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The Origin of SinAn English Translation of the "Hamartigenia"$

Aurelius Prudentius Clemens

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780801442223

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: August 2016

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801442223.001.0001

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Falling into Language

Falling into Language

(p.96) 4. Falling into Language
The Origin of Sin


, Martha A. Malamud
Cornell University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents Marcion's poem, which introduced God as the one responsible for evil. Aurelius Prudentius Clemens wrote a counteroffensive on this insidious concept in a segment of the Hamartigenia by using dialectica to associate Marcion with the dialectic reasoning typical of ancient philosophy. In this dialectical process, truth is approached through a series of arguments and counterarguments. Prudentius uses the rhetorical devices of prosopopoeia (giving Marcion a voice) and apostrophe (responding in propria persona to Marcion's speech) to present Marcion's argument as part of a dialectic process. He argues that rational argument has led Marcion to a false conclusion—phrenesis manifesta or obvious madness—by saying that the true identity of Marcion's Creator God cannot be derived through the logic of dialectic, and must rather be derived through faith.

Keywords:   Marcion, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, Hamartigenia, dialectica, dialectic reasoning, prosopopoeia, apostrophe, phrenesis manifesta

MARCION’S SPEECH INTRODUCES the poisonous notion that the Creator God is responsible for evil:

  • “unus,” ais, “tristi residet sublimis in arce,
  • auctor nequitiae, scelerum Deus, asper, iniquus,
  • qui quodcumque malum vitioso fervet in orbe
  • sevit, et anguino medicans nova semina suco
  • rerum principium mortis de fomite traxit.”

(H. 111–15)

  • “One sits on high,” you say, “inside a grim
  • citadel: the author of wickedness,
  • the god of vices, harsh, unjust, who sowed
  • what ever ills ferment in this corrupted
  • globe. Imbuing his new spawn with snaky
  • poison, he struck the spark of our beginning
  • from death’s combustible matter.”

(H. 154–60)

This insidious notion evokes a strong counteroffensive on Prudentius’s part. In one of the poem’s gestures of feigned orality, the narrator responds directly to Marcion:

  • haec tua, Marcion, gravis et dialectica vox est,
  • immo haec attoniti phrenesis manifesta cerebri.

(H. 124–25)

  • This voice
  • —oppressive, dialectical—is yours
  • (p.97) Marcion; it’s proof of the psychosis
  • of your stricken brain.

(H. 172–75)

Prudentius uses the Greek term dialectica to associate Marcion with the dialectic reasoning typical of ancient philosophy. In the dialectical process, truth is approached through a series of arguments and counterarguments; a favorite strategy of Socrates, who relied on this method, was to look for inconsistencies in his interlocutor’s argument. Rational argument, logic, has led Marcion to a false conclusion, what Prudentius calls a phrenesis manifesta, obvious madness.1 The true identity of Marcion’s Creator God cannot be derived through the logic of dialectic. It must be derived through faith, and that is the gist of Prudentius’s response. Rather than refuting Marcion’s logic through argument, he asserts instead the collective knowledge of the faithful: “We know a father/of sin exists; we also know that he/is not a god at all” [novimus esse patrem scelerum, sed novimus ipsum/haudquaquam tamen esse Deum] (H. 175–77; Lat. 126–27).

Prudentius has used the rhetorical devices of prosopopoeia (giving Marcion a voice) and apostrophe (responding in propria persona to Marcion’s speech) to present Marcion’s argument as part of a dialectic process, as if the two were participating in a philosophical dialogue. Prudentius’s adoption of the form, but not the substance, of dialectic, and his attribution of a dialectica vox to his heretical straw man may be seen as part of what Simon Goldhill (2009, 7) suggests is a general tendency in late antiquity for Christianity to move “towards hierarchy, with a commitment to certainty and the repression of difference (‘heresy’) as it increases its power as the religion of the Empire,” and to be increasingly resistant to dialogue.2

Naming the Devil

After Prudentius has intervened in an apostrophe to establish the true identity of Marcion’s god, he turns to ekphrasis, presenting the devil in an elaborately detailed and vivid description:

  •              quin immo gehennae
  • mancipium, Stygio qui sit damnandus Averno,
  • Marcionita Deus, tristis, ferus insidiator,
  • vertice sublimis, cinctum qui nubibus atris
  • anguiferum caput et fumo stipatur et igni,
  • liventes oculos subfundit felle perusto
  • invidia inpatiens iustorum gaudia ferre.
  • hirsutos iuba densa umeros errantibus hydris
  • obtegit et virides adlambunt ora cerastae.
  • (p.98) ipsa manu laqueos per lubrica fila reflexos
  • in nodum revocat, facilique ligamine tortas
  • innectit pedicas nervosque in vincula tendit.
  • ars olli captare feras, animalia bruta
  • inretire plagis, retinacula denique caecis
  • indeprensa locis erranti opponere praedae.

