Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.32

Dorothee Elm von der Osten, Liebe als Wahnsinn. Die Konzeption der Göttin Venus in den Argonautica des Valerius Flaccus. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge, 20.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.  Pp. 204.  ISBN 978-3-515-08958-6.  €49.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Bob Cowan, Balliol College, Oxford (
Word count: 1908 words

Two hot topics in current scholarship converge in this study of passionate love in Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica. Ancient conceptions of emotion have recently been the subject of a proliferation of articles, collections, and monographs by, among others, Cairns, Kaster, Konstan, and Fulkerson.1 Likewise, Valerius Flaccus, while still a little behind Statius in benefiting from the Flavian revival, is enjoying more and more scholarly attention, in both critical studies and especially commentaries.2 Dorothee Elm von der Osten (E.) examines three episodes, or chains of episodes, from the Argonautica, Venus' incitement of the Lemnian women to kill their husbands, Juno's borrowing of Venus' girdle to inspire Medea with desire for Jason, and Venus' series of direct interventions in Medea's love-life, at Colchis and Peuce. These episodes are shown to be connected by a complex web of correspondences, which -- to oversimplify brutally -- align Venus with the Furies, and love with, not merely erotic passion, but a more wide-ranging furor, which encompasses psychological insanity, religious frenzy, and internecine strife. The discussion is concluded with -- one might say appended by -- two disappointingly brief and belated examinations of the philosophical, religious, medical, and epic context. E. is an outstanding critic of Valerius, whose sensitive and imaginative readings yield insight after insight, while maintaining a clear sense of a complex but coherent and cumulative interpretation. The only substantial weakness of the book is the decision to delay and compress discussion of the wider cultural context which, while it benefits a little from being introduced in the light of the previous analysis of the text, would be infinitely more useful if it prefaced or, even better, were integrated into that discussion. As a result, scholarship on ancient emotion is less well served than that on Valerius Flaccus, but lovers of the Flavian Argonautica will be more than sufficiently grateful for E.'s contribution to the latter.

After an introduction (9-17) which carefully surveys existing scholarship on the poem, especially its depiction of the divine, and sets the agenda of the discussion, E. moves on to the poem itself. The very long second chapter is both an extended and detailed close reading of the three principal episodes (or series of episodes) featuring Venus (or her girdle) in the Argonautica and a sustained and cumulative analysis of the ways in which love, furor, civil war, and the divine are explored through the figure of Venus. The discussion of the Lemnian episode (18-52) skilfully highlights and explicates the differences from other versions, most importantly Apollonius'. In Valerius, the central theme is 'the irruption of a divine power into the framework of the family and its destruction',3 a pervasive theme for a poem steeped in civil war and intrafamilial conflict, in the combination of love and war, and one which Lemnos thus encapsulates and programmatizes. Venus herself is depicted in a complex manner, which alludes to her various guises, but generally in order to pervert or depart from them. E. is particularly strong when discussing imagery (indeed much of her close reading deals with the similes attached either to Venus herself or her various victims), and her analysis of Venus' depiction is masterly. She shows how one side of Venus' nature is evoked by her radiant hair, only for it to be set as a foil to the dark clothes which signify her increasingly Fury-like character (25). Similarly, E. shows how her descent to Lemnos in a cloud is conventional for epic gods, but its pitch-black colour contrasts with the Lucretian image of alma Venus dispelling clouds.4 Indeed, E. identifies furor, fire, and darkness as the three pervasive images which link Venus, her minions, and the Lemniades. The main emphasis of E.'s discussion is on how Valerius exceptionally emphasizes both that his Lemniades (unlike Apollonius', whom Aphrodite merely makes malodorous and who then react autonomously to their rejection by their husbands) are impacted upon beyond their control by an external, divine force, and that this divine force is given a psychological dimension by depicting Venus not merely as an anthropomorphic, epic goddess, but as the personification or allegorization of feminine furor. This persuasive analysis is reinforced by comparison with the role of Allecto in the Aeneid, and the depiction of the feminine furor of Dido, Amata, and the Trojan women. Again, to quibble, E. might have noted, following Hardie, the 'combinatorial imitation' whereby Valerius' Venus evokes both her Virgilian self in Aen. 1 and Allecto in 7.5

