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Ipse senatorum meminit clarissimus ordo: Memory, Identity, and Spatial Polemic in Prudentius' Contra Symmachum

Joshua J Hartman

This paper reevaluates the Contra Symmachum (CS) of Prudentius in terms of Roman memory spaces, identity, and mnemotechnics. Although Christian Gnilka has already observed that the CS concerns itself almost exclusively with Rome, there has been relatively little focus on the poem’s creation of identity through the description of space and memory (Gnilka 2001: 236-237). While there are a number of recent and noteworthy studies of memory and identity in late antiquity, their emphasis has been on Christian spaces rather than the reinterpretation of pagan and non-Christian space (Denzey 2007; Diefenbach 2007). Even Kuhlmann's recent study of cultural memory in Prudentius focuses on the Peristephanon rather than the CS (Kuhlmann 2012).  Similarly, much of the work on late antique Rome and Roman ethos (Romidee) passes over the poem or these aspects of it (Curran 2000; Edwards 1996; Fuhrmann 1968; Klein 1986; Muth 2006; Pietsch 2001).  It may be that the problems of chronology and motive, highlighted by Solmsen and Cameron, have kept scholars from analyzing these aspects of the text (Cameron 2011: 337-349; Solmsen 1965).  Nevertheless, such a reading of the CS illuminates the complexity of the changing cultural landscape. As Diefenbach points out, the dynamics of late antique commemoration and group formation demonstrate both the disintegration of ancient culture as well as the simultaneous mediation of a new, Christian culture through its pre-existing Greco-Roman counterpart (Diefenbach 2007: 18-19). The CS exemplifies this generalization and represents a virtuoso performance of identity polemic that relies both on depictions of space and memories of the past.
            The poem not only discusses memory but also prescribes it, often attempting to associate sites with new, Christian memories or to reinterpret them entirely.  Of these, the most interesting is certainly the Milvian Bridge. The mention of the bridge at CS 1.481-490 motivates the creation of a vivid tableau; Constantine and his army stand resplendent in Christian symbols, and the entire passage culminates in an explicit invocation to memory (1.489: ipse senatorum meminit clarissimus ordo.)  This proclamation of senatorial memory is striking for its contrast to the evidence for a senatorial commemoration that we do possess, namely, the Arch of Constantine. That the arch seeks to memorialize a pagan connection to Constantine’s victory, particularly through the intervention of Sol Invictus, has already been demonstrated by L’Orange and von Gerkan (1939) and has recently been explored in even greater detail by Marlowe (2006).  I argue that the poet attempts to fashion the bridge itself into a Christian memory space meant to oppose the arch and its celebration of Sol.  The description of the battle features language very similar to that used in the arch’s inscription, and even deploys the adjective invictus.  This invincibility, however, stems explicitly from Constantine’s decision to embrace Christianity (1.467: hoc signo invictus transmissis Alpibus ultor).

In his recent book, Remembering Constantine at the Milvian Bridge, Van Dam confirms the idea that the arch indicates the commemoration of a pagan, Sol-aligned Constantine, and may even represent a deliberate attempt to persuade Constantine to act favorably toward the traditional gods (Van Dam 2011: 14; 124-140). This being the case, there is every reason for a poet of Prudentius's time and belief to voice opposition to the monument.  I interpret the Prudentian narrative as an important contribution to the memory tradition, and a supplement to recent work on the memory value of the bridge (Van Dam 2011; Brandt 2006).

Thus, the depiction of the battle at the Milvian Bridge represents the poem's most intense engagement with the late antique landscape of memory. After that discussion is complete, however, the narrator elaborates a Theodosian continuation of Constantine's initial Christianization. This passage features attempts to reinterpret the Forum and Capitoline as well as efforts to suggest specific memories for a number of Christian sites. These later depictions, especially that of the Capitoline, also feature similarly robust instances of the poet's allusive spatial polemic.

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Medieval Latin Poetry

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