Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.07.03


Michael J. Roberts, Poetry and the Cult of the Martyrs. The "Liber Peristephanon" of Prudentius. Recentiores: Later Latin Texts and Contexts. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993. Pp. x + 222. ISBN 0-472-10448-7.


Reviewed by Ian G. Tompkins, Board of Classical Studies, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

[[For an earlier review of the same book, see BMCR 94.4.17.]]

The subject of this study is the Peristephanon, a collection of poems by the Spanish Christian writer Prudentius of Calahorra concerned with a wide range of martyrs of the church, including Peter and Paul, Cyprian of Carthage, and Romanus of Antioch. The author, Michael Roberts, has also published two previous monographs on Latin poetry in late antiquity (Biblical Epic and Rhetorical Paraphrase in Late Antiquity, Liverpool, 1985; The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity, Ithaca, 1989), while the present study of the Peristephanon is the third work on these poems in English to have appeared in recent years (Anne-Marie Palmer, Prudentius on the Martyrs, Oxford, 1989; Martha Malamud, A Poetics of Transformation: Prudentius and Classical Mythology, Ithaca, 1989). (There is also a recent unpublished doctoral dissertation by J.F. Petruccione, Prudentius' Use of Martyrological Topoi in Peristephanon, Univ. of Michigan, 1985). The publication of this monograph has been accompanied by the storing on-line of a copy of the Latin text of the Peristephanon at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Computer Analysis of Texts, available by ftp or gopher to ccat.sas.upenn.edu. A similar text-archive facility is available for other volumes in this series, under the auspices of the series editor, Professor J.J. O'Donnell.

The central interest of Poetry and the Cult of the Martyrs is with the style of presentation of the cult of the martyrs within the Peristephanon. In five chapters, R. examines a number of aspects of the collection, in relation to structures and poetic strategies. The book is neither intended as an historical investigation into the development of the cult of the martyrs, nor does it consider Prudentius' relation to his classical sources, except in chapter 3, a theme which has been treated at greater length by Palmer in her monograph.

In chapter 1 ("The Martyr in Time and Place", pp.9-37), R. explores the use which Prudentius makes of the concepts of space and time in the Peristephanon. As the basis to this discussion, R. employs the interpretative framework set out in Peter Brown's influential study The Cult of the Saints (Chicago and London, 1981), who emphasises the manner in which shrines of martyrs and saints marked the collapse for men and women in late antiquity of distinctions of time and space. Thus, the chapter opens with a discussion of the opening of Pe. 1, and suggests that this passage creates "a series of oppositions that are significant not just for this poem but for the collection as a whole" (p.10). The tomb of the martyrs transcends the boundaries of both time and space: the saints in their particular locale are visited by the wider world through which their fame extends, while the blood which they had once shed is still wet (pp.12-13).

R. then examines Prudentius' interest in providing an account of the circumstances of the foundation of a martyr's cult, in relation to Vincent, Fructuosus and his deacons, and Hippolytus (Pe. 5, 6, and 11; pp.13-16). R. proposes that these poems support a particular view of the distribution of relics which he associates with the Roman church. He suggests that a much firmer line was taken on the trade in relics by Rome, and also by Augustine in Carthage, than was the case with Ambrose in Milan and the eastern church more generally. Rome disapproved of the dismemberment and distribution of corpses, while Augustine wrote against the acquisition of relics by private individuals in De Cura pro Mortuis Gerenda. However, contact relics were still permitted, that is to say, garments dipped in the martyrs' blood, or pieces of clothing they had once worn. While this distinction certainly holds good in the case of the account of Fructuosus ( 6.133-141), it may be doubted whether the account of the re-assembly of Hippolytus' dismembered corpse also supports this argument. It is more likely that the process of the mopping up of his blood with sponges and cloths mentioned in 11.141-144 is part of the general process of re-assembly, and does not have "no role to play in restoring the saint's corporal integrity" as R. suggests (p.15): Prudentius intends to show that the body was absolutely complete, including the blood spilt on bushes.

Pe. 5 and 11 also reflect the post-Constantinian development of architecture over the graves of martyrs (pp.16-19). Thus, the size of the crowds at the tomb of Hippolytus led to the construction of a new and larger basilica (11.211-218).

