Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.11.22

Thomas Kellner, Die Göttergestalten in Claudians De raptu Proserpinae. Polarität und Koinzidenz als anthropozentrische Dialektik mythologisch formulierter Weltvergewisserung. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde Band 106.   Stuttgart and Leipzig:  B.G. Teubner, 1997.  Pp. 341.  ISBN 3-519-07655-1.  

Reviewed by Stephen Wheeler, Pennsylvania State University/Freie Universität Berlin (
Word count: 2720 words

This lightly revised dissertation accepted by the Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg in 1997 examines the human psychology and allegoricalmeaning of the gods in Claudian's De Raptu Proserpinae (DRP). The argument is complex but depends principally on the idea that Claudian organizes the myth of Proserpina's rape around a cosmic dialectic of "polarity" and "coincidence" whose teleological fulfillment is the social advancement of mankind. This dialectic is evident, for example, in the way that Claudian reshapes his inherited material. Pluto demands a wife from Jupiter and threatens to wage war against heaven if his brother does not comply. Jupiter avoids a revolt by arranging Proserpina's abduction and marriage to Pluto. The "polar" opposition of Jupiter and Pluto is thus resolved into a "coincidence" of purpose. The deeper motive for the agreement of brothers, however, is neither the appeasement of Pluto's power nor the preservation of Jupiter's. Rather, as Jupiter reveals in his speech to the assembled gods at the beginning of Book 3, fate dictates the rape of Proserpina and the suffering of Ceres in order that human beings may receive the gift of grain and thereby be delivered from an acorn-diet. One of the purposes of this study is to show that the anthropocentric dialectic of polarity and coincidence manifests itself in the personalities of Jupiter, Pluto, Ceres, and Proserpina, as well as in the relationship of these gods to each other. The gods, in turn, are an allegory for the operation of this dialectic in nature, fate, and human history. They not only symbolize a universal process of conflict, sacrifice, and compromise, but also are an analogy for the very humanity that is the final cause of this process. The author concludes that DRP is not an escapist form of literature but a didactic Roman cosmological epic in the tradition of the Aeneid, through which (in contrast to his contemporary political poetry) Claudian reveals his true political and philosophical beliefs about the imperial crisis at the end of the fourth century, the nature of the world, and what the future holds in store for humanity.

The work is divided into two major parts and is followed by a structural overview of DRP, bibliography, and indices. The first part (1-60) consists of two sections of an introductory nature: a summary of Claudianic scholarship and a survey of methodological premises. The review of scholarship (5-37) is usefully divided into problem-complexes and demonstrates the author's command of the extensive bibliography on DRP. The section on methodological premises (38-59) is a series of self-contained, sometimes overly complicated, discussions of literary critical topics that bear on the interpretation of DRP: the incomplete state of the poem, Claudian's learned eclecticism in his reception of the literary tradition, ambiguity of meaning, intertextuality, allegory and allegoresis, the importance of authorial intention, and the historical contingency of meaning in reception aesthetics. Some of this material (e.g. reception aesthetics) proves to be of little practical use for the rest of the work. In general, the first part of the dissertation could have been shorter and contained a clear statement of the author's purpose.

The second part of the dissertation (61-274) falls into three major sections. The first section (61-218) -- the core of the book -- investigates the characterization, motivation, and psychology of Jupiter, Pluto, Ceres, and Proserpina through their speeches and the speeches that are addressed to them. To this end, the author presents close readings of 15 speeches (all told 336 lines, or thirty percent, of the text), through which he describes on a literal mythological level the feelings and actions of the gods. The method of analysis is a word-by-word paraphrase and philological commentary on every line of every speech, supported by frequent references to lexica and commentaries and relieved by occasional intertextual comparisons to relevant passages in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Praiseworthy here is the sensitive and detailed attention to the motivations of Claudian's gods; however, the exposition is sometimes repetitive and could have been condensed. At the end of the analysis, the author finally introduces his thesis of the dialectic of polarity and coincidence and illustrates it in the personality-complex of each god and in the role that each plays within the story of Proserpina. The results are mixed. Jupiter's "maturing" personality as a statesman (for which there is not much textual evidence) does not exhibit a dialectical structure, and the dialectic character-development of Ceres and Proserpina cannot be definitively proven because the fourth book of DRP is absent. Pluto is the only character in which this dialectic completes itself, as the two opposing aspects of his personality -- the grim ruler of the dead who threatens heaven and the fertility god associated with the rebirth of life -- coincide in his new role as Proserpina's husband.

