Paula Hershkowitz. Prudentius, Spain, and Late Antique Christianity: Poetry, Visual Culture, and the Cult of the Martyrs. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2017.
This monograph marks an advance in the scholarly evaluation of Prudentius as the author of his collection of martyr-poems, the Peristephanon, for it considers him primarily in terms of his physical and cultural environs. This undertaking is particularly important, as direct literary evidence for Prudentius’ life exists only in the few details he himself offers in his poetry. Hershkowitz’s reconstruction of Hispania in the late fourth century aims to establish not only the milieu from which Prudentius’ creative genius emerged, but also the social, religious, and intellectual profile of his intended audience. In this way, she provides a background that is crucial for a historically-sensitive evaluation of the Peristephanon.
After an initial chapter consisting of a general introduction to Prudentius, Hershkowitz reconstructs Prudentius’ intended audience in chapter two. She argues against previous proposals that Prudentius wrote for either an ascetic community or the Theodosian court. Rather, from the abundance of monumental villas in his native region of Hispania and southern Gaul, she contends that his audience consisted of the landed elite, including Christians, pagans, and “half-hearted believers” (p. 38). The literary and prosopographic evidence for this group, however, is sparse and so her reconstruction relies heavily on material records. Citing the classical and mythic subject matter of remaining mosaics, Hershkowitz proposes that the social cohesion of this elite class relied on shared paideia rather than religious conviction. Furthermore, from the slim physical evidence for either pagan or Christian structures attached to villas, she concludes that Christianity would have had its strongest hold in urban areas under the influence of the (ecclesiastical) hierarchy. From this reconstruction, Hershkowitz concludes that Prudentius composed his poetry with the aim of strengthening the Christian commitment of his audience.
The third chapter details the state of martyr-cults in fourth-century Hispania. Briefly surveying the position of the martyr in contemporary Christianity more generally, Hershkowitz demonstrates that there is, in fact, very little evidence (literary or material) of the veneration of martyrs in Hispania. In textual terms, she briefly mentions Prudentius’ contemporary, Paulinus of Nola, known for his poems to St. Felix. She treats in fuller detail Potamius, a mid-fourth century bishop of Lisbon who wrote an early Spanish martyr narrative De Esaia, a text which seems to have influenced Prudentius’ treatment of Sts. Cassian and Hippolytus. In archaeological terms, there are no rural and few urban sites that are demonstrably martyrial in function. The centrality of Hispanic martyrs to the Peristephanon, Hershkowitz concludes, is evidence of Prudentius’ promotion of this devotion and does not reflect vibrant martyr cults in late antique Hispania.
The focus of the fourth chapter is the literary description of a work of art, a rhetorical trope known as ekphrasis. Examining the use of this trope within the Peristephanon, Hershkowitz draws attention to the paintings of the martyrdoms of Sts. Cassian and Hippolytus (Pe. 9 and 11) which Prudentius beheld in Imola and Rome respectively. These descriptions have been dismissed as figments of the poet's imagination, but Hershkowitz is loath to discount the accounts so readily. She first surveys the literary history of ekphrasis among classical authors, and then turns to Christian visual art in the fourth century, reconstructing its practice from evidence both textual and material. Hershkowitz concludes that the evidence of the contemporary visual culture of Italy proves that such paintings as Prudentius vividly describes could well have existed in the shrines the poet visited.
In the fifth chapter, Hershkowitz turns from Prudentius' artistic experience to that of his audience, namely the visual culture of late antique Hispania. The Spanish art, with which his audience would have been accustomed, was primarily non-Christian in content. In villas, mosaics survive in relative abundance and their subjects are the hunt, the circus, and mythic figures and events. The little Christian art that exists appears primarily in funeral contexts. The author thus concludes that "at the beginning of the fifth century, the most significant visual culture of Hispania was still predominantly represented by traditional images from the non-Christian past" (p. 205). In order to imagine the descriptions in the Peristephanon, therefore, the Hispano-Roman audience would have had to rely on non-Christian iconography.
In the sixth chapter, Hershkowitz summarizes her findings. In order to appreciate Prudentius’ poetry, it is necessary to place the poet in his milieu; as contemporary evidence is sparse, the material evidence is essential to this endeavor. Prudentius wrote for a literary elite in a flourishing villa culture. There is, however, very little material evidence for participation in martyrial cults or even staunch Christianity among this Spanish elite. In the Peristephanon, therefore, it seems that Prudentius was promoting, instead of reflecting, contemporary behavior.
Hershkowitz is methodical and conscientious in her treatment of the evidence of material culture and extremely cautious in her interpretation thereof. This book represents a step forward in Prudentian scholarship by situating the Peristephanon in its social and historical context. It is to be wished that the monograph will stimulate further research in this vein.
Kathleen M. Kirsch is a Ph.D. Candidate in Greek and Latin at the Catholic University of America. She is writing her dissertation on the image of spiritual combat in Prudentius’ poetry. She can be contacted at email@example.com