Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, "The Christian Pindar" was born in northern Spain, a magistrate whose religious convictions came late in life. His subsequent sacred poems were literary and personal, not, like those of St. Ambrose, designed for singing. Selections from them soon entered the Mozarabic rite, however, and have since remained exquisite treasures of the Western churches. His Cathemerinon liber, Peristephanon, and Psychomachia were among the most widely read books of the Middle Ages. A concordance to his works was published by the Medieval Academy of America in 1932. There is a considerable literature on his works.
--The Hymnal 1940 Companion
Prudentius, Aurelius Clemens , with the occasional prefix of Marcus (cf. Migne, vol. lix. p. 593, and Dressel, p. ii. n), is the name of the most prominent and most prolific author of sacred Latin poetry in its earliest days. Of the writer himself we know nothing, or next to nothing, beyond what he has himself told us in a short introduction in verse to his works. From that source we learn that he was a Spaniard, of good family evidently, and that he was born A.D. 348 somewhere in the north of Spain, either at Saragossa, Tarragona, or Calahorra, but at which is left uncertain, by his applying the same expression to all, which if applied only to one would have fixed his place of birth. After receiving a good education befitting his social status he applied himself for some years to practising as a pleader in the local courts of law, until he received promotion to a judgeship in two cities successively:—
"Bis legum moderanrine
Frenos nobilium reximus urbium
Jus civile bonis reddidimus, terruimus reos;"
and afterwards to a post of still higher authority:
"Tandem militiae gradu
Evectum pietas principis extulit."
Archbishop Trench considers this last to have been "a high military appointment at court," and such the poet's own words would seem to describe; but it may well be doubted whether a civilian and a lawyer would be eligible for such employment; in which case we may adopt the solution of the difficulty offered in the Prolegomena to our author's works (Migne, vol. lix. p. 601):—
"Evectus indeest ad superiorem rnilitia? gradum, nimirum militia? civil is, palatinae, aut praesidialis, non bellicae, castrensis, aut cohortalis; nam ii qui officiis jure consultorum praesidum, rectorum et similium funguntur, vulgo in cod. Theod. militare et ad superiores militias ascendere dicuntur."
It was after this lengthened experience at a comparatively early age of positions of trust and power that Prudentius, conscience-smitten on account of the follies and worldliness that had marked his youth and earlier manhood, determined to throw up all his secular employments, and devote the remainder of his life to advancing the interests of Christ's Church by the power of his pen rather than that of his purse and personal position. Accordingly we find that he retired in his 57th year into poverty and private life, and began that remarkable succession of sacred poems upon which his fame now entirely rests. We have no reason however to regard him as another St. Augustine, rescued from the "wretchedness of most unclean living" by this flight from the temptations and engrossing cares of official life into the calm seclusion of a wholly devotional leisure. He had probably rather learnt from sad experience the emptiness and vanity for an immortal soul of the surroundings of even the high places of this world. As he himself expresses it:—
"Numquid talia proderunt
Carnis post obitum vel bona, vel mala,
Cum jam, quicquid id est, quod fueram, mors aboleverit?"
and sought, at the cost of all that the world holds dear, those good things which God hath prepared for them that love Him. Beyond the fact of his retirement from the world in this way, and the fruits which it produced in the shape of his voluminous contributions to sacred poetry, we have no further information about our author. To judge from the amount he wrote, his life must have been extended many years after he began his new career, but how long his life was or where he died we are not told. Probably he died circa 413. His works are:—
(1) Liber Cathemerinon. "Christian Day, as we may call it" W. S. Lilly, "Chapters in European History," vol. i. p. 208).
(2) Liber Peristephanon. "Martyrs' Garlands" (id.).
(3) Apotheosis. A work on the Divine Nature, or the Deification of Human Nature in Christ.
(4) Hamartigenia. A treatise on the Origin of Sin, directed against the Marcionites.
(5) Psychomachia or "The Spiritual Combat"-—an allegorical work.
