Psychomachia gender-transformed epic into fight for new life

The Iliad and the Aeneid, the most influential epics in western Eurasian literature, ring with horrific violence against men. Violence against men has been normalized as simply violence. It’s seldom understood to be oppressively gendered, as if men’s lives intrinsically have less value than women’s. In his early fifth-century Battle for the Soul {Psychomachia}, the classically learned Christian poet Prudentius recast epic violence against men into violence between female personifications of virtues and vices. In Prudentius’s radically new epic, women fight to show men and women the way to create new life.

Psychomachia begins with the old man Abram and his difficulties in realizing God’s seminal blessing. Abram fought to rescue his nephew Lot from enemy tribes that had captured him. Until then childless, Abram and his wife Sarah with laughter of amazement subsequently had a son named Isaac. Focusing on childlessness rather than violence, Prudentius perceived a hidden meaning in these events:

You will engender within marriage no children
pleasing to God, none brought forth with virtue as mother,
until with slaughter your fighting spirit will vanquish
many monsters in your enslaved heart.

{ nec ante prolem coniugalem gignere
Deo placentem, matre virtute editam,
quam strage multa bellicosus spiritus
portenta cordis servientis vicerit. }[1]

Prudentius in these verses transforms gender in three significant ways. First, virtue, which is etymologically associated with men and manliness, figures as mother. Understood rightly, the fruitfulness of bearing new life isn’t just a female privilege.[2] Second, Prudentius recognizes the monstrosity of men’s hearts enslaved to women in classical Roman elegy. This slavery of gyno-idolatry is life-destroying. Third, Prudentius refers to slaughter. The reader, however, soon discovers that slaughter in this poem isn’t epic violence against men, but slaughter of female personifications of vices.[3] Gender-transformed epic is necessary for women and men to produce a lineage please to God.

Gender-transformed epic is oriented toward new life. In faithful relation to God, both men and women give birth to new life:

The Holy Spirit, thus embracing in faithful marriage
the soul that has long lacked children,
will make her fertile by eternal semen.
Then the old woman in labor, having a dowry,
will birth an heir worthy of God the Father’s house.

{ animam deinde Spiritus conplexibus
pie maritam, prolis expertem diu,
faciet perenni fertilem de semine,
tunc sera dotem possidens puerpera
herede digno Patris inplebit domum. }[4]

A woman literally can give birth to new life. All Christians, however, are like an old woman in labor. They are groaning to bring forth themselves as new creations in Christ, new creations worthy of God the Father’s house. The Psychomachia leads readers to participate in a gender-transformed epic that creates not the men’s deaths of traditional epic, but new life for men and women.[5]

The Christian church, the body of God’s disciples on earth, is fundamentally gyno-centric. The Holy Spirit created the child Jesus in relationship with Mary. She is the first Christian and a figure of the Christian church. More generally, women are the dominant agents in social life. Women establish norms of respecting and appreciating men’s lives, or norms treating men as defective, disposable sub-humans. Battles among women determine the norms that govern men’s lives. Prudentius skillfully penetrated the epiphenomenon of epic violence against men to seed the imagination with vision of fundamental battles among women:

The way of victory is apparent, if it is permitted for you
to note closely the very features of the virtues and the monsters
struggling against them with threatening powers.

{ vincendi praesens ratio est, si comminus ipsas
Virtutum facies et conluctantia contra
viribus infestis liceat portenta notare. }

The genders of personifications in the Psychomachia aren’t meaningless implications of Latin grammar. Prudentius wants readers to note closely the gender of the fighting virtues and monster-vices. They are women.

The battles begin with the first woman, Faith {Fides}. In the ancient Greek epic of the Trojan War, the eminent Greek warrior Ajax Telamon went into battle without wearing armor.[6] In furious fighting he killed many men, and he himself was killed. Fides, an ancient Roman cultic goddess transformed into a cardinal Christian virtue incarnate, is a new female Ajax:

The first woman Fides seeks the field in precarious chance
of battle. She’s disheveled with a wild appearance,
her shoulders bare, her hair untrimmed, her arms exposed,
for indeed glory’s sudden heat, burning towards new
battles, does not think of girding itself with weapons or armor,
but trusting in a strong heart and uncovered limbs,
she challenges to be crushed the hazards of insane war.

