The Psychomachia Is SO DARNED COOL!

There goes my cool air of untouchability again….

Our old friend Prudentius the Latin poet gets dissed a lot. Everybody rips on him, and they rip on Psychomachia the most. It’s didactic, and moralizing, and allegorical, too! SHAME! FIE!

So if it stinks so bad, you might ask, how has it survived all these years? In so many manuscript copies? Profusely illustrated ones, yet?

Because Psychomachia (The Soul Battle) does not stink. It’s not maybe to modern tastes, but it’s full of violence, Virgil references, and other fun stuff. The moral speeches may have justified the fun, but they don’t remove it. (And since they’re actually more like victory speeches or warrior boasts, they were right down the Middle Ages’ alley. Especially if you were a monk who kinda wished you’d been born a little earlier into your family, so that you could go forth and slay things.) Also, the personified Virtues and Vices fighting each other over the fate of the human soul are both as feminine as the gender of the Latin terms for them, so you get both the Amazon and virgin saint with a big sword vibe. Marketing couldn’t possibly improve this sucker, unless you made it into an anime.

If it weren’t for Prudentius, we wouldn’t commonly think in terms of the Seven Virtues or the Seven Deadly Sins. And I wouldn’t have gotten to go to a cool SCA event with that theme — the latest in a long line of Virtue vs. Vice throwdowns at tournaments and melees in the Middle Ages and after.

However, I’m too cheap right now to spring for the Thomson translation (which for all I know, might be boring). And unfortunately, Tolkien didn’t translate the sucker. I’m still looking for a period public domain translation, but here’s the start of mine — a Christian unarmed combat Virtue vs. a heavily armed pagan Vice!

I’m afraid I went for “the translator is a traitor, and the poetic translator can do whatever she wants” mode. Sorry. I like literal, but I like exciting, too. So I’ll indicate what I added with italics. Also, we all know that the niceties of competent Latin comprehension (like what word modified what other word) are all too often lost on me, while other times I’m being poetic and changing modifiers on purpose. Lo, I am a slacker. (But I do appreciate comments.)

First of the fighters to face the field
and the doubt of the duel’s fate,
Faith came forward, disheveled and messy,
dressed like a farmgirl from far in the country:
hair untrimmed with bowl or beautician,
shoulders bared to give biceps an airing.
Heat to get glory had her boiling over
all of a sudden, in fact, for this new deed.
War nor weapons nor girding of armor —
She paid no nevermind. Trusting the might
Of her heart and her hands, raging and reckless,
she challenges battle-chance, meaning to smash it.

Behold who dares head out to harass her
with matching might, to strike first and fiercest
TheOldGodsWorship. Her hostile head,
Decked with ribbons and medals of honor,
Is made to wobble, then rises higher —
Till her besmeared mouth, sated on sheep’s blood,
Is thrown down to earth and lands underfoot.
Her baleful breath was stopped up and broken,
her trafficking stuffed down her gullet to throttle
her weary and obstinate long dying sigh.

The victrix of the Lord’s legion exults,
and Queen Faith heartens the thousands of martyrs
She has gathered against the foe. In praise,
She crowns with flowers the strong allies made
And orders them robed in flaming red-purple.

(Flaming purple just sounds wrong, unless you remember that Roman purple was pretty darned red.)



Filed under Church, Translations

20 responses to “The Psychomachia Is SO DARNED COOL!

  1. Maureen

    There are plenty of period translations of Latin poems into various vernaculars. Lactantius’ Phoenix stuff became the Old English poem Neorxnawang, for example.

    I guess I’ll do the preface at some point, but starting where the poem’s action starts… seems more logical, really. (And yes, my Old English poetry style is also pretty sloppy. I really am a slacker. But then again, I’m writing in Modern and not Old English.)

    Here’s the Latin for Faith’s bit, which is considerably more compact than my translation:

    prima petit campum dubia sub sorte duelli
    pugnatura Fides, agresti turbida cultu,
    nuda umeros, intonsa comas, exerta lacertos;
    namque repentinus laudis calor ad noua feruens
    proelia nec telis meminit nec tegmine cingi,
    pectore sed fidens ualido membrisque retectis
    prouocat insani frangenda pericula belli.

    ecce lacessentem conlatis uiribus audet
    prima ferire Fidem Veterum Cultura Deorum.
    illa hostile caput phalerataque tempora uittis
    altior insurgens labefactat, et ora cruore
    de pecudum satiata solo adplicat et pede calcat
    elisos in morte oculos, animamque malignam
    fracta intercepti commercia gutturis artant,
    difficilemque obitum suspiria longa fatigant.

    exultat uictrix legio, quam mille coactam
    martyribus regina Fides animarat in hostem.
    nunc fortes socios parta pro laude coronat
    floribus ardentique iubet uestirier ostro.

