The Prudentius's epos. A bridge between Classicism and Latin Middle Ages

Essay, 2017

20 Pages


Elisa Sicuri

In the imperial era the epic genre had undergone important modifications to its origins and developed radically with the coming of Christianity. The dissemination of Christ’s message covered all areas of culture and had deep repercussions on literary writing. The idea that literary production should be put to the service of the spread of faith went ahead and this ended up altering the formal features of new works. Unlike the Greek and Latin literature, that generally had an elitist destination, the Christian writers were also aimed to the humblest sections of population until then excluded from the literary communication.[1] The novelties of the new Christian literature (the desire to speak to everyone, the approach to everyday life, the attribution of new importance to simple things) ended up scrapping the traditional set of literary genres, including the epic genre. Almost all literary genres used in Greek and Latin literature were reused by Christian writers, but modified for new needs and new contents.

The Spanish poet and priest Juvencus (early IV century A.D.) affirms in the preface to his work Libri Evangeliorum his ambition to sing the deeds of Christ’s life, transforming him into an epic hero.[2] But the principal responsible for the christianization of Latin epic is certainly Prudentius. His fortune was considerable throughout the Middle Ages, also because his works entered since immediately in the medieval scholastic canon, being constantly copied, studied and annotated (the very wide manuscript tradition includes about 320 codes, some of them very ancient, even from the 6th century A.D).[3] Prudentius was widely read and studied also in the area of St. Gallen, probable place of composition of another important medieval epic poem of the IX-X century with its distinctive classic dress, the Waltharius. Numerous are the commentary glosses that were analyzed, with respect due to a classic, by the «magister Iso», monk of St. Gallen, in the 9th century. The Carolingian poet Theodulf of Orléans mentions Prudentius in the poem De libris quos legere solebam to the vv. 15-16 diversoque potens prudenter promere plura / metro, o Prudenti, noster et ipse parens.[4] Alcuin of York speaks of him in the famous Versus de patribus regibus et sancti Euboricensis Ecclesiae (vv. 1551-1553) confirming the widespread knowledge of the Spanish poet during the Carolingian Renaissance: Quid quoque Sedulius, vel quod canit ipse Iuvencus, / Alcimus et Clemens, Prosper, Paulinus, Arator, / quid Fortunatus, vel quid Lactantius edunt.In 819 Rabanus Maurus in the De institutione clericorum, written for the disciples of the Abbey of Fulda, underlines the need for a Christian student and clergy to study classical metrics (and therefore pagan) as well as illustrious Christian writers, especially Prudentius.[5] Together with Arator, Jovencus, Sedulius Scotus, Boethius, Maximianus, the Ecloga Theoduli, Claudianus, the Ilias latina, Statius and Ovid, Prudentius is also included in the Libri Catoniani, a mandatory reading for monastic teaching, permanently fixed around the 13th century but likely originated in the 9th century.[6] Prudentius’s fortune is particularly relevant during the 10th century: for example Liutprand of Cremona in the Antapodosis, speaking of the inhabitants of Pavia that, attacked by the violence of the Hungarians, do not think to save the riches of their city, describes the qualities of four precious stones (jasper, topaz, sapphire and beryllium).[7] All four of the precious stones mentioned by Liutprand appear, with the same combinations, also in a passage of Psychomachia, «del quale Liutprando ha sicuramente tenuto conto nell’elaborazione dei suoi due esametri e con il quale il carme dell’ Antapodosis entra in un rapport di dialettica risonanza contestuale e concettuale [of which Liutprand certainly took into account in the elaboration of his two hexameters and with which the poem Antapodosis enters into a contextual and conceptual dialectical resonance relationship]».[8] The Prudentius’s passage to which the writer of Cremona is inspired is the one related to the description, rich in baroque and symbolic particulars, of the temple of the soul at the end of the poem, in which the precious stones adorning the walls stand out with their lively colors.[9] Prudentius also exerted a significant influence on the six dramatic dialogues of Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, especially for the use of diminutives,[10] and on the beast fable Ecbasis cuiusdam captivi per tropologiam,[11] where however there is almost no reference to Psychomachia, while the presence of the minor works of the Spanish poet is predominant, Hamartigenia, Apotheosis, Contra Symmachum, Cathemerinon, Peristephanon e Dittochaeon. [12] Above all, the taste for allegory favored Prudentius’s success in literature and medieval art. In spite of this, he did not have direct descendants in the epic genre, except the Libelli de spiritalis historiae gestis of Avitus (early 6th century A.D.), an allegorical interpretation of some episodes of the Old Testament, and the Iohannis of Corippus (about 550 B.C.), a virgilian epic poem celebrating the victory of the Byzantine magister militum John Troglita against the Mauris.[13] Prudentius made a considerable contribution to the development of Christian literature not only for having radically renewed genres such as innography and hagiography, but also for having founded new ones, such as the allegorical epic, a synthesis of classic epos and wisdom allegory.[14] The P sychomachia is an epic allegory of the struggle between Vices and Virtues, the first of a fortunate series of allegorical poems that will continue to thrive in vulgar literatures with the Dante’s Divina Commedia and the oitanic Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris, continued by Jean de Meung (13th century).[15] The liber nonus of the Anticlaudianus of Alain de Lille is a rewrite of Psychomachia ’s chivalrous ethics: its hero is a «christianus miles » that has to bring the message of virtue to the world and fight against the hosts of the Vices.

