Little is known about Prudentius (348 – after 405, possibly 413). He was born in Spain and served twice as a governor before serving at the court of Theodosius I. He must have had a spiritual crisis and withdrew from public life. During that period he wrote a substantial number of poems,. In 405 he published these poems and added a preface in which he told something about his background, but only very sketchy. It is all we know about Prudentius. Amongst his works is the Cathemeron, a Greek word meaning `According to the day’. The title implies that is a Book of Hours (a book that contains prayers for certain hours of the day a certain festivities ). It contains 12 poems of which the first six are indeed releted to certain hours, but they seem too long for liturgical use, so it is not quite sure what use they had. May be they are more meant as a Christian counterpart for pagan poetry. The poems by Prudentius became immensely popular and because of his Cathemeron, he was called the Christian Horace. Parts of his poems are still in use in Christian worship and this is especially true for the last poem of the Cathemeron, which is about the killing of the innocent children in Bethlehem. For use in worship the various stanzas are rearranged and do not reflect the original order.
I have selected a part of this poem in which Prudentius depictures the slaughter with vivid not to say horrific details – for good reasons they are left out in selections of his poems. We may frown upon baby heads smashed against rocks with brains coming out and other details, but for the Christians of his time these details must have illustrated the wickedness of Herod. Fortunately those poor children became the first martyrs and are now playing in Heaven with palms and crowns before the altar!
Prudentius, Cathemerina, Hymn 12, Hymnus Epiphaniae 93-132
Meter: iambic dimeter (x- x- x- x-)
audit tyrannus anxius
adesse regum principem,
qui nomen Israel regat,
teneatque David regiam.
nomen Israel: the name of Israel = the people of Israel (Mind that Hebrew names are mostly not declined.)
exclamat amens nuntio
‘successor instat, pellimur:
satelles, i, ferrum rape,
perfunde cunas sanguine.
amens: without mind, furious
insto institi: to be ad hand
pello pepuli pulsum: to drive away
satelles (m.): guard
rapio rapui raptum: to seize
perfundo perfudi perfusum: to make wet
cunae cunarum: cradle
mas omnis infans occidat,
scrutare nutricum sinus,
interque materna ubera
ensem cruentet pusio.
mas maris: male
occido occicdi occasum: to perish, die
scruto: to search carefully
sinus –us (m.): bossom
uber uberis (n.): breast
ensem cruentet pusio: that he may stain the sword with his blood
suspecta per Bethlem mihi
puerperarum est omnium
fraus, ne qua furtim subtrahat
prolem virilis indolis.’
puerpara: woman in labor
fraus fraudis (f.): trick, deceit
furtim: in secret
prolem virilis indolis: offspring of male nature
transfigit ergo carnifex
mucrone districto furens
effusa nuper corpora,
animasque rimatur novas.
transfigo transfixi transfixum: to pierce through
carnifex carnificis (m.): executioner
mucrone districto: with drawn dagger
effusa nuper corpora: just born bodies
rimor rimatus sum: to tear up
locum minutis artubus
vix interemptor invenit
quo plaga descendat patens,
iuguloque maior pugio est.
minutis artubus : in the small limbs
interemptor interemporis (m.): murderer
quo plaga descendat patens: in which a wide open blow can come down (i.e. a blow that can make a wide open wound.)
pugio pugionis (f.): knife
o barbarum spectaculum!
inlisa cervix cautibus
spargit cerebrum lacteum,
oculosque per vulnus vomit;
inlisa cervix cautibus: a head dashed against the rocks
spargo sparsi sparsum: to scatter
cerebrum: the brains
vulnus vulneris (n.): wound
aut in profundum palpitans
mersatur infans gurgitem,
cui subter artis faucibus
singultat unda et halitus
palpito: to tremble
merso: to immerse
gurges gurgitis (m.): stream
cui subter artis faucibus singultat unda et halitus: for whom under his small throat water and breath hick up.
salvete, flores martyrum,
quos lucis ipso in limine
Christi insecutor sustulit,
ceu turbo nascentes rosas.
quos lucis ipso in limine Christi insecutor sustulit: whom the persecutor of Christ took away on the very threshold of light (i.e. the birth of Christ)
ceu: just as
turbo turbinis (m.): whirlwind
nascor natus sum: to be born, begin life
vos, prima Christi victima,
grex inmolatorum tener,
aram ante ipsam simplices
palma et coronis luditis.
grex grecis (m.): herd
simplex simplicis: simple, without trouble
ludo lusi lusum: to play
Translation by H.J. Thomson (1949)
The uneasy monarch hears of the coming of the King of Kings
to rule over the name of Israel and possess the throne
of David. Out of his mind at the news, he cries
" He that shall take my place is upon me, driving
me out. Go, guard, grasp thy sword and steep the
cradles in blood. Let every male child perish.
Search the nurses' bosoms, and at the mother's
breasts let the boy-child's blood redden thy blade*
I suspect guile in all that have borne babes in
Bethlehem, lest one of them by stealth save her male
progeny." So the executioner raging madly with
drawn sword pierces the new-born bodies and tears
the young life out of them. Scarce can the slayer
find room on the little frames for the gaping wound
to fall upon; the dagger is bigger than the throat.
O barbarous sight ! A head dashed against the stones
scatters the milk-white brains and spews out the
eyes through the wound; or a babe is flung all
throbbing into the depths of the flood, and beneath
in his narrow throat water and breath make choking
spasms. Hail, martyr-flowers, whom on the very
threshold of life the persecutor of Christ destroyed,
as the stormy wind kills roses at their birth. You
are Christ's first offerings, a tender flock slain in
sacrifice, and before the very altar you play in inno-
cence with palm and crowns.
Lodovico Mazzolino (1530)