Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.20

H.J.W. Wijsman (ed.), Valerius Flaccus Argonautica, Book V, A Commentary. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996. Pp. 322. $105.00. ISBN 90-04-10506-9.

Reviewed by Andrew Zissos, Princeton University,

After almost a century-long drought, scholarly commentaries on Valerius Flaccus appear to have become a growth industry within Roman literary studies. In recent years three substantial works have appeared: Korn's volume (1989) on Argonautica 4.1-343, Poortvliet's (1991) on Argonautica 2, and Stadler's (1993) on Argonautica 7.1 The latest entry in the field is a commentary on Book 5 by H.J.W. Wijsman (henceforth "W."). The choice of this book, with its pivotal "proem in the middle" is a good one: though important in the overall economy of the poem, Book 5 has received relatively little attention to date.

The format of the commentary is both attractive and functional. W. has provided a full text interspersed in small sections among the individual notes, so that the reader is spared a lot of page flipping at the cost of not having a continuous text. This is a reasonable trade-off, since W.'s text differs little from Ehlers' 1980 Teubner edition, and a list of deviations is conveniently provided at the beginning of the book. Indices by passage, subject and theme, and Latin word offer generous options for the selective reader. Occasionally the illogical treatment of important ideas hampers functionality,2 but for the most part the commentary is a model of intelligent organization.

As W. acknowledges in the preface, his debt to the Langen commentary of 1896 "shimmers through" on nearly every page. This is generally a good thing: Langen was a superb commentator, and W. has done well to make available in English the gist of many of his predecessor's Latin annotations, often with further commentary. At times W. seems to get drawn into a debate with Langen that subsequent scholarship has made unnecessary,3 but on the whole his use of the earlier commentator is extremely judicious. In spite of this excellent foundation, though, W.'s efforts are not consistently fruitful and he ultimately fails to do justice to the fascinating complexities of Valerius' poem. A systematic examination of some important aspects will point to a number of problems.

In chapter 7 of The Gods in Epic (Oxford 1991), Denis Feeney provides a probing analysis of the self-conscious thematization of generic issues in Valerius' poem. Feeney's work -- modeled on the fine Ovidian scholarship of Stephen Hinds -- arguably represents the most important recent advancement in our understanding of the Roman Argonautica. For reasons impossible to fathom, W. does not at any point show an awareness of Feeney's work; indeed The Gods in Epic (surely by now a standard reference work for Latin epic) fails to appear in the extensive bibliography at the end of the commentary. As a result, W. is consistently blind to the programmatic epic language with which Valerius has so conspicuously "marked" his text. In addition, Feeney's general observations on individual passages in Book 5 might have been explored to advantage in the commentary. Along the same lines, W. fails to deal effectively with the crucial second proem at 5.217-21. Although W. points to the proem as "the main caesura of the book" (surely of the poem as a whole?), he offers only a brief and unsophisticated treatment. Perhaps most surprising here is the failure to consider the important arguments advanced in G.B. Conte's article "Proems in the Middle," another bibliographical oversight.4

By taking these important studies into account, W. might have begun to articulate a coherent picture of the poetics of this difficult book, something that readers of all levels surely would have welcomed. Instead, a dominant emphasis is on "mathematical symmetry," an interest which W. imports from (not particularly recent) Virgilian scholarship. This is not bad in itself, but too often the conclusion motivates the evidence rather than the other way around. One example is W.'s treatment of verses 217-695, misleadingly labeled "the second half of the book," which he subdivides into four major sections: i) the night 217-328; ii) Medea in Aea 329-454; iii) Aeetes 455-617; iv) epilogue in heaven 618-695. The first two sections, W. observes, comprise 238 lines, the second two 241 lines. Conclusion: "The second half of the book appears to be divided into two nearly equal parts." (p. 123). Now it might well be asked in what sense "the night" and "Medea in Aea" on the one hand and "Aeetes" and "epilogue in heaven" on the other constitute meaningful narrative units. But in fact W.'s schema fails before it can be queried on this level. Unit i) is misrepresented by its title, "the night," since it actually consists of the aforementioned proem in the middle (217-221, an obviously extra-temporal diversion), the background to the present political turmoil in Colchis (222-277, going back decades in narrative time), and only then "the night" (278-328). The fact that line 278 starts with nox makes patent the inappropriateness of W.'s title as applied to the preceding 71 lines. The schema is thus too arbitrary to convince.5

