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Aurelius Clemens Prudentius

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A Christian poet, born in the Tarraconensis, Northern Spain, 348; died probably in Spain, after 405. He must have been born a Christian, for he nowhere speaks of his conversion. The place of his birth is uncertain; it may have been Saragossa, Tarragona, or Calahorra. He practised law with some success, and in later life deplored the zeal he had devoted to his profession. He was twice provincial governor, perhaps in his native country, before the emperor summoned him to court. Towards the end of his life Prudentius renounced the vanities of the world to practise a rigorous asceticism, fasting until evening (Cath., iii, 88) and abstaining entirely from animal food (ibid., 56). The Christian poems were written during this period; he later collected them and wrote a preface, which he himself dated 405. A little before (perhaps in 403) he had to go to Rome, doubtless to make some appeal to the emperor. A number of his poems (Peristephanon, vii, ix, xi, xii, xiv) were written subsequently to this journey, of which he took advantage to visit the sanctuaries and tombs of the martyrs. "Contra Symmachum" must have been written at Rome ; the second book belongs to the period between 29 March and December, 403. All other works antedate the journey to Rome.

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Prudentius wrote to glorify God and atone for his sins. His works fall into three groups: lyrical, didactic, and polemical. The lyrics form two collections. In the "Cathemerinon" the hymns are for the sanctification of the hours of the day or certain important occasions, such as Christmas, the Epiphany, obsequies, etc. Some continue the liturgical tradition of Saint Ambrose , and are written in the Ambrosian iambic dimeter; others are an attempt to enlist the metres of Horace in the service of Christian lyrical poetry. Despite his negligence Prudentius displays more art than Ambrose. Hymn xii, on the feast of the Epiphany, contains the two celebrated stanzas, "Saluete flores martyrum", characterized by profound feeling united to the purest art; hymn x on burial is likewise very remarkable. However, his style is generally diffuse, and the hymns admitted to the Roman Breviary had to be curtailed. The "Peristephanon" is dedicated to the glory of the martyrs : Emeterius and Chelidonius of Calahorra, Lawrence the Deacon, Eulalia, the eighteen martyrs of Saragossa, Vincent, Fructuosus with Augurius and Eulogius, Quirinus of Siscia, the martyrs of Calahorra put to death on the site of the baptistery, Cassianus of the Forum Cornelium, Romanus, Hippolytus, Peter and Paul, Cyprian, and Agnes. Taken altogether, it is an endeavour to endow Christianity with a lyrical poetry independent of liturgical uses and traditions. Unfortunately, neither Prudentius's talent nor current taste favoured such an enterprise. The narratives are spoiled with too much rhetoric. There are, however, beautiful passages, a kind of grave power, and some pretty details, as in the hymns on St. Eulalia (see v. 206-15) and St. Agnes. Certain others, such as that on St. Hippolytus , have an archæological interest. The whole collection is curious, but of unequal merit.

The two principal didactic poems are the "Apotheosis", on the dogma of the Trinity, and the "Hamartigenia", on the origin of sin. One is somewhat astonished to find Prudentius attacking ancient heresies, such as those of Sabellius and Marcian, and having nothing to say on Arianism. It is due to the fact that he closely follows and imitates Tertullian, whose rugged genius resembles his own. These poems are interesting examples of passionate, glowing abstractions, precise exposition being combined with poetic fantasy. Some brilliant scenes, like the sacrifice of Julian (Apoth., 460), merit quotation. The comparison of souls led astray by sin with doves caught in snares (Ham., 779) has a charm that recalls the happy inspiration of "Saluete flores". Orthodoxy is his great preoccupation in these poems, and he invokes all kinds of punishments on heresy. Yet he is not always free from error, here or elsewhere. He believes that only a small number of souls are lost (Cath., vi, 95). It is an exaggeration of the meaning of his metaphors to assert that he makes the soul material. The "Psychomachia "is the model of a style destined to be lovingly cultivated in the Middle Ages, i.e., allegorical poetry, of which before Prudentius only the merest traces are found (in such authors as Apuleius, Tertullian, and Claudian). In Tertullian's "De Spectaculis", 29, we find its first conception; he personifies the vices and the virtues and shows them contending for the soul. The army of vices is that of idolatry, the army of the virtues that of faith. The poem is, therefore, at once moral and apologetic. It would be difficult to imagine anything more unfortunate or insupportable. Incidents, action, and characters of the Æneid are here travestied, and the deplorable effect is heightened by the borrowing of numerous hemistichs divested of their proper meaning. The "Dittoch æon ", forty-nine hexameter tetrastichs commenting on various events of the Old and New Testament, must be included among the didactic poems of Prudentius. Doubts have been raised regarding the authenticity of these verses but with very little reason. Gennadius (De viris illustr., xiii) furthermore attributes to Prudentius, mistakenly perhaps, a "Hexaemeron" of which we know nothing.

His most personal work is the invective against Symmachus. It shows how the Christians reconciled their patriotism with their faith. Prudentius identifies the Church with Rome and, in thus transforming it, preserves that ancient belief in the eternity of the city. He can be impartial towards the pagan and praise him for services rendered the State. He is proud of the senate, seeing its majority Christian. Christianity is come to crown the Roman institutions. Romans are superior to the barbarians, as man is superior to the animals. These two books against Symmachus undertake, therefore, to solve the problem which presented itself to the mind of the still hesitant pagan. A genius more powerful than pliant, Prudentius displays a more versatile and richer talent than that of his pagan contemporary, Claudian. The rhetoric he disparages, he himself misuses; he often exaggerates, but is never commonplace. The superior of many pagan poets, among the Christian he is the greatest and the most truly poetic. His style is not bad considering the period in which he wrote, and, while there are occasional errors in his prosody due to the pronunciation then current, he shows himself a careful versifier and has the gift (then become rare) of varying his metres. An edition of Prudentius is to appear in the "Corpus" of Vienna, edited by J. Bergman. The best manuscript is at Paris, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Latin department, 8084; on one of its margins is the half-effaced name of Vettius Agorius Basilius Mavortius (consul in 527), who made a recension of the works of Horace. This manuscript is free from the dogmatic corrections which are found in others.

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