(H. 127–41)

  •              No, he is damned
  • to servitude in hell, condemned to live
  • in Stygian Avernus—Marcion’s God,
  • severe and grim, a treacherous betrayer,
  • his head erect, his snaky brow surrounded
  • by somber clouds, dense-wrapped in smoky flame.
  • Envy, who cannot stand to see the joys
  • of just men, fills his bruised and spiteful eyes
  • with burning gall. The roving snakes that crowd
  • his mane cover up his bristling shoulders,
  • while crested bright-green serpents lick his face.
  • With his hand he coaxes coils of twisted
  • cord in snares, and weaving tangled fetters
  • in easy knots, he stretches nets for traps.
  • It is his art to capture wild creatures,
  • to lie in wait for beasts, to set his snares
  • for wandering animals in hidden places,
  • undetected.

(H. 177–94)

Prudentius is the first writer of biblical epic to portray the devil as an anthropomorphic creature rather than as the serpent of Genesis, setting a precedent that would culminate in Milton’s charismatic Satan.3 He endows this creation with significant attributes. Envy, Invidia, who can’t endure the sight of the joys of the just, has filled his eyes with burning gall, giving him an extreme version of the flawed vision Prudentius described earlier.4 His mane of twisted snakes associates him not only with the serpent of Genesis and with the writhing, vicious vipers described at length later in the poem, but with the petrifying figure of Medusa as well—anguiferum caput echoes Ovid’s description of the head of Medusa at Met. 4.741, where Perseus gently lays the decapitated head on a cushion of seaweed so as not to bruise it as he washes his hands of her blood.5 The writhing serpents are succeeded by coils and twists of ropes that serve as nets and snares. Prudentius’s devil is a master of cunning intelligence, metis. His nets and snares (p.99) associate him with the perils of sophistic language, just as his spokesman, Marcion, has been accused of possessing a dialectica vox.6

Thirteen lines into the description, the devil has his attributes—clouds, fire, serpents, nets, and snares—but no name. The strategy of withholding the name of a hero is common in epic, beginning with the Odyssey, where the andra … polutropon (Od. 1.1), “the man of many ways,” who is the subject of the Muse’s song, is not named until Od. 1.20. In the Hamartigenia, Prudentius identifies the unnamed devil typologically with the biblical figure Nebroth (Nimrod):

  • hic ille est venator atrox, qui caede frequenti
  • incautas animas non cessat plectere, Nebroth,
  • qui mundum curvis anfractibus et silvosis
  • horrentem scopulis versuto circuit astu,
  • fraude alios tectisque dolis innectere adortus,
  • porro giganteis alios luctando lacertis
  • frangere, funereos late exercere triumphos.

(H. 142–48)

  •          This one, this is Nimrod
  • the savage hunter, one who never rests
  • from punishing the careless souls of men
  • with ceaseless slaughter. Cunningly, he circles
  • the earth with its craggy peaks and tufted forests
  • and winding labyrinthine paths, to trap
  • some by fraud and hidden tricks, to wrestle
  • others to the ground with his giant arms,
  • and spread his deadly triumphs far and wide.

(H. 194–202)

Nimrod makes a brief appearance in Genesis 10:8–12: “Cush was the father of Nimrod, who grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.’ The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad and Calneh, in Shinar.” Though a shadowy figure in the Bible, Nimrod grew to be an important figure in the exegetical tradition. He was associated with the giants, the offspring of the sons of heaven and the daughters of man, of Genesis 6 (hence his giant arms, giganteis … lacertis, 147).7 Philo allegorically explains that giants represent those who honor earthly things more than heavenly ones: “For in truth he who is zealous for earthly and corruptible things always fights against and makes war on heavenly things and praiseworthy and wonderful natures, and builds walls and towers on earth against heaven. But those things which are [down] here are (p.100) against those things which are [up] there. For this reason it is not ineptly said, ‘a giant before (enantion) God,’ which is clearly in opposition to the Deity. For the impious man is none other than the enemy and foe who stands against God.”8 Elsewhere Philo explains that Nimrod’s name means “desertion,” automolēsis, and says that he led the sons of the earth to surrender to the flesh, i.e., to desert God.9 This explanation fits with the Jewish etymology of his name, from mrd, “rebel,” and it is easy to see how Nimrod was identified with the rebellious king of Babylon, of whom Isaiah says, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God.… Yet thou shall be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.” As early as the second century, this Lucifer was identified with the serpent of Genesis and with Satan, who first appears in the book of Job as “the adversary” or “prosecutor,” an identification that was commonplace by Prudentius’s day.10

Significantly for the Hamartigenia, there is a strong tradition associating Nimrod with linguistic confusion. His status as a hunter led him to be associated in the Jewish exegetical tradition with snares and sin: “He would trap men by their tongues and say to them: Depart from the laws of Shem and cling to the laws of Nimrod.”11 Augustine reflects a common tradition when he says that Nimrod was the builder of the Tower of Babel, where the language of men was confounded, so they could not understand one another’s speech (Genesis 11).12 As we will see, the association of the devil with linguistic confusion is of key importance in the Hamartigenia; this is one reason why Prudentius identifies Marcion’s god not with Satan or Lucifer but with Nimrod, the master of snares and traps who is responsible for the loss of natural language. In addition, Nimrod was believed to be the first worshipper of idols, which would make him a logical prototype for Marcion, the archetypal heretic.13