A major responsibility of any commentary on Valerius Flaccus is to elucidate the dense narrative, while locating it within the Argonautic tradition that the poet is so intricately engaging. Here W. is occasionally imprecise. At 171, for example, we are told that "Hercules has come to Colchis pezo" -- alluding to Theoc. Id. 13.75, and thereby implying (as earlier at pp. 93-4) that Valerius is following Theocritus' version. In fact, Valerius never says that Hercules made it to Colchis. W.'s tendency to supply questionable or subjective "background" information can also cause confusion. For instance, speaking of the goddesses Juno and Minerva at 183, W. opines that "to my mind they are invoked as typical gods of the urban aristocracy, of the establishment." Since the goddesses are actively working to overturn the Greek "establishment" of Pelias and ultimately act to ensure the overthrow of Aeetes' Colchian regime (cf. 6.741-4) this comment is an unnecessary distraction.

Occasionally W. makes intertextual connections that I find excessively speculative. At 157 (the liberation of Prometheus by Hercules) he notes that tum forte dies recalls Aen. 8.102 forte die ... illo. Fair enough, though the phrases seem almost formulaic, and citing Ovid Met. 2.711, Luc. 7.235 and Stat. Theb. 2.71 might have helped to make this clear. Instead, looking back from the note to 348 (i.e. almost two hundred lines later, with Medea now as the narrative focus), W. pushes the implications of the tenuous allusion a giant, implausible step further. The Virgilian passage had depicted the arrival of Aeneas in Rome on a known date, August 12, and so, W. slyly suggests, this same date can be assigned to the Argonautic passage simply on the strength of the apparent intertext. Conclusion: "If Hercules liberated Prometheus on his 12th August (157n.), the next day would be 13th August, so that Medea could to a Roman mind possibly be involved in the preparations for the procession of Diana." Potential anachronistic difficulties aside, this seems rather a lot to derive from what amounts to an uncertain allusion.

Valerius' Latin is not always easy. Thus, with only one full English version available (Mozley's Loeb edition) -- and that now more than half a century old -- the translation of difficult or unusual phrases within the commentary takes on special importance.6 Here W.'s commentary makes for rather perilous reading, since the translations are too often inaccurate or misleading. The reader is informed at 12, for example, that simul (dies simul et suus admonet omnes) should be translated "all the time." Likewise at 350-1 (ut procul extremi gelidis a fluminis undis / prima viros ... vidit) W. translates extremi fluminis as "the farthest away river." This does not seem to work in the context, and Mozley was surely right to translate "river-side" (cf. OLD s.v. "extremus" 1b). At 564 W. misleadingly over-translates variis floret via discolor armis as a simile: "the way is multicoloured by shining arms as a field is with flowers." Of course floret does literally mean "bloom" (cf. Mozley's translation: "the road blooms with varied hues of arms"), but W. is taking liberties in supplying a full-blown simile with subject "field" and complement "flowers," neither of which can be found in Valerius' text. What makes this gratuitous simile even more awkward is that the text offers a compound simile in the subsequent lines. Hence W.'s translation of the whole sequence results in Valerius' double simile being transformed into a triple. Finally, a failure to reason from context leads to a serious error in interpreting the conclusion to the ecphrasis of Aeetes' palace doors:

... haec tum miracula Colchis
struxerat Ignipotens nondum noscentibus, ille
quis labor, aligeris aut quae secet anguibus auras
caede madens. odere tamen visusque reflectunt. (451-4)
W.'s comment: "As the subject of odere, I think it best not to think of the Colchians just mentioned (451), who quite obviously do not understand a thing of what they see; the expression gets more point if it is the Argonauts having inspected the sculpture [sic], and at the end being quite at a loss. They see truth before their eyes, yet feel unable to grasp its significance; mankind prefers to play the ostrich when confronted by the revolting." This assertion is highly problematic: the Argonauts are an implausible unnamed subject of odere, given that they have not been mentioned for many lines and that the Colchians have been the focus of the conclusion of the prior sentence. It is true that, as W. observes, the Colchians "do not understand a thing of what they see" -- but that is precisely the point of tamen: they do not yet know what it is they see, nonetheless they hate the images and avert their gaze.7 If that is not conclusive, then surely the next line in the poem should have put all uncertainty to rest: quin idem Minyas operum defixerat error (455). The very same error of the art holds the Minyae transfixed -- yet according to W.'s interpretation, the Minyae have just averted their gaze! This is illogical and redundant; it is disheartening to see Valerius' Latin rendered in this manner.