The remainder of the chapter deals with Medea and the effect on her of a series of interventions by Juno, using Venus' magic girdle (53-105) and by Venus herself (106-57). The discussion contains elements which look back to the Lemniades -- Venus' personal motivation (here her hostility to the house of Sol), her link with Mars, the negation of pietas, and the imagery of blindness and fire -- but also a number which are distinctive and connect Venus with Medea, notably the motifs of magic and of pseudo-religious initiation. Beyond these overarching themes and motifs, it is in the details -- as so often -- that E.'s strengths lie. Old age would come upon me were I to enumerate them all, so I shall merely mention a few highlights. The fateful combination of the martial with the erotic is particularly successfully brought out in E.'s analysis of the teichoscopy, virtually devised for the purpose of making Medea fall for Jason, who looks particularly attractive in armour beating up Scythians.6 Nice too is the discussion (85-7) of the ambiguous nature of Venus' girdle (6.668-74), which oscillates between symbol and a variety of physical forms, like Allecto's serpent, and thus corresponds to Venus' own double, or even multiple, nature as goddess, Fury, and allegory. The scene in which Venus, disguised as Circe, tries to persuade Medea to follow a better life in the west is nicely connected with Jupiter's Weltenplan, as set out in Arg. 1 (117-21). E. shows how Circe appears to connect travel with the positive opening up of the world to trade and universal communion, evoking Stoic notions of cosmopolitanism, but in fact is closer to a negative interpretation of the Weltenplan, a nautical and militaristic variation on the Georgics 1 theodicy, whereby opening up the seas will enable, not communication, but war and disaster. Finally in this brief selection from a multitude of insightful readings, E. brings out beautifully Valerius' transformation of Medea's journey to meet Jason from Apollonius' version, noting the polarities day/night, public/secret, alone/led by Venus, awe-inspiring/fearful, and how it corresponds more closely to Juno's leading of Medea to the walls in book 6, thus book-ending the direct interventions of the goddesses to influence Medea (133-4).

There are one or two points where one might supplement E.'s argument: in discussing (126-7) Medea's reaction to Venus' suggestion that she help Jason at 7.292-9, E. rightly notes, citing Spaltenstein ad loc., that the wish to hide in the earth is conventional. Yet Medea's aporia whither to flee or turn surely evokes her own famous lines at Eur. Med. 502-5, picked up by Ennius, and then by figures as diverse as Catullus' Ariadne, Sallust's Adherbal, and even C. Gracchus: νῦν ποῖ τράπωμαι; etc. The report of the Valerian Medea's thoughts (nec quo se uertere posset / prensa uidet) is particularly close to those of Ennius' quo nunc me uortam? (Medea exul fr. 217 Jocelyn).7 In her discussion (143-5) of the simile evoking Jason's beauty which precedes his and Medea's wedding (7. 224-31), E. only mentions his comparison to (the deified) Hercules, which seems a missed opportunity when the other half of the simile compares him to Mars, returning from battle to either Idalium or Cythera; the implicit correspondence between Medea and Venus, as the lover being returned to, is surely suggestive in the context of E.'s larger argument.

E.'s unusual structuring of her argument has both strengths and weaknesses. The immensely long second chapter, which constitutes about 140 of the book's 176 pages, is subdivided into sub-sections to the third degree (e.g. ' Juno's third meeting with Medea (6.675-80) - victory of love') with a further, unnumbered level below that (e.g. 'Medea's doubt about the identity of Chalciope'). This, combined with E.'s careful adumbration and recapping of her case, makes the argument admirably clear and easy to follow, but does on occasion feel a little laboured and even repetitious, so that the reader might wish the discussion to move on rather more quickly and smoothly. This is a relatively minor quibble, however, and certainly preferable to the related vice of compression and obscurity. Indeed, even a relatively cosmetic change, such as having separate chapters corresponding to the three principal subsections of chapter two might have alleviated the impression of fragmentation. It would also, though only partially, have disguised the more justified and important objection that the two short final chapters are rather too short and too cursory, considering both their intrinsic interest and their importance for the argument as a whole.

These final two chapters are the main disappointment of the book. Already while reading chapter 2 one senses, both in general and in detail, the need for further background. This is perhaps most noticeably at 123, where E. notes that the detail about the passion Venus inspires, a plague hidden in Medea's bones, is an almost anatomical description which can clearly be traced back to ancient medical ideas; this is a promising and intriguing observation, but the attached footnote refers only to Virgil and love elegy, and the reader has been given no previous introduction to these medical ideas, nor is she enlightened now. Moreover, even when the discussion of these areas arrives, it is too brief and underdeveloped. This is not to deny that the chapter contains good and interesting ideas. The philosophical section traces the types of love in various schools, before focusing on the Platonic-Stoic conception of two, the restrained and the unrestrained, but the relevance to Medea and the Lemniades is underdeveloped, rather anticlimactically noting that both share a combination of passions. Perhaps if this section had been placed earlier, its implications could have been picked up in the course of the close reading. The medical section is particularly disappointing, despite some suggestive comments on the significance of the neck (as the polar opposite of the vagina!) in diseases of virgins, while the religious section briefly re-caps earlier discussion of how Valerius depicts erotic madness in terms of ecstatic cult. The chapter on epic tradition, though still far too brief, is more successful, especially in tracing the development of Erinyes/Furies from forces of order to powers of evil, and the innovation in epic of having Venus depicted as a Fury rather than employing one, as paralleled by the tragic Juno of Seneca's Hercules Furens.

