BMCR 2018.02.03

Prudentius, Spain, and Late Antique Christianity: Poetry, Visual Culture and the Cult of Martyrs

, Prudentius, Spain, and Late Antique Christianity: Poetry, Visual Culture and the Cult of Martyrs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xiii, 254. ISBN 9781107149601. $99.99.

A gifted poet and a staunch Christian, Prudentius adapted the language of classical poetry to create an original corpus of Christian poetry, which left a profound mark on European culture. In recent years, several interesting monographs have suggested fresh ways of approaching his different works, mainly from a literary perspective. In this monograph, by focusing on material culture, Paula Hershkowitz tries to overcome the limitations of literary-centred studies and offers an innovative multidisciplinary approach to Prudentius’ Peristephanon and his “Spanish background” (2).

Chapter 1 (“An Introduction to Prudentius: A Spanish Poet for the Martyrs”) encompasses “Methodology and Resources,” which includes a review of previous scholarship; “Prudentius on Himself” (an introduction to the poet through his Praefatio and Epilogus); and “The Hispania of Prudentius: Historical Context,” with special attention to the fourth-century rural elite and their impressive villas, political administration, and religious affiliation. The author refutes several established ideas that have been taken for granted in previous scholarship. For example, material proof of the wide and deep dissemination of Christian faith in the environment of Prudentius is scant and limited; so is the evidence of martyr cult in the Iberian Peninsula in the period, since much of the material traditionally put forward belongs to later times. According to Hershkowitz, this explains “why it was important to Prudentius to bring Christianity in the form of literature to the learned society of Hispania” (27). The religious context of late fourth-century Hispania provided a “breeding ground for Prudentius’ talents: the nascent development of Christian thought and ideas, the potential for pagan recidivism, and the presence of a wealthy and educated elite audience” (29).

This audience is explored in Chapter 2 (“Prudentius’ Audience: Society and Religious Belief in Late Antique Hispania”), which explores the idea that “knowledge of the classical world, its traditions, and iconography was still relevant amongst high-status members of Hispanic society in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, even amongst those who were or appeared to be Christian” (33). The question posed by Hershkowitz is whether this knowledge could also point to the survival of belief in classical gods, or even could be viewed as an impending threat by Prudentius. The chapter then ventures to identify the poet’s likely audience, arguing that his most immediate target is the rural elite of his homeland, although both the presence of martyrs from Narbonne and Arles and his success in Southern Gaul among fifth-century authors may also point to the existence of an audience in Southern Gaul (36), targeted alongside the Spanish audience. Hershkowitz suggests that Prudentius was not a member of a closed religious community, but “would have circulated around these villas, setting himself up as an authoritative, authorial figure, speaking in poetic terms on the intricacies of the Christian belief system as he saw them” (36). His potential audience would then have encompassed both Christian and non-Christians, probably including the administrative and military elite of the area. The decoration of their villas can be useful evidence to assess both the importance of paideia and the religious affiliation of this (mainly anonymous) prospective audience. Thus, the shared classical background present in mosaics proves that classical knowledge was an important indicator of wealth and status. Material evidence is, however, difficult to gauge: Hershkowitz analyses the material proofs that pagan rituals and cults continued to be preponderant and suggests that even the use of Christian symbols need not imply strong beliefs (66). This, together with the lack of positive evidence of Christian buildings, suggests it was unlikely that “Prudentius was working in an irrefutably Christian environment” (67). The chapter concludes with an analysis of the breeding ground for heresy in Hispania at the time, which explains part of our poet’s concerns.

Chapter 3 (“The Peristephanon and the Martyr Cults in Roman Spain”) focuses on the idea that, although his audience was aware of the existence of martyr cult, doubts could be raised as to whether this kind of worship was widespread and deep-rooted in fourth-century Hispania. Firstly, Hershkowitz analyses the development of the martyr cult in late Roman antiquity in order to contextualise the Peristephanon. Then she proceeds to explore the Spanish saints, the protagonists of six of the fourteen poems, in an attempt to disentangle which facts narrated by Prudentius were part of current cultic activities in the area. The next section analyses the poems of the Peristephanon that treat martyrdoms that took place in Italy — Lawrence, Agnes, Peter and Paul, Hippolytus, Cassian — leaving three poems out of this “Hispania/Rome” pattern, although the one devoted to Cyprian of Carthage ( Peristephanon 13) can be related to the first group (96). The core of this chapter focuses on the “evidential texts and material culture” of martyr veneration in Hispania, in order to “determine the extent to which his words might have fallen upon sympathetic ears” (97). Some of the Hispanic martyrdoms celebrated by Prudentius had been previously recorded in acta and/or other texts. In other cases, however, there is no textual evidence prior to his work, as is the case for the “Italian” martyrs. Regarding these, Hershkowitz suggests that the poet may have intended to promote pilgrimage to Rome, which was not as popular as pilgrimage to the Holy sites (104). Although partial evidence suggests that there may have been stories about martyrs circulating at that time in Hispania, Hershkowitz focuses on archaeological remains in order to assess how rooted martyr worship was at that moment in this region. After analysing sarcophagi, funerary buildings, necropoleis, etc., she concludes that “without Prudentius’ poems there would be only limited proof testifying to active and extensive martyr veneration in Hispania in this period” (120). Yet, it is more than likely that his collection served to promote the martyr cult in Spain in the centuries to come (121–2).

