This commentary was not started yesterday! It has been a long time in the making. A little background might be appropriate for potential readers, before starting on the serious detail.

I first read Apollonius Rhodius a very long time ago in one of the earliest Classical translations published by Penguin (1959). I was about sixteen years old at the time, browsing in a bookshop (of blessed memory) in my hometown. E.V. Rieu’s translations are sometimes criticised these days, but I remember thinking that here was an exciting adventure story and that if I ever got the chance, I’d read it in Greek.

Luckily, I did get the chance and by the time I left school, I could puzzle out the extracts from Apollonius selected by the great Maurice Bowra (and others) in the Oxford book of Greek Verse. To pick one almost at random:

νὺξ μὲν ἔπειτ᾽ ἐπὶ γαῖαν ἄγεν κνέφας: οἱ δ᾽ ἐνὶ πόντῳ

ναῦται εἰς Ἑλίκην τε καὶ ἀστέρας Ὠρίωνος

ἔδρακον ἐκ νηῶν: ὕπνοιο δὲ καί τις ὁδίτης

ἤδη καὶ πυλαωρὸς ἐέλδετο: καί τινα παίδων

μητέρα τεθνεώτων ἀδινὸν περὶ κῶμ᾽ ἐκάλυπτεν:

οὐδὲ κυνῶν ὑλακὴ ἔτ᾽ ἀνὰ πτόλιν, οὐ θρόος ἦεν

ἠχήεις: σιγὴ δὲ μελαινομένην ἔχεν ὄρφνην.

ἀλλὰ μάλ᾽ οὐ Μήδειαν ἐπὶ γλυκερὸς λάβεν ὕπνος . . . 

“Night threw her shadow on the world. Sailors out at sea looked up at the circling Bear and the stars of Orion. Travellers and watchmen longed for sleep, and oblivion came at last to mothers mourning for their children's death. In the town, dogs ceased to bark and men to call to one another; silence reigned over the deepening dark. But gentle sleep did not visit Medea . . .”

As an impressionable adolescent, I was hooked. 

Apollonius followed me through university. At the end of the course, we had to study a special subject. At first, I tried Sanskrit (well, that’s another story) but the poet of Rhodes was still at the back of my mind, and I switched. 

The day that linked our fates forever dawned sometime in June 1971. I opened an examination paper that was supposed to contain passages of the Argonautica prescribed beforehand on which I would be required to comment and then translate. 

One of the passages I’d never seen before in my life. It definitely hadn’t been on the list. Someone had blundered and I hoped it wasn’t me. I’ve never forgotten that passage. Here’s some of it:

Τῖφυτίη μοι ταῦτα παρηγορέεις ἀχέοντι;

ἤμβροτον ἀασάμην τε κακὴν καὶ ἀμήχανον ἄτην.

χρῆν γὰρ ἐφιεμένοιο καταντικρὺ Πελίαο

αὐτίκ᾽ ἀνήνασθαι τόνδε στόλονεἰ καὶ ἔμελλον

νηλειῶς μελεϊστὶ κεδαιόμενος θανέεσθαι:

νῦν δὲ περισσὸν δεῖμα καὶ ἀτλήτους μελεδῶνας

ἄγκειμαι, στυγέων μὲν ἁλὸς κρυόεντα κέλευθα

νηὶ διαπλώειν, στυγέων δ᾽, ὅτ᾽ ἐπ᾽ ἠπείροιο

βαίνωμεν. πάντῃ γὰρ ἀνάρσιοι ἄνδρες ἔασιν.

“Tiphys with that, steered straight across the open sea along the Bithynian coast. But Jason, for his own purposes, took him gently to task. “Tiphys,' he said, ‘why do you try to comfort me in my distress? I was blind and made a fatal error. When Pelias ordered me to undertake this mission, 1 ought to have refused outright, even though he would have torn me limb from limb without compunction. But as things are I am obsessed by fears and intolerable anxiety, hating the thought of the cruel sea that we must cross and of what may happen when we land and find the natives hostile, as we are sure to do at every point.”

As often happens, the doleful hero of the Argonautica is in search of some TLC. Actually, he’s just pretending - that’s one of the traits that make this forerunner of Vergil’s Aeneas so interesting - but at that particular moment - was I staring Examination oblivion in the face? - I knew how he felt.

