BMCR 2012.02.17

Reading Sin in the World. The Hamartigenia of Prudentius and the Vocation of the Responsible Reader

, Reading Sin in the World. The Hamartigenia of Prudentius and the Vocation of the Responsible Reader. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xx, 273. ISBN 9781107004535. $105.00.

Hamartigenia ( The Origin of Sin) is less well known than Psychomachia and the other didactic/polemical poems of Prudentius. Directed against the radical dualism of the second century theologian Marcion, it argues for God’s unity and for human, as opposed to divine, responsibility for evil. Marcion had made the God of the Hebrew scriptures the creator of a flawed universe from which Christ has rescued humanity. In Marcion’s view, Judaism and Christianity are radically opposed, and only a severely restricted selection of New Testament texts reveals Christian truths. Prudentius focuses on Satan’s rebellion, cosmic evil (no less a consequence, in his opinion, of the sin of Adam and Eve than moral evil), the degeneration of humanity after the Fall (beginning with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel), the typological and figurative interconnectedness of the Old and New Testaments (highlighted through biblical examples of moral choice), and imagined rewards and punishments in heaven and hell. The poem (966 hexameters long, with a 63-line preface in iambic trimeters) is as vivid as it is puzzling: the summary just given of its themes cannot convey the complexity of its structure. Anthony Dykes’ monograph provides a welcome and long overdue detailed engagement with the problems of its interpretation.1

Dykes contends that Hamartigenia is designed by Prudentius to engage the reader’s responsibility and call her to account (17-18). Its “partial disorder” (20) reflects the effects of sin in the world, and its strategy of “ensnaring the literate reader” (25) aims to stimulate the exercise of human choice that is the poem’s core message. This strategy is partly achieved through radical manipulation of biblical texts, through the poem’s uncertain genre (is it didactic or satire, or both?), through complex allusiveness to Latin literary antecedents (principally Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil, Ovid, Juvenal), and through the presentation of post-lapsarian sin in sexualized and eroticized terms.

An informative introductory chapter deals with Prudentius’ literary output and attitude to poetry, Marcion’s views, and early Latin versions of the Bible, and provides an outline of the proposed interpretation of the poem. In chapter 2 the theme of human responsibility is central, and the focus is on three sections of the poem where, it is argued, the erotic content of sin (actual as distinguished from original) is revealed. Chapter 3 considers Prudentius’ biblical strategy. Chapter 4 deals with the question of the poem’s genre. But, given the global scope of Dykes’ interpretation, there is considerable and justified thematic overlap between individual chapters. This in turn permits the critic to concentrate on the book’s core themes. I shall thus give most attention to Dykes’ most important and exciting claims: the sexualized presentation of sin; the complexity of allusiveness in the poem and its contribution to the reader’s confusion and ultimate understanding of the poem’s meaning; the problematic nature of its genre.

Dykes finds (83-9) a homoerotic colouring in the first line of the iambic preface, which refers to Cain and Abel: Fratres ephebi fossor et pastor duo. Dykes argues that the conjunction of the first three words amounts to a cumulative “evocation of sexual impropriety” (89). But Prudentius’ other uses of ephebus, with one exception, denote no more than ‘youth’.2 Petronius uses frater in the sense of ‘same-sex lover’, but it is far-fetched to find that sense here. The claim that fossor alludes to obscene meanings of fossa or fodio is unconvincing: there is no clue in the text that it is anything other than a contemptuous reference to Cain as ‘digger’, announcing the narrative that follows of Cain as the jealous fratricide. A sexual sense of the opening line does not cohere with the Cain-Abel narrative. Dykes is of course aware of this, and suggests that if we were to imagine the line as a fragment “we would have no hesitation in assigning the words to a homosexual love poem or to an anti-homosexual satire” (89), just as Formosum pastor (Virgil, Eclogues 2.1) serves as a headline or summary of the poem that follows. But the problem with this kind of argument is that we have both Virgil’s poem and Prudentius’ preface, and we know in fact what their themes are.

What of Dykes’ other claims for eroticized language in the poem? In Prudentius’ narrative of the destruction of Sodom ( Ham. 723-76), there is a detailed description of the metamorphosis of Loth’s wife into a salt effigy. There is irony in the portrayed mutation of a woman, conventionally typecast as fickle and inconstant ( levis uxormobilitate animi, Ham. 738-9; cf. 755-6), into a hard, rigid solid mass. Dykes reads this change from soft to hard as a sex-change, a masculinization (89-101), of Lot’s wife, even going so far as to assert that it is “sexual desire, it is libido, which has effected her change” (94). But this is to run counter to what the poem actually says. The libido of Ham. 776 is the ‘desire’ that is involved in the contrasting choices of Loth and his wife, the exercise of free will that can lead to good as well as evil actions ( Ham. 775): Prudentius presents the episode as a fable illustrating two reactions to a divine command ( Ham. 769-75). The echo of Eclogues 2.65 in Ham. 775-6 does not compel us to import Virgil’s homoerotic context into Prudentius’ poem: Dykes’ sexed-up interpretation of the narrative does not convince (95-6), not least because the narrative insists on the enduring femininity of Lot’s wife in her sodium chloride state, even to the extent of evoking the tilt of her chin as she perpetually looks back ( Ham. 744-8).

