A Quest Greater Than its Goal

by John E. Riutta

In his introduction to this new edition of the Loeb Classical Library volume Argonautica, editor and translator William H. Race notes that of the three surviving Greek epic poems dated prior to the Roman imperial era, the work of Apollonius Rhodius has not been held in quite as high regard as the other two – namely Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Citing Longinus’ critique of the work, “Apollonius for instance, is an impeccable poet in the Argonautica … Yet would you not rather be Homer than Apollonius?” As Professor Race goes on to note that such words as”inferior,” “artificial,” “decadent,” and “pedantic” have been used by other critics over the past two centuries when considering the writings of Apollonius, it’s difficult not to think anyone would not indeed choose to be Homer.

However that is not to say that the Argonautica should simply be pushed to the side as yet another remnant of over-written Hellenistic period verse. Indeed, once one gets past the admittedly tedious and formulaic recitations of the lives and deeds of the principle characters in the poem that make-up much of the first book and reaches the tale of Hylas, it begins to become far more understandable why this work has survived through the centuries. For with the story of Hylas and the nymph (a myth that many a lonely classics-minded schoolboy has, whilst standing beside a pond, dearly wished might be repeated in his own time) there begins to be a breaking away from the initial rigidity of the poem in favor of a more supple style of story-telling that, while not consistently used throughout the entire work, is employed with sufficient regularity to make the characters in the stories where it is come to life in ways that will be readily appreciated by modern readers.

In addition to the tale of the abduction of Hylas, this more fluid style is also used in the telling of other noteworthy stories; that of Phineus, for example. Regardless of how troubled one might think one’s own life, the plight of this Zeus-cursed seer continuously plagued by harpies who steal or defecate upon any food he might try to eat is truly pitiable. A modern reader cannot help but draw comparisons between the unjustly punished Phineus and the Hebrew Bible’s Job; however, despite appearances, such comparisons are only valid as literary comparisons. Whereas Job was truly innocent, Phineus – admittedly out of commendable motives – did contravene the will of the gods by employing his prophetic gift too liberally. And, were one to consult other, more ancient works than the Argonautica – particularly those by Hesiod and Sophocles – far more reason for Phineus’ torments would be there discovered.

Then there is the challenge of Aeetes to Jason to yoke the fire-breathing oxen, plow the field of Ares, sow into it the serpent’s teeth and reap its harvest of earth-born warriors. Truly this is something the hero would not have been able to do were it not for the help of the Eros-darted Medea; a character depicted with a fulness and subtlety that far exceeds what is generally noted in the depiction of women in the literature of the period. Indeed, reading the Argonautica solely for the purpose of reading Apollonius’ depiction of her would not be an unreasonable act.

As to the purpose of the namesake voyage itself – the acquisition of the famed Golden Fleece – while its acquisition may be a foregone conclusion, the use to which it is put before the final book is concluded will likely cause the eyes of any reader not already well-versed in the entirety of the Argonautica to open wide in surprise and remain so for quite some time after the book’s cover has been closed.

In truth, while the central quest of the Argonautica is indeed an important one in the corpus of Greek mythological tales, and while some of the characters depicted and stories recounted in it are important to know if one is to consider oneself well versed in the Greek classics, the overall work is uneven and can be at times tedious and dry to a modern reader. Nevertheless it is a book that should be read for the reasons just noted and can be completed fairly easily if the less interesting bits are broken into manageable pieces – the stronger and more dynamic sections easily carry their own weight.


Argonautica coverTitle: Argonautica

Author: Apollonius Rhodius, edited and translated by William H. Race

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Series: Loeb Classical Library

Series Volume: 1

Format: hardcover

List Price: $26.00 / £16.95 / €21.00

ISBN: 9780674996304

Date of Publication: January 2009