Like the classical epic, the Prudentius’s one has a dissemination purpose, even if of a different kind. Prudentius seeks to reach a vast audience, but its main goal is to address the old senatorial aristocracy still loyal to pagan cults. In addition, the Spanish poet writes for individual reading, not for public declamations, and addresses his speech to readers who want to deepen the faith. His ambitious purpose is to spread the message of the Gospels through the Christianization of the pagan epic. For the variety of metres he used in his works he was often compared to Horace, but his language is affected by a strong virgilian aemulatio,[16] emerging especially in the construction of the war scenes.

The element most affected by the advent of Christian thought is the figure of the hero. The hero of classical epic, from Homer, was essentially a warrior. Virgil will innovate the ideal of heroism by investigating the interiority of his protagonist: of Aeneas, in addition to the warrior’s prowess, is emphasized the moral strength and awareness of one’s destiny. Prudentius will continue on this line and will focus more on the spiritual qualities of his characters than on their war enterprises and will introduce a new type of hero: the saint. From this moment on both medieval and vulgar epic heroes will also be painted as paladins of Christianity. Prudentius maintains continuity with the pagan epic tradition, acting as a bridge between this and the medieval epos, especially as formally continues to use the same canonical terms to indicate the hero. Often the Spanish poet designates his heroes with the terms vir and heros, widespread in classical epic. Vir in Psychomachia designates Job,[17] in Cathemerinon qualifies Daniel,[18] while in Peristephanon is usually referred to martyrs.[19] Daniel in the Cathemerinon is also called heros [20] together with Tobia’s father,[21] while in Peristephanon this term becomes the name of Romanus.[22] Heros is also widely used in Waltharius to designate, above all, the protagonist, the Aquitaine hero Walther, on the model of the virgilian heroes. Indeed, this term recalls directly Aeneas (Aen. VI, 103 Aeneas heros), but is not exclusive to the Trojan hero, in fact, even Turnus will be called Daunius heros (Aen. XII, 723), referring to his offspring by king Daunus. In Waltharius, however, heros is used to indicate other characters, such as the King of Franks Gunther (Walth. 601, assigned by Camalon in his embassy) and Hagen (Walth. 632), thus becoming a fairly vague definition. Hero s is often accompanied and specified by the adjective magnanimus,[23] creating another iunctura often referred to Aeneas but, again, not exclusively: we will find, therefore, a magnanimum Aenean (Aen. I, 260 and IX, 204) alongside to the magnanimum heroum (Aen. VI, 307) by which are called dead warriors present on the banks of the Acheron. Magnanimus heros often takes on the function of linking the hero to a definite group of brave and experienced warriors rather than referring to specific spiritual characteristics: in Waltharius Walther and his ally and then opponent Hagen (but not Gunther) are, therefore,sometimes named with the formula of magnanimi heroes (Walth. 1399) and magnanimum virorum (Walth. 1414).

