AURELIUS PRUDENTIUS CLEMENS (to give his full title) was born, probably at Saragossa (Caesaraugusta), in Spain, in the year of our Lord 348. The fourth century exercised a profound influence alike on the destiny of the Roman Empire and of the Christian Church. After a long discipline, strangely alternating between fiery persecution and contemptuous toleration, the Church entered upon a new era, when in 323 Constantine, the first Christian emperor, became master of the Roman world. Two years later the Council of Nicaea met to utter its verdict on the Arian controversy and to establish the terms of the orthodox symbol. A generation later Julian took up the reins of empire and commenced his quixotic and fruitless attempt to revive the glories of Paganism. Athanasius died in 373: but fourteen years later Augustine, his successor in the championship of the faith, was baptized, and in 395, at the death of Theodosius, when the Empire was divided between Honorius and Arcadius, he became Bishop of Hippo, and was marked out by his saintliness and learning as the leader of the Western Church, which he shaped by his splendid ideal of the Civitas Dei
into unity and stability, when the secular empire was falling into decay.
We know little more of the life of Prudentius than he himself has disclosed. The Preface, which stands as an introduction to his poems, is a miniature autobiography of great interest. M. Boissier in his Fin du Paganisme calls it melancolique: though it is rather the retrospect of a serious and awakened, but not morbid, conscience. Prudentius views his past years in the light of that new spiritual truth to which he has opened his soul. We gather that he received a liberal education and was called to the bar. We need not misunderstand the allusion to the deceitfulness of the barrister life, seeing that the ordinary arts of rhetoric stand condemned by his recently adopted ethical standard. He held two important judicial posts and was promoted to a high position, probably in the civil service and not outside the limits of his native province, the provincia Tarraconensis.
He speaks of himself as having reached the age of fifty-seven, which brings us down to 405, and as intending to consecrate his remaining years to the poetic treatment of religious subjects. When and how he became a Christian we do not know, and it were vain to guess, although the suggestion that he may have owed his conversion to the influence of some Christian family of his acquaintance is at least interesting. It is unlikely that he took up poetry for the first time in his old age. His mastery of all kinds of metre -- heroic and lyric -- prove the practised hand. The probability is that in the years of repose after a busy career his desire to redeem an unspiritual past suggested for the exercise of his natural gifts a field hitherto unoccupied by any of the writers of his age. Why not consecrate his powers to the task of interesting the literary circles of the Empire in the evangel of Christ? Why not present the truths of Christianity in a poetic guise, wrought into forms of beauty and set forth in the classical metres of Roman literature? This became the passion of his life, and however we may view the results of his toil, the spirit in which he went to work, as described in the touching Epilogue, cannot but evoke our profound admiration. He is but a vessel of earth, but whatever the issue may be, it will be a lasting joy to have sounded forth the praise of Christ in song.
This then is how Prudentius becomes the first poet of the Christian Church, or, as Bentley called him, |the Virgil and Horace of the Christians.| Doubtless there were other influences at work to determine the sphere to which he was naturally attract. Ambrose, who was Bishop of Milan when Prudentius was twenty-six years of age, had written the first Latin hymns to be sung in church. Augustine in a familiar passage of the Confessions (ix.7.) describes how |the custom arose of singing hymns and psalms, after the use of the Eastern provinces, to save the people from being utterly worn out by their long and sorrowful vigils.| |From that day to this,| he adds, |it has been retained and, many might say, all Thy flocks throughout the rest of the world now follow our example.| To Ambrose and Augustine the Church of Christ is for ever indebted: to the latter for a devotional treatise which is the most familiar of all the writings of the fourth century: to the former for the hymns of praise which he composed and the practice of singing which he thus inaugurated in the worship of the Western Church. But the Church owes something also to Prudentius, a much more gifted poet than Ambrose. The collection of hymns known as the Cathemerinon or Hymns for the day is as little adapted for ecclesiastical worship as Keble's Christian Year, although excerpts from these poems have passed into the hymnology of the Church, just as portions of Keble's work have passed into most hymn books. For example, seven of these excerpts in the form of hymns are to be found in the Roman Breviary, and thus for centuries the lyrics of Prudentius have been sung in the daily services of the Church.
