While scholars have proposed a number of hypotheses to explain why the poem was written, a definitive answer to this question remains elusive. Regardless of Proba’s intent, the poem would go on to be widely circulated, and it eventually was used in schools to teach the tenets of Christianity, often alongsideAugustine of Hippo‘s De Doctrina Christiana. But while the poem was popular, critical reception was more mixed. A pseudonymous work purportedly by Pope Gelasius Idisparaged the poem, deeming it apocryphal, and many also believe that St.Jerome wrote negatively of Proba and her poem. At the same time, other thinkers likeIsidore of Seville, Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio wrote highly of Proba, and many praised her ingenuity. During the 19th and 20th centuries the poem was criticized as being of poor quality, but recent scholars have held the work in higher regard.
Origin and style
Cento Vergilianus de laudibus Christiwas arranged by Faltonia Betitia Proba (left) almost entirely from the works of the Roman poet Virgil (right).
The author of the poem,Faltonia Betitia Proba, was born c. AD 322. A member of an influential and rich family, Proba eventually married a prefect of Rome namedClodius Celsinus Adelphius.Proba was a noted poet, and her first work (now lost) was theConstantini bellum adversus Magnentium; the poem dealt with the war between Roman Emperor Constantius II and the usurper Magnentius.At some point, Proba converted from paganism to Christianity.De laudibus Christi, which was probably written c. AD 352–84, was an attempt by the poet to “turn away from battle and slayings in order to write holy things”.
While the proem and invocation of De laudibus Christi are composed of several original lines of Latin in addition to lines borrowed from or alluding to the Roman poet Virgil, the Silver Age poetLucan, and the fourth-century poet Juvencus, the rest of the work is entirely a Virgiliancento, which is a patchwork poem of verses extracted from the works of Virgil.Proba’s choice to rework Virgil seems to have been made for two reasons: First, Virgil was an influential poet who had been commissioned byCaesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, to write the epic Aeneid. The poet’s influence was felt well intolate antiquity, and he was imitated by Juvencus andPrudentius. The respect given to Virgil eventually manifested in centos, which reached their peak in the fourth century AD.Second, Virgil was often appropriated by Christian authors due to a popular interpretation of his fourth Eclogue, which many believed to be a prophecy of the birth of Jesus.
One noticeable feature of the work is its near-total lack of names. This is because Virgil never used Hebrew names like “Jesus” and “Mary”, and thus Proba was limited in terms of what she was able to work with. To compensate, the poet used “general and vague words such as mater, dominus deus, pater, magister, [and]vates” to designate key characters. In places, this handicap interferes with readability (according to G. Ronald Kastner and Ann Millin, “Necessary passives and circumlocutions brought about by the … absences in [Virgil] of appropriate terminology render the text impassable at times”). An exception to the poem’s lack of names is found in a reference to Moses, whom Proba refers to by invoking the name “Musaeus“. According to the classicist Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed, “Proba may have used the name Musaeus for the Judeo-Christian prophet, since it was often believed from the Hellenistic era onward that Mousaios was the Greek name for Moses”.
But baptised, like the blest, in the Castalian font—
I, who in my thirst have drunk libations of the Light—
now begin my song: be at my side, Lord, set my thoughts
straight, as I tell how Virgil sang the offices of Christ.
—De laudibus Christi, ll. 20–23, translated by Josephine Balmer
The cento’s 694 lines are divided into a proem with invocation (lines 1–55), episodes from the Old Testament books of Genesis(lines 56–318) and Exodus(lines 319–32), episodes from the New TestamentGospels(lines 333–686), and an epilogue (lines 687–94).At the beginning of the poem, Proba refers to her earlier poetry before rejecting it in the name of Christ. This section also serves as a repudiation of Virgil’s opening to the Aeneid: whereas Virgil opened his work by discussing “arms and the man” (arma virumque), Proba explicitly rejects warfare as a subject worthy of poetry. Proba then describes herself as a prophet (vatis Proba), calls upon God and theHoly Spirit (scorning theMuses), and announces her intention to record the story of Jesus.At the end of the invocation, Proba states her poem’s main purpose: to “tell how Virgil sang the offices of Christ.”
