Destabilizing Death: Prudentius’s Peristephanon

After being thrown from a high bridge into the Kupa River with a millstone tied to his neck, the Siscian bishop Quirinus, bobbing calmly (stone and all) in the most tranquil of eddies, begins to worry that he might not actually die:

The martyr bishop felt

that now the earned palm of death and departure

was being snatched away from him,

and that ascent was being denied [him]

to the seat of the eternal father.1

Dismayed, he petitions Jesus directly, essentially asking him to stop grandstanding and let him receive the final prize:

“All-powerful Jesus,” he said,

“in no way is this glory for you

either unusual or new,

to trample on a raging sea

and stop a rushing river.”2

Peter, after all, had walked on water, had “made sea subject to foot” with the help of Jesus’s hand (Matt. 14:29–31), and the Jordan River, “with its movements flowing backward,” had fled back to its source so that Joshua’s Israelites could cross (Josh. 3:15–16).3 Quirinus admits that his present activity, “swimming lightly in the greatest whirlpool of the river” with a boulder around his neck, is a good addition to the list of miracles.4 And yes, Quirinus allows, it’s probably a good idea to show any unbelieving spectators the power of the Christian God. But now that that’s all done, he prays, “Now grant that which remains / the most precious thing of all, / to die for you, Christ God!”5 Even as he utters the words, the martyred bishop dies (“breath / and voice and heat desert him at once”6), the stone begins to sink, and “the waters receive his body.”7

Quirinus’s story, and particularly his obsession with death, as Prudentius depicts it in Peristephanon 7, might seem to confirm the necessity of actual physical death to martyrdom. The martyr flat-out requests death, after all. Instead, however, as I will show, the poem is engaging contemporary debates about what, in fact, constitutes martyrdom, and it ultimately argues against using death as the measure of a martyr. The death Quirinus requests is, in Prudentius’s formulation, the prize for his martyrdom rather than the cause of it. In this chapter, I aim to show not only that Prudentius represents his martyrs in such a way as to help his readers dissociate martyrdom from death, but also that he does so through pedagogical poetics, that is, poetry that aims to transform and shape the reader, so that the argument the poet is making comes to seem intuitive to the newly formed readerly subject. By entangling attentive readers in ambiguity-laden, paradox-ridden accounts of martyrdom, Prudentius is teaching those readers how to understand martyrdom—and that it does not require death.

This transformative pedagogy is characteristic of the “exegetical” poetics practiced by Prudentius and his contemporaries. This form of poetry, in Marc Mastrangelo’s characterization, “interprets texts, proclaims truths, and asserts doctrines”;8 most importantly, exegetical poetry entails an attempt to instruct—and ultimately alter—one’s readers and their opinions. Through their poetry, the late fourth-century Christian poets examined issues of concern to their Christian contemporaries and advocated particular answers. But this poetic exegesis is not simple, nor is it (usually) explicit. In the fourth and fifth centuries, as Martha Malamud writes, “figured speech, studied ambiguity, and allusive references and reminiscences that point the reader toward a conclusion but do not spell it out became characteristic features of Roman poetry.”9 It was up to the reader to piece together the poet’s clues and find the true purpose of a poem, and this participation acted to cement the reader’s own transformation in response to the poem.

Aaron Pelttari has shown the extent to which Prudentius crafted his poetry with the reader’s involvement in mind. Through the paratext of the Psychomachia’s preface, for instance, Prudentius declares his expectation that his reader will perform “a figural reading that will produce an ethical response to the poem.”10 The preface describes the scriptural account of Abraham’s life as an allegory “written down beforehand” (praenotata) in order to furnish a path for “our life” (nostra vita)—that is, Prudentius’s own as well as those of the readers: “As the first reader of the Psychomachia, Prudentius uses the preface to construct his own reading of the text and to invite the reader to follow him in it.”11 But there is one point on which Pelttari does not go far enough. If the reader fashions herself successfully according to the ancient models (as Prudentius has reconstructed them), Prudentius declares that Christ will enter the “humble dwelling of the modest heart,” and the reader will become “a worthy heir” to the Father, akin to both Christ and Isaac.12 This is not just an ethical transformation into some ideal Christian; this is a wholesale recapitulation of Christ and his imitators that Prudentius offers his readers, if they read his poetry correctly.

Beyond the paratextual, Pelttari also explores how Prudentius uses allegory and allusion to demand his reader’s engagement. Allegory requires an active reader because the text cannot simply be read on its surface: a “second, distinct meaning beneath the surface of the text” must be uncovered.13 The poet thus allows his readers “to inhabit the space between each layer”: to assert, construct, and identify themselves through the process of reading.14 Allusion (or intertextuality15) operates in a somewhat similar way, requiring the reader to activate both their knowledge of the source text and their appreciation of the text in front of them. But late antique poetry is distinct in its fragmentation of allusion—the passages alluded to are not thematically or logically linked to the situation of the source text, and so the reader is presented with even more work: the readers must make sense of disparate fragments with no clear referentiality and must do so in the context of the poem in front of them.16 The goal of all this engagement, for Prudentius and his contemporaries, is the transformation of the reader.

In his poems, Prudentius uses every weapon in his arsenal to instruct his reader and remake her character, forcing the reader to work to discern the desired understanding. Prudentius hides alternate meanings in anagrams; he blends biblical, mythological, and literary characters with regard more for educational advocacy than for historical accuracy; he plays tricks on his readers (like refusing to close the frame of an ekphrasis, so the reader finds herself trapped in the world of the poem); he conjures word-games; and he undermines the reader’s comfort and sense of stability by undercutting his own poems, as we shall see.17 Prudentius’s poetry is “anomalous, paradoxical, and ambiguous,” rife with “frequent conflict between text and subtext,” and it is these very qualities that ensure its impact on the reader.18

One note about Prudentius’s audiences: we simply do not know enough about the circulation of his poetry to determine who Prudentius’s true audiences were. We can safely say that he intended his works to be read and dissected by individuals—many poetic devices, anagrams, in particular, work best in a visual setting rather than an oral/aural one. But it would be a stretch to assume that this was Prudentius’s only intended audience, or that he meant for his words to be hoarded by the elite and not shared more widely. And so throughout these two chapters on Prudentius, I use the term “reader” to refer to Prudentius’s audience, mostly to indicate the type of engagement that would have been required for Prudentius’s argument to be fully appreciated and understood; I do not mean to suggest that no one beyond this intimate reading audience could have discovered these lessons and taken them to heart, and I do not want to assume that this wider dissemination was not Prudentius’s ultimate intention.

Prudentius’s playful poetry would have constituted an important and influential driver to the development of a Christian worldview centered on martyrdom. In treating martyrdom, Prudentius clarified and enhanced the traditional narrative of the martyr so that it could be used more broadly in Christian worldviews; by parsing the martyr, he made arguments for certain Christian ways of being. And by depicting the martyrs’ stories in ways that highlight tensions about martyrdom, challenge the reader’s assumed knowledge, and promote answers for the dilemmas martyrdom introduces, Prudentius’s poetry served to help the Christian community better understand what it meant to participate in the Christian narrative of suffering and triumph.

In this chapter, I demonstrate that the narrative of martyrdom that Prudentius cultivates is one in which death is not required for martyrdom, in which death as the marker of martyrdom is destabilized and often displaced. I focus on how Prudentius undercuts death as the primary criterion for martyrdom, looking at his portrayal of five martyrs across three poems of the Peristephanon. The martyrs range from a martyr for whom death seems central to martyrs who do not actually die. Quirinus, my first subject, is a martyr whose obsession with exitus seems to indicate that death is, in fact, the sine qua non of martyrdom. I then discuss Vincent, a martyr who traditionally would have been termed a confessor (since he died after his release from torment and prison) and whose story seems to indicate that death is not only not required but also an elusive object in itself, a moving target whose very reality ought to be questioned. Next, I discuss Encratis, a virgin martyr of Caesaraugusta who, as Prudentius phrases it, had the honor of “surviving her death” and living to tell the tale of her martyrdom. I also briefly discuss her two Caesaraugustan compatriots, Gaius and Crementius, who “tasted the savor of martyrdom” despite, like Encratis, failing to die. By discussing Prudentius’s poems about these martyrs, I intend to illustrate the poet’s attempt to dissociate martyrdom from death and, as I will cover in the next chapter, to align it, instead, with the concept of witness.


