Prudentius, Aurelius Clemens
Prudentius, Aurelius Clemens one of the earliest hymnists of the Latin Church, is greatly celebrated in ecclesiastical history, though generally overrated. Bentley calls him "the Horace and Virgil of the Christians," not even qualifying them as Latin Christians. There were certainly many hymnists previous to Prudentius, and they sang in the tongue of Homer, Plato, and the New Test. the very thoughts, and frequently in the very words, of evangelists and apostles. The hosannas of Ephraim the Syrian had the sound as well as the sense of those of the children of Jerusalem; and Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzum, and the unknown earliest singers of the Oriental Church linked the passing hours with heaven by the sublimity of their language and the simplicity of their faith. As the truths of Christianity first flowed in Greek from inspired lips, so the songs of the Church came first in Greek. When, finally, the mighty new thought had been fitted to the comparatively stiff and narrow mould of Roman speech, it was not the tongue of Prudentius that gathered around it the spiritual and ecclesiastical associations of centuries. The rugged grandeur of expression, the calm and steady glow that wins for the majesty of heaven, came rather in the Latin hymns of Ambrose, Augustine, and Hilary of Poitiers. In the words of an eminent critic, "The fire of Revelation, in its strong and simple energy, by which, as it were, it rends the rock, and bursts the icy barriers of the human heart, predominates in those oldest pieces of the sacred Latin poesy which are comprised in the Ambrosian hymnology" (Fortlage).
Life. — Prudentius was born in A.D. 348, probably at Saragossa, in Spain. Nothing is known regarding him except what he has himself told in a poetical autobiography prefixed to his works. From this we learn that he received a liberal education, was admitted to the Roman bar. practiced as a pleader, and seems to have distinguished himself in his profession, as high civil offices were twice offered to him. He was even called upon to occupy a military.post at the court of the emperor Theodosius I. He was already fifty years of age, when, like other prominent men of those troublous times, he was agitated by earnest misgivings as to "what all the honors and joys of this world might do for him in eternity. In them he could not find God to whom he belonged" (Prof. Cathenz. 5, 28-34). Hence the resolution: "Let the soul, at the boundaries of life, renounce her folly and sin. Let her praise her God at least by her songs, as she cannot do it by her virtues. Let the day be spent in sacred hymns, andl let not even night interrupt the praises of God. I will struggle against heresy, defend the catholic faith, annihilate the sacrifices of the pagans, destroy thy idols, O Rome. I will praise in my songs thy martyrs, glorify the apostles" (l.c. ver. 35-42). These words indicate all the different tendencies in his literary productions, which reflect them.
Works. — We have from Prudentius's pen between 385 and 388 poems, a number of which bear Greek titles. The principal are —
1. Cathemerinon Liber (Book [i.e. of hymns] for Daily Use), being a series of twelve hymns, the first half of which were reckoned by the author suitable for devotional purposes at different parts of the day, and which the Latin Church has preserved in some of its collections.
2. Apotheosis, Α᾿ποθέωσις (a defence of the doctrine of the Trinity against heretics, with which are intermingled various discussions on the nature of the soul, on original sin, and on the resurrection).
3. Hamartigeneia, Α῾μαρτιγένεια (On the Origin of Evil, a polemic, in verse, against the Marcionites and Manichaeans).
4. Psychomatchia, ψυχομάχια (The Combat of the Mind against the Passions, or the Triumph of the Christian Graces in the Soul of a Believer).
5. Contra Symmachum, Liber I (a polemic against the heathen gods).
6. Contra Symmachum, Liber 2 (a polemic against a petition of the Roman senator Symmachus for the restoration of the altar and statue of Victory cast down by Gratian). Prudentius supports in these two poems the arguments set forth by Ambrose against the proposition of Symmachus. The first book shows the shameful origin of the old idolatry, exposes the absurdity and abomninations of the heathen mythology, the corruption resulting from the want of a moral check, and how happily Rome was inspired when it turned to Christianity. In the second book he examines the reasons alleged by his adversary, eloquently descants upon the cruel practice of gladiators' combats for the amusement of the people, and, in order to show their brutalizing influence, he instances a vestal attending in the amphitheatre, and witnessing the struggles and agonies of the fallen gladiators in the arena, exclaiming with joy that such sights were her delight, and giving without compunction the signal to despatch the fallen. Arnobius (bk. 4 towards the end) casts a similar reproach upon the vestals. As, in both books, the subject was of a nature to allow full scope to the genius of the poet, being eminently favorable to enthusiastic apology, this is the best of all his apologetical poems.