{ prima petit campum dubia sub sorte duelli
pugnatura Fides agresti turbida cultu,
nuda umeros intonsa comas exerta lacertos.
namque repentinus laudis calor ad nova fervens
proelia nec telis meminit nec tegmine cingi;
pectore sed fidens valido membrisque retectis
provocat insani frangenda pericula belli }

The foe-woman Cult of the Ancient Gods {Veterum Cultura Deorum} attacks Fides. In men’s lives, Veterum Cultura Deorum most realistically means the gyno-idolatry that the Roman dispeller of delusions Lucretius satirized. The new female Ajax brutally destroys the face of idolatry:

Her enemy’s head has its brow decorated with ribbons.
Fides, rising higher, overthrows it, and her foe’s mouth sated
with beasts’ blood is joined to the dust. Fides treads out
her enemy’s eyes in death under her feet. The foe’s wicked breath
stops as her throat’s transport is choked and broken.
Long gasps torment her to an agonizing death.

{ illa hostile caput falerataque tempora vittis
altior insurgens labefactat et ora cruore
de pecudum satiata solo adplicat et pede calcat
elisos in morte oculos; animamque malignam
fracta intercepti commercia gutturis artant
difficilemque obitum suspiria longa fatigant. }

A thousand martyrs, best interpreted as men, exult at Fides’s triumph. She crowns the martyrs with flowers. She clothes them in the purple of triumphant Roman generals. The new female Ajax shows the way to new life as she crushes gyno-idolatry and all other ancient idols.[7] Crushing gyno-idolatry frees men’s enslaved hearts. Women and men must emulate the woman-hero Fides.

Fides killing idolatry in Psychomachia

Another epic story of the Trojan War tells of Ajax Telamon’s rage at not being awarded the armor of the great Greek warrior Achilles. After Achilles had been slain, his prized armor was awarded to Odysseus rather than Ajax. Infuriated, Ajax in his mad rage slaughtered cattle that he thought to be the Greek leaders. Ajax eventually regained his normal sense. Then he was filled with shame and killed himself with his own sword.[8] Ajax’s anger, delusion, and suicide represent the senselessness of epic violence against men.

In Prudentius’s Psychomachia, the traditional Ajax is the woman Anger {Ira}. She furiously attacks the woman Patience {Patientia}:

From afar, swelling Ira, seething with foaming, gaping mouth,
turns upon Patientia eyes suffused with blood and bitterness.
She challenges her with weapon and voice for being apart from the battle.
Not tolerating delay, she hurls a pike at her and exhorts the throw
with her helmeted head agitating its hairy plumes.

{ hanc procul Ira tumens, spumanti fervida rictu,
sanguinea intorquens subfuso lumina felle,
ut belli exsortem teloque et voce lacessit,
inpatiensque morae conto petit, increpat ore,
hirsutas quatiens galeato in vertice cristas. }

Staying apart from deadly battle as much as possible shows respect for one’s own life. Ira urges Patientia to enter into fighting and to take wounds silently, as men are socialized to do:

“Hey you woman-spectator, exempt from our fighting,” Ira said,
“receive this deadly iron weapon in your calm chest.
Don’t express pain, since it’s shameful for you to groan in pain.”

{ “en tibi, Martis” ait, “spectatrix libera nostri,
excipe mortiferum securo pectore ferrum;
nec doleas quia turpe tibi gemuisse dolorem.” }

Women historically have been exempt from conscription into war, which is institutionally structured as violence against men. Patientia, however, wears armor that Fides didn’t need. Following Fides in battle, Patientia’s armor repels all the weapons that Ira hurls at her. When Ira with her sword strikes Patientia on the helmet, the sword breaks:

Ira, when she saw fragments of her broken blade
and her shattered sword in parts rattling far away, and
the hilt that she retained in her hand now without the weight of iron,
the luckless ivory of shameful glory, deprived of purpose,
she casts it far away. That sad token and perfidious memories
she spurns, and she wildly burns to kill herself.
Among the many spears she had ineffectually scattered, one
from the dust of the field she picks up for perverse use.
The smooth shaft she sticks in the earth and with the upturned point
stabs herself and pierces her lung with a burning wound.