  2. Cillian

    The Thomson LOEB isn’t a particularly inspired translation, and it’s erroneous in places too. There’s definitely a gap in the market for a new translation of the Psychomachia.

    Also, in my experience the only people who rip on Prudentius are those who haven’t read him. Granted, that’s a lot of people, but still.

  3. Pingback: Psychomachia — Modesty vs. Lust « Aliens in This World

  4. Hello, ive been looking for a full translation of “Psychomachia” for a little while now … for the first time in liveing memory, Google has failed me. I can find no compleate translation after numerous searches. I would greatly appreciate some direction in the matter for i am very eager to read a full and accurate translation.

    Blake (

  5. If you go to’s Wayback Machine, you can find a rather casual prose translation on a professor’s old website. It was really only intended to be a help reading the Latin, but it’s better than nothing.

    (Yeah, I really need to get back to work on _my_ Psychomachia translation….)

  6. Mike

    I am so glad to have come across this site. I have been looking for a translation for months now. Only found partials or full Latin. Which really surprises me because of the impact of this work. 🙂

  7. Mary Veronica

    I am writing a piece on the Seven Deadly Sins, and in researching came across Psychomachia. I am grateful to have found the English translation here (thanks, Greg) – my nickname in h.s. was Prudence!

  8. Mike A.

    I have been looking for a complete translation for several months as well. Thanks for the link to the Univeristy of Richmond professor’s site.

    Patience won once again.

  9. Marvellous digging in the Archive there, Greg, I’ve just found this via Google and it’s just what was needed. Also, I agree with the general point: it’s full of meaty goodness.

  10. Pingback: Waxing lyrical: a brief reflection on the Great Pool of Reference « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  11. Lisa

    I just wanted to leave a comment about the flaming purple robes. In the time that Prudentius wrote this, around 304-310, Purple was considered royal. It is mentioned many times through out the Bible.

  12. @English Translation: I was very happy that Greg provided the translation. I want to contact the professor to see if ThoughtAudio can produce the audio version. We do free MP3 versions of classic literature and philosophy and this is perfect. I will keep this group informed.

    Check out ThoughtAudio if you want >>

  13. jeremy

    thanks to the dude who put the link!!!

  14. Yep! I agree. I read through it this weekend … gesh! what a mind twist. First you go through some classic 1st-3rd Century Christian philosophy … then move to the battle … back to a Revelations ending. All in all a very exciting read … I hope modern Christianity doesn’t spoil the read for everyone. Now to get a response from the professor.

    Thanks to this site for doing a good job

  15. Heyla~ thank you all for the breakdown of the poem and the link, I’ve been commissioned to body paint 7 models to represent the Seven Heavenly Virtues, another artist got the gig for the Seven Deadly Sins. I have to say I’m looking forward to the challenge and I like digging in history to add to my own re-enactments. What I take from here will add to the fleshing out of my own Viking, Gypsy and Wench persona’s. Thanks again for everyone’s input.

  16. Well, I did make contact with the professor … and unfortunately it was from another source (see below) … it does NOT look like I will be able to produce the audio version after all … bummer … Michael


    Dear Michael,

    I’m sorry but I lifted that out of Penguin’s text/translation called something like “the last poets of the Roman empire.” It’s not supposed to be available off campus.

    So I’m afraid I’m in no position to offer you permission to it. But it’s an old Penguin so maybe they’ll let you have it cheap?


    > Professor Stevens

  17. Albert Drummond

    Meu nome é Albert Drummond.
    Sou estudante de História, estou no terceiro período.
    A minha monografia é sobre os sete pecados capitais, e já procurei em todos os lugares, mas não encontrei a Psychomachia traduzida para o português e nem para o inglês. Gostaria de saber se você tem a Psycomachia traduzida para uma dessas linguas.

  18. billy

    about the color purple- or porphyrogene if i havent mis-spelled it– was a royal color because it was so very expensive to make the dye– only kings and queens and the like were allowed to wear it

  19. I too have written about Virtue & Vice and in trying to be studious searched for an English version of the Psychomachia – even The Strand didn’t have it! Can anyone add “the famous 89 anglo-saxon illustrations” to the text provided by link here?

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