Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.01.06

Anatole Mori, The Politics of Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.  Pp. ix, 261.  ISBN 9780521882255.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Helen Lovatt, University of Nottingham (
Word count: 1898 words

Table of Contents

Apollonius' Hellenistic Argonautica is no longer to be found in a quiet backwater of the epic tradition, but has instead taken its place in the main shipping-channel of ancient epic poetry. The work of Richard Hunter, among others, has already done a great deal to make Apollonius both accessible and enjoyable.1 Nelis' enormous catalogue of Apollonius' influence on the Aeneid shows that readers of Roman poetry cannot afford to ignore Apollonius.2 This important book performs the welcome task of setting Apollonius' poem into its Hellenistic political context, with a wealth of detail about Hellenistic history, politics and cult practices, which allows readers the opportunity to reassess the Argonautica and its place in both cultural and literary history. There are many good things here: thoughtful readings of Apollonius' relationship with the Homeric poems, plentiful reference to other pre-Apollonian Argonautic texts, such as Pindar and Euripides, even some discussion of artistic material. Sometimes the parallels with the historical context are strained, and occasionally the conclusions go beyond what the argument has supported, but the process of considering the material is rewarding, and the reassessment of the character of Jason, in particular, is important. In general, the book has a slight tendency to lean towards a positivism reminiscent of Francis Cairns in Virgilian scholarship, and my main criticism is that it underplays the gaps and ambiguities in Apollonius.3 Do we really know that Jason and Medea are purified of the murder of Apsyrtus (197)? Is the Argonauts' homecoming a happy ending, or an anti-climax?4 But there is a great deal of thoughtful and revealing material and it certainly repays close engagement.

The introduction begins with an example, which serves well as an emblem of the book: at 4.1305-92, the Argonauts are grounded on the North African coast and an apparition of the Herossae persuade them to carry the Argo overland to lake Triton. Mori associates this with an Egyptian ritual in which the god Amon-Re is transported in a portable solar boat, and with Alexander's consultation of the oracle of Zeus Amon at Siwah. She also links it back intra-textually to Jason carrying Hera over the river Anaurus and suggests that Apollonius uses this passage as a 'colonising aition', taking an Egyptian ritual, and explaining its origins through the actions of Greek heroes. Obscure Egyptian lore, appeal to the figure of Alexander, sophisticated and thoughtful reasoning characterise this example, but is it ultimately convincing? The different parts of the argument do not really seem to support each other; the reference to the festival of Opet in the text of Apollonius is opaque at best, and certainly not marked; Alexander seems like a bit of a red herring, as does the intratextual link. For this to work as a 'colonising aition', surely the aitiological discourse would need to be more obviously at work. An interesting journey, then, but where has it taken us?

Chapter 2, "The politics of Alexandrian poetry", fills in a great deal more introductory material, relating to the literary and historical context of Apollonius. The divine descent of Alexander and its appropriation by the Ptolemies, the culture of praise poetry and its relationship to the genre of epic, the relationship between Apollonius and other Hellenistic poets, especially the portrayal of cult in Apollonius and Callimachus; Apllonius' image of Zeus and kingship in relation to Aratus; the Argonautic theme of colonisation in relation to the imperial ambitious of the Ptolemies. Mori argues that epic is not incompatible with a Hellenistic aesthetic of the 'experimental', and that the Argonautica is a thoroughly Alexandrian epic.

Chapter 3 examines the internal dynamics of the crew of the Argo, and argues for the importance of diplomacy and peaceful resolution of conflict in the political outlook of the poem. For historical comparanda, it draws on Alexander and his army, the Macedonian system of election by acclamation, the philoi of Ptolemaic kings, Alexander's drinking culture and Aristotelian attitudes to anger. I wonder if there might be a generic significance to Apollonius' down-grading of anger; after all menis is more or less an emblem of the Iliad. Is this another way in which Apollonius complicates his poem's engagement with Homeric epic? Jason's 'election' by the Argonauts as leader is read as an acclamation facilitated by a powerful patron (Heracles), which is surely complicated by the fact that Heracles is himself the rival candidate. In general, I find the parallels with the Ptolemaic court to be more persuasive than those drawing on Alexander and the Macedonians. The reading of Apollonius, and especially Jason, is perhaps unduly positive: in this version, Heracles becomes a patron rather than a threat, and diplomacy not fighting is Jason's point all along, but redefined as the proper province of heroes.

Chapter 4 offers a political reading of women in Apollonius, culminating with the relationship between Jason and Medea, attempting to overcome the tendency to see both central characters through a Euripidean lens. This chapter puts the women of the Argonautica into the context of a Ptolemaic court in which the queen was a powerful figure, with the suggestion that Medea might be read as a version of Arsinoe II. Mori reads the Lemnian episode as a potentially valuable political alliance, offered to Jason because of his natural authority, strongly denying any sinister undertones, and minimising the heroically problematic nature of the episode.5 Mori's reading of Jason's affair with Medea sets the painful disorder of eros against political order, diplomacy and alliance, though it does not have much that is strikingly new to offer. The comparison of Arete and Alcinous to a Ptolemaic ruling couple, however, is persuasive, especially when put together with the public and ceremonial nature of the Phaeacian response to the Argonauts, on display in chapter 5.

