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The Baptized MuseEarly Christian Poetry as Cultural Authority$

Karla Pollmann

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780198726487

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198726487.001.0001

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Culture as Curse or Blessing? Prudentius and Avitus on the Origins of Culture

Culture as Curse or Blessing? Prudentius and Avitus on the Origins of Culture

(p.161) 7 Culture as Curse or Blessing? Prudentius and Avitus on the Origins of Culture
The Baptized Muse

Karla Pollmann

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The theories about the origins of culture discussed in this chapter are instances of a way of systematically thinking about the nature of culture that was developed in classical times, either in verse or in prose. In such so-called foundation narratives, the origins of culture can be explained either in a mythological or a rationalizing fashion. Early Christianity also engaged with these lines of thought, demonstrated in this chapter by looking at the poets Prudentius and Avitus, and by investigating how pagan models were received in varying Christian contexts. The chapter concludes that from the fourth to the sixth century one can observe a shift from a critical to an increasingly positive attitude towards the possibility of establishing a Christian culture, and that both attitudes are developed with recourse to pagan classical cultural traditions.

Keywords:   cultural theory, foundation narrative (pagan and Christian), Prudentius, Avitus, Christian culture, receptions of classical tradition

Preliminary Remarks

The theories about the origins of culture discussed in this chapter are instances of a way of thinking about the nature of culture in a theorizing manner that was developed in classical times.1 It involved relatively elaborate narratives about the origins of one or more cultural attainments, such as, for example, the emergence and development of language or organized forms of human coexistence, or the discovery of music and poetry.2 In such narratives, the origins of culture can be explained either in a mythological or in a rationalizing logical fashion. What is always assumed, though, whichever of these two fundamental possibilities is chosen, is that turning to the beginnings of a condition or institution that continues to exist in the present represents a particularly profitable way to help explain the nature of that condition or institution. In the Western tradition,3 this figure of aetiological thought goes back at least as far as the archaic period of Greek colonization;4 it includes, in particular, foundation myths, or ktistes (‘founder’) and protos heuretes (‘first inventor’) narratives.5 Early Christianity also engaged with these lines of thought in a number of cases, as is described with reference to two examples in the following study; one perspective that will necessarily be adopted in the process is the question of how the pagan models were received in a Christian context.

(p.162) In general, Christian authors are relatively reticent when it comes to a theoretical positioning of the phenomenon of culture from a Christian perspective. Statements on this matter are usually to be found, if at all, in an apologetic context.6 The reason for this will lie first and foremost in the paucity of biblical statements on the subject.7 In Genesis, the Magna Charta of human existence, of what it means to be human, and of human nature, the original condition of Paradise is described with a vegetarian simplicity that bears only hints of culture: ‘Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food”’ (Gen. 1:29). Not until the Fall were actions that produced culture in the true sense of the word among humans brought about,8 starting with when they realized they were naked and made primitive proto-clothing for themselves (‘they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves’, Gen. 3:7)—an action that was not authorized by the creator God but, quite the opposite, is an (indirect) consequence of human disobedience. Even in their postlapsarian condition, though, people need divine assistance in order to come to terms with their changed situation: ‘The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them’ (Gen. 3:21).9 God’s general words of punishment that announce the consequences of the Fall do not have to be read directly, only in terms of the harsh agricultural existence ahead; they can also be understood as a general context for all that humans will make in future: ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, “You must not eat from it”, cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food’ (Gen. 3:17–19).

And things get even worse than this. Further cultural achievements are clearly placed not only after the expulsion from Paradise but also after the (p.163) point in time at which Cain kills Abel. It is Cain’s descendants who are identified as the first inventors of various cultural attainments—of nomadic animal husbandry, of music, and of metalworking: ‘Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron’ (Gen. 4:20–2).10 Only later did religion develop in the form of calling on Yahweh—in the time of Enosh, one of Adam’s grandsons (Gen. 4:26). It is telling, and indeed hardly surprising, that in the case of religion an affinity (even a temporal one) with Cain’s progeny is avoided and descent from Adam is highlighted instead.

All this represents a significant deviation from familiar theories of pagan antiquity about the origins of culture, which either optimistically describe a technological progression from primitive, in part dangerous and impoverished beginnings, to a safe and comfortable society, or characterize every development that has taken place in humanity as a decline from an original state of paradise. Combinations of the two models are also possible.11 Some of the elements in them recall the story of Genesis. An important and crucial difference, however, lies in the fact that in the pagan versions, cultural attainments are never directly identified as a punishment that resulted from a human transgression against God. Only the Prometheus myth could be considered an exception: Prometheus provides humans with cultural assets, which is seen as an offence against the gods, and is punished for this. Cultural assets are thus presented as a necessary revolt of humans against the gods, but not, as in Genesis, as a punishment that results from the revolt.12 In general, the pagan myths provide culture and, in particular, the foundation of cities, with specific divine roots,13 whereas Genesis treats cultural creations as the work of humans.14

