BMCR 2012.01.08

Claudien: poète du monde à la cour d’Occident. Collections de l’Université de Strasbourg. Études d’archéologie et d’histoire ancienne

, Claudien: poète du monde à la cour d'Occident. Collections de l'Université de Strasbourg. Études d'archéologie et d'histoire ancienne. Paris: De Boccard, 2010. 472. ISBN 9782701802800. €53.00 (pb).

Since Alan Cameron’s groundbreaking monograph, Claudian has often been approached primarily as a court poet. 1 Studies continue to be dominated by concern with his elusive identity as an Eastern emigré at the Western imperial court and his purported political and religious positions.2 The latest monograph on him, however, by Marie-France Guipponi-Gineste, Claudien, Poète du monde à la cour d’Occcident, focuses first and foremost on his poetics, then secondarily informs its discussion with historical contexts (including references to material culture). Through enlightened and creative close readings the author significantly expands our understanding of how poetry and life mingle in his works: “Le seule certitude que nous possédions sur Claudien, dont la vie comporte de larges zones d’ombre, c’est la radicale et puissante volonté d’être un poète, un vates” (p.7).

The volume is a revision of the author’s 2001 doctoral thesis, a substantial reworking retaining the extensive research of a thesis in elegant, straightforward prose. She takes a thematic approach that is refreshingly comprehensive, putting his under-studied carmina minora on a par with the better-known panegyrics and De raptu Proserpinae. After a brief introduction, she examines in five chapters Claudian’s imagery: use of myth, objects of representation, temporal elements, mirabilia and nature, and finally, the poetry’s metapoetic reflexivity; the volume contains a summary four-page conclusion. Her acute philological approach is enhanced by readings in the contexts of Claudian’s contemporary culture and literary and philosophical influences. The book is well organized and successful in describing a Claudianic system of images. It is a wonderful resource for specialists of Claudian and late antique Latin poetry in its detail, and an excellent comprehensive introduction to the poet, especially in its thorough bibliography.

The ten-page introduction reviews contemporary scholarship. It offers brief remarks regarding the author’s methodology, noting a dependence on ancient theories of description and anthropological approaches to mythology and history; she acknowledges the influence of Scheid and Svenbro (pp.14–15).

The author views the De raptu Proserpinae as a musical overture to the whole of Claudian’s corpus, and her Chapter I, “L’Usage du mythe, le Rapt de Proserpine,” is itself a prelude to the volume(p.15). She examines two bodies of imagery in the poem: “tissage” (Part 1. Les fils croisés du poème) and nature (2. Entre ombre et lumière: la géographie symbolique du De Raptu Proserpinae), with emphasis on the dichotomies of harmony/chaos and the locus amoenus/locus horridus. She views Claudian as humanizing the gods even in this epic context, giving them an anthropological/psychological depth while retaining the myth’s rich religious and philosophical significance. She brings to the fore issues recognizable to contemporaries as being broached by the imagery, arguing that the poet thereby historicizes the myth: “préoccupations d’ordre politique (risque de division) et d’actualité (dangers barbares, conflits)” (p.73). A weakness of the chapter is the review of the innumerable ancient implications of weaving/thread, perhaps a remnant of dissertation erudition that should have been significantly edited. The treatment otherwise is neat and works well as a first chapter, exploring Claudian’s encounters with philosophical movements and intertextuality with the classical tradition, both significant throughout the book. The chapter, however, does beg a question now increasing explored as to whether the clear dichotomies pagan/Christian or East/West are productive interpretive frameworks, particularly when they lead to suggestions such as that Claudian wrote pagan apologetic.

In Chapter II, “Le poète et la pouvoir: du bon usage de la représentation,” Part 1, Guipponi-Gineste returns to “tissage,” examining descriptions of trabeae in the Panegyricus dictus Olybrio et Probino, Panegyricus de quarto consulatu Honorii Augusti, De consulatu Stiliconis II, and Panegyricus de sexto consulatu Honorii Augusti; and then in Part 2 she explores the representations of “Objets précieux dans le cycle des cadeuax de Sérène ( c. min. 46, 47, 48 et c. min. 4 app.).” She observes that Claudian reworks generic assumptions, with the result that the carmina minora seem to be epideictic: “Par ces objets, le poète est aucoeur de l’épidictique, qui amplifie et sublime la réalité. Mais les variations dans les descriptions des trabées, les subtils équilibres des épigrammes révèlent la grande souplesse avec laquelle Claudien utilise ce qui est une forme d’expression codifiée” (p.130). She returns to the relationships between order and chaos, and myth and history discussed in Chapter I, as well as the relations between human and divine as paradigmatic of imperial power relations, making use of ancient theories of exempla. Her placement of the metaphorical armature of Ol. in the context of Roman identity is striking. As in the previous chapter, she very effectively puts the texts into wider contexts, for example in her discussion of the techniques of panegyric (pp. 88–89) and in using material culture as comparanda, à la Michael Roberts. However, she might have reined in her discussions of those contexts, for example, the excursus on the historicity of the lusus Troiae. There are also occasional moments of unsupported assumption, e.g. on the frequency of fabric imagery based on a single passage from Symmachus (p.84) and her comments on Christian attitudes toward luxury (p.130). Her final conclusion, however, is convincing: “La poésie de circonstance, qui accompagne un événement particulier, appartient à la histoire et elle est fortement reliée à l’actualité. Cependant, l’histoire est raversé par le mythe et par l’ancrage dans la tradition épique, qui établissent une correspondance continue entre les plan humains et divins” (p.131).