We know little about Prudentius as a historical figure. Almost all that we know about his biography is what we can glean from his writings. Thankfully, the poet was kind enough to leave a depiction of his career and progression toward poetry in the verse preface to his collected poems, which he published in 404 or 405.19 He writes, he says, as an old man of fifty-seven, with “snow” on his head20 and the “hoar of age”21 upon him, looking back on his life and questioning his accomplishments. “What useful thing have I done in all this length of time?” he asks before recounting a youth “[weeping] under the rods” of teachers who taught him to speak falsely, an adolescence marked by “wanton sumptuousness” and the “filth and stain of wickedness,” an early career filled with lawyerly “disputes,” and later success as a governor, when, he says, “Twice with the harness of law / I guided the reins of noble cities; / I returned law and order to the good people, and terrified the criminals.” Finally, he describes coming into the service of a pious emperor (likely Theodosius or Honorius), who, he says, “Raised me, exalted by a step to courtly office / Ordering that I, elevated, should stand nearer, in the closest rank.”22 Despite his seeming pride in the successes of his later career and his imperial recognition, Prudentius dismisses it all as ephemeral—worshipful of the transient world rather than the eternal God.23 To rectify this situation, Prudentius declares that he will take up writing pious poetry, to “let [the sinning soul] at least honor God in voice, if it cannot with worthy deeds.”24

None of Prudentius’s autobiography can be directly confirmed by historical sources,25 and we must always be cognizant of the poet’s ideological prerogatives, both in terms of self-fashioning and in terms of promoting his particular Christianizing agenda. But we can tenuously accept some truthfulness in Prudentius’s self-description: after all, his poems, including this preface, appear to have been circulated during his lifetime, and his career claims would have had to have been at least plausible to his contemporaries.26 The intertextuality of Prudentius’s poetry certainly supports the poet’s claims to traditional education and elite connections: he appears to have been extremely well read. His poetry includes quotes and ideas from classical predecessors (including Lucretius, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Statius, Lucan, Seneca, and Juvenal) and shows the influence of nearer contemporaries such as Ambrose, Ausonius, Claudian, and Paulinus of Nola. He seems to have had strong connections to Spain, particularly Caesaraugusta, though the first independent reference to him comes from a Gallic Chronicle that claims him as “our poet.”27

Beyond the biographical, we now know that Prudentius was an important and influential Christian thinker and author with a deliberate and wide-reaching project that operated pedagogically to engage and reshape the reader and her understanding of what it meant to be a good Christian. Current research shows that Prudentius was engaging in poetry not only as a devotional or intellectual enterprise but also as a constructive, identity-building, and advocacy-laden exercise with the goal of shaping the Christian reader.28 Prudentius’s poems were meant to have real effects in the late antique world, acting on those who encountered and engaged with them.

The Peristephanon had, prior to the last quarter of the twentieth century, suffered from comparative neglect by modern Prudentius scholars. The collection of fourteen martyrological poems, which vary widely in length and meter (and whose themes are diverse, for all that they share the subject of martyrdom), was overlooked in favor of the more inventive verses of the Cathemerinon and the epic allegory of the Psychomachia. Recently, however, scholars of various methodological stripes have renewed critical interest in the Peristephanon, drawn to its artistry, rhetorical power, and historical significance.29

One note about Prudentius’s sources before we proceed: Prudentius’s exegetical mission is readily apparent with his more clearly original poems (Psychomachia, Hamartigenia, Cathemerinon). Some may find it less so in his martyr poems because he is retelling stories that must have already been largely known to his contemporaries. Prudentius did not manufacture his martyrological poems out of whole cloth.30 Nor, however, did he merely versify existing legend. His authorial voice shines through; the choices he makes, the changes to the stories, his word-play, humor, the specific words he chooses to use, and the nuance that he adds to the martyrs’ stories through his exegetical poetry all stand out to make the Peristephanon every bit as exegetical as his other poems. Indeed, these may be deemed more argumentative precisely because they dealt with already known and beloved subjects. His authorial choices and mode of presentation can then come to the forefront to make his own exegesis more pronounced and to force an acknowledgment and a response from the reader.


Prudentius’s account of the martyrdom and death of Quirinus, described above, is fraught with tension, and not just tension about the value of death to martyrdom. It begins, in fact, by weighing in on a separate debate, with the narrator attempting to forestall criticism from those who would judge a martyr’s worth by the type of death they suffered:

Neither stiffness of sword,

nor fires, nor beasts

killed him with cruel dissolution,

but with river-waters

the whirlpool, while it seized him, washed him clean.

It does not matter [whether] it is with a glassy sea

or from a river of blood

that passion wets a martyr;

glory comes forth equally

from any drenching wave.31

From these early stanzas onward, we know that we are reading a polemic, an argument for the validity of a certain type of martyrdom. And we learn that martyrdom, even when marked by death, was a contested status, where the controversial territory included not only the fact of the martyr’s death but the manner of it. Death alone was not enough to ensure martyrdom: it had to be a certain kind of death, according to some of Prudentius’s contemporaries. Arguing against those who would deny Quirinus martyr status because his death was watery and bloodless, Prudentius opens the poem with an assertion of the equality of deaths among martyrs.

But on closer inspection, Prudentius’s phrasing is ambiguous enough that he may be asserting the equality of trials among martyrs rather than the equality of their deaths. Prudentius makes no explicit mention of Quirinus’s death, writing instead that “the whirlpool, while it seized him, washed him clean.”32 Note that the verb most associated with death here, rapit, is relegated to a subordinate clause and that the wave’s primary function is not as an instrument of death but as a cleansing agent. More than that, this water imagery continues, becoming the standard by which all other passions are judged: the blood so fetishized by Prudentius’s contemporaries becomes imaginatively transformed into a “drenching wave,” such that water, not blood, becomes established as the dominant metaphor. Prudentius is not apologizing for Quirinus’s lack of blood; he is showing that it is the blood of other martyrs that requires reconciliation to Quirinus’s watery standard, and not the other way around.

The tensions in the text proliferate from there: Quirinus feels his obligation to his flock but is also anxious about his personal ascent to the Father; he miraculously survives his execution, only to opt for death instead; in order to achieve that end, the martyr asks God for a personal favor, contravening the demonstrated divine will; and finally, Quirinus argues that he should not have to recapitulate biblical miracles and that because those miracles are recorded in Scripture, modern-day miracles are unnecessary—yet here he is, performing one.33 Each of these scenarios raises further questions about the role and power of the martyr and his miracles, as well as the texts that commemorate them both.

Prudentius is not simply muddying the waters with this tension-filled depiction of martyrdom. This is not confusion for confusion’s sake or merely the product of an inconsistent or inconsiderate poet. Rather, he is using Quirinus’s story to highlight tensions present in martyr stories so that he can help resolve them. The result is a clearer and more precise understanding of the person and role of the martyr in general and a reaffirmed sense of the importance and power of Quirinus in particular. In Peristephanon 7, Prudentius challenges the reader to think critically about what, exactly, constitutes a martyr and what the martyr’s role in faith, salvation, and the cosmos should be, and to conclude, as he has, that the martyr can achieve that status—complete with intercessory power—without dying.

Foremost among the concerns that Prudentius addresses is the tension between the martyr’s death and his survival. What brings more glory to God: that a martyr should survive under miraculous circumstances or that she should perish with the name of Christ on her lips? The answer has implications far beyond the realm of martyrdom. To answer that survival is the greater blessing, the just desert of a martyrdom well-suffered, would be to privilege earthly life and existence in a finite and imperfect world. To answer, in contrast, that death brings more glory to God is to privilege an otherworldliness that negates the very body that served as the primary vehicle for the martyr’s success and to disparage the created world. The question is a perennial one in Christian thought, impinging on faith, theodicy, anthropology, soteriology, and how Christians can understand the nature of heaven.34

Quirinus, according to Prudentius’s presentation, certainly seems to value death, though not, it seems, as a means to martyrdom. Prudentius writes that Quirinus feared losing his earned spoils (the palm of death and departure) and that failure to die would leave barriers remaining between himself and his ascent to the Father (Peristephanon 7.51–55). Quirinus thus seems to see death as the reward for martyrdom rather than the signifier of it. Furthermore, Prudentius labels Quirinus a martyr while he yet lives (Peristephanon 7.51), and Quirinus himself seems to recognize that he has already earned the prize, though not yet received it, which again indicates that death is the reward, not the cause for reward.35 Quirinus regards dying for Christ as the highest honor, “than which there is nothing more precious,”36 but the question remains: is death essential for his martyrdom? That is, should we interpret Quirinus’s desire for death as a desire for martyrdom, as a desire for a particular type of martyrdom, or as a desire for death, completely unrelated to a martyrdom that could well have been complete without that final coup de grâce?

Prudentius provokes his readers to ask this very same question by inserting momentary ambiguity into Quirinus’s death wish through word-play. When Quirinus asks God to “release the hindrances of the soul now,”37 a statement that he clarifies a few lines later to mean that he wishes to die, Quirinus uses the words absoluas and moras. The most common meaning of absoluo is “to untie,” and mora, which can mean a delay or anything that causes a delay or hindrance, both conceptually and aurally calls to mind the physical thing that is actually impeding Quirinus at the moment, namely, the mola or millstone tied to his neck.38 “L” and “R” are phonetically similar in Latin, both liquid consonants, and the vowels in mora and mola have all the same quantities, so it is hard to imagine the poet not intending there to be imaginative slippage. For a moment, then, Prudentius leads his readers to think that Quirinus is asking for the stone to be untied from his neck—that he is asking to live. The ambiguity—that is, the presence of a potential double meaning and the fact that, based on just this line alone, Quirinus really could be requesting either life or death—highlights the extraordinary nature of the request that God does honor. This ambiguity presents Quirinus’s dilemma starkly, highlighting the fact that God has initially chosen that Quirinus not die. It makes the fact that Quirinus chooses death all the more striking.

