Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.05.40

Marc Mastrangelo, The Roman Self in Late Antiquity: Prudentius and the Poetics of the Soul.   Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.  Pp. viii, 259.  ISBN 9780801887222.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by E. J. Hutchinson, Hillsdale College (

The ambitious title of Marc Mastrangelo's book on Prudentius, The Roman Self in Late Antiquity, raises hopes for a study that is itself ambitious and broad, hopes that are both fulfilled and disappointed. On the one hand, Mastrangelo not only attempts a literary and philological reading of (some of) Prudentius's poetry, but also attempts to reassess 'the poet's originality by considering his work as a successful artistic synthesis of literary, historical, philosophical, and theological ideas' (3) as Prudentius integrates his major influences (epic poetry, the Bible, Christian theology, and pagan philosophy) into a coherent whole. Mastrangelo's reading is seen in the main divisions of the book: after an introduction (1-13), ch. 1 (14-40) is titled 'An Epic Successor? Prudentius, Aeneid 6, and Roman Epic Tradition'; ch. 2 (41-81), 'Christian History and the Narrative of Rome'; ch. 3 (82-120), 'Christian Theology and the Making of Allegory'; and ch. 4 (121-59), 'Pagan Philosophy and the Making of Allegory'. These chapters are followed by an epilogue (160-75), 'Self, Poetry, and Literary History in Prudentius', endnotes (177-238), a helpful bibliography (239-49), and an index (251-9). On the other hand, there is a narrowness to the study not indicated by the book's title, because Mastrangelo's overwhelming focus is on the Psychomachia, although he does draw at times on the Cathemerinon, the Peristephanon, and the dogmatic and polemical poems. I say that this is a disappointment because, if any of Prudentius's poetry typically receives in-depth treatment, it is the Psychomachia and its allegories or the Persistphanon,1 while Prudentius's other poems, and especially his other hexameter poems, are neglected.

In the introduction, Mastrangelo serves notice of his agenda, which is to restore Prudentius to his rightful place in intellectual and literary history, because 'Prudentius has never been given his due' (3). Lack of recognition for Prudentius, and for Christian poets in general, goes back, Mastrangelo argues, to Eusebius, whose Church History excludes poets (3, 7). Though one may quibble about the precise date,2 Mastrangelo's general point stands regarding the standard modern narrative of late antique literary history, which tends to focus on writers in prose.3 But this narrative either ignores or discounts the bid that Prudentius made to his contemporaries for the revitalization of poetry by incorporating an 'exegetical turn' (7) into his poems. Mastrangelo argues that Prudentius's exegesis is applied not only to the Bible, but also to Roman history, both held to be components of a broader Christian salvation history, which Prudentius delineates via typological interpretation. In this way, Prudentius can show that history has been tending inevitably toward the Christian Roman Empire of his own day, and thus Prudentius's poetry has a collective dimension. At the same time, Mastrangelo contends, the typological exegeses which undergird the allegorical representations of the virtues and vices in the Psychomachia force a choice upon the reader as to which path--that of virtue or of vice--he will choose, and thus Prudentius's poetry also has an individual dimension. Mastrangelo anchors the Psychomachia's dual political and spiritual aspects in Prudentius's unique moment in history (that is, after Constantine and before 410) in which commitment could be sought simultaneously to Christ as universal king and Rome as the world's leading city. In demanding such an allegiance from his readers Prudentius 'engages with and redefines Romanitas and Christianitas both individually and collectively' (2). The individual Christian soul finds its proper place in a dedicated citizen of the (Christian) Roman Empire. Mastrangelo revisits the individual and collective dimensions of Prudentius's poetry in his epilogue.

