The Baptized Muse

Early Christianity Poetry as Cultural Authority

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Karla Pollmann
  • Oxford, U.K.: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This volume collects ten of Karla Pollmann’s essays on late antique Christian poetry composed in Latin, with a particular focus on issues of authority. Each of these essays has been published previously, though they are reprinted in “revised and updated form” (v), and several of them appeared previously only in German. (In her acknowledgements, Pollmann states that six of the essays were translated from German into English [v], but only five are listed with German titles [vi–vii].) These essays—divided into three parts—are prefaced by a new introductory chapter.

In the introduction, Pollmann surveys several strategies that late antique Christian poets used for constructing authority and communicating theological messages. These strategies reappear throughout the studies that follow. For example, Christian poets appropriated many of the standard techniques of classical poetry (meter, allusions, etc.), which had the effect—in Pollmann’s view—of “adding cultural authority to Christianity’s message and agenda” (3). As another example, this poetry also challenged readers by reciting and reconfiguring obscure expressions lifted from well-known antecedent poems, often resulting in a transvaluation. This strategy sometimes also makes “a genuine, intellectually challenging contribution to scriptural exegesis” (3).

Comprised of chapters 1-3, Pollmann titles part 1, “The Poetics of Authority in Early Christian Poetry.” The first two chapters discuss—in general terms—late antique Christian poetry’s relation to the “pagan” poetry that precedes it. After outlining five heuristic categories of continuity with “pagan” literature (chapter 1), Pollmann reviews five types of specifically epic poems attested from late 1ntiquity (chapter 2). Among the latter, she includes those featuring characters and plots derived from Greco-Roman mythology, those in the panegyric tradition praising civic leaders (without reference to Christian particularities), those featuring allegorical plots and characters, those retelling biblical storylines, and those featuring Christian saints. Part 1 concludes with a chapter contrasting Cassiodorus with Venantius (both 6th century figures) on their attitudes toward “pagan” liberal arts content (chapter 3). Cassiodorus re-appropriates it as useful to Christians for understanding the Bible; Venantius—at least on some occasions (such as when composing hagiographic epics)—disavows it. Both, however, are characterized by “the strong tendency to intertwine canonical authority and Christian identity” (97).

Part 2 (“Christian Authority and Poetic Succession”) likewise consists of three chapters and foregrounds issues related to a conscious “secondariness” in late antique Christian poetry. This theme is particularly prominent in chapters four and six. Chapter 4 introduces readers to the practice of composing centones, poems comprised of lines and phrases extracted from well-known poets (often Homer or Virgil). She then offers two examples: Ausonius’s Cento nuptialis and Proba’s Cento. While Ausonius crudely repurposes Virgilian lines to tell the story of a wedding (including its graphic and violent consummation), Proba does so in order to narrate biblical stories—revealing, according to Pollmann, the deeper truth hidden in Virgil’s poetry. Proba’s technique makes “the biblical message more easily absorbable and convincing for both educated unconverted pagans and converted educated ex-pagans” (115). Chapter 6 analyzes the Byzantine Christus patiens, a cento—using Euripides’s Bacchae—that narrates gospel events from Jesus’s passion through his resurrection. The Christus patiens transvalues the Bacchae; this is especially clear at the end where an unnamed speaker affirms that God is not like mortals in anger but instead disregards errors. The Bacchae concludes, of course, with Cadmus’s assertion that gods ought not be like mortals in their wrath. Both Proba’s Cento and the Christus patiens demonstrate how Christian poets inject cultural authority (derived from classical poetry, both epic and tragic) into their retellings of biblical narratives.

The three chapters comprising part 3 (“Poetic Authority in Rivalling Cultural and Theological Discourses”) analyze the poetic negotiation of various concepts, drawing on the themes of the first two parts: poetic authority and secondariness. Chapter 9, for example, contrasts two poetic adaptations of Suplicius Severus’s prose works on St. Martin of Tours—De Vita Sancti Martini by Paulinus of Périgueux and Vita Martini by Venantius Fortunatus—both of which argue for a different sensibility regarding sainthood. Paulinus emphasizes God’s agency through Martin in performing miracles; in Fortunatus’s work the figure of Martin eclipses God’s agency, with Martin frequently addressed as an intermediary between the poet and God. The other chapters in part 3 discuss the poetic negotiations of cultural achievements (chapter 7) and progress versus decadence (chapter 8).

A concluding chapter (“Authority as a Key to Understanding Early Christian Poetry”) reiterates that late antique Christian poetry accumulates authority through the poet’s prophetic identity, a cultural regard for the poetic form, and the audience’s perception of allusions and intertextuality.

A few chapters include appendices of Latin texts, unmarked in the table of contents. Chapter 4 includes Juvencus’s Evangeliorum Libri 3.97–109, 124–26, and Proba’s Cento 531–61. Chapter 5 includes Venantius Fortunatus, Carmen 2.14.1–30, Walafrid Strabo’s Carmen 21.1–33, and Sigebert von Gembloux’s Passio Sanctorum Thebeorum 2.651–789. Chapter 9 includes Sulpicius Severus’s Vita Sancti Martini 3.1–3 and Dialogi 2.9.3–4, Paulinus of Périgueux’s De Vita Sancti Martini 1.61–139; 5.608–36, and Venantius Fortunatus’s Vita Martini 1.50–67.

Because there is little to contest in this erudite volume, I offer only one thought. In chapter 6, Pollmann summarizes her argument regarding Christian poets’ use of classical poetry: “At the basis of this lies the belief that the canonical texts of the pagan tragedians implicitly bear witness to the truth of salvation, even though this is contrary to their original intention and their surface meaning” (157). I wonder if this assessment is too strong. Perhaps it might be more credible to suggest instead that Christian centoists used Euripides’s Bacchae (or Virgil or Homer) as a way of communicating their stories, beliefs, and identities in a way that was first, culturally meaningful, and second, appealing to readers with certain sensibilities.

Nonetheless, it should be apparent that Pollmann’s scholarship offers significant contributions to the study of late antique Christianity as well as the reception of the Bible and classical literature more generally. Specialists in these areas have much to gain from this volume.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Kochenash has a Ph.D. in New Testament and Christian Origins from Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karla Pollmann is professor of classics and head of the school of humanities at the University of Reading. Professor Pollmann is the co-editor of Augustine and the Disciplines: From Cassiciacum to Confessions (2007) and Augustine and the Disciplines: From Cassiciacum to Confessions (2005). She is also Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine (OUP, 2013).



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