The second section of the second part (219-68) elaborates on the different levels of allegorical meaning that are available to the reader. On the political-social level (220-40), the author points out contemporary references in DRP to the late antique imperial world and follows W. Kirsch (Die lateinische Versepik des 4. Jahrhunderts [Berlin 1989]) and T. Duc (Le 'De raptu Proserpinae' de Claudien [Bern 1994]) in identifying Jupiter and Pluto with the brother-emperors Honorius and Arcadius. Similarly, he agrees with Kirsch that the poem's emphasis upon the gift of grain to mankind reflects the chronic problem of Rome's grain supply. K. rightly resists an overly specific allegorization of the text such as Duc's equation of Proserpina with the province Illyria. On the metaphysical-cosmological level (241-65), the reader is presented with a survey of the ecphrastic descriptions in DRP (persons, places, works of art) that establish an interrelationship between physical nature and the inner character of the gods. On the subject of fate and history (265-68), Kellner (K.) argues that Jupiter's speech to the gods reveals the dialectic of polarity and coincidence in the evolution of human civilization. Jupiter reforms the lazy golden age of Saturn with its opposite -- the wretched, hard-working, acorn-eating iron age; under pressure from Natura, however, Jupiter finds a compromise between the two ages through the gift of grain and the introduction of farming. While there is certainly a tripartite structure in his account of history, Jupiter studiously avoids the modified scheme of metallic ages that K. imposes upon it. The final section of the book (269-87) expands on the idea of the anthropocentrism of Claudian's treatment of myth and presents an array of conclusions that reflect the different layers of meaning in DRP.

The main contribution of this dissertation is to read Claudian's DRP as a metaphysical-cosmological poem about nature, fate, history, and humanity. The author builds on and partly corrects the imperial-political interpretations of Kirsch and Duc, while relying on U. Schmitzer's Zeitgeschichte in Ovids Metamorphosen (Stuttgart 1990) for his account of philosophical allegory and allegoresis in the epic tradition. The question remains, nonetheless, where the scheme of polarity and coincidence comes from. Indeed, it is unclear why these particular terms are used and what precisely they mean (the clearest exposition appears on p.219). The dialectic of polarity and coincidence bears a certain resemblance to the Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, which K. adduces at one point as a parallel for the succession of golden, iron, and farming ages in the speech of Jupiter (260). In the epigraphs to the dissertation, the author quotes Heraclitean aphorisms on the harmony of opposites. Toward the end of the book, he mentions Heraclitus and Empedocles as important philosophical sources for the idea of polarity and coincidence (281), but refers the reader to J. Hirschberger's Geschichte der Philosophie (Freiburg 1976) for further discussion of philosophical sources. Finally, K. cites V. Pöschl's Die Dichtkunst Virgils (Berlin 1977) as testimony for the dialectic of concordia discors in the Aeneid (282), upon which Claudian draws in DRP. K.'s use of the idea of polarity and coincidence would have been more compelling if, instead of citing secondary sources, he had documented what Claudian's literary or philosophical sources for these terms were and what linguistic evidence in DRP (or in Claudian's other poems) would support their usage.

The dissertation's rhetorical strategy may pose a difficulty for some readers. The author chooses not to state his thesis at the beginning of the work and prove it through a literary analysis of DRP. Rather, he withholds his thesis until p.216, after he has carefully prepared the way for it with an "objective" reading of the text. This strategy may exonerate K. from the charge of being one-sided, but it also takes a toll on the reader's patience: most of the dissertation has no discernible line of argument. The only clues to K.'s eventual orientation are what he agrees or disagrees with in the secondary literature that he surveys. The presentation would have been more effective and interesting, in my opinion, if the thesis were stated within the first thirty pages of the dissertation. More important, even if the author had preferred not to make a full statement of his thesis at the beginning, he should have at least let the reader briefly know what the dissertation aimed to achieve and how it was organized.

The dissertation lays emphasis on the political and philosophical subtexts of DRP but devotes little energy to literary, artistic, or cultural levels of meaning. One especially misses the contextualization of DRP within late antique poetry and art. In this regard, it is telling that the author does not appear to be aware of Michael Roberts's The Jeweled Style (Ithaca 1989). Another under-explored area is Claudian's literary historical reception of the epic tradition, especially the epic divine machinery. K. prefers to relate Claudian's gods to frames of reference that are neither epic nor classical. For example, the compromise between Jupiter and Pluto shows that they are both "Verantwortungsethiker" in the sense defined by the modern sociologist Max Weber in his work Politik als Beruf (207). Later, Jupiter and Pluto are to be understood as the opposite of Robert Musil's "Mann ohne Eigenschaften" (218). For an audience of classicists, however, it is regrettable that K. does not take advantage of D. Feeney's The Gods in Epic (Oxford 1991) in order to reflect on the nature of Claudian's gods. As far as allegory and allegoresis go, consultation of P. Hardie's Virgil's Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium (Oxford 1986) would also have been worthwhile, if only to prompt attention to the prevalent theme of gigantomachy in DRP, which reflects late antique anxiety about the barbarian threat to civilization. The author takes little notice of this allegorical subtext, as he focuses on Rome's grain supply and the salvation of mankind as the central determinants of meaning in DRP.

