Personification and Gender Fluidity in the Psychomachia and Its Early Reception

Katharine Breen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This essay argues against the widespread critical assumption that the Psychomachia’s personifications of Virtues are poorly executed allegorical goddesses. On the contrary, it finds that the Virtues’ transgressions of gender norms were central to Prudentius’s poetic project and were gen-erally understood and appreciated as such by the poem’s late classical readers. Reading the Psychomachia alongside several early responses to Prudentius’s work—including the letters of Sidonius Apollinaris, Avitus of Vienne’s verse epistle De consolatoria castitatis laude, and the advice treatise Ad Gregoriam in palatio—demonstrates that Prudentius and his late classical readers and imitators valued personifications as sites of gender fluidity and gender trans-formation. These fifth-and sixth-century texts encourage men to use personification to imagine themselves as women, and women to use personification to imagine themselves as men, while projecting a state between genders or beyond gender as the ideal human condition. Although the gender identities imagined in these texts are not progressive in the modern sense of the term, and indeed depend on elements of deep-seated misogyny, they collectively map out a much broader and more flexible sex-gender system than the one assumed by the Psychomachia’s twentieth-century critics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)965-1011
Number of pages47
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts
  • Religious studies
  • Philosophy
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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