A Poetic Jewel from Late Antiquity: Prudentius’ Psychomachia

Peter Hulse

Sunday evening at round about 7.30pm means dining, listening to The Archers, but also the imminent arrival of another instalment of exciting news (usually headed χαῖρε!) from a cave situated somewhere near Thebes (aka Antigone Towers).

The routine Antigone inbox-disturber.

An edition of that email dated 22/01/23 contained an intriguing list: “If anyone fancies pinging us a piece on one of these topics, we are all ears!… Hesiod’s Works and Days, Delphi over the centuries, Euripides’ later plays, Catiline’s Truth.” Well possibly… but the topic that especially caught the eye came towards the end… Prudentius and his poetry.

One knew the name (and the title of a work, Psychomachia – the Battle of the Soul), and that he wrote hymns:[1]

The original plainsong of Divinum mysterium in Piae Cantiones.

But more than that? Away with ChatGPT! Old-fashioned research and books were required.

One of the first things that I discovered was that the great scholar Richard Bentley (1662–1742) thought that Prudentius was Christianorum Maro et Flaccus – the Christian Vergil and Horace. This was in a note in his famous commentary on Horace at Odes 2.3.15, published in Cambridge in 1711:

He refers to Prudentius in at least thirty other places and elsewhere (on Odes 1.4.16) calls him perpetuus nostri [=Horatii] imitator (“the continual imitator of our poet [Horace]”).

His full name was Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. Probably born in AD 348, he was a Spaniard from Calahorra in Northern Spain. From an aristocratic, and probably Christian family, he was educated in the Classical schools of Rhetoric. In his own words, from his introduction to his poetry:

aetas prima crepantibus
flevit sub ferulis. mox docuit toga
infectum vitiis falsa loqui, non sine crimine.
tum lasciva protervitas…

My first years wept under the crack of the rod; after that the toga corrupted me and taught me to utter sinful falsehoods; then lewd sauciness and wanton indulgence…(Praefatio 7–10)[2]

After a somewhat misspent youth, he seems to have pulled himself together and was eventually promoted, since,

tandem militiae gradu
evectum pietas principis extulit
adsumptum propius stare iubens ordine proximo.

Finally, the Graciousness of the Emperor raised me up in his service, ordering me to stand in the next rank. (Ibid. 19–21)

This is a rather vague description, but it implies that he became a Comes primi ordinis (“a companion [to the emperor] of the first rank”), which is to say an important imperial administrator, with a seat in the Senate (a totally honorary institution by the end of the 4th Century). He may have been occupying this seat or been present in some other august gathering, probably in Milan, now the preferred imperial residence, when a new poetic star made his first appearance.

Reconstruction of the Circus and the Imperial Palace, drawn by F. Corni (courtesy of Civico Museo Archeologico di Milano, Italy).

This was the poet from Egypt, Claudian,[3] an Alexandrian Greek who, like many Egyptian poets of the time, left home to make his way with the aid of his ready pen. Perhaps Prudentius heard him in January 395, when Claudian recited in Rome his first poem published in Latin – for he had previously written only in Greek – to celebrate the consulate of two members of the illustrious family of the Anicii:[4] Claudian apparently gave a virtuoso performance. Writing in 430, the chronicler Prosper noted that the distinguished poet Claudian became famous at this time: hoc tempore Claudianus poeta insignis innotuit (Chron. 1205). Or perhaps Prudentius heard the thrilling opening of Book 1 of the In Rufinum, which Claudian delivered a couple of years later in imperial Milan.

If Prudentius were present at Claudian’s first recitation of In Rufinum, it surely cannot have failed to make a great impression on him. The extravagant use of personification in the “entrance of the Furies”[5] (and in many other places) must have been a factor in the allegory that constitutes the essence of Prudentius’ Psychomachia, as the table below shows.

The Vices and the Virtues slug it out on an allegorical battlefield! After an opening in which the poet firmly establishes his Vergilian credentials,[6] a succession of almost gladiatorial combats ensues. The action is violent, often extravagantly so and, depending on which manuscript you are reading, pictorial. Illustrations for the Psychomachia survive in twenty different manuscripts made between the 9th and the 13th centuries. Their existence stresses the vividness of Prudentius’ writing.

