Ausonius and Proba on “love is war” and brutalizing men’s sexuality

“Love is war” is a romantic cliché. That cliché is firmly rooted in literary works spanning millennia. If non-human primates could speak to humans, they could tell us that we aren’t rational in believing that love is war. While we lack that moral instruction, classical literature can help us to overcome our perversity in believing that love is war. Ausonius’s Wedding Cento {Cento nuptialis} and Proba’s Virgilian Cento Concerning the Glory of Christ {Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi} challenge in different ways prevalent sexual representations that support weaponizing and brutalizing men’s sexuality.

Dido embraces Aeneas

Literary works commonly depict sexual intercourse as combat. The generous Photis invited Lucius to engage in combat with her in Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, probably written about 1900 years ago. Latin poetry from fifteenth-century Italy likewise figures sexual intercourse:

And lest clothing bother us,
let combat be waged with naked bodies,
naked chests and naked breasts,
naked pubes and slender hips,
naked feet and naked knee,
and if the madness bears open orifices,
no sought-for wound is unperformed,
no empty blow endured.

{ Ac ne pallia sint molesta nobis,
nudis corporibus cienda pugna,
nudo pectore, nudulis papillis,
nudo pectine, nudulisque coxis
et nudis pedibus genuque nudo,
ac si fert patulis furor fenestris,
nulla ut vulnera in irritum petantur,
ut nulli in vacuum ferantur ictus. } [1]

The “sought-for wound” suggests the penis penetrating the vagina; “no empty blow” indicates ejaculation. In relatively liberal and tolerant medieval Europe, this description of sexual intercourse would have been understood as mutually loving. Yet it literally depicts a man physically assaulting a woman. That brutalizing of men’s sexuality supports criminalizing men and demonizing men.

Men’s sexuality has been brutalized even in poetic advice concerning the wedding night. Consider this guidance to Joannes Brancatus, a man heading to his first wedding night in fifteenth-century Italy:

Now for the combat in your future,
Brancatus, listen, as the first-time husband
that you are, with a first time-time wife.
First, you’re to enter the wedding bedroom quietly,
don’t take up the weapons of sex too fast, I say,
but explore with soft imploring and soft jokes,
having approached with little chuckles,
add some kisses, some requested sweetly,
some seized for you slyly, some denied —
that calls for capturing by force. Don’t blush
now to squeeze and tug those milky breasts,
and upon her tender throat,
press marks with your teeth,
not neglecting to stroke her swelling loins
and her snowy flank, and your other hand
will ready the way to her sweet love-grove,
for servant to the sweet love-grove is hand.
After soft kisses, chatter, and cooing,
enticing sweetly, joking delicately,
after touching tenderly and playful sexual teasing,
when she loosens herself to desire,
fearing but desiring to be embraced,
then you sound the trumpet. Then is permitted,
my friend, to bring out all the encampment’s weapons.
Brandish your spear close up, here and there,
and, fierce one, inflict the wound of love.

{ Nunc qualis tibi sit futura pugna,
Brancate, accipias, novus maritus
cum sis et nova cum tibi sit uxor.
Intras cum thalamum quiete prima,
ne statim venias ad arma, dico,
sed blandis precibus iocisque blandis
pertentes aditum cachinnulisque;
misce bis oscula, nunc petita blande,
nunc furtim tibi rapta, nunc negata,
quae per vim capias, nec erubescas
mox ad lacteolas manum papillas
tractans inicere ac subinde collo
impressum tenero notare dentem,
nec non et tumidum femur latusque
tractabis niveum manuque laevi
ad dulcem venerem viam parabis,
nam dulcis veneris manus ministra est.
Post blanda oscula garrulasque voces
dulcisque illecebras iocosque molles,
post tactus teneros levesque rixas,
cum sese ad cupidos resolvit illa
complexus simul et timet cupitque
tunc signum cane, tunc licebit arma
totis expedias, amice, castris,
telum comminus hinc et inde vibrans,
dum vulnus ferus inferas amatum. } [2]

Marital rape is now broadly understood to be a felony crime. A young man in college foolish enough today to capture by force a kiss from his intimate female friend could be expelled for that offense. Such criminalization of sexuality is discussed and applied with acute gender discrimination against men. This injustice is rooted in imaging sex as combat, and love as war. Within this oppressive imagination, men are structured sexually to be brutalizing.

Dido chases Aeneas

Even a wedding cento stitching together lines of Virgil’s epic poetry brutalized men’s sexuality. The literary situation was difficult for the government official and poet Ausonius. He was the tutor to Gratian, the son of the Roman Emperor Valentinian I. About 374, Ausonius had to write a cento:

It was written by command and at the request (which is the most pressing kind of order!) of one who was able to command — the Emperor Valentinian. He is a man, in my opinion, of deep learning. He had once described a wedding in a jeu d’esprit of this kind. His verses were to the point and their connections amusing. Then, wishing to show by means of a competition with me the great superiority of his production, he told me to compile a similar poem on the same subject. Just picture how tricky a task this was for me! I did not wish to leave him nowhere near as good as me, nor to be left behind myself. My foolish flattery was bound to be manifest in the eyes of him, and other critics as well, if I gave way. Likewise my presumption, if I rivaled and surpassed him. I undertook the task, therefore, with an air of reluctance. I finished with happy results. As obedient, I kept in favor, and as successful, I gave no offense.