Though exhaustive checking was impossible, I found that W.'s lists of parallels and precedents for individual phrases were often erratic. At 238, for example, W. states that the expression infernae ... Dianae is "not found elsewhere." In fact it is, at Stat. Silv. 5.3.270. For the application of the epithet Sole satus to Aeetes at 263, W. points to the Ovidian precedent at Met. 14.10 (Sole satae Circes). Surely also worth mentioning was the earlier use of the phrase Sole satus in reference to Phaethon at Met. 1.751. Indeed, Valerius offers numerous indications in Book 5 that he has his eye on Ovid's Phaethon episode which W. has failed to note. At 322 W. only cites Met. 3.289 nullam patiere repulsam as the precedent, but the phrase actually occurs first in the Phaethon narrative at Met. 2.97.

An equally troubling aspect of W.'s philological analysis is the frequent use of Virgil as a uniquely privileged point of reference. Of course no one would deny the enormous impact that Virgil had on all subsequent Roman epic -- especially in the wake of the fine recent study by Philip Hardie8 -- but W.'s Virgilian focus often leaves him blind to other influences. A case in point is the note to 54 haec ubi fatus. This interesting expression is simply brushed off with the comment "as in Luc. 8.775," after which W. briefly discusses similar formulae used by Virgil. This Virgilian exposition is rather beside the point, though, since Lucan, writing after Virgil, appears to be the inventor of the formula in question here. Moreover, like Lucan, Valerius is using the phrase at the end of the line, and in a similar narrative context -- burial of a hero on a foreign shore. These points are too important to be left unexplored. Even worse, W. fails to note the other use of the formula by Valerius in the Argonautica (4.653), not to mention the variant at 7.349 (haec ubi fata, cf. Luc. 6.719), and the (presumably later) use of the formula by Statius (Theb. 4.644). Finally, W. -- still working from a Virgilian perspective -- implicitly places this formula among those that "simply indicate the end of a quotation [sic]." He thereby fails to observe the most obvious and important point -- namely that Valerius is not indicating the end of the speech, since Jason actually resumes speaking in the very next line ("quod tamen ..."). Valerius' use here of a speech closing formula as merely a kind of "punctuation" represents a deviation from standard poetic practice. Clearly there is something markedly post-Virgilian here that has not been examined.

Problems with English usage can be found on almost every page, making a catalog of errors quite impossible here. One can certainly have sympathy for an author working in a foreign language: I for one am willing to overlook essentially harmless mistakes like "chiasmic" (chiastic) or "Phaeton" (Phaethon). But somewhat more annoying are non-standard abbreviations such as "Mscr." (used occasionally as a synonym for "Mss."), "Thucid." [sic], and "Herodot." More damaging still are inconsistencies in technical terminology. For example, similes -- a crucial topic in Valerius as in most Latin epic -- appear not to be discussed in the brief introduction to the commentary. In fact, they are found under the heading "Comparisons," but go by their more conventional name in most (but not all) of the commentary proper, as well as the index. This detracts from the readability of the work.

Convoluted and self-contradictory language sometimes results in meaningless or unfathomable conclusions. For example, at 481 ([nec] sponte sequor) W. rightly points out the echo of Aen. 4.361 Italiam non sponte sequor. So far so good, but now the reader is confronted with the following enigmatic assessment: "This seems like a remarkably clear instance of words used in a completely different context [sc. from the Aeneid passage], so that no allusion whatsoever can be involved; the words just try by quoting from the Aeneid to bring the Argonautic enterprise up to the level of Aeneas' mission." In similarly baffling fashion, W. claims that the metrical pattern at 594 (ssdd) depicts the staggering of a drunken person, "suddenly giving a start with his beard."

