Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.12.45 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.12.45

Clare Coombe, Claudian the Poet.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xii, 242.  ISBN 9781107058347.  £75.00​.  

Reviewed by John Godwin, Shrewsbury, UK (


Claudian has been admired and reviled in equal measures in the past and this book is a very impressive attempt to take a more nuanced and balanced look at what is by any standards remarkable poetry. This book accepts that Claudian generally prizes ecphrasis over narrative—a style that has led some to question the quality of verse that appeals to the ‘eye’ rather than to the ‘heart’ (p.3). His verse has been used by historians seeking details of the crucial period from 395–405 but Coombe points out that this approach is not going to please either side: for the historian it is like using Aeneid 8 to map out the battle of Actium, while for the literary critic it is to miss the point of the poetry. Claudian has been written off in some quarters as no more than a political metaphrast, working up the res gestae of the half-Vandal Stilicho into baroque verse. Claudian, Coombe argues, was ‘a professional poet’ (p.15) for whom the ‘patron’s presence is clearly of greater importance than the inspiration of the Muse’. Coombe follows Nauta’s definition of the asymmetrical nature of the poet-patron relationship—although their arrangement was in fact reciprocal: Claudian gained status and a wife (a protégée of Stilicho’s wife Serena), while Stilicho gained poetic publicity in a world where ‘everyone was reading Claudian’ (a remark of Alan Cameron, quoted p. 31). The question then is (simply) whether such ‘professional poetry’ can be any good, and this is the issue that this book tackles head on and goes some way to answering.

Modern readers are uncomfortable with poetry-as-panegyric, and yet it was much in evidence in the ancient world from Pindar through Virgil and also Lucretius, whose own panegyrics of Epicurus (e.g. 1.62–79, 3.1–30) match Claudian’s combination of hero-worship and poetic programme. Coombe accepts that much of Claudian is propaganda, putting a positive spin on Stilicho and demolishing his enemies.

Attack is a good form of defence, and the first chapter (In Rufinum: Heroes, Monsters and the Universe in Balance’) looks in detail at the In Rufinum. Rufinus is mythologised and made out to be the child of the Furies but this does not ‘distance him from culpability’ (p. 54) and the exaggerated evil of the enemy only enhances and develops the heroism of the gallant Stilicho; Claudian even gets close to suggesting that there is some sort of Empedoclean balance between good and evil embodied in the two men (p. 60) although Coombe is right to see this more in terms of Stoic cosmic justice than of Presocratic Physics—the destructive force of Allecto, for instance, is well put as rerum uexare fidem (1.65). Claudian’s version of Rufinus is too bad to be true, of course. Rufinus ends up in hell and the poem ends with lip-smacking relish over his punishment there conveyed in glorious Latin that affirms the reestablishment of order after chaos.

Chapter Two (‘The Universe ready to be Destabilized’) goes further in examining the cosmic imagery of the political poems and shows how topoi such as that of the Golden Age contribute to the idealising urge. It is suggested that Claudian the poet is in some ways the poetic equivalent of the creator-figure of nature, both reflecting and mirroring the foedera of the ‘real’ world. Proserpina’s tapestry, for instance, in de raptu Proserpinae is seen as (p. 80) a mirror and a depiction of the cosmic tapestry it shows: clementia is a force that binds the world together and that makes the world habitable. Nature is for Claudian teleological, forcing harmony onto chaos, as in the powerful imagery of the Cave of Time (de consulatu Stilichonis 2.424–50).

Chapter Three (‘Monsters ready to destabilize the Universe’) is largely concerned with the imagery of gigantomachy. Coombe shows how in this poetry the giants are earth-born beasts, transgressive barbarians, and hybrid creatures. Giants are used as a symbol of recurrent chaos: they are buried but can always re-emerge from the earth. All this is fanciful mythology and it is difficult to see how a poet seeking to score political points in the ‘real world’ could make effective use of them, but Coombe inventively suggests that Claudian ‘contemporizes’ gigantomachy in his In Eutropium: ‘just as the giants in the Gigantomachia are constructed as a reiteration of their Titan brothers, so the contemporary barbarian threat carries with it the memory of all previous enemies of Rome, as well as the weight of the mythological context.’ (p. 114–5). Claudian also filters his poetry through the device of a poetic dream in the preface to the Panegyricus de sexto consulatu Honorii Augusti, which helps to situate the imagery of giants within a context that is both real and unreal, allowing him to indulge his poetic fantasy while keeping at least one foot in the real world.

