Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.10.15

Maria Becker, Kommentar zum Tischgebet des Prudentius (cath. 3). Wissenschaftliche Kommentare zu griechischen und lateinischen Schriftstellern.   Heidelberg:  Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006.  Pp. viii, 279.  ISBN 3-8253-5002-9.  €64.00.  

Reviewed by Gerard O'Daly, University College London (
Word count: 1371 words

This book is the revised version of a 2004 University of Münster Habilitationsschrift. It follows the standard pattern of a commentary on a classical text, in this case Prudentius' Cathemerinon 3, a lyrical meditation based on the traditional Jewish and Christian practice of prayers before and after meals. The introduction contains a brief survey of the current state of research on the book of twelve lyric poems (sometimes, and less appropriately, called 'hymns', though they contain several hymnic features) in which Cath. 3 is included.1 Becker (hereafter B.) provides a discussion of the book as a whole, its structure, metres, and purpose. There is a brief historical survey of Jewish and Christian practice. Finally, the metre and the structure of Cath. 3 are discussed in some detail.

The text of the poem -- substantially that of Bergman's 1926 Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum edition, generally the best regarded of the modern editions of Prudentius -- is printed, together with B.'s close German translation. There follows a commentary of over 200 pages, stanza by stanza, on the 205 lines of the poem. General discussions of each section and each stanza precede a word-by-word analysis of minute detail. There are two excursuses, on vegetarianism in the early Christian church, and on the Eve-Mary parallel in the poem. A final section summarizes the main conclusions of the commentary. An extensive bibliography and a thematic index are provided.

This is a valuable book, for commentaries of quality on Christian Latin authors and on Prudentius in particular are still all too rare. Four other poems of the Cathemerinon received a sympathetic and helpful English commentary from Marion van Assendelft in 1976,2 but B.'s book is more wide-ranging and erudite. No poem of Prudentius has, to my knowledge, received a commentary in the last twenty-five years, and there is no commentary on any of his works that provides the detailed interpretation and sophisticated understanding that B. shows. Her book transforms our awareness of Prudentius' style and poetic composition, revealing the underlying Christocentric unity of the poem's themes, and the dense and subtle elaboration of these themes.

B. is a student of Christian Gnilka's, and the influence of Gnilka is apparent throughout her book. For the most part, this is a benign influence. No contemporary scholar has done more important analytical work on the text of Prudentius, or identified more interpolations, than Gnilka, and close familiarity with the collection of almost all of this work in his monumental Prudentiana3 is an essential prerequisite for all future research on this poet. Gnilka is also well-known for his championing of the hermeneutical principle of χρῆσις or usus iustus in study of the influence of pagan classical authors on Greek and Latin Christian authors of the Roman imperial period.4 The limitations of this principle (essentially, the transformation of "misguided" pagan material for Christian purposes), when applied too rigidly, are patent.5 Gnilka himself applies it in a nuanced manner, but some of his protégés are less dexterous.6 B. is inclined to adduce the χρῆσις principle in too confined and dogmatic a way. This leads to a restricted view of the poem's achievement in relation to the ubiquitous classical allusions in it. Are these really no more than a series of "corrections" and pious Christian adaptations, a kind of carefully purged Christianization of Virgil and others? This one-dimensional view of poetic interaction is uncomfortably at odds with the subtle observations on Prudentius' poetic art that can be found on almost every page of B.'s commentary. And it influences negatively her integration of these observations into a global interpretation of the poem: more often than not, we are left with a truncated understanding of the poem's art. A heavy tribute is paid to a dogmatic view of her master's χρῆσις principle, a principle, it must be stressed, that is explicitly developed by Christian theologians in a polemical context (Tertullian, De Corona 8; Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana 2.40.60-42.63), but that cannot be applied mechanically to complex works of poetic or other art, though it is found in Prudentius' polemical Contra Symmachum 1.501-5.

B. champions the primary value of the commentary form of interpretation of her chosen poet. And she has some right on her side: her own commentary shows just what striking results a highly-trained classical scholar can achieve. But it is an exaggeration and a misjudgement to assert that the books of J.-L. Charlet, A.-M. Palmer,7 and others are flawed precisely because of the absence of detailed commentaries on the poems. Non-Classicists, and particularly English scholars, are often puzzled by the special prestige and authority of the edition-cum-commentary in the Classics community. It is not always easy to explain the phenomenon to them, even if there are some great achievements to point towards. The poet Louis MacNeice recalls how, as a young Classics lecturer, the example of Wilamowitz's edition of Euripides' Heracles was held up to him by E. R. Dodds as an instance of supreme scholarship. MacNeice recoiled from the prospect pf attempting to emulate it, even if this was proposed by a genial scholar like Dodds: "I did not want to be a scholar; I wanted to 'write'".8 Classicists, of course, have become more self-conscious about the merits or otherwise of the commentary form.9 While there can be no denying that we could do with more commentaries on Prudentius, it is surely true that, even if one does not agree with all their observations and conclusions (and disagreement and debate are in any case the stuff of scholarly life), the literary critical works of R. Herzog and Charlet, Palmer and M. Roberts, have been vital to the contemporary interest in Prudentius' poetry.10 One comes away from each of these books wanting to read more of the poet, and reading him with greater excitement and awareness, and that is surely the mark of valuable criticism.