7. The Enchiridion utriusque Testamenti s. Diptychon (forty-eight poems of four verses each) is a historico-didactic work, of a uniform tenor, relating to some of the most remarkable events of the New and Old Test., as Adam and Eve, Abel and Cain, Joseph recognised by his brothers, the annunciation, the shepherds taught by the angels, etc. Gennadius counts this work with the other poems of Prudentius (De Script. Ecclesiastes 13); but its authenticity has been questioned, chiefly because it is less abundant in ideas than the others. The following are decidedly authentic, and, besides, excellent compositions: 8. Fourteen poems, Περὶ Στεφάνων, Peri Stephanon Liber, in honor of the martyrs for the faith-Laurentius, Eulalia, Vincent, Hippolytus, Peter and Paul, Agnes, etc.; full of warm feeling and splendid narratives. To the Christian lyrical poetry belong, 9, the twelve songs Καθημερινῶν, mostly destined for the daily prayer- hours, which were exactly observed in olden times. 'The first relates to the dawning of the (lay ("ad galli cantunm"); Christ, the rising light of the world, chases the lark powers of night. Let him banish them also from our heart and pour new light into our souls! The second is likewise a morning- song. The third and fourth are talle-prayers. The fifth is to be recited at the lighting of the candles; the sixth upon retiring for the night; the seventh and eighth while and after fasting; the ninth, an encomium on the Saviour, at all hours. To these are added Songs for Exequies (on the Resurrection), on the feasts of Christmas ("octavo Calendas Januarias") and Epiphany. All these songs breathe an earnest, Christian spirit; they show the rich symbolism of the Christian life of old, and are therefore of great archteological importance. Several passages of them and of the hymns Περὶ Στεφάνων have been put into the Breviary among the Church hymns. Prudentius cultivated, as we have seen, the two fundamental kinds of Christian poetry, the didactico-panegyrical and the lyric, which were the necessary consequences of the historico-dogmatic and mystical character of Christianity, and borrowed their forms from the ancient Roman poetry, which is also chiefly didactico-paraenetic or panegyric. The poetical form was employed at a very early period for the popular interpretation and defence of the Christian dogmas against pagans and heretics. Prudentius achieved in a short time a great reputation in the Church. Sidonius Apollinaris (Ep. ii, 9) compares him with Horace, who was his chief model in a formal point of view; yet Prudentius moves in the classical forms with incomparably greater ease than his predecessors, Juvencus and Victorinus: he borrows more than the latter writers from the ecclesiastical Latinity, to keep the expression of his thoughts free from all pagan coloring. His phrases, it is true, show the decay of letters and of good Latin, yet many parts of his poems display taste as well as delicacy; for instance, his stanzas, Salvete, flores martyrum, to be found in the Roman Breviary for the feast of the Holy Innocents. We are, however, at a loss to understand how any scholars of our critical age can bestow unqualified praise on Prudentius, and place him first in the list of Christian versifiers. Nor are we ready to shut our eves wilfully to all the beauties of Prudentius's verse, and declare his hymns simply "didactic essays, loaded with moral precepts and doctrinal subtleties." His lyric style is good, and his hymns are good specimens of the best Christian song of the Latin Church in that early age. "The stanzas," says Milman (Hist. of Latin Christianity, 8:309), "which the Latin Church has handed down in her services from Prudentius are but the flowers gathered from a wilderness of weeds." Prudentius, even in Germany, was the great popular author of the Middle Ages; no work but the Bible appears with so many glosses (interpretations or notes) in High German, which show that it was a book of popular instruction (comlp.
Raumer, Einwirkung des Christenthums auf die Althochdeutsche Sprache, p. 222). Had Ambrose lived earlier, Prudentius would not have been remembered at all; but as his contemporary he deserves a place beside that great Church father, whom he never excelled, but sometimes equalled as a hymnologist. The earliest edition of Prudentius's works is that of Deventer (1472). By far the best is that of Faustinus Arrevalus (Rome. 1788-89, 2 vols. 4to), but excellent editions are also those by Waitz (Hanover, 1613, 8vo); Chamillard (in usum Delphini. Paris. 1687, 4to); and Gallandius, Bibl. Patr. vol. viii. The newest and handiest is that by Obbarius (Tubing. 1844), whose Prolegomena embrace a large amount of information condensed into a small compass. See Gennadius, De Viris Illustr. 13; Ludwig, Dissert. de Vita A. Prudentii (Viteb. 1642, 4to); Le Clerque, Vie de Prudence (Amst. 1689); Middeldorpf, Comment. de Prud. et Theol. Prud. (Vratisl. 182327); Schaff, Ch. Hist. vol. iii; Christian Life in Song, p. 74 sq., 98, 110 sq.; Saunders, Evenings with the Sacred Poets, p. 34 sq.; Maittaire. Poetce Latini. p. 1587 sq.; Daniel, Thesaurus Hymnol. ii, 102 sq.; Smith, Diet. of Gr. and Rom. Biog. s.v.