Also striking is the fact that God does not just allow Quirinus to die: he actually kills him. Or, rather, he complies with the martyr’s request through miraculous, supernatural means. Instead of allowing the persecutors’ punishments to be effective, God causes Quirinus to die before he sinks into the river, depriving him of “breath and voice and heat”39 and only then allowing his corpse to vanish into the water. This is completely unnatural. Quirinus does not drown. He dies, after asking God that he might, and then he sinks. God has willed Quirinus’s death in response to the martyr’s act of will. The singularity of this death highlights its separation from Quirinus’s martyrdom and conveys the notion that this death is some sort of reward for a martyrdom well done: Quirinus’s request for death, which contravenes God’s clearly demonstrated preference for his survival, is only assented to because Quirinus has already earned the crown. He is already a martyr, speaking persuasively to God as if to a peer. Ultimately, Quirinus’s successful request for death says more about his character and the authoritative power of martyrdom than about the necessity of death to becoming a martyr.

By emphasizing Quirinus’s desire for death, then, Prudentius actually highlights the non-necessity of actual death to martyrdom. Prudentius asserts distance, time and again, between Quirinus’s martyrdom and his death, choosing, essentially, not to use death as his argument for Quirinus’s martyr status. Even in this poem, which seems to emphasize the role of death in martyrdom, we find that notion tested and challenged.


Quirinus is not the only martyr whose demise Prudentius uses to undermine the idea that death is necessary for martyrdom. Vincent appears in Peristephanon 5 as a martyr whose death and martyrdom are separable, whose status as martyr is assured before his actual death, and whose eventual death is qualified by Prudentius’s commentary. Vincent dies not under torture but while recuperating from it, in the embrace of his community, and only after (like Quirinus) wishing for his own death. By presenting Vincent’s passion as he does, going so far as to challenge the very definition of death, Prudentius forces the reader to question the role of death in martyrdom more generally.

Unlike Quirinus, Vincent could never be accused of not having shed enough blood to qualify as a martyr. His is one of the goriest tales in the Peristephanon. Vincent is racked, torn by claws, burnt on hot plates, and laid on a bed of jagged potsherds, all of which the poet describes in graphic detail. These tortures commence because Vincent, a deacon of the Church in Spanish Caesaraugusta, refuses to sacrifice to the Roman gods; he not only resists the governor Datian’s calls to sacrifice but also cries out against the decree and insults the gods, challenging Datian to torture and kill him:

Tear away our faith, if you can!

Tortures, prison, claws

and the plate whistling with flames,

and even the ultimate punishment,

death, are but games to Christians.40

Vincent’s words provide a template for what happens next as he endures the rack and claws, the fiery plates, the darkness of prison, and eventually death, laughing all the while and responding to Datian’s insults and sly bargains with professions of faith and insults of his own. For example, at one point, the governor offers Vincent a deal: his life for his sacred books: “At least reveal the hidden leaves / and secret books / so that the teaching that sows depravity / might be burnt with a deserved fire.”41 To this, Vincent replies that the only thing that will burn is Datian himself, in the depths of hell.42

While Vincent is imprisoned in the darkest of dungeons, awaiting more torture and his ultimate execution, a theophany occurs. The pitch-black cell is flooded with brilliant light, and Vincent feels Christ’s presence within the cell. The jagged potsherds with which Datian has laced the martyr’s prison-bed morph into soft flowers, and a host of angels congregate around him, standing and speaking with him. One “of more august visage”43 than the others addresses Vincent as a martyr: “Arise, O martyr renowned!”44 Vincent obliges, getting out of bed and walking around in the company of his angelic visitors. The governor, hearing about all of this from the watchful prison guard, angrily concedes defeat and orders that Vincent be taken out of prison and “restored with kindly warmth / so that he, refreshed, / might offer new fodder for punishment.”45

The Christian community responds in droves, taking care of Vincent and adoring his wounds. It is at this point that Vincent, having been delivered from immediate harm, dies. But his martyrdom is not yet over. The poem goes on for another 200 lines, describing in detail how Datian sought to destroy Vincent’s corpse and failed, again and again, due to miraculous intervention from the natural world—first by a raven standing sentinel over the martyr’s exposed remains, then by the sea, which refuses to accept Vincent’s millstone-weighted body and on which the body floats swiftly back to shore. This posthumous suffering, Prudentius writes, merits Vincent a second crown: “You alone, O twice renowned, / alone have carried off the palm of a double prize; / you have obtained two laurels at once.”46

The poem is ambiguous about death, both as a requirement for martyrdom and as a category in itself. There is, on the one hand, evidence for a more conventional understanding of the importance of death to martyrdom. On the other hand, many of these very same instances are qualified by Prudentius’s choices in representation, including his outright questioning of what, really, death means to the martyr. Furthermore, there are other moments where the rejection of death as a criterion for martyrdom is clear. This very ambiguity is productive, as it forces Prudentius’s readers to sift through their presumptions and make a choice about the nature of martyrdom.47 But which choice does Prudentius weight most heavily? To what conclusions does he want his readers to come?

The conventional assumption that death is a prerequisite for martyr status appears several times in the poem, and each time it is undercut by textual or narrative ambiguities. First, Prudentius begins the poem by linking the day of Vincent’s victory first to his blood and then to his ascent to heaven through death:

Blessed martyr, make prosperous

the day of your triumph,

on which in recompense for blood

the crown was given, Vincent, to you.

this day, with torturer and judge conquered,

carried you out of the shades of the age

up to the sky,

and restored you, rejoicing, to Christ.48

The poet is emphatically focused on celebrating the day of Vincent’s removal from the flesh, suggesting that his martyrdom is connected to or possibly even reliant on his death. Nonetheless, the conscientious reader will note that the crown is given to Vincent in recompense for “blood,” not death, and that Vincent’s death is referred to in tremendously ambiguous terms. In another scene, the angel who addresses Vincent as “martyr renowned” also links death and the martyr’s passion, telling Vincent that, “with the beautiful departure of death / the whole passion has been completed.”49 Death and martyrdom are here clearly connected. But the death that is needed to complete the passio is described in the past tense, as if, contrary to the explicit text of the narrative, the death has already occurred. Here, text and subtext stand at odds with one another, in Malamud’s terms, as the reader is led to understand that this death, which has yet to happen, has indeed already happened, at least in the eyes of the angels.50 We see, then, Prudentius calling into question what, in fact, constitutes death and even temporality itself. Finally, when Vincent is released from prison, Prudentius describes him as “sick from the tedium of delays / and burning with a thirst for death.”51 As with Quirinus, Vincent’s desired outcome is immediately achieved. It is at this moment, however, that Prudentius chooses to include his most explicit qualification of death:

If something of this sort is to be considered death

which releases the free mind

from the bodily prison

and returns to God, its maker,

a mind cleansed with blood

overwashed with the waters of death

which has offered itself and its life

as a sacrifice to Christ.52

In this formulation, Prudentius questions the very nature of death, characterizing it as a positive thing for someone whose mind is already devoted to God. Death exists, Prudentius maintains, but this is not an example of it. Because the martyr suffered and offered up himself to Christ, the only thing left for him is to abandon the shackles of the body and join his creator. How, Prudentius asks, could this “be considered death”?

Prudentius continues to challenge the nature of death in his description of Vincent’s post-mortem journey to heaven. Once Vincent dies, Prudentius describes in detail his ascent, including a personal greeting from John the Baptist, who “calls one who has been similarly released from prison.”53 John, as Prudentius’s readers would well have known, was “released” from prison by his execution.54 By making Vincent’s release from the dungeon analogous to John’s “escape” by execution, Prudentius seems to be underscoring the importance of death. But the dominant metaphor is still that of prison: John’s comment underscores that he and Vincent did share an experience of imprisonment, and Prudentius indicates that this, not death, is their salient similarity. We could also read this episode as Prudentius’s attempt to ameliorate any anxieties the pious might feel about venerating a martyr whom the authorities had released: if John sees the martyr’s imprisonment in both dungeon and body as commensurate with his own, certainly Prudentius’s contemporary Christians should have no qualms about accepting him as a martyr.

In short, wherever death appears privileged as a requirement for martyrdom, Prudentius’s poetic, literary, and narrative choices undercut that assumption. We see this even in the passage where Prudentius most assertively links death to martyrdom: as he explains Vincent’s two-fold crown, Prudentius states that Vincent was ultimately martyred twice:

You have obtained two laurels at once.

Victor in a savage death,

then next after death similarly

a victor with body alone

triumphant you crush the bandit.55

That Vincent earned a crown as “victor in a savage death” is the most unambiguous statement in the poem linking death to martyrdom. Nonetheless, it occurs alongside a post-mortem set of miracles that indicates the opposite. If he suffers a second martyrdom and earns a second crown by having his body abused after death, where is death in that second martyrdom? As the much-maligned body-prison triumphs against the persecutors by itself, demonstrating to all and sundry the miraculous powers of the Christian God, the reader is left with the distinct impression that perhaps what lies at the heart of martyrdom is something else entirely.

