Skip to main content

Sowers Abstract Herculean Centos

Brian Sowers

Herculean Centos: Myth, Polemics, and the Crucified Hero in Late Antiquity

The period of late antiquity (200-600 CE) marked the development of new literary genres, including centos, patchwork poems that stitch together Homeric and Vergilian lines to create new poetic wholes. The authorship of most of the two dozen extent Greek and Latin centos remains unknown, although they were composed throughout the later Roman empire, from Gaul to North Africa, Italy to Palestine. As poems that are intrinsically intertextual, centos reveal how late antique authors read and wrote allusively charged poetry.

This paper contributes to the growing interest in late antique centos by approaching three centos that evince thematic similarities but dissimilar literary interests: Irenaeus’ cento (Haer 1.8-9), the sixteen-line Hercules et Antaeus, and Proba’s Christian cento. In Sowers' reading, these centos reveal how late antique authors, situated variously inside and outside the church, used Hercules to promote their literary and ideological agenda. As the first critical analysis to treat these three centos as a thematic set – and the first to treat Hercules et Antaeus in any detail – this paper models a new way to read centos as a whole.

Irenaeus’ cento functions as a hyperbolic parody of heretical exegesis, demonstrating how clever authors impose their own ideas into narratives that educated readers recognize to be out of place. In Irenaeus’ example, readers of Homer know that he never related Hercules’ adventures in the underworld; likewise, educated Christians perceive heretical interpolations into proto-orthodox texts or heretical patchwork pieces cobbled together from proto-orthodox originals.

As an example of how the Herculean cycle was interpreted and paraphrased, Hercules et Antaeus provides a useful contrast to Irenaeus’s cento. In Sowers' reading, Hercules et Antaeus reflects, arguably, the most popular use of centos: to retell classical myths, including Medea, Narcissus, Europa, and Hippodamia.

Proba’s cento­ – a paraphrase of Hebrew Bible and the gospels – borrows Vergilian lines about Hercules in her intertextually rich depiction of Jesus, his crucifixion in particular. Whereas Irenaeus rejects exegetical models that integrate disparate contexts (and threaten proto-orthodox Christianity), Proba reflects a different, more complex literary theory. Accordingly, Proba’s Jesus is simultaneous Vergilian, Herculean, and biblical.