Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.07.20
Debra Hershkowitz, Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica. Abbreviated Voyages in Silver Latin Epic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. Pp. 301. ISBN 0-19-815098-9. $75.00.
Reviewed by A.J. Kleywegt, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Word count: 1669 words
In this often penetrating study the author explores the epic of Valerius Flaccus both as a poem in its own right and as a part of the large and intricate fabric of classical poetry in general. Writing for readers already familiar with the Argonautica and at the same time for those who are not acquainted with it, she translates all Greek and Latin passages quoted. Dr Hershkowitz does not set out to explore Valerius' use of that sole poet's material, the words and expressions of his language, but she has much to offer on composition and the concepts behind it.
In the first chapter, on 'Incompleteness', the author discusses the problems that arise from the fact that the last part of the work is missing: the text as we have it abruptly ends after some 465 lines of the eighth book. She rightly adheres to the now almost universally accepted view that the Argonautica never was finished, rather than that its last portion was lost in later times. It is obvious that the incomplete state of the epic makes the evaluation of the poem as a whole considerably more difficult. Following Genette's terminology Dr Hershkowitz discerns between references in the work to future events that are actually told later (internal prolepses) and those that mention events which will not be narrated but are supposed to happen after the story's completion (external prolepses). Evidently in the case of Valerius' work this distinction cannot be made with any certainty. We do not even know whether the poet intended to write eight books, doubling the number of Apollonius' epic, or twelve, as Virgil did. After reviewing the arguments in favour of the eight-book theory the author admits that they are 'compelling' (9). Then she tries to make a case for the alternative hypothesis. This however seems only a remote possibility. For one thing, Valerius clearly shortens the account given by his predecessor Apollonius Rhodius, notably on the home voyage, as the author herself stresses (207f.). This makes it very improbable that he should have filled four additional books in relating that voyage. On the other hand, the rather numerous references to later events in the life of Jason (and Medea) fall outside the scope of the Argonautica; almost certainly they have to be interpreted as external prolepses. At the end of this chapter (34) the author states 'The incompleteness of Valerius' Argonautica represents and reinforces its openness as a poetic work' and 'this openness is complemented by the epic's incompleteness.' In the preceding paragraph she had written 'No matter where this incomplete epic might have really concluded, it would still have been open, just as any 'completed' story is always still incomplete, because something always happens after The End'. Thus defined, however, openness, not being characteristic of any work, becomes an empty qualification. The series of events may indeed go on indefinitely, but the tale as told in words implies the conclusion which the author wished to attain. Therefore the absence of the final part of Valerius' poem cannot be a factor in evaluating the Argonautica; it is nothing but a hindrance in this respect.
In the second chapter, on 'Belatedness', Dr Hershkowitz outlines the ways in which various literary models have contributed to the writing of Valerius' epic. Of course the work of Apollonius Rhodius is paramount within the works of a properly 'Argonautic' nature, and the author well illustrates this with regard to three scenes: the Catalogue, the Passing of the Symplegades, and Jason's trials. Of a different nature are texts relating to specific episodes in the epic: those of Pindar (on Pelias' command), Theocritus (on the boxing match between Amycus and Pollux) and Ovid (the story of Io and the rescue of Hesione by Hercules, mirroring that of Andromeda by Perseus). The figure of Medea contains traits reminiscent of Nausicaa, Helen and Dido, and evidently the influence of Virgil, not only in this respect, has to a large degree shaped persons and occurrences in the Argonautica as a whole. In a subtle and convincing evaluation (102ff.) the author shows how the place of the work within a literary tradition, far from being only a deplorable sign of lacking originality, contributes to its value by the very tension between received material and personal response, and the challenge this evokes.
