Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.23

Malcolm Campbell, A Commentary on Apollonius Rhodius Argonautica III 1-471. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994. Pp. xxi + 424. ISBN 90-04-10158-6. $123.00.

Reviewed by James J. Clauss, University of Washington (

The book under consideration is Malcolm Campbell's third major work on Apollonius, following his extremely useful Echoes and Imitations of Early Epic in Apollonius Rhodius (Leiden 1981) and Index Verborum in Apollonius Rhodium (Hildesheim 1983). Campbell's meticulous scholarship, familiar from those earlier volumes as well as from his commentaries on Quintus of Smyrna Posthomerica XII (Leiden 1981) and Moschus Europa (Hildesheim 1991), is much in evidence here. The reader should not be daunted by the 424 pages that cover 471 lines of Argonautica 3. The sheer variety of commentary, ranging from citation of parallels to in-depth interpretations of, for example, the tone of individual words or of the significance of pointed silences, should provide the stimulus to read the whole book from cover to cover. Campbell claims in his preface that it is his aim in this and subsequent volumes to provide a "comprehensive and fully documented commentary" on Book 3 of the Argonautica, which will include a "systematic analysis of the Homeric subtext" (vii); this is precisely what the reader will encounter.

Before turning to the commentary, I would point out that Campbell presents a very helpful listing of the most important resources that he used in compiling his commentary. Section BIII in particular (books and articles referred to more than once) offers a good bibliography for Book 3. I did note a few minor problems, however. Under section BII, there are no titles mentioned for works cited under the names of Allen, Halliday and Sikes (AHS), Fernández-Galiano (F-G), and Friis Johansen and Whittle (FJW). Moreover, there are several works referred to on more than a few occasions in the commentary that are not cited anywhere under the modern works (e.g., Bulloch on Callimachus H. 5, James' index to Oppian, Verdenius' commentary on Hesiod's Works and Days, and Campbell's own commentary on Quintus of Smyrna). I noticed one typo: for "Rosenmayer" (xviii) read "Rosenmeyer" (the misspelling is found wherever his article is discussed in the commentary; elsewhere, on p. 3 for "Krevens" read "Krevans"). One final note: M. F. Williams' 1989 dissertation cited ad 321 was published in 1991 (Frankfurt: Peter Lang).

As I mentioned above, Campbell does make good on his promise to write a comprehensive commentary. One comes away with the feeling that the author has read, catalogued (down to the footnotes), and fully digested everything written by ancient and modern writers that pertains to these lines of the Argonautica in any way. Throughout the book, Campbell, either on his own or through the many authorities to whom he sends us, makes countless learned observations on issues of diction, morphology, syntax, grammar, prosody, and meter; I found the comments regarding the tone of particles or particle combinations particularly instructive. These are the kinds of items that one would expect in a scholarly commentary, and by and large Campbell satisfies in all areas. But a poet like Apollonius demands more and Campbell obliges, especially in two important areas: Apollonius' propensity to allude to earlier and contemporary writers and to compress the narrative.

As one would expect from the author of Echoes and Imitations, Campbell cites, starting with the very first comment, all the lines and phrases which Apollonius was (or might have been) imitating, referring to, or possibly thinking of; he even adds some new models to his earlier list (e.g., ad 1, s.v. A)/GE, to which he adds the believable lament "I do not know how I missed this one"). Of course, different from Echoes and Imitations, we are able to hear what Campbell has to say about the various echoes and imitations; he also includes many more texts this time around (non-hexametric, non-archaic, and non-Greek). The reader will discover throughout the origins -- or in some cases futures -- of many Apollonian phrases and will, by seeing the similarities or differences, come to understand better the poet's contribution to epic verse in the Hellenistic era.

While moving through the commentary, I was often reminded of Hermann Fraenkel's Noten zu den Argonautika des Apollonios (Munich 1968), because, like Fraenkel, Campbell is quite willing to unpack the narrative. Campbell is absolutely correct when he says that "Ap. habitually takes narrative compression to extremes" (ad 6-7) and he offers essential help on many occasions when he fills in the gaps. Some readers, however, may find the tendency toward psychologizing intrusive and the suggestions open to debate. For instance, Athena's silence in the epic's one Olympian scene is attributed to her feeling of being outclassed by Hera (ad 22-4); Eros cheats Ganymede at knucklebones far from Zeus because he was picking on his boyfriend (ad 114) and is said not to trust his mother any more than she trusts him (ad 154-5); Jason is described as uncomfortable at being ignored by Aeetes (ad 304f.); when Medea casts sidelong glances at Jason it is because she is guilty (ad 444-5; wouldn't she avoid starring at Jason here because she is in front of her parents, siblings and the royal entourage?). In general, none of Campbell's insights into the characters' minds is without some basis; many are quite perceptive, but many are also highly speculative.

In short, my overall impression is that the quality of this commentary is very high indeed. I gained many insights into Apollonius' narrative while reading through the notes. Given the remarkable scope of the book, a thorough evaluation of the contents is out of the question in this venue. I offer only two reactions to notes that held a special interest for me.