In ch. 1, Mastrangelo's purpose is to show that the Psychomachia is a 'Christian epic' based on its intertextual relationship with Aeneid 6--a relationship that is inaugurated in Prudentius's universalizing refashioning of A. 6.56 (Phoebe, gravis Troiae semper miserate labores) in the first line of the Psychomachia proper (Christe, graves hominum semper miserate labores). Mastrangelo finds special significance in further allusions at the poem's middle (especially in the duel between Avaritia and Operatio) and end. These allusions, he argues, are sufficient to establish a program of 'systematic' (as opposed to 'local') allusion, a distinction he borrows from Stephen Hinds. Mastrangelo argues that Prudentius appropriates and transforms the journey of Vergil's Aeneas into an interior trial of the soul as it 'journey[s] from mortality and death to life and immortality' (15). This psychological katabasis is one that everyone must undergo; its success or failure turns on the choice between virtue and vice. As individuals choose correctly, moreover, a Christian society is fashioned.

As Mastrangelo discusses his position on the Christian use of the classical past, terminological trouble arises; specifically, he suggests that appropriation and subversion are mutually exclusive (cf. 188 n. 54), and, moreover, that the former is good while the latter is narrow-minded. Mastrangelo disavows for Prudentius 'a subversive and hostile stance toward the Aeneid' (30). But appropriation and subversion are not exclusive, and hostility towards certain aspects of the Aeneid need not imply that an alluding poet thinks that the source-text holds nothing of value, and thus Prudentius does not require defense against such a hypothetical charge. It is hard to imagine a Christian appropriation of Vergil that would not be subversive in at least some respects.4

Mastrangelo's terminological trouble is tied to a broader theoretical problem in his conceptualization of late antique Christian poetry. Poetry that is subversive of or hostile to traditional 'pagan' Roman epic (e.g., so-called 'biblical' epic) cannot, in Mastrangelo's opinion, fulfill 'an essential function of Roman epic: to restate national identity through a master narrative of larger-than-life figures' (29). Rather, while biblical epic 'may use the language [of Roman epic]', it 'avoids dialogue with the literary, historical, and political authority of Roman epic' (188 n. 51). Yet national identity can be (and is) reconfigured as the Church and epic heroes can be (and are) reconfigured as biblical or ecclesiastical heroes.5 In sum, there is more than one method of appropriation. An appropriating poet who undercuts his predecessor is not necessarily demonstrating a lack of engagement or intellectual depth, as Mastrangelo seems to imply. The success of appropriation turns on technique and the power of disintegration and reintegration, not the attitude with which it is undertaken.

On the other hand, one of the strongest arguments of the chapter is Mastrangelo's position on the significance of Aeneas for the Psychomachia in particular. In Prudentius's allegory, the hero is no longer found inside the poem, but outside it, in the person of the reader. The reader observes the psychologized epic battles in the poem as prelude to his own psychomachia in which, if he is to be victorious, he will choose virtue and slay vice. In doing so, he will find a traditional heroic fate: a type of immortality (38). This protreptic visionary battle between virtue and vice is mediated to the reader through the voice of the poet, who no longer describes a pseudo-historical heroic figure of the distant mythical past, but rather a spiritualized present in which the reader himself is exhorted to participate as hero. Mastrangelo's observations on the fusion of the epic and didactic voices have wide application in Christian poetry.

In ch. 2, Mastrangelo argues that Prudentius uses typology to form a narrative of salvation history broadly conceived. This narrative is used, in turn, to shape the memory of the reader in a Christian direction, which solidifies his identity as Christian and Roman (cf. 60): Mastrangelo argues that, as each reader accepts Prudentius's version of Christian salvation history, he becomes incorporated into it and a Roman Christian self is created. There are, then, civic ramifications to reading Prudentius's poetry, and the result is that poetry is still connected to history and politics and affects civic identity, as earlier Roman epic narrative did. The two texts Mastrangelo uses to undergird his argument are the Psychomachia and the Peristephanon, which contain 'a synthesis of Roman pagan and biblical history that represents a version of Christian salvation history' (43). Through this complex interweaving of historical strands Prudentius reinvigorates Latin poetry and 'reaffirms history's authority over the reader' (67). The claim is an interesting one, though there are problems with some of his corroborating evidence.6

Stronger is his discussion of the connection between Roman and biblical history, in which Christian doctrine provides the key as to how to order and present historical narrative (56). Mastrangelo argues that the martyrs are significant figures in the process of connecting sacred with secular history. Peristephanon 2.413-44 is especially intriguing in this respect. There, Lawrence invokes Christ as founder of Rome and asks Romulus and Numa, as symbols of the military and religious aspects of Roman kingship (cf. 76), to become believers. In other words, Prudentius has Lawrence look forward to the Christianizing of the Roman state. Mastrangelo sees Prudentius appropriating Rome's political and religious foundations and integrating them in Christ, the new ruler and religious founder of Rome--still a possibility so close to the time of Theodosius. I note in passing that increased interaction with Prudentius's books Contra Symmachum would be welcome and valuable in his discussion of Prudentius's views of Rome and Roman history.