On the problem of DRP's unfinished state (Claudian completed three of four books), the dissertation proceeds from the assumption of a closed four-book work (the use of the term "der fragmentarische Überlieferungszustand" misleadingly suggests that the text was completed but not transmitted). The author's certainty that the poem would have ended harmoniously allows him to discount the effect of the poem as it stands; that is, he does not take the revolt of Ceres against Jupiter seriously because he knows that the poem would have ended with Ceres's gift of grain to mankind. But the very incompleteness of the poem has an unsettling effect, raising the old problem of closure in epic, in which the attainment of a final cosmic order is continually destabilized by the recurrence of chaos (cf. P. Hardie, The Epic Successors of Virgil [Cambridge 1993]). K. chooses not to deal with this issue, but confidently puts all of his interpretive eggs in the basket of Jupiter's speech to the gods, which promises a happy ending for mankind.

The dissertation has a fondness for deliberately difficult expression (witness the subtitle of the work) and makes little concession to readers who are not native speakers of German. The section on Gadamer and reception aesthetics (53-59), for instance, is so complicated that it may discourage some readers from continuing. In general, it would have been helpful if the dissertation were written in a clearer, more accessible style so as to reach a wider audience and so as not to obscure the author's interpretation of Claudian. The organization of the dissertation could also have been improved for the reader's benefit. For example, the introduction on pp.46-48 of W. Bernard's distinction between Stoic substitutive allegory and Neo-platonic dihairetic allegory in Spätantike Dichtungstheorien (Stuttgart 1990) must wait 220 pages before it plays a role in the argument, by which time the reader may have forgotten what he or she did not grasp the first time (at p.270, the cross-reference to the earlier discussion should read "" not "2.3.3"). Finally, the author runs the risk of alienating the reader through his superior and self-serving criticism of other scholarship. Gratuitous, for example, is the constant reminder in footnotes of what E. Potz overlooks in his Kommentar zu De raptu Proserpinae Buch 1 (Diss. Graz 1984). In fact, the author's zeal to refute or show up Potz (who holds the unlikely position that Claudian's DRP is committed to reviving belief in the cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries) is so consuming that it becomes more important than a positive statement of the dissertation's thesis. Also uncalled for is the polemic against those (an unidentified group) who would treat DRP from a feminist perspective (180). Not only is the caricature of feminist criticism of questionable taste and utility, but such intolerance runs counter to one of his methodological premises (otherwise unobserved in a work that focuses solely on Claudian's authorial intention): i.e., that meaning is contingent upon one's historical perspective.

The dissertation is ambitious in its scope but tries to do too much, resulting in blind spots and a loss of control over details. Terms are misused or not properly defined (e.g., enallage at p.113; "Apostrophierung" at p.96, 101, and passim); generic and literary conventions are not fully understood or properly invoked (e.g., love elegy at p. 114 and p.195; the topos of "fama" on pp.146-47). A more careful proofreading and crosschecking of references would have eliminated many of the numerous typos and erroneous quotations (or citations) of Greek, Latin, and secondary sources. Another unsavory feature of the dissertation is its habit of re-quoting Claudian's text without observing the original word order or case- and verb-endings. Finally, if one wants a convenient guide to the work, the ten-page "Register" of "Namen, Begriffe, und Sachen (in Auswahl)" is not the place to go. For example, if the reader wants to know about "Polarität", the first two references point to pp.4 and 5 where the word does not appear. As for "Koinzidenz," the first reference (p.5) is erroneous; the following two lead the reader to irrelevant uses of the word; and the next two to section titles. The reader curious about "Dante" is referred to a work cited in the thirty-page bibliography (Dante is not mentioned in the dissertation). Another difficulty with the index is that the entries for frequently discussed persons or characters (e.g., Claudian) are not sub-indexed. Consequently, one is confronted with a half-page column of the pages in which Claudian's name appears (virtually every page of the dissertation!). An unadvertised feature of the "selective" index is the listing of adjectives that the author uses ("absolut," "absolutisch," "aitiologisch," etc.). The unintended consequence of this questionable procedure is that it is possible to see which adjectives are used most frequently in the dissertation: "politisch," "römisch," "episch," "philosophisch," "stoisch," and "religiös" (for which there are two entries, an earlier version and a later version). The index is symptomatic of the dissertation's undigested, bulky, and sometimes unreliable presentation of information.

Despite problems in execution, this study makes some inroads into Claudian's mythological epic that readers may not wish to overlook. It presents a worthwhile case for reading DRP as an allegorizing cosmological epic in the tradition of the Aeneid, although one may question the depth and consistency of Claudian's philosophical commitments. Also welcome is the attention that K. gives to the continuities of divine characterization, fate, and nature in DRP, countering the old view that the poem is a discontinuous collection of rhetorical set pieces. Finally, K. offers a challenging and thought-provoking interpretation of the gods in DRP, the validity of which can be put to the test in future research and debate.

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