The Classical Literary Tradition in Prudentius Text

Prudentius, like Ambrose, knew his classical Latin models well, and just as Ambose's treatment of Agnes recalled the Lucretia episode in Ovid, Prudentius' treatment recalls another episode in Ovid, the death of the maiden Polyxena. Polyxena was one of the daughters of Troy's King Priam and Queen Hecuba. When the Greeks were unable to sail home from Troy because the winds were unfavorable, Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, sacrificed Polyxena at his father's tomb. In Ovid's Metamorphoses (13.450-60), Polyxena was torn from the arms of her mother. Like Agnes she was young and fearless, and, like Agnes, when she saw her persecutor (Neoptolemus) standing before her ready to kill her with his sword, she made the bold gesture of calling for her own death: "Plunge your sword deep in my throat or breast!" (vv. 457-9). The scene is similar in the poem of Prudentius. There, when Agnes saw her executioner standing before her with an unsheathed sword, she, too, welcomed her death: "I shall welcome the whole length of his blade into my bosom, drawing the sword to the depths of my breast; and so as Christ's bride I shall leap over the darkness of the sky higher than the heaven" (vv. 77-80). Prudentius was well educated, steeped in the classical texts. The echoes of Ovid are plain in the verbal reminiscences and in the overall setting of the maiden's sacrifice—a young Roman maiden was pit against a persecutor whom she faced boldly. To the educated ancient reader, Prudentius' martyr legend of Agnes artfully imitated and precisely recalled the sacrifice of Polyxena in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

One other classical pagan reference in Catullus, poem 34, the "Hymn to Diana," also adumbrates the Prudentius poem. Catullus' poem to Diana recognized her primary attribute, her virginity, as well as her other personae—as protectress of crossroads where strangers first enter a city (vv.15-16) and as a protector of the Roman people (vv. 22-24). Like Diana, Agnes guarded her consecrated virginity (v. 8), all strangers who prayed to her with pure heart (vv. 5-6), and the Roman people in general (v. 4). Prudentius' poem about Agnes, a Christian martyr, recalls (to the mind of the educated reader) the sacral poem of Catullus about Diana, which both anticipated the "divinity" of Agnes and associated a consecrated virginity with Agnes. In the mind of the educated ancient reader the images of the two poems would have conflated with the result that the virgin martyr Agnes would have shared in the divinity of the pagan Diana.

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