Chapter 4 (“Visual Culture and Martyrs: Prudentius, Painter of Pictures in Words”) focuses on two martyrdom poems in whose narrative structure ekphrasis plays an important role ( Peristephanon 9 and 11) and tries to pinpoint which kind of visual representation could have served as inspiration for this poetic work. In the first two sections, Hershkowitz centres on the literary analysis of each poem, and in the subchapter “Pictures Painted in Words” she focuses on the literary precedents of ekphrasis, with special emphasis on those which could have influenced Prudentius. The last section is devoted to “The Actuality of the Martyr Paintings.” There, after revising extant fourth-century Christian paintings, Hershkowitz concludes that “[t]he failure to find concrete physical evidence of martyrial art which more precisely matches Prudentius’ ekphraseis of the passions of Hippolytus and Cassian should not lead one to assume that it was improbable that the poet saw the paintings which he described” (158).

Chapter 5 explores “Prudentius’ Poetry in the Context of the Late Antique Visual Culture of Hispania.” As previously suggested in the book, Christian iconography must have been less familiar than classical iconography to Prudentius’ audience, so Hershkowitz wonders how the forms of art which were still predominant in that context may have helped the recipients of this poetry to visualize what his work depicted, thus providing a lucid interpretation of how these two traditions were reconciled in Prudentius’ poetry. The section entitled “The Visual Culture of the Roman Elite” surveys the figurative representations found in Spain of the classical gods satirised in Prudentius’ poetry, in the belief that they “hint at the connection between Prudentius’ poetry and the concerns he harboured over the accepted aesthetic of (what he defined as) the pagan imagery which continued to surround him and his audience, and the subliminal corrosive influence that it might have on the viewer” (182). The chapter is rounded off by two sections discussing how Prudentius “saw” the martyr images — by means of a “complex fusion of perception, experience, and memory, leavened by an imaginative poetic talent and informed by the writer’s Christian belief” (208) — and how his audience in Spain could have “seen” his martyr images.

The book ends with a summary (“Epilogue for a Christian Poet”), an appendix of “Myths in Prudentius’ Poems and Spanish Mosaics,” a comprehensive “Bibliography” and an “Index”; it contains 29 figures, as well as a “Map of Late Fourth Century Hispania” (xiii).

My overall impression is that this is an excellent book, based on original, honest, and painstaking investigation. Yet, enlightening as this approach proves to be, material culture alone cannot explain Prudentius’ poetry: archaeology, history of art, and even psychology are successfully incorporated in this study, although often to the detriment of literary studies, which according to the author have received too much attention so far. Nonetheless, we must remember that Prudentius was essentially a poet. One example will suffice: in pages 173–177, the description of Bacchus’ triumph in C. Symm. I 122–41 is compared with a great number of extant mosaics found in Spain, “although there is no exact match with a particular one” (175). 1 The survey is definitely interesting and truly enjoyable, and certainly “is further evidence of the Spanish affection for the god’s image” (177), but one may question whether the existence of such representations in Baños de Valdearados in Burgos or Puente Genil in Córdoba is more relevant to Prudentius’ passage than a hypotext that is not even quoted: Catullus’ 64, the narrative structure of which is precisely based on ekphrasis. 2 Catullus, however, is not mentioned in the whole book, and other poets who could have been inspirational due to the ekphrastic and visual quality of their poetry, such as Ovid, are only referred to tangentially.

A further aspect that could be improved is the treatment of the erotic component of Prudentius’ poetry: there might be a slight oversimplification in the statement that “Prudentius’ Christian poetry was replete with blood-drenched imagery and sexual innuendo,” because he “could thus satisfy the intellectual demands of educated aristocrats, while also providing entertainment for them (and for the less cultivated)” (38), or the idea that with the controversial words of Agnes before her martyrdom, “Prudentius may have intended to titillate his audience” (94–5). Meanwhile, some other concepts should have been used more cautiously: it is true that Prudentius highlights the martyrs coming from his homeland, but speaking of “Spanishness” or “patriotic fervour” in the fourth century (87) might be considered slightly anachronistic. Furthermore, although the book is well documented and produced, a more attentive proofreading would have been desirable, especially of Spanish names, since the frequency of spelling mistakes blemishes the final result. 3

Hershkowitz’s book is a solid contribution to knowledge on Prudentius and his historical context. Understanding how the poet related to his contemporary audience and material culture in fourth-century Hispania sheds new light on his Peristephanon and refutes a number of tautological assertions found in previous scholarship. 4 This book will definitely be very useful for those interested in Late Antiquity and late Latin poetry, as well as early Christian art, history and society.


1. I wonder why the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae is never cited, a striking omission in a work partially devoted to discussion of art and iconography.

2. On the influence of Catullus in this passage, see L. Rivero, “Ecos catulianos en los poemas de Prudencio”, Anuario de Estudios Filológicos 19 (1996), 443–55.

3. “Romanizacíon” for “Romanización” (ix), “Pallerès” for “Pallarès” (50 n. 77), “Guardiana” for “Guadiana” (89), “Francoli” for “Francolí” (110), “promoter” for “promotor” (114 n. 197), “Trafico” for “Tráfico” (118), “Fernan Nuñez” for “Fernán Núñez” (Appendix and Index, 249), “Cabezon” for “Cabezón” (248, 251), just to quote a few misspellings.

4. This review forms part of the Research Project FFI2014-56798-P, funded by the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad.