Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.04

Thomas Baier, Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica Buch VI. Zetemata: Monographien zur Klassischen Altertumswissenschaft 112.   München:  C.H. Beck Verlag, 2001.  Pp. 284.  ISBN 3-406-48764-5.  59,90.  

Reviewed by Antonios Augoustakis, Department of Classics, Baylor University (
Word count: 1480 words

In thirteen years since the publication of the first commentary on an individual book of the Argonautica (Book 4),1 readers of Flavian epic have welcomed a series of companions to other books of Valerius Flaccus' poem. As interest in this period has surged in the late 90's, three commentaries on book 6 have seen the light: Fucecchi's saggio di commento on the last part of the book2 and Wijsman's and Baier's books (published only one year apart).3 Interest in the sixth book of the poem should come as no surprise since its uniqueness within the poem has long been recognized: the civil war between Aëetes (and his newly found allies, the Argonauts) and his brother Perses constitutes a theme that heavily underscores the poet's adaptation of the Greek myth to the realities of the Roman world. The present volume is a particularly valuable companion to Fucecchi's commentary of the last part of the book, which deals with the teichoscopia: Medea's initial attraction to Jason.

The present volume is a revised version of the author's (henceforth B.) Habilitationsschrift of 1999. The book consists of a long and insightful introduction (of 110 pages) and commentary on book 6 of the Argonautica. The author has followed Ehler's Teubner edition with a few changes and has not therefore reproduced the Latin text.

B. has done an excellent job in laying out the scope of his book in the beginning. He recognizes the central role of book 6 in the poem; the civil war between the two brothers highlights the irrationality of war which ultimately leads two nations into momentous loss and destruction. Perses' Scythians are defeated in the fray while the winners, the Colchians, will soon lose their girl, who has irreversibly fallen in love with Jason while beholding him from the walls of the city fighting in the battlefield.

The introduction is divided into four parts. The first part (Fatidica Ratis) discusses how Valerius has already prepared the reader for the civil war that occupies the whole book. B. examines the proleptic role of the ekphrasis in book 1, involving the construction of the Argo. In particular, the reader has the opportunity to gaze at the two scenes carved on the ship: the marriage of Thetis to Peleus and the Centauromachy. Thetis, according to B., is closely associated with Medea and her soon-to-follow ominous marriage to Jason, while the theme of the Centauromachy prepares the ground for the civil war of the sixth book. Thus the bipartite theme of the ekphrasis strongly prefigures the subject matter of the whole book. B.'s comments are insightful and should be pursued further by students of Valerius' use of ekphrasis, an area as yet not fully explored.

The second part of the introduction deals with the catalogue of the Scythians and their allies, which occupies a greater portion of the book (6.42-170) and which is an excellent example of Valerius' originality. B. puts in relief the notions that not only do the people mentioned evoke the political situation and local court strife of the first century C.E., as well as Roman imperialistic policies, but also that the catalogue directly exploits Homeric and post-Homeric elements for the creation of a unifying whole. B. might have enriched further this section by discussing the role of Valerius' preferences beyond the obvious similarities or deviations from the Homeric or Virgilian models. For instance, a question that springs to mind is why Valerius chooses not to include Gesander in the catalogue, whose exploits later occupy a great part of the battle description (279-385).

The third section of the introduction examines the artistry of Valerius' narrative, again in the light of previous epic literary production. B. aims at pointing to Valerius' originality in his combination of Homeric and Virgilian topoi. For instance, the Medea simile in 6.664-667 serves the author as an example of how the poet merges two similes in Apollonius and Virgil and yet to a totally different effect. B.'s comments are once again insightful. He divides his analysis into two major subsections, one devoted to the study of Valerius' use of Virgilian episodes and the other to the changes the poet rings upon the Homeric subtext. The first subsection shows B. at his strongest as a reader of Valerius. For instance, he astutely notes that in portrayal of heroes in battle scenes, emphasis is placed less on personalities than on inanimate objects, such as armor. Thus Valerius undercuts both Virgilian ethos and Lucanian pathos. The Argonauts/warriors and their enemies fight, kill, and are killed more easily; the slaughter seems almost without significance. The heroes are uninterested in their victims, analogous to their creator, who is not willing to favor either party in this war. This notion of the poet's disinterest in the civil war that takes place in the sixth book calls attention to his own experiences and anxieties during the contemporary events of another civil war, that of 69 C.E.