{ iussum erat, quodque est potentissimum imperandi genus, rogabat qui iubere poterat. imperator Valentinianus, vir meo iudicio eruditus, nuptias quondam eiusmodi ludo descripserat, aptis equidem versibus et compositione festiva. experiri deinde volens quantum nostra contentione praecelleret, simile nos de eodem concinnare praecepit. quam scrupulosum hoc mihi fuerit intellege. neque anteferri volebam neque posthaberi, cum aliorum quoque iudicio detegenda esset adulatio inepta, si cederem, insolentia, si ut aemulus eminerem. suscepi igitur similis recusanti feliciterque et obnoxius gratiam tenui nec victor offendi. } [3]

The relevant wedding was between Valentinian’s son Gratian and Constantia, the daughter of the former Roman Emperor Constantius II. Roman men with good reason were reluctant to marry. Juvenal even went as far as to suggest that his friend Postumus was insane to be getting married. Ausonius’s job assignment was a dilemma like asking an obscure, independent thinker to “bring rationality and unity to pro-life and pro-choice advocates.” Ausonius had to produce a wedding cento that would resolve his dilemma and be unobjectionable.

In his Cento nuptialis, Ausonius praised the bride and groom and their families, described the lavish wedding dinner and wedding gifts, and presented conventional sexual imagery. All but the last are common aspects of discussing weddings right up to our day. Marital sexual behavior usually isn’t explicitly discussed publicly. Ausonius, an inferior to Emperor Valentinian in the gynocentric hierarchy of rule, positioned himself as also inferior to Valentinian under the gynocentric ideology of poetic decorum. Ausonius expressed with Virgil’s words normally unspeakable imaginative commonplaces of marital sexuality.

Ausonius described a wedding night that might have been similar to that of the second-century Saint Cecilia and her husband Valerian. Having retired with his bride to the wedding bed, the husband softly embraced and stroked his new wife. She apparently didn’t warm to the occasion. He exclaimed:

O young virgin woman, new to my sight, wife most acceptable,
you have at last come, my only and late joy.
O sweet wife, none but the cosmic one brings
this. Will you fight even against pleasing love?

{ O virgo, nova mi facies, gratissima coniunx,
venisti tandem, mea sola et sera voluptas.
O dulcis coniunx, non haec sine numine divum
proveniunt. Placitone etiam pugnabis amori? } [4]

She turned her eyes away and said nothing. After some time she begged him to leave her alone, just for this one night, because she didn’t feel like it. He probably imagined himself going the way of Margery Kempe’s husband. He responded scornfully:

for no cause you contrive idle excuses

{ causas nequiquam nectis inanes }

Both husband and wife were Christians. Christian spouses at this time were understood to owe each other sexual love. Yet that Christian love is a gift that cannot be forced.

In Cento nuptialis, brutalizing men’s sexuality allowed Ausonius to show poetic virtuosity without risking that he would earn poetic acclaim. He appropriately titled the concluding poetic section with a term disparaging men’s sexuality: imminutio, which most literally means diminishing. The violent husband merges in action with his monstrous penis:

After having joined together, in the shadows of lonely night,
Venus herself inspired them: they test new fights.
He raises himself erect; she struggles much in vain.
He attacks her mouth and face, fervidly presses foot to foot,
treacherously steering for the deep. The branch within his garment —
with elderberries scarlet and with dye made ruddy,
its head left bare, as their legs together entwined,
a horrible, huge, ugly monster, deprived of light —
he pulls from his thigh and fervidly presses into the quivering one.

{ Postquam congressi sola sub nocte per umbram
et mentem Venus ipsa dedit, nova proelia temptant.
Tollit se arrectum: conantem plurima frustra
occupat os faciemque, pedem pede fervidus urget,
perfidus alta petens: ramum, qui veste latebat,
sanguineis ebuli bacis minioque rubentem
nudato capite et pedibus per mutua nexis,
monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum
eripit a femore et trepidanti fervidus instat. } [5]

Just before this passage, the wife “dreads the threatening spear {telumque instare tremiscit},” meaning her husband’s penis. It’s the “horrible, huge, ugly monster, deprived of light” — a scarlet branch signifying the outcast sex. The phrase “deprived of light” through Virgil’s text is associated with Polyphemus — a one-eyed monster. Disparaging the penis as a horrid, one-eyed creature even today has been widely heard. Throughout history, the penis has had a massive image problem relative to the vagina.

Literary authors gesturing toward gender equality within gynocentric society — brave and few that they are — have paired disparaging descriptions of man and woman.[6] Ausonius paired his disparaging description of the husband’s penis with a disparaging description of the wife’s vagina:

In a secluded spot, to which a narrow pathway leads,
is a fiery, pulsing fissure; dark, it exudes foul vapor.
Divine law forbids the pure to cross that impious threshold.
Here is a horrible cave: vapor emanating from
its black maws strike the nostrils with odor.

{ Est in secessu, tenuis quo semita ducit,
ignea rima micans: exhalat opaca mephitim.
Nulli fas casto sceleratum insistere limen.
Hic specus horrendum: talis sese halitus atris
faucibus effundens nares contingit odore. }

Following Lucretius in stripping away gyno-idolatrous illusions, the great medieval humanist Boccaccio similarly exposed the bodily reality of Dante’s Beatrice and all other flesh-and-blood women. The text then returns to its primary figure of men’s sexuality as essentially brutal violence against women:

Here the youth is drawn in a way that a man knows,
and leaning in from above he hurls his spear
over knots and unshaved bark, applying all his manly strength.
It sticks in, driven deep, and drinks the virgin’s blood.
The caverns vibrate and give forth a groan.
She pulls at the weapon with dying hand, but between the bones,
deep within the living wound, lodges the hard tip.

