1902 Encyclopedia > Claudius Claudianus (Claudian)

Claudius Claudianus
(commonly known as: Claudian)
Roman poet
(died c. 404 AD)

CLAUDIUS CLAUDIANUS, the gifted poet who shed lustre on the last decrepid era of Roman literature, was, as we learn from himself (Epist. 1), an Egyptian by birth, and probably a native of Alexandria, It may be con-jectured from his name that he was of Roman extraction, and it is hardly possible that he should have acquired such mastery over the Latin language if it had not been familiar to him from his boyhood. We have, however, his own authority for the assertion that his first poetical composi-tions were in Greek, and that he had written nothing in Latin before 395 A.D. In that year he appears to have come to Rome, and made his debut 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 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 in-terposition the poet was within a year or two enabled to contract a wealthy marriage in Africa (Epist. 2). Pre-vious 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 repres-sion of a revolt in Africa. To these succeeded his piece on the consulship of Mallius Theodorus (399,/, the un-finished 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 con-sulship 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, how-ever, be plausibly 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. Nor, on the other hand, is ground wanting for the surmise that he may have survived Stilicho, as in the dedication to the second book of his epic on the Rape of Proserpine, he speaks of his disuse of poetry in terms hardly reconcil-able with the fertility which, as we have seen, 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.

We have already enumerated Claudian's chief poems, to which only remain to be added a number of short descrip-tive pieces and epigrams, his lively Fescennines on the emperor's marriage, his panegyric on Serena, and the Gigantomachia, a fragment of an unfinished epic. Several poems expressing Christian sentiments are undoubtedly spurious. There can be no question of his paganism, which, however, neither prevented his celebrating Christian rulers and magistrates nor his enjoying the distinction of a court laureate. We have his own authority for his having been honoured by a bronze statue in the forum, although the inscription on the pedestal which Pomponius Laetus professed to have discovered in the 15th century is almost certainly spurious.

Claudian's position in literature is unique. It is suffi-ciently 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 down-fall of Bufinus, where the punishment of a public male-factor 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 Bufinus 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 Borne, 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 genera] 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 inaccu-racy in his facts, whatever may be thought of the colour-ing he chooses to impart to them. As correctly observed by his latest critic, Mr Hodgkin, 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 appro-priate 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.

Claudian's works must have been carefully edited in his own time, for his epigrams include several short pieces evidently prepared for insertion in or rejected from poems of greater compass. The editio princeps was printed at Vicenza in 1482 ; the best subsequent editions are those by Gesner (1759), Burmann (1760), and Jeep (1872). There is a complete English translation of little merit, by Abraham Hawkins (London, 1817), and a version of the Rape of Proserpine, by Dean Howard. Some excellent criticism on Claudian will be found in Professor Ramsay's article in Smith's Classical Dictionary, and in two lectures by Mr Thomas Hodgkin (Newcastle, 1875). (E. G.)

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