Digitization of this item is currently in progress.
Fall Focus on the Arts and Humanities: Portraying the Female in Late Antiquity: The Poetry of Prudentius
Full Citation
Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00091523/00608
 Material Information
Title: Fall Focus on the Arts and Humanities: Portraying the Female in Late Antiquity: The Poetry of Prudentius
Series Title: Journal of Undergraduate Research
Physical Description: Serial
Language: English
Creator: Epple, Lydia Michele
Publisher: University of Florida
Place of Publication: Gainesville, Fla.
Publication Date: Fall 2011
Subjects / Keywords: vices
Christian poetry
Genre: serial   ( sobekcm )
Abstract: European culture and society underwent a time of intense transformation during the latter half of the fourth and early fifth century, which is reflected in the literary representations of the period. By examining the Latin poet Prudentius’ portrayal of women and the feminine in his work Psychomachia, this paper will show how the depictions contained therein represent the shifting values of a society and culture in transition.
 Record Information
Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier: sobekcm - UF00091523_00602
System ID: UF00091523:00608


This item is only available as the following downloads:

( PDF )

Full Text


University of Florida | Journal of Undergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 1 Portraying the Female in Late Antiquity: The Poetry of Prudentius Lydia Michele Epple College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Florida European culture and society underwent a time of intense transformation during the latter half of the fourth and early fifth century which is reflected in the literary representations of the period. By examining the Latin poet Prudentius portrayal of women and the feminine in his work Psychomachia this paper will show how the depictions contained therein represent the shifting values of a society and culture in transi tion. INTRODUCTION Ancient Mediterranean culture and society underwent a time of subtle yet definitive transformation during the latter half of the fourth and early fifth century. Conflict between the pagan beliefs and conventions of the classical world, on the one hand, and Christian beliefs and practices, on the other, had gradually given way to a fusion of the two traditions. The portrayal of women in the poetry and literature of this period mirrors this social and cultural transit ion. In particular this is evident in the literary representations of women and the feminine found in the works of the Latin poet Prudentius. By synthesizing the Greco Roman literary past with Christian poetry Prudentius laid the groundwork for future al legorical representations in the Middle Ages. His portrayal of women and the feminine reflects a unique blending of traditional Greco Roman representations of the female with elements that are solely Christian in character. In order to illustrate this fus ion and evolution of ideas this study will focus on Prudentiuss poem the Psychomachia and the struggle between the feminine Vices and Virtues that it contains By examining his portrayal of the feminine in this work this paper will show how his depictions represent the values of a society and culture in transition. Politically this period was marked by unrest and contention. Various emperors and their agendas came and went; however, Theodosius I stands out for his role in Christianizing the Roman Empire. The reign of E mperor Theodosius I was embroiled in conflict between Christians and pagans. As a roman emperor Theodosius I was an heir to the Greco Roman classical pagan traditions; however, these traditions went against his Christianity Consequently Theodosius I actively promoted the removal of the remaining vestiges of paganism during his reign while at the same time advancing Christianitys influence in the Mediterranean. Although politi cally during this period paganism was quickly being overtaken by Christianity, the lines were more unclear in the cultural arena. This is particularly evident in the uneasy relationship Christians maintained with classical education and the tensions that a rose as a result, for in reality there was no viable Christian alternative to the education that the Greco Roman tradition had long offered. This was true even for members of the clergy such as bishops. There existed no real schools of theology or divinity for them to attend. Therefore, their religious training was limited to what could be learned from older bishops and clerics, often in the form of a one onone discussion. In order to obtain such instruction, they were often required to travel across the Mediterranean to meet with these mentors. For example, in his youth St. Jerome traveled to Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople to receive private lessons from older Christian leaders .1 Howeve r, if bishops wanted to learn how to read and write in Latin and Greek they were forced to supplement their theological discussions and what they could garner from the Bible with pagan texts. T his reliance on GrecoRoman pagan writings was not limite d to clergy alone but pervaded all levels of education. As a result an invisible line was drawn. Students learned about classical mythology in school while, conversely, learning the precepts of their own religion from their families and churches. In essence students were supposed to learn what they could from the pagan writings but were to approach it from the mindset of a Christian and thus not fall prey to its inherent falsehoods and vices. Even so, this created a crisis of conscience for many Christia n students. Perhaps the most famous example of this tension is the case of St. Jerome, who has a dream in which God berates him and calls him a Ciceronian instead of a Christian.2 Yet an education could not be totally dismissed by devout Christians. As a religion based solidly in religious texts and teachings Christianity required some form of education. Furthermore, an education in rhetoric or classical learning opened up windows of opportunity in life, such as the pursuit of a career in law or administ ration.3 Thus in culture, if not in politics, the GrecoRoman tradition was still vibrant and heavily relied upon.