{ Huc iuvenis nota fertur regione viarum
et super incumbens nodis et cortice crudo
intorquet summis adnixus viribus hastam.
Haesit virgineumque alte bibit acta cruorem.
Insonuere cavae gemitumque dedere cavernae.
Illa manu moriens telum trahit, ossa sed inter
altius ad vivum persedit vulnere mucro. }

The husband is viciously figured as relentlessly attacking his wife:

Three times she pushes herself upwards on her elbows.
Three times she falls back on the bed. He remains unafraid.
No delay, no respite: attached to his helm, he clings
to his course and keeps his eyes on the stars.
Up and down he goes along the way as the womb shudders.
He thrusts between the bones and bangs with his ivory quill.

{ Ter sese attollens cubitoque innixa levavit,
ter revoluta toro est. Manet imperterritus ille;
nec mora nec requies: clavumque affixus et haerens
nusquam amittebat oculosque sub astra tenebat.
Itque reditque viam totiens uteroque recusso
transadigit costas et pectine pulsat eburno. } [7]

Not all men are like that. But like Paris in his first night sleeping with Helen, and like Aesop in his tenth sexual effort with the wife of the philosopher Xanthus, this wedding-night union wasn’t fulfilling:

And now, the course nearly done, they wearily
approach the end. Then rapid panting shakes
arid lips and limbs, and sweat flows all over in rivers.
He slumps bloodless; slime drips from her groin.

{ Iamque fere spatio extremo fessique sub ipsam
finem adventabant: tum creber anhelitus artus
aridaque ora quatit, sudor fluit undique rivis,
labitur exsanguis, destillat ab inguine virus. }

The natural, life-promoting semen, rather than being taken in and absorbed, was spilled. Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis falls within the genre of wedding poem (epithalamium), broadly understood. An epithalamium typically ends with a prayer that the marital union be fruitful and produce children. Cento nuptialis ends violent sexual intercourse with barren ejaculation and no reference to childbirth. The concluding poetic word is virus. In addition to “slime,” that word also means “poison.” Moreover, that word is closely associated in sound and root with the Latin word for man (vir). Ausonius thus connects brutalizing men’s sexuality to more general disparagement of men and harmful relationships between women and men.[8]

Ausonius may have understood gynocentric society’s silent acceptance of brutalizing men’s sexuality. A perceptive scholar recently set out a worthy program of study:

my intention is to take Ausonius seriously as a poet and as a Christian, and to challenge the frequent assumption that he was disengaged from the social and cultural developments of his time. His work may not fit our expectations of a Christian poet, or indeed of poetry in general — but … the fault in that case may lie in our expectations. [9]

Ausonius ended his Cento nuptialis with a thought-provoking statement. He declared that his intricately literary poem has broad social significance:

As a matter of fact, it is the story of a wedding, and like it or dislike it, the rites are exactly as described.

{ Etenim fabula de nuptiis est: et velit nolit aliter haec sacra non constant. }

The penis’s image problem, well-established by Ausonius’s time and unforgettably represented in Cento nuptialis, has broad social significance. Men are devalued relative to women under gynocentrism’s sacred rites of story-telling. That effect can be seen in the reception of foundational Roman myths such as the Sabine women winning a Pyrrhic peace for Roman men, Lucretia inciting Roman men to war without questioning, and the bizarre development of Cato the Elder’s persona. Today, sex, violence, and rape are at the core of anti-men ignorance and bigotry and the collapse of enlightenment.[10] That’s a problem not just in academic study and teaching in the humanities, but also in society more generally. Gynocentric society refuses to recognize the problem.

Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis has been largely ignored, condemned, or foolishly under-interpreted throughout history. Virgil’s Aeneid provides an epic warning about men misconstruing women’s capabilities. Most readers haven’t understood. They wrongly think that gender relations aren’t a matter of epic poetry. They have thus condemned Ausonius’s cento for debasing Virgil’s lofty poetry by explicitly representing the brutalization of men’s sexuality. In his 1597 edition of Cento nuptialis, a poet-editor refrained from following the dictates of castration culture:

But to castrate the Poet, that is, to omit one of his parts, is impossible to do respectfully. The reader should rapidly pass through that part detrimental to piety, and embrace the rest, indubitably witty and elegant. For the whole Cento {Cento nuptialis} is as elaborately composed as that part is shameless.

{ Castrare autem Poëtam, hoc est, particulam eius omittere, honeste non potuimus. Transiliet igitur lector ista, quae pietati officiunt, et caetera, sanè lepida, elegantia, amplectetur: tam enim Cento totus est elaboratus, quam pars illa inuerecunda. } [11]

Repeatedly invoking the misandristic concept of “defloration,” a scholar recently lamented this literary history:

they never exact the punishment considered befitting of a textual rapist, namely castration – deletion of the phallic deflowering scene. Such an editorial intervention never occurs in the long series of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century editions, although, we do, indeed, come across individual copies where the pages have been torn out or the text erased. [12]

Twentieth-century translators have castrated their translations of Cento nuptialis. Castration culture has ancient origens. However, condemning as a “textual rapist” a section of an imaginative literary poem is extraordinary. That probably wouldn’t be conceivable apart from today’s gender beliefs — beliefs with little understanding of the reality of rape or the highly gender-disprotionate incarceration of men.

Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis has a worthy fourth-century complement in Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi. Proba’s Virgilian cento was much more widely circulated than Ausonius’s Virgilian cento. When Ausonius’s cento was first printed in 1472, it was printed with Proba’s:

From this point onwards, the two centos were continually presented together in a series of editions. They came to define the genre, often configured as a dichotomy of sacred and profane, chaste and obscene, angelic and demonic. [13]

That dichotomy mirrors the typical representation of gender under gynocentrism: sacred, chaste, angelic woman versus profane, obscene, demonic man. But Proba wasn’t a modern academic apparatchik writing in support of dominant secular gender ideology. She was a learned, highly sophisticated fourth-century Christian woman poet writing with loving concern for men.

Proba teaches from her Cento

Proba rejected anti-meninist representations of men and forthrightly recognized the problem of feminine evil. In describing the creation of humans, she overturned the gynocentric construction of demonic male and the brutalizing of men’s sexuality:

And then an image of much piety unexpectedly
first went forth: a male human being, a new, most beautiful form!
In face and shoulders like God, his mind and spirit
the greater God drives and brings back from greater works.

The almighty Father bared the ribs and entrails,
and from the young man’s well-built rib-cage he
yanked out one. Suddenly arose a wonderful gift,
an extraordinary discussion-partner! She shined with brilliant light.
She was a young woman with distinguished face and beautiful breast,
already mature enough for a husband, already fully nuptial in age.
Enormous, fearful trembling broke his sleep. His bones and joints
he called his wife, and amazed with this divine favor, he
squeezed her, held her right hand, and cleaved to her in embrace.

{ Iamque inproviso tantae pietatis imago
procedit nova forma viri pulcherrima primum,
os umerosque Deo similis, cui mentem animumque
maior agit Deus atque opera ad maiora remittit.

omnipotens genitor costas et viscera nudat.
Harum unam iuveni laterum conpagibus artis
eripuit subitoque oritur mirabile donum,
argumentum ingens, claraque in luce refulsit
insignis facie et pulchro pectore virgo,
iam matura viro, iam plenis nubilis annis.
Olli somnum ingens rumpit pavor: ossaque et artus
coniugium vocat ac stupefactus numine pressit
excepitque manu dextramque amplexus inhaesit. } [14]

Proba described the first man and first woman as both wonderful beings. The man approaches the woman with fearful trembling, like to a God, but she is not a distant, dominating Goddess, but of his own bones and joints. He marries her and physically, tenderly loves her. They are a “blessed pair {fortunati ambo}.”[15]

But as modern classical studies makes clear, feminine evil exists. In Proba’s Virgilian epic, Satan appeals to the woman’s pride. Satan prompts her to transform her and her husband’s good life into ruins and death:

“Tell me,” said Satan, “O young woman, we live in dim-lit groves
and river banks and cultivate stream-refreshed meadows:
what great cowardice has come upon your will?
You are his wife. It is right for you to test his will by pleading.
I shall be your guide. If your choice of me is certain,
let us pull together couches and feast on a rich, sacrificial banquet.”

{ “Dic,” ait, “o virgo, lucis habitamus opacis
riparumque toros et prata recentia rivis
incolimus: quae tanta animis ignavia venit?

Tu coniunx, tibi fas animum temptare precando.
Dux ego vester ero: tua si mihi certa voluntas,
extruimusque toros dapibusque epulamur opimis.” }

The wife follows Satan and destroys her husband’s life. He laments:

With sinister exhortations
that woman brought bitter juice and long aftertaste.
Under her breast she weaved deceit and horrible evil against
the innocent. With unnatural indication, the death-destined young woman
while raging destroyed the unsuspecting with cruel death.

{ monitisque sinistris
femina fert tristis sucos tardumque saporem.
Illa dolos dirumque nefas sub pectore versans
insontem infando indicio moritura puella,
dum furit, incautum crudeli morte peremit }

God understood all that had happened, and would happen:

And knowingly the creator of humans and the world
watched with his eyes and foresaw murders and a tyrant’s acts:
he understood what a woman in her fury could do.

{ At non haec nullis hominum rerumque repertor
observans oculis caedes et facta tyranni
praesensit: notumque furens quid femina posset. }

Unlike so many other readers, Proba understood the Aeneid. She sought to help others, especially men, to learn what they need to know.[16]

Proba loved men in general, and loved her husband with special intimacy. She ended her learned and brilliant Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi with Christ being raised up and sacred human conduct. She implored all women and men, and her husband in particular, to love one another and so make children:

Let us honor and favor,
women and men, this sacred conduct. Hold to this very practice,
o sweet husband, and, if we merit with our piety,
may our children’s children continue purely in this holiness.

{ Celebrate faventes
hunc, socii, morem sacrorum: hunc ipse teneto,
o dulcis coniunx, et, si pietate meremur,
hac casti maneant in religione nepotes. } [17]

Both Virgil and Proba understood, “seeds of life have a divine source and fiery force {igneus est ollis vigor et caelestis origo seminibus}.”[18] Whatever sort of sex she and her husband enjoyed, Proba surely wouldn’t have feared that her husband would rape her. She probably would have been furious if anyone had suggested to her personally that her husband might rape her. Proba had powerful political connections and was a highly intelligent woman fully capable of creative planning. No ordinary, sane person would have dared to affront her with such an insulting suggestion. With her all-encompassing, profound understanding, Proba may have recognize that brutalizing men’s sexuality ultimately could destroy civilization. Her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi offers an epic, curative vision.