Ch. 3 moves us from the political-historical to the theological-tropological. Mastrangelo claims Prudentius begins with an apophatic dilemma: how can one speak of God and the soul when they are ineffable? Prudentius's answer is to begin in each case with 'typological interpretation of biblical stories and characters' (83), and these interpretations lead to the personifications of virtues and vices, who do battle before the virtues construct the soul's typological-allegorical temple. Prudentius dramatizes his view that God cannot be known in Himself by an ordinary process of reasoning, and that one must therefore begin with faith in Christ, who mediates God to us and gives us the ability to interpret and apply Prudentius's allegories to our own souls, in the Praefatio through a Christ-centered allegorical interpretation of some events from the life of Abraham. Old Testament events prefigure Christ in the New Testament; moreover, the concrete battles of the Old Testament, understood through Christ, prefigure abstract and immaterial battles in the interior of Prudentius's reader. In this way, the reader is linked to biblical heroes and can become a hero himself (cf. above). Regarding the temple, the typologies that Mastrangelo finds run from the material and Old-Testament (e.g., the Solomonic Temple) to the immaterial and post-New-Testament (Sapientia as a quality ruling in the soul, which is the new temple), mediated through Christ as the middle term--Mastrangelo's interpretation of the temple thus harmonizes with his interpretation of the poem's personifications, both of which are connected to the 'apophatic dilemma' to which Prudentius is responding throughout the Psychomachia. The picture of the temple at the end of the poem is an answer to the problem of 'how to describe God and the soul with words' (115).

In ch. 4, Mastrangelo argues that Prudentius also draws for inspiration on classical philosophy, especially Neoplatonism and Epicureanism. Part of Mastrangelo's motivation is to demonstrate that Prudentius is a sophisticated thinker in his own right. The chapter's strongest sections are those dealing with the analogy of city and soul (and its governance) and the section on the vices as Epicurean souls. In the section on the city and soul, Mastrangelo treats the political description of the soul in the construction of the temple at the end of the Psychomachia ('the reader confronts a single soul, which is constructed in the likeness of a city, and simultaneously a city with many members--as implied by the army of virtues--that determine its character' [129]) and its government by Sapientia and Christ. In the section on the vices as Epicurean souls, Mastrangelo attempts to account for the brutal violence that brings about the annihilation of the vices. He argues compellingly that their deaths are illuminated by reference to the Epicurean tradition of the dissolution of the soul, along with the body, at death. Such a program is inaugurated in the preface, where Abraham is called the triumfi dissipator hostici, which Prudentius makes clear is to be understood not only historically but also allegorically. A pagan doctrine is used to describe the vices, the personifications of which are negative exempla, whereas the soul that believes Christian teaching becomes immortal and invulnerable (149).

In the epilogue, Mastrangelo reiterates that Prudentius, through his poetry, desires to make Roman Christian citizens by forcing a choice upon his readers. It is in respect to the influencing of the will that we find the real extratextual value of the typological-allegorical aspects of the Psychomachia, because the demand for each individual's choice between virtue and vice, good and evil, is dramatized as a series of battles, with each sparring partner (often connected, in turn, to a historical figure) held out to the reader as a type that one can choose and thus fulfill in one's own life. Prudentius's poetry, then, has a mission (Mastrangelo calls it 'new' [170], though it has a predecessor in, e.g., Lucretius) of the conversion of individuals and their consolidation into one body.