LYDIA MICHELE EPPLE University of Florida | Journal of Undergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 2 THE POET Aurelius Prudentius Clemens was born in 348 CE in what is now northwestern Spain, and although it is never explicitly stated that his family was Christian, this can be inferred from a preface attached to h is collected works.4 After receiving an education in the Roman tradition of rhetoric, an education that would have enabled him to become well acquainted with the pagan texts of the Greco Roman tradition, Prudentius began to practice law before taking a position in government. He served two terms in the post of provincial governor and was then summoned to the court of Emperor Theodosius I.5 It was here, according to his preface, that Prudentius obtained some sort of higher rank from the emperor, although his exact office remains unclear.6 Regardless, after a successful career as a civil servant Prudentius turned toward more spiritual matters, leaving public life to become an ascetic. It was during this time that Pru dentius turned his attention to poetry, writing the preface to his collected works by around the age of fifty. Remaining an ascetic for the rest of his life Prudentius died in 410 CE, leaving behind a collection of poetry of unrivaled literary and histori cal merit ranging in topic from an allegorical battle for the human soul in the Psychomachia to tales of the martyrs in the Liber Peristephanon. THE PSYCHOMACHIA In his poem the Psychomachia, Prudentius relates an allegorical battle for a humans soul fought between feminine personifications of Virtues and Vices, representing Christian beliefs on one side and sin and pagan religion on the other. The poem begins with a brief preface on biblical history s etting the stage for the main conflict, after which Prudentius immediately launches into the battle. This conflict is divided into seven distinct confrontations between the opposing forces, in which the Virtues always emerge victorious. The first confronta tion, between Faith and the Worshipof the Old Gods, is swift and brutal, for faith destroys her enemy in only a few short lines: Faith first takes the field to face the doubtful chances of battlebut trusting in a stout heart and unprotected limbs challenges the hazards of furious warfare, meaning to break them down. Lo, first Worshipof the Old Gods ventures to match her strength a gainst Faiths challenge and strike at her. But she, rising higher, smites her foes head down[.]7 This confrontation is then followed by six more in like vein, interspersed with verbal challenges and rebuttals from both sides. Following Faiths victory over Worship of the Old Gods another Virtue, this time Chastity, faces off against Lust who in turn is dispatched quickly by a sword thrust to the throat. Subsequently LongSuffering confronts Wrath and Lowliness Pride. Unlike the confrontations in the first two battles, however, in these later encounters Long Suffering and Lowliness more or less watch the Vices destroy themselves. Wrath, after being unable to harm LongSuffering takes her own life, while Pride slips into a trap dug for the Virtues and is mortally wounded; it is then left to Lowliness to finish her off. The next sets of confrontations are not that simple. After the death of Pride, another Vice, Indulgence, takes the field. She breathes poison upon the Virtues, and their will to fight beg ins to crumble. The Virtues begin to lay down their weapons in surrender until Soberness takes command and attempts to rally the troops. Bearing a cross, she faces the Vice : So speaking she holds up the cross of the Lord in face of the raging Chariot horse s, thrusting the holy wood against their very bridles; and for all their boldness they have taken fright at its outspread armsthen she is thrown out and the whirling wheels entangle her who was their mistress, for she fall forward under the axleSoberness gives her the death blow as she lies, hurling at her a great stone from the rock.8 The battle is then resumed once more as Greed appears on the field of battle and is first blocked by Reason, before changing her appearance to appear as a Virtue : she p uts off her grim look and her fiendish weapons and changes to a noble bearing.9 Masquerading as the Virtue Thrifty, Greed is eventually discovered for her true nature by Good Works, who then chokes her to death. The Virtues then assume the battle is over and that victory has been achieved. However, upon entering their camp, they are once again attacked. Disguising herself as a Virtue, Discord attempts to assassinate Concord upon her entrance into the camp. Wounding but failing to kill Concord, the Vice is then torn to pieces by the other Virtues. After the Vices have been finally defeated the poem closes with the building of a new temple where Wisdom sits enthroned forever.10 Greco Roman Virtues and Vices The feminine personifications