Modern Scholarly perspectives on the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius:

Modern Scholarly perspectives of the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius:

The poem has always much read. Notes were written on it soon after its Alexandrian publication and many readers in Oxyrhynchus seem to have had their copies, judging from the number of fragments that have survived. Critics and scholars, however, have not always been enthusiastic. The present selection of comments is meant to give a taste of what they have had to say, beginning with one of the most influential writers on the Argonautica in recent times and ending with the greatest Classical scholar of the 19th and 20thcenturies: Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff.

“The Argonautica is a brilliant and disturbing achievement, a poem shot through with intelligence and deep ironies. Its reception at Rome is in stark contrast to its reception by modern critics, who have tended to see it as a failed attempt to write like Homer; more recently, however, it has become the subject of serious literary study, and is thus coming into its own.” (Richard Hunter, Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2016):

“Although the Argonauts’ voyage describes a space with mainland Greece roughly at its center, the Argonautika was written in Alexandria, away from the traditional centers of Greek culture and with an oblique relation to them. In different and sometimes contrasting ways, not only Apollonius but also other Alexandrian poets contemporary with him respond to this dislocation. Alexandria itself can be read as (in Lefebvre’s phrase) a “space of representation,” configured by and reinforcing relations of power but also more complex intercultural relations. It contained places that proclaimed it a Greek city: palace, Mouseion and Library, Pharos lighthouse, agora, and gymnasium. But the temple of Sarapis overlooked it on a hill reminiscent of a Greek acropolis; and throughout the city were reused architectural elements from Pharaonic temples. These seem to attest an interest by Greeks in Egyptian culture, and Alexandria was a Greek city with an Egyptian cast. Actual attitudes of Greeks toward Egyptians seem to have ranged from a compensatory assertion of superiority to interest in the other culture. Thus the Argonautika explores in its mythic narrative issues that were of urgent concern for its readers.” William G. Thalmann, Apollonius of Rhodes and the Spaces of Hellenism 2011.

“Apollonios’s concessions to Kallimachean fashion—the self-conscious literary irony, the constant aetiologizing—do not for one moment affect his basic approach to the past. At heart, he embraces the ancient epic tradition (certainly as regards its nonhuman conventions and ethos) with a courage that, in the skeptical mid third century, can only astonish us, and that is more

than enough to explain the tradition, true or false, of his famous alleged quarrel with Kallimachos-scorning to euhemerize the gods; not questioning the aitia (origins, causes), but accepting and embodying them; not rationalizing or allegorizing clashing rocks or fiery brazen bulls, but taking

them in his stride as an integral part of those “high and far-off times” (as Kipling so precisely defined them in his Just-So Stories), which exist no longer, yet must be preserved forever in men’s memories, a guard against intellectual hubris, a reminder and validation of everything it meant to be a Greek (Green 1993, 206-15). That is why the intellectually fashionable Skytobrachion survives only in epitome, whereas Pindar and Apollonios have lived through the centuries to delight and inspire us still today.” Peter Green, The Argonautika, Apollonios Rhodios, 1997, 47.

“In the Argonautica, a third-century Greek epic written by Apollonius of Rhodes, speeches, songs, and magic spells are crucial to the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece. The narrative emphasis on these particular skills is also connected with another departure from traditional epic, for in contrast to Iliadic verbal contests, which generally take place in public assemblies or on the battlefield, a number of dramatically significant conversations in the Argonautica are staged behind the scenes, as it were, in the private quarters of Aphrodite, Medea, and the Phaecacian rulers Alcinous and Arete. It is true, of course, that excellence in speaking is essential to Homeric warriors, and it is also true that important events like the embassy in Book 9 and Priam’s visit in Book 24 of the Iliad take place in Achilles’ tent. But what particularly distinguishes the Argonautica is its emphasis on rhetorical exchanges in private settings and, in addition, a

marked preference for negotiation and alternatives to open aggression. While the Argonauts do fight in several skirmishes that explicitly evoke epic battle narratives, these incidental episodes (parerga) are comparatively brief and do little to diminish the shadow that falls, in this poem, on the glory (kleos) of wartime slaughter. “Anatole Mori, A Companion to Greek Rhetoric, “Epic: Honey-Sweet words in Apollonius”, 2007.


And, of course, the inimitable Malcolm Campbell, introducing the best, fullest and funniest commentary (lines 1-471) on Book 3 that for some reason was never finished. This extract is from his introduction and though perhaps a little dated, covers some of the best things that have been written about not just Book 3 but the Argonautica as a whole. 

