Claudian Essay - Critical Essays



Claudian c. 370-c. 404

(Also known as Claudius Claudianus) Latin poet.

An undisputed master of the Latin hexameter, Claudian is considered the last of the important classical poets of Rome. He is famous for his panegyrics (praiseful compositions) directed to Flavius Stilicho, who essentially ruled the Western Roman Empire from 395 to 408; for his invectives against Rufinus and Eutropius of Eastern Rome; and for De Raptu Proserpinae (begun circa 396; The Rape of Proserpine), an unfinished epic based on the Greek myth of Persephone. Claudian's historical value is also great since his writings are the chief source—sometimes the only source—of knowledge about the Roman Empire during the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Claudian's life. It is generally supposed that he was born in Alexandria, Egypt, about 370, and that he spoke Greek. Nothing is known of his family or of his education, although his expertise in Latin indicates that he was well educated. By 395 he was living in Rome, where his mastery of Latin led him to the career of court poet to the emperor Honorius as well as the man who in reality led the Western Empire: the powerful general Stilicho, who became Claudian's patron. Claudian's panegyrics honored Roman leaders and their families, while his invectives skewered Rufinus, Eutropius, and many others whom Claudian disagreed politically. Honorius's brother, Arcadius, was the nominal leader of the Eastern Roman Empire but it was actually Rufinus and Eutropius who were in control. Claudian prospered while Stilicho was prominent, but when Stilicho's political fortunes drastically diminished, Claudian was forced to plead for his life and beg his opponents for mercy. Nothing is known about him after 404, which leads many scholars to believe he died about that time.

Major Works

Claudian's extant works comprise approximately ten thousand verses. His first efforts at poetry were written in Greek, and these include two surviving fragments comprising 128 lines from Gigantomachia (before 395; War of the Giants). Although Gigantomachia is typically attributed to Claudian, scholars are not absolutely certain that he wrote it. His first major work in Latin is Panegyricus dictus Probino et Olybrio consulibus (395), which celebrates the joint rule of magistrates Probinus and Olybrius. Scholars debate the date of composition of the first of three books which comprise De Raptu Proserpinae, but convincing arguments have been made that it may date to 396 or possibly even earlier. De Raptu Proserpinae is the most studied of Claudian's works in the modern age, a fact reflected in its numerous translations. Panegyricus de tertio consulatu Honorii Augusti (396) honored the third consulship of Honorius. Claudian wrote two other such works celebrating his fourth and sixth consulships: Panegyricus de quarto consulatu Honorii Augusti (398) and Panegyricus de sexto consulatu Honorii Augusti (404). Critics have heaped scorn upon Claudian for his high praise of a man historians agree was a particularly poor emperor; Claudian's panegyrics to Honorius more than anything else have damaged the poet's reputation and have made all of his other assessments of politicians suspect. Two historical works on military matters include De Bello Gildonico (398; War against Gildo), an uncompleted work which survives in 526 lines about the victory against the rebel Gildo, and De Bello Getico (402; Gothic War), an unfinished epic which praises Stilicho for his military prowess. Claudian's incendiary skills are best displayed in two works: In Rufinum (397) is a vicious attack against Rufinus—hell is too good for him, writes Claudian. A work in the same vein is In Eutropium (399), which denounces Eutropius.

