Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.42

Cillian O’Hogan, Prudentius and the Landscapes of Late Antiquity.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. viii, 197.  ISBN 9780198749226.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by Rosario Moreno Soldevila, Universidad Pablo de Olavide de Sevilla (

Scholarly interest in Prudentius in recent decades has led to a better understanding of him as a skilled artist, and this book successfully follows this same path. By focusing on the whole oeuvre of this Christian poet, O’Hogan analyses the relationship between Prudentius’ poetry and space—namely geography, journeys, urban and rural spaces, works of art, and architecture— and claims thatspace in Prudentius is more ‘literary’ than real, which emphasises the poet’s bookishness. This approach differs radically from other contemporary studies, such as Hershkowitz’s Prudentius, Spain, and Late Antique Christianity: Poetry, Visual Culture and the Cult of Martyrs (see my review in BMCR 2018.02.03), but proves to be equally illuminating, from a different perspective. O’Hogan also contextualises Prudentius’ poetry within the framework of Late Antiquity, but he focuses mainly on the literature written by his contemporaries, as well as on the Scriptures and some illustrious pagan predecessors such as Vergil and Horace. As the author points out in the “Introduction”, this book outlines “how Prudentius’ poetry consistently shies away from engagement with reality, and retreats into descriptions of the world that owe more to biblical and classical precedents than they do to lived experience” (2). This book is about poetry, about how Prudentius is a “complex and brilliant” (166) poet who deserves attention for his artistic qualities. By accompanying O’Hogan on this fascinating literary journey, one can grasp the intricacy and richness of Prudentius’ work.

After presenting the main objective of the book, the introduction offers a succinct summary of recent research on Prudentius that helps to contextualise this study, since little attention had been paid so far to “his descriptions of geography and space, and their debt to Prudentius’ literary and theological training” (4); there is also a brief survey on scholarship about geography in Late Antiquity. Next, there is a concise outline of the volume, which is divided into five chapters, each exploring a different aspect of space.

Chapter 1 (“Reading as a Journey”) approaches the Peristephanon as a kind of map or itinerary “through which the reader can travel” (9), and cogently argues that the diverse arrangements of the poems in the manuscript tradition may be viewed as the result of different reader responses in spatial terms. After surveying the manuscript tradition of the Peristephanon and the different interpretations of its diverse arrangement, O’Hogan studies the relationship between reading, literature, and space in Late Antiquity, suggesting that this collection of martyr hymns could offer the reader the possibility of “pilgrimage by proxy” (19). In the following subsection, the physical outlook of the collection is compared to the form of the world, further emphasising the idea of the book as space through which the reader can travel. All these arguments lead to a suggestive conclusion: “It is reasonable to see a clear geographical organization in the collection” (32). Chapter 2 (“Intertextual Journeys”) deals with intertextuality in three poems of the Peristephanon (3, 11, and 9), suggesting that Prudentius’ landscapes recall literary precedents in such a way that actual experience of the places is effaced in favour of more abstract conceptualisations that move the reader emotionally. Thus, Eulalia’s night journey is read in light of certain biblical episodes, but also of some passages of the Aeneid, namely the description of the Sibyl of Cumae, the episode of Nisus and Euryalus, and Aeneas’ descent into hell, which is also key to understanding the narrator’s katabasis to Hippolytus’ tomb in Peristephanon 11, whereas the Vergilian intertext is ingeniously combined with Apuleius’ Metamorphoses in the hymn devoted to Cassian. O’Hogan concludes that “[t]he fourth- century Roman Landscape is another version of the mythic landscapes of the Aeneid, and the actions of the Christian martyrs are updated accounts of the figures of Roman literary heritage” (70).

Chapter 3 (“Urban Space and Roman History”) begins with an introduction about how early Christianity conceived the city, citizenship, and urban space. Martyrs somehow helped solve the tension between Romanness and Christianity, since they are presented as “civic saviours” (77), “as purifying, renewing and refounding their native cities, thus emphasizing both continuity with the pagan past and break with that past” (75). Prudentius highlights this connection at the very beginning of each poem in the Peristephanon, where both the martyrs and their cities are eulogised in connection with each other. As regards urban landscapes, these are not depicted in detail: it is not the physical outline of the city that matters, since “cities are presented as significant almost exclusively because of the presence of martyr relics within them” (82). Apart from their purifying and edifying function, martyrs symbolically help to renew and refound their localities as Christian cities and relocate them “on the map of a Christian empire” (84). The chapter continues with the exploration of processions and celebrations of martyrs in the urban communities, as a way of reinforcing both their religious and civic identity, and establishing a new relationship with time through a Christian calendar that counterbalances the Roman calendar. Yet, this is not just a local phenomenon, for reading universalises the celebration of the martyrs: “while martyrs and martyrdom are firmly rooted in locality, they can be spread across the continents by means of praise and worship” (89). The final part of this chapter moves from the Peristephanon into the vague landscapes of the Psychomachia: O’Hogan stresses the fact that this battle “takes place in a non-space”, unidentifiable and with “no parallel in earlier Latin epic” (95). In the same way as martyrs are both “local heroes” and “universal exemplars” (96), the deliberately unspecific nature of the landscape in the allegorical poem shows a tendency towards abstraction that emphasises the universality of Prudentius’ message.