When Prudentius counters Marcion’s dialectica vox by asserting his true knowledge of Marcion’s god (novimus … novimus, line 126), his revelation turns out to be that Marcion’s god is Nimrod. He does not use the name that we might expect, “Satan.” However, the name Satan is suggested in the text through etymologizing wordplay. The most common derivation of Satan’s name is from a Semitic root meaning “to be hostile toward, to accuse”; it carries the meaning of “adversary” or “prosecutor.” There is an alternative etymology in Job 1:7, where Satan is first named in the Old Testament: “And the Lord said to Satan: ‘From where do you come?’ So Satan answered the Lord and said, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking back and forth on it.’”The Hebrew verb used for “going to and fro” is from the root ŝuţ, “to wander”: according to this meaning of his name, Satan is “the Wanderer.” As Prudentius’s Nimrod, master of linguistic confusion, circles the earth on labyrinthine paths, he is revealed as a linguistic wanderer, living up to one etymology of “Satan,” his true but suppressed name.

(p.101) This complicated play of concealment and revelation of the devil’s name is a striking feature of Paradise Lost as well. When Milton introduces the devil, he explicitly makes a puzzle out of his identity, introducing him not with his name, but with a question:

  • Who first seduc’d them to that fowl revolt?
  • Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
  • Stir’d up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d
  • The Mother of Mankinde …

(PL 1.33–36)

Instead of “Satan,” Milton introduces “th’ infernal Serpent,” whose name is not revealed until line 82: “the Arch-Enemy,/And thence in Heav’n call’d Satan.” As John Leonard argues, “There are some ways in which ‘Satan’ is the most questionable name in the poem.”14 For similar reasons, Milton was interested in the figure of Nimrod, who appears in PL 12 not identified as the devil, as he is in the Hamartigenia, but as the “mightie Hunter” and builder of the Tower of Babel:

  • A mightie Hunter thence shall he be styl’d
  • Before the Lord, as in despite of Heav’n,
  • Or from Heav’n claming second Sovrantie;
  • And from Rebellion shall derive his name.

(PL 12.33–36)

The tyrant Nimrod and his followers build Babel to “get themselves a name” (12.45); it is ironic, then, that Milton never uses the “name” Nimrod. The angel Michael speaks the meaning of his name (Rebellion), but not the name itself. He also avoids naming Babel, calling it instead “Confusion”:15

  • Forthwith a hideous gabble rises loud
  • Among the Builders; each to other calls
  • Not understood, till hoarse, and all in rage,
  • As mockt they storm; great laughter was in Heav’n
  • And looking down, to see the hubbub strange
  • And hear the din; thus was the building left
  • Ridiculous, and the work Confusion nam’d.

(PL 12.56–62)

Milton’s treatment of the names “Nimrod” and “Babel”—concealing them, yet revealing them through their etymological meanings—is a form of enigmatic wordplay that illuminates the confusion that results from the loss of natural language. In creating this enigma about names, he follows in the footsteps of (p.102) Prudentius, who also significantly represses the devil’s name. “Satan” is not simply postponed in the Hamartigenia, it does not appear at all in the poem, or indeed anywhere else in Prudentius’s work.16

Seeing and Saying: Satan and the Fall of Language

Before the Fall of Adam comes the rebellion of Satan. Although created good, the devil turns to evil of his own free will when he becomes jealous of man:

  • sed factus de stirpe bonus, bonitatis in usum
  • proditus et primo generis de fonte serenus,
  • deterior mox sponte sua, dum decolor illum
  • inficit invidia stimulisque instigat amaris.
  • arsit enim scintilla odii de fomite zeli
  • et dolor ingenium subitus conflavit iniquum.
  • viderat argillam simulacrum et structile flatu
  • concaluisse Dei, dominum quoque conditioni
  • inpositum, natura soli pelagique polique
  • ut famulans homini locupletem fundere partum
  • nosset et effusum terreno addicere regi.

(H. 184–94)

  •                  And even he was good
  • at first, and meant for goodness, clear and bright
  • from the first beginning of his being.
  • Soon, though, of his own free will he sank
  • into evil, when Envy, that discolored
  • creature, infected him and spurred him on
  • with bitter pricks and goads. For a spark of hate
  • struck by Envy, caught and blazed, and sudden
  • anguish ignited his impatient mind.
  • He had seen a simulacrum, fashioned
  • of clay and warmed to life by God’s own breath
  • and given dominion over earth; he saw
  • all of nature—earth and sky and ocean—
  • had learned to pour forth harvests, and to give
  • her riches liberally for the use of man,
  • the earthly ruler.