. . . no Greek poem presents us with a more sustained or more intricate manipulation of the two great epics of the archaic period; . . .I have been conscious at every turn of my indebtedness to the writings of those scholars (F. Vian and H. Fränkel in particular) who spearheaded the Apollonian revival. There has been much less to get excited about in all the frantic repackaging of the past decade or so, but the few good things have been very good indeed, and I take the opportunity here to acknowledge an obligation to them, and to those earlier works which seem to me to have made outstanding contributions to the study of this poem. In a class apart are the three Budé volumes, F. Vian’s commentary on iii (a finely crafted miniature: I have learned a tremendous amount from this) and his various papers, H. Frankel’s OCT (which really stirred things up) and his Noten, E. Livrea’s commentary on iv and the rest of his writings. Others, in alphabetical order: Ardizzoni (1958 etc.) resolved a number of thorny problems of text and interpretation; Beye (1982) knows how to combine instruction with broad entertainment; Driger (1993): some basic suppositions are flawed, but his monograph provides an invaluable new survey of Res Argonauticae; Erbse (1953): a virtuoso (if partial) demonstration of Apollonius’ incontrovertible dependence on Homeric annotation in its shortest and sweetest form (not suitable for those who suffer from tunnel vision); Faerber (1932): an exercise in severe compression, so heavy going in places, but full of penetrating insights in the best Wilamowitzian tradition, from a scholar with a sharp eye for detail and a sure command of Greek; Fantuzzi’s book (1988) offers a wide-ranging and thought-provoking miscellany; Feeney (1991) provides an intelligent and often original appraisal of the divine apparatus; Fusillo (1985): narratology made easy (not as easy as it might have been: a work as dense as this cries out for multiple indexes), though others have followed with faltering steps; Haslam (1978) takes a searching look at the many quirks of Apollonian papyri; Herter’s bibliographical survey (1944/1945) is beautifully organised, lucid, indispensable; Hoelzlin (1641) beat a lot of us to the post with his many shrewd observations; in an able paper Lennox (1980) did for a portion of Apollonius’ text what Herter had done for one of the hymnsof Callimachus; Platt (1914 etc.) was perhaps the first scholar to deal seriously with the question ‘How much can textual critics and editors get away with?” in their treatment of the Argonautica; Rengakos’ study of the Homertext (1993) is neither full nor ideally balanced, but it does raise issues which have barely been aired in the course of the present century; to van Krevelen (1949 etc.) we owe a number of fine textual and interpretive notes in the Wifstrand mould. Malcolm Campbell, A commentary on Argonautica 3. 1–­471. Brill, 1994.

More bibliographical details of the works mentioned above may be found in Hulse 2015.

Das umfangreichste erhaltene Gedichtbuch der hellenistischen Zeit ist bisher dem Verständnis ungenügend erschlossen, weil es unseren Geschmack als Ganzes wenig befriedigt, ganz im Gegensatz zu seinem Erfolge im Altertum, wo Apollonios wirklich der Homer der Argonautika geworden ist, hinter dem alles ältere verschwand. Zweimal ist sein Gedicht lateinisch bearbeitet worden, und wenn auch die Umsetzung in die lärmende Rhetorik der Flavierzeit nur einen Augenblickserfolg hatte, so daß das Buch wie die Punica des noch geringeren Silius nur durch einen Zufall erhalten ist, hat Varro Atacinus offenbar nachhaltig gewirkt, so daß wir bei den augusteischen Dichtern manchmal schwanken, ob Original oder Übersetzung benutzt ist!). Vor allem aber ist Vergil auf dem Umwege über Apollonios Nachahmer Homers geworden; das hat aber die Folge, daß die Bewunderung Vergils nun ungünstige Urteile über den Dichter hervorruft, dessen Nachahmung zutage liegt; einst ist Homer ebenso von Vergil aus beurteilt worden. Die Vergleichung könnte Stoff bieten, die Kunst von beiden gerechter zu erfassen, doch verzichte ich darauf und erst recht auf eine Auseinandersetzung mit Valerius Flaccus, der es mir nicht zu verdienen scheint?) . . . aber ich habe zwar den Apollonios recht oft gelesen, doch erst jetzt um seiner selbst willen, weil er hierher gehörte, und darf nicht mehr allzulange bei ihm verweilen.

The largest surviving book of Hellenistic poetry has not been adequately discussed up to now, time because it does not satisfy our taste as a whole, quite in contrast to its success in antiquity, where Apollonius really became the Homer of the Argonautic legend, behind which everything older disappeared. His poem has been edited twice in Latin, and even if the conversion into the noisy rhetoric of the Flavian period had only a momentary success, so that the book, like the Punica of the even lesser Silius, has survived only by chance, Varro Atacinus’ work apparently had a lasting effect, so that in the case of the Augustan poets we sometimes hesitate as to whether the original or the translation is used!). Above all, Virgil became an imitator of Homer via Apollonius; but this has the consequence that Virgil's admiration now calls for unfavourable judgments about the poet whose imitation is evident; Homer was once judged by Virgil as well. The comparison could offer material to comprehend the art of both more fairly, but I refrain from that and especially to an argument with Valerius Flaccus, who doesn't seem to me to deserve it?) . . .

I have read Apollonios quite often, but only now for his own sake, because he belonged here (in my book) and must not linger too long with him.

Hellenistische Dichtung in der Zeit des Kallimachos, Volume 2 By Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. Berlin 1924.