In the foregoing I have tried to offer a representative sampling of the problems I encountered in reading W.'s commentary. The list is far from exhaustive, but sufficient to demonstrate that the book falls somewhat short of the high standards set for Valerius commentators by W.'s predecessors, and Korn in particular. A good commentary is above all else composed of precise analysis, and precision is too often what is lacking in W.'s work. Perhaps this failing reflects a hasty publication cycle; it is certainly the case that some careful error-checking would have improved the book enormously. Still, for those willing to give the commentary a chance -- and at $105, it represents a considerable financial investment -- there are some rewards. Even if one senses that this is not the best work of which W. is capable, he is an engaging and imaginative commentator, with a refreshing enthusiasm for his topic.


  • [1] Korn, M. (ed.) (1989). Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 4, 1-343: Ein Kommentar (Hildesheim); Poortvliet, H. M. (ed.) (1991). C. Valerius Flaccus Argonautica Book II (Amsterdam); Stadler, H. (ed.) (1993) Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica VII: Ein Kommentar (Hildesheim).
  • [2] At 51, for instance, the topos of the "mobile landscape" arises, but W. postpones discussion until the slightly fuller example at 106. This is reasonable enough, but there is no reference to that note at 51. Thus the reader will not realize that the mobile landscape at 51 has been discussed unless he manages to read on for another 30 pages. The problem is compounded by the fact that W. has not seen fit to provide an index entry for landscapes of any variety, despite the obvious importance of the subject.
  • [3] E.g. at 282 a full paragraph is devoted to resolving the punctuation after petamus, an issue of some concern to Langen. The argument contra Langen in favor of a question mark is quite sound, but essentially pointless, since the issue is no longer in doubt. W. is in fact merely following the texts of Mozley, Courtney and Ehlers (i.e. the three most recent editions); the punctuation he rejects has not been seen since before World War One. The more interesting part of Langen's analysis is the conjecture petimus for petamus which W. strangely does not mention.
  • [4] YCS 29 (1992), 147-159. Another notable absence from W.'s bibliography is the article "Flavian Variant: Myth. Valerius' Argonautica" by Martha Malamud and Donald McGuire in A. J. Boyle (ed.), Roman Epic, pp. 192-217 (London 1993). Although less directly relevant to a study of Book 5, W.'s discussions of possible indications of the poem's "unfinished state" would have benefited from the article's compelling demonstration of Valerius' deliberate avoidance of a "univocal" narrative approach. Further unlisted but relevant bibliography: Davis, M. (1990) "Ratis Audax: Valerius' Flaccus' Bold Ship" Ramus, 46-73; Frank, E. (1974) "Works of art in the epics of Valerius Flaccus and Silius Italicus" RIL 108, 837-844; Otte, J. P. (1992) Sanguis Iovis et Neptunia Proles: Justice and the Family in Valerius' Argonautica. diss., New York University, New York; Salemme, C. (1991) Medea: un Antico Mito in Valerio Flacco (Napoli).
  • [5] In like manner, W. takes line 348 to be especially significant as it is the "midmost line of the book." Since that line is occupied by the notorious Proserpina simile W. suggests that perhaps "the author was content to have the Proserpina simile there, as a highly poetic way of introducing Medea, Pluto being a symbol of the wretched future role of Jason." Or, if that does not work for you, try W.'s alternative: "the moment Medea sees Jason for the first time is so close to the midmost line of the book (348) that I suppose that in the schematic composition the meeting has been deliberately planned in the middle." Again, one senses that the conclusion (i.e. that the central position is inherently significant) is driving the evidence rather than the other way around.
  • [6] Aside from the sometimes dated idiom, Mozley's Loeb translation (Harvard 1936) is both readable and accurate. Since his edition, however, two new texts have appeared -- those of Courtney (1970) and Ehlers (1980) -- thereby increasing the need for an updated English translation.
  • [7] The topos here is the inability of characters in epic to understand the future foretold in ecphraseis (thereby creating a disjunction between the comprehension of the character and that of the implied reader), though reacting appropriately nonetheless. Cf. Aen. 8.730: miratur rerumque ignarus imagine gaudet.
  • [8] Hardie, P. (1993) The Epic Successors of Virgil (Cambridge).