In contrast to these ambiguous presentations of death as the marker of martyrdom, Prudentius offers clear evidence that Vincent has achieved martyr status prior to his death. For instance, after Vincent has been locked in his dark cell and strapped to a bed of potsherds, he has a visitation from Christ:

For the blindness of the prison

flashed with the splendor of light

and the two-fold bite of the stocks

bursts open with apertures broken.

Vincent recognized here

to be present that which he had hoped for,

the prize of such great labor,

Christ, the giver of light.56

There are a number of features of this epiphany that serve to highlight Vincent’s acquisition of the elevated status and authority befitting a martyr, not least the fact that Vincent recognizes the presence of Christ. But the element that most argues for his martyr status is that Prudentius characterizes Christ and his presence as the prize of Vincent’s toil, now realized. In addition, the light-filled prison then becomes flower-covered and scented with nectar (Peristephanon 5.277–280), indicating that, once again, the lines between life and death are blurred, with heaven coming to earth just as Christ had done.

This heavenly prison hosts Vincent’s conference with angels, which is, again, well before his death. It is here that the angel addresses him as “martyr renowned”:

Arise, martyr renowned!

Arise, free from care of yourself!

Arise, and join this nourishing company

as our companion.

The duties already performed by you

are enough of a threatening punishment,

and by the beautiful end of death

the entire passion has been completed.

Oh, most invincible soldier,

the strongest of the strong!

Already the selfsame savage and difficult torments

tremor at you, their conqueror.

Christ God the watcher repays these things

with an unending life

and crowns the companion of his own cross

with his generous right hand.

Set aside this perishable vessel,

a fabric woven of earth,

which, destroyed, falls apart

and come, free, into heaven!57

By the angel’s reckoning, Vincent is already a martyr, already renowned, and worthy of an invitation to join the angelic company that has surrounded him in prison. He has already done his duties, suffered his quota of torments, and done all he can to ensure his martyrdom. Prudentius highlights this by shifting the subject from munia or “duties” performed by a line-ending and emphatic tibi in lines 289–290 to a passio that peracta est (a “passion” that “has been completed”) in lines 291–292. He has conquered all foes, to be termed “strongest of the strong,” and the torments that once attacked him now tremble, conquered. His rewards from Christ are described in the present tense, while the destruction of his body, his earth-woven vessel, is described as already complete. Despite the angel’s indication that death is still required for the passion to be completed and his comments about setting aside perishable flesh, when Vincent arises to join the company of the angels, he arises not from his body but in his body, miraculously loosening the metal chains rather than his fleshly ligatures and walking about, very much alive.58 Here we see again, in Malamud’s terms, text and subtext in tension with one another, as the angel asserts a reward to come that has, in fact, already been achieved.

Whether or not the angels have truly deemed Vincent’s struggles to be at an end, his enemy has already conceded the match, and Prudentius has already declared him the victor. When he hears of Vincent’s miraculous stroll with the angels in his cell, Datian, “defeated, weeps.”59 He laments his own defeat: “groaning, he mulls over his anger, grief, shame”60 and ultimately orders that Vincent be released to heal so that he can live to suffer another day. Prudentius offers his readers this window into Datian’s mind in order to drive home the point that the persecutor has already been conquered by the martyr—not just in his own sentiment but also in the poet’s omniscient observation. The martyr has not died, yet already he has triumphed over his enemies.

Following Datian’s orders, the jailers release Vincent to the community’s Christians, who congregate to comfort, honor, and venerate him:

You might see that a faithful crowd

gathers from the whole town

to fluff his raised cushion,

to dry the raw wounds.

That one traverses the double

furrows of the claws,

this one rejoices to lap up

the purple61 gore of his body.

And many moisten their linen garments

with the dripping blood,

that they might save for their progeny

a sacred talisman at home.62

Vincent, still living, receives the veneration that believers owe to martyrs. The community eagerly congregates to take care of him, and individual Christians venerate his body in frankly erotic terms. What is more, believers collect his blood in the expectation that future generations will use it as relics. While the Christians might be counting on Vincent’s imminent death to activate his martyrial powers, the level of pre-mortem fervor is striking and strongly suggests that death was not the crucial event for Vincent’s martyrdom. And, as we have seen, when Vincent does die, Prudentius qualifies his death (“If something of this sort is to be considered death . . .”63). The overall effect of Prudentius’s conditional statement about death is to signify its irrelevance to the martyr.

Prudentius reinforces his destabilization of death through the narrative structure of the poem. It is not enough to question death explicitly; Prudentius models this uncertainty about death by including multiple “deaths,” multiple illusory endings, within his poem. The poem is filled with these false endings. To list them briefly:

1. In lines 136–144, Datian declares a moratorium on Vincent’s torments, which he himself then overrides in anger over Vincent’s continued insults.64

2. In lines 205–208, Datian prescribes a “final” punishment, which proves to be anything but final (“let the trial be conducted, last of all, with fire, the bed, and the plates”65).

3. When Vincent ascends his pyre in lines 221–224, Prudentius intimates an ending by saying that the holy man seemed already conscious of the crown and the final, highest seat of judgment66 and by using the same vocabulary (scando and conscendo) that he regularly uses to describe the heavenly ascent of the soul after death.67

4. When Vincent seems to be insensible to the burning and to be deriving active enjoyment from casting his eyes to the heavens in lines 233–248, Datian rescinds his orders about Vincent’s “final punishment” and has him cast down into the prison, a dreadful place of aeterna nox (“eternal night”) that contains its own Shades.68

5. The angels who visit Vincent here in prison in lines 289–292 declare the martyr’s suffering to be at an end and seem to offer an optimal moment for Vincent to actually die, which does not happen; as we have seen, Vincent arises not from his body but in his body to wander around his paradisaical cell.

6. When imprisonment fails to have the desired effect, Datian again declares a delay while the martyr heals up for a new round of tortures, a command that projects a new ending point that never materializes, interrupted as it is by Vincent’s “actual” death.69

After each of these “endings,” the poem keeps going, and the tortures continue. Even Vincent’s physical death does not end the poem. First, Prudentius follows Vincent on his heavenly path to the Father,70 and then Datian tries to end the contest with, first, the desecration of Vincent’s body, which fails, and then a concealment of the body via watery entombment, which also fails when the body floats back to shore despite being weighted with a millstone. The presence of all these false endings structurally reinforces the rhetorical point that Prudentius is making about the blurred boundaries between life and death and the consequent need to find another pillar for martyrdom to stand on.

Prudentius destabilizes death as the prime signifier of martyrdom both by making death’s role in the narrative ambiguous and by destabilizing what it means to die. Prudentius presents alternate options but heavily weights, reiterates, and advocates the idea that death is not what it seems to be, either for the martyr or for the martyrdom.71

With Vincent’s story, Prudentius includes so many ambiguities surrounding this particular question of death and its relationship to martyrdom as to remove death as a necessary or even a primary criterion for martyrdom. Death as the pillar of martyrdom is represented as shaky and qualified, though there is no doubt in the reader’s mind (or in Prudentius’s pronouncements) that Vincent is, in fact, a martyr. This is how Prudentius’s exegetical project works. By presenting the story with tension that the reader is forced to confront, he guides the reader to a new understanding of what martyrdom should mean. What he has done with Quirinus and Vincent, who were widely recognized martyrs even before Prudentius’s poems were published, helps lay the foundation for what he asserts about the lesser- (or more locally-) known Encratis and her companions in Peristephanon 4: that one does not need to die to become a martyr.


In Peristephanon 4, Prudentius focuses on one city rather than on one martyr. He compares Spanish Caesaraugusta to other locales and concludes that no other city can match the wealth Caesaraugusta holds in the ashes of its eighteen martyrs. No other locale can come close: it is the rare city that can boast five (Peristephanon 4.49–50). With so many protectors, Caesaraugusta, as Prudentius characterizes it, is practically inviolable, whether its safety is threatened by sin, plague, or barbarian hordes. And yet Prudentius is not comfortable with this hefty lead. He claims, on top of the eighteen, four more: Vincent (a child of Caesaraugusta who just happened to meet his end elsewhere) and three martyrs who did not die—the fierce maiden martyr Encratis and the two bloodless champions, Gaius and Crementius.

In the case of Encratis, whom Prudentius features in Peristephanon 4, there is no question that death as traditionally conceived is no requirement for martyrdom: as Prudentius makes clear, she survives her martyrdom. Addressing the martyr in an apostrophe, Prudentius writes:

To none of the martyrs did it pass

that with life remaining they dwelled in our lands,

only you, surviving your own death,

live on in the world.

You live, and you retrace your punishments one by one,

and preserving,72 the spoils of hewn flesh,

you narrate how the foul wounds

left bitter furrows.

The barbarous torturer tore off [your] whole side.

The blood was excessive; the limbs lacerated.

The chest lay exposed, with the breast severed

and the heart underneath.

Already the lesser price of death is paid

which, effacing the venomous sufferings,

allots to the limbs a rapid rest

with a sleepy end.

The bloody scar held you long

and for a long time the burning pain clung to your veins,

while a putrefying humor weakened

the festering innards.

Although the jealous sword of the persecutor

denied you the final death,

the full punishment crowns you, martyr,

just as though destroyed.

We saw that a part of your liver,

torn off by oppressing claws, lay far away;

pale death had something of yours

with you also living.

