Academic journal article Antichthon

Bridal Songs: Catullan Epithalamia and Prudentius Peristephanon 3

Academic journal article Antichthon

Bridal Songs: Catullan Epithalamia and Prudentius Peristephanon 3

Article excerpt

Prudentius' account of the martyrdom of the young Spanish girl Eulalia in Peristephanon 3 is particularly interesting because not only does it consist of her defiance of an order to pay homage to the pagan gods but also a rejection of pressures to get married. If martyrdom constituted an act of rebellion against the conventions of pagan society, then female martyrdom was doubly so and the ways in which it was presented to a community in which Christianity was still struggling to establish its reputation is worthy of detailed examination. Prudentius was arguably the Christian poet most influenced by his pagan predecessors, making an active effort to compose poetry worthy of the great Latin poetic tradition. When examining the classical antecedents of Peristephanon 3, scholars have largely concentrated upon its Virgilian echoes, emphasising the heroic dimensions of Eulalia's conduct by comparing her to Virgilian 'heroines' (the Sibyl, Camilla and Dido) who challenge conventional female roles.1 Some critics have pointed to elements of an epithalamium within the poem but they have related this imagery to late antique epithalamia or to the Song of Songs rather than looking for antecedents within classical poetry.2

It is certainly not the case that classical poetry is without epithalamia. Many of Catullus' 'Long Poems' have epithalamia as a major focus or make significant use of allusions to weddings. Indeed, there is a view among scholars such as Wiseman that this is a key motif linking the long poems.3 The long poems begin with poem 61, in which a wedding ceremony is depicted in elaborate detail, and there are also descriptions of or significant allusions to epithalamia in poems 62, 64 and 68. If Peristephanon 3 is examined in the light of these descriptions, especially the epithalamium of poem 61, then not only does this strengthen the case for the wedding imagery that scholars have already observed in the poem but also many more elements emerge that can be linked with epithalamia. While it is true that the source of every one of these images may not necessarily come directly from Catullus, for epithalamia had many conventional topoi that were carried on into late antique poetry,4 there is no reason why both Prudentius and his audience could not have read and been influenced by Catullus, as he is mentioned by his contemporary Jerome (Ep. 53.8) and quoted by his fellow poet Ausonius.5

Prudentius does not make use of Catullus in the same way as he does Horace and Virgil with direct and obvious tributes, but it is the argument of this paper that there are too many common elements for the correspondences to be entirely coincidental. Baker has identified a comparable strain of love elegy in this hymn, largely stemming from Propertius, which he concludes is probably not a deliberate choice of Prudentius but an unconscious infiltration from his knowledge of classical literature.6 This paper aims to show, by comparison with Catullan wedding hymns and imagery, that most of these elements can more specifically be identified with epithalamia and that this is not unconscious but a deliberate and masterful stroke of artistry on Prudentius' part.

In Peristephanon 3 Prudentius makes use of classical epithalamia in a way that juxtaposes pagan attitudes to marriage and femininity with Christian ideals. In this process much of the imagery surrounding marriage is inverted or distorted, either through contrast-imitation,7 transposition or substitution of various elements. It will be shown how inversion of marriage imagery in Peristephanon 3 contributes to the sense of transition, of a society in flux and a world turned on its head with an almost magical transformation to a new order by the end of the poem. The imagery of the epithalamium in this poem has a twofold, almost contradictory effect, both challenging and assimilating pagan views on marriage and femininity. The presence of such epithalamium imagery does not displace or disprove the existence of Virgilian or other parallels already established by scholars such as Malamud and Roberts but forms another layer of imagery in this multi-layered poem. …

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