Both Proba and Ausonius addressed vital gender troubles. Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis explicitly described the groom “deflowering” his bride. With poetic cunning, he insisted that all wedding nights are exactly as he poetically represented the wedding night of the Emperor’s son and his royal bride. Assuring that he wouldn’t win laurels under gynocentrism, he challenged readers to believe explicitly the imaginative commonplace of brutalizing men’s sexuality. With a formally similar Virgilian cento, Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi presented both profound spousal love and feminine evil. Her cento is an astonishing fourth-century complement to Ausonius’s cento. Like Ausonius’s cento, Proba’s cento has been taken far less seriously than it deserves.[19]

Under dominant gynocentric belief, all evil flows from toxic masculinity and penises. Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi and Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis offer the hope, yet to be realized, of overturning imaginative oppression of men’s sexuality. Virgil has never been received more significantly than by Ausonius and Proba. They are of epic importance today. Unlike “love is war,” gender war isn’t a cliché.[20]

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[1] Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, “To Elisius Gallutius {Ad Elisum Gallutium},” Hendecasyllaborum sive Baiarum Libri Duo {Two Books of Hendecasyllables, or Baiae} 2.2, ll. 23-30, Latin text from Dennis (2006) pp 96, 98, my English translation, benefiting considerably from that of id. Elisius Gallutius was also known as Luigi Gallucci and Elisio Calenzio. Id. p. 215. In the quote above, Pontano is addressing “my dear little Fannia {mihi, cara Fanniella},” a girl with whom he particularly loved to have sex. See Baiae 1.19 and id. p. xxi.

[2] Pontano, “The Marriage of Joannes Brancatus and Maritella {De nuptis Ioannis Brancati et Maritellae},” Baiae 1.18, ll. 10-35, Latin text and English translation (adapted considerably) from Dennis (2006) pp. 56-9. Joannes Brancatus, also known as Giovanni Brancaccio, was the son of Pontano’s friend Marino Brancaccio. Id. p. 209.

[3] Ausonius, Cento nuptialis, “Ausonius to Paulus, Greeting {Ausonius Paulo sal.},” ll. 8-17, Latin text from Green (1991) , English trans. (adapted) from White (1919) vol. 1, pp. 370-3. Paulus was Ausonius’s close friend and fellow professor of rhetoric Axius Paulus. Green’s Latin text differs little from White’s and other available Latin texts. Here’s a full online Latin text of Cento nuptialis (alternate). All of the poetic lines in Cento nuptialis are constructed from lines in Virgil, mainly from the Aeneid. For the source lines, Green (1991) and Ehrling (2011) pp. 111-33.

Ausonius was a leading figure of his time. He was a professor of rhetoric at Bordeaux. He was then summoned to Valentinian’s court to tutor Gratian in the 360s. In 379, Gratian, then Roman Emperor, made Ausonius a Roman consul, the highest Roman office under the emperor. Ausonius taught Paulinus of Nola, who later served as governor of Compagna in Spain and as bishop of Nola. Ausonius and Paulinus had a rich literary correspondence.

[4] Cento nuptialis, “The entry into the bedchamber {Ingressus in cubiculum},” ll. 87-90, Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation, benefiting from that of White (1919) vol. 1, pp. 384-5. The subsequent quote is l. 98, similarly sourced. The line numbers exclude introductory prose comments, the prose “Digression {Parecbasis}” before the “Defloration {Imminutio},” and the concluding prose comments.

[5] Cento nuptialis, “Defloration {Imminutio},” ll. 101-9, Latin text from Green (1991), my English translation, benefiting from those of White (1919nc) vol. 1, pp. 387-91, Ehrling (2011) pp. 111-33, Murray (1999) pp. 53-4, and Levine (undated). Subsequent quotes from the “Imminutio” (which cover all of it) are similarly sourced, as is the quote of the final line of Cento nuptialis. Adams (1981) provides a philological analysis of the “Imminutio.”

The phrase “its head left bare” describes the erect penis. That phrase indicates that the husband hadn’t suffered a form of male genital mutilation commonly called circumcision. Jewish law requires male infants to be circumcised. Genesis 17:9-14. Christianity doesn’t require circumcision. 1 Corinthians 7:17-20, Acts 15:28. Islam doesn’t require infant circumcision, and Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism don’t require it at all. Many persons, particularly in the U.S., have their male children undergo male genital mutilation as infants for no good reason. That’s irrational and abusive. This issue, like sexist Selective Service, attracts remarkably little concern in gynocentric societies.

[6] See, e.g. the paired portraits of an old woman and an old man in Ruodlieb, an eleventh-century Latin romance. Ausonius pairs an appreciative description (descriptio) of the groom with an appreciative description of the bride earlier in Cento nuptialis.

[7] The Latin word pecten (ablative singular pectine) can also mean pubic hair. See, e.g. Pliny, Natural History 29.26, Juvenal, Satires 6.370. Hence pectine pulsat eburno might also be translated as “bangs against her blonde pubic hair.”

