Claudian's De Raptu Proserpinae and Dante's Vanquished Giants

By Butler, George F. | Italica, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Claudian's De Raptu Proserpinae and Dante's Vanquished Giants


Butler, George F., Italica


With the resurgence of interest in late antiquity, Claudian is emerging as a poet who has been unjustly neglected. Based at the Court of Milan, he wrote a series of panegyrics celebrating Stilicho, the general who ruled the West from 395 to 408. Aside from his political poetry he wrote two unfinished mythological epics, the Gigantomachia and the De raptu Proserpinae. At only 128 extant lines, the Gigantomachia is very much a fragment. But the De raptu Proserpinae, which exists in three books, is considerably larger and more developed. While the De raptu Proserpinae is ostensibly about the rape of Proserpine by Pluto, it also treats the subject of Claudian's other epic, the battle between the gods and Giants of ancient Greece. And, in fact, the Gigantomachy pervades Claudian's other writings. The topic also permeates Dante's Commedia, which combines classical and Christian mythology. While Dante's likely knowledge of Claudian has been noted in the commentary tradition, it has been largely disregarded in the scholarly literature. But Dante draws upon the De raptu Proserpinae to consider the battle of the gods and Giants in his poem.

Claudian figured prominently in the Middle Ages. The Liber Catonianus, an anthology used to teach elementary Latin as early as the end of the tenth century, contained Claudian's De raptu Proserpinae along with Statius' Achilleid and works by several other authors. Geoffrey o f Vitry prepared a commentary on the poem in the late twelfth century, and his text was well known up to the fourteenth. Ernst Robert Curtius observes that Claudian was the seventeenth author mentioned in Eberhard the German's Laborintus a didactic poem on rhetoric composed sometime between 1212 and 1280, and that the Latin poet was therefore a part of the typical medieval curriculum. "It is characteristic that the list includes Sidonius ... and Claudian," adds Curtius. "For the new poetics of the twelfth century, both ranked as model authors." And though Gilbert Highet says that Dante "deliberately ignores the late classical writers and the early Christian poets like Prudentius," he also observes that Petrarch (1304-74), Dante's near-contemporary, "knew Claudian well." (1) Augustine, with whose works Dante was familiar, had cited Claudian (Civ. Dei. 5.26). (2) While Dante refers to Augustine infrequently in his writings, he had a good understanding of the church father's works. (3) The status of Claudian in medieval education, his reputation among Dante's contemporaries, and his appeal to early Christian authors suggest that Dante would have been interested in his writings.

Medieval and Renaissance commentaries often mentioned Claudian as part of the background of Dante's works. (4) During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Dante scholars built upon these earlier texts and continued to refer to the Latin poet. (5) Twentieth-century commentators have also cited Claudian in relation to Dante. (6) As might be expected, later commentaries draw upon earlier ones, so that the commentary tradition is repetitive at times. (7) Many of the references to Claudian simply note passages that parallel subjects or images in Dante's works. Most of the detailed attention given to Claudian in the commentaries concerns Dante's possible use of the De raptu Proserpinae in Purgatorio 28, where Dante alludes to Proserpine in his account of Matelda and the Earthly Paradise. (8) More significantly, several commentators have associated Claudian with Dante's hell, noting parallels between the two poets' treatment of the Furies, the Giants, and the tremendous size and utter helplessness of Pluto and Satan. (9)

While the commentators have noted a few verbal parallels in the works of Claudian and Dante, in many cases they point to Claudian as but one of several classical authors who recounted a given myth. Perhaps because of his standing as a minor poet in relation to Ovid, Virgil, Statius, and Lucan, and the lack of a direct reference to him in Dante's writings, scholars have not enthusiastically embraced Claudian as one of Dante's sources. …

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