A recent accomplished addition to the criticism of Prudentius is Maria Lühken's book,11 which provides a subtle and differentiated account of his intertextuality with Virgil and Horace. B. does not include Lühken in her list of books vitiated by the absence of antecedent commentaries, and she gives credit to Lühken's interpretations where credit is undoubtedly due. But there is also regular sniping at Lühken's positions and in particular at what B. perceives to be the exclusively literary approach of her book, a not entirely fair assessment, for Lühken does not detach her observations on the formal aspects of the poetry from its content. This truncates what might have been a fruitful critical dialogue between two gifted Prudentian scholars. B.'s tendency to follow the master Gnilka may have played a role here. At all events, it imports a disappointing partisanship and provinciality into her book.

There are several excellent discussions in the commentary, such as the nuanced analysis of the influence of Virgil's Eclogue 4 in Cath. 3 (especially pp. 186-93), where B.'s (surely correct) interpretation of progenies ('child' rather than 'race') in Ecl. 4.7 plays a crucial role in understanding Cath. 3.136-40.12 The symbolic relation of the Tierfrieden topos to the contemporary Christian church is interestingly argued on p. 214, one of a number of places where B. uncovers a historical note in the poem. Another topical aspect is the evocation of views on human guilt and freedom that crystallized in the controversy between Augustine and the Pelagians, at Cath. 3.131-5 (pp. 179-80). The importance of the resurrection theme, explicit and implicit, in the poem's conclusion is well argued on pp. 242-60, as is the relation of abstinence from certain foods and asceticism in general, pp. 226-37. B. suggests, controversially and not persuasively, that Prudentius has a concept of the immaterial soul (pp. 238-42), based on his use of the phrase vigor igneolus in v. 186. This calls for further reflection.13 The discussion of oddities in the language, style, and theme of vv. 126-30 leads convincingly to the conclusion that they are interpolated (pp. 171-8), an important improvement in the text.

Given the numerous fine detailed discussions, a selective index verborum would have been a nice complement to the thematic index. But as it stands, this is an immensely useful, well presented, and distinguished work, marking a real advance in our understanding of the greatest Latin poet of late antiquity.


1.   B., while acknowledging the difficulty of explaining Cath. 9-12 (on Christ, burial, and Christmas-Epiphany) as 'poems for the day', sees various unifying structural aspects in the book: some are metrical, some take the form of tributes to antecedents like Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose. But the book is above all a unity because it is a 'poetic prayer book' (p. 11).
2.   M. M. van Assendelft, Sol ecce surgit igneus. A Commentary on the Morning and Evening Hymns of Prudentius, Groningen 1976.
3.   C. Gnilka, Prudentiana I-III, Munich/Leipzig 2000, 2001, 2003.
4.   See especially C. Gnilka, XPHSIS: Die Methode der Kirchenväter im Umgang mit der antiken Kultur, I-II, Basel 1984,1993.
5.   For a recent critical discussion of this and other modern critical approaches to Prudentius see Maria Lühken, Christianorum Maro et Flaccus. Zur Vergil- und Horazrezeption des Prudentius, Göttingen 2002 (Hypomnemata, 141), pp. 23-30.
6.   See Gnilka's 'Interpretation frühchristlicher Literatur. Dargestellt am Beispiel des Prudentius', in Prudentiana II (note 3 above), 32-90; cf. the thesis written under Gnilka's direction by R. Henke, Studien zum Romanushymnus des Prudentius, Frankfurt am Main/Berne/New York 1983 (Europäische Hochschulschriften 15/27), which is most successful on the few occasions on which it escapes its hermeneutical limitations.
7.   J.-L. Charlet, La création poétique dans le Cathemerinon de Prudence, Paris 1982; A.-M. Palmer, Prudentius on the Martyrs, Oxford 1989.
8.   L. MacNeice, The Strings are False. An Unfinished Autobiography, London 1965, p. 137.
9.   R. K. Gibson and C. S. Kraus (ed.), The Classical Commentary. Histories, Practices, Theory, Leiden 2002.
10.   Charlet and Palmer: see n. 7 above. R. Herzog, Die allegorische Dichtkunst des Prudentius, Munich 1966 (Zetemata, 42); M. Roberts, Poetry and the Cult of the Martyrs. The Liber Peristephanon of Prudentius, Ann Arbor 1993.
11.   See n. 5 above.
12.   Cf. Lühken's (n. 5 above) different but no less valid approach, pp. 152-71.
13.   Prudentius' view of the soul may be "localized" rather than material or immaterial: see Peter Brown, 'Enjoying the saints in late antiquity', Early Medieval Europe 9 (2000) 1-24, here, 8.

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