Dykes rightly insists on the role of what he calls the “transvalorisation of the pastoral landscape” (21) in the episode of the two brothers in Ham. 789-803 (discussed 59-79). Here the beautiful, shaded sloping path with its fruit-trees is a deceitful snare: only in paradise is the pastoral idyll what it seems. Here again, Dykes’ suggestion that the landscape is sexualized poses problems. It is based on the recurrence of the verb in Juvenal 2.165 ( sese indulsisse) in the account of the errant brother’s choice ( Ham. 799). The context in Juvenal is homoerotic, but Prudentius’ use of the verb carries no implication of “sexual surrender” (74). There is surrender, but it is to the unspecified deceptive pleasures of the primrose path.

A motive for Dykes’ reading of erotic content into the passages just discussed is the sexual emphasis of Prudentius’ tirade against the corruption of men and women in Ham. 258-97. Dykes’ analysis of this passage is one of the best sections of the book (211-31), not least because it includes a subtle demonstration of the range of allusiveness in the passage. The force of Prudentius’ polemic does not lie in the conventional choice of motifs (female cosmetics and jewellery, feminized men wearing flimsy exotic clothes and using non-Roman perfumes), but in the lively indignation of the passage’s style and effective use of detail that the range of allusiveness enriches. This section, resorting to the tried and tested details of a satirical tradition castigating luxus ( Ham. 298), does not need the reinforcement of a sexualized reading of the other passages discussed. Rather, the force of Prudentius’ argument is strengthened precisely by the variety inherent in his examples of moral choice: Cain, Lot’s wife, and the errant brother, even while they all exhibit the precarious condition of fallen humanity, have different motives for their disastrous actions.

The corruption of our senses and of our appreciation of our environment is a theme of Ham. 298-336. Dykes provides a sensitive interpretation of this theme, but there is a difficulty with one detail of his discussion. He points out the allusion to Lucretius 1.936-50 in Ham. 330-8 (discussed 181-90). He interprets the Lucretius passage as if the simile of the medicine laced with honey to make it more palatable for children makes Lucretius’ readers, for Prudentius, into pueri who are to be deceived by his doctrine: “the ‘puer’ is a didactic victim” (186). This may be the case. But then Dykes slides into the assertion that this was Lucretius’ intention: “Lucretius has, as we see, established the ‘pueri’ as his readers” (189). Memmius, the distinguished adult addressee of Lucretius’ poem, would not have been amused. But there is no sign that Lucretius intends us to accept that the pueri of the simile leak, so to speak, into the text and argument of the poem. Quoting a debatable modern assessment of the Epicurean teacher’s view of his students as anything but responsible pupils does not help Dykes’ argument (186).

To return to Dykes’ discussion of Ham. 258-97: it is placed in his chapter on genre, and a considerable part of his argument is that the uses of allusiveness in this part of the poem contribute towards the constructive confusion of the reader, and that this confusion is principally due to the uncertain genre of the poem. Is this interpretation tenable? Dykes rightly identifies didactic and satirical elements in Hamartigenia. But the poem’s movement between these elements is hardly as confusing as he claims. If one function of signalling the genre of a literary work within the work itself is to create expectations in the reader which the author can then exploit, then Prudentius’ signalling of the didactic aspect of this poem will predispose the literate reader to its satirical elements, for satire is present in Greek and Latin didactic poetry from the beginning, and not least in Prudentius’ great Latin precursor Lucretius. The attentive reader does not necessarily question anxiously whether she is reading satire or didactic: it is in the nature of didactic in the tradition within which Prudentius writes to be frequently satirical. Dykes’ concern about the question of genre is relevant to his insistence on the active reader response that the poem demands, but this concern also reflects a recurrent theme of modern critical work on Prudentius. It has become a commonplace to insist on Prudentius’ mixing of genres without always conceding that “crossing genres” is an established feature of Latin poetry from at least the Augustans onwards. It is indeed questionable how important genres were, once literary production, while influenced by traditional models, was divorced from specific social contexts and conditions of performance. Dykes’ discussion shows that the issue exists, and that it does not admit of easy answers. But there is need for a more general discussion of the role and function of genres in the Latin literature of late antiquity.

It is a matter for celebration that in 2011 two new English-language studies of Hamartigenia appeared.3 The carping critic may seem to be the unwelcome guest at the party. But critics, too, should be responsible readers. If I have given most attention to those aspects of Dykes’ interpretation which I have greatest difficulty in accepting, I should nonetheless stress that this is a study of considerable scholarly merit, working closely on the detail of complex Latin texts and modern studies in several languages, and showing great skill and expertise in doing so. Whether or not one accepts the individual elements of Dykes’ interpretation, it remains the case that our reading of Hamartigenia, and so of Prudentius in general, is radically modified by engagement with his arguments. His treatment of several issues—in particular the demonstration of the transformation of pastoral, the contradictory implications of allusiveness, and the creative use of the Bible—are sure to become starting points of future debate on the nature of Prudentius’ poetry.


1. There is an older English-language commentary by J. Stam, Prudentius. Hamartigenia (Amsterdam, 1940), and a more recent commentary in Italian by R. Palla, Prudenzio. Hamartigenia (Pisa, 1981).

2. Of the other five instances, only Peristephanon 10.189, in a passage referring to Hyacinthus and Apollo, has a homoerotic context.

3. The other study, with an annotated English translation and an interpretative essay, by M. Malamud, The Origin of Sin (Ithaca and London, 2011), appeared towards the end of the year.