27 March 2018
Our Head of Classics, Dr Clare Coombe, has just had her book published by Cambridge University Press. Claudian the Poet is about Claudian, one of the most significant Latin poets of the Late Antiquity period.
Here is a summary from Clare about her journey to writing about this poet and what it means to her and to the pupils at the school.
Claudian is one of the most significant Latin poets of the period known as Late Antiquity. Writing in the late fourth century AD, he was poet at the court of the boy emperor Honorius, and his texts function as propaganda for the regent, Stilicho, whose agenda was to justify his position of power. They provide a crucial source for the events of this period, but also epitomize the changing qualities of poetry of the era, which, while it still recognizes its debt to its classical literary predecessors, rejects linear narrative in favour of set scenes, extended speeches, and baroque descriptions.
In my book, Claudian the Poet, I argue that Claudian’s means of propaganda is the telling of stories, using the traditional mythological imagery of Rome: the gods and heroes maintaining the universe in the face of monsters, giants, and the forces of the underworld. By means of these myths, Claudian creates a story-world in which Stilicho becomes a hero, his opponents and the barbarian hordes which threaten Rome are the forces of cosmic chaos, and the boy emperor, although he has heroic potential, still needs the guardianship of the regent.
Claudian was a little-studied poet when I first encountered him during my undergraduate studies at the University of Exeter. I borrowed an anthology of late antique poetry and was introduced to a whole world of poetry about which I knew nothing, situated at the cross-over of the classical world and the medieval. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the best known of Claudian’s poems, the De Raptu Proserpinae, an unfinished epic on the myth of Proserpina and Pluto. Although it features little in the book, this poem remains one of my favourite of his works (and I have the outline of a future monograph on this poem in mind!). It demonstrates the aspects of Claudian’s writing that I find most intriguing: his way of using, for example, an extended and colourful visual image as a symbol to signify the themes of the text, and his disinterest in traditional linear narrative in favour of an accumulation of these signifiers to tell a story.
I had started my university studies with the clear intention of getting a degree and moving into business subsequently, as doubtless many of the Oratory School boys will also imagine for their futures. However, within the first term I was certain that this academic world was a place where I could thrive, and I wanted nothing more than to learn as much as I could about ancient world, and the interpretation of literature in particular. I completed my BA in Classical Studies, and then an MA focussing on Roman myth and history, during which I began to explore late antique and early Christian literature further. I was sufficiently intrigued by the idiosyncrasies of Latin poetry of this era, and Claudian’s symbolism in particular, that when, in due course, it came to choosing a topic for a PhD, I had no doubt that I wanted better to understand how it really functioned. With the generous support of the AHRC, I completed my doctorate at the University of Reading in 2012, and that thesis forms the core of Claudian the Poet.
I am delighted that Claudian seems to have become a good deal more trendy since I first proposed writing about him for my undergraduate dissertation, and he is now at least somewhat likely to feature on a student reading list for a Classics BA. While I doubt he will ever oust Virgil or Ovid from the curriculum for Latin A Level (and quite rightly so!), I am pleased to say that there have been opportunities to explore the occasional extract from his writing with sixth formers looking to be stretched. If nothing else, as a teacher I hope that the Oratory boys will open their eyes to the fact that pursuing a path you never imagined is possible, learning to write well so that you can express your ideas is important, and that one day publishing a book at the end of it all is a possibility.