(H. 250–65)

Envy kindles a spark of hatred in the once serene angel. Given the central importance of the meta phor of sight in the poem, it is significant that Satan’s fall is caused (p.103) by envy, invidia, which in Latin is closely linked with the verb video, “to see.” Invideo, the verb from which invidia is derived, means literally “to look askance at.” Satan’s invidia is kindled when he sees (viderat) the newly created man, who is described as a simulacrum, an imitation or copy, and his vision is skewed when he gazes jealously at man, a created being, instead of directing his eyes properly to God, the Creator.17 His jealous gaze at man leads to the fallen angel’s metamorphosis:

  • inflavit fermento animi stomachante tumorem
  • bestia deque acidis vim traxit acerba medullis,
  • bestia sorde carens, cui tunc sapientia longi
  • corporis enodem servabat recta iuventam,
  • complicat ecce novos sinuoso pectore nexus,
  • involvens nitidam spiris torquentibus alvum.

(H. 195–200)

  •           The savage beast swelled up,
  • his heart disturbed by sour anger, and drew
  • upon the strength within his acid marrow.
  • Once he was a stainless creature: upright
  • wisdom kept his tall young body free
  • of knots. But look! In sinuous curves he coils
  • himself in new complexities, and bends
  • his shining belly in sliding spirals.

(H. 265–72)

Satan undergoes a vivid transformation, poisoning himself from within with his own bile. Once kept straight by his wisdom (erecta sapientia), he develops the characteristic coils of a snake, in a scene later imitated by Milton.18 In Paradise Lost, Satan had coils even before he lost his upright posture, but they were folded up on top of him:

  • not with indented wave,
  • Prone on the ground, as since, but on his reare,
  • Circular base of rising foulds, that tour’d
  • Fould above fould, a surging Maze; his Head
  • Crested aloft, and Carbuncle his Eyes;
  • With burnisht Neck of verdant Gold, erect
  • Amid his circling Spires that on the grass
  • Floated redundant.…

(PL 9.496–503)

Man’s upright posture was conventionally associated with his superiority over the other animals, which gaze at the ground while man looks at the heavens. Satan’s (p.104) loss of erect posture thus marks his new distance from the divine. In the Hamartigenia this distancing from the divine culminates in the last step in the transformation of Satan, which immediately follows his loss of upright posture: the trifurcation of his tongue.

  • simplex lingua prius varia micat arte loquendi
  • et discissa dolis resonat sermone trisulco.

(H. 201–2)

  •               His tongue,
  • once single, now is treacherously split,
  • and flickers with the art of varied speaking,
  • its fissured words reechoing.

(H. 272–75)

His tongue, which had been single, simplex, before, now splits. Skilled in the art of eloquence, arte loquendi, it utters “fissured words,” sermone trisulco, a phrase that echoes Vergil’s description of a snake with a similarly three-forked tongue at G. 3.349 (arduus ad solem et linguis micat ore trisulcis), in a passage of great symbolic significance in the Georgics. As Richard Thomas suggests in his commentary (ad loc.), the snake in the Georgics is associated with the fiery heat of the Dog Star, which brings the destruction of crops, and it directly precedes a catalog of diseases culminating in the plague of Noricum, which signifies the destruction of the pastoral world and the ruin of the farmer’s labor. In the symbolic scheme of the Georgics, the snake is the physical embodiment of the plague (pestis acerba boum, G. 3.409); his presence threatens the whole pastoral world with destruction. Prudentius keeps the georgic symbolism here: his serpent also introduces disaster to the natural world. But this serpent delivers his venom not through his fangs but through his lingua, which, as was the case with the irrepressibly verbal Saint Cyprian, carries the meanings of both the physical organ, “tongue,” and that which the tongue produces, “language.”

Natale caput vitiorum

The splitting of the devil’s tongue has great symbolic importance: it is, Prudentius tells us, the fountainhead, natale caput, of all vices:

  • Hinc natale caput vitiorum, principe ab illo
  • fluxit origo mali, qui se corrumpere primum,
  • mox hominem didicit nullo informante magistro.
  • ultimus exitium subverso praeside mundus
  • sortitur mundique omnis labefacta supellex.

(H. 203–7)

  • (p.105)                    And hence
  • the origin, the source, the fountainhead
  • of sin! The origin of evil flowed
  • from that prince first: not needing any teacher
  • he first discovered how to ruin himself,
  • and soon he ruined man. The world—with all
  • the earth’s resources undermined, and man,
  • its guardian, corrupted—met its doom.

(H. 275–82)

The splitting of the tongue, and the consequent corruption of language, is thus emphatically placed at the origin of human sin. No teacher other than Satan is required to corrupt man, and once man has been turned away (subverso) from God, the whole of creation falls with him (mundus labefacta supellex). It is significant that this moment, when the devil’s sin results in linguistic division, is followed immediately by the poem’s first extended simile. If language were in its prelapsarian state, similes, like any other form of analogy, would not be necessary; language would be a transparent medium through which we would perceive reality. But since our experience of language is postlapsarian, analogy and other forms of figuration become necessary evils, as Prudentius has indicated through the analogy of the sun and the meta phor of the mirror. They convey meaning, but are both dangerous and unreliable, like the world after the end of the golden age.

