Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.12.63

William G. Thalmann, Apollonius of Rhodes and the Spaces of Hellenism. Classical Culture and Society.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. xix, 262.  ISBN 9780199731572.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Félix Racine, University of St Andrews (


Now is a good time for the reading or rereading of ancient epics previously deemed derivative or artificial. The rehabilitation of Lucan and Statius was achieved a while ago, scholars no longer flee at the mention of Aratus and opinion is slowly warming to the late antique masterpieces of Prudentius and Nonnus.1 Apollonius' Argonautica, of course, has never gone unread, but a series of recent publications have brought to light the author’s originality and, tentatively, his engagement with the social reality of third-century BC Alexandria. William Thalmann’s Apollonius Rhodius and the Spaces of Hellenism carries forward this new reading of Apollonius by putting the emphasis back on the central theme of the Argonautica: the voyage of the ship Argo across the Black Sea and much of the Mediterranean. By analyzing the spatial aspect of the Argo’s journey, Thalmann outlines the ways Apollonius explores questions of Greek identity and relationships with foreign populations, and how the poem plays out socio-cultural issues pertinent to Hellenistic Alexandria.

The justification for a spatial analysis of the Argonautica is laid out in the first two chapters, which respectively outline a theoretical framework for the study of spatiality in narratives, and trace the ways Apollonius defines and explores space through the Argo’s journey. Unlike past studies distinguishing between real and mythological aspects of the Argonautica's geography, Thalmann judiciously starts from the observation that the poem does not in fact engage in geographical descriptions but rather constructs space through the travels and experiences of the Argonauts. By focusing on Apollonius’ poetic construction of space, Thalmann builds upon recent work on the Argonautica (notably by Santiago Rubio and Richard Hunter2) but seeks a different vantage point by anchoring his analysis on theories elaborated by social scientists and cultural geographers, most prominently Henri Lefebvre's work on the spatial embodiment of social relations, Christopher Tilley's theorization of the experience of space through movement, and Yi Fu Tuan's idea of the transformation of spaces into places through narrative or experience. This cluster of theories has been formerly applied to geographical depictions in Greco-Roman historiography,3 but it is particularly promising in a poetic context, and forms a solid basis for Thalmann to explore Apollonius' construction of a Mediterranean space through the narrative of Greek journey.

However, this theoretical framework may distract from the intellectual context of Apollonius’ poem. A reader will emerge from Thalmann's introductory chapter fully equipped with modern refinements on the concepts of place and space, but with little sense of their meaning for Apollonius and his readers. The author leaves unexamined terms for space and place such as chōra/chōros, used by Apollonius (e.g. 1.371, 2.929, 1117, 3.981, 1164) and subject to much scrutiny by philosophers from Plato to the contemporary Stoics and Epicurians. These terms may provide a much more immediate context for a spatial reading of the Argonautica, as there is evidence that it is precisely during the Hellenistic era that philosophers made the first serious effort to isolate and define space as a concept.4 If, as is likely, Thalmann is right to see Apollonius as a full participant in intellectual trends in third- century BC Alexandria (as he discusses in his conclusion), Apollonius' poetic preoccupation with space should be read within the context of these ancient thinkers' efforts to grapple with issues of space.

Chapter 2 follows up these theoretical considerations by examining Apollonius’ creation of space through narrative. Offering a sophisticated analysis of the concept of pathways (poroi) in Greek culture and in the Argonautica, Thalmann outlines the Argonauts’ role in ordering space and linking places through the establishment of navigable pathways. A mandatory discussion of aitia in the Argonautica brings out the stratified time of the poem, which asks readers to think simultaneously about the journey of the Argonauts and about the present-day Mediterranean world, where signs of the Argo are still visible. The chapter ends on a programmatic statement that the Argonautica represents both a Greek appropriation of space justifying the domination of foreign peoples, and a questioning of Greek identity through the exploration of boundaries between categories.

This Greek exploration and appropriation of space is explored in the following five chapters. Chapter 3 focuses on Greece as physical and symbolic center of the Argonauts’ voyage, as revealed by their movements through most of the first book of the Argonautica. Thalmann perceptively sees the Catalogue of Argonauts at 1.23-227 as (among other roles) defining Greece as a network of places represented by emblematic heroes gathering at Iolcus, but given the length and importance of the passage this spatial analysis is frustratingly short. Various scenes of departure from Iolcus are explored more fully and more fruitfully: the tension between home and journey emerges from Jason’s leave of the city; the communal choice of a leader, the soothing of quarrels and the cooperative establishment of an altar on the shore all point to future elements of the Greek polis; and the Argonauts’ encounter with the Lemnian women affirms but also questions Greek gender norms. Despite the extensive scrutiny these episodes have already received from other scholars, Thalmann’s spatial focus helps bring to the fore their exploration of Hellenic identity.