{ Ira, ubi truncati mucronis fragmina vidit
et procul in partes ensem crepuisse minutas,
iam capulum retinente manu sine pondere ferri
mentis inops ebur infelix decorisque pudendi
perfida signa abicit monumentaque tristia longe
spernit et ad proprium succenditur effera letum.
missile de multis quae frustra sparserat unum
pulvere de campi perversos sumit in usus.
rasile figit humi lignum ac se cuspide versa
perfodit et calido pulmonem vulnere transit. }

Ira dies of her own hand like the mad Ajax did. Patientia then boasts in her passive strength:

Standing over Ira, Patientia declares, “We have overcome
a boasting vice with our usual virtue, without any
bloodshed or danger to life. This type of battle is
our law. Fury is every evil army, and by endurance wrath exhausts its force.
Madness itself is its own enemy in raging,
and death destroys fiery Ira on her own spear.

{ quam super adsistens Patientia “vicimus,” inquit
“exultans vitium solita virtute sine ullo
sanguinis ac vitae discrimine. lex habet istud
nostra genus belli, furias omnemque malorum
militiam et rabidas tolerando extinguere vires.
ipsa sibi est hostis vaesania seque furendo
interimit moriturque suis Ira ignea telis.” }

The true hero Job had been silently and passively at Patientia’s side, doing nothing for the damsel in distress as she endured Ira’s violent attacks. Men need the patience, endurance, and faith of Job, not the madness of the warrior Ajax, to overcome systemic devaluation of men’s lives.

Ira attacks Patientia and then commits suicide in Prudentius's Psychomachia

Defeated women, like those who don’t prevail against castration culture, become men. Women indulging themselves while men endure crushing gender injustices is well-known in the West. Prudentius’s Psychomachia shows this degradation through Indulgence {Luxuria}:

From the ends of the Western world comes the enemy
Luxuria, long ago having lavishly destroyed her reputation.
Hair perfumed, eyes wandering, languid in voice,
lost in sensuality, to her pleasure is the reason of life.
She seeks to soften her debilitated spirit, to draw impudently
delightful enticements, and to dissolve broken feelings.
Thus she is then languidly belching after a night-long dinner.
Reclining at dawn, by chance she hears
military trumpets in raucous servings, and so from there leaving
lukewarm cups and with her steps slipping on wines and perfumes,
she drunkenly tramples flowers in going to war.

{ venerat occiduis mundi de finibus hostis
Luxuria extinctae iam dudum prodiga famae,
delibuta comas, oculis vaga, languida voce,
perdita deliciis, vitae cui causa voluptas,
elumbem mollire animum petulanter amoenas
haurire inlecebras et fractos solvere sensus.
ac tunc pervigilem ructabat marcida cenam,
sub lucem quia forte iacens ad fercula raucos
audierat lituos, atque inde tepentia linquens
pocula lapsanti per vina et balsama gressu
ebria calcatis ad bellum floribus ibat. }

Although dissolute and drunk, Luxuria knows how to conquer women fighting for men. Although wearing no armor, she doesn’t act like the raging warrior Ajax:

Not however as a foot soldier, but carried by an elegant chariot
she ensnares the wounded hearts of the admiring warrior-men.
Oh, a new type of fighting! No winged shaft,
expelled, flies from the bow, nor does a rattling spear leap
from a twisted strap. Her right hand wields no menacing sword,
but she playfully throws violets and attacks with rose-leaves
and scatters baskets of flowers on the enemy troops.

{ non tamen illa pedes, sed curru invecta venusto
saucia mirantum capiebat corda virorum.
o nova pugnandi species! non ales harundo
nervum pulsa fugit nec stridula lancea torto
emicat amento frameam nec dextra minatur,
sed violas lasciva iacit foliisque rosarum
dimicat et calathos inimica per agmina fundit. }

That’s a new type of fighting only relative to war historically institutionalized as violence against men. The alluring woman Luxuria instantly transforms hostile, fighting women into fawning warrior-men. Those soulless men desire luxury cars and other shows of wealth common in men’s status-battles for beautiful, young women:

So the virtues are enticed. The seductive breath
inspires them with a subtle poison that weakens their bones,
and the wickedly sweet odor subdues their mouths and hearts and weapons.
It softens their iron-clad muscles and crushes their strength.
Spirits droop like those of the vanquished, and spears are set aside
shamefully. Alas, their strong hands languish. They are stupefied,
marveling. Her chariot sparkling with varying light of gems,
her reins with their tinkling gold-foil,
and her chariot’s expensive, heavy axle of solid gold —
they gape upon those with fixed gaze. The chariot’s spokes are
an array of white silver. The wheel’s rim
with a circle of pale silver-gold alloy holds them together.
Now all the battle lines surrender to love and
on their own initiative treacherously reverse their flags.
They wish to serve Luxuria as their lady-lord and suffer
being soaked in her rights and hold to the lax law of the tavern.