The martyrs of the Peristephanon enjoy a role as mediators and intercessors between earth and heaven (pp.19-25). A complex and elaborate vocabulary is used to express this idea: the martyrs' presence was felt close at hand below the altar (4.1 89), while they were also in the company of God, petitioning for the church (5.548) (p.20). The martyrs enjoyed a carefully nuanced role as mediators of blessings rather than the source, who remained God (pp.20-21). On several occasions martyrs are called patroni (1.12, 2.579, 6.145, 13.106), while they also speak before God on behalf of sinners, as a patron would act for his clientes (5.547-8). Although patronage was fundamental to Roman society (on which see the essays in A. Wallace-Hadrill (ed.) Patronage in Ancient Society, London, 1989), the use of its terminology had only recently penetrated the theological vocabulary with Ambrose, and been developed by Prudentius' contemporary, Paulinus of Nola, who may have influenced Prudentius' language (p.21). Prudentius employs familial imagery, describing the citizens protected by Lawrence as his alumni (2.570; pp.23-24). The martyrs are also seen as the amici Christi (pp.24-25). A particular aspect of the relationship between the martyr-cult and its social context explored in the final part of chapter 1 is the role of the martyr as the defender of the communities in which the cult-centre is located, with particular reference to Pe. 4, which is to be seen as a Christianised laus urbis (pp.26-37). Pe. 4 is unusual within the collection of the Peristephanon in that its structure is closer to epideixis than to narrative and description, and follows many of the principles for praising a city suggested by the treatises of Menander Rhetor (pp.28-30). Saragossa is placed within a catalogue of cities graced by martyrs' tombs (4.17-52), while the topography of the city has been entirely Christianised (4.65-72).

In chapter 2 ("The Martyr Narrative: Between Heaven and Earth", pp.39-77), R. sets Prudentius' treatment of his theme against the context of the historical development of the literature of martyrdoms (pp.42-45). He highlights the three elements of the passio mentioned by Cyprian, in De Dominica Oratione 15, which form the basis for his subsequent discussion (p.44). These are the verbal questioning by the presiding judge, in which the Christian confesses his or her faith (pp.51-55), the tortures that the persecutors then apply (pp.55-68), and finally the description of the actual death of the martyr (pp.68-77). These three elements are basic to the narrative sections of the Peristephanon. The interrogation of magistrates takes the form of both threats and blandishments. Both Lawrence and Vincent are subject to gentle persuasion from magistrates, while Agnes faces both threats and gentle words (14.16-17). In all cases, the martyr resists their words, although the form of words the martyrs employ vary considerably. In turn, the martyr's resistance invariably arouses the magistrate to an intensification of his anger.

The description of the death of the martyr usually consists of three elements: means of death, reference to the end of suffering, and the departure of the soul for heaven (p.68). The most common methods of execution in the Peristephanon are with the sword or by burning, although a number, such as Quirinus who is drowned and Cassian who is stabbed by his pupils' pens, undergo more unusual fates. Death is regularly seen as marking an end of suffering (e.g. 6.117). After death the soul is released from the body and ascends to God. R. notes that this was already a common motif in Christian poetry and inscriptions and was not restricted to the martyrs alone (p.69). It should be added that the image also has antecedents in pagan religions (cf. Fr. Cumont, Etudes Syriennes, Paris, 1917, pp.35ff). Prudentius also develops a complex set of terms to describe the heaven to which the martyrs' souls are thought to ascend (pp.70-72).

Chapter 3 ("The Road to Heaven", pp.79-108) explores the image of the journey within the Peristephanon, in relation to the martyrs Eulalia and Vincent (Pe. 3 and 5). The young maiden journeys along a pathway strewn with sexual temptation, in order to meet her death, while Vincent descends into the depths of the prison, where he triumphs over the forces of darkness and evil.

Prudentius elaborates at length the image of the subterranean prison as a metaphor for Hell. The martyr's descent into the dark prison and subsequent triumph over the persecuting forces of evil mirror the triumphant descent of Christ into Hell. This imagery is most fully developed in the case of Vincent (Pe. 5; pp.83-89). The narrative repeatedly emphasises the depth and the darkness of the prison, a framework which then collapses with the release of Vincent, when light fills the prison and breaks open its doors (5.269-272), while light from outside also penetrates the confine's tiny cracks (5.305-308). R. also identifies two sub-texts within the main narrative. Firstly, the conflict between Vincent and his gaoler, Datian, is resolved in the latter's conversion, which begins with his sight of these chinks of light penetrating the gloom (pp.87-89). Secondly, Prudentius also employs the idea of the body as a prison, an image with prolonged antecedents (pp.89-90), while the account of the death of Cyprian also develops this metaphor at some length (Pe. 13; pp.90-91).