The Judaeo-Christian tradition, therefore, presents us with a markedly more critical assessment of culture right from the start. The underlying model, too, is not one of quantitative rise or fall in a linear fashion, as in the pagan tradition; instead, the transition from the original state of Paradise to the creation of human culture represents a qualitative break. The complex mix of attraction and aversion in the Christian standpoint finds its most telling expression, harking back to Origen, in a passage of Augustine’s On Christian (p.164) Teaching that is often described as a ‘theory of culture’: ‘Any statements by those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, which happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them, as with the treasures of the ancient Egyptians, who possessed not only idols and heavy burdens, which the people of Israel hated and shunned, but also vessels and ornaments of silver and gold, and clothes, which on leaving Egypt the people of Israel, in order to make better use of them, surreptitiously claimed for themselves (they did this not on their own authority but at God’s command, and the Egyptians in their ignorance actually gave them the things of which they had made poor use)’ (2.40.60).15 Precisely for this reason, a particular challenge is involved in examining what Christian poets writing in Latin had to say on this topic. For the very fact that they turned to poetry meant that they themselves made something deeply cultural in the process, and that they were able to—or could not but—look back on a rich tradition of pagan theories about the origins of culture that in many cases likewise had a poetic form (e.g. Lucretius 5.925–1457, Vergil’s Georgics 1.121–59, and Ovid’s Art of Love 2.467–88).

Prudentius, Against Symmachus

Against Symmachus (C. Symm.) was an apologetic poem, written probably around 402/3, to defend Christianity against the pagan charge that the Christian God was unable to protect the Roman state from national catastrophes, and that the earlier and more capable pagan gods should therefore be reinstated. Prudentius rebuts this challenge with the arguments of a pagan opponent in mind, and it is therefore no surprise that he takes issue with pagan ideas on many occasions. Drawing on Ambrose, he engages in book 2 with the individual points put forward against Christianity by the erudite pagan Symmachus; in book 1 of Against Symmachus, on the other hand, he establishes a wider frame of reference by going back to the beginnings of Roman history in order to demonstrate that the pagan gods were bad and wrong for Rome and that Rome’s salvation lies in Christianity.

Thus, he declares the myth of the Golden Age that was associated with the rule of Saturn in Italy to be a fiction in 1.42–58, on the grounds that Saturn was a human being who brought civilization to Italy (exemplified here with reference to the introduction of viticulture in 1.49–50) and was raised in return to the status of a god by subsequent generations in their gratitude. (p.165) Prudentius has turned here to the method of euhemerism, a pagan technique whose original aim was to rationalize classical religious myths and to show that they were true, in the sense of being historical facts, with the help of authentic finds in the form of inscriptions, temples, and the like, usually in far-off countries.16 Prudentius, with his apologetic intentions, uses the technique against the grain, so to speak, for his rationalization is intended not, say, to make the pagan myths acceptable by elucidating them, but satirically, to lay them open to ridicule as not worthy of belief. This places him in the apologetic tradition,17 and he proceeds in a particularly systematic and comprehensive way, going on to pursue his destructive satire by saying that Mercury, who invented theft and was not averse to necromancy and murder, is wrongly considered a great god (1.86–101). Prudentius then, among other things, exposes the pagan god Priapus as a sex-obsessed human (1.102–15), accuses Hercules of having had a homosexual relationship with Hylas (1.116–21), and characterizes the ‘young man from Thebes’ (Thebanus iuvenis, i.e. Bacchus; 1.122) as a self-satisfied conqueror, alcoholic, and adulterer (1.122–44).18

Moreover, Prudentius seeks not only to deprive the pagan gods as such of their divinity and authenticity by means of these wide-ranging scandalous revelations, but also, at the same time, to make the pagan rites and cults that were still devoted to them in his own time seem unpalatable. After all, as he writes, statues of Priapus were still to be found on the Capitoline Hill (ecce; 1.102) and in the Sabine countryside, where his cult was observed annually (1.113–15). The cults of Hercules and Bacchus, Prudentius adds, were still celebrated (nunc; 1.120, 1.129). In the pagan mind, the myths about the gods served as explanations with which aetiologically to legitimize the cults and rites associated with those gods.19 In Prudentius, the euhemeristic presentation of the gods as humans serves as evidence that such rites actually lack any claim to aetiological authenticity. In formal terms, we could speak of an ‘anti-aetiology’ here—one that is meant, in a twofold rejection, both to brand the (p.166) origins of a cult a fraud and to condemn the cult itself as utterly misguided. This is supported by the fact that these mere humans have been inappropriately converted into gods by, as emphasized repeatedly, foolish and uneducated ancestors (1.55, 1.73, 1.79–80, 1.99, 1.145–6).20 Similarly, Lucretius had already stressed in his discussion of religion (On the Nature of Things 5.1183–93, 1204–17) that humans had attributed the ordered fashioning of the universe to the gods because they were unable to find any other way to explain its causes (quibuscausis; 5.1185) and how it worked.