The simile compares Satan to a highwayman robbing an unwary traveler. The image of the devil as a highwayman or robber was common in Christian literature.19 Particularly relevant to the Hamartigenia’s simile are contemporary exegeses of the parable of the Good Samaritan:

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion.

(Luke 10:30–33)

According to the interpretations of Ambrose and Augustine, the traveler is Adam; Jerusalem stands for Paradise; Jericho is either the mortal realm or the moon, which represents the mortal realm; the brigands are the devil and his henchmen, and the Good Samaritan is Christ. Thus the parable of the Good Samaritan is a version of the story of the fall of Adam and prefigures his redemption.20 The simile of the robber is part of an image chain that links together a number of travelers in the poem: the Good Samaritan, Adam driven from Paradise, the Jews wandering (p.106) in the wilderness, Lot and his wife fleeing from Sodom, Ruth and Naomi, the unnamed brothers at the crossroads, the exiled soul returning to her country, and the poet himself who prays that at the hour of death he will not be waylaid by fierce robbers. The traveler beset by dangers on the road is a familiar figure in Prudentius’s other poetry as well. In the preface to his Apotheosis, in fact, it is introduced as the master trope for the whole poem, used to describe the difficulties of correct interpretation of doctrine in the face of heretical teachings.

  • Est vera secta? te, Magister, consulo.
  •     rectamne servamus fidem?
  • an viperina non cavemus dogmata,
  •     et nescientes labimur?
  • artam salutis vix viam discernere est
  •     inter reflexas semitas.
  • tam multa surgunt perfidorun conpeta
  •     tortis polita erroribus,
  • obliqua sese conserunt divortia
  •     hinc inde textis orbitis.
  • quas si quis errans ac vagus sectabitur
  •     rectum relinquens tramitem,
  • scrobis latentis pronus in foveam ruet,
  •     quam fodit hostilis manus,
  • manus latronum, quae viantes obsidet
  •     iter sequentes devium.

(Apoth. praef. 1–16)

  • Are we on the true path?21 Teacher, I consult you.
  •     Are we preserving the right faith?
  • Or are we not enough afraid of snaky teachings,
  •     and already falling without knowing?
  • It’s almost impossible to discern
  •     the narrow path of salvation amid these tortuous paths.
  • So many crossroads, worn slippery from the twisted
  •     wandering steps of those who betrayed the faith,
  • rise up to meet us; so many oblique side paths multiply
  •     this way and that, in woven coils.
  • If someone, wandering and lost, will follow them,
  •     deserting the right path,
  • he will fall headlong into the pit of a hidden trap
  •     dug by the enemy’s hand,22
  • by a band of robbers who attack
  •     travelers who follow the wrong track.

(p.107) The meta phor of the soul’s journey from the visible to invisible reality through study and contemplation was a familiar one in Neoplatonic literature—one that Augustine corrects in De doctrina by asserting that the journey can be accomplished only by goodness of works and character, not by study, and only through the mediation of Christ, who is at once the destination and the path of the soul’s journey.23 In the Apotheosis passage Prudentius focuses on the perils of the journey, explicitly linking the coils and toils of deceptive language—the “snaky teachings” of the heretics—with the twisting labyrinth of interconnected roads that confuses the traveler, who tries vainly to discern the right path, and the robber who preys on him. Here it may be useful to compare Jerome’s use of the figure of the reader as traveler, which Catherine Chin (2007) has analyzed. In three letters written in Bethlehem to Paulinus of Nola, Jerome uses “the language of travel in order to create an imagined Christian landscape, visible, however, only through the mediations of fragmented literary texts” (Chin 2007, 102). He compares Paulinus’s study of scripture to journeys made by famous figures of antiquity: Plato to Sicily, Apollonius to India, Pythagoras to Egypt, Paul to Jerusalem. Chin argues that Jerome conceives of the material to be learned as the space into which the reader travels: “Jerome’s conflation of reading and travel serves fundamentally to suggest the goal of an ideal Christian space enclosed in texts” (Chin 2007, 105), what Chin calls a Christian utopia. Jerome’s strategy, however, presents him with a problem: different readers may map different paths into the ideal Christian space and arrive at the wrong meaning. His concern over this possibility emerges in letter 53.7, where he castigates those who “juxtapose otherwise incongruous passages in order to make up their own meanings, as if this were some great thing, and not the faultiest teaching method of all, to distort the meaning and to force the reluctant scriptures to their bidding.” Chin argues that in order for Jerome to cast Christianity as a utopian space where a traveler might arrive, he must also imagine that travelers journeying toward it might get lost. As a scriptural exegete, he “must chart specific interpretive paths rather than claim that all ways lie open” (Chin 2007, 109).

