Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.13
Catherine Ware, Claudian and the Roman Epic Tradition. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 266. ISBN 9781107013438. $99.00.
Reviewed by Clare Coombe, University of Bristol (email@example.com)
Ware’s monograph provides an overdue reassessment of the poetry of the fourth century Roman ‘court poet’ Claudian in terms of its literary qualities, and specifically its relationship to the tradition of epic. Her work engages with the growing trend towards the analysis of poetics in late antique poetry, which is emerging especially in European scholarship, and is a welcome Anglophone contribution to the developing debate. Her approach to Claudian’s corpus, which views it in terms of the influence and manipulation of the epic genre, is a reminder of the reasons not to isolate the poetry of late antiquity from its literary heritage, yet simultaneously provides a framework for reconsidering the efficacy of Claudian’s poetics to promote a literary and, in particular, political agenda.
Ware’s claim that Claudian should be considered first and foremost as an epic poet is at the heart of her approach to the texts; understandably, therefore, she takes as her corpus for study principally the carmina maiora of Claudian. She argues that these can be treated as a whole and understood as a sustained narrative in spite of their occasional nature, and maintains that their persistent themes and characters make reading the poems like going from book to book of a single epic; furthermore, she argues, they are joined by their shared conclusion: the preservation of Roman imperium sine fine.
The basis for her methodology in approaching this corpus is to foreground Claudian’s own perspective on his poetry rather than to apply descriptions which would have been unfamiliar to him, particularly the genre description ‘panegyrical epic’ which, however useful, Ware rightly recognizes places Claudian in a category which is defined as different from that of Virgil. In place of this description, Ware turns to the inscription from the statue erected to Claudian, and to his own poems, and it is these which take the centre of attention in the opening pages of the book. The description of the poet on the inscription, with which, Ware notes, many scholars would previously have disagreed, insists that Claudian is a man with ‘the mind of Virgil and the inspiration of Homer’, depicting him as an epic poet, and specifically one in the tradition of the most epic of epic poets, however much he might be considered a product of the rhetorical and encomiastic traditions of his own late antique era. This epic identity, Ware notes, correlates with Claudian’s own depiction of himself through the poetic persona that appears in his prefaces. This persona, she demonstrates, is ‘invariably and insistently epic’ (p. 1), with its motifs of the first sailor, the soldier, of Ennius, and its allusions to Virgil, Statius, Silius and Ovid.
Ware founds her approach to the poetry, therefore, on an awareness of how Claudian would have viewed himself and his poetry, and in particular on his identity as a successor to Virgil; while the stylistic changes occurring in late antiquity should rightly be identified, and it is necessary also, therefore, to acknowledge Claudian’s panegyric qualities, as an epic poet after Virgil he would have positioned himself within the eternal chronological framework that Virgil created when he guaranteed an empire without end in the Aeneid. This monograph, therefore, sets out to demonstrate that just as earlier epic poets had redefined Rome for their own time through the medium of epic, and had done so by means of intertextual imitatio and aemulatio, so Claudian will do the same for his time, showing that the power of furor to upset Concordia persists and the aurea aetas remains the ideal.
From her convincing premise that Claudian should be considered an epic poet, Ware presents a methodology for reading the poems in the tradition of Virgil based principally around the recognition of allusion, and a rereading of the poems as informed first and foremost by the intertextual relationship with the epic tradition. Reassuringly, her introduction is also quick to point out the complexities of reading such poetry in terms of intertextuality, not least because Claudian’s allusive techniques tend not to fit neatly into rigid classifications; she also recognizes the potential for criticism when accidental confluence cannot be distinguished from intentional reference, or seems unrecognizable on first reading. However, by arguing from the perspective of the Roman education of the time, which trained readers to recognize allusion, and the fact that these poems were circulated to be read beyond their first performance, Ware sets up a framework for reading the network of allusions in the text which sees the writing of Roman epic as a literary dialogue, and, although she also supplies clear categories for reading the different allusions, recognizes that it is enough that an allusion be identifiable for the resulting intertext to be considered pertinent to the analysis of the poem.
The first chapter, following the introduction, expands upon the concept of panegyric-epic, or, rather, what it means to read occasional poems in an epic context. This is not to say that Ware wants us to understand these contemporary carmina heroum as indicating that panegyric is epic, since no prose encomium could be considered a subgenre of epic, but nonetheless both panegyric and epic could be said to deal with kleos: epic telling how kleos was won, panegyric offering a distillation of that kleos. Ware outlines the development of the encomiastic genre and the increasing usefulness of oratory in public life, before turning explicitly to Claudian’s debt to rhetoric and his use of oratorical exempla and the rhetorical handbooks. Claudian’s poems have much in common with prose panegyrics in terms of structure, content, theme and occasions, but his success in verse, Ware argues, arises specifically from his ability to see events and people in epic terms, and to interpret the crises of his own day in the language of Virgil. Ware concludes the chapter with a discussion of the relationship of Virgil to ‘panegyric epic’, reminding the reader that the treatment of the emperor in late antiquity, and the associated milieu in which Claudian was writing, would have meant that the contemporary reader would have seen the Aeneid as encomiastic. With this in mind, Ware emphasizes that any approach that limits the success of Claudian’s poetry to its propagandistic qualities does not do justice to Claudian’s own aspirations as an epic poet, again asserting the significance of her approach in this study.
