Carmen ad Antonium

The last in our short series of short anonymous late Latin Christian poems discussing paganism is the Carmen ad Antonium, the Poem to Anthony.  This is preserved in a couple of manuscripts of the poems of Paulinus of Nola, where it appears, following the poems of Paulinus, but without name or title.  It was first printed by Muratori, who gave it the title of “Poema Ultimum” and attributed it to Paulinus.  It may be found in modern editions of Paulinus as poem 32 (CSEL 30, carm. 32, p. 329-338).[1]  Like the others, it sheds light on late paganism, albeit in a critical way.  The cult of Mithras with its subterranean worship of the sun is mentioned, as is the cult of the Magna Mater (Cybele) and Attis.  Interesting is the reference to Adonis — a statue of Adonis — being carried out into the arena at the festival of Venus and filth thrown at it.

The excellent translation of Croke and Harries is as follows:

I admit to having examined all ways of belief, Antonius; I have enquired into much, run through questions in every detail, yet I have found nothing superior to belief in Christ. Now I have arranged to set this out in flowing verse and, to avoid offence in my choice of poetic subject, I cite David himself who prayed to God through the poetry he sang, as my precedent for treating great matters with humble words. I shall speak of what should be shunned, followed, or worshipped, although both practice and its principles must be established in all things.

In the first place, even the marvellous favour of God did not influence the Jewish race; for, when they were rescued from the wicked Pharaoh and crossed the sea on foot with their leader, the pillar of light shining before them, they saw the enemy cavalry Overwhelmed by the waters. Although they had left cultivated fields behind them, they never lacked anything, as manna fell from the sky and springs gushed from the rock, yet, after all these great things, they denied the present help of God and, while seeking another divinity in the madness of their hearts, lit fires and lost the gold that he had sent.

The pagan, too, is the same. He worships stones he has carved himself and creates by his own hand the object to which he owes fear. Then he adores images which he has so moulded from bronze that he can melt them down for coin whenever he wants to, or change them, as he often does, into shapes he should be ashamed of. Hence he sacrifices unfortunate cattle and looks in their warm lungs for the intentions of the gods whom he believes angry, and prays for the life of a man through the death of a beast. What kind of forgiveness can a man ask who asks it with blood? What a strange, stupid damnable practice it is! After the omnipotent God once formed man man dares to fashion God; to complete the tally of sin, he also sells the image and the buyer purchases himself a master.

Could I accept that philosophers’ beliefs are reasonable when they are unreasonable themselves, they whose wisdom is but vain? There are the dog-like Cynics — their name betrays them.  Some follow the dogma of Plato, who doubted it himself, and worry themselves over the composition of the soul, a matter discussed now for a long time past. They investigate it constantly yet are never able to reach a conclusion, which is why they like copying Plato’s book on the soul, a book containing nothing susceptible of proof apart from the title.[1]

There are also the Physici, so called from the word for nature, who enjoy living in an old-fashioned, uncultivated and uncouth fashion. For there was once a man[2] who carried only a staff and a pottery dish, because they were, he thought, the only indispensably useful things, hence the only possessions one should have, the one to support him, the other to drink out of. But when he saw a farmer standing and drinking water out of his cupped hands, he smashed his dish and threw it away from him saying that one should reject all superfluous things. A country man had taught him that one could reject that small dish too. These men neither drink wine, nor do they eat bread, nor lie on a bed nor wear clothes to keep out the cold and, in their ingratitude to God, refuse what he has offered them.

What can I say of the various religious rites and temples set up to gods and goddesses? Let me first talk of the character of the Capitol; they have a god and a god’s wife and will have it that she is his sister, as Virgil, their creator, denoted by his phrase ‘both sister and wife’. It is also said of Jupiter that he violated his daughter and gave her to his brother and, to get other women, changed his shape; now he was a snake, now a bull, now a swan and a tree and by all these changes provided his own evidence as to his real nature, preferring the shapes of others to his own. Even more disgraceful than this, he pretended to be an eagle and accepted the unnatural embraces of a boy. What do his crowd of worshippers say? Let them either deny this is Jupiter or admit his unseemly conduct. He certainly has a prestige not confirmed by reasoned thought. They make sacrifices to Jupiter and call him ‘Jupiter the Best’ and make requests to him and also place ‘Father Janus’ in the first rank of gods. This Janus was a king long ago who named the Janiculan hill after himself, a wise man who (foresaw) as many things in the future as he could look back (on in the past) and so the ancient Latins pictured him with two faces and called him the two-headed Janus. Because he had arrived in Italy in a boat, the first coin was struck in honour of him with the following devices: on one side was carved a head, on the other, a ship. It is in memory of this that men distinguish the sides of some of their coins, calling one side ‘heads’ and the other ‘ships’ after that event long ago. Why do they hope for anything from Jupiter who came second after this king yet who is served with offerings through the lips of suppliants? This god has a mother, too, who was overtaken by love for a shepherd, so the shepherd himself came before Jupiter or Jove; but the shepherd was his superior for, wishing to preserve his chastity, he rejected the goddess who in her rage castrated him so that he who had refused to come to her bed should never be the husband of another.[3] Was this the just ordinance of the gods however, that a man who had not been made a fornicator should never be a husband? Now, too, eunuchs chant shameful mysteries nor are there lacking men to be corrupted by this infection. They worship some secret the more profound for being behind closed doors and call holy something which would render a modest man unholy should he approach it. Thus the priest himself, more restricted, avoids sleeping with women and accepts the embrace of men.