Prudentius does not deny the ideal warrior of the Homeric epic, nor the Virgil’s new proposal of a hero that associates the military value with the moral one and fidelity to a divine mission:[24] simply adds new elements to a stereotype, that of the epic hero, already consolidated over the centuries. Following the model of the pius Aeneas, the Peristephanon martyrs are not merely soldiers, but soldiers of Christ (militia Christi): in fact military metaphors abound,[25] especially in those hymns dedicated to warriors who have become martyrs. The military ideal of the classical hero is therefore spiritualized in particular in Psychomachia, where warriors, Virtues and Vices, become allegories. Even the graeciazing title, sometimes translated with “soul war” or “war for the soul”, highlights the spiritual and not just warlike character of this new type of epic narrative. The hero-saint model ends up replacing that of the hero-wise who had had his fortune in the didactic epic of De rerum natura, where with Epicurus Lucretius had introduced in the Latin epic an innovative type of super-man ante litteram. In this substitution Prudentius does not go a completely new way, he remains in line with his times. For example, in the preface of Vita Martini, Sulpicius Severus had equated Martin’s holiness with Hector’s military competence and Socrates’s philosophical wisdom, proposing a renewed epic hero model able to compete with his classic precedents. In Psychomachia there is no single star hero, but personified Virtues and Vices alternate on the scene, covering roughly equivalent roles and narrative spaces. At the heart of the action is the very soul of every Christian, first assailed by sins, and then triumphing over them in a battle equivalent to the wars of the ancient epic tradition, in order to build an inner temple of wisdom illuminated by faith.

This new example of hero will bring great fortune not only to medieval epic, but also to vulgar, romance and germanic one. In the oldest epic in Ancient French, the Chanson de Roland, [26] Roland and the other Paladins of Charlemagne are warriors fighting for the defense of the Christian faith, die as martyrs[27] and worry about gaining a place in paradise.[28] As angels intervene alongside the Peristephanon ’s martyrs,[29] they also help Roland and Charlemagne[30] even though there’s not exactly a direct influence as the intervention of angelic creatures falls among the topical themes of Christian literature. In the Germanic and, more specifically, the Anglo-Saxon world from the 8th century the epic genre blends perfectly the northern mythology of the most famous sagas with the new Christian values, as in Beowulf.[31]

Even the nature of the hero’s gesture changes: no more material actions, such as simply defeating or killing the enemy, but spiritual.[32] Virgil had already internalized the epic action, not only mentioning the pilgrimages of Aeneas after the destruction of Troy and his fights in Italy. The journey of the Trojan hero across the Mediterranean is above all a spiritual nóstos to the gradual discovery of himself, through the recognition of his destiny. Likewise, the new Christian hero must also undertake a training itinerary that, by approaching God and observing Christian ideals, will lead him to fulfill his spiritual growth and become a model of ethics and behavior for the whole society. The fragmentary poem of the second half of the 11th century, halfway between the epos and the novel, also in Ruodlieb can be identified the path (even physical) of the protagonist to achieve his own social affirmation and to become a knight according to the dictates of courteous ethics. The eponymous protagonist, Ruodlieb, as Aeneas and even Odysseus before, is forced to leave his homeland and face a series of trials according to the typical scheme of the fairy tale (debut, break of initial equilibrium, vicissitudes, restoring of balance).[33] The trials that the hero faces are material, but alongside a profound reflection: the advice that Rex Maior addresses to Ruodlieb rather than being practical suggestions, go in the direction of a moral edification of Christian mould. Likewise, the martyrs of the Peristephanon of Prudentius lead against their torturers a struggle not only physical (resistance to torture and violent death), but also moral. Their struggle consists in proclaiming the superiority of the Christian faith, trying to convert the Roman magistrate and the other pagan bystanders who preside over the process.

Prudentius also replaces the pagan wonderful with the Christian wonderful. In the emprises of his new type of hero, are often involved supernatural elements, that, even though the heritage of the ancient epic, are more similar to the miracles of the martyrs than to the classical mythology. The virgilian wonderful has, however, a strong ascendant on the Spanish poet: the Christian God intervenes, for example, in the actions of men in the same way as the pagan gods of the Aeneid. [34] Prudentius does not just replace the past pagan mythology with a new Christian mythology but condemn it[35] as a poetic fiction openly opposed to the real character of the prodigies present in his work (the Peristephanon often deals with the presence of witnesses who have seen and can confirm the reality and the truthfulness of the happened miracle).[36] Compared to Virgil, therefore, the meaning of the marvelous is totally changed: it is no longer a literary artifact, but a testimony of God’s real intervention.