The following chapters are the most original part of the book. In the first of these (Recuperations) Dr Hershkowitz in a thoughtful and thorough analysis demonstrates how the less than heroic Jason of Apollonius Rhodius has gained in stature through the influence of Virgil's Aeneas, without of course becoming a second Aeneas. In the Greek epic Jason is not much of a 'Homeric' hero, not even having been appointed leader at the start. He is often hesitant and worried, and 'subverts (what remains of) his own status as a traditional epic hero by seducing and relying on the help of a woman in order to gain his ends' (125), whereas in Valerius 'Medea's seduction happens without any intention on Jason's part' (124). Moreover, in the Roman epic 'It takes the combined efforts of Jason and Medea, then, to produce the successful yoking of the bull, and Medea's interventions do not undermine Jason's heroic stature so much as allow it to be shown to its best advantage.' (53). Comparable things happen to some other persons (Aeson, Hypsipyle). Reversely, several characters have suffered a kind of 'devaluation'. On this point the author has not altogether avoided the risk of over-systematization. If for instance Juno, in spite of her actions in removing Hercules from the crew and thereby diminishing the strength of the Argonauts, is still judged in a generally positive way, then why is Venus 'transformed into something of a malevolent [...] figure in the Argonautica' (177), chiefly because she appears in an unfavourable fashion in the slaughter of the Lemnians by their crazied womenfolk? And if the responsibility for this brutal scene is ascribed to the goddess, not to the people involved, then why is Cyzicus, driven mad by the action of Cybele avenging a not too gruesome fault, made the culprit? Certainly calling him 'a human monster' (203) goes way too far.
The fourth chapter ('Digressions') contains a well-balanced discussion of the way in which Valerius changes not only the persons in the poem but also the structure of the epic and the manner in which the events are told (or passed over in silence). Some of these digressions already were present in earlier authors; others seem to have been invented by Valerius, the most notable instance being the participation of the Argonauts in the war between Aeetes and Perses as told in book 6. Besides events occurring in 'real time' (of the narrative) there are also external analepses and prolepses. In the former, things which had happened before the Argonauts' expedition are told (e.g. the murder of the Lemnians by their wives); in the latter, events which will take place afterwards are hinted at (for instance Medea's infanticide) or described more fully, such as the future allotment of power in the world as ordained by Jupiter (in the first and fifth book). The counterpart of digression, omission, is also found in the work of Valerius; among other things, the battle with the Earthborn Giants near the Dolopes as told by Apollonius is left out entirely. Furthermore, some events occurring in the Greek story do appear in Valerius' version, but in ways that are either more succinct ('compression') or more fully developed ('expansion'). As is well known, the Roman author is hardly interested in the mythological and/or geographical information provided by his predecessor. Dr Hershkowitz rightly observes (217) that the very absence of those details may have been noticed by the educated Roman reader and thus will have contributed to his appreciation of the intertextual aspects of the poem. Instances of expansion are the speaking parts of Cleite and Meleager (both in book 3), Hecate and Medea's mother (book 6). Finally the author discusses the interaction of 'romance', an important characteristic of the story as told by Apollonius, and 'epic', being the principal element in the Iliad and the Aeneid. She concludes that the work of Valerius is far more 'epic' in nature than its Hellenistic predecessor, without excluding the traditional 'romance' aspect. In accordance with a general 'Romanization' the impact of the Aeneid has been decisive in reshaping the tale and shaping the work. All in all in these two chapters we have a clear picture of how Valerius by restructuring both characters and plot created a poem which, while being obviously indebted to the works of (chiefly) Apollonius and Virgil, is still very much its own.
In the final chapter Dr Hershkowitz describes the function of 'Dissimulation', either with laudable intentions or otherwise ('deception'). In some instances the dissimulating persons are successful, at other times they are seen through. In stressing the importance of this feature the author assumes (246) that the Argonautica was written during the reign of Domitian, without entering upon a discussion about this much-debated issue. While it is clearly shown that dissimulation plays a large part in the epic, here again one notes a tendency to stretch a valid thesis somewhat far. On p. 272 the author speaks of 'the dissimulated fiction that this work is an Argonautica, even though the reader can see that it is really an Aeneid in Argonauts' clothing'. But a child's likeness to its father does not make it a counterfeit of its mother. As the author of course is well aware that the reader is not really meant to duped in this respect, one would rather applaud her characterization as 'refraction [...] through the lens of the Aeneid' (126; similar expressions on 99 and 167).
Finally it should be added that Dr Hershkowitz' book contains many more fine and valuable observations. As a whole it is certainly an important contribution to our understanding and appreciation of Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica and by this token of Silver Latin literature in general.