Chapter III, “Le temps du poète,” explores a wide span of the corpus and how the poet’s use of imagery of time, the real, and transcendence are representative of his epoch. Its first section, “Un poète en son temps, entre engagement, retrait et tentations de l’imaginaire,” is comprised first of a discussion of “genres de vie” for the poet, which the author couches in an examination of imagery of boundaries and protectors, imagery fundamental to her overall argument in the book. It contains an excellent analysis of the realm of Venus in the Epithalamium de nuptiis Honorii Augusti. She finds that Claudian’s creation of ahistorical locales manifests a tension and confusion between the real and imaginary typical of late antique writers; this leads her to see utopianism as part of Claudian’s conception of the poet, a desired movement toward order and harmony, which hearkens back to her discussion of the locus amoenus in Chapter I. The second section, “L’usage du temps: entre éternité et instant,” looks at the cavern of eternity, the concept of kairos, and a Claudianic theory of signs in the context of late antique divination. Interesting also is the closing section on the image of the phoenix from c. min. 27 as emblematic of the period in its transcendence of time, place, and religion (pp.196–8). Though some assumptions (e.g. regarding late antique conceptions of paradise [p.164] or that late antiquity is a period of mysticism [p.190]) and concepts (e.g. the summary of Augustine’s concepts of aptum and opportunitas [pp.179–80] and her use of the term “allegory”) require further explication or examination, Guipponi-Gineste moves gracefully and convincingly between close reading of the imagery and how the poet uses it to communicate about the soul and poetry.

Chapter IV, “Les Mirabilia ou l’usage du monde,” approaches the carmina minora (26, 28, 29, 33– 39, 51). The author puts Claudian’s discussion of natural marvels, including his vocabulary of wonder, into a tradition (Part 1), then applies this to: the sphere of Archimedes as representative of curiositas (2); Aetna and its image as the natural marriage of the contraries of water and heat (3); then she explores poems about “Eaux merveilleuses,” Clitumnus and Aponus as reflecting humans and nature existing in harmony, and finishes with the mysteries of the Nile (4). She next turns to animals (5) and finally magnets and crystals (6). She distinguishes Claudian’s approach to marvels as that of a poet, not a philosopher. His descriptions are at times inserted as breaks in greater narratives and at others comprise their own poems, but are always moments for existential and natural contemplation that cut the flow of history, displaying many of the concerns of the wider corpus, for example, a desire for harmony. This chapter leads well into the next, and is exciting in how it points out overlaps in Claudian’s discussion of marvels with his poetics, noting his language of horizontals and verticals and of movement (an element discussed in the previous chapter) (pp.232–34); in seeing in his vagueness a hymnic or lyric quality (p.247); or in its use of Hadot’s typology of progressive initiation in Claudian’s structuring of c. min. 26 (p.232).

The final chapter, “Une Poètique de la Réflexivité,” composed of five major subsections, takes up one third of the volume and is its culmination. At its heart is Guipponi-Gineste’s conviction that Claudian’s political self is inseparable from his self-presentation as poet. She begins with the phoenix (pp.296ff). In section 2, many other images discussed earlier (sun/light, natural motifs of water and birds, fabric) are recalled as she decodes his language of inspiration, his “incursions dans le processus créatif du poète.” She locates them relative to the classical poetic tradition,(p.331) and concludes that Claudian’s vision of the poet is as a servant of Roma aeterna. The third major subsection is an evaluation of Claudian’s concept of mimesis, including discussions of enargeia, ekphrasis, and the marriage of aesthetics and ethics. She somewhat traditionally accuses him and his contemporaries of “mannerism,” but allies this to his genuine curiosity about the process of imitation of the real and a quest for harmony with the natural world. The section transports the preceding chapter to the realm of poetics. In subsection 4, Claudian’s aesthetic is considered, discussed in terms of the classical roots of the language of description, namely ornare, and what Guipponi-Gineste sees as his constant awareness of the coherence of the whole. The only disappointing section of Chapter V is the last, a too cursory discussion of genre that lacks engagement with any genre theory. As the issues of Claudian’s use of forms and their traditions are fundamental to the arguments made throughout the volume, such a discussion might have been better placed in Chapter II. Despite this, the chapter is a great success and a necessary read for anyone working on Claudian.

The book is a call to redirect our focus from Claudian as individual Easterner at court to Claudian as late antique poet.3 It is an invaluable resource for its close readings of the text, and though some generalizations may lack full support, those about late antique society and intellectual life are sure to spark further discussion. She seems to have hit on something about late antiquity in her presentation of it as a “baroque” period like the Augustan Age (p.391). This echoes Paul Allen Miller’s argument in his Subjecting Verses, that the brief flourishing of love elegy in the earlier period is due to a breakdown of correspondence between the Lacanian Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real. The tensions in Guipponi-Gineste’s book are presented in similar terms, if not the precise theoretical apparatus, suggesting to me that the fourth century’s momentous socio-political changes led to a flourishing visible in Claudian and his poetic contemporaries.


1. A. Cameron, Claudian. Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1970).

2. These are still at issue in A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011), e.g. 115–16, 216. See B. Mulligan, “The Poet from Egypt? Reconsidering Claudian’s Eastern Origin,” Philologus 151, 2 (2007), 285–310; S. Ratti, “Une lecture religieuse des invectives de Claudien est-elle possible?” AnTard 16 (2008), 177–86.

3. C.f. A. Cameron, “Claudian Revisited,” in F.E. Consolino, ed., Letteratura e Propaganda nell’occidente Latino da Augusto ai regni Romanobarbarici, Atti del Convegno Internazionale, Arcavacata di Rende, 25–26 maggio 1998 (Saggi di Storia Antica 15) (Rome: <[L'Erma]> di Bretschneider 2000), 131–3.

4. P.A. Miller, Subjecting Verses: Latin Love Elegy and the Emergence of the Real (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2004).