(6) Libri contra Symmachum. A controversial work against the restoration in the Senate House at Rome of the altar of Victory which Gratian had removed. Symmachus had petitioned Valentinian II. for its restoration in 384, but the influence of St. Ambrose had prevailed against him at that time. In 392 the altar was restored, but removed again by Theodosius in 394. After the death of the latter the attempt to restore it was renewed by Arcadius and Honorius, and it was at that time that Prudentius wrote his first book. The second (for there are two) was written in 405. Fague considers that the first may date in 395.
(7) The Dittochseon = the double food or double Testament, is a wordy collection of 49 sets of four verses each, on Old and New Testament scenes.
Of these different works the most important are the first two, and it is from them that the Liturgical hymns enumerated below have been chiefly compiled. The general character of Prudentius's writings it is not easy fairly to estimate, and to judge by the wholesale laudation he obtains from some of his critics, and the equally unsparing censure of others, his judges have so found it. In venturing upon any opinion upon such a subject, the reader must bear in mind the peculiar position in which the period at which he was writing found the poet. The poetry of classical Rome in all its exact beauty of form had long passed its meridian, and was being replaced by a style which was yet in its infancy, but which burst forth into new life and beauty in the hands of the Mediaeval hymnologists.
Prudentius wrote before rhyming Latin verse was thought of, but after attention had ceased to be given to quantities. Under such circumstances it were vain to look for very finished work from him, and such certainly we do not find. But amidst a good deal of what one must confess is tasteless verbiage or clumsy rhetorical ornament-—however varied the metres he employs, numbering some 17—-there are also passages to be found, not unfrequently, of dramatic vigour and noble expression, which may well hold their own with the more musical utterances of a later date. He writes as a man intensely in earnest, and we may gather much from his writings concerning the points of conduct which were deemed the most important in Christian living at a time when a great portion of mankind were still the victims or slaves of a morality which, heathen at the best, was lowered and corrupted the more as the universality of its influence was more and more successfully challenged by the spread of the Gospel of Christ. If, there¬fore, we can scarcely go as far in our author's praise as Barth—-much given to lavish commendation—-who describes him as "Poeta eximius eruditissimus et sanctissimus scriptor; nemo divinius de rebus Christianis unquam scripsit"; or as Bentley—-not given to praise--who calls him the "Horace and Virgil of the Christians," we shall be as loath, considering under what circumstances he wrote, to carp at his style as not being formed on the best ancient models but as confessedly impure; feeling with Archbishop Trench that it is his merit that "whether consciously or unconsciously, he acted on the principle that the new life claimed new forms in which to manifest itself; that he did not shrink from helping forward that great transformation of the Latin language, which it needed to undergo, now
that it should be the vehicle of truths which, were all together novel to it." (Sacred Latin Poetry, 1874, p. 121.)
The reader will find so exhaustive an account of the various writings of Prudentius in the account given of him and them in Smith and Wace's Dictionary of Christian Biography, and Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, that it is only necessary in this work to refer very briefly to them as above. The poems have been constantly reprinted and re-edited, till the editor who produced the best edition we have of them, Albert Dressel (Leipsic, 1860), is able to say that his is the sixty-third.
The use made of Prudentius's poems in the ancient Breviaries and Hymnaries was very extensive. In the form of centos stanzas and lines wore compiled and used as hymns; and it is mainly from these centos, and not from the original poems, that the translations into English were made. Daniel, i., Nos. 103-115, gives 13 genuine hymns as having been in use for "Morning," "Christmas," "Epiphany," "Lent," "Easter," "Transfiguration," "Burial," &c, in the older Breviaries. ….Many more which were used in like manner have been translated into English. When to these are added the hymns and those which have not been translated into English, we realise the position and power of Prudentius in the hymnody of the Church. [Rev. Digby S. Wrangham, M.A.]
--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)
Prudentius, A. C, p. 915, ii. Two somewhat full versions of Prudentius are: (1) The Cathemerinon and other Poems of Aurelius Prudentius Clemens in English Verse, Lond., Rivington, 1845; and (2) Translations from Prudentius. By Francis St. John Thackeray, M.A.. F.S.A. Lond., Bell & Sons, 1890.
--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, Appendix, Part II (1907)