The Old Testament episodes concern the creation of the world, the Fall of Man, theGreat Flood, and the Exodus from Egypt. Proba’s presentation of the Creation—largely based on rewordings of Virgil’s Georgics—reorganizes the Genesis narrative to better align it with contemporary Greco-Roman beliefs about the origin of the world. Cullhed argues that certain aspects of the creation story are “abbreviated … amplified or even transposed” so that Proba can avoid repetitive passages, such as the double creation of man. (Genesis 1:25–27 and Genesis 2:18–19).In the events leading to the Fall of Man, Eve’s actions are largely based on the story of Didofrom Book IV of the Aeneid.The Serpent is described with lines relating toLaocoön‘s death (from Book II, Aeneid) and the snake sent by the furyAlecto to enrage Amata (from Book VII, Aeneid). Proba relies on the first two books of theGeorgics (specifically, the sections that discuss the Iron Age of Man) to describe human life after Adam and Eve’s transgression against God; in this way, she connects the Greco-Roman concept of the Ages of Man with the Christian concept of the Fall of Man.
After the story of Creation, Proba briefly covers the Great Flood by making use of lines from the fourth book of theGeorgics that originally discussed the death of abeehive and the necessity of laws after the Golden Age, respectively. According to the classicist Karla Pollmann, by using lines that concern destruction and the establishment of law, Proba is able to convey the traditional idea that Noah’s survival represents the dawning of a “second creation and a new order” (that is, the Patriarchal age). Proba dedicates only a few lines to Exodus before moving onto the New Testament. Cullhed argues that this is because the Book of Exodus and the remaining Old Testament is replete with violence and warfare that is stylistically too close to the tradition of pagan epic poetry—a tradition that Proba expressly rejects in the proem of De laudibus Christi. In the transitional section between the Old and New Testaments, Proba makes use of the invocation of the Muses of war found at the beginning of the Catalogue of Italians (from Book VII, Aeneid) and verses that originally described Aeneas’s shield (from Book VIII, Aeneid). In the Aeneid, these sections served as poetic devices that allowed Virgil to move from the Odyssean first half of the poem to the Iliadic latter half. In the same way, Proba has re-purposed these verses to aid in her transition from the Old Testament into the New.
The portion of De laudibus Christi that focuses on the New Testament recounts thebirth of Jesus, his life and deeds, his crucifixion, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.Although Jesus andMary are featured, Joseph is omitted.Jesus is often described by language befitting a Virgilian hero, and Mary is depicted by lines originally relating toVenus and Dido. Proba’sSermon on the Mount begins by borrowing the Sibyl of Cumae‘s description of punishment for the unrighteous (from Book VI,Aeneid), and some scholars contend that this portion of De laudibus Christi is the first account of hell in Christian poetry. Christ’s deeds are reduced to three events:calming the sea, walking on water, and calling his first disciples. To describe Christ’s crucifixion, Proba uses several lines that originally referred toHadean punishment (from Book VI, Aeneid). After covering Christ’s death, Proba borrows lines referring to the erotic love between Dido andAeneas to represent “the sacred love of Christ and his followers.” The end of the poem focuses on Christ describing the world to come and his ascension into Heaven; Proba conveys the former via the prophecy made by Celaeno and the Oracle of Delos (from Book III, Aeneid), and the latter with language that originally described the god Mercury.
Characterization of Jesus
In the cento, Jesus (left) is described in language befitting a Virgilian hero like Aeneas (right).
Due to her borrowing from Virgil, Proba’s Christ is very similar to the Virgilian epic hero. Parallels between the two include both seeking a goal greater than their own happiness, initiating realms “without end”, and projecting auras of divinity. According to the early Christian specialistElizabeth A. Clark and the classicist Diane Hatch, Proba’s purpose was to “imbue the Christ with heroic virtues” akin to the Virgilian hero. The poet does this in three major ways: First, she describes Jesus as remarkably beautiful, with “a magnificent and commanding presence” similar to that of Aeneas. Second, Proba recasts the crucifixion; Jesus does not go meekly to his death, but lashes out at his persecutors. Her reconfiguration of Jesus’s crucifixion is in line with Aeneas’ “vengeful action” against Turnus at the end of book twelve of the Aeneid.Finally, Proba transfers to Jesus portions of prophecies scattered through the Aeneiddetailing Rome’s future via the progeny of Aeneas (thus recasting the oracular episodes in a Christian light).