The account of the martyrdom of the young maiden, Eulalia of Merida, which may be entirely a poetic fiction (pp.100-101), is rich in sexual symbolism and allusion, with regard to the journey of Eulalia to the city, her time of trial, when the praetor attempts to woo her (3.101-115), and the cult founded around her grave. The account of her martyrdom opens with the young woman escaping from her parents' country estate and travelling to the city to face her pagan persecutors. Her journey leads 'per loca senta situ' (3.47), a phrase also to be found in Virgil's account of Aeneas' descent into the underworld (Aeneid 6.462). R. suggests that the reader is intended to recall through this phrase the image of Dido in Hades as a source of sexual temptation for Aeneas, and that the rough places of Eulalia's journey thus possess the same connotations; Eulalia is to be seen as overcoming the temptations of sexual desire (pp.92-93). The barren places are overgrown with brambles (vepres): briers and thorns are frequent metaphors in Christian poetry for luxuria (pp.94-95). A further allusion to erotic imagery in Virgil has been seen in Eulalia's overturning of the censers and images (3.130), where the phrase 'pede prosubigit' may allude to Georgics 3.256, in a section of the Georgics concerned with the power of desire among animals: Prudentius is inverting Virgil's description, for the phrase is now used in the context of the rejection of sexual desire (pp.93-94). However, a third allusion to Aeneas' choice between the two roads (Aeneid 6.540ff; pp.95-96) seems rather forced and less plausible.

A further allusion may be found in the description of the basilica over the tomb of Eulalia: 'de laquearibus aureolis' recalls the 'laquearibus aureis' of Dido's palace (Aeneid 1.726) (pp.96-97). The picture of the worshippers at the shrine is heavy with floral and bridal imagery. R. sees the festival as "a marriage ceremony in reverse, celebrating the victory of frugalitas not luxuria" (p.100).

In chapter 4 ("The Martyr as Bishop and Teacher", pp.109-129), R. examines the function of bishops in the poems of the Peristephanon. Bishops take on the role of orators, delivering sermons to their congregations, which reflects "the bishop's function as teacher and pastor" (p.110). Thus, in Pe. 2, Lawrence's bishop, Sixtus, foretells Lawrence's impending martyrdom, as he himself is executed (2.25-28). In Pe. 6, Fructuosus encourages his deacons who are facing martyrdom beside him (6.10-27), while Quirinus addresses his flock as his persecutors drown him (7.31-45) (pp.109-112). Most of chapter 4 is an extended reading of Pe. 13, the martyrdom of Cyprian of Carthage (pp.113-129), and provides a substantially different interpretation of this poem from that of Malamud in Poetics of Transformation (p.114, n.8). R. highlights a number of significant innovations which Prudentius appears to have introduced into his account from earlier versions of the life of Cyprian (pp .114-121). The poet has integrated into the martyrdom the account of the Massa Candida, a group of martyrs from Utica, who were previously unconnected with Cyprian's death. Unlike the other episcopal martyrs in the Peristephanon, Cyprian dies after his congregation. The result of this manoeuvre is to emphasise the role of Cyprian as an episcopal leader, who inspires his congregation to martyrdom (pp.114-117). As a result, he is a model for post-Constantinian bishops when the possibility of martyrdom was reduced (p.118).

Secondly, Prudentius seems to have incorporated details from the life of Cyprian of Antioch, a magician who was believed to have converted to Christianity and become a bishop (pp.118-119). Thus, in his youth Cyprian is said to have practised all sorts of magical arts, on one occasion even leading a woman into adultery (13.21-24). R. suggests that there are two intended contrasts here, firstly between Cyprian's skill as a magician and his later role as a teacher of his church, and secondly between Cyprian's lustful excesses and Agnes, the chaste virgin of Pe. 14, the following poem in the collection (pp.119-121).

Finally in this chapter, R. explores the universal significance which Prudentius ascribes to Cyprian through his function as a teacher (pp.121-126). Prudentius is concerned to stress the influence of Cyprian throughout the Christian world, which is juxtaposed with the clear and firm location of his tomb in Africa (p.122-125). The universalising significance of the martyr-cult is more apparent in this case than in the other shrines depicted by Prudentius. The final lines of the poem (13.99-106) stress that Cyprian's universal popularity is mediated through his writings (pp.124-126). R. compares Horace, Odes 3.30 and cognate passages, which see the poet's work as surviving his death and possessing an undying character (p.122).

In an elaborate metaphor, Prudentius refers to Cyprian's undying tongue (sed ubique lingua pollet / sola superstes agit de corpore, sola obire nescit, 13.4-5). R. is surely right to reject Malamud's characterisation of this image as "grotesque" (Malamud, pp.118-120; R., p.123, n.22). For the image of the undying tongue, an apposite comparison may be made with Virgil's description of the death of Orpheus (Georgics 4.523-527): the poet's body is dismembered by the Maenads and scattered over the mountains of Thrace, but the head still sings beyond death.

