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  • Claudian and the Roman Epic Tradition by Catherine Ware
  • Stephen Wheeler
Claudian and the Roman Epic Tradition
Catherine Ware
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. ix + 266. ISBN 978–1-107–01343–8.

This monograph deals primarily with Claudian’s political poems about the rule of the Western Roman Empire between 394 and 404. Ware makes the case that these occasional works (eight books of consular panegyric, four of invective, two war epics, and an epithalamium) formed a late antique cycle of Roman epic that renewed the mytho-historical narrative of imperial Rome launched by Virgil in the Aeneid and continued by his epic successors from Ovid to Silius Italicus. The main argument is that Claudian used the language, conventions, and memory of the Roman epic tradition to make sense of his own time and vice versa to recreate the Roman literary past in a contemporary guise. Claudian’s ultimate goal in the carmina maiora, therefore, was neither to sugar coat history nor to turn it into propaganda, but to represent “an ideal version of the empire based on the principles of Roman greatness expressed by the Augustans” (58). In short, he wanted to be the heir to Virgil in the aetas Theodosiana. (For a similar type of analysis of Claudian’s contemporary Prudentius, albeit with different results, see Marc Mastrangelo, The Roman Self in Late Antiquity: Prudentius and the Poetics of the Soul [Baltimore, 2008], 14–40, reviewed by Charles Witke in JLA 1.2 (2008), 290–92).

At the beginning of her study, Ware makes an odd claim. Most modern scholars, she says, would disagree with the classification of Claudian as “an epic poet, writing in the tradition of Homer and Virgil” (1). Yet surely no literary historian would dispute that Claudian emulates both Homer and Virgil in his mythological epic De raptu Proserpinae or in his fragmentary Greek and Latin gigantomachies. Given the title of the book, the reader may be surprised to discover that De raptu, for which Claudian is best known as an epic poet, plays only a bit part next to the political poems, which, it is true, scholars generally do not regard as traditional epic.

The book consists of an introduction and seven chapters as well as the usual front and end matter. The introduction and first two chapters are largely taken up with a literary theoretical justification and review of the textual evidence for reading Claudian’s carmina maiora as epic in the tradition of Virgil. The third chapter treats the question how Claudian reconciled the much-changed imperial reality of the Later Roman Empire with the Virgilian ideal of an imperium sine fine ruled by the emperor in Rome. Ware’s answer is that Claudian ignored the historical changes between the classical Roman past and the late antique present (e.g. Diocletian’s reforms and Christianization). He celebrated the [End Page 434] preservation of imperial order and unity by Theodosius and his surrogate Stilicho against the agents of furor who were intent on returning the world to chaos. The continuity of Rome’s epic history can be seen in the descent from Aeneas and Ascanius to Theodosius and Honorius, while Stilicho succeeded Theodosius as the Aeneas-like hero and protector of Rome. As soon as the eastern court ceased to recognize Stilicho’s regency, Claudian “amputated” the East from the Roman Empire. In the fourth chapter, Ware explores the inspiration for Claudian’s idea of the cyclical nature of imperial time in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Fasti. Her ultimate point is that Claudian viewed the age of Theodosius as an example of the circular return of the golden age originally predicted for the rule of Augustus by Anchises in Aeneid 6. The fifth chapter, “Enemies of Roman Order,” demonstrates how Claudian modeled the adversaries of Stilicho on past villains of epic who opposed cosmic order or Rome. Rufinus is a monstrous opponent of Hercules; Gildo, a second Hannibal; Eutropius, another Pothinus; Alaric, a latter-day Giant, Phaethon, Turnus, and Hannibal.

The final two chapters form a two-part study of Claudian’s specialized definition of the golden age based on his reading of Virgil’s Georgics, which...


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pp. 434-436
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