Seeing that Prudentius must address himself to most English readers through the imperfect medium of a translation, it may be well to remind those who make their first acquaintance with him that a historical imagination is an indispensable condition of interest and sympathy. If Prudentius has a habit of leaving the main issue and making lengthy and tedious detours into the picturesque parables and miraculous incidents of the Old Testament, there is method in his digressiveness. He knows that one of the charms of Paganism lies in its rich and variegated mythology. Yet Christianity also can point to an even nobler inheritance of the supernatural and the wonderful in the mysterious evolutions of its history. Hence the stories of the early patriarchs, of the Israelites and Moses, of Daniel and Jonah, are imported by the poet as pictorial illustrations of his theme. If occasionally the details border on the grotesque, he certainly reveals a striking knowledge of the Old Testament.
The New Testament is also adequately represented. In one poem (ix.) the miracles of Christ in His earthly ministry and His descent into Hades are narrated with considerable spirit and eloquence. Besides being a student of the Bible, Prudentius is a theologian. His theology is that of the Nicene Creed. The Fall of man, the personality of the Tempter, the mystery of the Trinity and of the Incarnation, the Virgin-birth, the Death and Resurrection of Christ, the pains of the lost and the bliss of the saints, the resurrection of the Body and the life everlasting -- these are the themes of his pen, the themes too of the theology of his age. If the poet's treatment of these truths occasionally appears antiquated and crude to modern ideas, it is at least dignified and intelligent. His mind has absorbed the Christian religion and the Christian theology, and he not unfrequently rises to noble heights in the interpretation of their mysteries. His didactic poems, the Hamartigenia or the Origin of Evil and the Apotheosis, a treatise on the Person of Christ, prove him to be a theologian of no mean calibre. He is also an allegorist, as is proved by the Psychomachia or the Battle of the Soul, a kind of Holy War which was very popular in the Middle Ages. He is a martyrologist: as witness the Peristephanon, a series of poems on Christian, principally Spanish, martyrs. Moreover, he is an undoubted patriot, and in the Contra Symmachum, which he wrote on the famous affair of the Altar of Victory, he proves that, while a Christian, he is also civis Romanus, loyal to the Empire and the powers that be. He is a skilful versifier, and in this connection the quatrains of the Dittochaeon, verses on themes of the Old and New Testaments, may be mentioned in order to complete the list of his works. His mastery of his very varied metres -- hexameter, iambic, trochaic and sapphic -- is undoubted: everywhere we note the influence of Virgil and Horace, even when these poets are not recalled by echoes of their diction which are constantly greeting the reader of his poems.
Reference has already been made to the influence of Ambrose of Milan upon the thought and style of Prudentius. But there is a second and even more powerful influence that deserves at least briefly to be noted -- namely, the Christian art of the Catacombs. Apart from such definite statements as e.g. are found in Peristephanon xi., it is obvious that Prudentius had a first-hand knowledge of Rome and particularly of the Catacombs. Everywhere in his poems we find evidences of the deep impression made upon his imagination by the paintings and sculptures of subterranean Rome. The now familiar representations which decorate the remains of the Catacombs suggested to him many of the allusions, the picturesque vignettes and glowing descriptions to be found in his poetry. Thus, the story of Jonah -- a common theme typifying the Resurrection -- the story of Daniel with its obvious consolations for an age of martyrs, the Good Shepherd and the denial of Peter may be mentioned among the numerous subjects which were reproduced in early Christian art and transferred by the poet to his verse. The symbolism of the Cock, the Dove, and the Lamb borne on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd is a perpetually recurring feature in the lyrics and martyr-hymns of Prudentius, who thus becomes one of our most valuable authorities on the Christian art of the fourth century.
The poems, of which a new English rendering is presented in this volume, are acknowledged by most critics to illustrate some of his best qualities, his brightness and dignity, his touches of nature-painting and his capacity for sustained and well-wrought narrative. As we study these lyrics of the early Church, we feel anew the mighty change that Christianity wrought in Roman life by its doctrine of immortality, and we note the curious fascination which the circumstances of the Nativity and especially the Adoration of the Magi had for the Western world. Prudentius had a great vogue in the Middle Ages, and the modern renewal of interest in mediaevalism invests with fresh dignity a poet whose works at the Revival of learning provoked the admiration of Erasmus and the researches of numerous scholars and editors. But it is undoubtedly to the student of ecclesiastical history and dogma and to the lovers of Christian art and antiquities that Prudentius most truly appeals. He claims our interest, not merely because he reflects the Christian environment of his days, but because his poetry represents an attempt to preach Christ to a world still fascinated by Paganism, while conscious that the old order was changing and yielding place to new.
Prudentium, unum inter Christianos vere facundum poetam.