In the final part of the introduction, B. studies the narratological aspects of the book. B. follows most closely De Jong's work on Homeric epic to showcase where the poet becomes a simple or complex narrator. Choosing a passage from the episode of Medea's teichoscopia, B. claims that the use of the particle at points to focalization: the reader now sees through Medea's eyes and shares her feelings and fears for Jason in his enduring struggle against the enemy Scythians. The switch from simple to embedded narrative, another favorite technique of Valerius, is highlighted by B. in several places in the body of his commentary and could be useful ground for further exploration. This is one of the few places in his introduction where B. discusses the later parts of the book. One assumes that he has deliberately avoided much focus on the second part of the book, most probably because that section has already been exhaustively and admirably covered by Fucecchi.

The body of the commentary constitutes a very good companion for the reader of book 6. Not only does B. offer detailed analyses of Valerius' use of language, he also comments passim on the literary aspects of the book. His comprehensive, thorough, and informed study of almost every verse is to be commended. Emphasis on both the Latin and the Greek traditions should be very helpful, especially for readers who are diving into Valerius' complicated diction for the first time.

Opinions may vary concerning B.'s readings of different passages. Here are two examples of debatable interpretations: a. line 128: ambo animis, ambo miri tam fortibus actis. This line is taken from the catalogue of the Scythian allies and refers to the Iazygians' custom of taking the lives of their aged parents. B.'s choice of the manuscript reading miseri instead of correction miri is not satisfying in my opinion. I believe that the poet-narrator, from whose perspective we are invited to see the parade of people soon to participate in this war, is feigning astonishment at the barbarism of this practice. His use of the adjective mirus (a media vox in this case) draws attention to Valerius' stunned amazement. It is a literally awesome custom, for the courage of the perpetrators may be admirable, but at the same time the rite itself is strange and even horrible for the Roman standards of pietas. b. B.'s suggestion of the locus desperatus in 443-4 seems no more convincing than any previous conjecture. B. reads as follows: simul alligat ignis, / dat somnum, recolit fessos aetate parentes. My objection lies with the perhaps too bold correction of the manuscript (L) reading cuncta sopor into dat somnum. I find both equally impossible, especially since B.'s corrected reading of dat in the beginning of 444 would be repetitive of what follows in the next verse datque (445). Such repetition would be unusual for Valerius. I would side with Wijsman's choice in obelizing the problematic ignis rather than changing other words.

Finally, I would like to commend B. for his careful proofreading of the book. In particular, his Greek quotations are error-free, a welcome comfort for the careful eye. His bibliography is complete and helpful. The author, however, does not mention McGuire's book 4 which has an extensive discussion of the civil war theme in Flavian epic and in Argonautica 6 in particular. I feel that one or more indices might have strengthened the book. A few typos here and there could be mentioned. For instance, on page 15 Qindecimvir instead of Quindecimvir; on page 57 the quote comes from book 6.1-7 not from book 1; on page 136 Wijsman should be dated in 2000, not in 2001. Lastly, on page 118, Jupiter is said to bewail over Gesander's death in 6.524-629, whereas he grieves over Colaxes' death in verses 624-629.

Apart from these trifling details, this is an excellent book and helpful companion for the student and scholar alike of Valerius' Roman Argonautica.


1.   Korn, M. 1989. Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 4.1-343: Ein Kommentar. Spudasmata 46. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag.
2.   Fucecchi, M. 1997. La Teicoskopía e l' Inamoramento di Medea. Saggio di commento a Valerio Flacco Argonautiche 6.427-760. Pisa: Edizioni ETS.
3.   Wijsman, H.J.W. 2000. Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica, Book VI: A Commentary. Leiden: Brill.
4.   McGuire, D.T. 1997. Acts of Silence. Civil War, Tyranny, and Suicide in the Flavian Epics. Altertumswissenschaftliche Texte und Studien 33. Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann.

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