{ inde eblanditis Virtutibus halitus inlex
inspirat tenerum labefacta per ossa venenum
et male dulcis odor domat ora et pectora et arma
ferratosque toros obliso robore mulcet.
deiciunt animos ceu victi et spicula ponunt
turpiter heu dextris languentibus obstupefacti,
dum currum varia gemmarum luce micantem
mirantur, dum bratteolis crepitantia lora
et solido ex auro pretiosi ponderis axem
defixis inhiant obtutibus et radiorum
argento albentem seriem quam summa rotarum
flexura electri pallentis continet orbe.
et iam cuncta acies in deditionis amorem
sponte sua versis transibat perfida signis
Luxuriae servire volens dominaeque fluentis
iura pati et laxa ganearum lege teneri. }

Most men will surrender themselves completely to beautiful women. Men are incapable of fighting them.

Luxuria and friends feasting in Prudentius's Psychomachia

The heroic woman virtue Sobriety {Sobrietas} emerges to save the women fighters transformed into fawning men. She exhorts them to self-consciousness:

What befogging fury agitates your insane minds?
Where are you hurrying? To whom are you surrendering your necks? Finally, what bonds,
for shame, do you desire to bear with your war-ready arms,
what lilies, entwined with yellowish garlands,
what wreaths of blooming purple flowers?
Hands trained by war you are now pleased to give up
to these chains, to have strap-knots tie up your stout elbows,
so that your manly hair is confined by a golden turban
that absorbs the infused, perfumed oil with its yellow band?
After having inscribed on your forehead the signs by which
is given the king’s anointing and the eternal chrism?
For a delicate walk with a long dress sweeping behind you
and flowing robes of silk on your softened limbs?
After nourishing Faith with trained thumb
wove for you an immortal tunic, giving an impenetrable covering
to your baptized heart, you to whom she herself granted rebirth?

{ quis furor insanas agitat caligine mentes?
quo ruitis? cui colla datis? quae vincula tandem
(pro pudor!) armigeris amor est perferre lacertis,
lilia luteolis interlucentia sertis
et ferrugineo vernantes flore coronas?
his placet adsuetas bello iam tradere palmas
nexibus, his rigidas nodis innectier ulnas,
ut mitra caesariem cohibens aurata virilem
conbibat infusum croceo religamine nardum
post inscripta oleo frontis signacula per quae
unguentum regale datum est et chrisma perenne,
ut tener incessus vestigia syrmate verrat,
sericaque infractis fluitent ut pallia membris
post inmortalem tunicam quam pollice docto
texuit alma Fides dans inpenetrabile tegmen
pectoribus lotis, dederat quibus ipsa renasci }

Christians must remember their need to be born again. Nothing more than a beautiful “drunken female dancer {saltatrix ebria}” had defeated them. Sobrietas exhorts them to be who they truly are:

Stand, I pray. Remember yourselves. Remember Christ also.
What would be your tribe, what fame, who God and King,
who Lord — it is fitting to be mindful of these. You are noble children
of Judah from whom came the mother of God, by whom God himself
became man. From on high you have come with a long lineage.