Mastrangelo argues that, because of the sophisticated way in which Prudentius handles these issues--a complex notion of interiority, enacted through types fulfilled both in history and by the reader--he deserves an important place in the literary history of 'figural realism', though the dominant scholarly tradition usually draws the line from Augustine to Dante and leaves Prudentius out. Mastrangelo has in mind here Erich Auerbach and E.R. Curtius (169-75) and those who accept their narrative of literary history. Since these are the two figures at whose feet Mastrangelo lays much of the blame for the underestimation of Prudentius, mention of them much earlier in the book, as Mastrangelo was framing his overall argument, would have been appropriate.

The primary value of Mastrangelo's study is to drive the reader back again and again to Prudentius's poems. That should be the goal of any secondary work on an ancient author, and I applaud Mastrangelo's efficiency in forcing his reader ad fontes. Mastrangelo is to be commended for urging a reconsideration of Prudentius's status, even if one does not agree with all the arguments he makes in the process of his exhortation.


1.   On the Psychomachia, cf. C. Gnilka, Studien zur Psychomachie des Prudentius (1963); R. Herzog, Die Allegorische Dichtkunst des Prudentius (1966); M. Smith, Prudentius' Psychomachia: A Reexamination (1976); S.G. Nugent, Allegory and Poetics: The Structure and Imagery of Prudentius' Psychomachia (1985). On the Peristephanon, cf. A.-M. Palmer, Prudentius on the Martyrs (1989); M. Roberts, Poetry and the Cult of the Martyrs (1993).
2.   The Church History was completed in 324-5--that is, before the flourishing of classicizing Christian poetry, and even before its earliest exponent Juvencus
3.   Cf. the Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature (2004).
4.   An example of the difficulty with Mastrangelo's configuration of Prudentian intertextuality is found in his discussion on p. 32 of Prudentius's purported use of A. 6.640-1 at Psychomachia 639 to describe the departure of Metus, Labor, Vis, and Scelus. Mastrangelo comments: 'Prudentius does not engage in literary subversion, but exploits the Aeneid to delineate the terrain of the soul and its bifurcated nature...' Surely Prudentius's 'exploitation' of the Aeneid (that is, using it for his own, not Vergil's, ends) can count as a type of 'subversion'.
5.   Cf. Arator who, in one of his dedicatory verse-epistles to his hexameter treatment of Acts, refers to Pope Vigilius as the guarantor of publica libertas (Ep. ad Vigilium 3).
6.   On p. 46, in a section titled 'Fabula, History, and Identity', Mastrangelo argues that the reader internalizes salvation history as 'a story of the soul', which in turn connects the individual Christian to the larger sweep of salvation history. One of his three proof-texts is Apotheosis 1017-18:

omne quod est gestum notus auferat inritus, aurae
dispergant tenues. sit fabula quod sumus omnes!

Mastrangelo translates as follows: '[E]verything we do the frivolous South wind carries away,/ the feeble breezes disperse, what we all are is a story' (46). There are several difficulties with this translation and the use Mastrangelo makes of it. First of all, the verbs auferat and sit are subjunctives, though one cannot tell from Mastrangelo's translation. Moreover, Prudentius is not expounding his own view here. Rather, he is arguing against Manicheans (cf. 974) who deny that Christ had a true body--a denial that necessitates the position represented in 1017-18. If Christ did not take up (and renew) our corporeal nature, we, still bound to death and decay, are destined to become nothing more than ephemeral vapor. Prudentius's point is that to take such a position would be absurd (and depressing). The sense of Apoth. 1017-18, then, is to deny, on the basis of the reality of the Incarnation, that man is fabula. The passage does not contain an optimistic sense for fabula--for 'human life as story'--and does not support the interpretive weight that Mastrangelo puts upon it. An interpretive problem also afflicts his second example for fabula (Pe. 9.17-20), where fabula and historia are opposed as false and true stories. Mastrangelo claims that 'in a cleverly Platonist way the passage argues for the right kind of fabula' and that the passage contains a 'distinction between true and false fabulae' (47), but I can find no evidence of this in the text. His third example (Praef. Ham. 25-6) is the only one that bolsters his case for a positive reading of fabula. Given these problems with the evidence, the argument in this section is tendentious and the conclusion is unsubstantiated.

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