Round 1: Fides vs Veterum cultura deorum

The first contest is between Faith (Fides) and another female combatant representing the worship of the old gods (Veterum Cultura Deorum), in other words, Christianity vs Paganism.

Illuminations in a late-10th cent. manuscript of Prudentius’ Psychomachia. Above: Faith (left) confronts Paganism; below: Faith triumphs over her fallen adversary (London, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f.7r).

Or alternatively:

Faith (left) confronts Worship of the Gods: a metaphorical and literal battleaxe! (c.900, Bern Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 264, p.68).

Fides (Faith) has no time for weapons! She comes onto the battlefield dressed in simple fashion, eager to vanquish her pagan adversary (also a woman). Prudentius’ heroes and villains are all women, a significant departure from Classical epic. Also, there is no time for the traditional arming scene:

prima petit campum dubia sub sorte duelli
pugnatura Fides, agresti turbida cultu,
nuda umeros, intonsa comas, exerta lacertos;
namque repentinus laudis calor ad nova fervens
proelia nec telis meminit nec tegmine cingi,
pectore sed fidens valido membrisque retectis
provocat insani frangenda pericula belli.

Faith first takes the field to face the doubtful chances of battle, her rough dress disordered, her shoulders bare, her hair untrimmed, her arms exposed; for the sudden glow of ambition, burning to enter fresh contests, takes no thought to gird on arms or armour, but trusting in a stout heart and unprotected limbs challenges the hazards of furious warfare, meaning to break them down… (21–7)

The contest does not last very long. The champion of the old gods quickly bites the dust:

ecce lacessentem conlatis viribus audet
prima ferire Fidem Veterum Cultura Deorum.
illa hostile caput phalerataque tempora vittis
altior insurgens labefactat, et ora cruore
de pecudum satiata solo adplicat et pede calcat
elisos in morte oculos, animamque malignam
fracta intercepti commercia gutturis artant,
difficilemque obitum suspiria longa fatigant.

First Worship-of-the-Old-Gods gathers her strength against Faith’s challenge and dares to strike at her. But Faith, rising higher, lands a weakening blow on her enemy’s head, its brows adorned with headbands, brings to the earth that mouth that was sated with the blood of beasts, and tramples the eyes under foot, squeezed out in death. The foe’s wicked breath stops as her throat’s transport is choked and broken. Long gasps torment her to an agonizing death. (28-35)

Faith stepping on the head of Worship of the Old Gods (early 9th cent., Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 8085, f.57r.).

Round 2: Patientia vs Ira

The amount of blood, gore, and violence in Psychomachia has surprised and shocked many modern critics and readers. It is, however, leavened on occasion by a degree of extreme grim humour. Ira (Anger), for instance, lashes herself into such a fury that she angers herself out of existence, after her abortive attempts to dent the armour of Patientia (Patience):

ecce modesta gravi stabat Patientia vultu
per medias inmota acies variosque tumultus…

Look, mild Long-Suffering was standing with staid countenance, unmoved amid the battle and its confused uproar… (109–10)

hanc procul Ira tumens, spumanti fervida rictu,
sanguinea intorquens subfuso lumina felle…

On her from a distance swelling Wrath, showing her teeth with rage and foaming at the mouth, darts her eyes, all shot with blood and gall… (113–14)

She hurls a javelin, but it bounces off Patientia’s breast plate. Further long-range attempts also fail. Finally Ira in turn resorts to hand-to-hand fighting (137 vertitur ad capulum manus inproba, “her ruthless hand turned to her sword-hilt”). She attempts a mighty, shattering blow (138–9 conisa in plagam dextra sublimis ab aure / erigitur mediumque ferit librata cerebrum, “she raises [the sword] high above her right ear and then, launching the stroke, smites her foe’s head in the very middle”), but again to no avail (140–2 cocto cassis formata metallo / tinnitum percussa refert aciemque retundit / dura resultantem, “But the helmet of forged bronze only resounds under the blow; the blade rebounds with blunted edge, so hard it is”).

Anger’s sword shatters on Patience’s helmet, then the enraged Anger commits suicide (c.900, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Codex 264, p.79).

All this is too much for Ira who picks up one of her ineffective spears and impales herself upon it. This elicits a (somewhat restrained) cry of triumph from her indomitable opponent: (155–7) vicimus… exultans Vitium solita virtute, sine ullo sanguinis ac vitae discrimine, “We have overcome a proud Vice with our usual virtue, with no danger to blood or life.” This surely must be Prudentius writing with his tongue to some degree in his cheek, subverting the violence of his allegorical battlefield.

