Apollonius (1) Rhodius
Apollonius (1) Rhodius
- Richard Hunter
Apollonius (1) Rhodius, a major literary figure of 3rd-century bce Alexandria (1), and poet of the Argonautica, the only extant Greek hexameter epic written between Homer and the Roman imperial period.
Our main sources are: POxy. 1241, a 2nd-cent. ce list of the librarians of the Royal Library at Alexandria; two Lives transmitted with the manuscripts of Argonautica which probably contain material deriving from the late 1st century bce; and an entry in the Suda. All four state that Apollonius was from Alexandria itself, though two 2nd-century ce notices point rather to Naucratis. The most likely explanation for the title “Rhodian” is thus that Apollonius spent a period of his life there, which would accord well with what we know of his works, though it remains possible that he or his family came from Rhodes. Apollonius served as librarian and royal tutor before Eratosthenes (POxy. 1241), and probably in succession to Zenodotus, thus c.270–245. It is to this period that the Argonautica should be dated. All four sources make him a pupil of Callimachus (3), which probably reflects beliefs about the indebtedness of his poetry to Callimachus. The Lives give confused and contradictory accounts of withdrawal to Rhodes after a poor reception for his poetry in Alexandria. Nothing of value can be retrieved from these stories, which may well be fictions based on the existence of a text of at least Argon. 1 which differed significantly from the vulgate (the proekdosis, cited six times by the scholia to Argon. 1). Very flimsy ancient evidence has been used by some scholars to construct a “quarrel” between Apollonius and Callimachus concerning poetic questions, particularly the value and style of epic. The many striking parallels between the works of Callimachus and the Argonautica, however, argue against, rather than for, any serious dispute; moreover, Apollonius does not appear in the list (PSI 1219) which seeks to identify Callimachus's opponents, the Telchines, and Roman poets clearly align Apollonius with, rather than against, Callimachus. Two episodes in the Argonautica handle the same material as two poems of Theocritus (Hylas, cf. Id. 13; Amycus and Polydeuces, cf. Id. 22), and this offers no reason to doubt the dating derived from other sources.
(1) Poems (cf. Powell, Coll. Alex. 4–8). Canobus: choliambic poem on Egyptian legends. Foundation Poems in hexameters on Caunus, Alexandria, Naucratis, Rhodes, and Cnidus; poems of this type reflect the deep Alexandrian interest in local history and cult. Many other lost poems may also be assumed, including probably epigrams (cf. Ant. Lib. Met. 23); an extant epigram attacking Callimachus (Anth. Pal. 11. 275) is very doubtfully ascribed to Apollonius. (2) Prose Works. Apollonius's scholarly interests were reflected in many works,1 including a monograph on Homer (Against Zenodotus). Archilochus and Hesiod were also among the poets discussed by Apollonius; he defended the authenticity of the Shield of Heracles (hypothesis A to the poem (see hypothesis, literary)) and probably rejected Hesiodic authorship of the Ornithomanteia, which was transmitted after Works and Days (corrupt scholium to Op. 828).
Hexameter epic on the Argonautic legend (see argonauts) in four long books totalling 5,835 preserved verses. Fifty-two manuscripts are known, and a large body of papyri attests to the popularity of the poem in later antiquity. It was very important at Rome, where it was translated by the neoteric P. Terentius Varro Atacinus; it is a major influence on Catullus 64 and Virgil's Aeneid, and, with the Aeneid, forms the basis of C. Valerius Flaccus's Argonautica.
Books 1–2 deal with the outward voyage to recover the golden fleece, from Iolcus in Thessaly to the Colchian city of Aia at the extreme eastern edge of the Black Sea (in modern Georgia, see colchis), which is ruled over by Aeëtes, the cruel son of Helios. The major events of this voyage are a stay at Lemnos, where the local women, who have murdered the entire male population, seize the chance for procreation, and Jason (1) sleeps with Queen Hypsipyle (1.609–910); the loss of Heracles from the expedition (1.1153–1357); a boxing match between Amycus, king of the Bebrycians, and Polydeuces (see dioscuri) (2.1–163); meeting with the blind prophet Phineus, whom the Argonauts save from the depredations of the Harpies (see harpyiae), and who, in return, tells them of the voyage ahead (2.168–530); passage through the Clashing Rocks (Symplegades) which guard the entrance to the Black Sea (2.531–647); meeting on the island of Ares with the sons of Phrixus, who fled Greece on the golden ram (2.1030–1230). In Book 3 Jason asks Aeëtes to grant him the fleece; this the king agrees to do on the condition that Jason ploughs an enormous field with fire-breathing bulls, sows it with dragon's teeth, and slays the armed warriors who rise up from the ground. Jason succeeds in this, because, at the instigation of Jason's protector Hera, the king's daughter, Medea, falls in love with the hero and supplies him with a magic salve to protect him and give him superhuman strength. In Book 4 Medea flees to join the Argonauts and secures the fleece for them from the grove where it is guarded by a sleepless dragon. The Argonauts flee via a great river (the danube), which is pictured as flowing from the Black Sea to the Adriatic; at the Adriatic mouth, Jason and Medea lure her brother, Apsyrtus, who commands the pursuing Colchians, to his death, a crime for which Zeus decides that they must be purified by Medea's aunt Circe, who lives on the west coast of Italy. They reach Circe via rivers (the Po (Padus) and the Rhône) imagined to link NE Italy with the western Mediterranean. From there they sail to Drepane (Corfu), Homer's Scheria, where Jason and Medea are married, and are then driven to the wastes of Libya, where they are again saved by divine intervention. They finally return home by way of Crete, where Medea uses her magic powers to destroy the bronze giant Talos (1), who guards the island.
