in Language, Literature

Huns in Claudian, Germans in Caesar

Late in Book 1 of In Rufinum, Claudian describes the Huns:

Est genus extremos* Scythiae vergentis in ortus

trans gelidum Tanain, quo non famosius ullum

Arctos alit. turpes habitus obscaenaque visu

corpora; mens duro numquam cessura labori;

praeda cibus, vitanda Ceres…  (1. 323-7)

This reminded me of an ethnographic passage in Bellum Gallicum one of my Latin classes read earlier this semester, in which Caesar describes the Suebi, “the most warlike of all the Germans” (bellicosissima Germanorum omnium). The Suebi practice some agriculture, but that is not their main source of food:

neque multum frumento, sed maximam partem lacte atque pecore vivunt multumque sunt in venationibus. quae res et cibi genere et cotidiana exercitatione et libertate vitae, quod a pueris nullo officio aut disciplina adsuefacti nihil omnino contra voluntatem faciunt, et vires alit et immani corporum magnitudine homines efficit.  (BG 4.1)

It is also reminiscent of a description of the Celts in Britain: interiores plerique frumenta non serunt, sed lacte et carne vivunt pellibusque sunt vestiti (5.14). These Celts are then identified as being rather horrible to look at in battle (similar to the unpleasant aspect presented by the Huns), because they paint themselves blue.

In In Rufinum, shortly after the passage quoted above Justice prophesies that Rufinus will be defeated. Afterwards, there will be no more private property (tum tellus communis erit, 1.380)–also reminiscent of the passage in BG 4.1, where Caesar notes that the Suebi do not possess land as private property: sed privati ac separati agri apud eos nihil est. But in Claudian, the reason is that Stilicho’s victory will usher in a Golden Age (recalling Vergil, Ecl. 4. 37-45), in which crops grow of their own accord, lakes of wine and oil appear, fleeces dye themselves, and jewels fill the sea (1.381-7).

I’m not suggesting an explicit connection between Claudian and the passages in Caesar; I was just reminded of one by the other.

*The echo of 1.123 connects them to the far-off regions from which Megaera springs to trouble the Empire.