of Prudentiuss Psychomachia can be traced back to the Greco Roman classical tradition wherein there is a long history of personifying abstract notions as feminine. It was accepted practice in rhetoric to cast these ideas in a feminine mold although the reas ons behind this remain unclear. Some historians believe that this is merely a reflex action on the part of classical writers. They argue that since most intangible concepts in Greek and Latin are feminine it is logical to simply personify them as fem ale. In any case, in a discourse called On Style dating from around the first century CE the author Demetrius claims that the female personification is the proper form to use when writing.11 As a person trained in classical rhetoric, Prudentius would have been well aware of this convention. In addition the historian Haworth has claimed that the Vices and Virtues


THE POETRY OF PRUDENTIUS University of Florida | Journal of Undergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 3 of Prudentius were in actuality Roman deities and not really allegorical personifications at all. However, as James Pa xson has pointed out, this does not take into account the first act of combat in the Psychomachia, in which Worshipof the Old Gods is defeated by Faith. This defeat clearly illustrates the influence of Christian thought on Prudentiuss poetry; furthermore, his combatants do not follow an exact continuation of the GrecoRoman tradition.12 Despite this fact, Prudentius does draw on other examples from classical authors. In one classical story by Xenophon, Herakles is confronted with two women at a crossroads. The women, representations of pleasure and virtue, desire him to select between them. Although a very simplistic example of Personification it illustrates the two opposing sides, or good and evil.13 Furthermore, Vergil utilize s various feminine personifications in his epic work The Aeneid including his own representation of Discord. Vergils Discord, although not bearing any striking resemblance to her representation by Prudentius, is nonetheless feminine. Additionally, in the same scene featuring Discord, Vergil describes the goddess Bellona who carries a whip, a whip very like the one that Prudentiuss Discord wields in the battle. In Aeneid 8, Discord is trailed by Bellona with her bloody whip.14 Prudentiuss Discord i s also similar to another character in The Aeneid In the 7th book Allecto, one of the Furies, disguises herself in order to bring about a major conflict. She takes on the appearance of an old woman with olive branches in her hair, a disguise remarkably similar in aspect to the one assumed by Discord in the Psychomachia : For, when the Vices army was driven off, Discord had entered our ranks wearing the counterfeit shape of a friend. Her torn mantle and her whip of many snakes were left lying far behin d amid the heaps of dead on the field of battle, while she herself, displaying her hair wreathed with leafy olive, answered cheerfully the joyous revelers.15 Thus instead of mirroring only one of Vergils characters, Prudentius s personification is rather an amalgamation of many. By drawing on various GrecoRoman literary traditions Prudentiuss Vices and Virtues represent a strong continuity between the past and poets own time.16 Because he was trained in classical r hetoric it would have been natural for Prudentius to make this connection between classical traditions and his own Christian poetry. By transplanting and recreating aspects of Greco Roman classical tradition, Prudentiuss poetry reflects the larger change s taking place throughout the Mediterranean. This blending can be likened to the education he received in the pagan classics but approached from the mindset of a Christian and for the purposes of furthering his own faith. Christian Virtues and Vices Certainly, Prudentius was not the first Christian intellectual to use personification. Indeed, he was able to draw on Christian writers from the preceding centuries who had laid the groundwork for his own portrayal of Virtues and Vices. A simple example of this is found in the writings of Tertullian. In the 29th chapter of his work De Spectaculis , Tertullian describes the defeat of various vices by Christian Virtues while they competed for control of the human soul. These Christian Virtues include faithfu lness, chastity, compassion, and modesty and they are opposed respectively by unchastity, perfidy, cruelty, and impudence. Yet Tertullians description of these personifications is very short, only going on for a few lines, and does not go into any r eal detail about the Virtues or Vices, instead merely naming them. Additionally, unlike Prudentiuss later personifications, these Virtues and Vices are not given a gender.17 Nevertheless, Tertullians writings are important as an early example of Christian personification. Another case is that of the Shepherd of Hermas which