Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, De Bethlehemse kindermoord, 1590
Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, De Bethlehemse kindermoord (1590)

Audit tyrannus anxius
adesse regum principem,
qui nomen Israel regat,
teneatque David regiam.

exclamat amens nuntio
“successor instat, pellimur:
satelles, i, ferrum rape,
perfunde cunas sanguine!

mas omnis infans occidat,
scrutare nutricum sinus,
interque materna ubera
ensem cruentet pusio.

suspecta per Bethlem mihi
puerperarum est omnium
fraus, ne qua furtim subtrahat
prolem virilis indolis.”

transfigit ergo carnifex
mucrone districto furens
effusa nuper corpora,
animasque rimatur novas.

locum minutis artubus
vix interemptor invenit
quo plaga descendat patens,
iuguloque maior pugio est.

o barbarum spectaculum!
illisa cervix cautibus
spargit cerebrum lacteum,
oculosque per vulnus vomit;

aut in profundum palpitans
mersatur infans gurgitem,
cui subter artis faucibus
singultat unda et halitus

salvete, flores martyrum,
quos lucis ipso in limine
Christi insecutor sustulit,
ceu turbo nascentes rosas.

vos, prima Christi victima,
grex immolatorum tener,
aram ante ipsam simplices
palma et coronis luditis.

(Prudentius, Cathemerinon 12.93-132)

The uneasy monarch hears of the coming of the King of Kings to rule over the name of Israel and possess the throne of David. Out of his mind at the news, he cries “He that shall take my place is upon me, driving me out. Go, guard, grasp thy sword and steep the cradles in blood. Let every male child perish. Search the nurses’ bosoms, and at the mother’s breasts let the boy-child’s blood redden thy blade. I suspect guile in all that have borne babes in Bethlehem, lest one of them by stealth save her male progeny.” So the executioner raging madly with drawn sword pierces the new-born bodies and tears the young life out of them. Scarce can the slayer find room on the little frames for the gaping wound to fall upon; the dagger is bigger than the throat. O barbarous sight! A head dashed against the stones scatters the milk-white brains and spews out the eyes through the wound; or a babe is flung all throbbing into the depths of the flood, and beneath in his narrow throat water and breath make choking spasms. Hail, martyr-flowers, whom on the very threshold of life the persecutor of Christ destroyed, as the stormy wind kills roses at their birth. You are Christ’s first offerings, a tender flock slain in sacrifice, and before the very altar you play in innocence with palm and crowns. (tr. Henry John Thomson)



Docuit quoque non prius ullum
caelestia cernere regna
quam nocte et vulnere tristi
toleraverit aspera mundi.
mors ipsa beatior inde est,
quod per cruciamina leti
via panditur ardua iustis
et ad astra doloribus itur.
sic corpora mortificata
redeunt melioribus annis,
nec post obitum recalescens
compago fatiscere novit.
haec quae modo pallida tabo
color albidus inficit ora
tunc flore venustior omni
sanguis cute tinguet amoena.
iam nulla deinde senectus
frontis decus invida carpet,
macies neque sicca lacertos
suco tenuabit adeso.
morbus quoque pestifer artus
qui nunc populatur anhelos
sua tunc tormenta resudans
luet inter vincula mille.
hunc eminus aëre ab alto
victrix caro iamque perennis
cernet sine fine gementem
quos moverat ipse dolores.
quid turba superstes inepta
clangens ululamina miscet?
cur tam bene condita iura
luctu dolor arguit amens?
iam maesta quiesce querella,
lacrimas suspendite, matres!
nullus sua pignera plangat,
mors haec reparatio vitae est.
(Prudentius, Cathemerinon 10.85-120)