The centrality of Virgil as model and benchmark is explored in the second chapter on Roman Epic. Although stylistic changes are clear, Ware argues, from the approach of Stephen Hinds, that it is possible to recognize an ‘essence’ of epic which transcends epic experiment and unepic features, such as the rise of the episodic style over narrative, the increasing influence of rhetoric and the address to the reader. The relationship between the episodic style of Claudian and his allusion to his epic predecessors is explored in the rest of the chapter, which considers, in particular, the use of ekphrasis, the accumulation of epic topoi and similes, and the appropriation of epic conventions. So, although the episodic style prevents continuous battle narrative, tableaux of war recur drawn from epic rather than historical fact, especially to provide decoration and didactic force; likewise, the Olympian gods must be an intrinsic part of this poetry, but they confer status in Claudian’s poetry, whereas personifications of vice and virtue now fill their place from a narratological perspective. In this chapter Ware also further asserts the useful concept that the single poems combine to form a carmen perpetuum, a single epic oeuvre, updating the epic song of Roman history.
Chapter 3, ‘Defining the Empire’, deals in various stages with the complexities of the split empire for Claudian, with its two rulers and Rome’s diminished political importance, all of which complicates his engagement with the promised Virgilian eternal united Rome; Ware isolates two major themes which therefore become central to Claudian’s epic interpretation: the cycle of history, in which furor is defeated by the epic hero and harmony is restored, and the theme of the divided brothers. Ware traces the isolation of West from East in the poetry, until Claudian has one undivided western empire to serve as his epic world, within which he can then focus on a single epic hero, the regent Stilicho, who functions as the epic successor to Theodosius. The boy emperor Honorius, Theodosius’ real heir, is shown, instead, to have been developed as a reworking of Ascanius, a worthy son, but then beyond this to the level of a god, not denying the boy’s status but allowing Stilicho to fulfil the role of the epic unus homo. Although in practice there was no continuous protection of Rome by a single ruler, continuity is created by Claudian, Ware demonstrates, by means of his complete involvement in the epic tradition and the constant repetition of time in continuous cycles.
This theme of recurring cycles of time is explored further in chapter 4, in which Ware demonstrates how Claudian uses the continuity of epic to emphasise the continuity of the Roman empire. The poetry is as populated with historical and mythological characters as it is with contemporary figures, with the result that the boundaries between past and present, real world and epic creation, dissolve; Claudian presents all time as stages in Roman history, a technique which Ware explores as an engagement with Virgil, but his portrayal of time is also such that he can scroll backwards and forwards through history, reflecting Ovidian metapoetic use of time.
Chapter 5 looks more closely at specific characters and the embodiment of epic furor, in opposition to the restoration and continuity of concordia. Ware’s discussion of furor embraces the paradox of the concept: on the one hand it is a force of mad rage, yet on the other it is depicted as a necessary and inevitable force for regeneration and the restoration of peace and order. Among others, some of Ware’s most effective examples are the opposition of Stilicho and Rufinus, who stand at opposite poles of the unique hero and the unique villain, and the multi-faceted portrayal of Alaric, whom Ware proves to stem both from the cosmic epic threats of Phaethon and Alaric, and to be developed into an epic parody when he fails to meet the standards of his epic predecessors, in particular as set by Lucan. This approach is varied again in the character of Gildo which, Ware argues masterfully, is condemned through layers of allusion which move through epic, satire and tragedy in the space of a single book, culminating with Gildo undermined through his representation as a Juvenalian glutton, the transferral from epic to satire recognized as marking literary defeat.
The final two chapters approach two different aspects of the golden age, a theme which begins to emerge as highly significant throughout the book, where it is presented as an opposing force to discord and cyclicality. Chapter 6 introduces the tradition of the golden age topos, but focuses on Virgil and the suggestion from his fourth eclogue that this era could return, and on the presentation of the golden age in his other works, especially the Georgics, which Ware demonstrates is Claudian’s textbook on the theme. Chapter 7 then considers the golden age individual, examining the characterization of both Manlius Theodorus and, naturally, Stilicho.
This monograph is a refreshing contribution to Claudian scholarship which serves to reveal the complex literary qualities which make his political poetry successful. Ware shows an expert ability to interweave careful presentation of the allusions and intertexts layered by Claudian with accessible guidance to poetry which has, too often, been treated solely as a historical and political source. What Ware achieves is both to add to Claudian’s usefulness in that respect, by revealing how his perspective on contemporary events is directed by his epic lens, and to throw open the way to greater consideration of the way in which the epic heritage was manipulated and developed by late antique poets who, however different from Virgil they might seem, saw themselves as his successors.