dates from the second century CE in Rome. Written by a revival preacher, this work is a sort of allegorical note book that was extremely popular in the second century CE. Here Virt ues and Vices are not only personified but are specifically female. The writer speaks of a tower, representing the church, around which twelve virgins stand in white : And round the door there stood twelve virginsAnd they were clothed in linen mantlesthey were joyful and eagerListen to the names of the stronger virgins who stand at the corners. The first is Faith, the second is Temperance, the third is Power, the four th is Longsuffering, and the others who stand between them have these names: Simplicity, Guilessness, Holiness, Joyfulness, Truth, Understanding, Concord, Love.18 In addition to the se Virtues the work also contains corresponding Vices, also t welve in number although these are not described as virgins : And there were called twelve women, very beautiful to look at, clothed in black, girded, and their shoulders bare, their hair loose. And these women looked to me to be cruelHear also the names of the women who have black raiment. Of these also four are more powerful. The first is Unbelief, the second Impurity, the third Disobedience, and the fourth Deceit; and those who follow them are called Grief, Wickedness, Licentiousness, Bitterness, Lying, Foolishness, Evil speaking, Hate.19 The portrayal of these Virtues and Vices and their juxtaposition to one another is similar to that of the Psychomachia to the point that even some of the names


LYDIA MICHELE EPPLE University of Florida | Journal of Undergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 4 are the same, y et there are some differences. For in stance, in the Psychomachia the Vices and Virtues actually confront one another in battle, much as in Tertullians portrayal of them, whereas here they simply share the same place. There is an implied opposition to one another but it is more a choice on t he part of men as to which side they will take. Much like Herakles r he servant of god has to choose which way he will go for both are open to him.20 It is up to individuals to choose with whom they will lie , for that is what they must do. For example, Hermas, the narrator, is told to go into the virgins and take them as his lovers so as to take on their names.21 This is very different from the Virtues and Vices of the Psychomachia, where the Virtues, althoug h living inside the humans soul, are never spoken of in such a manner. Additionally, these Vices and Virtues are silent; they give no grand speeches or exultations unlike the personifications of the Psychomachia These works and their counterparts in Grec oRoman literature, surveyed in the preceding section, illustrate that the themes of Vice and Virtue were common devices of both Christian and pagan writers. However, the ways in which they were utilized and their purposes differ. It is in Prudentiuss own poetry that a merging of these two traditions can be seen. FUSING TRADITIONS The Virtues and Vices of the Psychomachia exhibit a fusion of the GrecoRoman tradition with Christian ideas on various levels. On the one hand, there are the examples of Vices like Discord who bear a striking resemblance to their counterparts in pagan texts; on the other hand, there are Christian works, such as The Shepherd of Hermas where clearly defined Christian Virtues and un Christian Vices stand for the choice between right and wrong, God and sin, making it clear that one must choose between them. This influence is evident in the Psychomachia, where some Virtues share the same names as the ones used in The Shepherd of Hermas as well as in some cases their virginal description. For example Prudentiuss Chastity is called a maiden with modest eyes, and Purity in turn is described as with scarce a tinge of blood to colour he r cheeks.22 The Vices in turn reflect the opposing description of being unmaidenly in a similar way to the women in black from The Shepherd of Hermas In the confrontation between the Virtue, Chastity, and the Vice Lust, Prudentius describes the latter as a whore and a harlot.23 However, Prudentiuss Virtues and Vices draw more heavily on the classical ideals th a n the other Christian work does for unlike in The Shepherd of Hermas Prudentiuss Virtues and Vices are quite literally able to speak f or themselves. The Christianizing of Prudentiuss Virtues is more about what they say than about their dress and behavior, which more accurately reflect the traditions of epic poetry. For although there are small obviously Christian touches to their raiment and weapons such as when Soberness, their standard bearer, wields a cross on the battlefield they more closely resemble figures of the older epic poets such as Vergil.24 Here, in the speeches given by the Vi rtues and Vices, the full influence of Christianity on Prudentiuss poetry appears time and time