The central poetic technique of Apollonius is the creative reworking of Homer. While the Hellenistic poet takes pains to avoid the repetitiveness characteristic of Archaic epic, Homer is the main determinative influence on every aspect of the poem, from the details of language to large-scale narrative patterns, material culture, and technology (e.g. sailing), which is broadly “Homeric” (but note “Hellenistic” architectural features at 3.215 ff.). This is most obvious in set scenes such as the Catalogue of Argonauts (1.23–233), corresponding to Homer's Catalogue of Ships, the description of the cloak Jason wears to meet Hypsipyle (1. 721–67), corresponding to the Shield of Achilles, the meeting of Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite on Olympus at the start of book 3, which finds many forerunners in Homer, the scenes in the palace of Aeëtes, corresponding to the scenes of the Odyssey on Scheria, and the voyage in the western Mediterranean, corresponding to Odysseus' adventures on his way home. These scenes function by contrast: the Homeric “model” is the base-text by which what is importantly different in the later poem is highlighted. Individual characters too owe much to Homeric predecessors, while also being markedly different from them, such as Jason/Odysseus, Medea/Nausicaa and Circe. After Homer, the two most important literary influences are Pindar's account of the Argonauts (Pyth. 4) and Euripides's Medea; the events of the tragedy are foreshadowed in a number of places in the epic—perhaps most strikingly in the murder of Apsyrtus who goes to his death “like a tender child” (4.460)—and in one sense the epic shows us that the events of the tragedy were inevitable, given the earlier history of Jason and Medea.
A fundamental principle of composition for Apollonius is discontinuity, a feature shared with the poetics of Callimachus. The Argonautica is constantly experimental. This shows itself, for example, in the organization of the narrative both within books (e.g. book 2, where scenes of action—Amycus, the Harpies—stand in sharp contrast to long passages of ethnography and geography, and book 4, where different Argonauts and Medea take turns to play leading roles) and between books (thus book 3 stands apart as a tightly knit drama of its own). Apollonius's principles of characterization have also frequently been misunderstood; the two main sides of Medea's character—impressionable virgin and dangerous sorceress—are only confusing if viewed from the perspective of that “consistency” which Aristotle prescribed for dramatic character. Apollonius is rather interested in the similarities and differences between the power of love, the power of persuasion, and the power of drugs, and this interest is explored through the presentation of Medea, whose character is thus a function of the narrative. Jason's character, on the other hand, brings persuasion and stratagem to the fore; see especially his testing (peira) of the crew after the passing of the Clashing Rocks (2.607–649), and the praise of muthos and mētis at 3.182–193. His story is of the familiar type of rite of passage (cf. Orestes, Theseus, etc.) in which a young man must accomplish a dangerous set of tasks before assuming his rightful position (in this case a kingship which had been usurped by Pelias); that Jason seems often overwhelmed (amēchanos) by the enormity of what he must do and finally accomplishes it only through Medea's help finds many parallels in related stories, but also marks the difference between his exotic story and that of the Homeric heroes. With the partial exception of some of Odysseus' adventures, magic and fantasy have little role in Homer, whereas they had always had a prominent position in the Argonautic myth and are very important in the Argonautica. Discontinuity is also seen in the divine element of the epic, where different Olympian gods—Athena, Apollo, and Jason's main protector, Hera—and other minor divinities are all prominent at one time or another.
In common with other Alexandrian poetry, the aetiology of cult and ritual is very important in the Argonautica. Apollonius's scholarly learning, visible also in his detailed manipulation of earlier texts, here emphasizes how the Argonautic voyage is in part a voyage of acculturation establishing Greek tradition. The repeatedly positive evaluation of Greek culture (including cult and ritual) should be connected with the Ptolemaic context of the work; the Ptolemies (see ptolemy (1)) promoted themselves as the true heirs and champions of Classical Greek culture, and this strain should not be overlooked in the epic. It is even possible that the characters of King Alcinous (1) and Queen Arete owe not a little to Ptolemy (1) II Philadelphus and his sister/wife. Just as Ptolemaic ideas are thus inscribed into prehistory, Apollonius also mixes the temporal levels of his poem in other ways too. One is by emotional authorial “intrusions” (e.g. 1.616–619, 2.542–545, 4.445–449) which strongly differentiate the Argonautica from the “impersonal” Homeric poems; these are one manifestation of the strong literary self-consciousness of an epic which is much concerned with displaying the problems of how one writes epic poetry. Another is by reflections of Hellenistic science within the mythical material of the poem; Aphrodite bribes her son with a ball which is also a cosmic globe of a kind familiar in Apollonius's time (3.131–141), Medea's suffering reflects contemporary physiological theories (3.762–763), and Mopsus' death from snakebite (4.1502–1536) is a very typical mixture of Alexandrian medicine and myth.
The language of Apollonius is based on that of Homer, constantly extended and varied by analogy and new formation, but Apollonius also draws upon the vocabulary of the whole high poetic tradition. Metrically, his hexameter shows similar developments to that of Callimachus and Theocritus, and dactylic rhythm is more predominant than in Homer. Complex, enjambed sentences and syntactically sophisticated indirect speech reveal the possibilities open to the poet of written, rather than oral, epic.
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.
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1. Cf. R. Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship from the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), 144–148.