This new honor Christ himself

gave to our Caesaraugusta to enjoy,

that it might be the everlasting hallowed home

of a living martyr.73

Encratis is tortured and maimed but lives to tell the tale, in grotesque and gory detail and, it seems, with handy visual aids. Prudentius twice describes this as a singular honor, bookending Encratis’s story with assertions that not only is this a real martyrdom but also that it is a martyrdom of rare and heightened quality.

It is a sign of death’s perceived importance to martyrdom that Prudentius cannot just leave these assertions to speak for themselves but must address several times how Encratis’s experience is, in fact, either a form of death or a better substitute for it. Prudentius takes three primary routes to defend Encratis’s martyr status through death. First, he argues that she suffers a metaphorical death, by explaining that she “survived [her] own death” to “live on in the world.” This statement both asserts and qualifies the importance of death. Second, he argues that her torments, prolonged and rendered even more meritorious by her survival, earn her the crown. On this reading, she is even more worthy of martyr status than a conventional martyr, whose suffering is limited by death, which “allots to the limbs a rapid rest / with a sleepy end” (Peristephanon 4.127–128). If the reader rejects both of these arguments, however, Prudentius has a backup: a piece of her body, a chunk of her liver, actually did die in full public view. Death claimed something of hers, though she yet lived.74 We can see here Prudentius’s project stark against the vision of those he opposed, who thought that martyrdom could not be valid without death. While Prudentius is willing to humor them, to cater to their need for death, he is at the same time provoking his readers to come to the opposite conclusion.

Indeed, while Prudentius uses the language of death to mollify potential opposition, the language of “life” pervades the poem. In the thirty-two lines of Encratis’s story, words denoting life appear eight times. Vita, habitare, and vivis occur in the second stanza alone. That this is supposed to draw the reader’s attention can be inferred by the immediate repetition of the vivis. “You live on in the world,” Prudentius writes in his apostrophe to Encratis. “You live, and you recount.” Prudentius further emphasizes Encratis’s survival by using vita as the final word in the second-to-last stanza: “With you, also, living,” and by using the living martyr as the closing concept of the apostrophe. Moreover, amid all this life language, Prudentius brings up death only in order to undermine its severity in light of Encratis’s continued suffering. Morti is introduced in line 115 only to be immediately superseded by superstes. Prudentius devotes one full stanza to the idea that death is sweeter than suffering, that it is a rest, a “sleepy end.”

To examine Encratis’s martyrdom from another angle, we should ask: what would have happened if Vincent and Quirinus had not chosen to die? Remember, both of them die only after requesting or wishing to do so. Why didn’t Encratis make a similar request? And what would have happened if she had? The requests that the other martyrs made for death serve more to prove their power and their sway with God than to perfect their martyrdoms. Presumably, if Encratis had asked to die, God would have let her: it is her choice not to do so that inspires Prudentius’s encomium.75 She is not, then, a hapless would-be martyr who failed to cross the finish line but, instead, an even greater champion because of her choice. The difference between Quirinus and Vincent, on the one hand, and Encratis, on the other, is not so vast, and Prudentius even privileges Encratis, asserting her greater value as a martyr because her suffering lasted a lifetime. Just as Vincent received a second crown of martyrdom for suffering post-mortem abuse, so too does Encratis derive additional merit from her post-“death” suffering.

Gaius and Crementius also do not have to die to “taste the savor of martyrdom.” The pair, “to whom / came bloodless glory in a favorable / contest of praise,”76 have much less time in the spotlight than Encratis (8 lines as compared to her 38), but are nonetheless claimed by Prudentius as Caesaraugusta’s special protectors. They deserve this status because of their testimony for God and their ability to withstand (unnamed) trials for the sake of that truth. “Both, having confessed the Lord, stood / fiercely against the roaring of the enemies; / both tasted lightly the savor of / martyrdoms.”77 Although Prudentius does not give them as much attention as he does Encratis, he still gives them the honor of martyrdom. It is important to note here, as I mentioned in the introduction,78 that Prudentius, like many of his contemporaries and predecessors, did not distinguish between “confessors” and “martyrs.” He never calls someone a confessor in any technical sense; rather, he sees confessing the truth of God as a spiritually beneficial act (both for bystanders and often for the confessor), one that frequently plays a role in the lead-up to martyrdom. The only time he actually labels someone a “confessor” is in Peristephanon 9, when he calls Cassian a “confessor of Christ” in the middle of his torture, which ultimately ends in death.79 So, while labeling Gaius and Crementius as “having confessed” might seem to indicate that Prudentius is positing a distinction between martyrs and a separate class of “confessors,” it has precisely the opposite significance in Prudentius’s poetry. Rather than imposing a categorical difference, the use of the term confessi here actually links these two men more closely to the other martyrs of the Peristephanon.80

The inclusion of Gaius and Crementius in the Caesaraugustan martyrial canon may, in fact, bring us as close as we can get to the late ancient reception of Prudentius’s argument. Although Peristephanon 4 appears in all extant manuscripts, the eight lines that add Gaius and Crementius to the list of the city’s protectors are not present in the oldest manuscript of Prudentius’s works, the sixth-century Italian Puteanus. Every explanation for this irregularity has implications for the late ancient reception of the idea of living martyrs. Maurice P. Cunningham, for instance, thinks it not unlikely that a monastic copyist excised the passage precisely because he wished to leave the Caesaraugustan martyrial liturgy to only those who had died.81 If this is accurate, then we have evidence for a very early rejection of Prudentius’s agenda (at least by one rogue scribe). Another possibility, suggested by Pietro Pelosi and entertained by most subsequent scholars (Christian Gnilka being a notable exception),82 is that Prudentius himself added those eight lines after his initial publication of the poem. In Pelosi’s view, it is entirely plausible that Prudentius wrote the poem and circulated it in Caesaraugusta, where local readers, possibly clerics, “reminded the poet that he had forgotten these two martyrs,” which impelled him to promptly add them to the poem.83 The proposal is compelling, though it would mean that Prudentius was a careless editor—after adding Gaius and Crementius to the list of martyrs, he did not return to the poem to extract the lines about Encratis being the only martyr rewarded with survival (Peristephanon 4.113–116). One would also have to ask: how could Prudentius, clearly enamored with and likely even a one-time resident of Caesaraugusta, have “forgotten” two honored martyrs? One possible answer is that Gaius and Crementius were not widely venerated (or were not venerated as martyrs) when Prudentius initially wrote the poem, but when Prudentius made clear through his poetry that death was not required for martyrdom, their cults expanded and their adherents demanded the pair be included in Prudentius’s poem.84 In this version of events, Prudentius’s poetry and martyrial agenda have real-world effects among his contemporaries in Hispania, influencing how they define the term and whom they choose to venerate. It is also possible that these lines were inserted later by an editor or secondary author who wanted to include Gaius and Crementius, either because local veneration of their cult had increased or because Prudentius’s rethinking of martyrdom had now made them eligible for inclusion. Both of these scenarios would indicate that Prudentius found a positive reception for his arguments about martyrdom without death. These scenarios are tempting and plausible but, like all other explanations for these perplexing textual irregularities, ultimately speculative. But whether the two martyrs were excised from the poem for failing to die even symbolically (as Encratis had), whether Prudentius had simply forgotten to include Gaius and Crementius, or whether their cult had developed shortly after the poem was first circulated (and possibly in response to the poem), each of these explanations involves notions of martyrdom being contested and expanded in fourth-century discourse. And for Prudentius and the majority of his readers (at least as far as suggested by all manuscripts subsequent to the Puteanus, all of which include Gaius and Crementius), the living martyr survives.


Prudentius argues through his poetry that martyrs do not have to die in order to be martyrs and that death is not required to make a martyrdom complete. He does this by telling the stories of martyrs in such a way as to make death tangential to their martyrdoms. Reading through the whole Peristephanon, this theme emerges time and again, with martyrs’ deaths “subject to radical abbreviation” (as in the case of Romanus, who is quietly dispatched “off-screen”) or seeming “afterthoughts” (Vincent), as irrelevant unknowns (as with the fates of the unnamed soldier-martyrs of Peristephanon 1), and with martyrs requesting their own deaths (Quirinus, Agnes, Fructuosus, Augurius, and Eulogius).85

Rather than explicitly asserting the non-necessity of death to martyrdom, Prudentius makes his argument through subtle and oblique cues, infusing his texts with tension rather than clarity. Encratis is the only martyr for whom Prudentius openly proclaims death to be unnecessary; all the other instances of death being nonessential require narrative and philological engagement with the text. But this is precisely the reason that Prudentius pursues this line of persuasion. Images, word-play, paradox, and rhetorical elements were prized, as we saw above, by fourth- and fifth-century Christian poets for their ability to engage and transform the reader. These techniques and this style of writing demanded that the reader participate in the texts in order to understand them properly and, consequently, that the reader would be and become a witness to the truth of the poem. Prudentius’s martyr poems provoke the reader to reconsider the role of death in martyrdom, dislodging any assumptions they might hold that death is the fundamental building block of martyrdom.


