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A Still Triumphant Empire with the Barbarians at the Gates: Imperial Epic and Ethnographic Discourse in the Bellum Geticum of Claudian

Randolph Ford

It has become a commonplace that the period of Late Antiquity, here understood to refer primarily to the fourth through seventh centuries, witnessed a negotiation of political and ethnic identities in the western empire that may only be paralleled with the Romanization of these provinces that began in earnest in the first century B.C. (Ladner, 1976; Heather, 1999; Pohl, 2013). This paper considers the epic poem Bellum Geticum of Claudian, written ca. A.D. 402, in light of its appropriation of epic panegyric and ethnographic discourse. It demonstrates the author’s appropriation of both of these traditions as well as the acute anxiety experienced by Roman elites in an age that had witnessed enormous political and demographic changes that threatened to, and eventually would, overturn the Roman state in the west.

Many of the studies which consider the topic of Roman self-identity and its correlative, the construction of the barbarian ‘other’, do so in survey studies that, while offering important insights into the range of perspectives and rhetorical strategies employed in this period, do not treat individual authors with the attention granted to their classical predecessors (Gillett, 2009; Heather, 1999). While some scholars have indeed devoted greater attention to individual authors (Maas, 1992; Harries, 1992) the poet Claudian has yet to be explored in this light. This is unfortunate given that his work exhibits a deep familiarity with both the ethnographic and epic traditions; he is thus an especially apt source for exploring the confluence of ethnographic and political rhetoric as he wrote as a ‘propagandist’ for a regime faced with unprecedented foreign invasion. The fact that Claudian wrote in a traditional epic form is also crucial, as this fact allows scholars to analyze the ways in which a poet, and the epic and ethnographic traditions themselves, could respond to and describe a political and demographic landscape radically different from that which obtained when these literary forms were codified in earlier centuries.

From the epic tradition, Claudian draws under both thematic and visual precedents in his representations of the Goths and their leader Alaric. He adopts the motif of the gigantomachy and explicitly compares the Gothic predations to the revolt of Otus and Ephialtes against the Olympians; his graphic illustration of the crossing of the Danube draws on Virgil’s representation of the ‘Dacian swooping down from the plotting Ister’ soon after in line 497 of the Georgics. Claudian also avails himself of ethnographic tropes of northern barbarians drawing on the Tacitean representation of armed councils of the Germani; while Tacitus describes how the spear is the ‘toga’, the symbol of manhood, among the Germani, so Claudian shows how that same spear is the walking stick of the aged Gothic warriors. These allusions to enemies of divine and mortal order of the imperial past are complemented by Claudian’s praise of the general Stilicho who rivals and even surpasses the exploits of such exemplary Romans as Camillus and Fabius; there is an evident nostalgia for the heroic leaders of the Roman past, embodied in the de facto ruler Stilicho, that also looks back to an age when Roman armies did not rely so much on foreign federate troops but rather the native legions of Italy.

The paper demonstrates that Claudian utilizes both epic form and ethnographic topoi to present an image of a Roman Empire eternally triumphant under the aegis of divine favor. In consideration of the actual realities of the period, however, the paper shows that what appears as a confident assertion of traditional Roman supremacy over the threatening word of barbaricum is not so much testament to confidence in the political and military stability of the empire but rather a reflection of an intense anxiety experienced by Roman elites—a mere eight years before the fall of Rome to the Goths.

Session/Panel Title

Traditions of Antiquity in the Post-Classical World: Religious, Ethnographic, and Political Representation in the Poetic Works of Paulinus of Nola, Claudian, and George of Pisidia

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