The Poem of Prudentius

The Spanish poet Prudentius (348-c. 413 C.E.) has been called the greatest Christian poet of the late antique period. In his collection of martyr poems, he glorifies the cult of the martyrs and tells the stories of their tortures and deaths without omitting any of the gory details. His collection of martyr poems is called the Peristephanon, "Crown of Martyrs." His hymn to Saint Agnes (Peristephanon 14) contains details that he may have gathered from an oral tradition while traveling in Rome in 402 C.E. (see Primary Document 4.4). However, it is also apparent that he knew the literary antecedents in Ambrose and Damasus. While his account generally follows Ambrose's On Virgins, Prudentius introduces for the first time a component of the story that becomes central in subsequent texts— that Agnes' persecutor forced her into a brothel for refusing to sacrifice to Minerva (vv. 25-30): "Unless she lays her head on the altar and asks Minerva, the virgin goddess whom she scorns, I will put her into a public brothel. There all the young men will have her as a new slave of their sport." According to Prudentius, when she was in the brothel, as she stood naked before a crowd of youths, all but one turned away, and the one who did not was blinded. In Christian kindness, Prudentius continues, Agnes then prayed for the youth's eyesight to be restored. Yet, for this, Agnes was accused of practicing magic.

The story of the brothel so dramatically developed in the Prudentius poem but missing from the accounts of Ambrose and Damasus, seems to be drawn from a Greek passion of Saint Agnes that was circulating in Rome about the time of Prudentius' visit. In this account, Agnes was brought before the prefect of the city and ordered to sacrifice or be enclosed in a brothel. She refused and was forced into a brothel where a youth who approached her was struck dead. When the prefect arrived to investigate the boy's death, Agnes told him that an angel from God in shining white garments had appeared and saved her from the young man by striking him dead. The prefect responded that they would all believe in God if, by her prayers, the young man was revived. Yet, when by the efficacy of Agnes' prayers the dead man was returned to life, the crowd accused her of practicing magic and called for her death. The scene in the brothel was central to the account in the Greek passion. In Prudentius' poem, however, the brothel scene was one of several incidents compiled from the tradition in the Greek passion and from the texts of Ambrose and Damasus. There are significant differences in the details. For example, instead of an angel of God, in Prudentius' poem a blinding flash of light struck the young man, and instead of dying by the sword as she did in Ambrose's poem, Agnes burned to death, as she had in the inscription of Damasus.

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