The argumentation of Prudentius also includes the idea that there can be various motives for the pagan veneration of gods or kings—‘fear, or love, or hope’ (metus aut amor aut spes; 1.152),21 which together form ‘the spectre of a misguided piety’ (falsae pietatis imago; 1.154). This, too, corresponds in part to Lucretius, who holds forth against false religion in On the Nature of Things 5.1218–40; the introductory phrase in 5.1198, nec pietas ullast (‘and there is no piety at all’), in particular, is reminiscent of Prudentius’ formulation in 1.154. Lucretius names, above all, fear grounded in a lack of knowledge as a motive for the establishment of religion (On the Nature of Things 5.1204–40).22 Like Prudentius after him, he concentrates his explanatory efforts on the external manifestations of the cult, with the aim of thereby exposing it as vacuous and devoid of content and meaning, or as irrational and unfounded, as the case may be.23 The overarching aims of both poets in their argumentation are also comparable. Whereas Lucretius seeks to expose traditional religion as null and void, so as to prepare the way for the true religion of Epicurus, Prudentius seeks to achieve the same thing on behalf of Christianity. In Lucretius, though, ratio is the supreme principle that will replace ‘superstition’ (superstitio), whereas in Prudentius it is the ‘Christian faith’ (fides Christiana) that is to serve this purpose (2.92, 2.244–5).24 The actual major culture-forming achievements that are contained in the mythological narratives—horticulture (p.167) (from Priapus), winemaking (from Bacchus), and the liberation of the world from monsters and threats (by Hercules)—do not have any role to play in the process at all. In clear contrast to all these beliefs, the Christian faith and the Christian God do not have the aetiological function of sanctioning human cultural achievements.25

Prudentius goes on to tackle a theme that was particularly sensitive from a Roman perspective: the founding of Rome. Roman mythology traces the origins of Rome back to two divine forbears: first, to Mars, who fathered Romulus and Remus with Rhea Silvia; and, second, to Venus as the mother of Aeneas. From the time of Augustus, in particular, both divinities were often venerated together in public places.26 Almost inevitably, this gave rise to counterproductive associations with the adultery in which they were involved in a different context and which had, in Homer’s impressive account (Odyssey 8.266–366), been subjected to public ridicule by Hephaestus. This unintended association had already attracted the satirical attention of Ovid (Art of Love 2.561–600),27 where, as in Prudentius, it was accompanied by a subtext of contemporary criticism—Ovid’s mockery of the ideology of moral revival in Augustan marriage law.28 In Prudentius (1.164–79), this ‘legend or superstition’ (vel fama vel error; 1.180)29 of adultery among the gods provides, as a highly twisted aetiology, the foundation for the entire polytheistic cult of the Roman gods that has been preserved by the foolishness of successive generations (1.198–9, 1.240–4). Here the struggle between Christian and pagan culture comes to a head.

Prudentius then switches his perspective and explains that the origins of Rome were fundamentally flawed (ab origine; 1.409): not until Constantine did everything begin to get better (1.468). In this, like other Christian thinkers before him,30 Prudentius is following a model of progress that describes subsequent developments as improvements on a flawed original state. In contrast to Lucretius, who combined technological progress with increasing moral decline in his theory about the origins of culture and thus engaged in tangible social criticism of conditions in his time, Prudentius adopts a different paradigm. Technological progress is left out of the picture: the moral–religious decline of the pagan position is seen as the starting point and Christianity as a late source of salvation—the old Rome finally comes to its senses (1.511–12) and, indeed, reaches its cultural peak as a result of becoming Christian.

(1) C. Symm. 2.282

orbe novo nulli subigebant arva coloni

(‘When the world was new, no farmers ploughed the land’)

Verg. Georg. 1.125

ante Iovem nulli subigebant arva coloni

(‘Before Jove’s time no farmers ploughed the land’)

C. Symm. 2.285

primi homines cuneis scindebant fissile lignum

(‘The first human beings used to cleave the splitting wood with wedges’)

Verg. Georg. 1.144

nam primi cuneis scindebant fissile lignum

(‘For the early human beings used to cleave the splitting wood with wedges’)32

In book 2 of Against Symmachus, Prudentius then engages specifically with the individual arguments of Symmachus. It is clear that, in the wake of the (p.168) ruthless sweeping anti-aetiology of book 1, any attempt to argue in favour of the cult of the pagan gods will be deprived of a foundation from the start. Prudentius, indeed, gives a clear reminder at the beginning of book 2 that this part of his argument has already been established: book 1 has, he writes, explained the origins and causes of the misguided belief in the pagan gods (cunabula prima and causas; 2.1–2), which is, however, now beginning to be replaced by the truth Christian faith (2.3). In book 2, Prudentius continues to make use of origins as a figure of thought, which is no surprise given the effectiveness of this mode of argumentation. Alongside a refutation of the claim that the pagan gods made Rome successful, the Christian God is defined as the true cause of all human institutions and cultural achievements: he, not Pallas Athena, is the creator of the olive tree; he determines when every human is to be born and established marriage for the purposes of human reproduction; he commands the elements (2.220–8). In his argument against traditionalism, which rejects Christianity as a novelty, Prudentius briefly sets out (a) first, a theory about the origins of culture, based on optimism and progress, that characterizes Christianity as a high point in Roman religion (2.279–334). This is followed (b) by an alternative theory about the origins of culture that discredits the waning pagan polytheism (2.335–69). The aim of the first passage (a) is to demonstrate that the primitive attainments of early humanity were not retained when better and more effective methods emerged—an argument for progress (not just in a technological sense). Prudentius here employs verbal reminiscences of passages in (1) Vergil’s Georgics and (2) Juvenal’s Satires that also makes reference to the primitive beginnings of humanity.31 (p.169)