O blinded intellect of man! Plays about their holy things always arouse laughter, yet they do not abandon the error of their ways. They maintain Saturn was Jupiter’s father and that first he devoured his children and then vomited up his unspeakable meal, yet later, by a trick of his wife’s, he swallowed a stone, believing it to be Jupiter and that if he had not done that, Jupiter would have been consumed. They call Saturn Chronus and give him this name, meaning Time, because he swallows the time he creates and then brings up again what he has swallowed. But why be so devious in inventing a name for Time? Moreover, this god, who always so feared his children’s designs for himself, when hurled out of heaven by Jupiter, lay latent in the fields of Italy, called Latium for that reason. What great gods they both were! One hid under the earth, the other could not know the earth’s hiding places. Therefore the Quirites [Romans] established the evil rite of Latiaris, using human sacrifice to glut an empty name. How deep is the night of the mind, how unthinking the human heart! The object of their worship is nothing, yet the rites cause the shedding of blood.

What of the fact that they hide the Unconquered One in a rocky cave and dare to call the one they keep in darkness the Sun? [4] Who adores light in secret or hides the star of the sky in the shadows beneath the earth except for some evil purpose? Why do they not hide the rites of Isis with her symbols and the dog-headed Anubis even deeper, instead of showing them throughout the public places as they do? Yes, they look for something and rejoice when they have found it and lose it again so that they can hunt for it again. What sensible man could put up with the sight of one sect hiding the sun, as it were, while the others openly display their monstrous gods? What had Serapis done to deserve to be so dragged and torn by his own people through such varied and degrading places? Always at last he becomes a wild beast, a dog, a decomposing ass’s corpse, he becomes now a man, now bread, now heavy with disease. While acting in this way, they admit he feels nothing.

What should I say too of Vesta, when her own priest says he does not know what she is? Yet deep in the heart of her sanctuary they claim there is preserved the undying fire. Why is she a goddess, not a god? Why is fire [masculine in Latin] called a woman? Yet Vesta was a woman, so Hyginus implies, who was the first to weave a garment from new thread, called a ‘vestment’ from her name, which she gave to Vulcan who, in return, showed her how to watch over her hidden hearths; Vulcan, in his turn, was pleased with the gift and offered it to the Sun, by whose help he had previously discovered the adultery of Mars; nowadays all the credulous mob at the Vulcanalia hang up garments for the Sun. To show the character of Venus, Adonis [5] is carried out; then they send for manure and throw it about him. If you look into everything, it becomes more and more laughable. There is this additional detail: I gather that every five years the so-called Vestal Virgins take a feast to a serpent who either does not exist at all, or else is the Devil himself, who formerly persuaded the human race to its ruin. But they venerate him, even though now he trembles and hangs imprisoned by the name of Christ and confesses to his evil deeds. How strange is the mind of man that he tells lies instead of the truth, worships what he should renounce and turns his back on what he should adore.

Now I shall have said enough about useless fears. Before I saw the clear light, I too was uncertain on all these things for a long time, tossed by many a storm, but the holy church received me into a harbour of safety and set me in a peaceful anchorage after my wanderings over the waves, so that the dark clouds of evil might be dispersed and, at the promised time, I might hope for the calm light of heaven. For that former salvation, which the forgetful Adam lost when urged off course by an adverse wind, now, with Christ at the oar, is pushed off the rocks and arises once more to remain with us forever. For he, our helmsman, so guides all things everywhere that he who but recently removed our mistaken thinking now  sets us on a better road and opens the gates of Paradise. Fortunate is our faith in its dedication to a sure and single God.

[1] The Phaedo.
[2] Diogenes.
[3] Cybele, and Attis.
[4] Mithras Sol Invictus.
[5] The lover of Venus.

  1. [1]Update (12 May 2017) The varied names of this item have confused me, and doubtless others.  A splendid introduction to the work may be found here (in French).  There is also a good translation by P.G.Walsh of the poems of Paulinus, including this one, in the ACW series.  See also this review of an Italian edition in JSTOR.

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