[8] An epithalamium, a Latin transcription from the Greek ἐπιθαλάμιον, is strictly speaking a song sung to a bride upon her entering the wedding chamber. A typical refrain for an epithalamium is “Oh Hymen! Oh Hymenaeus! { O Hymen O Hymenaee}.” See, e.g. the ending of the final chorus in Aristophanes’s Peace and Ceres’s lament in Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae. Epithalamium has long been used more generally for any wedding poem. McGill (2005) p. 205, n. 7.

Cento nuptialis is an epithalamium that explicitly represents marital consummation. Men’s ejaculate contains semen. The sperm in semen is naturally necessary to create a new human being. Semen also contains a variety of proteins likely to contribute to a woman’s sense of well-being. Erhling (2011) pp. 169-70, notes that the ending is “highly remarkable” in not referring to coming offspring. The ending can be understood as an explicit representation of failure in love.

[9] Williams (2010) p. 144. Williams points out:

His {Ausonius’s} work is frequently strange and disquieting: it is absurd and experimental, artificial and mannered, and can easily be relegated to the cabinet of literary curiosities. And yet if we are to understand the fourth century we must take account of this poetry and seek to make sense of it, and to make sense of the poet’s motives in writing it. It will not be enough to dismiss it as an embarrassment, or as evidence of the final bankruptcy of the classical tradition. Nor will it be enough to call it uninspired, and to disparage Ausonius for his apparent willingness to prostitute his talent. For this work was deliberately undertaken and involved no small expenditure of effort; it was circulated and widely read; and it was recognised as some of the best that the age had to offer.

Id. p. 163. McGill (2005), Ch. 5, provides a detailed, sophisticated reading of Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis. He rightly observes Ausonius employing strategies of disingenuousness and a “willfully perverse notion of ambiguity.” Id. p. 112. Yet Ausonius’s intent seems to me more specific and more signficant than ludic virtuosity, making a parodic degradation of Virgil, and supporting many different possible interpretations.

[10] The trinity “sex, violence, and rape” is from Schottenius Cullhed (2016) p. 249. Rape is a crime of violence. Compared to other types of violence and crimes of violence, rape has the distinctive discursive position of being probably the most powerful verbal tool for inciting men to violence against other men.

[11] Meibom (1597), image 60 (Ad Lectorem {To the Reader}), Latin text quoted in Brancher (2008) p. 117, n. 85 and Schottenius Cullhed (2016) p. 242, my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

[12] Schottenius Cullhed (2016) p. 242. White (1919), for example, castrated his English translation of Cento nuptialis. Only with Murray (1999) was a full, accurate English translation of the “Imminutio” printed. Schottenius Cullhed (2016) p. 245.

Ausonius’s “Imminutio” might be called misandristic or misogynistic. Reviewing the Ph.D. thesis that became Schottenius Cullhed (2015), Pollmann notes “frustratingly misogynistic statements about the poet {Proba}” that other scholars have made, such as that Proba was a virtuous wife and mother, and that Proba sought to educate her children. Pollmann (2014) p. 254. In name-calling within gynocentric society, “misogynistic” tends to be slung much more frequently than “misandristic.”

[13] Schottenius Cullhed (2016) pp. 239-40. Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi has survived in at least 102 manuscripts. The earliest is Vaticanus Palatinus Lat. 1753, dating to the eighth or ninth century. Several other manuscripts of Proba survive from the ninth century. For details on all the known manuscripts, Fassina & Lucarini (2015) pp. XI-LXXV.

Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis, in contrast to Proba’s cento, left little trace until the fourteenth century. Cento nuptialis influenced the sixth-century North African Latin poet Luxorius in writing his Epithalamium for Fridus. But the text of Cento nuptialis has survived only in fourteenth and fifteenth century manuscripts in the Z family of Ausonian manuscripts. Other Ausonian manuscript branches exclude Cento nuptialis, probably because of its sexual content. Schottenius Cullhed (2016) p. 239.

Most scholars today believe that Proba was Faltonia Betitia Proba. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, written c. 600, testifies to that identification. If that’s true, then Proba was:

the daughter of Petronius Probianus (consul in 322), wife of Clodius Celsinus Adelphius (urban prefect of Rome in 351), and mother of Q. Clodius Hermogenianus Olybrius (consul in 379) and Faltonius Probus Alypius (prefect of Rome in 391).

Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 20-1. Some scholars believe that Proba was Anicia Faltonia Proba, the granddaughter of Faltonia Betitia Proba. E.g. Shanzer (1994). Schottenius Cullhed pp. 20-3 analyzes the differing  biographical evidence and concludes in favor of the status quo attribution to Faltonia Betitia Proba. Her grandfather Probus was consul of Rome in 310. Her granddaughter Anicia married Sextus Petronius Probus, “one of the richest business men of his day, and Prefect of Illyricum, Italy and Africa in the 380s.” Plant (2004) p. 170. Faltonia Betitia Proba probably lived from about 322 to 370 and probably wrote her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi in the 360s. Id. pp. 170-1.

For online, freely available studies of Proba and her work, Andersen (c2015) and Mărmureanu, Cernescu & Lixandru (2008) pp. 4-10.

Both Ausonius and Proba were learned Christians well-connected in elite society. Ausonius wrote Cento nuptialis about 374. As the author of Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi, Faltonia Betitia Proba would have written her cento before 370. Ausonius shows no knowledge of Proba’s cento. The two centos, however, are based on Virgil and concerned with failure in a paradigmatic marital relationship.