Round 3: Mens humilis (and Spes) vs Superbia

Something similar occurs when Superbia (Pride) takes the field:

forte per effusas inflata Superbia turmas
effreni volitabat equo…

It chanced that Pride was galloping about, all puffed up, through the widespread squadrons, on a mettled steed… (178–9)

Pride gallivanting ((c.900, Bern Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 264, p.82).

She is magnificently arrayed and circles the battlefield in arrogant fashion, glaring at her opponent who is a complete contrast:

Mens Humilis, regina quidem, sed egens alieni
auxilii proprio nec sat confisa paratu.

Humility – a princess in her own right, yet reliant on the aid of others and lacking confidence in her own resources. (199–200)

Pride makes a speech full of insulting remarks:

non pudet, o miseri, plebeio milite claros
adtemptare duces ferroque lacessere gentem
insignem titulis…

“Is it not shameful, O wretched ones, for a common soldier to dare challenge illustrious leaders and with sword in hand provoke a people adorned with titles?” (206–8)

After a great deal of this and similar persiflage, she utters a final boastful threat:

faxo ego, sub pedibus stipularum more teratur
invalida ista manus; neque enim perfringere duris
dignamur gladiis, algenti et sanguine ferrum
inbuere fragilique viros foedare triumpho.

I will ensure that this feeble band is crushed beneath my feet like straw; for we do not deign to break it with harsh swords, stain our weapons with cold blood or disgrace our warriors with a fragile triumph.” (249–52)

Pride rides down Humility and Hope, with Latin and Old English captions (late 10th / early 11th cent., London, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f.15v).

With that she spurs her proud mount forward, believing that she will easily trample her lowly opposition under hoof. However, her nose is so high in the air that she does not see a pit that have been built across the battlefield by Fraus (Deceit):

sed cadit in foveam praeceps, quam callida forte
Fraus interciso subfoderat aequore furtim…

But she falls headlong into a pit which as it chanced cunning Deceit had dug craftily across the field… (257–8)

Pride falls into a pit (late 10th / early 11th cent., London, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f.15v).

Humility has sensibly kept her distance and does not fall (literally) into the trap. Being “quiet and self-controlled” (274 placidi moderaminis), she almost spares her floundering enemy – but Spes (Hope) strengthens her resolve and the deadly stroke is delivered:

illa cruentatam correptis crinibus hostem
protrahit et faciem laeva revocante supinat,
tunc caput orantis flexa cervice resectum
eripit ac madido suspendit colla capillo.

Grasping her blood-stained enemy by the hair, she drags her out and with her left hand turns her face upwards; then, though she begs for mercy, bends the neck, severs the head, lifts it and holds it up by the dripping locks. (280–3)

One of the more gruesome moments of the poem, even by the standards of the Psychomachia! There follows a justifying cry of triumph (on the part of Spes):

“desine grande loqui; frangit Deus omne superbum,
magna cadunt, inflata crepant, tumefacta premuntur.
disce supercilium deponere, disce cavere
ante pedes foveam, quisquis sublime minaris.
pervulgata viget nostri sententia Christi
scandere celsa humiles et ad ima redire feroces.”

Desist from speaking grandly; God breaks every proud thing. Great things fall, inflated things burst, swollen things are crushed. Learn to lay aside arrogance, learn to beware the pit at your feet, whoever threatens lofty things. Well known and true is the saying of our Christ that the lowly ascend to high places and the proud are reduced to low degree.” (285–90)

What an expression of divine retribution! Throughout the poem, the violence of the scenes is appropriate to the nature of each defeated vice. This may have something to do with the Lex Talionis and the Roman love of gladiatorial spectacle and munera,[7] but, above all, Prudentius is describing a universal conflict in which Good is opposed to Evil and must be shown to triumph in vivid and emotive colours.

A Peaceful End

The ending of the poem fully achieves this aim. All the Vices are decisively vanquished. Concordia (Concord) rules and addresses the assembled Virtues in ringing terms:[8]

The address of Concord (11th cent., St Gallen, Codex Sangallensis 135, p.429).