Critical Reception

Claudian's work was well received in his time and he was recognized for his skill by friends and enemies alike. In about 400, the Senate requested that a statue of him be placed in the Forum; its inscription states that he has the mind of Vergil and the inspiration of Homer. Claudian's popularity in the past is further attested to by the more than one hundred different manuscripts of his work that survive. Because all of them suffer to one degree or another from corruption, Claudian scholars have a virtually impossible task in determining which portions are most true to the original. Claire Gruzelier has taken the approach of trying to determine Claudian's intent by relying chiefly on the literary merits of the passage under consideration. This approach occasionally leads to the rejection of passages that may have been traditionally accepted, in favor of similar but alternate phrases. The assumption is that these texts lend themselves to a more subjective interpretation because they may have been originally miscopied or confused by a scribe. Such scholars as Michael Dewar urge great care in interpretation but agree that, with as many contested passages as are extant, there is little alternative to making informed judgments. Although Claudian's reputation as the greatest of the Roman panegyrists has never been in jeopardy, the fact that he was so extreme in praising his patron has forced historians to try to recognize his strong bias and distorted perception of events. In contrast, many critics find Claudian's invectives more noteworthy, in their own genre, than his praiseful works. Harry Levy finds In Rufinum one of Claudian's most successful efforts: “The simplicity and the coherence of the plan, the vigor of the execution, and the relative scarcity of elaboration and digression form a pleasing contrast to the tediousness and the repetition which mar many of the Panegyrics.” Edward Gibbon, in his classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is decidedly more mixed in his assessment of Claudian. Although “Claudian does not either satisfy or silence our reason,” although readers cannot find “the happy invention and artificial conduct of an interesting fable, or the just and lively representation of the characters and situations of real life,” he is credited with an “absolute command” of Latin and of having “soared above the heads of his feeble contemporaries.” Gibbon also points out that the works of Claudian continue to be read with pleasure in modern times, in contrast to those of his contemporaries and rivals, whose works are now almost forgotten.

Principal Works

Gigantomachia (poetry) before 395

Panegyricus dictus Probino et Olybrio consulibus (poetry) 395

De Raptu Proserpinae I (poetry) c. 396

Panegyricus de tertio consulatu Honorii Augusti (poetry) 396

Deprecatio ad Hadrianum (poetry) 397

In Rufinum I (poetry) 397

In Rufinum II (poetry) 397

De Bello Gildonico (poetry) 398

Panegyricus de quarto consulatu Honorii Augusti (poetry) 398

In Eutropium I (poetry) 399

In Eutropium II (poetry) 399

De Raptu Proserpinae II (poetry) c. 400

De Raptu Proserpinae III (poetry) c. 400

De Bello Getico (poetry) 402

Panegyricus de sexto consulatu Honorii Augusti (poetry) 404

Claudian (translated by Maurice Platnauer) 1922

Claudian's “In Rufinum” (translated by Harry L. Levy) 1971

*The Rape of Proserpine (translated by Harold Isbell) 1971

De Raptv Proserpinae (translated by Claire Gruzelier) 1993

Panegyricvs De Sexto Consvlatv Honorii Avgvsti (translated by Michael Dewar) 1996

The Rape of Proserpine (translated by David R. Slavitt inBroken Columns: Two Roman Epic Fragments) 1997

*In The Last Poets of Imperial Rome.


Terrot Reaveley Glover (essay date 1901)

SOURCE: “Claudian,” in Life and Letters in the Fourth Century, Russell & Russell, 1901, pp. 216-48.

[In the following excerpt, Glover examines the style, manner, and method of Claudian's panegyrics and invectives.]

We've drunk to our English brother
          (And we hope he'll understand).


It seems that both Virgil and Horace were invited to write a great epic on the deeds of Augustus, and both declined the task. Virgil, as we read in the third Georgic, thought of it, but he gave up the theme as unsuited to poetic treatment. Horace instead wrote the Emperor an epistle on literary criticism, though he would have...

(The entire section is 14059 words.)

J. H. E. Crees (essay date 1908)

SOURCE: “Claudian's Silence: Contribution to History,” in Claudian as an Historical Authority, Cambridge University Press, 1908, pp. 183-92.

[In the following excerpt, Crees examines the question of Claudian's reliability as an historian, particularly when his subject is his patron, the powerful general Flavius Stilicho.]

The period which we have been considering is in no wise a rounded whole. Such unity as the Age of Claudian possesses, it derives from the fact that Claudian flourished then, and in his occasional poems celebrated contemporary history. If Claudian had continued to sound the praises of Stilicho until his death, 408 a.d., the years 395-408 a.d. could...

(The entire section is 2861 words.)

Harry L. Levy (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: “The Historical Background of Claudian's Invective, In Rufinum,” in The Invective “In Rufinum” of Claudius Claudianus, edited by Harry L. Levy, The W. F. Humphrey Press Inc., 1935, pp. 7-26.

[In the following essay, Levy examines the career of Flavius Rufinus, the subject inveighed against in one of Claudian's most celebrated poems.]


When Theodosius the Great died at Milan on January 17, 395, he left a troubled Empire to be divided between his two sons, the Augusti2 Arcadius and Honorius. The former received the Eastern, the latter...