He taught too that no man sees the heavenly kingdom ere in darkness and sore hurt he has borne the adversities of the world. Therefore is death itself more blessed, in that through the pains of death a way on high is opened for the righteous and by their sufferings they pass to the skies. Thus bodies that have perished return in better days, and the frame growing warm again after its decease cannot any more decline. These cheeks which now are wan and white with wasting shall then have beauteous skin tinged with the bloom of blood more charming than any flower. No longer then shall jealous age steal away the grace of the brow, nor withered leanness consume the sap of the arms and leave them shrunken. Baleful Disease too, which now wastes our panting frames, will then in sweat suffer the penalty of his own torments in a thousand bonds. From high heaven, far off, the flesh, victorious and now immortal, shall see him bemoaning without end the very pains himself had caused before. Why does the band of survivors join in a loud noise of foolish lamentation, and senseless grief in its mourning blame laws so surely established? Be silent now, sad plaint; stay your tears, ye mothers. Let none lament for his dear ones, for this death is the renewal of life. (tr. Henry John Thomson)



This is part 2 of 2. Part 1 is here.

Numquid talia proderunt
carnis post obitum vel bona vel mala,
cum iam, quidquid id est, quod fueram, mors aboleverit?

dicendum mihi: “quisquis es,
mundum, quem coluit, mens tua perdidit;
non sunt illa Dei, quae studuit, cuius habeberis.”

atqui fine sub ultimo
peccatrix anima stultitiam exuat;
saltem voce Deum concelebret, si meritis nequit.

hymnis continuet dies,
nec nox ulla vacet, quin Dominum canat;
pugnet contra hereses, catholicam discutiat fidem;

conculcet sacra gentium,
labem, Roma, tuis inferat idolis;
carmen martyribus devoveat, laudet apostolos.

haec dum scribo vel eloquor,
vinclis o utinam corporis emicem
liber, quo tulerit lingua sono mobilis ultimo.

(Prudentius, Cathemerinon: Praefatio 28-45)

Will such things, good or bad, be of any profit after my flesh is dead, when death shall have wiped out all that I was? It must be said to me: “Whosoever thou art, thy soul hath lost the world it cherished; not to God, who will claim thee as His, belong the things for which it was zealous.” Yet as my last end draws near let my sinning soul put off her folly. With voice at least let her honour God, if with good deeds she cannot. With hymns let her link the days together, and no night pass without singing of her Lord. Let her fight against heresies, expound the Catholic faith, trample on the rites of the heathen, strike down thy idols, O Rome, devote song to the martyrs, and praise the apostles. And while I write or speak of these themes, O may I fly forth in freedom from the bonds of the body, to the place whither my busy tongue’s last word shall tend. (tr. Henry John Thomson)



This is part 1 of 2. Part 2 is here.

Per quinquennia iam decem,
ni fallor, fuimus; septimus insuper
annum cardo rotat, dum fruimur sole volubili.

instat terminus et diem
vicinum senio iam Deus applicat:
quid nos utile tanti spatio temporis egimus?

aetas prima crepantibus
flevit sub ferulis; mox docuit toga
infectum vitiis falsa loqui, non sine crimine.

tum lasciva protervitas,
et luxus petulans (heu pudet ac piget!)
foedavit iuvenem nequitiae sordibus ac luto.

exim iurgia turbidos
armarunt animos et male pertinax
vincendi studium subiacuit casibus asperis.

bis legum moderamine
frenos nobilium reximus urbium:
ius civile bonis reddidimus, terruimus reos.

tandem militiae gradu
evectum pietas principis extulit,
adsumptum propius stare iubens ordine proximo.

haec dum vita volans agit,
irrepsit subito canities seni,
oblitum veteris me Saliae consulis arguens,

sub quo prima dies mihi.
quam multas hiemes volverit et rosas
pratis post glaciem reddiderit, nix capitis probat.