{ state, precor, vestri memores, memores quoque Christi.
quae sit vestra tribus, quae gloria, quis Deus et rex,
quis Dominus meminisse decet. vos nobile Iudae
germen ad usque Dei genetricem qua Deus ipse
esset homo, procerum venistis sanguine longo. }

She recalled the great King David, who retained his human dignity in bed with Abishag. They should also remember Valerius’s heartfelt concern for his friend Rufinus, and Matheolus’s vibrant protest against his wife Petra crushing him. They should take to heart Walafrid’s stand against Gallus’s insane love and the sobering example of Propertius. Those who truly understand love can refigure the tragic death of Hippolytus. That’s what Sobrietas did to Luxuria riding in her luxurious chariot:

So having spoken, Sobrietas holds the Lord’s cross against the way
of the raging four-horse chariot. The venerable wood she thrusts
against their very bridles, such that the bold horses become frightened
at its outstretched arms and its sparkling front summit.
The horses turn in headlong flight, in blind fear the chariot wheels
over the broken ground. Dragged backwards on her back,
in vain the charioteer pulls the reins while her flowing hair
is befouled with dust. Then the whirling of the wheels
entangles the tossed lady, so that prone under the axle
her sliding and lacerated body is the brake that slows the chariot.

{ sic effata crucem Domini ferventibus offert
obvia quadriiugis lignum venerabile in ipsos
intentans frenos. quod ut expavere feroces
cornibus obpansis et summa fronte coruscum,
vertunt praecipitem caeca formidine fusi
per praerupta fugam. fertur resupina reductis
nequiquam loris auriga comamque madentem
pulvere foedatur, tunc et vertigo rotarum
inplicat excussam dominam; nam prona sub axem
labitur et lacero tardat sufflamine currum. }

Sobrietas celebrates the ultimate triumph of a virtuous woman fighting for men against a villanous woman:

Adding a death blow upon the prostrate woman, Sobrietas
hurls at her a large flint rock from a cliff,
Fortune had thus offered to the standard-bearer Sobrietas this weapon,
for she carries no spears in her hand, but only the insignia of war, the cross.
The falling stone shatters the breath-way amid Luxuria’s face
and mashes her lips into her open mouth.
Her teeth break inward, and her severed, shredded
tongue fills her throat with bloody fragments.
Her throat is irritated by these unusual meals. After the pulped
bones are gulped down, she vomits up the chunks that she devoured.

{ addit Sobrietas vulnus letale iacenti
coniciens silicem rupis de parte molarem,
hunc vexilliferae quoniam fors obtulit ictum
spicula nulla manu sed belli insigne gerenti.
casus agit saxum, medii spiramen ut oris
frangeret, et recavo misceret labra palato.
dentibus introrsum resolutis lingua resectam
dilaniata gulam frustis cum sanguinis inplet.
insolitis dapibus crudescit guttur et ossa
conliquefacta vorans revomit quas hauserat offas. }[9]

Even the women warrior-heroes that dominate action films today seldom act so powerfully and so independently! Sobrietas vaunts over the fallen vice Luxuria:

“Drink now your own blood, after your many little cups of wine,”
say the maiden Sobrietas, chiding her. “Let these at last be for you little, sad
servings missed for too much sweet food in times past.
The taste of bitter death makes harsh the lascivious allurements
of your life, and the final flavor makes them harsh with horrific swallowing.”

{ “ebibe iam proprium post pocula multa cruorem”
virgo ait increpitans. “sint haec tibi fercula tandem
tristia praeteriti nimiis pro dulcibus aevi.
lascivas vitae inlecebras gustatus amarae
mortis et horrifico sapor ultimus asperat haustus!” }

The vice-leader Luxuria and her “women-triflers {nugatrices}” are no match for a woman with firm womanly identity and compassion for men. Without doubt, men need women like fish need water.

Sobrietas routs Luxuria in Prudentius's Psychomachia

A worthy temple of wisdom includes among its jewels wisdom about gender. Battles between good and evil women determine the creative potential of men and women. Those battles continue in every person’s heart:

We know that in our cloudy heart, ambiguous senses
sweat in successive conflicts, and the fights
vary in their outcomes. Now our character is increasing in fitness.
Now by bent virtues we are dragged to worse
life-yokes and enslave ourselves with ugly
offenses and throw away the making of our salvation.

