Claudian's Myth of Persephone - by Stacy Archer

Key Terms:

Abduction Marriage: When a bride is kidnapped, sometimes with parental agreement, to be married

Patrons: Wealthy individuals who sponsored and mentored writers by providing them with money and connections

Greek names and their Roman counterparts

Persephone = Proserpina

Demeter = Ceres

Hades = Dis

Zeus = Jupiter

Athena = Pallas

Artemis = Diana

Aphrodite = Venus

How Romans changed myth

Myths are adaptable. They change over time in order to explore new themes and even criticise aspects of society. The contemporary political landscape is a significant influence on these adapting myths. Roman writers constantly use and transform established myths in their work. For example, the myth of Persephone’s abduction as it is told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is reworked by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, produced during the reign of Augustus. Ovid decides to add Venus to the myth by making her the mastermind behind the plot to abduct Persephone. The inclusion of Venus allows for political readings – Emperor Augustus liked to promote that Venus was an ancestor of the Julian house. Ovid’s version of the myth may thereby be said to be commenting on the political state of imperialism and empire-building under Augustus.

Proserpina by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Proserpina by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Ovid is not the only Roman to use the myth of Persephone, however. Later on, Claudian reworked the myth in his unfinished epic De Raptu Proserpinae or ‘The Abduction of Proserpina’. We will explore this reworking to see how Claudian’s political landscape shaped his version of the Persephone myth.

Who was Claudian?

Claudian was a writer associated with the court of Emperor Honorius, most known for writing poems that praised the general Stilicho and abused members of the eastern court. The Roman Empire looked very different during Claudian’s life to the time of Ovid and Augustus. Firstly, the empire was divided, with Emperor Honorius ruling the western half and his brother Emperor Arcadius ruling the eastern half. This division of ruling was put into place after the death of the brothers’ father, Emperor Theodosius I in 395 CE. It is generally believed that the three books which make up Claudian’s unfinished epic were written in 395 and 397 CE. Whilst the epic is not as explicitly political as his other works, the political backdrop in which he lived has arguably shaped his version of the myth.

Change in the Law

Between Ovid and Claudian’s lifetimes, there was a key legal change: Emperor Constantine I introduced a law that prohibited abduction marriages. This meant there were strict punishments for people who allowed abductions to take place, regardless of whether the parents consented to the abduction. Senators were also told not to expect lighter punishments should they be found guilty of allowing an abductive marriage to take place. Yet in his epic, Claudian has the god Jupiter, father of Proserpina, agree to the abduction and prevent others from stopping the abduction from taking place. This depiction of a god abusing his power and breaking the laws for which even Senators were not given leniency would certainly be shocking to a reader. It is therefore possible to read a critique of those in power in Claudian’s version of the myth.

Additionally, Claudian appears to be asking how far the blame for the crime extends. According to the law, accomplices should be punished as well – but who should be considered an accomplice? In Claudian’s myth, the nurse Electa blames Proserpina’s sisters Diana and Pallas for treachery. This at first may seem unfair since both Diana and Pallas do try to fight off Proserpina’s abductors. However, the sisters quickly give up when their father Jupiter throws a thunderbolt, despite saying they are reluctant to leave Proserpina to be abducted. If Electra is right to call them traitors, this begs the question of whether they are accomplices in the abduction by not preventing it and should therefore be punished by law. On the other hand, as we hear from Diana’s speech, perhaps there was truly nothing they could do in the face of Jupiter’s power

“We acknowledge defeat by a power greater than our own”

Claudian, De Raptu Proserpinae 2.232-247 (Platnauer)

Hence, Claudian’s version of the myth considers the definition of an accomplice and questions how far one should go to prevent unlawful acts.

Life at court

It is not just the wider political and legal sphere that can influence the reworking of a myth. Sometimes even smaller social spaces can impact a writer. There is an argument made by some scholars that during this time period of Late Antiquity there is a departure from the typical Classical style of writing for a new style, due to the cultural changes of the era. One of these is the new aesthetics of political life, with importance placed in court on visual elements and ceremony. This is reflected in the writing of the time, with detailed descriptions of ornate features being included. Claudian’s reworking of the myth adds in precise details of clothing, personal appearance, and the ornate decorations of the Proserpina’s palace.

“The hall was walled with ivory; the roof strengthened with beams of bronze and supported by lofty columns of electron”