Spatial analysis comes into sharper focus in chapter 4, “Colonial spaces”, which examines the narrative construction of future sites of Greek colonization visited by the Argonauts, through the examples of Cyzicus (book 1), Heraclea Pontica (book 2) and Cyrene (book 4). In each of these locales, the actions of the Argonauts offer models of interaction between Greek colonists and native populations, and they are furthermore anchored in the landscape through a number of aitia transforming these locales into places of Greek memory (or, looking forward from the time of the Argonauts, places with a Greek future). Aitia at Cyzicus acknowledge in cult form the conflict between Greek newcomers and the local population, which puts into question the cultural superiority of the Greek aggressors. At Heraclea Pontica, a city with strong Ptolemaic ties, Apollonius evokes the cooperation between the Greek newcomers and the local Mariandynians; however, the Greeks end up absorbing and suppressing local customs. Finally, at Cyrene, the Argonauts’ passage through a formless desert decisively marks out the landscape as a Greek space.

Chapter 5, “Contact”, examines Apollonius’ construction of Colchis as both a familiar and alien space. Thalmann finds the rationale for this ambiguous description of space in Herodotus’ assertion that the Colchidians hail from Egypt, unfortunately not explored further here, which enabled Apollonius to play out in the Caucasus problems of cultural contact faced by Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt. The main evidence for this reading of Colchis as both barbarian and Greek are the many poetic connections established between Colchis and Greece in book 3 of the Argonautica, but also in the layout of Aietes’ palace, which combines exotic as well as familiar elements of Greek domestic spatial organization.

One of Thalmann’s major concerns is to bring to light the means by which Apollonius imposes order on landscapes and to trace the limits of this spatial definition. This comes fully to the fore in chapter 6, “Rivers, Shores, Margins and Boundaries,” which explores the role of rivers in the narrative structure of the Argonautica. Attention is first paid to rivers successively sighted by the Argonauts in the Black Sea region in book 2. These rivers are not mere physical landmarks but are also imbued with cultural significance, being associated with episodes of the Argonauts’ journey or with characteristics of local populations, e.g. the disorderly Thermodon flows through the territory of the unruly Amazons. The point that culturally meaningful rivers frame the Argonautic landscape is well taken, but Thalmann’s suggestion that Apollonius’ Ptolemaic readers might have known these rivers from a common source (or first-hand-experience) is too optimistic. Turning to the Argo's European journey in book 4 along the Istrus, the Eridanus and the Rhodanus, Thalmann takes the lack of form and features of these pathways as an acknowledgement of their location outside of a Greek system of space.

The narrative of the Argonauts’ return from Colchis in book 4 of the Argonautica is notoriously convoluted and erratic. Thalmann argues in chapter 7, “The Roundabout Homecoming,” that this randomness is deceptive and hides a masterful blending of different traditions on the voyage of the Argo, crafted to create a picture of the Mediterranean seen from a traditional Greek viewpoint, while tracing the limits of the Greek mastery of space. The Argonauts’ sub-journey in the Adriatic (4.323-506, 982-1222) acquires here a special importance in Thalmann’s interpretation of the Argonautica as a text concerned with the experience of displaced Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt, as it further develops models of colonial interaction between settlers and local populations already outlined in chapter 4.

Hints to the importance of Apollonius' Alexandrian context are peppered throughout the book (e.g. pp. 9, 35, 51, 121, 167). This theme is belatedly addressed in the conclusion (chapter 8), which situates Apollonius within contemporary trends in Alexandrian poetics and attempts a reading of the Argonautica that takes into account the juxtaposition of cultural elements in Alexandria's public spaces. In a move that complements Daniel Selden's and Susan Stephens' studies of Greek poetic responses to Egyptian culture,5 Thalmann presents the Argonautica as an alternative response to the displacement of Greeks in Egypt, offering Greeks in Alexandria and elsewhere a common identifying myth by integrating culturally different places in a coherent Greek-centered narrative. Comparing and linking Apollonius', Callimachus', Theocritus' and Posidippus' engagement with spatial representation is a worthwhile achievement of this analysis and will be of interest to other scholars of Hellenistic poetry. More tentative and less conclusive is Thalmann's evocation of the prominent place of Egyptian architecture and statuary in Alexandria as a context for the Argonautica's juxtaposition of cultures.

Apollonius of Rhodes and the Spaces of Hellenism is a welcome book. Thalmann presents new readings of the Argonautica and a valuable theoretical framework for the investigation of Apollonius' work, which might also be applied to other spatial epics. Well-written and evocative, it should help readers unfamiliar with modern theorizations of space to approach them through a well-known but still underestimated text.


1.   The final frontier in ancient epic may now be late antique paraphrases of the Bible in hexameters and the little-read Latin translations of Dionysius Periegetes and other Greek didactic epic.
2.   S. Rubio, Geography and the Representation of Space in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, diss. UC San Diego (1992); R. Hunter, “The Divine and Human Map of the Argonautica,” SyllClass 6 (1995), 13- 27.
3.   E.g. K. Clarke, Between Geography and History: Hellenistic Constructions of the Roman World (Oxford, 1999).
4.   See e.g. the evidence laid out in K. Algra, Concepts of Space in Greek Thought (Leiden, 1994), 37-38.
5.   D. Selden, "Alibis," ClAnt 17 (1998): 289-412; S. Stephens, Seeing Double: Intercultural Poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria (Berkeley, 2003).

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