The Unwary Traveler

In the Hamartigenia too, the traveler must make his or her way warily along the paths of interpretation. Prudentius develops this theme in relation to the devil as the poem moves from Satan’s acquisition of his twisting coils and split tongue to the figure of the highwayman preying on an unwary traveler:

  • non aliter quam cum incautum spoliare viantem
  • forte latro adgressus, praedae prius inmemor, ipsum
  • ense ferit dominum, pugnae nodumque moramque
  • quo pereunte trahat captivos victor amictus
  • iam non obstanti locuples de corpore praedo,
  • (p.108) sic homini subiecta domus, ditissimus orbis
  • scilicet in facilem domino peccante ruinam
  • lapsus erile malum iam tunc vitiabilis hausit.

(H. 208–15)

  • No different from a thief who chances on
  • a careless traveler, to rob him: first
  • unmindful of the spoils, he stabs the master
  • (the struggle is slow and difficult), and then,
  • victorious, he strips the spoils from
  • the unresisting corpse that’s made him rich.
  • Just so the mansion under man’s dominion,
  • the rich and fruitful earth, fell easily to ruin
  • when its master sinned and, prone to sin
  • already, drained to the dregs its master’s evil.

(H. 283–92)

In this simile, the robber is the devil; his victim, the unwary traveler, is man.24 The phrase pugnae nodumque moramque, used to describe the traveler, is an allusion to Abas, a Latin ally of Aeneas, the first to fall victim to the young Italian warrior Lausus in Aeneid 10.25 The context—heroic combat on the battlefield—is somewhat incongruous for the Prudentius passage: far from meeting the traveler honorably on the battlefield, as Lausus meets Abas, the highwayman catches him unawares and ambushes him. The relevance of the allusion lies not so much in the battle scene as in the figure of Abas, who appears earlier in Aeneid 10 as the second in the catalog of Etruscan allies of Aeneas:

  • una torvus Abas: huic totum insignibus armis
  • agmen et aurato fulgebat Apolline puppis.

(Aen. 10.171–72)

  •    Fierce Abas is sailing alongside,
  • His unit all fitted out with elaborate armour, his vessel
  • Glistening in light with its figurehead wrought as a gilded Apollo.26

Abas and his men are singled out for the richness of their arms and their ship, whose figurehead is a golden image of Apollo. In addition to his own men, Abas leads a contingent of men from Elba, characterized by the wealth of its mines. The allusion to Abas associates Prudentius’s traveler with a figure of great wealth, and thus underscores the richness of the raiment, amictus, stolen by the highwayman.

A parallel passage in the Psychomachia helps explain the significance of the clothing stolen by the devil in his figurative guise as the highwayman. Pride (Superbia) (p.109) relates the importance of the Vices’ influence on humanity by claiming credit for the fact that Adam clothed himself in skins: “And venerable Adam put on a garment of skins—naked to this day, had he not followed my teachings” (pellitosque habitus sumpsit venerabilis Adam/nudus adhuc, ni nostra foret praecepta secutus, Psy. 226–27). Adam’s original nakedness followed by his acquisition of clothing, as Mastrangelo (2008, 101) puts it, “exegetically translates to before and after the Fall, paradise and the world of suffering, immortality and mortality.” Man’s decision to clothe himself is the first visible sign of sin.27 If Adam’s primitive clothing is a mark of the original Fall, rich clothing is a mark of further degradation, as Prudentius will make explicit later in the poem, in his discussion of the vices of women and effeminate men.28

Many of the terms that Prudentius employs in the robber simile are terms that associate the theft with rhetorical ornament. The world that falls as a result of man’s sin is described as supellex in line 207, a word that means “furnishings” or “outfit,” but which was commonly used as a rhetorical term to describe mental furniture or rhetorical ornament, often disparagingly.29 Prudentius uses the word at Pe. 11.130 as well, in a context that explores issues of interpretability and deceptive language.30 Amictus, “cloak,” can also be used figuratively to mean rhetorical ornament,31 just as the related verb amicio can mean “to clothe with words” (see OLD, s.v. amicio 3). And locuples, the word that describes the successful highwayman, has a root meaning of “rich” or “ample,” and was used specifically to describe a rich or copious rhetorical style.32 In short, the corruption of the created world that results from man’s fall and from Satan’s original sin also represents the theft of rhetoric from man, both its richness and its power to conceal now appropriated by the devil. The use of this “original simile,” the first such figure in the Hamartigenia, to describe the results of original sin reenacts man’s loss at the level of the text, for a simile by its very nature represents a replacement or supplementation of an absent original by a substitute.

