Prudentius, Against Symmachus I.455-466

Rome’s role as a bringer of law and justice to uncivilised nations, and why she must be prepared to continue this mission under Christ’s banner

Name of the author: 
402 CE to 403 CE
Literary genre: 
Apologetic, Poetry and Rhetorical treatise
Title of work: 
Against Symmachus



For a general introduction to Prudentius and the two books Against Symmachus, please see the commentary on Against Symmachus Preface 80-89, I.1-8.

The present extract is taken from a long imagined address contained within the first book of Prudentius’s work (415-505), in which the emperor Theodosius I, whom has twice defeated tyrants (Magnus Maximus and Flavius Eugenius, on which see the commentary on Against Symmachus I.408-418, 427-432) speaks to the city of Rome. The speech contains the narrative of Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, and our passage alludes to this victory under the sign of Christ, which was carried on the military standards of Constantine’s army (see Elaine Fantham, Roman Literary Culture, p. 266). Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors XLIV.4-6, writes that Constantine was instructed in a dream on the eve of the battle to place the symbol of the heavenly God, i.e. the cross (caeleste signum dei) on his soldiers’ shields. The emperor did so, also marking them with the Latin letter X. The combination of these elements seems to represent a staurogram, a variant of the Chi-Rho Christogram which Eusebius describes in his Life of Constantine I.28. As Eusebius relates the story, Constantine saw a trophy (τρόπαιον, tropaion) of a cross at around noon (not in a dream as Lactantius claims) bearing the inscription “conquer/prevail (νικάω, nikaō) by this.” In the following verse, Eusebius explains that later on that evening, Constantine was told by Christ in a dream that he should use this same symbol as a safeguard in all future battles. Accordingly, shortly after, in Life of Constantine I.31, Eusebius describes the labarum as follows, which reflects the description that Prudentius gives in our extract:

“A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it. On the top of the whole was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones; and within this, the symbol of the Saviour’s name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters, the letter P being intersected by X in its center…”

Prudentius therefore has Theodosius beg for Rome to acknowledge these standards (which are representative of the support which the Christian God gives to the Roman empire) whether she faces battle or a period a peace. This fits in with the major theme of the first book of Prudentius’s work, which focuses on pagan religion in general and the erroneous decision of many Romans to still cling to its superstitions, despite there being proof (here, this proof is Constantine’s victory) that it is God, not the Roman deities, who are ensuring Rome’s military triumphs (on this issue, see further the commentary on Against Symmachus Preface 80-89, I.1-8). However, what is most interesting here for our purposes is the insistence upon Rome’s role as a bringer of law and justice to the nations that she has subdued. Elsewhere, Prudentius discusses the fact that the Roman power’s most significant achievement is that it has united under one name and one set of laws disparate peoples, and has had a civilising effect upon these nations. Indeed, it is argued that God has marked out the Roman people as the primary inheritors of Christianity because their civilised nature makes them ideal for practicing it (see Against Symmachus II.583-591, 608-620). Furthermore, at lines 816-822 of book II of the present work, Prudentius asserts that there is a vast difference between that which is Roman and that which is barbarian, with only the former truly able to foster Christianity (for a similar sentiment, see also the commentary on Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists 3.3, where it is argued that Christianity is something granted specifically to the Roman people). The present passage develops this argument by first emphasising the stark contrast between the Roman people and other nations. While the barbarous peoples that Rome has conquered are savage (ferus) both in the ways they conduct themselves in war and in general life, the Romans are civilised, and have a taming effect (mansuesco) on the wildness of those they encounter. The ability to implement laws and justice was one of the key things which Rome most prided herself on, and was understood as one of the central benefits of imperial domination of others (for other examples of this ideology see also, for example, Horace, Odes IV.14.1-52; Claudian, On the Consulship of Stilicho III.130-161; Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XIV.6.3-6; see also Myles Lavan, Slaves to Rome, which examines the language and implications of Rome’s submission of foreign peoples). As Albrecht Dihle explains, for Prudentius here, “Christianity makes [Roman citizens] the representatives of civilisation against the Barbarian world,” enabling Rome to “exercise its cultural mission” which had already been described by Virgil (Greek and Latin Literature, p. 586).

However, Theodosius (or rather Prudentius) warns, that by wishing to maintain traditional Roman religion, which is denigrated here as merely superstition, the Roman people themselves are no better than the uncivilised, ignorant barbarians which they have subdued. As pointed out by Ralph Mathisen, Prudentius’s conception here of barbarians as irrational brutes is reflective of the beast-like way in which other late antique Roman authors, such as Ammianus Marcellinus, describe them. For instance, the latter author describes the Germans as pillaging beasts, and the Goths like wild beasts who had broken out of their cages, with an appetite for blood (see Res Gestae XVI.5.15-17; XXXI.8.9, 15.2; Mathisen, “Barbarian Identity,” p. 31). At II.810-815 of the present work, Prudentius associates barbarians with animals by arguing that while Romans and barbarians tread upon the same earth and share the same air and sky, so too do humans and animals share the same natural environment. Therefore, as Maijastina Kahlos argues, when we pair this with the assertions of our extract above, we can see that for Prudentius “Not only Romanness, but also humanity is defined here: being human is the same as being Roman, which means being Christian” (Forbearance and Compulsion, p. 105).

In Prudentius’s view, Christianity is the rational, civilised religious choice, and is the most significant aspect of what makes the Roman people superior to all others. Indeed, as Gerhart Ladner recognises, Prudentius gives no consideration of the notion of Christian barbarians, unlike the Christian writers Orosius and Salvian a few decades later (“On Roman Attitudes,” p. 23). For our author, Roman equates to Christian, and barbarian equates to ignorance and superstition; as such, Prudentius emphasises in our passage the fact that a Roman who clings to pagan religion is no better than a non-rational savage. Even though in the past, prior to the acceptance of Christianity by the Roman emperors, Rome was triumphant, and gifted those she defeated with her trademark laws and justice system, this peace-promoting, civilising mission needs now to be understood as continuing under the authority of Christ. Indeed, Prudentius, like numerous other early Christian authors, stresses elsewhere that God has been supporting Rome’s endeavours all along, even if she did not always acknowledge his role due to ignorance (see again, for instance, Against Symmachus II.583-591; see also, for example, the second-century author Justin Martyr’s, First Apology LV.4-8, and Tertullian’s, Apology XXX.2). Rome’s conquests, then, must be understood as being part of God’s plan, with the Roman people’s civility as central to the Christian mission (the connection between Christ’s incarnation and the Pax Romana, emphasised by several Christian authors, is also of relevance here). In order for the benefits of law and justice to be properly exercised in the event that Rome needs to “lay down laws in peace and quietness,” then, she must understand going forward that her divine support comes from the Christian God alone. Essentially, there is a hierarchy of submission in which Rome’s subduing of other nations is relativized to her own submission to Christ, and the current failure of many Romans to do this is resulting in the barbarisation of the Roman people. 

Bibliographical references: 

Unending Sway: The Ideology of Empire in Early Christian Latin Thought”

Pollman, Karlaarticle-in-a-bookThe Calling of the Nations: Exegesis, Ethnography, and Empire in a Biblical-Historic Present Mark Vessey, Sharon V. Betcher, Robert A. Daum, Harry O’Maier176-199Unending Sway: The Ideology of Empire in Early Christian Latin Thought” LondonUniversity of Toronto Press2011
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