(Prudentius, Cathemerinon: Praefatio 1-27)

Full fifty years, if I err not, have I lived, and beyond that it is the seventh time that the heaven is wheeling the year and I have the benefit of the circling sun. The end is close upon me, and by now what God is adding to my days is on the border of old age. What profitable thing have I done in all this length of time? My first years wept under the crack of the rod; after that the toga corrupted me and taught me to utter sinful falsehoods*; then lewd sauciness and wanton indulgence, to my shame and sorrow now, marred my youth with the filthy dirt of wickedness. Next disputings armed my vehement spirit, and a perversely stubborn passion for victory laid itself open to cruel falls. Twice with the law’s controlling curb I governed famed cities, rendering civil justice to good men and striking terror into evil-doers. Finally His Grace the Emperor advanced me in his service and raised me up, attaching me closer to him and bidding me stand in the nearest rank.* While fleeting life thus busied itself, of a sudden the hoar of age has stolen upon me, convicting me of having forgotten Salia’s consulship of long ago. Under him my time began, and how many winters it has seen roll on, how often seen the roses given back to the meadows after the frost, the snow on my head proves.

* I.e. after assuming the toga virilis he attended a school of rhetoric, where he would practise the art of making the best of a case.

(tr. Henry John Thomson, with his note)




Haud secus ac si olim per sudum lactea forte
lapsa columbarum nubes descendat in arvum
ruris frugiferi, laqueos ubi callidus auceps
praetendit lentoque illevit vimina visco,
sparsit et insidias siliquis vel farre doloso,
illiciunt alias fallentia grana, gulamque
innectunt avidam tortae retinacula saetae,
molle vel implicitas gluten circumligat alas,
ast aliae, quas nullus amor prolectat edendi,
gressibus innocuis sterili spatiantur in herba
suspectamque cavent oculos convertere ad escam;
mox ubi iam caelo revolandum, pars petit aethram
libera sideream plaudens super aëra pinnis,
pars captiva iacet laceris et saucia plumis
pugnat humi et volucres nequiquam suspicit auras;
sic animas caeli de fontibus unicoloras
infundit natura solo, sed suavibus istic
devinctae illecebris retinentur, et aethera paucae
conscendunt reduces, multas viscosus inescat
pastus et ad superas percurrere non sinit auras.
(Prudentius, Hamartigenia 804-823)

Just as sometimes doves in a milk-white cloud,
descending through the bright and lucid sky,
settle in a wheat field, where a clever
fowler set his snares and smeared the twigs
with sticky lime, baiting his traps with peas
and poisoned grain, and some are tempted by
the treacherous grain and caught by nets of woven
cord that choke their greedy throats, or else
soft glue traps and binds their wings: but others,
not seduced by love of eating, stroll
at ease, unharmed, about the barren grass
and take good care not to turn their eyes
toward the suspect food. Soon, when it comes
time to fly back toward the sky, some freely
seek the starry heaven and clap their wings
above the clouds, while others, taken captive,
lie wounded, struggling on the ground, their feathers
torn, looking up in vain at the passing
breezes. In just this way, nature showers
spotless souls from heaven onto earth,
but there they are retained, entrapped by sweet
delights, and very few ascend again
to heaven; the sticky food entices many
and keeps them from advancing to the upper
(tr. Martha A. Malamud)



Ut vidit Agnes stare trucem virum
mucrone nudo, laetior haec ait:
“exsulto, talis quod potius venit
vesanus, atrox, turbidus, armiger,
quam si veniret languidus ac tener,
mollisque ephebus tinctus aromate,
qui me pudoris funere perderet.
hic, hic amator iam, fateor, placet:
ibo irruentis gressibus obviam,
nec demorabor vota calentia.
ferrum in papillas omne recepero,
pectusque ad imum vim gladii traham.
sic nupta Christo transiliam poli
omnes tenebras aethere celsior.
aeterne rector, divide ianuas
caeli, obseratas terrigenis prius,
ac te sequentem, Christe, animam voca,
cum virginalem, tum Patris hostiam.”
sic fata, Christum vertice cernuo
supplex adorat, vulnus ut imminens
cervix subiret prona paratius.
ast ille tantam spem peragit manu:
uno sub ictu nam caput amputat.
sensum doloris mors cita praevenit.
exutus inde spiritus emicat,
liberque in auras exilit; angeli
saepsere euntem tramite candido.
(Prudentius, Peristephanon 14.67-93)