Chapter 5 ("Poet and Pilgrim", pp.131-187) is an extended reading of the triptych of pilgrimage poems, Pe. 9, 11, and 12. R. suggests that the three poems form an extended sequence, with shared themes, in which the poet traces a journey from Spain to Rome, stopping during his voyage at Imola where he visits the shrine of the martyr Cassian (Pe. 9). In the discussion of Pe. 9 (pp.132-148), R. demonstrates the close correlation within the poem between the sufferings experienced by the poet and the pains undergone by Cassian as he was killed by his pupils with their styli. The story of the martyrdom is presented through both the description of a visual icon and the narration of a sacristan. Prudentius sees an image which depicts the death of Cassian, which he describes to us (13.9-16), and then reports the fuller account of the church official who explains the details of the martyr's death (13.17-98). The identification experienced by Prudentius with the sufferings of Cassian forms the basis for a favourable response to the sacristan's exhortation that he pray to Cassian for help in his sorrows (13.95-99). At the end of this section, R. engages in some biographical speculation regarding the nature of the sufferings of Prudentius to which he alludes in the poem (pp.145-148). R.'s arguments are very speculative and unconvincing: the fact that Prudentius does not explain their character to us may be a part of his poetic strategy in that he is presenting himself as a paradigm of all troubled travellers who may need the saint's assistance, and he therefore leaves the precise nature of his difficulties vague.

In the discussion of Pe. 11 (pp.148-167), R. again shows the close correlation that exists between the character of the martyrdom and the experience of the church. In this case, Prudentius contrasts the way in which the body of the former schismatic and divider of the church, Hippolytus, is torn apart and scattered through a forest with the subsequent re-assembly of his body by his congregation and the unity and communality experienced by worshippers at his tomb in Prudentius' time. Division and dismemberment give way to unity and coherence.

In Pe. 12, more attention is given by Prudentius to the buildings constructed over the tombs of Peter and Paul than to the narratives of their deaths. This interest in the martyrial buildings is shared with Pe. 11 (p.167). The shape of the poem is that of a brief question (12.1-2), to which the rest of the poem provides an answer. R. suggests that this dramatic form derives from satire and mime. Another possible antecedent which he does not mention is that of Virgil's Eclogues, a collection of poems where the presence and influence of Rome is clearly significant. The beginning and the end of the poem focus on the martyrs together, while the main body of the text deals in turn with each martyr's death and their cult (pp.168-169). The two are united by the presence of the river Tiber, which runs between their shrines, and was a witness to the events of the martyrdoms (12.29-30, 7-10; pp.170-171). In the case of Peter, Prudentius describes the baptistery rather than the basilica (12.31-44). Prudentius emphasises Peter's role as pastor to the congregation of Rome (pastor oves alit ipse illic gelidi rigore fontis, 12.43). This contrasts with the account of the recently constructed basilica of Paul (12.45-5 4). The latter is the construction of the emperor and displays the splendour of an imperial palace. "Together the two communicate an ideal concord between spiritual and secular powers, a concord that is prefigured by the harmony of the apostles at their martyrdom" (p.180). There is also a liturgical unity to the juxtaposition of the two buildings (pp.180-182). R. associates this depiction of the unity of the liturgical complex with the imperial and ecclesiastical ideal of concordia (pp.182-187). Prudentius is concerned to present a picture of Rome as a Christianised city that rules over a Christian empire of which it is the heart.

One of R.'s central concerns in this chapter is with the poet's presentation of his own spirituality: the martyr cult is seen as an intensely personal experience. However, R. has a vague concept of "the poetic self". As we have seen, he has engaged in some unconvincing autobiographical inquiries. It is may rather be suggested that Prudentius has constructed in these poems an elaborate poetic self of an ideal pilgrim. The use of the first-person in travel narratives has a long literary history going back to Odysseus' accounts of his voyages in the first part of the Odyssey; these travel-poems of Prudentius may have been presented in the first-person partly in conformity to this convention.

There are many important themes that arise from this study of the Peristephanon. R. highlights Prudentius' interest in the status and function of bishops, the role of Rome as the centre of the Christian world, and the relationship between the shrines of martyr-cults and the communities where they are located. R. also brings out the complex nature of Prudentius' poetic craft: these are highly allusive poems, where spatial imagery is rich in metaphorical significance, and passages from the bible and from earlier classical poets are intended to be recalled by the perceptive and devout reader. At the same time, the poems reveal a large measure of religious intensity and devotion. The developed poetic craft of Prudentius is utilised to give form and expression to this piety.

The indices of this study (pp.211-222) are limited: they are restricted to the main body of the text, and exclude references cited in the footnotes. The proof-reading is of a very high quality, and few slips are apparent. Augustus (p.22, l.4) should be Augustine, while the reference to Maccabees 4 (p.41, n.7) should rather be to 4 Maccabees.