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The Face of Vice: The Monsters of the 'Psychomachia'

Kathleen M. Kirsch

The Catholic University of America

In his spiritual epyllion, the Psychomachia, Prudentius presents in narrative and personified form the Christian’s internal struggle against vice.  The characterization of the Virtues and Vices populating the poem’s battlefield has warranted much attention.  The combatants have been designated as goddesses and demonic spirits (Haworth 1980), as valiant gladiators and condemned criminals (James 2002), and as personified abstractions (Malamud 1989).  The gory deaths of the Vices at the hands of the Virtues have also received a wide range of explanations, from Martha Malamud’s characterization thereof as “martyr-like” (Malamud 1989) to Christian Gnilka’s justification according to the lex talionis (Gnilka 1963).  The purpose of this paper is to examine and explain an even more elemental aspect of the antagonists, namely, the reason Prudentius present the Vices in anthropomorphic shapes.

This feature has often been taken for granted, but it is by no means predetermined or unproblematic. The grammatical gender of Superbia explains why the Vice does not look like a man, but it does not explain why she looks human.  The grammatical gender of virtus has been offered as central concern of the poet (Nugent 2000), but if so, then why should the gender of vitium be irrelevant?  In fact, when the narrator introduces the action of the poem, he declares that the reader will be able to examine the appearances of virtues and of monsters (vincendi praesens ratio est, si comminus ipsas / Virtutum facies et conluctantia contra / viribus infestis liceat portenta notare, Ps. 18-20).  The reader is, therefore, greatly surprised to discover that the conluctantia portenta appear to be women.  Nor is this conundrum solved by an appeal to literary precedent, either classical or Christian.  Virgil and Statius provide the literary precursors for Prudentius’ personifications, but in these poets personified nouns can be monsters (e.g. Fama at Aen. 4.173-188) or sexless (e.g caecum Nefas, 7.48).  On the other hand, in early Christian narratives of the resistance to sin, vices can appear as faceless hordes (e.g., in Origen’s In Epistulam Pauli ad Romanos explanationum libri 6.1) or even gruesome beasts (e.g. in Methodius’ De Resurrectione 2.4.5-8).  Furthermore, Prudentius’ anthropomorphic Vices suggest obvious ethical complexities.  While there is no moral dilemma suggested by a woman treading on the head of the satanic serpent (Genesis 3:15), the depiction of a woman trampling underfoot the eyes of another woman (i.e. Fides and Veterum Cultura Deorum) seems to be in violation of the principles of Christianity.  After problematizing the anthropomorphic representation of the Vices, I will propose a double justification.  First, the practice allows Prudentius to present spiritual combat according to the pattern of heroic warfare in epic poetry and, second, it allows him to consider vices in subjective, experiential forms and not just in terms of their absolute and universal essences.  Libido can thrust and Pudicitia can parry in full accord with epic convention; Avaritia can disguise herself as Frugi, reflecting the subjective reality of self-deception.   Consequently, Prudentius he enables the reader to internalize his idealized psychomachia; in defeating his own vices, the virtuous reader participates in the new Romano-Christian heroism (as in Mastrangelo 2008).

Session/Panel Title

Late Antique Literary Developments

Session/Paper Number

1.3

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