{ novimus ancipites nebuloso in pectore sensus
sudare alternis conflictibus, et variato
pugnarum eventu nunc indole crescere dextra,
nunc inclinatis virtutibus ad iuga vitae
deteriora trahi seseque addicere noxis
turpibus et propriae iacturam ferre salutis. }

The world cannot compensate for the loss of one’s soul. The reign of the Iliad and Aeneid in heroic imagination brings death to men’s bodies and souls. The Psychomachia shows the possibility of gender-transformed epic. With the help of meninist literary criticism, we can realize its promise: “we are not now what we were — we are enlarged by being born into better {nos quod fuimus iam non sumus, aucti / nascendo in melius}.”[10]

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Notes:

[1] Prudentius, Battle for the Soul {Psychomachia}, Preface {Praefatio} vv. 11-4, Latin text from Pelttari (2019) (modified slightly, including showing consonantal u as v), my English translation, benefiting from the commentary of id. as well as the English translations of Snider (1938), Lynch (1953), Thomson (1949) vol. 1, and Eagan (1965) vol. 2. Mastrangelo (2022), undoubtedly the best translation but one for which I didn’t have reasonable access, shows the tragedy of modern scholarship with its price of $135. In a humane and sane world, it would be freely available to all on the Internet. Ayer (2014) provides general Latin grammatical assistance. Pelttari’s Latin edition, apart from editorial matters, is nearly identical to Thomson’s Latin edition. On Abram rescuing the captured Lot, Genesis 14.

Prudentius probably wrote his Psychomachia in 408 or 409. Pelttari (2019) p. 24. The Psychomachia was widely circulated and highly influential throughout medieval Europe. More than three hundred surviving manuscripts include the Psychomachia. One of them, BnF Latinus 8084, dates from the first half of the sixth century. For a review of manuscripts and transmission of the Psychomachia, Pelttari (2019) pp. 29-34. Illustrations associated with the poem exist in twenty manuscripts and apparently go back to a fifth-century archetype. Id p. 24, Woodruff (1930). Medieval scholars wrote glosses and commentaries for the Psychomachia. For the Weitz / German glosses of the ninth through eleventh centuries, O’Sullivan & McCarty (2004).

Prudentius’s Psychomachia is an ambitious work, but its ambition has yet to be widely realized. The Psychomachia is “commonly regarded as the earliest and simplest allegory.” Van Dyke (1985) p. 20. Conventionally interpreted as representing an “internal battle {bellum intestinum}” between personifications of virtues and vices, it becomes a mediocre work. “If Prudentius had not written it, another would.” Lewis (1938) pp. 63-4, 67. On faulty, simplistic receptions of the Psychomachia, Van Dyke (1985) pp. 29-37 and Breen (2021) p. 70. “Prudentius has never been given his due.” Mastrangelo (2008) p. 3.

The subsequent quotes above are similarly sourced from the Psychomachia. Those quotes are vv. pf. 64-7 (The Holy Spirit, thus embracing…), 18-20 (The way of victory is apparent…), 21-7 (The first woman Fides …), 30-5 (Her enemy’s head…), 113-7 (From afar, swelling Ira…), 118-20 (Hey you woman-spectator…), 145-54 (Ira, when she saw fragments…), 155-61 (Standing over Ira, Patientia declares…), 310-20 (From the ends of the Western world …), 321-7 (Not however as a foot soldier…), 328-43 (So the virtues are enticed…), 351-66 (What befogging fury…), 380 (drunken female dancer), 381-5 (Stand, I pray…), 407-16 (So having spoken, she holds the Lord’s cross…), 417-25 (Adding a death blow…), 425-31 (Drink now your own blood…), 433 (women-triflers), 893-8 (We know that in our cloudy heart…), 83-4 (we are not now what we were…).

[2] Jerome of Stridon recognized that despite women’s bodily privilege in giving birth to natural children, women are equal to men in capabilities of the soul:

As long as a woman is devoted to childbirth and children, she differs from a man as body from soul. If, however, she wishes to be devoted to Christ more than to the world, she ceases to be a woman and will be called a man.

{ Quamdiu mulier partui servit et liberis, hanc habet ad virum differentiam, quam corpus ad animam. Sin autem Christo magis voluerit servire quam saeculo mulier esse cessabit et dicetur vir. }

Jerome, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians {Commentaria in epistolam ad Ephesios}, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 26:533, my English translation. For a modern Latin edition with English translation, Heine (2002). Jerome wrote this commentary about 387. Jerome’s view does not justify massive sex discrimination against men in child custody and “child support” judgments, nor sexist conscription laws.

[3] Many readers have failed to take seriously the Psychomachia’s personification of virtues and vices as women. Regarding “the reason Prudentius present the Vices in anthropomorphic shape,” Kirsch observed:

This feature has often been taken for granted, but it is by no means predetermined or unproblematic.