1. Prudentius, Peristephanon 7.51–55 (CCSL 126, 322): Sensit martyr episcopus / iam partam sibi praeripi / palmam mortis et exitus / ascensumque negarier / aeterni ad solium patris. There are several editions of Prudentius’s poems, but the most widely used is Cunningham’s 1966 edition for the CCSL, which takes into account the widest range of manuscripts.

2. Peristephanon 7.56–60 (CCSL 126, 322): “Hisu cunctipotens” ait / “haudquaquam tibi gloria / haec est insolita aut nova / calcare fremitum maris / prona et flumina sistere.

3. Peristephanon 7.65 (CCSL 126, 323): subiecisse salum solo and 7.69–70: ad fontem refluis retro / confugisse meatibus.

4. Peristephanon 7.73–74 (CCSL 126, 323): Suspendor leve praenatans / summo gurgite fluminis.

5. Peristephanon 7.83–85 (CCSL 126, 324): Hoc iam quod superset cedo, / quo nil est pretiosus, / pro te, christe deus, mori!

6. Peristephanon 7.85–86 (CCSL 126, 324): simul halitus / et vox deserit et calor.

7. Peristephanon 7.91 (CCSL 126, 324): corpus suscipiunt aquae.

8. Marc Mastrangelo, The Roman Self in Late Antiquity: Prudentius and the Poetics of the Soul (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 7.

9. Martha Malamud, A Poetics of Transformation: Prudentius and Classical Mythology (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1989), 5. See also Jill Ross, “Dynamic Writing and Martyrs’ Bodies in Prudentius’ Peristephanon,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 3, no. 3 (1995): 326: “Prudentius participates in an already established tradition of reading and writing where images, intertextual allusions, and etymological wordplay convey more meaning than plot and narrative.”

10. Aaron Pelttari, The Space That Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), 61.

11. Pelttari, The Space That Remains, 61.

12. Psychomachia, Praef. 59–68. See particularly Psychomachia, Praef. 64–68 (CCSL 126, 151): Animam deinde spiritus conplexibus / pie maritam, prolis expertem diu, / faciet perenni fertilem de semine, / tunc sera dotem possidens puerpera / herede digno patris inplebit domum.

13. Pelttari, The Space That Remains, 85.

14. Pelttari, The Space That Remains, 74.

15. The terms are, for many scholars of late ancient Latin poetry, interchangeable. See Helen Kaufman “Intertextuality in Late Latin Poetry,” in The Poetics of Late Latin Literature, eds. Jaś Elsner and Jesús Hernández Lobato (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 150 and Cillian O’Hogan, “Thirty Years of the ‘Jeweled Style,’” The Journal of Roman Studies 109 (2019): 308–309.

16. It is important to note that one of the features of late ancient poetics is an idea of re-use (as Marc Mastrangelo describes it, “Toward a Poetics of Late Latin Reuse,” in Classics Renewed: Reception and Innovation in the Latin Poetry of Late Antiquity, eds. Scott McGill and Joseph Michael Pucci [Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016], 28) or shared allusive practices that is so fragmented as to be occasionally inscrutable, so much so that Helen Kaufman proposes that many allusions were purely formal, that is, “expressing adherence to the classical poetic tradition but irrelevant for the content of the new poem” (“Intertextuality,” 159). Even so, I would argue that these formal allusions are every bit as transformative for the informed reader as allusions that are essential to the poem’s content: after all, the informed reader still has to sift through the interpretive possibilities before deciding that there is no content connection. The reader is still doing the work of synthesis and sorting, and is still transformed and refined by the exercise.

17. See Malamud, Poetics of Transformation, 45 for a discussion of the anagrams, 80 for character blending (Hippolytus in particular), and 111 for the entrapment of the audience in an ekphrasis; see also Cox Miller, The Corporeal Imagination, 70–73. For word games, see Malamud, Poetics of Transformation, 43–46. See also Pelttari, The Space That Remains, particularly 84–96; and Anthony Dykes, Reading Sin in the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 99 on the “strategy” of play in Prudentius’s depiction of Lot’s wife, and 128 on his use of paradox to cultivate a “constructively confused” reader.

18. Malamud, Poetics of Transformation, 9, 10.

19. The collection of poems Prudentius published in 404/405 bears an uncertain relationship to the collections of poems that are attested in the manuscript tradition, which is notoriously complex and includes evidence of either very early interpolation or revision by Prudentius himself (Pietro Pelosi, “La Doppia Redazione delle opera di Prudenzio,” Studi italiani di filologia classica 17, no. 3 [1940]: 137–180), as well as of independent circulation of individual poems or sets of poems (Maurice P. Cunningham, “Some Facts about the Puteanus of Prudentius,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 89 [1958]: 32–37). While the preface can be rather securely dated due to internal evidence and includes allusions to poems supposedly in the collection, efforts to definitively link those allusions to a concrete list of contents have been inconclusive. Prudentius may have continued writing after 405 (as argued, to my mind persuasively, by Danuta Shanzer, “Allegory and Reality: Spes, Victoria and the Date of Prudentius’s “Psychomachia,” Illinois Classical Studies 14, no. 1–2 [1980]: 347–363), or subsequent manuscripts may have incorporated independently circulating pieces, or the allusions in the preface might be more expansive than we realize and might have included all of Prudentius’s works (though this last option seems unlikely given the diversity of text arrangements in the manuscripts). For discussion of the role of the Praefatio as an index to Prudentius’s poetry, see Anne-Marie Palmer, Prudentius on the Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 16–20. For the manuscript tradition, see Johannes Bergman, Aurelii Prudentii Clementis Carmina (New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1979), xix–xlviii; and Pierre-Yves Fux, Les Sept passions de Prudence: Peristephanon 2, 5, 9, 11–14; Introduction Generale et Commentaire (Fribourg: Éditions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, 2003), 83–114, 128–140; for a succinct summary of current theories, see Cillian O’Hogan, Prudentius and the Landscapes of Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 10–15. On Prudentius’s biography, see note 25.

20. Praef. 27 (CCSL 126, 2): nix capitis.

21. Praef. 23 (CCSL 126, 1): canities seni.

22. Praef. 7–21 (CCSL 126, 1): Quid nos utile tanti spatio temporis egimus? / aetas prima crepantibus / fleuit sub ferulis, mox docuit toga / infectum uitiis falsa loqui non sine crimine. / Tum lasciua proteruitas / et luxus petulans (heu pudet ac piget) / foedauit iuuenem nequitiae sordibus et luto. / Exim iurgia turbidos / armarunt animos et male pertinax / uincendi studium subiacuit casibus asperis. / Bis legum moderamine / frenos nobilium reximus urbium; / ius ciuile bonis reddidimus, terruimus reos. / Tandem militiae gradu / euectum pietas principis extulit / adsumptum propius stare iubens ordine proximo.

23. See Praef. 22–33. For an excellent discussion of the performance of humility and the humility topos in Christian tradition (though in a later, Greek setting), see Derek Krueger, Writing and Holiness: The Practice of Authorship in the Early Christian East (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 159–188.

24. Praef. 36 (CCSL 2): saltem voce deum concelebret, si meritis nequit. See also Prudentius, Cathemerinon 3.26–35.

25. There are no extant contemporary references to Prudentius, though it is possible that his influence is attested in the works of Sulpicius Severus, Symphonius, and (less likely) Augustine (Fux, Les Sept passiones, 91). His reputation was, however, secure by the end of the fifth century: though absent from Jerome’s De Viris Inlustribus (c. 392), he is included in Gennadius’s continuation (c. 480). The first mention of him is in the Gallic Chronicle of 452, which describes him as “our poet,” though born in Hispania, and describes him developing “the strength of his talent” in the year 397 (R.W. Burgess, “The Gallic Chronicle of 452: A New Critical Edition with Introduction,” in Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources, eds. Ralph Mathisen and Danuta Shanzer [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001], 52–84)—though the extant manuscripts of the Chronicle all derive from a single seventh- or eighth-century archetype, and we cannot rule out the possibility of interpolations prior to that point. Sidonius, Ennodius, Avitus, Gregory of Tours, Venantius Fortunatus, Columba, and Isidore of Seville all mention him, and his works were popular and widely circulated throughout the Middle Ages, though his popularity seems to have fallen off after the twelfth century, at least as a school text (Ad Putter, “Prudentius and the Late Classical Biblical Epics of Juvencus, Proba, Sedulius, Arator, and Avitus,” in The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature: Volume 1: 800–1558, ed. Rita Copeland [Oxford, 2016], 369). Gerard James Patrick O’Daly offers a lovely epilogue on Prudentius’s reception in his edition of the Cathemerinon (Days Linked by Song [New York, NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012], 381–384). Attempts at biography, then, are almost entirely based on Prudentius’s claims about himself, clues to contemporary events offered in his poems, and expectations derived from what we know of his historical context. Altay Coşkun (“Zur biographie des Prudentius,” Philologus 152, no. 2 [2008]: 294–319) and Shanzer (“Allegory and Reality”) are excellent examples of what we might hope to glean from such explorations, though we must always be wary of taking Prudentius’s descriptions as transparently descriptive of historical truth. We cannot uncritically elide author and narrator (as does Paula Hershkowitz, Prudentius, Spain, and Late Ancient Christianity: Poetry, Visual Culture, and the Cult of Martyrs [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017], 123–159), and we cannot assume that the narrators’ claims are transparently descriptive of Prudentius’s reality. Neither can we assume that Prudentius’s references to geography offer proof of his actual travels (see O’Hogan, Prudentius and the Landscapes of Late Antiquity, 15–23). For a lucid, engaging, and circumspect summary of Prudentius’s biography and its evidence, see O’Daly, Days Linked by Song, 1–5.

