1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Claudianus, Claudius
CLAUDIANUS, CLAUDIUS, Latin epic poet and panegyrist, flourished during the reign of Arcadius and Honorius. He was an Egyptian by birth, probably an Alexandrian, but it may be conjectured from his name and his mastery of Latin that he was of Roman extraction. His own authority has been assumed for the assertion that his first poetical compositions were in Greek, and that he had written nothing in Latin before A.D. 395; but this seems improbable, and the passage (Carm. Min. xli. 13) which is taken to prove it does not necessarily bear this meaning. In that year he appears to have come to Rome, and made his début as a Latin poet by a panegyric on the consulship of Olybrius and Probinus, the first brothers not belonging to the imperial family who had ever simultaneously filled the office of consul. This piece proved the precursor of the series of panegyrical poems which compose the bulk of his writings. In Birt’s edition a complete chronological list of Claudian’s poems is given, and also in J. B. Bury’s edition of Gibbon (iii. app. i. p. 485), where the dates given differ slightly from those in the present article.
In 396 appeared the encomium on the third consulship of the emperor Honorius, and the epic on the downfall of Rufinus, the unworthy minister of Arcadius at Constantinople. This revolution was principally effected by the contrivance of Stilicho, the great general and minister of Honorius. Claudian’s poem appears to have obtained his patronage, or rather perhaps that of his wife Serena, by whose interposition the poet was within a year or two enabled to contract a wealthy marriage in Africa (Epist. 2). Previously to this event he had produced (398) his panegyric on the fourth consulship of Honorius, his epithalamium on the marriage of Honorius to Stilicho’s daughter, Maria, and his poem on the Gildonic war, celebrating the repression of a revolt in Africa. To these succeeded his piece on the consulship of Manlius Theodorus (399), the unfinished or mutilated invective against the Byzantine prime minister Eutropius in the same year, the epics on Stilicho’s first consulship and on his repulse of Alaric (400 and 403), and the panegyric on the sixth consulship of Honorius (404). From this time all trace of Claudian is lost, and he is generally supposed to have perished with his patron Stilicho in 408. It may be conjectured that he must have died in 404, as he could hardly otherwise have omitted to celebrate the greatest of Stilicho’s achievements, the destruction of the barbarian host led by Radagaisus in the following year. On the other hand, he may have survived Stilicho, as in the dedication to the second book of his epic on the Rape of Proserpine (which Birt, however, assigns to 395–397), he speaks of his disuse of poetry in terms hardly reconcilable with the fertility which he displayed during his patron’s lifetime. From the manner in which Augustine alludes to him in his De civitate Dei, it may be inferred that he was no longer living at the date of the composition of that work, between 415 and 428.
Besides Claudian’s chief poems, his lively Fescennines on the emperor’s marriage, his panegyric on Serena, and the Gigantomachia, a fragment of an unfinished Greek epic, may also be mentioned. Several poems expressing Christian sentiments are undoubtedly spurious. Claudian’s paganism, however, neither prevented his celebrating Christian rulers and magistrates nor his enjoying the distinction of a court laureate. It is probable that he was nominally a Christian, like his patron Stilicho and Ausonius, although at heart attached to the old religion. The very decided statements of Orosius and Augustine as to his heathenism may be explained by the pagan style of Claudian’s political poems. We have his own authority for his having been honoured by a bronze statue in the forum, and Pomponius Laetus discovered in the 15th century an inscription (C.I.L. vi. 1710) on the pedestal, which, formerly considered spurious, is now generally regarded as genuine.
The position of Claudian—the last of the Roman poets—is unique in literature. It is sufficiently remarkable that, after nearly three centuries of torpor, the Latin muse should have experienced any revival in the age of Honorius, nothing less than amazing that this revival should have been the work of a foreigner, most surprising of all that a just and enduring celebrity should have been gained by official panegyrics on the generally uninteresting transactions of an inglorious epoch. The first of these particulars bespeaks Claudian’s taste, rising superior to the prevailing barbarism, the second his command of language, the third his rhetorical skill. As remarked by Gibbon, “he was endowed with the rare and precious talent of raising the meanest, of adorning the most barren, and of diversifying the most similar topics.” This gift is especially displayed in his poem on the downfall of Rufinus, where the punishment of a public malefactor is exalted to the dignity of an epical subject by the magnificence of diction and the ostentation of supernatural machinery. The noble exordium, in which the fate of Rufinus is propounded as the vindication of divine justice, places the subject at once on a dignified level; and the council of the infernal powers has afforded a hint to Tasso, and through him to Milton. The inevitable monotony of the panegyrics on Honorius is relieved by just and brilliant expatiation on the duties of a sovereign. In his celebration of Stilicho’s victories Claudian found a subject more worthy of his powers, and some passages, such as the description of the flight of Alaric, and of Stilicho’s arrival at Rome, and the felicitous parallel between his triumphs and those of Marius, rank among the brightest ornaments of Latin poetry. Claudian’s panegyric, however lavish and regardless of veracity, is in general far less offensive than usual in his age, a circumstance attributable partly to his more refined taste and partly to the genuine merit of his patron Stilicho. He is a valuable authority for the history of his times, and is rarely to be convicted of serious inaccuracy in his facts, whatever may be thought of the colouring he chooses to impart to them. He was animated by true patriotic feeling, in the shape of a reverence for Rome as the source and symbol of law, order and civilization. Outside the sphere of actual life he is less successful; his Rape of Proserpine, though the beauties of detail are as great as usual, betrays his deficiency in the creative power requisite for dealing with a purely ideal subject. This denotes the rhetorician rather than the poet, and in general it may be said that his especial gifts of vivid natural description, and of copious illustration, derived from extensive but not cumbrous erudition, are fully as appropriate to eloquence as to poetry. In the general cast of his mind and character of his writings, and especially, in his faculty for bestowing enduring interest upon occasional themes, we may fitly compare him with Dryden, remembering that while Dryden exulted in the energy of a vigorous and fast-developing language, Claudian was cramped by an artificial diction, confined to the literary class.
The editio princeps of Claudian was printed at Vicenza in 1482; the editions of J. M. Gesner (1759) and P. Burmann (1760) are still valuable for their notes. The first critical edition was that of L. Jeep (1876–1879), now superseded by the exhaustive work of T. Birt, with bibliography, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica (x., 1892; smaller ed. founded on this by J. Koch, Teubner series, 1893). There is a separate edition with commentary and verse translation of Il Ratto di Proserpina, by L. Garces de Diez (1889); the satire In Eutropium is discussed by T. Birt in Zwei politische Satiren des alten Rom (1888). There is a complete English verse translation of little merit by A. Hawkins (1817). See the articles by Ramsay in Smith’s Classical Dictionary and Vollmer in Pauly-Wissowa’s Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, iii. 2 (1899); also J. H. E. Crees, Claudian as an Historian (1908), the “Cambridge Historical Essay” for 1906 (No. 17); T. Hodgkin, Claudian, the last of the Roman Poets (1875).