Characterization of Mary
The characterization of Mary has caused much scholarly debate. The historian Kate Cooper sees Mary as a courageous, intelligent materfamilias. Clark and Hatch write that Proba stresses Mary’s maternity by omitting Joseph and presenting Mary as Jesus’s sole human parent. Conversely, the Latinist Stratis Kyriakidis argues that despite Mary’s presence in the poem, she lacks feminine attributes, and is thus “impersonal”.According to Kyriakidis, this is intentional on Proba’s part, as it draws attention to Christ’s divinity—an aspect that “would be incompatible with a human, feminine mother.”
Cullhed writes that the most scholarly views of Mary in the poem are inadequate, and that Proba made Mary “the twofold fulfillment and antitype of both Eve and Dido.” Cullhed bases this on the fact that line 563 of the fourth book of theAeneid (from Mercury’s speech to Aeneas, in which the god admonishes the hero for lingering with Dido inCarthage) is used in two of the sections of the cento: once, wherein Adam admonishes Eve for sinning, and again, wherein Mary learns about Herod’s plot to kill her child. According to Cullhed, the “negative characterization” of the original verse and its reuse in the Old Testament portion of the cento is transformed into a “positively charged ability” allowing Mary and Jesus to escape Herod’s wrath. Because Mary can foretell the future, she is equated (through the use of Virgilian language) with goddesses and prophets.
Proba’s character and motivation
Because historical information about Proba is limited, many scholars have taken to analyzing De laudibus Christi to learn more about her. According to the classicist Bernice Kaczynski, “Scholars have seen traces of Proba’s own character in her emphasis on the beauty of the natural world, readily apparent in her account of the creation.” The cento suggests that Proba had great regard for “domestic matters, for marriage and the family, for marital devotion and [for] filial piety”. While the New Testament stressesasceticism, Proba seems to de-emphasize its importance, given that topics like virginity and poverty are not recurring themes in her poem. In regards to issues of finance, Proba reinterprets a number of New Testament episodes in which Jesus urged his followers to eschew wealth as passages suggesting that Christians should merely share wealth with their families. These changes illustrate Proba’s historical context, her socio-economic position and the expectations of her class.
As to why Proba arranged in the poem in the first place, scholars are still divided. The Latinist R. P. H. Green argues that the work was a reaction to the Roman emperorJulian‘s law forbidding Christians from teaching classical Greek and Latin mythological literature which they did not believe to be true.Proba’s goal, Green writes, was to present Virgil “without [pagan] gods, and [thus] a [Virgil] no longer vulnerable to Christian criticism”. In this way, a Christian teacher could use the text to discuss Virgil without compromising their moral integrity. A somewhat related hypothesis, proposed by the classicist Aurelio Amatucci, suggests that Proba composed the cento to teach her children stories from the Bible, although there is no direct evidence that the poem was a teaching tool.Clark and Hatch postulate that Jesus’s Virgilian nature in the cento may have been Proba’s attempt to rebut the unflattering, demonizing descriptions of Jesus in Julian’sCaesares and Contra Galilaeos. They conclude that the hypothesis is intriguing but unverifiable due to the lack of information about Proba, the date of the cento’s creation, and her intentions.
At the time of its creation Proba’s cento was popular, as is attested in manuscript records and the records ofclaustral libraries. It was heavily used in schools alongside Augustine of Hippo‘s De Doctrina Christiana, and Proba’s work often eclipsed Augustine’s in popularity. According to Cătălina Mărmureanu, Gianina Cernescu, and Laura Lixandru, the work was popular because of its accessible Virgilian style and because Proba presented herself as a “meek” female (which appealed to the “misogynistic views of the general public”).