“…cumulata quidem iam gloria vobis,
o Patris, o Domini fidissima pignera Christi,
contigit: extincta est multo certamine saeva
barbaries, sanctae quae circumsaepserat urbis
indigenas, ferroque viros flammaque premebat.”

Abundant glory has come to you, you faithful children of the Father and of Christ our Lord. With a great struggle you have wiped out the cruel savages that had beset the dwellers in the holy city round about with hard pressure of fire and sword.” (750–4)

She continues with an eloquent plea for peace as the end and goal of virtue:

“pax belli exacti pretium est pretiumque pericli.
sidera pace vigent, consistunt terrea pace.
nil placitum sine pace Deo…”

Peace is the reward for war now ended and for peril faced. It is by peace that the stars live and move, by peace that earthly things stand firm. Without peace nothing is pleasing to God.” (770–2)

She is fully supported by Fides, who proposes the unifying task that will bring Prudentius’ poem to its conclusion:

“unum opus egregio restat post bella labori,
o proceres, regni quod tandem pacifer heres
belligeri, armatae successor inermus et aulae,
instituit Solomon…”

One task alone, O chiefs, now that war is over, remains for a noble effort to perform; the task that Solomon, the peaceful heir of a warlike throne, the unarmed successor to an armed court, instituted.” (804–7)

Building the Temple of Wisdom:

This task concerns the construction of a Temple of Wisdom to rival the “golden temple” of Jerusalem:

“surgat et in nostris templum venerabile castris,
omnipotens cuius sanctorum sancta revisat.
nam quid terrigenas ferro pepulisse phalangas
Culparum prodest, hominis si Filius arce
aetheris inlapsus purgati corporis urbem
intret inornatam templi splendentis egenus?”

In our camp too let a sacred temple arise, that the Almighty may visit its holy of holies. For what does it profit to have driven back with the sword the earth-born regiments of the Sins, if the Son of Man coming down from high heaven and entering the city of the cleansed body finds it unadorned and lacking a shining temple?” (814–19)

The building of the temple (11th cent., St Gallen, Codex Sangallensis 135, p.435).

This third section of the poem has the most obvious and easily apprehended biblical reference. Concordia promptly starts taking the measurements of the temple (as depicted above), providing a detailed description of its magnificent architecture. The temple, adorned with twelve precious stones, echoes the celestial New Jerusalem depicted in John’s Revelation (Rev. 21:10–27). The exact variety of each gemstone is not clear, but the most plausible identifications are: chrysolitus (olivine), sappirus (lapis lazuli), beryllus (beryl), calchedon (chalcedony), yacinthus (sapphire), sardonix (sardonyx), amethystus (amethyst), iaspis (jasper), sardius (carnelian), topazon (topaz), smaragdus (emerald) and chrysoprasos (chrysoprase).[9]

The twelve gemstones of Revelation.

Once the temple is fully constructed, Sapientia (Wisdom) takes her place at the centre, ruling with justice (868–87).

Wisdom enthroned (London, British Library, Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f.36r).

Prudentius’ poetry describing the precious stones is truly sensuous in quality and highlights one strand of Late-Antique taste, a flair for variatio and intricate poetic description:[10]

quin etiam totidem gemmarum insignia textis
parietibus distincta micant, animasque colorum
viventes liquido lux evomit alta profundo.
ingens chrysolitus, nativo interlitus auro,
hinc sibi sapphirum sociaverat, inde beryllum,
distantesque nitor medius variabat honores.
hic chalcedon hebes perfunditur ex hyacinthi
lumine vicino; nam forte cyanea propter
stagna lapis cohibens ostro fulgebat aquoso.

Moreover, an equal number of gems, individually embedded in the structure of the walls, shimmer strikingly, radiating vivid, pulsating hues from their crystalline cores as they catch the light from above. A grand chrysolite, naturally flecked with gold, has a sapphire on one side and a beryl on the other, their collective radiance infusing each other’s beauty with a kaleidoscope of varying hues. Here, a usually muted chalcedony is awash with colour, borrowing brilliance from the neighbouring jacinth’s light. As fortune would have it, this stone, with its mysterious dark depths, gleams nearby, casting a translucent crimson glow. (851–9)

The temple constructed, with the poet making a cameo in the bottom right (early 9th cent., Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Latin 8085).