(2) C. Symm. 2.288

induvias caesae pecudes et frigida parvas


praebebat spelunca domos: redeamus ad antra

(‘Slaughtered cattle used to provide clothing, and a chilly cave modest homes: so let us go back to the caverns’)

Juv. 6.2

in terris visamque diu, cum frigida parvas


praeberet spelunca domos ignemque Laremque

(Chastity lingered) on earth (they say) and she was long to be seen in the days when a chilly cave provided modest homes and a hearth and a household god’).35

The context in Vergil is that Jupiter deliberately created adversities for humans in order to stop them becoming lethargic and to stimulate them to make new discoveries that would improve their lives. Thus, cultural progress is explained here as a result of divine providence ([sc. Iupiter] voluit, ‘Jupiter has willed it’; Verg. Georg. 1.122).33 Prudentius does believe in historical progress that serves to establish Christianity and is therefore desired by God; but he does not subscribe to Vergil’s notion of providence in his view of culture, seeing cultural development instead—more in the manner of Lucretius—as the result of cumulative human experience (posterius successor repperit usus, ‘later the descendant has rediscovered the usages’; 2.281).34

In Juvenal, the plain, squalid beginnings of Rome are contrasted with the solid morals of those days. Similarly to Lucretius, Juvenal complains that this situation has been turned upside down in the present, and that material luxury is now joined by moral decadence.36 As Lucretius, then, he thus engages in criticizing contemporaries. The direction of the argument, and with it the assessment of individual elements, changes in Prudentius:37 the plough, for example, is an aid to agriculture; various tools support, or professionalize, craftsmanship; clothes and housing are improved and not described as an unnecessary luxury or the like; barbaric practices such as human sacrifice are put to an end. Rome’s plain beginnings have not been preserved. Anything can be changed if it no longer serves its purpose: varia rerum novitate politum est (‘it has been polished by the varying newness of things’; 2.329). For Rome, at (p.170) the peak of its civilization, only the most civilized of all religions can be considered appropriate, i.e. Christianity, the culmination of all things.38 Christianity is thus viewed here as part of a culture that is deliberately shaped, changed, and adopted by humans.

In the second analysis (b) of the development of culture that follows, Prudentius rounds off his previous argumentation, writing that it is erroneous to think that polytheism was the original Roman religion: frustra igitur solitis, prava observatio, inhaeres: | non est mos patrius, quem diligis, inproba, non est (‘it is vain therefore, o perverse reference, to cling to wonted rites: the custom you love, is not the custom of the ancestors, reprobate, it is not’, 2.368–9). Rome, he says, became polytheistic only in the course of its expansion and the adoption of new deities from subjugated peoples that took place in the process. In reality, monotheism was the original form of worship in Rome, so Christianity can, following Tertullian (Apology 6 and 25), be seen as a return to true beginnings—a classic apologetic demonstration of longevity as evidence of Christianity’s superiority.

This text, with its marked apologetic stance, had much to say on the topic of this chapter. For an illuminating comparison, we can now turn to an analysis of the same theme in the content and statements of a poem that essentially positions itself firmly inside Christianity: the biblical epic De spiritalis historiae gestis by Avitus of Vienne.

Avitus, De spiritalis historiae gestis

In this poem (Gest.), Avitus paraphrases episodes from the Old and (to a lesser extent) the New Testament with the help of a complex poetic structure,39 starting with the account of the Creation in Genesis 1 and 2. The conceptual framework consists of human sin, death, and redemption. Embedded in this are three further themes:40 first, a Christian view of history and the conditions of humanity in various historical epochs; second, the nature and status of human knowledge and speech, above all in relation to pagan, Graeco-Roman culture; and finally, the relationship between mind and matter, between the world of the intellect and the physical word, between grace and will.