Chapter 5 is a useful survey of sacrificial ritual and characterisation: it looks at cult practices, and in particular representations of sacrifice, and compares the operation of different monarchs in the poem on this basis. The historical background is the religious activities of kings, Alexander, Egyptian and Hellenistic monarchs. Mori traces a marked shift from the unreliability of sacrifice in the Iliad to the misuse of sacrifice in the Odyssey to a reliable, if not very transparent, divine reaction to sacrifice in the Argonautica. The results of the character analyses are not that surprising: the straight justice of Alcinous, modelled on a Hesiodic Zeus; Aeetes as a version of the great king of Persia; the piety of Cyzicus and Phineus versus the impiety of Pelias; the contrast between Hypsipyle (and Lycus) and Amycus. This last is interesting in that it underlines Mori's placement of the Lemnian women in the company of the angels. The tendency of this analysis to polarise is a weakness: but is this an Apollonian weakness? Phineus has his sinister side in other versions of the myth, but here we see him as nothing but benevolent.

Chapter 6, "The bones of Apsyrtus", is the strongest piece of argument in the book, and likely to meet with some resistance. It is here that Mori mounts her strongest challenge to the Euripidean characterisation of Jason and Medea in Apollonius, and suggests that it is possible to minimise the negative associations of the killing of Apsyrtus. For Mori, the murder is expiated by the Argonauts' journey, Jason and Medea are purified by Circe, and the tragedy to come is not the ultimate outcome of the epic, but another story. She links the murder to political assassinations among Hellenistic royal families, as if justifying it as 'only to be expected'. However the section which relates Jason's killing of Apsyrtus to Achilles' killing of Troilus, as represented in myth and art, is much less convincing. We do not know enough about the details of the myth of Troilus to establish a parallel, and even if we did, the situations still seem to be significantly different: Polyxena is hardly a Medea figure, and Jason is far from being an Achilles. She also argues for a separation between 'murder in the sacrificial idiom' and Apsyrtus' murder as a perverted sacrifice, in order to claim a strong distinction between Jason's murder of Apsyrtus and Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon. I agree that approaches to Apollonius have tended to be too Euripidean, but when we set Apollonius' Jason against, say, that of Valerius Flaccus, or indeed William Morris, it becomes clear what a complex and atypical epic hero he is. The negative side of his character, his passivity (Medea does the planning), indecision and lack of leadership make him an extremely memorable figure in the epic tradition.6

Chapter 7, "'Quid denique restat': Apollonius and Virgil", is in many ways the least successful part of the book. It aims to outline what Mori's reading of Apollonius offers to a consideration of the relationship between the two poems, but in practice skims through the Aeneid so quickly and superficially that little is gained. It would have been much more helpful to draw together the threads of the book's reconsideration of Apollonius, rather than to attempt to cover such a large amount of new ground. The dark reading of the Aeneid puts into the relief the over-positive reading of the Argonautica and sells the rest of the book short.

The reassessment of Jason is one of the most important aspects of the book, a positive reading that is threaded through the various chapters. In chapter 3, potential conflict with Heracles is de-emphasized, with Jason gaining the right to represent the expedition in diplomatic contact by patronage and acclamation of the crew, rather than almost deprived of the leadership of his own expedition as he is overshadowed by heroes greater than him. This chapter also reassesses his leadership and claims that his chief skills of arbitration and diplomacy are valourised in Hellenistic culture. Chapter 4 claims the Lemnian episode as Jason's diplomatic victory, rather than a shameful wallowing in a lotus-eating world of lust and luxury; it also re-reads his relationship with Medea in a much more positive fashion, suggesting that his intentions towards Medea were not deceptive and that he fell in love with her just as much as she fell in love with him. This is a Jason whose words are powerful but not guileful. Chapter 5 emphasises his cult practice and use of sacrifice to align him with monarchs represented positively in the text. Chapter 6 argues that the murder of Apsyrtus is another diplomatic coup and not out of line either with contemporary historical practice or the epic tradition.

I like this more positive reading, and it avoids oversimplifying Jason as a 'love hero' or a 'more human hero', instead suggesting that we should re-evaluate what we expect of heroes in the Hellenistic period. But the ultimate outcome is a figure I hardly recognise as the Jason of Apollonius; in fact, I hardly recognise the Apollonius here, the poet whose gaps and elisions always make it so difficult to be sure how to take anything. If Apollonius was really a praise poet he was an extremely sophisticated one, who, like Virgil, allowed his readers the luxury of engaging in the capacious discourse of propaganda.7 Apollonius was a much more courageous story-teller than many later writers of Argonautic tales, one who leaves us with a satisfyingly confused sense of puzzlement about the whole expedition. It was an interesting journey, but where did it take us in the end?8


1.   Most importantly in Hunter, R. L. (1993) The Argonautica of Apollonius. Cambridge.
2.   Nelis, D. (2001) Vergil's Aeneid and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. Chippenham, Wiltshire.
3.   Cairns, F. (1989) Virgil's Augustan Epic. Cambridge.
4.   By way of conclusion to the chapters on Apollonius, Mori has: "In the Argonautica, the political excess of the past and the violence of archaic epic and classical tragedy are revised and reborn through the poetic synthesis of Hellenized cult practices with a new dynastic vision, as the Greek heroes begin their journey home, joyfully bearing the Argo across the desert, beneath the Libyan sun."
5.   The later Argonautic tradition often reads the Lemnian women as actively dangerous, for instance, Graves, R. (1944) The Golden Fleece. London.
6.   Mori might also have made more of the Odyssean side of Jason and the complexities in the tradition of Odysseus as epic hero.
7.   For a reading of Virgil in this vein, see Morgan, L. (1998) "Assimilation and civil war: Hercules and Cacus", in Vergil's Aeneid: Augustan Epic and Political Context, ed. H. P. Stahl. London: 175-98. Mori does give a sense of the anxieties of power, and the inherent instability of monarchy, with its reliance on succession, and its tendency to turn to assassination and other political machinations.
8.   The book is produced to a high standard and well-written, and I did not notice many mistakes. It is a great shame that there is no index of passages discussed.

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