26. The manuscript tradition shows evidence of independent circulation of individual texts prior to Prudentius’s composition of the Praefatio (see the sources in note 19, particularly Palmer, Shanzer, and Cunningham), which is unsurprising given how late ancient Christian texts were typically published, with texts distributed by the author to influential friends or patrons for sharing, copying, and further dissemination. See Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1997), 132–40.

27. See note 25.

28. Michael Roberts connects the repetitiveness of the martyrs’ passions in the Peristephanon to the poet’s project of cultivating the sense of temporal and spatial collapse necessary for sustaining the cult of the martyrs: “Readers of the Peristephanon . . . must interpret the martyr texts from a perspective that transcends the spatio-temporal confines of worldly narrative” (Poetry and the Cult of the Martyrs: The Liber Peristephanon of Prudentius [Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press, 1993], 76). Just as heaven and earth merge in the martyr poems, the reader merges his own time with that of the martyrs. John Petruccione argues that Peristephanon 1 and 4 rhetorically and intertextually create a martyrdom-based typology into which fifth-century Christians could place themselves: “devil-persecutor-demons, sin vs. Christ-martyr-ordinary Christians, virtue” (“The Persecutor’s Envy and the Rise of the Martyr Cult: ‘Peristephanon’ Hymns 1 and 4,” Vigiliae Christianae 45, no. 4 [1991]: 333). Marc Mastrangelo’s project, centered on the Psychomachia, is to demonstrate that “Prudentius’s purpose is not merely to praise God, but also to change and convert the reader” through the use of effective typologies (The Roman Self in Late Antiquity, 169). Anthony Dykes argues that Prudentius uses the Hamartigenia to create “a reader whose vocation it is to be responsible: to make choices and to take consequences” (Reading Sin, 16). This formative reading experience is enacted through signals to the reader, through ambiguous exempla and constructive confusion. With these tactics, Dykes argues, Prudentius’s poem both explicitly asserts a reality and simultaneously helps to create that reality (19). Cillian O’Hogan (Prudentius and the Landscapes of Late Antiquity) shows that by taking ordinary events and situating them in heavenly landscapes composed of biblical and classical illusions, Prudentius creates an imaginative space for his reader, “reflecting a state of mind and a sense of religious fervor and fidelity,” to teach Christians that “the promise of heaven and the spatial representation of paradise is ever-present” (126–127). This also teaches readers that “verbal interpretation always trumps visual representation” (135), allowing them to “contemplate and re-enact the celebration of the martyrs’ feasts at any time and place” (165). Prudentius is one of the primary poets Aaron Pelttari adduces for his argument that late ancient poets centered the figure of the reader, empowering the reader by, among other tactics, creating “open texts” (The Space That Remains, 84–96). The primary intended audience for Prudentius’s identity project(s) was certainly an aristocratic one, comprising reading and writing elites (see Palmer, Prudentius on the Martyrs; and for the agency given to such readers by late ancient authors, see Pelttari, The Space That Remains) as well as those who had vicarious access to literacy through readings and recitations—perhaps by Prudentius himself if, as Jean-Louis Charlet (La création poétique dans le Cathemerinon de Prudence [Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1982], 87) and Hershkowitz (Prudentius, Spain, and Late Antique Christianity, 34–43) posit, Prudentius himself performed his poems before live audiences (composed of pious locals assembled at the poet’s own property, in Charlet’s case, or as a “villa-poet” to the Spanish aristocracy, per Hershkowitz). Evidence for both of these hypotheses is scarce, and the suggestions are necessarily speculative, though they are tempting. Equally likely is that Prudentius circulated his poems remotely among a network of receptive readers and literary influencers, many of whom happened to be in Hispania.

29. See the text-critical studies of Anne-Marie Palmer and Pierre Yves Fux, the literary-historical investigations of Martha Malamud and Rainer Henke, the material-culture focus of Paula Hershkowitz, and the literary and socio-historical analyses of Michael Roberts (not to mention the many enlightening articles by interdisciplinary scholars of Late Antiquity such as John Petruccione, Robert Levine, Catherine Conybeare, Patricia Cox Miller, Jill Ross, and Virginia Burrus).

30. See Palmer, Prudentius on the Martyrs, 227–277. Even where Prudentius is the first known written source for a martyr’s passio, as in the cases of Emeterius and Chelidonius (Peristephanon 1), Eulalia (Peristephanon 3), the eighteen martyrs of Saragossa (Peristephanon 4), and Cassian of Imola (Peristephanon 9), Prudentius would have been constrained by the “facts” about these saints “as accepted by contemporary Christians” (243).

31. Peristephanon 7.11–20 (CCSL 126, 321): Non illum gladii rigor, / non incendia, non ferae / crudeli interitu necant, / sed lymfis fluuialibus / gurges, dum rapit, abluit. / Nil refert, uitreo aequore / an de flumine sanguinis / tinguat passio martyrem, / aeque gloria prouenit / fluctu quolibet uuida.

32. Peristephanon 7.14 (CCSL 126, 321): gurges, dum rapit, abluit.

33. Obligation to flock vs. anxiety about ascent: Peristephanon 7.36–55.

34. Rubén Florio discusses some of this in his “Peristephanon: Muerte Cristiana, Muerte Heroica,” Rivista di cultura classica e medioevale 44, no. 2 (2002): 269–279, noting the paradoxical and confounding ways that Prudentius negotiates the martyrs’ deaths (making them, Florio argues, into Christian reinventions of the heroic deaths in Vergil), but in his view, death is the focus of the martyr’s struggle, rather than something that Prudentius wants to relativize, marginalize, and discard.

35. Peristephanon 7.51–52 (CCSL 126, 322): Sensit martyr episcopus / iam partam sibi praeripi.

36. Peristephanon 7.84–85 (CCSL 126, 324): quo nil est pretiosus, / pro te, Christe deus, mori!

37. Peristephanon 7.79–80 (CCSL 126, 323): absolvas, precor, optime, / huius nunc animae moras.

38. Peristephanon 7.25 (CCSL 126, 321): ingentis lapidem molae.

39. Peristephanon 7.85–86 (CCSL 126, 324) simul halitus / et vox deserit et calor.

40. Peristephanon 5.60–64 (CCSL 126, 296): extorque si potes fidem! / Tormenta carcer ungulae / stridensque flammis lammina / atque ipsa poenarum ultima / mors christianis ludus est.

41. Peristephanon 5.181–184 (CCSL 126, 300): saltem latentes paginas / librosque opertos detege, / quo secta prauum seminans / iustis cremetur ignibus.

42. Peristephanon 5.185–200.

43. Peristephanon 5.283 (CCSL 126, 304): unus ore augustior (translation follows Thomson).

44. Peristephanon 5.285 (CCSL 126, 304): exsurge, martyr inclyte.

45. Peristephanon 5.330–332 (CCSL 126, 305): benignis fotibus / recreetur, ut pastum novum / poenis refectus praebeat.

46. Peristephanon 5.537–540 (CCSL 126, 312): Tu solus, o bis inclyte, / solus bravii duplicis / palmam tulisti, tu duas / simul parasti laureas.

47. As with Dykes’s interpretation of the Hamartigenia, Prudentius is inculcating a pattern of behavior into his readers.

48. Peristephanon 5.1–8 (CCSL 126, 294): Beate martyr, prospera / diem triumfalem tuum / quo sanguinis merces tibi / corona, Vincenti, datur. / Hic te ex tenebris saeculi / tortore uicto et iudice / euexit ad caelum dies / Christoque ovantem reddidit.

49. Peristephanon 5.291–292 (CCSL 126, 304): pulchroque mortis exitu / omnis peracta est passio.

50. Malamud, Poetics of Transformation, 10: “[Prudentius’s] poetry is in a constant state of tension, a tension that expresses itself in extreme violence and that is reflected in the frequent conflict between the text and the subtext. The surface meaning of Prudentius’s verse is often undercut by another level of meaning communicated to us not by the narrative but by puns, plays on words, allusions to other texts, and imagery.”

51. Peristephanon 5.355–356 (CCSL 126, 306): aeger morarum taedio / et mortis incensus siti.

52. Peristephanon 5.357–364 (CCSL 126, 306): si mors habenda eiusmodi est / quae corporali ergastulo / mentem resoluit liberam / et reddit auctori deo / mentem piatam sanguine / mortis lauacris erutam / quae semet ac uitam suam / Christo immolandam praebuit.

53. Peristephanon 5.375–376 (CCSL 126, 307): parique missum carcere / baptista Iohannis uocat.

54. Mark 6:21–29; Matt. 14:6–11.

55. Peristephanon 5.540–544 (CCSL 126, 312): . . . simul parasti laureas. / In morte uictor aspera, / tum deinde post mortem pari / uictor triumfo proteris /solo latronem corpore.