Thus the appearance of Satan introduces the first sustained simile in the Hamartigenia, a simile that reveals the failure of language to represent truth directly. From the simile of the highwayman, the text then turns to the topos of the corruption of the material world, symbolized by the advent of threats to agriculture. The appearance of the figure of the robber has triggered a universal catastrophe:

  • Then it was that the malignant land
  • from its infertile soil bore hybrid crops
  • and flimsy burrs and weeds, and spoiled the grain
  • with useless straw. Now savage lions learned
  • to kill the shepherd and drain the guiltless cattle
  • of blood, and rip apart with savage jaws
  • young bulls already broken to the yoke.
  • The wolf, too, irked by plaintive bleating, burst
  • (p.110) boldly into crowded pens at midnight. Skill,
  • experienced in cruel stratagems,
  • stained every beast, and craft honed twisted senses
  • keen: although a wall surrounds a blooming
  • garden, or thick hedgerows guard the vineyard,
  • the devastating locust will devour
  • the budding plants, and wild birds attack
  • and scatter clustered grapes.

(H. 293–308; Lat. 216–29)

Once the cosmic bonds that maintain order in the universe are ruptured, nature runs riot. Even the orderly progress of time is disrupted. In Prudentius’s anachronistic narrative sequence, the advent of Satan is immediately followed by the corruption of the natural order, symbolized by the weeds in the fields, the herdsman threatened by lions, the sheepfold attacked by wolves, and locusts and birds destroying the garden, despite the fact that Adam and Eve have not even appeared in the text yet and humanity has not yet moved from the effortless joy of paradise to the toil of human agriculture.33

The trigger for this cosmic collapse is man, whose life, says Prudentius, provides a negative exemplum. Man and the created universe are typologically linked; the fall of man sets the pattern for the fall of the creation:

  • exemplum dat vita hominum, quo cetera peccent
  • vita hominum, cur quidquid agit Vesania et Error
  • suppeditant, ut Bella fremant, ut fluxa Voluptas
  • diffluat, inpuro fervescat ut igne Libido,
  • sorbeat ut cumulos nummorum faucibus amplis
  • gurges Avaritiae, finis quam nullus habendi
  • temperat aggestis addentem vota talentis.
  • Auri namque Fames parto fit maior ab auro.
  • inde seges scelerum, radix et sola malorum,
  • dum scatebras fluviorum omnes et operta metalla
  • eliquat Ornatus solvendi leno Pudoris …

(H. 250–60)

  •           It’s human life that gives
  • the pattern for the world’s sin—human life!
  • Madness and Error stimulate our actions,
  • causing Wars to rage, and Plea sure to flood
  • the world, and Lust to burn with filthy fire,
  • and hungry Greed to suck down heaps of coins
  • with gaping jaws. No limit of possessing
  • (p.111) slows Greed from adding hope for more and more
  • to money she’s amassed. The thirst for gold
  • grows when gold’s acquired. Hence a harvest
  • of woes, sole root of evil, while Ornament,
  • a pimp for dissipated Honor, pans
  • for gold in rushing streams and digs for hidden
  • ores …

(H. 333–46)

As we saw in the allegory of the sun at the opening of the Hamartigenia, where nature provides the sun as a sign that reveals the nature of God, exempla from the natural world are theoretically able to lead man from confusion to truth. Here, after the intrusion of the devil into the text has introduced an interpretive crisis, the poem reveals the terrifying negative aspect of the typological relation between man and the natural world. Rather than setting the pattern that leads the world toward truth, man’s exemplum unleashes the forces of madness and error (vesania et error). The interpretive model held up earlier in the poem through the analogy of the sun is inaccessible to the postlapsarian traveler wandering the paths of error.


(1.) The phrase is from Juvenal 14.136, describing the insanity of the miser.

(2.) Goldhill makes clear in his introduction that his assertion that Christianity meant the end of dialogue in antiquity is intended to provoke contemporary scholarly dialogue. See the contributions of Clark, Miles, and Lim in the same volume for quite different analyses of dialogue forms and the social place of dialogue in the early church.

(4.) Invidia is etymologically linked with videre, “to see.” The verbal form invideo means literally “to look askance.” Skewed vision, as I discuss below, is of great thematic significance to Prudentius, as it is to Milton. Envy’s inability to tolerate the sight of the gaudia iustorum foreshadows the vision of the souls of the damned and the just at the end of the poem.

(5.) Palla 1981,168 reviews other uses of the rare adjective anguiferum.

(6.) Palla 1981, 166 provides a number of parallel passages from patristic literature on the snares of the devil. On the association of sophistry with tricky nets, see Detienne and Vernant 1978, 42, and Cook 2006, 244–45.

(7.) The version of Genesis quoted by Augustine (De civitate dei 22.3) uses the term gigans to refer to Nimrod (Chus autem genuit Nebroth, hic coepit esse gigans super terram; hic erat gigans venator ante dominum Deum), as does the Septuagint; the Vulgate does not: “ipse coepit esse potens in terra et erat robustus venator coram Domino.”

(8.) Quaestiones in Genesin 2.81–82, cited by van der Toorn and van der Horst 1990, 17.

(9.) Philo, De gigantibus 65–66, cited by van der Toorn and van der Horst 1990, 18.