(p.171) In general, it can be said that Avitus—in contrast to Prudentius—envisages a markedly more complex interaction between the divine plan of salvation and human cultural production. This becomes clear, for example, in how he uses the making of clothes as a theme that runs through the third book like a leitmotif. As already mentioned, the cultural achievement of making clothes is directly linked to the Fall because humans were ashamed of their nakedness in its wake (3.1–19). Avitus makes this particularly clear in the pointed paradox that they ‘as a result laid bare their wickedness by wearing clothes’ (nudumque malum de veste patescat; 3.11).41 The idea is taken up at the first encounter of the fallen humans with God, who formulates the antithesis between the original condition of a nakedness without moral qualms and the awareness of nakedness that gives rise to feelings of shame:42 ‘and to that extent nakedness presents itself to the naked, because a disgusting urge tries to prove your bodies shameful’ (hactenus et nudis nunc denudata patescunt, | arguit obscenus quia turpia corpora motus; 3.88–9).43 The first humans seek out leaves under trees with which to cover their nudity, which Avitus takes as the cue for a typological excursus that glances forward to the redemption from the sin (that was) committed by touching a tree—redemption that would be achieved by means of a further tree, the cross of Christ (3.20–6).44 The first humans’ dress of foliage is ‘improved’ by God, for he then provides them with animal skins to cover their bodies before he banishes them from Paradise (3.195–219).45 As in the typological connection of the tree of Paradise and the tree of the cross, a soteriological perspective is uncovered in this motif as well: in a digression, in which he paraphrases the story of the prodigal son from Luke 15:11–32 (3.370–83), Avitus remarks, building on Luke 15:22 (dixit autem pater ad servos suos: cito proferte stolam primam et induite illum, ‘but the father said to his servants: quickly bring the best garment and clothe him’), that the father has the best garment in the house brought for his son in order to clothe him honourably for a second time after his return. Avitus picks up the idea again in the following prayer (3.384–95), particularly in 3.393–5,46 with the role of the prodigal son now being ascribed to the narrator and his readers:47 ‘Our ancient nature may be soiled and clothed in a cloak torn to shreds, but, Father, (p.172) take off our torn garment along with our sin and provide the finest cloak [i.e. redemption] for Your returning [i.e. repentant] children.’48

Avitus presents, conditioned by his three main overarching themes, an idiosyncratic interpretation of the account of the Creation: by God’s will, even the prelapsarian human was made so as to obtain physical nourishment by means of agriculture, and to study and control natural phenomena with the help of intelligence (1.55–6, 60–8).49 Later on, this is set out in more detail with reference to the fact that natural phenomena and beings were created not to be worshipped but to be used (1.139–42).50 Thus, for Avitus, culture is, within strict utilitarian limits, already part of the reality of Paradise. These beneficial restrictions were forsaken because of the Fall, as humans overstep their limitations by misusing their intelligence. This becomes clear at the end of book 2 when Satan celebrates his successful seduction of the first humans as an intellectual victory in a triumphant speech: he was able to reveal hidden knowledge to humanity (2.408–23). By being prone to misuse and excessiveness, all postlapsarian cultural activity, particularly intellectual activity, is thus imprinted with the stigma of the Fall.

This becomes particularly clear in book 4, where Avitus describes the antediluvian decline of humanity, which lay primarily in the transgression of natural laws and a flight from the established order of things.51 His model of decadence is relativized theologically, for the Flood with its near-complete destruction of creation makes a new covenant between God and Noah possible (4.11–132). It is, however, very likely that his pessimistic statements at this point were influenced by difficult contemporary circumstances such as a slump in agriculture (4.37–54;52 and see 3.164–653 and, of course, Gen. 3:18) and a breakdown of the legal system (4.54–61; and see 3.348–50).54 In this (p.173) context, the origin of polyglossia is linked, following the Bible, to the aberrant construction of the Tower of Babel, and thus clearly presented as a punishment (particularly in 4.123–6). This contrasts with, for example, Lucretius 5.1028–90, who explains the emergence of human language as a development of natural sounds just like those that can be observed expressing emotions in the animal kingdom. In addition, the multiplicity of languages serves to constrain the excessive, negatively viewed curiosity of humans—in stark contrast to Vergil’s Georgics,55 where difficulties of divine provenance are meant more to stimulate that same curiosity, which is thus understood, in a positive sense,56 as a force that drives progress.

Flawed cultural institutions were, however, also established after the Flood—but it is now humans themselves who, imitating God in the process, employ such institutions to punish human crimes, as in the case of slavery, for example, which began with Noah’s middle son, Ham (Gen. 9:25–6; Avit. Gest. 4.404–17). He dared to laugh voyeuristically at his naked father, who consequently gave him (not, as in the Bible, his son Canaan) to his brothers as a slave.57 Avitus then transposes this story into a timeless dimension and explains that all humans are slaves because of their own guilt: those who are born free can be ‘slaves’ of their vices, whereas a real slave will become a nobleman through his integrity (4.414–17).58

Even after the Flood, though, divinely sanctioned cultural achievements that are positive in Christian terms are possible in—hardly surprisingly—the context of religious rituals. The most striking example is the establishment of the paschal festival (5.218–64): the ritual serves, in the manner of the Old Testament, as a reminder that the Jewish people were chosen and saved by God, who himself taught them this ritual (instruit hos sacris simul informatque Creator; 5.221). In addition, these events prefigure the redemption of humanity by Christ, as a result of which this cultural act acquires a universal significance and is accordingly characterized as everlasting: vos modo perpetuos sacrorum discite mores, | cultibus et propriis mansura lege tenete (‘you just learn the perpetual customs of sacred things, and keep them in special rituals (p.174) under a law that will last’, said by the creator God to Moses; 5.231–2). The rite, finally, also contains a moral message for readers in Avitus’s time, namely that one should adopt an attitude not of insincerity but of integrity: fermento nequam duplici de corde revulso, | sincerum nitidae conspergant azyma mentes (‘once the wicked leaven has been torn from a duplicitous heart, the shining minds should sincerely moisten the unleavened loaves’, 5.258–9).59 Humanity accepts this ‘new ritual’ (novo cultu; 5.263) with all its layers of significance gladly.


