Thursday, March 31, 2016

Prudentius: "The Christian Virgil and Horace"

Paulinus of Nola, who found a kindred spirit in his English biographer, Henry Vaughan, was a genuine Christian humanist, the spiritual ancestor of Vida and Manuanus. He was not a great poet, but he was a man of high culture and of noble and attractive character, and his influence did more even than that of Jerome or Augustine to popularise the ideals of the new Christian culture among the educated classes in the Western provinces.

But the greatest of the Christian poets was Paulinus' Spanish contemporary, Prudentius, whom Bentley termed "the Christian Virgil and Horace." Of all the Christian writers, Prudentius shows the fullest appreciation of the classical tradition in both its literary and its social aspects. He yields to none of the pagan poets in his civic patriotism and his devotion to the great name of Rome. He does not look on Rome with the eyes of Tertullian and Augustine as a mere manisfestation of human pride and ambition. Like Dante, he sees in the Empire a providential preparation for the unity of all mankind in Christ.  The Fabii and the Scipios were the unconsious instruments of the divine purpose, and the martyrs gave their lives for Rome no less than the legionaries. The last words of St. Laurence in the Peristephanon are a prayer for Rome. "O Christ, grant to thy Romans that the city by which Thou hast granted to the rest to be of one mind in religion should itself become Christian...May it teach lands far apart to come together in one grace; may Romulus become faithful and Numa himself believe." Now this prayer had been fulfilled; the Rome of the consuls and the Rome of the martyrs had become one. "To-day the lights of the Senate kiss the threshold of the temple of the apostles. The Pontiff who wore the sacred fillets bears on his brow the mark of the cross, and the Vestal Claudia kneels before the altar of St. Laurence."

In the poems of Prudentius and in those of Paulinus of Nola we see how the cult of the martyrs, which had its origins in the protest of the Christian mind against the anti-spiritual claims of the secular power, had become transformed into a social institution and a manifestation of civic piety. To Prudentius, the old local patriotism of the city state finds a new justificatiion through the cult of the local saints. he shows us the cities of Spain presenting themselves before the judgment-seat of God, each bearing the relics of its native martyrs. The saint has become the representative and guardian of the city and imparts to it a share in his glory.
Sterne te totam generosa sanctis
Civitas mecum tumulis: deinde
Mox resurgentes animas et artus
Tota sequeris
The Making of Europe, Christopher Dawson, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1945, 58-59

It cannot be said that poetry, in a literary sense, truly prospered in Christian surroundings. However, the greatest of the Latin Christian poets was the present author, who was born in any one of the three cities: Tarragona, Saragossa, and Calahorra. Modern scholarship favors Calahorra.

Any estimate of Prudentius must include a recognition of certain defects in his works, notably the length and prolixity of his hymns, the crude realism in his descriptions of the torments of the martyrs, the long declamatory speeches, the unreality of his allegory, and his excessive use of alliteration and assonance. Though his writings as a whole cannot be ranked among those of the great poetry in many instances. Prudentius has a technical skill surpassing that of the other Christian Latin poets. He is the creator of the Christian ode and the Christian allegory. He has something of the epic power of Virgil and the lyric beauty and variety of Horace.

Prudentius has still greater claims to greatness, however, in the Christian thought and inspiration of his poetry. A recent critic has declared with truth that Prudentius is 'first a Catholic and only in the second place a poet.' His faith is that of the Nicene Creed.

In his poetry, Prudentius celebrates the triumph of Christianity over paganism. He saw the Church emerging from its three-hundred-year struggle against the forces if idolatry and heresy, triumphant through its saving doctrine and the blood of its martyrs. He saw the magnificent basilicas, both in Spain and in Rome, rising in the place of the pagan temples. As an historian of Christian thought and culture at the end of the fourth century, Prudentius cannot be overestimated.

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