Ausonius and Proba shared forms and themes that had direct relevance to their elite contemporaries. Jerome and Jovinian engaged in a highly profile dispute on the relative value of the marital state. Hunter (2013) Ch. 2. The early Christian historian Sozomen (Ecclesiastical History 5.18) noted the significance of Christian centos to Emperor Julian’s decree in 362 forbidding Christian teachers from teaching pagan texts. Green (2016) p. 454. Virgil was the most most important of these pagan texts.

[14] Proba, Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 118-21, 127-35, Latin text from Fassina & Lucarini (2015), my English translation benefiting from those of Clark & Hatch (1981), Plant (2004), and Schottenius Cullhed (2015). Here’s a machine-readable online Latin text of Proba’s cento. Fassina & Lucarini (2015) is the leading critical edition. It differs slightly (including in line number) from earlier Latin texts of the cento. The line numbers cited of those of Fassina & Lucarini. All subsequent quotes from Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi are sources similarly. They are (by line numbers): 170 (blessed pair); 183-5, 194-6 (“Tell me,” said Satan…); 236 (2nd half)-240 (With sinister exhortations…); 210-2 (And knowingly the creator…); 691(2nd half)-694 (Let us honor and favor…).

In Roman marriage custom, bride and groom clasp each others’ right hands. That “dextrarum iunctio {joining together of right hands}” is a practice with ancient origins. Ricks (2006). It today forms a common handshake. Adam and Eve clasp right hands in Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi l. 135, taken from the Aeneid 8.124. Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis uses part of that line to describe the bride and groom’s embrace:

He tastes her kisses and holds her right hand close

{ oscula libavit dextramque amplexus inhaesit }

Cento nuptialis l. 56. Proba (l. 120) and Ausonius (l. 51) similarly both use Aeneid 1.589 (“in face and shoulders like God {os umerosque Deo similis}”) in describing Adam and the groom, respectively.

[15] While describing Adam and Eve as a blessed pair, Proba foreshadowed their troubles:

Blessed pair — if the mind of the unnatural-acting wife
had not swerved sinister. Their extraordinary exit later taught all.

{ Fortunati ambo, si mens non laeva fuisset
coniugis infandae: docuit post exitus ingens. }

Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 170-1. The Virgilian hypotexts to Proba’s epic narration of the lives of Adam and Eve associate their lives with those Aeneas and Dido. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 142-5.

[16] At the beginning of her cento, Proba wrote:

God be present, raise my mind:
may I tell that Virgil sang of the holy gifts of Christ. }

{ Praesens, Deus, erige mentem:
Vergilium cecinisse loquar pia munera Christi. }

Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 22(2nd half)-23. About half of Proba’s cento narrates Hebrew scripture. Adam in relation to Christ, and Eve and Mary in relation to Adam and Christ are central aspects of Christian scriptural understanding. Romanos the Melodist sixth-century songs makes clear women’s vital position in Christianity. Early Christian hymns address sexuality with under-appreciated frankness. Proba surely understood the importance of women and men’s intimate relations. She sang of those relations in her cento. Yet at the same time, for Christians, Christ encompasses all and is the name above all other names. Proba thus singled out “the holy gifts of Christ” in invoking inspiration for her cento.

Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi apparently was used in the study of Latin in the Carolingian era. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 89-91. In educating young men, it would have been an important complement to other school texts such as Ecloga Theoduli, Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae, and Statius’s Achilleid.

[17] On her tombstone, Proba’s husband Adelphius praised Proba as being an “incomparable wife {uxori inconparabili}.” CIL 6.1712, discussed in Shanzer (1994) pp. 80-1.

Proba’s cento has a strong first-personal component. Proba explicitly names herself:

so that I, Proba the Prophet, can revive all mysteries

{ arcana ut possim vatis Proba cuncta referre. }

Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi l. 12. The word vatis also means “poet,” and can be translated as a genitive qualifying “mysteries”: “mysteries of the poet {Virgil}.” The narrating voice explicitly naming itself doesn’t otherwise occur in the epic genre. Schottenius Cullhed (2015) pp. 9-10, Pollmann (2014) p. 253. On Proba’s personal interjections, Schottenius Cullhed (2015), Ch. 4.

[18] Virgil, Aeneid 6.730, quoted in part in describing creation in Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi ll. 32 & 382.

[19] Pollmann (2004) contrasts Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis and Proba’s Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi. See, e.g. discussion associated with “striking contrast” and “contrasts sharply,” in reprinting Pollmann (2017) pp. 114, 117. But Pollmann concludes:

if one judges the quality of a cento in terms of the degree of transformation of a given phrase in its new context, then Ausonius’s sexualization of Vergil in his Imminutio and Proba’s Christianisation in her Cento are closely related from a technical point of view. The extent of the success of this technique can be seen in particular clarity when one looks at Aen. 7.66 pedibus per mutua nexis (‘with their feet mutually intertwined’, of a swarm of bees clinging together), which is one of the only two Vergilian phrases used both in Proba’s Cento and Ausonius’s Imminutio. Whereas in Proba, Cento 618, it describes the fixing of Jesus’s feet when he is mounted on the cross, in Ausonius, Cento 107, it refers to the intertwining of the couple’s limbs during sexual intercourse.

Id. pp. 117-8. Proba and Ausonius share a common theme in using the Virgilian phrase pedibus per mutua nexis: passion in its full Christian sense.