In examining our two examples from early Christian Latin poetry, we have been able to identify clear differences in how cultural phenomena are evaluated and explained. Prudentius is strongly guided by his apologetic objective, which means that, in many respects, he adopts pagan explanations of the emergence and nature of culture. However, he modifies them or radically turns them on their head whenever he needs them to support his own objective—demonstrating that Christianity is the only true religion for the Roman Empire. This is why he heavily emphasizes the aspect of religion as something chosen by humans, so as to reinforce the intensity of his appeal to the sense of responsibility of his addressees. Culture is understood anthropocentrically as a self-sufficient opportunity to be chosen and set up by humans themselves.

Avitus, writing around a century later, pursues very different aims. He draws human culture tightly into a theological context and sees it in close connection with the Fall, sometimes even going beyond what the Bible says in the process. The postlapsarian danger of cultural excess is always kept in mind. At the end of book 5,60 he again underlines the illusion of human proficiency in political, military, and rhetorical matters, seeing it as inconsequential, misguided, and hopeless if it is not endorsed by God’s will (5.631–2). Examples of cultural achievements that are appropriate in this context are the establishment of the paschal festival (5.218–356) and, we might also suggest, his own poetic work.61 By postulating divine endorsement, Avitus (p.175) opens a door that leads to dangerous possibilities: for one thing, he advocates a certain anti-intellectual or anti-cultural asceticism; for another, he thereby calls for a source of censure beyond or above rationality where ‘appropriate’ culture and the ‘proper’ pursuit of knowledge is concerned, which can and did have disastrous consequences for the free development and expansion of knowledge.

Prudentius wrote in a situation in which Christianity was still not fully established. He therefore makes a strong effort to appeal to his audience by emphasizing the flexibility of humans and their ability to make decisions. This is also linked to the fact that he had a potentially disparate circle of addressees, which could have consisted of Christians, pagans, and people yet to decide between the two traditions. Avitus’s time was witness to disputes between various branches of the Christian faith, whose fundamental position in society and politics was not, however, called into question any more. In Avitus’s concept of culture, this led to a position that was markedly more strongly theocentric and critically authoritarian. He can conceive of Christianity and the Church as gladly affirmed examples of cultural creation only to a very small extent, specifically in the context of religious rituals. Avitus does, though, manage to find in such rites a number of theologically and soteriologically relevant layers of meaning which legitimize cultural activity in Christianity and make it acceptable from a Christian perspective.


(1) Culture is understood here in a broad sense as everything made by people, contrasting with all that is natural and created by God.

(2) A number of good analyses are available, but their coverage of late antiquity is limited: Uxkull-Gyllenband (1924); Guthrie (1957); Gatz (1967); Lovejoy and Boas (1973); Reischl (1976); Manuwald (1980); Blundell (1986); Droge (1989); Kinzig (1994), 376–441; Föllinger (1999), 13–31; Utzinger (2003).

(3) Aetiological narratives of many different kinds are also to be found in other cultures; for examples from Babylon, Iran, India, and elsewhere—see Gatz (1967), 208–10.

(4) Dougherty (1993), esp. 15–30. Aetiological narratives were particularly popular in Hellenistic literature.

(5) Thraede (1962b), 1191–278, and (1972), 141–82.

(6) There is a good analysis of the Christian use of pagan theories about the origins of culture from Theophilus of Antioch to Arnobius of Sicca, with particular reference to the sources used, in Kinzig (1994), 376–441.

(7) Kinzig (1994), 377.

(8) Kinzig (1994), 382. Drewermann (1977a), 149–61, especially 151, expounds the ambivalent characterization of culture in the Genesis narrative well: the history of culture appears as an achievement that proved necessary to overcome the shortcomings revealed by falling from God but does not in reality heal old wounds, and instead merely inflicts new and greater wounds on the condition of being separated from God. In (1977b), 294–315, Drewermann highlights, again correctly, the negative evaluation of cultural progress in Genesis; I leave to one side here the question of whether this can be explained, as he suggests, in terms of the psychological schema of the child’s separation from the mother in the trauma of birth (299).

(9) Drewermann (1977a), 99, 151, draws a clear distinction between the culture-making actions of God, who aims thereby to make the lot of postlapsarian humanity more bearable, and the culture-making actions of humans, who concentrate on external circumstances of existence for their own sake.

(10) For a discussion of the names, objects, and occupations mentioned here, see Westermann (196674), 446–53.

(11) Gatz (1967), 144–5, developed the following classification: the mythical fall of nature (‘Deszendenz der Natur’), the Protagorean–atomistic rise of culture (‘Aszendenz der Kultur’), and the Platonic–Peripatetic and Epicurean–Cynic–Stoic synthesis of the two models of rise and fall.

(12) Pollmann (2006), 181–206, with reference to Nietzsche (202).

(13) Dougherty (1993).

(14) Drewermann (1977a), 154.

(15) Translation from Green (1997), 64–5; see also Pollmann (1996a), 192–5.

