Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, the greatest Christian Latin poet and the only layman regarded as a Latin Father; b. 348, probably at Calahorra, Spain; d. after 404. All knowledge of his life is based on what he says in his works. He had a normal Roman education. He "twice ruled noble cities," made a journey to Rome for personal reasons, and in his 56th year felt a sense of compunction for the way his life had been spent.
His Cathemerinon consists of 12 hymns, six for daily use (cockcrow, morning, etc.) and six for special occasions (for the dead, Christmas, Epiphany, etc.). The Peristephanon (Crowns of Martyrs) includes poems on SS. Lawrence, Eulalia, Vincent, Cyprian, and Agnes. A long poem on St. Romanus is usually printed as Peristephanon 10, but does not belong to that work. Most of the Peristephanon poems appear to be written for singing by a Christian congregation, probably at Calahorra, at the celebration of the feast (annua ) of martyrs. The Cathemerinon belong to domestic cult, being designed for use in a household of the Roman type. The poems of both collections are in lyric meters, and selections from them form hymns used in both the Roman and Mozarabic rites.
Three poems in hexameters, Apotheosis, Hamartigenie, and Psychomachia are marked as books 1, 2, and 3; but the title of the combined work is not extant. The Apotheosis deals with the deification of man through the actions of Christ; the Hamartigenia concerns the origin of sin and evil; and the Psychomachia is an allegorical poem in which the Soul assisted by specific Virtues rescues the Body from the attack of Vices. It concludes with a description, based on the Apocalypse, of the construction of a Temple of Holy Wisdom in the soul.
A poem in two books, Contra Symmachum, attacks the Roman pagan religion and is related to the controversy over the removal of the altar of Victory from the Senate in Rome. Prudentius' arguments parallel those of St. ambrose. Most striking in this work are his vision of the Roman world as one people (una propago ) formed out of many by common laws and institutions and his vigorous attack on gladiatorial shows.
Prudentius saw Christianity as involving not the overthrow of Rome and its institutions but rather the fulfillment of Rome's essential civilizing function, since paganism and barbarism are frequently opposed to Christianity and civilization. Just as works of sculpture are begrimed with soot and grease through the rituals of ancient religious sacrifice but can be made pure and clean by being washed and scrubbed, revealing themselves as works of art and beauty, so also could Roman institutions, by Christianization and baptism, achieve a more adequate realization of their essential purpose and function in the design of Providence.
Prudentius had a firm command of the resources of the Latin language. His writings show a fondness for Lucretius, Vergil, and Juvenal; but he was a slavish imitator of none. His sentences vary from the short and pithy to periods of 17 lines. For extended imagery he preferred examples and figures drawn from Scripture or nature to traditional simile or metaphor.
Especially notable is his ability to project personalities and actions of Sacred History or Christian legend in vivid detail. His descriptions of the denial of Peter (Cath. 1); the fury of Herod and his soldiers, as well as the Holy Innocents playing with their crowns of martyrdom in heaven (Cath. 12); Abraham rescuing Loth (Psych. praef.); and Lawrence on his gridiron (Perist. 2) have led to charges that Prudentius was prolix and gruesome and that he offended against good taste; but his technique seems appropriate to the social context for which the poems were intended.
Prudentius soon became a Christian classic. He was quoted by gregory of tours and many others. His works formed a staple item in the monastic schools of the ninth century and were provided with commentaries and glosses. His writings, especially the Psychomachia, were early provided with illustrations, which in turn inspired a rich group of illustrated manuscripts of the early and high Middle Ages.
In the post-Renaissance period a lack of sympathy with Prudentius' aims and artistic ideals led to neglect of his work.
Bibliography: Works, ed. j. bergman (Corpus scriptorum Christianorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 61; 1926); ed. m. lavarenne, 4 v. (Budé ser.; Paris 1943–51), with Fr. tr.; ed. and tr. h. j. thomson, 2 v. (Loeb Classical Library; 1949–53). e. k. rand, "Prudentius and Christian Humanism," American Philological Association: Transactions and Proceedings 51 (1920) 71–83. r. j. deferrari and j. campbell, A Concordance of Prudentius (Cambridge, Mass. 1932). b. m. peebles, The Poet Prudentius (New York 1951). c. gnilka, Studien zur Psychomachie des Prudentius (Wiesbaden 1963). l. padovese, La cristologia di Aurelio Clemente Prudenzio (Rome 1980). a. kurfess, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 23.1 (1957) 1039–72.
[m. p. cunningham]