BMCR 2021.07.41

Claudiano tra scienza e “mirabilia”: “Hystrix”, “Nilus”, “Torpedo”

, Claudiano tra scienza e "mirabilia": "Hystrix", "Nilus", "Torpedo" (carm. min. 9, 28, 49) introduzione, testo, traduzione e commento. Spudasmata, Band 190. Hildesheim; Zürich; New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 2020. Pp. lv, 302. ISBN 9783487159485 €84,00.

Since Alan Cameron’s monumental study on Claudian’s political poetry in the light of the complex political situation caused by the sudden death of Theodosius in AD 395, the oeuvre of the late antique poet has continuously been reassessed.[1] So far, however, it is mainly his political poems that have benefited from this renewed interest in Claudian’s poetry, which can be seen in a number of ambitious comprehensive interpretations as well as numerous detailed studies.[2] In comparison to these, Claudian’s oeuvre of occasional and small poems, though equally extensive, is still awaiting fair recognition. Even recent research on some of the carmina minora,[3] and a few studies that follow a more comprehensive approach,[4] cannot fill the yawning gaps in the analysis of this considerable part of Claudian’s poetic oeuvre.[5] The reason for this is probably the self-referential rhetorical style of these poems, which is even more pronounced than in the political poems. In combination with a seemingly insignificant content that at first glance only serves to present the author’s own scholarship, these poems perfectly confirm in both their style and their content the prejudices that in the past have regularly resulted in a devaluation not only of Claudian but of late antique literature in general.[6] A further reason could be the conspicuous heterogeneity of the collected poems. The allegedly arbitrary character of the collection thus makes a comprehensive appraisal seem far-fetched.[7]

At the same time, recent research on comparable corpora has convincingly shown that formal, stylistic and thematic complexity is a leading characteristic of small-scale poetry, and constitutes its literary and cultural function.[8] In addition, a view informed by cultural history has changed our perception of the choice of themes. As we know today, they do not simply seek to prove poetological bravura, but also reflect fundamental preferences and interests of their original context of reception.[9] Thus, Claudian’s carmina minora should be explored with regard to their functional and cultural historical contexts or, in short, they should be analyzed in the same way that has already been successfully tested in the case of the political poems.

One of the main merits of the work presented here is that, although it focuses only on three carmina minora, numbers 9, 28 and 49, it gives us also deeper insights into the understanding of the collection as a whole. This is mainly due to a detailed introduction that precedes the edition, Italian translation and a meticulous commentary.

The introduction starts with an excellent overview of the history of the transmission and edition of the carmina minora, which at the same time recapitulates the entire discussion of the genesis of the collection since the invention of printing (chap. 1, “I carmina minora di Claudiano: una raccolta ‘aperta’,” pp. 1–11). It is followed by an equally broad chapter, which explores why Claudian took a special interest in miraculous objects and gives a detailed outline of the literary tradition on such objects (chap. 2, “Claudiano tra scienza e mirabilia: il tema paradossografico,” pp. 12–18). Thus, the author first fleshes out the cultural context of the late antique poet and his audience before he turns to his main focus: the case-studies on poems number 9, 28 and 49. The first case-study explores the poems 9 and 49, which deal with two examples from the animal world, namely the porcupine and the electric ray (chap. 4, pp. 24–41). Poem number 28 on the Nile is given its own chapter (chap. 6, pp. 47–63). Both chapters (4 and 6) begin with an introductory section on dating issues, structure and content of the poems. In what follows, the author gives a highly erudite account of the wondrous qualities of the two animals and the Nile that had sparked Claudian’s interest. From here, the author dives deeper into the history of the two animals and the Nile in ancient literature, while paying equal attention to factual knowledge, its paradoxographic interpretation and, respectively, its literary processing and contextualization. Each of these two chapters is preceded by a chapter that generally portrays the Romans’ interest in the mirabilia of the animal world (chap. 3, “I mirabilia zoologici,” pp. 18–13) and those of the aquatic world (chap. 5, “Gli aquarum mirabilia,” pp. 41–46). A final summary chapter explores the models for the three poems on the basis of the thorough diachronic investigation in the preceding chapters and clarifies the relationship between erudition and style as an essential feature of the three poems’ poetics. It is concluded by a metrical analysis (chap. 7, “Tre carmina e molteplici modelli, tra dottrina ed eleganza,” pp. 63–67).

The edition of the three poems is based on a complete revision of the latest editions of Claudian by Hall (1985)[10] and Charlet (1991-2018)[11] as well as their text-critical foundations. As a result, the text is extremely well-founded and convincingly presented in terms of orthography. The Italian translation, as far as I can judge as a non-native Italian speaker, shows an admirable sensitivity in balancing the needs of the original and the target language (Testo e traduzione, pp. 75–93). The edition and translation of the three poems are followed by a detailed lemmatic commentary (Commento, pp. 95–289), which explains grammatical, metrical and stylistic peculiarities and records similes as well as comparable expressions by previous authors on which Claudian could have modelled himself. It traces stylistic and interpretative traditions, gives in-depth descriptions of the content and argumentative structures of the poems and again detects their literary forerunners. The lucid structure and concise presentation of the lemmas support this excellent commentary. In short, this is a commentary as it should be: it explains the text comprehensively, it does justice to every part of it and it provides an easy orientation for the reader.