(16) Veyne (1983), 81–8; Winiarczyk (2002), esp. 168–73 on euhemerism in patristic literature, albeit without consideration of Prudentius.

(17) Thraede (1966), 877–90, here 887, introduces the moral censure of deified superhumans in the Latin tradition with reference to Tertullian, Adversus nationes 2.13.21 and Apology 11.12.

(18) In some cases, these pagan gods had already been disparaged in pagan literature. Dionysus had already been presented as a problematic god in Homeric Hymn 1 and, especially, in Euripides’s Bacchae; Hercules was not just heroized as a bringer of culture but had also been caricatured as a foolish drunkard in the comedy tradition. See Galinsky (1972), esp. 40–125 on the tragic Hercules, the comic Hercules, and Hercules stylized as an intellectual; see e.g. Catullus 20.18–21; Horace, Satires 1.8; Ovid, Fasti 1.400, for the obscene Priapus. The authors of Christian apologetic, of course, drew eagerly on this for their own purposes. For an English translation of Against Symmachus, see Thomson (1949–53), which is used in the following throughout, partly with minor alterations.

(19) The pagan gods were thus viewed as ktisteis of their own religion; see, for example, Myers (1994), 113–26, on Pomona and Vertumnus in Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.623–771, and Kirk (1972), 83–102, here 93–4, on Demeter as founder of the Eleusis cult.

(20) This was a common polemic reproach—see Opelt (1980), 73–6, 177–81.

(21) On fear, see also 1.450.

(22) It is not the simplest matter to determine who, before Prudentius, refers to spes and amor as causes of (pagan) religion. In his famous fragment B 25, Criton explains that the gods were invented in order to strike humans with fear, that humans do not do evil—even surreptitiously—because the gods are watching them even then and punish them for it. In Neoplatonism, the states of faith and love in the soul are among the requirements for union with God, particularly in Iamblichus and Proclus; see Esser (1967), 73–5, 94–5. It is most likely that the background to the Prudentius verse lies in a source that systematizes the possible reasons for religion in the tradition of Varro. In Varro, Res divinae 1 fr. 18 Cardauns, the ‘fear of the gods’ (metus deorum) is ended by the introduction of visual representations of deities; in fr. 47 Cardauns, the gods are to be ‘honoured like parents’ (vereri ut parentes); and fr. 20 Cardauns explains that some humans claimed to be of divine descent in order to strengthen their credibility (animus humanus velut divinae stirpis fiduciam gerens).

(23) Fabian (1988), 235–48.

(24) Fabian (1988), 248, comes to the same conclusion in a different context; see also Kah (1990), 135–9.

(25) See also p. 162 with n. 9, and p. 163 with n. 14.

(26) Zanker (1987), 198–204.

(27) Pollmann (2005a), 92–110, here 99–100; Janka (1997), 404–27.

(28) Janka (1997), 405–6.

(29) Souter (1949), s.v. ‘error’: ‘pagan superstition’. It is not clear to me whether or to what extent Ovid, Tristia 2.207 (carmen et error) is relevant as a hypotext here.

(30) Kinzig (1994), 440–1; Utzinger (2003), 246–59.

(32) Translation by Fairclough (1967) with modifications.

(31) The passages quoted under (1) are not considered by Lühken (2002); she does, though, present further material, particularly from Vergil (105–13), and notes in general terms (277) that book 2 of Against Symmachus contains a disproportionately large number of allusions to the Georgics, whereas the Aeneid dominates book 1. Kah (1990), 129–32, merely offers a paraphrase. Malamud (1989) does not consider the passages from Against Symmachus examined here.

(35) Translation from Rudd (1991) with alterations.

(33) Reischl (1976), 48–68. On the negative sense of labor improbus (Vergil, Georgics 1.145–6), see Altevogt (1975), 5–12, and, concurring, Mynors in Vergil, Georgics, ed. Mynors (1990), 30 (‘pitiless, unrelenting toil’)—both in contrast to Reischl (1976), 63–7, Gatz (1967), 163–5, and many others.

(34) This corresponds to the Greek concept of χρεία‎, on which see Föllinger (1999), 23; see also in general Hollerbach (1964), 82–138 (with respect to theories about the origins of culture), who correctly highlights (8–73) the fact that χρεία‎ essentially corresponds to Latin egestas (‘need’) or usus (‘custom’).

(36) Pollmann (1996b), 487.

(37) In part, this had already been encountered in Christian apologetic; see Droge (1989), 110–18, on Theophilus of Antioch, and 153–7, on Origen, as well as Kinzig (1994), 440–1.

(38) This goes back to Eusebius, Church History 1.2.7–17 and Laudation of Constantine 16.4; see Kofsky (2000), esp. 215–19, 286–7. See Buchheit (1985), 189–224, and, on the beginnings of the ‘teleology of Rome’ that, according to Eusebius, Church History 4.26.1–11, goes back to Melito, bishop of Sardis (c.170 BC), see Smolak (1999b), 137. This idea first enters Latin literature with Ambrose; see Klingner (1965), 659.

(39) Arweiler (1999), 36–55; Hoffmann (2005), xxiii–xli; Hoffmann (2007), 139–45.

