The Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius dates from the middle of the Third Century BC. It might have been officially published in 238 to coincide with special celebrations in the city of Alexandria, the place where the poet spent most of his career but nothing, either about the man or his work is clear or certain. There are some scraps of evidence: He did live in the city that was to become pre-eminent in the Mediterranean before being ousted by Rome, though he might have left it for a short period for the island, whose name always identifies him. He was successful under the rule of the Ptolemies, the Diadochi, ‘the successors’ to Alexander, perhaps becoming both Tutor to the children of the Royal House and the head of the greatest research institute and Library of Antiquity, the Museion, established by Ptolemy I Soter, which contained copies (and sometimes the originals) of all extant Greek Literature. Apollonius’ response to this rich and fertile environment was to write poetry that told the story of the establishment of Greek culture on the Northern coast of Africa. Little of this has survived but his major work, the Argonautica, has come down to us in its entirety. It tells a very old story. In the time before the Trojan War, a group of heroes (the Argonauts), assembled by their leader Jason undertake the task of regaining the Golden Fleece. After the successful accomplishment of this quest, their poet brings them home to Pagasae in Northern Greece by a circuitous route that takes in the Danube and Middle Europe, the Northern Coast of Italy (haunt of Circe of Homer’s Odyssey), Sicily and the monsters, Scylla and Charybdis (again of Odyssean fame), the Libyan coast, foreshadowing the rise of Ptolemaic power, and the Greek islands of Crete and Thera (closely associated with Ptolemy Euergetes, Apollonius’ most important Patron). This Wandering Return (‘Nostos’) is the substance of Book 4. Apollonius’ narrative is packed with incident: Medea’s clandestine escape by night from the palace at Colchis, the retrieving of the Golden Fleece from its Guardian Serpent, the Argo sailing down the River Phasis as the Colchian hordes gather on the foreshore, the Argonauts’ flight across Europe with Aietes’ son, Apsyrtus, in hot pursuit, a pursuit that culminates in his tawdry murder on a secluded island in the Adriatic, encounters with benevolent characters such as Alcinous and Arete on the island of Phaeacia, foreshadowing their Homeric roles . . . There is much more. All of this is told in hexameter verse, which, while it resonates with Homeric phraseology and language, is truly something of its own. Apollonius constantly innovates in the way that he uses and develops the vocabulary, grammar, syntax, morphology and narrative method of both Iliad and Odyssey. The verse, itself, moves in a different way from early hexameter poetry. Sometimes, it can be light and flowing as the Argo skims over the waves, it can change to staccato phrasing at dramatic moments, it can become rich and elaborate, when the poet wishes to describe important objects and incidents, full of lyrical beauty and striking images when he wishes to extend the range of his narrative.
Is it worth reading? Well, Virgil thought so. He imitates it time and again, and is, by no means the only creative artist who felt its attractions. Its varied characters have fascinated readers over two thousand years: Jason, the hero capable of a great deed but also often afflicted by self-doubt and a whole range of human failings, Medea, the foreign princess, destined for tragedy later in her married life, but more than capable of holding her own with the heroic male, Aietes the furious tyrant of Colchis, Heracles, a more brutal sort of hero . . . the poem is full of vivid characters, who in their words and deeds echo not only the Homeric World but the whole gamut of Ancient Greek Literature. The major work of the poet and learned Librarian of Alexandria is full of scholarship and cleverness, as one might expect, but is not solely redolent of dusty library shelves but of the new, multicultural humanity that was created when Alexander passed through Egypt on his way to changing and expanding the Greek World. It is indeed worth reading.