56. Peristephanon 5.269–276 (CCSL 126, 303): Nam carceralis caecitas / splendore lucis fulgurat / duplexque morsus stipitis / ruptis cauernis dissilit. / Agnoscit hic vincentius / adesse quod sperauerat / tanti laboris praemium, / christum datorem luminis.

57. Peristephanon 5.285–304 (CCSL 304): Exsurge, martyr inclyte, / exsurge securus tui, / exsurge et almis coetibus / noster sodalis addere! / Decursa iam satis tibi / poenae minacis munia / pulchroque mortis exitu / omnis peracta est passio. / O miles inuictissime, / fortissimorum fortior, / iam te ipsa saeva et aspera / tormenta uictorem tremunt. / Spectator haec Christus deus / conpensat aeuo intermino / propriaeque collegam crucis / larga coronat dextera. / Pone hoc caducum uasculum / conpage textum terrea, / quod dissipatum soluitur, / et liber in caelum ueni!

58. For Prudentius, as for most Christian martyrologists, martyrs hold a special place in the heavenly hierarchy as companions and colleagues of the angels (Moss, The Other Christs, 114). But the martyr’s imprisonment in a human body hinders this human-angelic fellowship. Just as Prudentius writes in the Hamartigenia that Revelation’s John could only join the angels while he was separated from his body in sleep, so too can Vincent not join the angels until he has disposed of his corporeal prison (Hamartigenia 910–911).

59. Peristephanon 5.326 (CCSL 126, 305): flet, uictus.

60. Peristephanon 5.326–327 (CCSL 126, 305): uoluit gemens / iram, dolorem, dedecus.

61. Purple both in glorification and in bruising.

62. Peristephanon 5.333–344 (CCSL 126, 305–306): Coire toto ex oppido / turbam fidelem cerneres / mollire praefultum torum / siccare cruda uulnera. / Ille ungularum duplices / sulcos pererrat osculis, / his purpurantem corporis / gaudet cruorem lambere. / Plerique uestem linteam / stillante tingunt sanguine, / tutamen ut sacrum suis / domi reseruunt posteris. This language is graphic and full of double entendres; it is, as David Frankfurter would categorize it, “sado-erotic” and consequently implicated in Christian identity construction around martyrdom. See Frankfurter, “Martyrdom and the Prurient Gaze,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 17, no. 2 (2009): 215–245.

63. Peristephanon 5.358 (CCSL 126, 306): si mors habenda eiusmodi est.

64. Peristephanon 5.137–144 (CCSL 126, 299): sed uos, alumni carceris, / par semper inuictum mihi, / cohibite paulum dexteras, / respiret ut lassus uigor. / Praesicca rursus ulcera, / dum se cicatrix colligit / refrigerati sanguinis, / manus resulcans diruet.

65. Peristephanon 5.205–208 (CCSL 126, 301): Tum deinde cunctatus diu / decernit: Extrema omnium / igni grabato et laminis / exerceatur quaestio.

66. Peristephanon 5.221–224 (CCSL 126, 302): Hunc sponte conscendit rogum / uir sanctus ore interrito, / ceu iam coronae conscius / celsum tribunal scanderet.

67. Roberts, Poetry and the Cult of the Martyrs, 73.

68. Peristephanon 5.245–248 (CCSL 126, 302–303): Aeterna nox illic latet / expers diurni sideris, / hic carcer horrendus suos / habere fertur inferos.

69. Peristephanon 5.329–332 (CCSL 126, 305): “Exemptus” inquit “carceri / paulum benignis fortibus / recreetur, ut pastum nouum / poenis refectus praebeat.”

70. Peristephanon 5.369–376 (CCSL 126, 306–307): Cui recta celso tramite / reseratur ad patrem uia, / quam frater caesus inpio / Abel beatus scanderat. / Stipant euntem candidi / hinc inde sanctorum chori / parique missum carcere / baptista Iohannis uocat.

71. Michael Roberts has noticed this qualification of death and treats several aspects of it in Poetry and the Cult of the Martyrs, 68–77.

72. Or “testing again.”

73. Peristephanon 4.113–144 (CCSL 126, 290–291): Martyrum nulli remanente uita / contigit terris habitare nostris, / sola tu morti / propriae superstes / uiuis in orbe. / Viuis ac poenae seriem retexis, / carnis et caesae spolium retentans / taetra quam sulcos habeant amaros / uulnera narras. / Barbarus tortor latus omne carpsit, / sanguis inpensus, lacerata membra, / pectus abscisa patuit papilla / corde sub ipso. / Iam minus mortis pretium peractae est, / quae uenenatos abolens dolores / concitam membris tribuit quietem / fine soporo./ Cruda te longum tenuit cicatrix / et diu uenis dolor haesit ardens, / dum putrescentes tenuat medullas / tabidus umor. / Inuidus quamuis obitum supremum / persecutoris gladius negarit, / plena te, martyr, tamen ut peremptam / poena coronat. / Vidimus partem iecoris reuulsam / ungulis longe iacuisse pressis, / mors habet pallens aliquid tuorum / te quoque uiua. / Hunc nouum nostrae titulum fruendum / caesaraugustae dedit ipse christus, / iuge uiuentis domus ut dicata / martyris esset.

74. Petruccione, “Persecutor’s Envy,” 338.

75. Requesting death and the parrhesia it requires are phenomena not limited to male martyrs in the Peristephanon. Eulalia wishes for death (3.159), and Agnes dies “by her own will” (14.9).

76. Peristephanon 4.182–184 (CCSL 126, 292): quibus incruentum / ferre prouenit decus ex secundo / laudis agone. Secundo can mean either favorable, second, or secondary; H.J. Thomson chooses to translate it as “victorious” (Prudentius, Prudentius II, ed. and trans. H.J. Thomson, Loeb Classical Library 398 [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953], 169), while Lavarenne translates it as “l’épreuve glorieuse du second rang,” diminishing its glory compared to that of Vincent and Encratis (Maurice Lavarenne, Étude sur la Langue du Poète Prudence [Paris: Société Française d’Imprimerie et de Librairie, 1933], 553).

77. Peristephanon 4.185–188 (CCSL 126, 292): Ambo confessi dominum steterunt / acriter contra fremitum latronum, / ambo gustarunt leuiter saporem / martyriorum.

78. See discussion in Introduction, 12.

79. Peristephanon 9.55 (CCSL 126, 327): christi confessor. In Peristephanon 5.29, 10.131, and 13.92, Prudentius uses the language of confession about martyrs prior to their deaths.

80. Pierre-Yves Fux (Prudence et les Martyrs Prudence et les Martyrs: Hymnes et Tragédie. Peristephanon 1, 3–4, 6–8, 10: Commentaire [Friburg: Academic Press Fribourg, 2016]) asserts that Gaius and Crementius are not martyrs but confessors, based on Prudentius’s use of the adjective confessi, but his logic is revealing. Though he notes the term’s use in Peristephanon 9 to describe the martyr Cassian, his defining comparanda are from other authors: Paulinus, Cyprian, and Eusebius quoting the Letter of Vienne and Lyons (149–150). While Cyprian certainly made a distinction in type and value between confessor and martyrs, the Christians of Lyons and Viennes are more ambiguous on that point, and Paulinus, as I demonstrate in Chapter 4, sees “confessor” as a separate crown that is not mutually exclusive to that of “martyr.” In other words, despite remarking on Prudentius confounding the categories of martyr and confessor with the “cas singulier” of Encratis (149), Fux falls victim to the same habits of interpretation that elide living martyrs from our view and that this book seeks to dispel: we must not assume that the definitions of concepts are static across our authors. There is no reason that Cyprian’s distinction between “confessor” and “martyr” should be assumed to have been authoritative for other authors prior to its being codified by the Church. We must not erase competing voices in order to privilege those that later history has designated universal spokesmen.

81. CCSL 126, xxvi.

82. Pelosi, “La Doppia Radazione”; Christian Gnilka, Prudentiana, 2 vols. (Munich and Leipzig: Saur, 2000–2001), vol. 1, 415–23; Fux, Les Sept Passiones, 83. Notably, for Gnilka, one main reason for doubting a Prudentian origin for these verses is that he understands them to posit a differentiation between martyrs and confessors, where (he argues) Prudentius did not see any (422–423).

83. Pelosi, “La Doppia Redazione,” 178: “abbia ricordato al poeta, ch’egli si era scordato dei due martiri e che questi li abbia allora aggiunti con quei versi.”

84. We should also consider the possibility of these martyrs being the object of active campaigning by network-building clerics, ala the advocacy of Ambrose of Milan. See Mark Humphries, Communities of the Blessed: Social Environment and Religious Change in Northern Italy, AD 200–400 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 54–57, 148–153.

85. See Roberts, Poetry and the Cult of Martyrs, 68 for Romanus and 74 for Vincent; for the unnamed soldier-martyrs, see Peristephanon 1.79–81; for Quirinus, see Peristephanon 7.76–80; for Agnes, see Peristephanon 14.9; and for Fructuosus, Augurius, and Eulogius, see Peristephanon 6.115–117.

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