Claudian Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.