Prudentius contracts a great debt with Virgil and all the Greek-Latin epic tradition, especially for the structure of individual fighting, following the scheme of the classical aristìa. The poet begins by describing the fighters, then exchanging blows and finally, after the final defeat of the opponent, the winner pronounces an invective. The vicissitudes of the Peristephanon martyrs recall the different phases of epic combat,[37] but it is above all in Psychomachia that the analogies are more evident. The virgilian references are not limited to the subject being treated, but many textual parallelities testify how Prudentius closely follows his model. For example, the description of Faith resumes Camilla’s one,[38] Vanity with her horse and the precious linen cloak remembers Cloreo,[39] and the triple knit fabric of Patience is taken from the Aeneid and then appeared in Waltharius.[40] The Spanish poet recovers also from Virgil some of the original types of fighting,[41] as there are some similarities in the formulas that introduce invectives at the end of each duel[42] or the end of a speech or a new episode.[43]


[1] An evolution in this direction had already taken place with the satirical literature of the I century A.D., but this change speeded up thanks to the Christian authors.

[2] Praef. 19 Nam mihi carmen erit Christi vitalia gesta.

[3] Bisanti 2007, pp. 44-45. Between the most important manuscripts we remember the Bernensis 264 and the ms. 8318 of the IX-X century preserved at the Bibliothèque National de France.

[4] To notice the interpretatio nominis prudenter … o Prudenti already used by Venantius Fortunatus in Vita Martini I, 19 prudens prudenter Prudentius immolat actus.

[5] Inst. cler. III, 18: Quam ob rem non est spernenda haec [la metrica ratio], quasi gentilibus communis ratio, sed quantum satis est perdiscenda, quia utique multi evangelici viri insignes libro hac arte condiderunt et deo placere per id satagerunt, ut fuit Iuvencus, Sedulius, Arator, Alcimus, Clemens, Paulinus et Fortunatus et ceteri multi. Likewise in Alcuin, also Rabanus here calls Prudentius (Aurelius Prudentius Clemens) simply with the cognomen Clemens.

[6] Bisanti 2007, p. 47.

[7] Antapodosis III, 3, 24-25 Iaspidis hic precium viridis rutilique topazii / spernitur et saphyrus carus pulcherque berillus.

[8] Giovini 1998, p. 497.

[9] Psych. 854-856, 860-861 Ingens chrysolitus nativo interlitus auro / hinc sibi sappirum sociaverat, inde beryllum, / distantesque nitor medium variabat honores; […] / sardonychen pingunt amethystina, pingit iaspis / sardium iuxta adpositum pulcheque topazon. Both in Prudentius and in Liutprand the stones are coupled in the same way: sapphire / beryllium (Psych. 855 e Antap. III, 3, 25) and jasper / topaz (Psych. 860-861 e Antap. III, 3, 24); the relationship between the two passages is confirmed also by the similarity of the two clauses of Psych. 861 pulcherque topazon and Antap. III, 3, 25 pulcherque berillus.

[10] Giovini 2005, 557-597.

[11] Mordeglia 2006, pp. 101-120.

[12] For a more exhaustive discussion about all the Prudentius’s works see Stella 2001, pp. 65-79.

[13] Charlet 1980, p. 217.

[14] Prudentius in the late antiquity could draw from allegorical readings of poems like Iliad and already in the imperial era the use of allegory was quite widespread. For example in Aen. VI, 273 ss. Virgil puts in the vestibule of Hell Grief and Repentance, Diseases and Old Age, Poverty and Suffering, Discord and War; Valerius Flaccus (Argonautica II, 204 ss.) narrates how Venus, to take revenge, invokes the help of Fear, Discord, Anger and Death; Statius (Theb, VII, 47 ss.) places the Temeraries, Crime, Rage, Scare and Threats to guard the Temple of War.