again. In the first speech of the poem Chastity, upon her defeat of Lust, sets the pattern for all such speeches to come: This shall be thy last end; for ever shalt thou lie prostrate; no longer shalt thou dare to cast thy deadly flames against Gods man servants or his maid servants; the inmost fibre of their pure heart is kindled only from the torch of Christ.Well, since a virgin immaculate has borne a child, hast thou any claim remaining since a virgin bore a child, since the day when mans body lost it s primeval nature, and power from on high created a new flesh, and a woman unwedded conceived the God Christ, who is man in virtue of his mortal mother but God long with the Father? From that day all flesh is divine, since it conceives Him and takes on the nature of God by a covenant of partnership.25 Following Chastitys exhortation, a number of other Virtues speak during their respective confrontations. Yet the Virtues are not the only ones to speak in the poem. The Vices, like their opposition, give speeches that reflect the Christian nature of the work as well. For example, when Discord is captured in the camp of the Virtues at the end of the poem she is g iven leave to tell her name, and while doing so, she attempts to influence her listeners: the whole army of the Virtues surrounds her, asking in an uproar of excitement her race and name, her country and her faith, what God she worships, of what nation he that sent her. And she, all pale with upsetting fear, says: I am called Discord, and my other name is Heresy. The God I have is variable, now lesser, now greater, now double, now single; when I please he is unsubstantial, a mere apparition, or again the soul within us, when I choose to make a mock of his divinity. My teacher is Belial, my home and country the world. No further did Faith, the Virtues queen, bear with the outrageous prisoners blasphemies[.]26 Here, once again, Prudentiuss Christian purpose becomes apparent. By the use of words such as blasphemies and heresy, the Vice and the heresies that it stands for are placed in a negative light. In this moment the Virtues can clearly be seen as Catholic Christianity while the Vice in turn essentially stands in the place of all other opposing Christian creeds. Prudentiuss portrayal of feminine Virtues and Vices in the Psychomachia is distinctive and indicative of the world in which he lived, a society and culture in transition By combining various aspects of GrecoRoman classical tradition with Christian imagery and ideals, Prudentiuss work represents a unique synthesis of the two traditions.


THE POETRY OF PRUDENTIUS University of Florida | Journal of Undergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 5 By his careful craftsmanship of the Psychomachia Prudentius seemingly combined and reconciled the tensions that existed between these two traditions tensions that a person living in this time period no doubt experienced throughout his or her li fe Consequently, even though his portrayal of female Virtue s and Vices was not the first of its kind in the Christian or classical traditions, it is still invaluable for its reflection of these larger societal trends. Be that as it may, Prudentius still included elements in his depictions of the Vices and Virtues that were clearly his own, such as the speeches that these personifications give. For that reason, as much as any other his portrayal of the feminine in the Psychomachia represents a n exceptional benchmark in literary history as well as providing historians with a glimpse into the ever evolving Mediterranean world in which he lived. NOTES 1 H.I. Marrou, A History of Education trans. George Lamb (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1956), 328. 2 Ibid., 320. 3 Ibid., 327. 4 Prudentius, Preface, Prudentius Vol 1 4 5. 5 Martha A. Malamud, A Poetics of Transformation: Prudentius and Classical Mythology ( New York: Cornell University Press, 1989), 14. The locations of these two posts are still topics of debate among historians. 6 Prudentius, Preface, 4, 5. 7 Prudentius, Psychomachia 281. 8 Ibid., 309. 9 Ibid., 317. 10 Ibid., 275 343. 11 James Paxson, Personifications Gender, Rhetorica 16, n o. 2 (1998) : 152, 159. 12 Malamud, 47 48. 13 Xenophon, The Socratic Writings (Memorabilia, Economist, Symposium, Apology, Hiero ), trans H. G. Dakyns ( Digisreads.com Publishing, 2009). 14 Malamud, 70. 15 Prudentius, Psychomachia, 327. 16 Malamud, 60. 17 Tertullian, The Shows i n Ante Nicene Fathers v ol. 3, e d Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe t rans S. Thelwall (Buffalo, New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, . 18 Shepherd of Hermas Similitude IX, quoted in Jean LaPorte, The Role of Women in Earl y Christianity (New York and Toronto, 1982) 135 136. 19 Ibid. 137. 20 Ibid., 136. 21 Ibid. 136. 22 Prudentius, Psychomachia 283, 297. 23 Ibid. 283. 24 Ibid. 303. 25 Ibid., 285. 26 Ibid. 329.