Well, it rapidly turned out that it wasn’t my fault. The attendant group of invigilator examiners turned into something resembling a flock of panicked geese and I was told to do ‘my best,’ and try to translate the passage ‘unseen.’ 

Apollonius looked after me that day. I got through the passage in what must have been reasonable style because the next year found me trying to write an M.A. thesis on the same author and the characterisation of his self-doubting hero. That too met with some success.

When I switched academic venues, I tried to break free, but Apollonius wouldn’t go away. I sampled the Greek Anthology-Rufinus, the mysterious writer of epigrams from Book 5? No. Something Byzantine-Porphyrius the Charioteer was doing the rounds at the time? No. The siren call of the Argonauts caught me again and I started on a commentary on Book 4 of the Argonautica. That was in 1974. The last one had been published in 1912. It was still the age of the typewriter. My first draft was a hand-written manuscript and remained as such for a very long time. It then tracked the path of the technological revolution from typewriter to first PC until the beginning of the 1980’s, when it was laid aside, almost completely, under the exigencies of career and family. 

Apollonius, however, has always been my friend and so when I retired in 2009, he was first on the list of unfinished business. I’d still got my aged, and, by this time somewhat dog-eared, written text. With that in hand, I beat a path to the door of the Classics Department of the University of Nottingham U.K. I was received in very friendly fashion and with the help of two outstanding scholars (Helen Lovatt and Patrick Finglass) started on the work of updating my commentary on lines 1-481 of Book 4. 

Other editions had seen the light of day in the meantime, all of them fundamental to the study of Hellenistic poetry in general and Apollonius in particular (see the Bibliography under Fränkel, Livrea, and Hunter). These had to be taken account of, as did all the wonderful modern technology that now aids classical scholars and commentators. The parallels are easier to find (Thesaurus Linguae Graecae), much secondary literature can be checked online, and classical researchers are blessed by the existence of a range of essential databases. With all this help, ἀσπάσιος ἱκόμην . . . eventually (see line 1781 of the commentary) and I had reached a target that I’d aimed at so many years ago.

Was that the end? No. There were 1400 lines to go. Should I go on in the traditional way and produce a word document of staggering proportions? I tried but my heart was not in it. 

Apollonius was still taking care of me: one happy Sunday in 2016, I discovered the Dickinson College Commentaries website and was immediately bowled over by the way in which Chris Francese and his editorial team had used modern technology and digitisation to take the explication of Greek and Latin texts in a direction that it would have been impossible to imagine in the 1970’s. I tried to make contact and, of course, received a charming and friendly reply. The scholarly preliminaries were concluded and gradually Book 4 of the Argonautica began to enter the digital age.

Professor Francese has been very helpful, encouraging and, most important of all, patient with a commentator who took his time. Professor Bret Mulligan of Haverford College, Pennsylvannia was, also, very patient and helpful, while I was trying to learn how to use his invaluable Bridge software to produce the vocabulary lists. It’s a wonderful resource.

Both readers of the text (see under the Media tab throughout the commentary) deserve special mentions. Rosemary, my wife, read the whole of E.V. Rieu’s elegant translation (see the opening paragraph of this preface) and brought it to life in dramatic and eloquent fashion. My friend Peter, read the Greek text. I think Apollonius himself would have approved of the fine way in which he interprets the poet’s mellifluous verses. 

What else? I owe debts without measure to all the scholars who have worked on this quick-silver and enigmatic poet before me. If we make progress, it is because we are ‘standing on the shoulders of giants.’ 

Finally – 

This commentary is intended for anyone who loves reading Greek. I hope that I provide sufficient assistance for the times, inevitable in a text of such antiquity, when the poem presents problems. However, reading Apollonius in Greek is worth the pain. The rewards of the Argonautica in the original have never been summed better than they are here:

“In its native element the poem is musical and rich in assonance . . . It is full of vocalic concatenations and flies along, the consonants like punctuation marks, barely touching the ground. It trips off the tongue, when it’s not twisting it, with a fluidity faster than sense . . . Perhaps it was the sounds that attracted so musical a poet to the story in the first place . . .” (James Davidson, reviewing Peter Green’s translation, in the London Review of books: March 1998; slightly adapted).

I hope any prospective user of this commentary will find something of this in the final Book of the Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius.

Peter Hulse

Sheffield UK

January 2024.