[15] The latter could be considered an erotic psychomachia, where the young protagonist, who attempts to conquer the Rose-Damsel in the enchanted garden of Pleasure, once made vassal of Love must fight with hostile forces to his quête (Reason, Rejection, Fear, Shame, and Malabocca’s malice), whose personification is likely to be of prudencial origin.

[16] The first verse after the Praefatio echoes Virgil, even if in the context of the laus Christi: Psych. 1 Christe, graves hominum semper miserate labores comparable to Aen. VI, 56 Phoebe, gravis Troiae semper miserate labores. To notice the replacement of Apollo with Christ in line with the Prudentius’s poetics made up from the union of Classicism and Christianity.

[17] Psych. 163 egregio comitata viro; nam proximus Iob. The allegories of the Virtues and Vices instead are all female.

[18] Cath. IV, 47 lambunt indomiti virum leones.

[19] For example Perist. II, 491 quos mira libertas viri e II, 558 gemmis coruscantem virum; VI, 16 inde ad carceream viros catenam; VII, 1 Insignem meriti virum eVII, 49 saxoque et laqueo et viro; VIII, 4 martyrium pulchra morte tulere viri; X, 1106 dixit, foroque protrahi iussit virum; XI, 11 quanta virum iaceant congestis corpora acervis; XIII, 96 flevit abire virum maesta Africa, quo docente facta est.

[20] Cath. IV, 39 inlapsis dapibus virum refovit.

[21] Cath. X, 70 sacer ac venerabilis heros.

[22] Perist. X, 52 Romanus acris heros excellentiae.

[23] Compound derived from magnitudo animis; in classical latin it has the generic meaning of “benevolent”, “noble” and “brave” but in medieval latin this term has only a negative sense: cui animus est ad iracundiam pronus (Du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis), even if the Waltharius opposes the general trend keeping the positive meaning.

[24] This couple of elements is highlighted in Aen. VI, 403 Troius Aeneas pietate insignis et armis.

[25] For example in Perist. I, 25 ss.; II, 1-20; III, 31-35; IV, 101-104. In Perist. V, 117 we can find the expression miles dei and also the concept of the military triumph is very recurring, for example in Perist. II, 1-20.

[26] Points of contact between Psychomachia and Chanson de Roland were observed by Mickel 1970, pp. 439-452.

[27] Chanson de Roland v. 1134 Se vos murez, esterez seinz martirs e 1922 Ço dist Rollant: Ci recevrums martyrie (I quote from La canzone di Orlando, edited by M. Bensi, Milano, 1985).

[28] Chanson de Roland 1135 sieges avrez el greignor pareïs; 1522 seint pareïs vos est abandunant; 2016 si prïet Deu que pareïs li dunget; 2258 de pareïs li seit la porte uverte!

[29] For example the choir of angels which accompanies Eulalia (Perist. III, 48 ss.) or which surrounds Vincent (Perist. V, 373 ss.); the angels intervene also at the end of Agnes’s martyrdom to bring her soul to Heaven (Perist. XIV, 91 ss.).

[30] As in Chanson de Roland 836 enoit m’avint par un’avisiun d’angele; 2374 Angles del ciel i descendent a lui; 2452 Ais li un angle ki od lui selt parler; 2847 Seint Gabrïel, ki de part Deu le guarde; 3993 Seint Gabrïel de part Deu li vint dire.

[31] There are direct references to Old Testament (to the Creation, to Cain and to the giants as ancestors of the monster Grendel, to the Great Flood) and we can find allusions to New Testament (the allegory of the spiritual armor and the Devil’s arrows in vv. 1743-1744 refers to the Epistle of Ephesians VI, 13-17). Beowulf is helped by God in his fight against Grendel’s mother, symbol of the Antichrist, and against the dragon, also a diabolic creature. Moreover, is condemned the insanity of sacrificing to the pagan gods (but the poet advances the justification that the Geats didn’t know yet the Lord) even if, in contradiction with this, Hrothgar, king of Danes, thanks God for Grendel’s death and describes pride as the worse of all sins (vv. 1725-1739). The presence of a faith in immortality is witnessed by some particular periphrasis (kenning, pl. kenningar) to indicate death; for example, speaking of Hrethel’s death, the poet says “he left social pleasures and chose the light of God” (vv. 2468-2469).