The Psychomachia ends with an address to Christ that balances the opening and sums up the allegorical struggle that Prudentius has described so eloquently. Vergilian echoes[11] add power to the conclusion:

                         fervent bella horrida, fervent
ossibus inclusa, fremit et discordibus armis
non simplex natura hominis.

Savage war rages hotly, rages within our bones, and man’s two-sided nature is in an uproar of rebellion. (902–4)

The closing lines are particularly fine and mellifluous, fully worthy of the Christian Vergil. At the end of his extraordinary poem of allegorical moral conflict, the poet prays that Sapientia may reign in himself and in the individual souls of the readers.

spiritibus pugnant variis lux atque tenebrae,
distantesque animat duplex substantia vires,
donec praesidio Christus Deus adsit et omnes
virtutum gemmas conponat sede piata,
atque, ubi peccatum regnaverat, aurea templi
atria constituens texat spectamine morum
ornamenta animae, quibus oblectata decoro
aeternum solio dives Sapientia regnet.

Light and darkness with their opposing spirits are at war, and our two-fold being inspires powers at variance with each other, until Christ our God comes to our aid, orders all the jewels of the virtues in a pure setting, and where sin formerly reigned builds the golden courts of his temple, creating for the soul, out of the trial of its conduct, ornaments for rich Wisdom to find delight in as she reigns for ever on her beauteous throne. (908–15)

The Psychomachia clearly shows that Prudentius is a dynamic link in the tradition of Roman literature reaching back to Vergil and looking ahead to the Middle Ages and Dante.[12] The author of this piece can only offer small thanks to a Sunday evening email for the chance to realise this!

Peter Hulse is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. He has made a special study of Apollonius of Rhodes but has a wide-ranging interest in all aspects of the Classical world. He has written previously for Antigone about a medieval Latin poem about chess, about the tale of some American Argonauts, about the arrival of the celebrity Caecilius in Blighty, and about the Helen Episode of Aeneid 2. He used to teach Latin, Greek and IT.

Further Reading

A. Cameron, Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (Oxford UP, 1970).

M. Mastrangelo, The Roman Self in Antiquity: Prudentius and the Poetics of the Soul. (John Hopkins UP, Baltimore, MD, 2008).

A. Pelttari, The Psychomachia of Prudentius: Text, Commentary, and Glossary (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 2019).

M. Roberts, The Jewelled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity (Cornell UP, Ithaca, NY, 1998).


1 See further here, and this list.
2 Translations are from H.J. Thomson’s Loeb edition, with minor modifications.
3 I hope to write a separate piece about Claudian. I think his In Rufinum (particularly the opening and closing passages) to be one of the most exciting and thrilling pieces of Latin poetry that you can read. I mention it here because I think his influence on Prudentius was great (see Cameron 1970, 469–72). They were contemporaries and may even have met.
4 The brothers Probinus and Olybrius, consuls for AD 395, and of the gens Anicia. Many members of this family had been, and were to be, consuls: e.g. Anicius Auchenius Bassus in AD 408.
5 See further the second paragraph of Book 1.
6 Christe, graves hominum semper miserate labores (“Christ, ever compassionate, bestow your mercy upon grave struggles of humanity”) rewrites Aeneas’ prayer to Apollo in the Sibyl’s cave: “Phoebe, gravis Troiae semper miserate labores” (“Phoebus Apollo, forever compassionate, bestow your mercy upon the grave toils of Troy,” Aen. 6.56).
7 Although Honorius did legally end the games in AD 399, interest in spectacle certainly persisted.
8 And Vergil, as ever, lurks in the background, for isntance line 746 auribus intentis expectant contio echoes Aen. 2.1 conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant.
9 Identification by Peltarri (2019) 208.
10 See further Roberts (1989) 132–3 and Peltarri (2019) 208–9.
11 Cf. Aen. 6.86 bella, horrida bella (the Sibyl warns Aeneas of terrible wars in his future) and Aen. 7.41–2 dicam horrida bella, / dicam acies.  Such Vergilian echoes paint the soul’s interior struggles as epic battles, so for every reader recognizing them the tone and pitch of the Psychomachia is heightened.
12 “In considering the similarity between the use of Vergil’s Aeneid by Prudentius and Dante, however, it is clear that the late antique author has anticipated his early modern successor.” (Mastrangelo 2008, 173).