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The Sources
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Claudian
(AD 402)
Robert Vermaat

The Roman poet Claudius Claudianus, a pagan Greek and probably born in Alexandria, wrote during one of the most exciting yet little known periods of Roman history. During his lifetime, Arcadius and Honorius, the weak sons of the last sole Roman emperor, Theodosius I, became weak puppets of strong generals and government ministers. Theodosius fought a fierce and bloody battle in 394 against the forces of the usurper Eugenius at the River Frigidus in which both Alaric the Visigoth and the master general Flavius Stilicho led imperial troops to victory. This invasion of the West was probably also the origin of drawing up the Notitia Dignitatum.

Claudian is considered by many to have been the last great poet of the ancient world. He was born about the year 370, and by the end of the fourth century he had settled in Rome. Here in the capital he associated himself with the court, and he is best known for panegyrics, or writings filled with praise, mostly of Honorius and his general Flavius Stilicho. Claudian also wrote concerning Rufinus and Eutropius, two Eastern Roman government ministers whom he absolutely detested. While Claudian had nothing but good to say concerning Stilicho and much praise for Honorius, he tried to paint the most negative picture of Rufinus and Eutropius. Most of what we know about Stilicho and the barbarian invaders of the time comes from the pen of Claudian. Claudian did not live to see Alaric invade and sack the city of Rome in 410.

Britain

Claudian wrote several poems that named Britain. The first is in Eutropium (against Eutropius), written early in 399, which mentions that in 398, while Stilicho was busy suppressing a revolt in Africa, Britain was suffering from the attacks by Saxons, Scots and Picts:

In Eutropium, 1, 392-3

... domito quod Saxone Tethys
Mitior aut fracto secura Britannia Picto.
The Saxon conquered, the Ocean calmed, the Pict broken, and Britain secure.

The next one, de consulatu Stilichonis (on the Consulship of Stilicho), is a eulogy, written in January 400. This poem is considered by some as a source for an expedition to Britain mounted by Stilicho in 396-8. The introduction comes from Britannia, dressed in the skin of some Caledonian beast, her cheeks tattooed, her sea-blue mantle sweeping over her footsteps like the surge of ocean:

de consulatu Stilichonis, 2, 250-5

Me quoque vicinis pereuntem gentibus' inquit
'munivit Stilicho, totam cum Scotus lernen
movit et infesto spumavit remige Tethys.
Illius effectum curis, ne tela timerem
Scotia, ne Pictum tremerem, ne litore toto prospicerem
dubiis venturum Saxona ventis.
When I too was about to succumb to the attack of neighbouring peoples - for the Scots had raised all Ireland against me, and the sea foamed under hostile oars - you, Stilicho, fortified me. This was to such effect that I no longer fear the weapons of the Scots, nor tremble at the Pict, nor along my shore do I look for the approaching Saxon on each uncertain wind.

Frere (1987) believed this was evidence of naval activity against the Irish, Picts, and Saxons, as Gildas seemed to mention in the sixth century. Snyder interprets this as Claudian's attempt at indicating that a full-scale war against the Picts had been started, led by Stilicho himself.

Last, we have de bello Gothico (on the Gothic war), which is sometimes taken as evidence that Stilicho removed one of the British legions in his bid to strengthen the defence of Italy. According to this poem, written in mid-402, the most likely candidate (though garrisons from the Wall are proposed as well) would then have been the Sixth legion, whose headquarters were at York:

de bello Gothico, 416-418

Venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis
Quae Scoto dat frena truci ferroque notats perlegit
exanimes Picto moriente figuras.
There also came the legion set to guard the furthest Britons, the legion that curbs the savage Scot and scans the lifeless patterns tattooed on the dying Picts.

When taken at face value, this could indeed indicate that the northern army in Britain was reduced. Yet, this withdrawal is not unequivocally confirmed by the Notitia Dignitatum. Therefore, it is equally possible that this is just 'poet's language' - Claudian may simply have used a hyperbole to indicate that Stilicho drew his reinforcements from every possible corner of the empire, 'even as far away as the furthest Britons'. Claudian does not show in his other writings that he had access to any military information.

Claudian's colourful style in these poems can hardly be seem as a source, since Claudian's panegyrics give us only a vague notion of what was going on in Britain. Although Claudian writes very praising of Stilicho, we cannot conclude that the campaign had been victorious. Even when the next poem should really indicate a troop-withdrawal from the island, this does not mean that the Picts had been vanquished, though the conclusion would seem logical. Miller dated these events to 401-2, and claimed these were the 'Pictish Wars' as described by Gildas. Yet I do not want to endorse this, as the sycophantic verse of a poet in Rome are not likely to be the proof of historic events; neither does this poem prove that these same events underlie the equally dubious writings of a British monk, a century-and-a-half later.

An English translation can be found at the Lacus Curtius website: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Claudian/home.html
Against Eutropius I:
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Claudian/In_Eutropium/1*.html
On the consulship of Stilicho II: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Claudian/De_Consulatu_Stilichonis/2*.html
The Gothic War: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Claudian/De_Bello_Gothico*.html

Bibliography

  • Frere, Sheppard S. (1967): Britannia, a History of Roman Britain, (Chatham repr. 1992).*
  • Salway, Peter (1993): The Oxford illustrated History of Britain, (Oxford).*
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (1998): An Age of Tyrants, Britain and Britons AD 400-600, (Stroud).*

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