E. has produced a fine close reading of the episodes featuring Venus in Valerius' Argonautica, and from this reading has developed a sophisticated and suggestive interpretation of the poem's depiction of the divine, of passion, and its wider themes of civilization and civil war. It stands in the strong tradition of close readings -- especially in German -- of specific episodes within longer epic narratives but, like the best of these, broadens its perspective to produce an enlightening interpretation of the poem as a whole, and also the wider literary tradition.8 Misprints are relatively few and generally innocuous.9 Some eccentricity of structure and the relative weakness of the penultimate chapter should not detract from an extremely useful and enjoyable study.


1.   For example, Douglas Cairns, Aidôs: the psychology and ethics of honour and shame in ancient Greek literature, (Oxford, 1993), David Konstan, The emotions of the Ancient Greeks: studies in Aristotle and classical literature, (Toronto, 2006), Robert Kaster, Emotion, restraint, and community in ancient Rome, (Oxford and New York, 2005), Laurel Fulkerson, 'Metameleia and friends: Remorse and repentance in fifth- and fourth-century Athenian oratory', Phoenix 58 (2004), 241-59.
2.   See especially the articles in the three volumes of Ratis Omnia Vincet (Hildesheim, 1991, Munich 1998 and 2001). Recent commentaries include Spaltenstein's on the whole poem (three volumes: Brussels, 2002-5), and no fewer than three on Arg. 1: Kleywegt (Leiden, 2006), Galli (Berlin, 2007), and A. Zissos (Oxford, 2008). An up-to-date and reasonably comprehensive bibliography can be found at the Leiden Hellenistic Bibliography website (a broad church).
3.   'das Einbrechen einer göttlichen Macht in familyäre Gefüge und deren Zerstörung' (20).
4.   She might add that this also separates Venus from her Virgilian self and aligns her with the Virgilian Juno, a creature of the storm clouds and the aer in accordance with the etymology of Plato's Cratylus.
5.   P.R. Hardie, 'Flavian Epicists on Virgil's Epic Technique', Ramus 18 (1990), 3-20, at 5-9.
6.   Probably just too late for E. to take account of, but on the erotics of this scene, see now Helen Lovatt, 'The female gaze in Flavian epic: looking out from the walls in Valerius Flaccus and Statius', in Ruurd R. Nauta, Harm-Jan van Dam, & Johannes J.L. Smolenaars (edd.), Flavian Poetry (Leiden, 2006), 59-78.
7.   The reception of this motif (though not extending to Valerius) is nicely discussed by R.L. Fowler, 'The Rhetoric of Desperation', HSCPh 91 (1987), 5-38, and C. Dué, 'Tragic History and Barbarian Speech in Sallust's Jugurtha', HSCPh 100 (2000), 311-25.
8.   In this respect it most closely resembles Gesine Manuwald, Die Cyzicus-Episode und ihre Funktion in den Argonautica des Valerius Flaccus (Göttingen, 1999), which expands from consideration of that episode to a discussion of the poem as a whole, and especially Jupiter's Weltenplan.
9.   The following might be noted: the family afflicted by Allecto could be designated that of Latinus, or even Lavinia, but not Lavinius (20); for cacumine, read cacumina (78, quoting 6.664), for bob, read non (ibid.: 6.672), for ̓ώς, read ̔ώς (102, quoting E. IT 284), for peperceit, read pepercit (114: 7.207), for horro, read horror (134: 7.378), 154 for 'Apekte', read 'Aspekte'; 162 n.431: 'Ekphrasis' for 'Ephrasis', and Letum for Letus. E. occasionally prints medial for final sigma, (thus Θεός (80), ̔ιμάς, (87), ταῠρος (122)). The author of the Neue Pauly entry on 'Hochzeitsbräuche und -ritual' (bibliography 195, cited 145 nn. 392 and 394) is not Osborne, R(obin?) but Oswald, R(enate) and the uncredited Mareile Haase. Also, the quotation from this article at the top of 147 has lost its footnote reference. David Braund's article on Varro Atacinus appeared in Hermathena, not Hermathema; Donald T. McGuire's book is Acts of Silence, not Silents; Rives (2003), cited at 171 n.465, is not in the bibliography, but presumably refers to 'Magic in Roman Law: The Reconstruction of a Crime', CA 22: 313-39. The bibliography is full and virtually comprehensive. Only Richard Hunter's commentary on Apollonius Argonautica 3 (Cambridge, 1989), struck me as a substantial omission, considering the extent to which that book is compared with Valerius book 7. There is a useful index locorum, but no general index, though the nature and structure of the book make this a more bearable absence than is often the case.

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