Kirsch (2009), abstract. For a poet as sophisticated as Prudentius, the grammatical gender of words didn’t determine his use of personification. Note, for example, that “virtue {virtus}” is feminine and “vice {vitium}” is masculine. These grammatical facts parallel moral valences under gynocentrism. Nonetheless, they don’t wholly explain gender figuration in ideological works such as Paxson (1998).

In recent years, contemporary orthodox dogma seems to have governed interpretation of gender in the Psychomachia. With respect to late Anglo-Saxon Psychomachia illustrations, McGucken declared:

Male transforms into female. Feminine becomes masculine. Ultimately the audience is left questioning what is male and what is female and whether such categories are appropriate in understanding these illustrations.

McGucken (2019) p. 42. Nonetheless, “The dominant modes of gender are upheld and highlighted.” Id. p 63. Under the dominant modes of gender, men must become women so as to be regarded as virtuous:

I argue that the Psychomachia encourages its male readers to transform themselves into Virtue by divesting themselves of their assigned gender. … For the poem’s male readers, virtue becomes a specifically transgender act of self-allegoresis — one in which, as we will see, the Virtues revert to their natural male bodies as soon as they slacken in their fight against Vice. … The Psychomachia’s succession of personified Virtues, therefore, becomes a kind of syllabus, a series of opportunities for male readers to test and refine their renunciation of masculine sexuality by reforming themselves as feminine personifications of Virtue.

Breen (2021) pp. 27, 73, 91. That analysis wholly ignores the literary history of epic violence against men, including violence against men’s testicles and penises. Today, transwomen aren’t being allowed to leave Ukraine with women because Ukrainian persons assigned to the male sex at birth are being forced to stay and fight in horrifically brutal battles for Ukraine. Nonetheless, literary scholars appear generally unconcerned about violence against men. See, e.g. Reid (2022), the discussion of Prudentius’s works in Benjamin Saltzman’s course “Witnessing Medieval Evil: Literature, Art, and the Politics of Observation” (University of Chicago, 2022), and Horn (2021).

[4] This passage is within the Christian tradition of eroticism. Moreno Soldevila observed:

Religious concepts are, thus, strikingly and overtly described as sexual encounters, but this imagery, puzzling as it may seem, is not exclusive to Prudentius, for it can also be encountered in the works of other Christian authors.

Moreno Soldevila (2021) p. 308. Mastangelo exclusively associated penetration with vice in the Psychomachia. Mastrangelo (2008) pp. 145-55. Penetration, however, is necessary for sex to engender a new person. Prudentius recognized and affirmed penetration in realizing the seminal blessing.

[5] On Christians groaning in labor for the birth of new creations, Romans 8:18-24, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Revelation 21:1-8. Mastrangelo interpreted the Psychomachia more abstractly:

In the Psychomachia, Prudentius deconstructs the Roman epic hero into each reader, who is part of a political purpose. Rather than founding the empire and unifying Rome through personal greatness, the reader is part of a reconstruction of Rome, one citizen at a time. The reader is not engaged in founding an empire through conquest and the imposition of political and cultural identity on a population but rather is a singular example of many, whose recognition of a Christian identity through a conversion of the soul is necessary for the construction of Rome as a Christian world nation. The conversion to Christianity represents a harmonious union between the religious and the political realms. Each person must choose to know and to live by what is truly Christian in order to be truly Roman. Thus, collectivity through a private conversion experience is a goal of the new Christian epic.

Mastrangelo (2008) p. 39.

[6] Dares of Phygia {Dares Phrygius}, The History of Troy’s Fall {De excidio Troiae historia} 35. For Latin text and English translation, Cornil (2011). Not wearing armor as reckless entry into battle differs significantly from keeping one’s breast or arms bare for advantage in fighting or hunting. On the well-attested literary tradition of the later, Bernstein (2016).

Prudentius signaled his revision of epic tradition in the first line (excluding the preface) of the Psychomachia. He tellingly revised a verse from Virgil’s Aeneid:

Phoebus, you always pitied Trojans’ heavy burdens

{ Phoebe, gravis Troiae semper miserate labores }

Aeneid 6.56, my English translation. In the Psychomachia, that verse became:

Christ, you always pitied men’s heavy burdens

{ Christe, graves hominum semper miserate labores }

Psychomachia 1, my English translation. Cf. Matthew 11:29-30. On the close relationship between the Aeneid and the Psychomachia, Hardie (2017).