(40) Shea (1997), 3–7; what follows owes much to this accomplished introduction.

(41) Translation from Shea (1997), 90. This paradox can already be found in Ambrose, On Elijah and Fasting 4.8; on this and further parallels, see Hoffmann (2005), 36–7.

(42) Hoffmann (2005), 84–5.

(43) Translation from Shea (1997), 91–2.

(44) On this didactic and instructional form of typological reference, see Arweiler (1999), 38 with n. 96.

(45) Shea (1997), 31, is certainly right when he notes that the reference to the skins is ironically prefigured by 3.170, where humans, in contrast to the devil’s promise of being on a par with God, now lead a life comparable to that of animals; see also Hoffmann (2005), 147–9.

(46) sorduerit nimium lacero circumdata peplo | forma vetus, scissam ponens cum crimine vestem | pallia prima, Pater, redeunti porrige proli…; pallia prima takes the place of stolam primam in Luke 15:22.

(47) Hoffmann (2005), 270.

(48) Likewise Shea (1997), 34 (the translation is from 99); on patristic parallels, see Hoffmann (2005), 270–2; induat (Avit. Gest. 1.58) as well as, in particular, nolite mentiri invicem expoliantes vos veterem hominem cum actibus eius et induentes novum, eum qui renovatur in agnitionem secundum imaginem eius qui creavit eum (Col. 3:9–10) and induimini Dominum Iesum Christum (Rom. 13:14). These typological and soteriological links are not noted by Hecquet-Noti (1999), 311 n. 8, but she does refer to the fusion of the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) and the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–5) that occurs here.

(49) Biblical and pagan parallels, particularly from Vergil and Ovid, are presented in Schippers (1945), 61–4, and Morisi (1996), 76–9.

(50) Schippers (1945), 80, and, in particular, Morisi (1996), 95–6, offer parallels for this widespread idea, for example: divitiae enim apud sapientem virum in servitute sunt, apud stultum in imperio (Sen. Vita beat. 26.1). This idea can also be found in Avitus: quod caelum, quod terra creat, quod gurgite magno | producit pelagus, vestros confertur in usus (Gest. 2.154–5).

(51) Arweiler (1999), 315 with n. 271.

(52) See intereunt segetes…(Vergil, Georgics 1.152–4), out of which Avitus here develops the comparison between the lack of morals and an abandoned field; see Arweiler (1999), 46 n. 116.

(53) See Hecquet-Noti (1999), 279 n. 8, and Hoffmann (2005), 125–7, on parallels and background.

(54) On pagan and Christian antecedents of this idea, see Hecquet-Noti (1999), 305 n. 4, and Hoffmann (2005), 243–5.

(55) Vergil, Georgics 1.125–46, esp. pater ipse colendi | haud facilem esse viam voluit, primusque per artem | movit agros curis acuens mortalia corda, | nec torpere gravi passus sua regna veterno (121–4) and ut varias usus meditando extunderet artis (133).

(56) Stratagems for catching animals, for example, are however described not only as clever but also as unfair; see Mynors’s commentary on Vergil, Georgics 1.139.

(57) As with the Fall, this punishment too is a response to inappropriate curiosity; see Shea (1997), 42.

(58) This idea can already be found in pagan philosophy, particularly among the Stoics; see e.g. Horace, Satire 2.7, esp. 2.7.83–94, and Seneca, Epistle 47, esp. ‘servus est.’ sed fortasse libero animo.ostende quis non sit; alius libidini servit, alius avaritiae, alius ambitioni, omnes timori.nulla servitus turpior est quam voluntaria (47.17). Christianity adopted this idea in a number of contexts in a complex manner with the help of similar passages in the New Testament—see Combes (1998), 103, 128–9, 143–6, 148, 151, 158.

(59) It seems to me that it is more a pure conscience and a sincere heart that Avitus is calling for here than an ascetic lifestyle (as Shea (1997), 49–50, suggests).

(60) See also previously 2.408–23, 3.333–61, 4.11–132, 5.62–97.

(61) For Lucretius, 5.1440–7 (initially epic) poetry emerged at a late stage—in the time of the campaign against Thebes and the Trojan War; see also 5.326–7. For everything that happened before then, humans have to resort to speculation or logical inferences or analogies. Considerations of this kind are not to be found in Avitus, but he does make a number of poetological statements as a result of the difficulty of presenting biblical and theological content in a form perfected by pagan poets; see also Hoffmann (2005), xlv–lii. In our context, it is particularly significant that he adopts a critical stance toward his own work in rhetorical, mostly entirely traditional, modesty topoi, especially in 5.704–21; see Shea (1997), 11–14. On the other hand, he stresses, like other Christian poets before him, that poetry must not take any liberties in terms of content but instead meet strict moral criteria: non enim est excusata perpetratione peccati libertas eloquii (prol. 1.2). Avitus is ultimately able to point to the soteriological correctness of his own work: vivitque novus pereunte veterno (5.714; and see Col. 3:9–10 as quoted in n. 48 above). All this situates his poetic work seamlessly inside his wider concept of culture.