[20] With respect to Proba and other early Christian poets, Pollmann declares:

Christian poetry did not primarily aim at making its subject matter more truthful in an intellectual sense, but was directed towards authoritatively augmenting the appeal, impact, and transforming power of its message.

Pollmann (2017) p. 234. In Christian understanding, authority and truth are inextricably linked. Proba employed Virgil and the Bible to express truths about gender that authorities deny only to their disrepute and peril.

Presenting gender truthfully is especially difficult today. Pollmann presents Proba as working “to destabilize gender.” Pollmann (2014) p. 255. That cant academic phrase in practice means interpreting literature to buttress gynocentrism. Thus in Pollmann and Schottenius Cullhed’s interpretion of Proba’s cento:

Jesus oscillates between stereotypes of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ … and Mary is characterized as a heroine while Joseph is omitted altogether.

Id. Proba surely didn’t intend to push fathers out of their children’s lives, as today family courts do with acute anti-men discrimination.

Pollmann agrees with Schottenius Cullhed about “the predominantly biased state of scholarship” concerning Proba. Pollmann declares, “scholarship should simply not operate with such biased and unreflected assumptions at all. ” Pollmann (2014) p. 252. All scholars, particular men scholars, should take seriously gender and gender bias.

[images] (1) Aeneas embraces Dido. Mid-fourth century mosaic made in the the Low Ham Roman Villa in Somerset, England. Thanks to Udimu via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Dido chases Aeneas. Same mid-fourth century mosaic from the Low Ham Roman Villa. Thanks again to Udimu via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Faltonia Betitia Proba teaches from her Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christi. Miniature by Robinet Testard in manuscript of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris. Made between 1488-1496. Manuscript: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Français 599, folio 83r. Via Wikimedia Commons.


Adams, J. N. 1981. “Ausonius Cento nuptialis 101–131.” Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica. new series 53: 199–215.

Andersen, Magnus Ulrik Scheel. c2015. “Maro changed for the better” The Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba: Christian Poetry and Classical Paideia. MA Thesis. Copenhagen Faculty of Theology.

Brancher, Dominique. 2008. “Virgile en bas-de-chausse: Montaigne et la tradition de l’obscénité latine.” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance. 70(1): 95-122.

Clark, Elizabeth Ann, Diane F. Hatch, and Proba. 1981. The Golden Bough, the Oaken Cross: the Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba. Chico, California: Scholars Press.

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Evelyn-White, Hugh G., ed. and trans. 1919. Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Ausonius. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1Vol. 2. English translation of Cento nuptialis section “Imminutio” added silently no later than in the 2002 reprinting (referred to as White (1919nc)).

Fassina, Alessia and Carlo M. Lucarini, eds. 2015. Faltonia Betitia Proba. Cento Vergilianus. Bibliotheca Teubneriana. Berlin: De Gruyter. (review)

Green, R. P. H., ed. 1991. The Works of Ausonius. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (review)

Green, Roger. 2016. “Review: Cullhed, Proba the Prophet.” The Classical Review. 66(2): 453-455.

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Meibom, Henricus, ed. 1597. Virgilio-Centones auctorum notæ optimæ, antiquorum & recentium Probae Falconiae Hortinae: D. Magni Avsonii, Bvrdigal: Laelii Capilvpi Mantvani: Ivlii Capilvpi Mantvani. Helmaestadii: Lucius.

McGill, Scott. 2005. Virgil Recomposed: the Mythological and Secular Centos in Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press. (review)

Mărmureanu, Cătălina, Gianina Cernescu, Laura Lixandru. 2008. “Early Christian Women Writers: The Interesting Lives and Works of Faltonia Betitia Proba and Athenais-Eudocia.” Program in Communication and Intercultural Management, University of Bucharest.

Murray, Alexander Callander. 1999. From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: a reader. Peterborough: Broadview Press.

Plant, I. M. 2004. Women writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: an anthology. London: Equinox.

Pollmann, Karla. 2004. “Sex and Salvation in the Vergilian Cento of the Fourth Century.” Ch. 5 (pp. 79-96) in Rees, Roger, ed. Romane Memento: Vergil in the Fourth Century. London: Duckworth. (freely available online as ch. 4 in Pollmann (2017))

Pollmann, Karla. 2014. “Ph.D. Thesis Review: Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed, Proba the Prophet. Studies in the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba.” Samlaren. Swedish Science Press. Stockholm: Elanders Gotab.

Pollmann, Karla. 2017. The Baptized Muse: Early Christian Poetry as Cultural Authority. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Shanzer, Danuta R. 1994. “The Date and Identity of the Centonist Proba.” Recherches Augustiniennes. 27: 74-96.

Schottenius Cullhed, Sigrid. 2015. Proba the Prophet: the Christian Virgilian Cento of Faltonia Betitia Proba. Leiden: Brill. Related: cf. ch. 2, Proba and Jerome; ch. 5, cento and Genesis.

Schottenius Cullhed, Sigrid. 2016. “In Bed with Virgil: Ausonius’ Wedding Cento and its Reception.” Greece and Rome. 63 (2): 237-250.

Williams, Michael Stuart. 2010. “sine numine nomina’: Ausonius and the Oulipo.” Pp. 90-105 (but here cited by page numbers listed in pdf) in Kelly, Christopher, and Flower, Richard, eds. Unclassical Traditions. Vol.1: Alternatives to the Classical Past in Late Antiquity. Cambridge Classical Journal, Supplementary Volume 34. Cambridge Philological Society.

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