BMCR 2024.01.16

Psychomachia: Einleitung, Text, Übersetzung und Kommentar

, Psychomachia: Einleitung, Text, Übersetzung und Kommentar. Texte und Kommentare, 62. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. x, 519. ISBN 9783110628432.



Prudentius’ Psychomachia—in English, Struggle in the Psyche—is an unauthorized sequel to Virgil’s Aeneid, and it’s a piece of literature all Latinists will want to read. At just under 1,000 lines long, its theme is our struggle against temptation and self-destructive tendencies—against drinking, say, or lust, or anger, or narcissism, and the various other “demons” we battle and sometimes succumb to. But instead of giving us a boring lecture or heavy-handed sermon on getting toxic desires under control, the poem allegorizes our struggles as a series of single combats between warrior women. Prudentius calls the bad guys—or rather, women—Vitia (vices). Ranged against them are the better angels of our nature, warrior women that he calls Virtutes, meaning specific exemplars of willpower, valor, or restraint. In vivid scenes of graphic violence, the Virtues and Vices do battle deep in the recesses of our mind. One by one, the Virtues slay the demons and crown each victory with a brilliant speech that seamlessly combines episodes and ideas from Rome’s pagan and Christian pasts. (For a short introduction, see this fine 2023 article by Peter Hulse in Antigone Journal.)

The author of this amazing piece of literature was a Late Antique poet from Spain named Prudentius (348-413? CE). He apparently wrote the poem around the year 408 or 409 CE, just before the Gothic sack of Rome. And depending on who you believe, he either wrote for the wide readership that other Latin poets did, or he catered more narrowly to entertain the local dignitaries clustered in the villas of northwest Spain near to where he apparently lived.[1]

For years I included Psychomachia at the end of a college course called Introduction to Ancient Rome, and students loved it. We used the out-of-print translation by Harold Isbell (1971), but it eventually dawned on me that Isbell’s version is more a free summary than a bonafide translation. And then, almost simultaneously, as it happens, two brand-new commentaries on Prudentius’ Psychomachia came out, the one in English and the other—the book under review here—in German.[2] Since I was already planning to retranslate the poem myself, I determined to work through the poem using both commentaries systematically.

Having done so, I am pleased to say that Magnus Frisch’s commentary is a first-class piece of work. Every research library and many scholars will want a copy for themselves. With one curious exception—more on that in a moment—Frisch covers all the relevant ground, and he includes a reliable prose translation on facing pages. Like Pelttari, Frisch has made his own Latin text, and he has equipped it with three critical apparatuses. The first reports variant readings (which are not, in general, too much of a problem in this poem). The second apparatus notes some of the great many allusions to classical (i.e. pagan) literature, and the third notes allusions to Biblical or Christian literature.

The Latin text is excellent and the translation genuinely insightful. It makes no discernible attempt to replicate the many plays on words to be found in the Latin, but it does make clear which way we are to resolve ambiguities in interpretation where they arise.

The notes are also excellent. They comment helpfully (and systematically) on almost every line, and I have nothing but praise for them. The coverage ranges from points of grammar, diction, and meter to exploring the literary allusions or various Christian texts that Prudentius assumes as background. Some notes occasionally exend to specific events in recent church history that Prudentius seems to be gesturing to. Even better, some of the best notes discuss military formations and equipment in greater detail than I expected.

Inexplicably, the only place where the notes failed me is a nine-line gap between 591 and 599, where the commentary says nothing at all. Since I found those lines some of the toughest to make sense of on my own, and since Frisch is so helpful elsewhere, it is hard to decide whether the omission is accidental or intentional.

Inevitably, the notes overlap substantially with Pelttari’s commentary. In many such cases, it seems the reigning interpretation goes back to one of two prior commentators highly esteemed by each, viz. Bergmann and Lavarenne. (Neither Frisch nor Pelttari show much enthusiasm for various scholarly suggestions that the poem is heavily interpolated.) In general, Frisch is expansive, Pelttari succinct. This makes sense; given their different academic traditions and expected readers, Frisch is invariably formal, academic, abbreviated, and repetitive (“wissenschaftlich”), while Pelttari cuts to the chase. But the point is, readers can reliably work from either commentary.

At just over 60 pages, the introductory materials are also helpful. Frisch covers Prudentius’ biography and works, possible meanings of the title, and an analysis of the structure and the “characters” and of Prudentius’ free play with their gender (since he or other characters within the poem often refers to the Virtues as viri). He also provides detailed reports on the main manuscripts and earlier editions.

As printed, the commentary includes one feature it doesn’t need and ignores one feature it should have discussed. The unnecessary feature is the introductory section about what a commentary is, or should be, and why (pp. 6-8). This section probably made sense for the 2015/6 Marburg dissertation the book started out as, but not here. The feature the commentary oddly ignores is the huge number of illustrations of Psychomachia which are found in the manuscripts. As Pelttari and others suggest, these illustrations seemingly go all the way back to the original edition commissioned by Prudentius himself! Pelttari does a fine job of discussing and reprinting some of these images, but unless I missed it, Frisch does not even mention them in the section on reception, where he does say—correctly—that “motifs from the Psychomachia were widely used in Romanesque architectural sculpture and fine art” (p. 40). This is all the more mysterious because Frisch does report exhaustively on the manuscripts throughout, and in at least one case he does remark that “Psychomachia is illustrated with many illustrations” (p. 48). At any event, readers can easily explore the best of those illustrations online.[3]

In sum, Magnus Frisch’s edition of Psychomachia is superb. I learned a great deal from it, and I recommend it highly. It will undoubtedly become the standard edition in German-speaking lands, and rightly so.[4]



Hershkowitz, Paula. 2017. Prudentius, Spain, and Late Antique Christianity: Poetry, Visual Culture and the Cult of Martyrs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Isbell, Harold (tr.) 1971. The Last Poets of Imperial Rome. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Pelttari, Aaron. (ed.). 2019. The Psychomachia of Prudentius: Text, Commentary, and Glossary. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.



[1] The former view is standard; for the latter view see Hershkowitz 2017, reviewed in BMCR here. Herskowitz’s book evidently appeared too late for Frisch to account for it, since he does not mention it.

[2] The English commentary is that of Pelttari 2019, which won the Ladislaus J. Bolchazy Pedagogy Book Award award in 2021. (In disclosure, I was a minor member of Pelttari’s dissertation committee a long time ago.)

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[4] Two trivial typos: on p. 121 change 582-582 to 582-583, and on 367 sobdola to subdola.