When Agnes saw the grim figure standing there with his naked sword her gladness increased and she said: “I rejoice that there comes a man like this, a savage, cruel, wild man-at-arms, rather than a listless, soft, womanish youth bathed in perfume, coming to destroy me with the death of my honour. This lover, this one at last, I confess it, pleases me. I shall meet his eager steps halfway and not put off his hot desires. I shall welcome the whole length of his blade into my bosom, drawing the sword-blow to the depths of my breast; and so as Christ’s bride I shall o’erleap all the darkness of the sky and rise higher than the ether. O eternal ruler, open the gates of heaven which formerly were barred against the children of the earth, and call, O Christ, a soul that follows Thee, a virgin’s soul and a sacrifice to the Father.” So saying she bowed her head and humbly worshipped Christ, so that her bending neck should be readier to suffer the impending blow; and the executioner’s hand fulfilled her great hope, for at one stroke he cut off her head and swift death forestalled the sense of pain. Now the disembodied spirit springs forth and leaps in freedom into the air, and angels are round her as she passes along the shining path. (tr. Henry John Thomson)


The flagellation of Saint Eulalia of Barcelona

Quaeritis, o miseranda manus,
Christicolum genus? en ego sum
daemonicis inimica sacris,
idola protero sub pedibus,
pectore et ore Deum fateor.

Isis, Apollo, Venus nihil est,
Maximianus et ipse nihil:
illa nihil, quia facta manu,
hic manuum quia facta colit,
frivola utraque et utraque nihil.

(Prudentius, Peristephanon 3.71-80)

Seek ye, O pitiable company, the people who worship Christ? Here am I, a foe to the worship of evil spirits; I trample idols under foot, and with heart and lips I confess God. Isis, Apollo, Venus – they are naught; Maximian* himself too is naught; they because they are works of men’s hands, he because he worships the works of men’s hands, both worthless, both naught.

* Colleague of Diocletian as emperor from 286 to 305. Spain was under his charge.

(tr. Henry John Thomson, with his note)


vestal virgins

Quae nunc Vestalis sit virginitatis honestas
discutiam, qua lege regat decus omne pudoris.
Inde ad consessum caveae pudor almus et expers
sanguinis it pietas hominum visura cruentos
congressus mortesque et vulnera vendita pastu
spectatura sacris oculis. sedet illa verendis
vittarum insignis phaleris fruiturque lanistis.
o tenerum mitemque animum! consurgit ad ictus
et, quotiens victor ferrum iugulo inserit, illa
delicias ait esse suas, pectusque iacentis
virgo modesta iubet converso pollice rumpi,
ne lateat pars ulla animae vitalibus imis,
altius impresso dum palpitat ense secutor.
(Prudentius, Contra orationem Symmachi 2.1062-3, 1096-1101)

Now I shall examine the high repute of the Vestals’ virginity, and the justice of its claim to be the standard for all the honour paid to purity. (…) Then on to the gathering in the amphitheatre passes this figure of life-giving purity and bloodless piety, to see bloody battles and deaths of human beings and look on with holy eyes at wounds men suffer for the price of their keep. There she sits conspicuous with the awe-inspiring trappings of her head-bands and enjoys what the trainers have produced. What a soft, gentle heart! She rises at the blows, and every time a victor stabs his victim’s throat she calls him her pet; the modest virgin with a turn of her thumb bids him pierce the breast of his fallen foe so that no remnant of life shall stay lurking deep in his vitals while under a deeper thrust of the sword the fighter lies in the agony of death. (tr. Henry John Thomson)