa and Tarragona have also been suggested. He was from a noble family, and he received a classical Roman education. After practicing as a lawyer, he held administrative offices in two provinces before he was called to the capital and appointed to a fairly high post under the emperor Theodosius. According to a brief biographical note introducing an edition of his works in 405, Prudentius decided to retire from public life to pursue a contemplative life devoted to Christianity and poetry.
   Prudentius revolutionized Latin poetry by using the classical verse forms for Christian subjects. Among his works are the Cathemerinon (Book of the hours), which is made up of 12 hymns, six of which are for hours of the day and six of which are for particular church festivals. The hymns are remarkable for their use of light and dark imagery, and in many cases can still be found in contemporary Christian hymnals—including “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” for Christmas and “Earth Has Many a Noble City” for Epiphany. Another work, the Peristephanon (Crowns of martyrdom), is a series of 14 poems on the lives of martyrs like St. Agnes and St. Lawrence. The Apotheosis is a long didactic poem in hexameters (six-foot lines) concerned with supporting the doctrine of the Trinity. Its companion piece, Hamartigenia (The origin of sin), is concerned with the nature of evil, and specifically argues against the doctrine of dualism propounded by the Gnostic theologian Marcion and his disciples. Prudentius’s two-volume Contra symmachum was written to condemn the pagan Roman religion. It also argues that Christianity’s function within the empire was to complete the civilizing function begun by Roman law and institutions— that is, to fulfill Rome’s ultimate destiny. But certainly Prudentius’s most influential poem was the Psychomachia. The poem presents an allegorical battle between personified virtues and vices, wherein the soul, assisted by the virtues, rescues the body from the vices that attack it. The poem was extremely popular and highly influential throughout the medieval period, sparking a vital tradition of medieval allegorical poetry. Prudentius gleaned his theology from the Bible and from Christian thinkers like St. Ambrose and Tertullian. His works, particularly the Psychomachia, were popular throughout the Middle Ages and were studied in monastic schools from the ninth century on.
   Bibliography
   ■ Eagan, Sister M. Clement, ed. Prudentius, Poems, Volume 1 and Volume 2. The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vols. 43, 52.Washington,D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1962, 1965.
   ■ Haworth, Kenneth R. Deified Virtues, Demonic Vices, and Descriptive Allegory in Prudentius’ Psychomachia. Amsterdam: A. M. Hakkert, 1980.
   ■ Smith, Macklin. Prudentius’ Psychomachia: A Reexamination. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.
   ■ Thomson, H. J., ed. and trans. Prudentius. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947–1953.
   ■ van Assendelft, Marion M. Sol ecce surgit igneus: A Commentary on the Morning and Evening Hymns of Prudentius (Cathemerinon 1, 2, 5, and 6). Groningen, Netherlands: Bouma’s Boekhuis, 1976.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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