In the late 4th and early 5th centuries, the work received a mixed response. Many scholars hold that the theologian, historian, and translator Jerome was a critic of the work; in a letter written from Bethlehem to Paulinus of Nola castigating Virgilian centos, he warned against following an “old chatterbox” (garrula anus) and those who think of calling “the Christless Maro [i.e. Virgil] a Christian” (non … Maronem sine Christo possimus dicere Christianum).According to the historianJames Westfall Thompson, Jerome “strongly inveighed against this method of destroying the sense of a pagan author”, and that “his love of the classics and his Christian piety were alike offended” by Proba’s actions.Conversely, Roman EmperorArcadius (who reigned from AD 395–408) received a copy of the poem, and his version has a fifteen-line dedication contending that Proba’s work is “Maro changed for the better in a sacred meaning” (Maronem mutatum in melius divino … sensu).The work was also presented to Aelia Eudocia, the wife of EmperorTheodosius II (who reigned from AD 408–450).
During late antiquity, a pseudonymous document known as the Decretum Gelasianum—which for a long time was believed to have been issued by Pope Gelasius I (who held the papacy from AD 492–496)—declared De laudibus Christi to beapocryphal and a “reprehensible work of poetry”.But almost a century later,ArchbishopIsidore of Seville(AD 560–636) called Proba the “only woman to be ranked among the men of the church” (Proba … femina inter viros ecclesiasticos … posita sola). In regards to De laudibus Christi, Isidore wrote that “it is not the work which should be admired, but [Proba’s] ingenuity” in compiling the poem (Cuius quidem non miramur studium sed laudamus ingenium).
Scholarship in the 19th and early 20th century was more critical of De laudibus Christi.Some classicists andphilologists of the era cite the work as an example of late antiquity’s “poverty of ideas”.In 1849, William Smith‘sDictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythologycalled the poem “trash” worthy of “no praise”, and in 1911, P. Lejay of The Catholic Encyclopedia wrote that “the action of the poem is constrained and unequal, the manner absurd, [and] the diction frequently either obscure or improper”. Despite these rather negative appraisals, contemporary scholars have taken a renewed interest in the poem,and many see it as worthy of study. Cullhed, in particular, considers the work “of considerable historical and cultural importance [for] it belongs to the small number of ancient texts with a female author and stands out as one of our earliest extant Christian Latin poems.” The first English-language work dedicated in its entirety to Proba and her poem was the 2015 monograph, Proba the Prophet, written by Cullhed.
The poem is traditionally ascribed to Faltonia Betitia Proba largely on the assertion of Isidore, who wrote in hisEtymologiae that De laudibus Christi was the product of a woman named Proba who was the wife of a man named Adelphus (Proba, uxor Adelphi, centonem ex Vergilio …expressit). But the classicist and medievalist Danuta Shanzer has argued that the poem was not the work of Faltonia Betitia Proba, but rather her granddaughter, Anicia Faltonia Proba, who lived in the late-fourth- and early-fifth-centuries. Shanzer—who is of the opinion that Faltonia Betitia Proba likely died in AD 351—bases much of her assertion on supposed date inconsistencies and anachronisms within the text. For instance, Shanzer points out that lines 13–17 of De laudibus Christi strongly resemble lines 20–24 of the poem Carmen contra paganos, which was written sometime after Faltonia Betitia Proba’s death.Shanzer also claims that De laudibus Christi alludes to a notable debate about the date of Easter that took place in AD 387, thereby suggesting that the poem must date from the latter part of the fourth century. Finally, Shanzer argues that the reference to the war between Magnentius and Constantius in the work’s proem precludes the possibility that Faltonia Betitia Proba arranged De laudibus Christi, due to the fact that the war took place in the same year as her supposed death. Shanzer rounds out her hypothesis by also invoking a textual argument, noting that the author of De laudibus Christi is often referred to in later manuscripts by titles that only Anicia Proba would have received, such as “mother of the Anicians” or the “eminent Roman Mistress”.