Prudentius of Spain – A Classical Christian Poet
Around 392 AD, 57-year old Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, native of Spain, decided to examine his life. The years had flown by, and he found himself suddenly old. He was, in reality, old according the standards of his time, and his white hair (“the snow on my head”) stood as witness of the many winters that had passed and the many roses that had bloomed. “Have I done anything useful?” he wondered.
His childhood memories were scarce. That time seemed like an endless succession of beatings and tears. The donning of his toga virilis, the white toga of manhood assumed by teenage Roman boys, ushered in a time of vices, lies, and arrogance.
Both this and the rest of Prudentius’s account reminds us of Augustine’s Confessions. Like Augustine, Prudentius pursued a legal career, ruled by an exuberant spirit and an obstinate desire to win. Like Augustine, he rose to prestigious positions (he was governor of two provinces) and served in the imperial court in Milan.
But what good did this do to his life, and what good will it do at his death? Once again, Prudentius reminds us of Augustine, who cried, “Too late have I loved thee, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new!”
It was then that Prudentius decided to use his poetic talent to the glory of God. As a result, he published a book of poems for particular times (Cathemerinon, or “Daily Rounds”), a collection of fourteen eulogies of martyrs (Peristephanon, or “Crown of Martyrdom”). and some works on apologetics: Apotheosis (on Christ’s triumph), Hamartigenia (on the origins of evil), and Contra Symmachum (a defense of the Christian faith to pagans).
He also penned the first epic Christian poem, the Psychomachia (“Warfare of the Soul”), which continued to be a best-seller in the Middle Ages and might have inspired later authors like John Bunyan. In the Psychomachia, the battle of the soul against sin and temptation takes place in the context of the overarching biblical story of redemption, from Adam to Christ, who triumphs where human beings are defenseless. For example, in her battle against Luxury, Chastity cries out, “A Virgin brought forth a Child. Now where is your power?”
Far from being monotonous, the battle of virtues and vices takes unexpected turns, particularly when vices resort to deceit. Avarice is particularly crafty when she poses as Frugality, hiding “theft and rapine and close-hoarded spoil” under the pretense of “care for our children.” C.S. Lewis points out the novelty of this scene, considering “how rarely we find in classical literature any adequate recognition of the great fact of self-deception.”
Prudentius’s eulogies are generally considered his masterpiece, both for the beauty of his style and the passion of his sentiments. For centuries, Christians had seen martyrdom as the greatest expression of devotion to Christ. For Prudentius, who had been lamenting the vanity of his life, these tributes to martyrs were particularly heart-felt. They also served to create, in a Christian world, a new set of heroes to replace those of classical times.
If Prudentius’s apologetic books are not ranking high among this literary works, they open an interesting window on his life because they show a deep-seated knowledge both of Scriptures and of the heated debates of his day. He had obviously been a Christian for some time (probably from youth, since he never mentioned a conversion), and an informed Christian at that.
Doctrine and Doxology
In a way, all of his works are theological and apologetic. In the face of the raging Arian controversy, he stressed the divinity of the three Persons of the Trinity. In opposition to Marcion, he sang the praises of the only One God who is never the author of evil. In contrast to the Gnostics, he emphasized the beauty of God’s creation.
One example of this is the poem to be recited before meals, which starts with exuberant praises to God for the wonders of nature which allow man not only to survive, but to live a full, happy life, allowing him to serve God in return.
The poem ends with another vigorous doxology, this time to the conquering Christ – the Lamb who conquers lions – and the resurrected Christ, who will one day raise us – in both soul and body - to himself, “toward the fiery stars.”
Prudentius’s theological prowess is also evident in his Christmas hymn Corde Natus Ex Parentis, a portion of which John Mason Neale and Henry Baker translated into English in the 19th century – with the title Of the Father’s Love Begotten.
The hymn follows closely the wording of the Nicene Creed (in opposition to Arius), describing Christ as begotten of the Father before all worlds (ante mundi exordium), as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of all that is, that has been, and that will be. It’s also a highly trinitarian hymn, demonstrating that theology and poetry can be artfully joined together. In fact, far from dampening the power and beauty of poetry, sound theology carries it to heights that no art form could ever reach alone.
This is something critics haven’t always grasped. Some have chastized Prudentius’s poems for being fragmentary in his seemingly abrupt movement from lyrics to instruction (or, we could say, from doxology to doctrine). This shift, however, was probably not abrupt for Prudentius’s Christian audience, who understood doxology and doctrine as tightly intertwined.
Classical and Christian
Prudentius has been compared to Ambrose, who lived at the same time and wrote similar hymns for the church. There are, however, several differences between the two writers. First, Prudentius’s poems are typically much longer than Ambrose’s. Second, Prudentius gave more importance to the artistic aspect of his writings, and demonstrated greater creative freedom. For example, in the poem to be read at the cockcrow, Prudentius compares the rooster to Christ, who awakens spiritually dead souls to life – an analogy not present in the Bible.
Besides, Ambrose was an occasional poet who wrote hymns for church liturgy, while Prudentius saw poetry as his vocation and his poems were meant to be read at home. He speaks to the common people as one of them, sharing with them daily experiences.
For instance, in his morning hymn he reviews the various occupations people may get ready to attend, mostly “sighing for their greedy gains,” and contrasts their aspirations with those of Christians who “have knowledge, Christ, of Thee alone.” He then invites his readers to join him in a morning prayer, mingling singing with their tears. “With such a commerce we grow rich,” he explains, “and by this art alone we live.”
Prudentius is considered the greatest Christian poet to follow the style of classical Roman poets such as Virgil, Horace, and Catullus. In this, he contrasted the opinion of some, such as Jerome, who were afraid that a love of classical literature could detract from the simplicity of the gospel. By this choice, Prudentius allowed his Roman audience to read about Christ in a familiar literary format.
In this, Prudentius is as relevant today as he was in his day. On one hand, he was not afraid to use the classical, literary language his audience appreciated. On the other hand, he used it as a means to exalt the redemption story he wanted to tell, without diminishing or compromising his message. To do so, he took his vocation seriously and aimed at producing excellent works of art for God’s glory and the benefit of others, maintaining at the same time a constant sense of his unworthiness before God.
“For I own no sanctity,” he wrote, “nor gold to ease the pauper’s wants and misery. God, however, deigns to smile on my dull song and to it kindly harkens.”
 Gerard O'Daly, Days Linked by Song: Prudentius' Cathemerinon, Oxford Unibersity Press 2012, p. 387,
 Prudentius, Psychomachia, 360, quoted in C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 89.
 C.S. Lewis, ibid.
 Nicholas Richardson, Prudentius' Hymns for Hours and Seasons: Liber Cathemerinon, Routledge 2017.
 The Poems of Prudentius, vol. 2, translated by Sister M. Clement Eagan, The Catholic University of America Press, 1965, p. 199. See also Robert Wilkens, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Yale University Press, 2003, pp. 212, 236.