Chapter 4 (“Pastoral and Rural Spaces”) moves into the realm of space idealisation, inasmuch as rural spaces in Prudentius’ poems blend the pastoral tradition with the biblical idea of paradise. In the first section (“Endelechius and Christian Pastoral”), O’Hogan explores the different early Christian reactions to bucolic poetry, especially to Vergil, to conclude that “the association of Vergil, and specifically the fourth Eclogue, with Christian ideas of the good shepherd and Jewish prophecy was widespread between the third and fifth centuries, even if the association was not always considered an appropriate one” (106). With this idea in mind, O’Hogan analyses Endelechius’ pastoral poem as a reflection on the dichotomy between the city and the countryside, since the spread of the Christian faith was more successful in urban than in rural spaces. The adherence of country people to previous (pagan) forms of worship is also crucial for understanding Prudentius’ emphasis on farming and agriculture in Contra orationem Symmachi: while rejecting the do ut des motivation of pagan religion, he stresses the idea that Christian faith and prayer have no effect on agriculture, but help the faithful live a better spiritual life despite the harshness of labour: by successfully combining both classical and biblical texts, he “presents an image of the ideal farmer as one who is content with little and whose Christian faith provides him with solace in times of need” (115). The following section (“Visions of Heaven”) focuses on the Cathemerinon and its depiction of heavenly spaces and experiences: the description of paradise landscapes help to represent the triumph of Christianity over the harshness and difficulties of human life. As in the previous chapter, the final section is devoted to the Psychomachia, which, as stated previously, epitomises Prudentius’ tendency towards abstraction and his withdrawal from real spaces, with an analysis of the allegory of “the temple of the soul”, a blending of biblical and Vergilian material.

Chapter 5 (“Describing Art”) focuses on constructed places and architecture. The main idea of this section is the problematic, potentially misleading nature of art as a way of approaching Christian faith and doctrine, and the superiority of language, which, paradoxically, is also fallible and liable for misinterpretation and incompleteness. The human word is unable to encompass the divine, but, according to O’Hogan, Prudentius “demonstrates how verbal interpretation always trumps visual representation” (135). Prudentius’ attacks on idolatry and the ekphraseis of Peristephanon 9 and 11 are related to late antique ideas and controversies regarding the potential dangers of art, including Christian art, which could be useful as a didactic instrument for the illiterate, but also ambiguous and misleading if not provided with the suitable verbal explanations. Finally, in “Ambiguous architecture”, O’Hogan decodes the intertextual echoes in the description of different religious buildings in the Peristephanon (the basilica of Eulalia, the church dedicated to Hippolytus, the baptistery of Peter, and the basilica of Paul), hinting at “uneasiness about overly ornate sites of worship” (156) and probably at a tacit criticism of excessive extravagance in religious buildings: “Prudentius presents himself as an ascetic warrior, a ‘cheap vessel’ (Ep. 26) far removed from his wealthier contemporaries, who embarked upon opulent building projects to express their piety” (164).

This book is rounded off with a “Conclusion”, a comprehensive “Bibliography”, an “Index locorum”, and a “General index”. The line of argument is always clear, cogent and well founded, and the author usually guides the reader through the different sections and provides conclusions to almost every chapter and subchapter, the result being a very coherent product. Furthermore, the volume is excellently produced. Yet, one possible ground for improvement could be the relatively limited set of classical authors taken into account for the analysis. Perhaps more attention could have been paid to other classical Latin writers beyond the ever-present Vergil: in fact, in his state of the art at the beginning of the book, O’Hogan regrets the absence of “more sustained and detailed studies of Prudentius’ relationship to authors besides the usual trio of Vergil, Horace and Ausonius” (4). It is true that the presence of Horace, Ovid and, most significantly, Apuleius is more than anecdotal in this volume, and that Catullus, Ennius, Juvenal, Lucretius, Pliny the Younger, and Sallust are cited at least once, but one wonders whether a closer look at these and other authors (for instance other bucolic and epic poets) might have reinforced the argumentation. This could be, in any case, a line of research for future works.

O’Hogan’s final remark deserves praise: “I am conscious of how much remains unsaid in my own work, but I hope that at the very least I will have added something1 to the wider understanding of just how complex and brilliant a poet he is” (166). Definitely O’Hogan has added more than “something”: his book is full of enlightening ideas, and combines an original approach with a thorough knowledge of scholarship and literature, while encouraging future research. All in all, this book is instructive, enjoyable and truly commendable.2


1.   My own italics.
2.   This review forms part of the Research Project FFI2014-56798-P, funded by the Spanish Ministerio de Economía, Industria y Competitividad.

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