[32] Charlet 1980, p. 212.

[33] Following the scheme of Propp (Propp 1988).

[34] Likewise the Christ’s intervention to free the soul of the martyr Cassianus of Imola in Perist. IX, 85-88 (Tandem luctantis miseratus ab aethere Christus / iubet resolui pectoris ligamina; / difficiles moras animae ac retinacula vitae / relaxat, artas et latebras expedit) is ispired by the episode in which Juno intervenes to put an end to Dido’s agony in Aen. IV, 693-695 (Tum Iuno omnipotens longum miserata dolorem / difficilisque obitus Irim demisit Olympo / quae luctantem animam nexoque resolueret artus). Or the rain that appears miraculously to extinguish the stake of Romanus in Perist. X, 856-860 (Haec eius orsa sequitur immensus fragor / nubis ruentis; nimbus undatim nigro / praeceps aquarum flumine ignes obriut. / Alunt olivo semicombustas faces, / sed vincit imber iam madentem fomitem) remembers closely the one sent by Jupiter to extinguish the fire of the Trojan fleet in Aen. V, 693-698 (Vix haec ediderat cum effusis imbribus atra / tempestas sine more furit tonitruque tremescunt / ardua terrarum et campi; ruit aethere toto / turbibus imber aqua densisque nigerrimus Austris, / implenturque super puppes, semusta madescunt / robora).

[35] With the words of the martyr Romanus in Perist. X, 216-305.

[36] For example in the description of the rise to Heaven of the martyrs Emeterius and Chelidonius in Perist. I, 83-93 the repetition of the verb vidit highlights the genuine nature of the miracle guaranteed by eyewitnesses. At the end of the hymn dedicated to Romanus it’s cited the existence of written proofs about the facts that have taken place (Perist. X, 956-1005) and the sacristan who recounts Cassianus’s passion in Perist. IX, 17-20 affirms: quod prospicis, hospes, / non est inanis, aut anilis fabula; / historiam pictura refert, quae tradita libris / veram vetusti temporis monstrat fidem.

[37] Charlet 1980, p. 214.

[38] Psych. 23 nuda umeros intonsa comas exerta lacertos and Aen. XI, 649 unum exserta latus pugnae, pharetrata Camilla.

[39] Psych. 186-187 Carbasea ex umeris summo collecta coibat / palla sinu teretem nectens a pectore nodum and Aen. XI, 775-776 tum croceam chlamydemque sinusque crepantis / carbaseos fulvo in nodum collegerat auro.

[40] Psych. 125-126 Provida nam virtus conserto adamante trilicem / induerat thoraca umeris squamosaque ferri; Aen. III, 467 loricam consertam hamis auroque trilicem and V, 259 levibus huic hamis consertam auroque trilicem; Walth. 263 in primis galeam regis tunicamque trilicem.

[41] Chastity (Psych. 47) and Sobriety (Psych. 418) use stones like Mezentius (Aen. X, 698) and Turnus (Aen. XII, 896 ss.), Lust uses a torch as weapon (Psych. 42-43) like Corineus in Aen. XII, 300.

[42] For example Psych. 205 in vocem dictis se effundit amaris echoes Aen. X, 368 nunc dictis virtutem accendit amaris and X, 591 quem pius Aeneas dictis adfatur amaris. The invective of Chastity against Lust begins exactly as the one that Messapus addresses to Auleste (hoc habet both in Psych. 53 and in Aen. XII, 296); Pride insults the rival Humilty with the same terms with which Numanus insults the Trojans (Psych. 206-212 Non pudet […] En qui nostra suis in praedam cedere, dextris e Aen. IX, 598-600 Non pudet […] En qui nostra sibi conubia poscunt).

[43] Psych. 121 Sic ait, Psych. 253 talia vociferans, Psych. 823 haec ubi dicta dedit, Psych. 665 ventum erat … ubi (cfr. Aen. VI, 45 ventum erat … cum), Psych. 480 talia per … edebat (cfr. Aen. X, 602 talia per … edebat).

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The Prudentius's epos. A bridge between Classicism and Latin Middle Ages
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Prudentius, Christianity, Epos, Classicism, Latin, Middle Ages, Greek
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