Chapter Four (‘The Hero keeping the Universe stable and restoring the Golden Age’) looks at the imagery used of the hero Stilicho (with a useful set of pointers to the less glamorous biographical reality on p. 123). The imagery of the trabea is convincing and appropriate, but when Claudian starts to link Stilicho with the fabulous phoenix this reader feels that his credulity and patience are being stretched. The associations of the imagery that Coombe brings out are not always as flattering as Stilicho might have liked, either: seeing him as Medea for instance (in ‘resurrecting Rome’ as Medea resurrected Aeson) is less than flattering in consideration of Medea’s later infanticide and one could detect irony at work. While on the theme of the Argo, Coombe notes (144–6) that Stilicho is equated to the helmsman Tiphys without pointing out the (perhaps obvious) links between this set of imagery and the long history of the motif of the ‘ship of state’ and the political ruler as its helmsman.1

Chapter Five (‘Not quite the Hero’) qualifies the panegyric with what we could call ‘further voices’, showing places where the imagery is ironic rather than corroborative or even downright mocking. The best example of this is the hymn (Epithalamium de nuptiis Honorii Augusti) to celebrate the wedding of the young emperor Honorius with Stilicho’s daughter Maria. The hero of this poem is not the bridegroom but his father-in-law Stilicho, and the young man is sent up by comparison with Achilles. The mockery is double: we are invited to compare (and therefore contrast) Honorius with Achilles, and the Greek hero himself is shown in an unflattering light wearing female garb and abusing Deidamia. Mockery of bridegrooms is common in wedding hymns—see for instance Catullus 61.134–6, not mentioned by Coombe—and ribald humour about the comparative sexual potency of a weak son and his stronger father is also found elsewhere (e.g. Catullus 67.19–28). This chapter does open up the possibility that Claudian’s poetry was able to vary its style away from simple panegyric towards more humorous and lighter methods of composition.

Chapter Six (‘The Deceitful Poet’) returns to the more general themes of the Introduction with a reasonably successful attempt to explain how this highly poetic imagery might be seen as persuading people to think (more) highly of the honorandi without losing poetic face. Where propaganda goes over the top it undermines its own message, and Coombe argues that Claudian goes out of his way to break the ‘fourth wall’ between poet and audience by his self-conscious ‘double deception’. Poets can and do tell us that they are deceiving us (e.g., Lucretius’ honey on the cup (1.941)) but the panegyrist wishes to convince us that his poetry is in fact true, ‘albeit couched in epic terms’ (183). At this point the issues can become clouded: the poet acknowledges his deception while expecting us still to believe him. One way this is rescued is to see (as Coombe does) the poet as ringmaster of his own circus, showing off the power of song. This could be taken further: self-referencing irony has the capacity to distance the author from his work and also distance the author from his message, but it also puts the poet between his work and his audience, peeping round the curtain and winking knowingly at his readers who are expected to be impressed at his skill. For Coombe, however, destroying the fourth wall ‘not only reveals the artifice, it brings the horrors and heroes of the story-world flooding into the world of ‘real life’ (205). By opening up the ‘truth’ of this deception the poet manages to make his work more and not less real, but above all it foregrounds the poet as the creator of his poetic universe and a glorious cultural part of the regime that he is celebrating. Claudian draws the audience into his poetry by exploiting their expectations and ‘laudandi become heroes and Rome’s enemies are monsters and villains’ (208).

This book is elegantly written and produced. It bears the signs of the Ph.D. thesis from which it was born in terms of argumentative structure and style, but it is none the worse for that. The style is splendidly jargon-free and accessible to readers with no Latin and no previous knowledge of Claudian. I found myself wanting to add more intertextual references—Claudian was a poets’ poet and he alludes to earlier work more than Coombe perhaps acknowledges,2 but the book as it stands reads as a concentrated reading of a major poet on his own terms and excessive referencing might have diluted that effect.

The proof-reading is exemplary: I only spotted a couple of typos.3 All Latin and Greek quotations are translated into good English. There is a full bibliography, a general index and an index locorum. ​


1.   Coombe also claims (p. 144 n. 50) that Tiphys ‘does not feature greatly’ and is ‘missing from Ovid’s retelling in Met.7’—but it is worth noting that he is mentioned by Ovid at Heroides 6.48, Ars Am. 1.6–7, Tristia 4.3.77.
2.   For instance, Claudian spells out (In Rufinum 1.283–4) how even Hercules did less for mankind than Stilicho, drawing on Lucretius 5.22–54 where Hercules’ limited benefits to mankind are dwarfed by those of Epicurus.
3.   Page 23 should read ‘has proved it [is] possible to read’: and on p. 216 Boyle’s book is referenced according to its first title, which included the phrase Flavian Epicist to Claudian, but should be credited as The Imperial Muse: Ramus Essays on Roman Literature of the Empire to Juvenal through Ovid.

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