(The entire section is 12955 words.)

Harry L. Levy (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: “Claudian's Neglect of Magic as a Motif,” in Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 79, 1948, pp. 87-91.

[In the following essay, Levy speculates that Claudian essentially ignored magic in his writings because it was associated with Eastern culture and Claudian wished to stress his identity as a Roman.]

In an article written in 1941, which has only recently reached this country, Eitrem discusses the use of magic as a motif in Greek and Latin literature.1 He begins his discussion of Greek writings with the Homeric poems, and ends with the authors of the Hellenistic novel. On the Latin side, his chronological range extends from...

(The entire section is 2027 words.)

Harry L. Levy (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: “Themes of Encomium and Invective in Claudian,” in Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 89, 1958, pp. 336-47.

[In the following essay, Levy examines three themes developed by Claudian, noting their close relationship to the political, social, and religious conditions of his time.]

Under the rubrics of encomium and invective can be listed the major portion of Claudian's writings. Some of his longer poems are panegyrics pure and simple. Here belong the encomia on the third, on the fourth, and on the sixth consulships of the Emperor Honorius; a panegyric on the consulship of Stilicho; another on that of the brothers Probinus and...

(The entire section is 4386 words.)

J. B. Hall (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: An introduction to Claudian: “De Raptu Proserpinae,” Cambridge University Press, 1969, pp. 1-114.

[In the following excerpt, Hall critiques attempts to date the The Rape of Proserpine.]


Whereas the panegyrics and invectives can all be more or less precisely dated because of the references in them to historical events,1 the lack of such references in the three books of the D.R.P. [De Raptu Proserpinae], coupled with the disputed interpretation of its two prefaces, has given rise to a number of substantially different dating theories, no one of which has met with universal...

(The entire section is 4556 words.)

Alan Cameron (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “From Panegyrist to Propagandist,” in Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius, Oxford University Press, 1970, pp. 30-45.

[In the following excerpt, Cameron examines Claudian's motivation for trumpeting Stilicho's policies in his poems.]

Rome in the late fourth century was not a city which welcomed foreigners. Ammianus Marcellinus, a Greek ex-soldier from Antioch, has left us a vivid record of the reception he met with when he retired to Rome. The parasitic urban plebs resented the extra mouths that ate their bread, and were always clamouring for foreigners to be expelled from the city, especially in times of scarcity. And the highly...

(The entire section is 6301 words.)

Sabine G. MacCormack (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “The Emperor and His City,” in Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity, University of California Press, 1981, pp. 50-61.

[In the following excerpt, MacCormack analyzes Claudian's treatment of the theme of imperial arrival and presence.]


Julian's reign was incomplete; his own image of the imperial office was idiosyncratic and a little baffling to contemporaries. This makes all the more impressive the certainty of touch with which his adventus was seized upon in so many cities and articulated with such unusual zest and consistency. The element in adventus which made the ceremony a...

(The entire section is 6742 words.)

Jacqueline Long (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Stance and Purpose,” in Claudian's “In Eutropium”: Or, How, When, and Why to Slander a Eunuch, The University of North Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 221-62.

[In the following excerpt, Long analyzes Claudian's attitude towards the relations between the western and eastern Roman empires, particularly as advanced in In Eutropium.]

Books 1 and 2 of In Eutropium are set apart by their different dynamic structures as formal invective and epic. They respond to different circumstances. This chapter explores the apparent aims of the responses. Book 1's systematic stepwise progress through argument, while exploiting various irrational prejudices,...

(The entire section is 20681 words.)

Further Reading


Haasse, Hella S. Threshold of Fire: A Novel of Fifth-Century Rome. 1964. Translated by Anita Miller and Nini Blinstrub. Chicago: Academy Chicago Pubs., 1997, 255p.

Historical novel, originally published in Dutch, that speculates on Claudian's life and the possibility that he was Jewish.


Barnes, T. D. “Claudian and the Notitia Dignitatum.Phoenix 32, No. 1 (1978): 81-82.

Explains how Claudian can be used to confirm the date of compilation of the Notitia Dignitatum.

Cameron, Alan. “Notes on Claudian's Invectives.” The Classical...

(The entire section is 374 words.)