(10.) Justin Martyr, Cohortatio ad Gentiles 28; Origen, De principiis 1.5. Leonard 1990, 88–90 discusses the tradition of the names Satan and Lucifer. See also Pagels 1995, 39–43. Satan was more of a divine colleague than an evil adversary in Job.

(11.) Fragment Targum ad Gen. 10:9, cited by van der Toorn and van der Horst 1990, 24.

(12.) “And so this giant is to be recognized as a ‘hunter against the Lord.’ And what is meant by the term ‘hunter’ but deceiver, oppressor, and destroyer of the animals of the earth? He and his people therefore, erected this tower against the Lord, and so gave expression to their impious pride; and justly was their wicked intention punished by God.… So that man, who would not understand God when He issued His commands, should be misunderstood when he himself gave orders. Thus was that conspiracy disbanded, for each man retired from those he could not understand, and associated with those whose speech was intelligible; and the nations were divided according to their languages, and scattered over the earth as seemed good to God” (Augustine, Civ. Dei. 16.4, trans. Dods).

(13.) Fyler 2007, 37, who cites Pseudo-Clement Recognitions 1.30 (PG 1:1224–24).

(15.) Ibid., 53–56.

(p.203) (16.) The name Lucifer does appear once in the Cathemerinon (C. 12.32), but in a context that suggests it refers to the morning star rather than the devil.

(17.) His pride and jealousy lead him to insist that he is his own creator in H. 170–74.

(19.) For other examples, see Palla 1981, 217; Bartelink 1967; and Fontaine 1964.

(20.) Ambrose (Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam 7.73, ed. Schenkl, CSEL 32.4, 1902, p. 312, 16), and Augustine (Quaestiones evang. 2.19 [PL 35, 1340]).

(21.) Est vera secta? I have translated this phrase, which literally means “Is our doctrine true?” as “Are we on the true path?” to preserve the etymological play on secta, sectabitur, sequor. There is also a play on different meanings of recta: rectam fidem, “right faith,” line 2; and rectam tramitem, line 12, “the right (correct) path,” but also “the straight path,” as opposed to the twisting paths of sin.

(22.) There is another play on words here: hostilis manus first appears to mean “an enemy hand,” but the second manus, construed with latronum, has to mean “band.”

(23.) De doctrina 1.10–11; Camargo 1998, 399n7 has a good bibliography on Augustine’s transformation of the Neoplatonic topos of the journey.

(24.) Bartelink 1967 traces the topos of the devil as a robber or highwayman in patristic literature and provides an extensive list of references.

(25.) At non caede viri tanta perterrita Lausus./pars ingens belli, sinit agmina: primus Abantem/oppositum interimit, pugnae nodumque moramque (Aen. 10.426–28). “Lausus, a major force in the war, did not allow carnage/Pallas inflicted to panic his troops. He started by killing/Abas, a knot to frustrate any blade, who rose up to oppose him” (trans. Ahl). The phrase is difficult to translate. Literally it means “a knot and delay of battle,” and forms part of the sustained imagery of knots and snares throughout the poem. I have resorted to paraphrase (“a slow and difficult struggle”) in my translation.

(26.) Ahl’s translation.

(27.) Mastrangelo (2008, 100) notes that Superbia leaves out Eve and mentions only Adam putting on clothing—an omission magnified in the Hamartigenia, as I discuss below. Superbia also fails to note that originally Adam and Eve put on garments made of fig leaves. It is God who provides them with garments of skin.

(28.) I do not know whether Prudentius could have known this, but it interesting that in the Haggadic tradition sources say that Nimrod either received from his ancestors the garments of skin given to Adam by God or tried to kill Esau in order to attain them (van der Toorn and van der Horst 1990, 26).

(29.) Defined by Cicero (Orat. 79): “verecundus erit usus oratoriae quasi supellectilis. supellex est enim quodam modo nostra, quae est in ornamentis, alia rerum alia verborum.” Cf. Quint., Inst. 8.28. Seneca uses it, like Prudentius, in a way that combines both its original and transferred meanings: “an tu existimas reprendendum, qui … pretiosarum rerum pompam in domo explicat: non putas eum qui occupatus est in supervacua litterarum supellectile?” (Epist. 88.36).

(30.) Elegantly explored in Conybeare 2002, esp. 184–86.

(31.) “Eandem sententiam milliens alio atque alio amictu indutam referunt,” Fronto, Ant. (De eloquentia) (ed. Haines, 2:104) (157N).

(32.) E.g., Quintilian, Inst. 10.1.87 and 5.14.30; Fronto, Aur. (ed. Haines, 1:36) (46N); Cicero, Fin. 1.10 and 5.13; De orat. 1.80 and 3.185.

(33.) On the imagery of cosmic dissolution in H. 315–34 (Lat. 236–50), see Lapidge 1980, and Malamud 1989, 72–78. On anachronism as an epic technique, see Zissos and Gildenhard 1999.