Ad 422f. Campbell takes on the issue of Jason's heroism and in particular his A)MHXANI/H. In essence, he argues that Jason's A)MHXANI/H should not be viewed as being different from that of other epic heroes, in particular Odysseus. I fully agree that Jason possesses a heroic status which deserves to be read within the compass of the epic tradition, and in particular that his actions should be compared with those of Odysseus. Yet, different from Odysseus and other heroes who experience doubts in the face of their contests, Jason cannot possibly accomplish the central A)/EQLOS of Book 3 -- performing Aeetes' impossible task -- without the assistance of a more powerful helper. On the other hand, when it comes to escaping from Polyphemus' cave (cf. Od. 9.295) or killing the suitors (cf. Od. 20.18-21), Odysseus exerts almost complete control over the situation, despite his anxieties; regarding the suitors, while he does have help from Athena in executing his plan, the actions of winning the archery contest and killing the suitors are accomplished under his own, and not artificial, powers. This difference between the heroes establishes a central irony in a poem that so clearly has the Odyssey as a major subtext, especially in the second half. Jason completes his A)/EQLOS because he is fatally attractive to Medea; Odysseus succeeds in his through a combination of cleverness and physical strength. Yes, as Campbell points out, there are times when Odysseus is A)MH/XANOS, but the hero always manages to extricate himself from the situation on his own. In sum, what among many things differentiates Jason from Odysseus is that the Hellenistic hero is clueless when he faces his great heroic achievement and only succeeds through the drugs and magic incantations provided by Medea, a seemingly all-powerful Nausicaa, whose role she clearly plays in Book 3. Whatever one wants to make of Apollonius' depiction of heroism, it is different from the Homeric version.

At lines 417-418, Apollonius has Aeetes boast to Jason that the task he assigns to the Greek hero takes him one full day to complete:

Campbell's helpful comments on H)E/RIOS and DEI/ELON W(/RHN ad loc. led me to h. Merc. 17-18. Although the specific vocabulary employed by Apollonius may not recall this passage -- and for this reason Campbell understandably does not mention the text -- the sense and phrasing bring it to mind:
Both Aeetes and Hermes complete their "heroic" tasks within the scope of one day. The archaic poem was well known in the Hellenistic age. In his Hymn to Zeus, Callimachus alluded to these lines when describing Ptolemy Philadelphus who we know managed to take the throne of Egypt from his older half-brother Ptolemy Ceraunus (lines 87-88; cf. ClAnt 5 [1986] 155-170). Apollonius had the theft in mind in his elaborate description of the first launch of the Argo, headed, like the impish god, on a distant expedition to fetch an item (the fleece of an animal instead of the animal itself) that is supposed to earn the new possessor a kingdom/flock (1.362-393; in particular, Argo. 1.365a = h. Merc. 128a; cf. J. J. Clauss, The Best of the Argonauts [Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford 1993] 69-74). I believe that such a context is in play here as well, especially as Aeetes will soon accuse Jason and the sons of Phrixus of trying to steal his throne (cf. 3.596-97; n.b. in this speech Aeetes not only mentions Hermes but also describes the Argonautic mission as the weaving of DO/LOI and stealing of livestock; cf. 3.587-93). Ironically perhaps, the person doing the stealing has Apollinian associations and the person being relieved of his property is mercurial in two senses of the word (disingenuous and hot-headed).

In recent years I have found commentators introducing more and more informal features into their works that were absent from earlier versions of the genre. For example, the use of the question mark before a query or speculative statement or an exclamation mark after an assertion of some sort. Campbell offers numerous instances of both; at times there are even double question marks. Similarly, one encounters the intrusion of colloquial expressions of which Campbell offers many lively examples. Hera and Athena are referred to as the "dynamic duo" (ad 7-166) and Eros as "boy-wonder" (ad 452; the winged god is also said not to be a "Muppet-like figure" ad 285); Aphrodite finds herself "in 'macho' mode" (ad 144); Aeetes' megaron does not have "that 'lived in' look" (ad 215f, C). Comparable expressions are used passim. While such a light touch, certainly appropriate and useful in the classroom, does make reading a comprehensive commentary like this more entertaining, it does risk undermining the author's auctoritas. I would add that Campbell has taken the opportunity to express himself candidly and sharply on the views or arguments of many scholars, and often in ways that seem gratuitous; that is, expressed views appear to be mentioned only to be dismissed, and often in harsh terms. In my opinion, this feature of the commentary detracts from an otherwise superb piece of scholarship.

Finally, a word on presentation. The pages are large and the type is handsome and very easy on the eyes. Moreover, the book seems sturdy enough to endure the many years of use that it deserves. I noted only one minor problem: the typesetting program does not know English hyphenation very well (e.g., su-ppose, su-pplied, occu-rrences, ho-wever, nu-mber, smi-tten, emanat-ing, At-hena). Despite this, Brill has produced a beautiful book, and Campbell an important contribution to Apollonian studies.