In summary, Luceri’s edition, translation and commentary of the three carmina minora 9, 28 and 49 deserve full appreciation, not only for the exemplary new edition of the poems, for which the author has checked the complete textual history on the basis of the latest Claudian editions, and for his helpful and easily readable translation, but also for the comprehensive explanation of the poems provided in the commentary, which leaves us with virtually no desiderata. Above all, Luceri sheds new light on the carmina minora as a whole in his extensive introduction, in which he sets the three selected poems into their cultural and literary context with unparalleled erudition (and completeness). Here, he not only recapitulates the entire history of their transmission and editing, but highlights the paradigmatic character of the three poems for the collection as a whole, based on their wondrous and astonishing content as well as their virtuosic style. For all of these reasons, Luceri’s work is not merely a model investigation of three individual poems but also makes a significant contribution to the field of Claudian studies by offering a better understanding of the carmina minora as a collection. Thus, it provides a new impetus for further research on Claudian and the interpretation of his oeuvre.


[1] Alan Cameron: Claudian. Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius, Oxford 1970.

[2] Cf. inter alios: Peter L. Schmidt: Politik und Dichtung in der Panegyrik Claudians, Konstanz 1976 (Konstanzer Universitätsreden 55); Siegmar Döpp: Zeitgeschichte in Dichtungen Claudians, Wiesbaden 1980 (Hermes Einzelschriften 43); Alessandro Fo: Studi sulla tecnica poetica di Claudiano, Catania 1982; Claudia Schindler: Per carmina laudes. Untersuchungen zur spätantiken Verspanegyrik von Claudian zu Coripp, Berlin/New York 2009 (Beträge zur Altertumskunde 253), pp. 59–172; Gernot Michael Müller: Lectiones Claudianeae. Studien zu Poetik und Funktion der politisch-zeitgeschichtlichen Dichtungen Claudians, Heidelberg 2011 (Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften, Neue Folge, 2. Reihe 133); for a current overview of Claudian research see Peter L. Schmidt: Claudius Claudianus, in: Jean-Denis Berger, Jacques Fontaine, Peter Lebrecht Schmidt (eds.): Die Literatur im Zeitalter des Theodosius (374-430 AD). Erster Teil: Fachprosa, Dichtung, Kunstprosa, München 2020 (Handbuch der Lateinischen Literatur 6,1), pp. 286–332.

[3] See e.g. Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer: Prodigiosa silex. Serielle Lektüre der carmina minora Claudians, in: Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer, Petra Schierl (eds.): Lateinische Poesie der Spätantike. Internationale Tagung in Castelen bei Augst, 11–13 October 2007, Basel 2009, pp. 11–31; Marie-F. Guipponi-Gineste: Quelques réflexions sur le corpus épigrammatique de Claudien: une esthétique entre tradition et experimentation, in: Marie-F. Guipponi-Gineste, C. Urlacher-Becht (eds.): La renaissance de l’épigramme dans la latinité tardive, Paris 2013, pp. 125–143.

[4] Cf. for example Marie-F. Guipponi-Gineste: Claudien: poète du monde à la cour d’Occident, Paris 2010.

[5] For an overview of topics and trends in recent Claudian research, see e.g. Widu-Wolfgang Ehlers, Fritz Felgentreu, S. Wheeler (eds.): Aetas Claudianea. A conference at the Free University of Berlin, 28–30 June 2002, Munich, Leipzig 2004.

[6] Cf. Peter L. Schmidt: Zur niederen und höheren Kritik von Claudians carmina minora, in: L. Holtz, J.-C. Fredouille, M.-H. Jullien (eds.): De Tertullien aux Mozarabes: mélanges offerts à Jacques Fontaine, à l’occasion de son 70e anniversaire, par ses élèves, amis et collègues, vol. 1: Antiquité tardive et christianisme ancien (IIIe-VIe siècles), Paris 1992, pp. 643–660.

[7] Cf. paradigmatically the latest overview on Claudian by Peter Lebrecht Schmidt in the Handbuch der Lateinischen Literatur (see note 2), in which the focus is on the political and other major poems (such as De raptu Proserpinae), while the carmina minora are mentioned only in passing.

[8] Research on ancient literature focuses primarily on Martial and Statius in particular. See William J. Dominik: “Epigram and occasional poetry. Social life and values in Martial’s ‘Epigrams’ and Statius’ ‘Silvae’,” in: Andrew Zissos (ed.): A companion to the Flavian age of imperial Rome, Chichester, UK/Malden, MA 2016 (Blackwell companions to the ancient world), pp. 412–433 and Meike Rühl: Literatur gewordener Augenblick. Die ‘Silven’ des Statius im Kontext literarischer und sozialer Bedingungen von Dichtung, Berlin 2004 (Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte 81); on late antiquity see, for example, Bret Mulligan: “Epigrams, occasional poetry, and poetic games,” in: Edward Jay Watts, Scott McGill (eds.): A companion to late antique literature, New York 2018 (Blackwell companions to the ancient world), pp. 241–258.

[9] See for example Bernhard Zimmermann: “Vom Anlass zur Gelegenheit. Zum ‚Sitz im Leben‘ antiker Dichtung,“ in: Joachim Küpper, Patricia Oster, Christian Rivoletti, (eds.): Gelegenheit macht Dichter. L’occasione fa il poeta. Bausteine zu einer Theorie des Gelegenheitsgedichts, Heidelberg 2018 (Neues Forum für allgemeine und vergleichende Literaturwissenschaft 56), pp. 39–55.

[10] Claudianus: Carmina, ed. J. B. Hall, Leipzig 1985 (Bibliotheca scriptorium Graecorum et Latinorum Teubneriana).

[11] Jean-Louis Charlet: Claudien. Œuvres. Tomes I-IV, Paris 1991-2018.