Prudentius surely was aware of the Greek epic tradition. But that Greek tradition scarcely figures in interpretations of Prudentius. See, e.g. Mastrangelo (2008), which considers classical Greek philosophy and Greek texts of Christian theology, but not the Greek epic tradition.

[7] Given gender norms supporting violence against men, a woman’s violence against another women tends to shock readers. Van Dyke noted about the personification Faith in the Psychomachia:

She is all the more startling because she is female: like Lavarenne, we do not expect such obviously womanly creatures to fight. Our surprise that this one does, and does so with great abandon, is surely part of Prudentius’ intent. We are meant to be exhilarated by the blatant courage and power of an entity normally credited only with quiet moral strength.

Van Dyke (1985) p. 47.

[8] See. e.g. Dictys of Crete {Dictys Cretensis}, Chronicle of the Trojan War {Ephemeris belli Troiani} 5.15, Little Iliad, Fragment 1 (Proclus, Chrestomathia 2), cf. Fragment 3; Sophocles, Ajax; Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.382-98.

[9] As if ignorant of the literary tradition of epic violence against men, Carruthers quoted the Psychomachia’s violence against women and declared:

Prudentius’ Psychomachia is designedly disgusting and morbid because it is those qualities that make it memorable, particularly for the novice, schoolboy minds for which it was written. That, at least, was the assumption in ancient pedagogy. When the novice John Cassian, you recall, had trouble forgetting the epic stories which his pedagogus instilled in him as a child, he remembered most powerfully exactly the disgusting and bloody parts — the “images of warring heroes” that turned unbidden before his mental eye as he prayed the liturgy or tried to meditate on his psalms.

Carruthers (2003) p. 144. Prudentius’s Psychomachia is a highly sophisticated work that surely wasn’t written for “novice, schoolboy minds.” See, e.g. Van Dyke (1985) Ch. 1, Mastrangelo (2008), and Breen (2021). Cf. the much less sophisticated reading of Nuttall (1967) pp. 37-40. In recalling horrific violence against men, John Cassian almost surely recognized that the victims and he are men. Modern scholars, in contrast, almost never describe violence against men in the Iliad or the Aeneid as “disgusting and morbid.” Seeking to re-orient the epic tradition, Prudentius imitated the violence against men of the Iliad and Aeneid, but with transformed gender.

[10] On gaining the whole world and losing one’s soul, Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:36, Luke 9:25. The terrible violence against men of the Iliad and Aeneid too often has been like pages of dead flesh torn in unfeeling interpretation. Cf. Karkov (2001) p. 136.

[images] (1) Fides stepping on the head of Veterum Cultura Deorum (Idolatry {idolatria}). Illumination from a manuscript of Prudentius’s Psychomachia. Manuscript produced in the fourth quarter of the ninth century in France, perhaps in Reims. Detail from folio 57r of Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 8085. (2) Ira’s sword shatters on Patienta’s helmet, then the enraged Ira commits suicide. Illumination from a manuscript of Prudentius’s Psychomachia. Manuscript produced about the year 900 in the area of Lake Constance (Reichenau / St. Gallen / Constance). Detail from page 79 in Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Codex 264. (3) Luxuria feasting with others. Illumination from a manuscript of Prudentius’s Psychomachia. Manuscript produced in northern France about 890, perhaps at the Abbey of Saint-Amand. Detail from folio 112r (image 229) in Brussels, Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België / Bibliothèque royale de Belgique {Royal Library of Belgium}, MS. 9987-91. (4) Sobrietas routs Luxuria. From folio 114v (image 234) from Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, MS 9987-91. On illustrations in manuscripts of Prudentius’s Psychomachia, Solivan (2017), Karkov (2001), and Woodruff (1930).

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Reid, Elizabeth. 2022. “Female Representation, Gender, and Violence and in the Ceremonial Entries of the Italian Wars.” Renaissance Studies. Online.

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Woodruff, Helen. 1930. The Illustrated Manuscripts of Prudentius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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