Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.35

Tim Stover, Epic and Empire in Vespasianic Rome: A New Reading of Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. x, 244.  ISBN 9780199644087.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Jessica R. Blum, Yale University (


A recent wave of scholarship on Valerius Flaccus's Argonautica seeks to tie literary-historical analysis to the poem's political context, rather than focus on the poetics of the work in terms of its response to Vergil and Apollonius Rhodius. In his new book, Epic and Empire in Vespasianic Rome, Tim Stover offers an innovative reading of the poem as a whole that explores the idea of Flavian rebirth in terms of both politics and poetics.

Stover views Lucan's Bellum Civile as the key intertext for the Argonautica, and seeks to “elucidate how Valerius's Argonautica is implicated in the discourse of Vespasianic Rome.”(p. 2) In doing so, he argues that a new space for heroic virtus is created and mutually reinforced by the beginning of the Flavian regime and the rebirth of epic represented by the (re)launch of the Argo.

The first chapter helpfully summarizes the debate surrounding the only external evidence for the dating of the Argonautica: the note in Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria that multum nuper in Valerio Flacco amisimus (10.1.90). Stover then considers the internal evidence, including the eruption of Vesuvius and, most importantly for his argument, the address to Vespasian in the Argonautica's proem. As the basis for his comparison with the Bellum Civile, Stover argues for dating the poem exclusively to Vespasian's reign. In doing so, he responds to those critics who have consistently seen in the Argonautica a pessimistic reaction to an oppressive Domitianic regime.1

Stover locates the “recuperation” of epic in the Argonautica's reflection of the sociopolitical framework of Vespasianic Rome. In Chapter 2, he traces the representation of Vespasian's imperial program in the new heroic world outlined by Jupiter's programmatic speech in Argonautica 1.Valerius's pointed construction of the Argo's voyage as the representative event of the transition from the Saturnian to the Jovian age is the basis of Stover's political reading: the expansionist focus of the Argonautic myth is the key point for his alignment of the poem with the Vespasianic political renewal, in the redirection of violence to external rather than internal warfare. The collective mission of the Argonauts is presented as an alternative to the personal political rivalry of Jason and Pelias, and thus represents the antithesis of the collapsing world of the Bellum Civile.

In Chapter 3, Stover analyzes Valerius's thematic association of Gigantomachic imagery with the opponents of the Argo's voyage. Focusing on the storm at sea that immediately follows Jupiter's speech in Book 1, he argues that the episode “stages a debate concerning the legitimacy of Argo's mission and, consequently, of Jupiter's imperial agenda.”(p. 83) Boreas's speech and characterization represent the Saturnian alternative to Jupiter's reign, and Stover thus reads the storm as Vergilian political allegory. By arguing that the Gigantomachic characterization of those who oppose the Argo's voyage effectively exonerates the Argonauts themselves from any transgressive reading, Stover acknowledges and refutes the dissident voices in the poem. Furthermore, he demonstrates that Jason's apparent awareness of possible primitivist interpretations of the Argonautic mission (Arg.1.194-203) together with the continual illustration of his piety and humility effectively undermine any such reading. In the Argonautica, the defeat of the Giants is a positive contribution to the establishment of Jupiter's rule, a theme that picks up and correctively responds to the Gigantomachic associations of Lucan's Caesar (p. 48). By exploring this theme, Stover convincingly shows that the poem enacts the return of externally focused heroic labor under Jupiter's reign, as a comparandum for the end of civil war and return of imperial expansion under Vespasian.

Chapter 4 applies this positivist reading to Valerius's innovative civil war episodes, examining Valerius's exploitation of the theme of Gigantomachy as a means to organize the opposing sides into forces of order and chaos. He takes the night battle against the Doliones in Argonautica 3 as an example of the thematic treatment of civil war as Gigantomachy, showing that the characterization of Cyzicus as a monstrous opponent reverses the victory of Caesar in the Bellum Civile. In this episode, Stover shows Valerius's deliberate reworking of the battle against the Doliones into Lucanian infanda proelia through the assertion, in contrast to Apollonius's version, of common identity between the two groups. Stover then effectively juxtaposes this with the moral differentiation encoded in the gigantic characterization of the Doliones in order to demonstrate Valerius's reassertion of a normative heroic model, arguing that both Lucan and Valerius engage in a “tendentious process of selective appropriation of Vergilian gigantomachic image-complexes, thereby obliterating Vergil's more ambivalent presentation of the Gigantomachy model”(pp. 114-116). Following the argument of the preceding chapters, Stover suggests that civil war in the Argonautica can thus have a positive function as the marker of a new political age (p. 116).

It is here that I find Stover's argument least persuasive. While I agree that Valerius gives his civil war episodes an innovative moral dimension, Stover's statement that “Valerius achieves a level of orderliness that is not found in Vergil” in his correction of Lucan (p. 115) does not fully reflect the ambivalence of Jason's heroic character or the complexity of Cyzicus's rhetoric. The construction of the battle as a type of civil war reflects not just the perception of the characters themselves, but also the realities of the poem's Roman audience and the complications of its Vergilian background: the context in which the moral claims of either side are asserted necessarily resists such neat categorization.

In Chapter 5, Stover discusses the role of the vates as the representative of the poet. He draws a contrast between the candid and voluntary prophecy offered by prophetic voices of the Argonautica and the obstructionist prophecy of the Bellum Civile, suggesting that these characters reflect a new atmosphere of poetic libertas. Valerian prophets are not only enthusiastic participants in the communal heroic mission, but also the primary means through which the community is healed from the trauma of civil war. Rather than verbalizing the nefas of civil war, the vates of the Argonautica play a central role in the celebration and maintenance of the Jovian world order, the new age that enables a multiplicity of poetic possibilities in parallel to the new field for heroic endeavor.

Chapter 6 examines the Valerian reinvigoration of Jason's heroic character, focusing on his interactions with Medea. By inserting opportunities for martial display into the Argonautic myth, Valerius provides a venue for the audience's identification with Jason, and his use of Ovidian intertexts and the thematic exploitation of Homeric similes first creates and then denies the possibility that Jason's heroism will be undermined by Medea's entrance into the narrative. Instead, she becomes the focalizer for the audience's appreciation of his heroic supremacy, a mechanism that Stover explores through the lens of the teichoscopia in Book 6, thus reexamining a key locus of the argument for an elegiac contamination of the Argonautica. By analyzing this scene in the wider recuperative context, he offers a convincing reappraisal of the interactions of both amatory poetry and civil war with more traditional epic themes. In Valerius's reconstruction of martial, expansionist heroic virtus, he demonstrates the Argonautica's movement away from the end of heroic epic posited by Lucan's anonymous and self-destructive violence.

Stover's focus on the Bellum Civile as the Argonautica's primary intertext is supplemented throughout by comparisons of Valerius and Lucan's interactions with the Aeneid, a key point through which Stover demonstrates the “reconstruction” of the epic form. In this engagingly written, well-presented book, Stover has provided an accessible and invaluable interpretation of the Argonautica that will appeal to scholars and students alike.


1.   Although I find Stover's argument for the dating of the poem interesting and persuasive, the strict terminus ante quem of 79 CE for which he argues is not, to my mind, necessary for his wider analysis of the relationship between the two texts. Stover bases his case on the fact that the latest datable internal reference is to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, and suggests that there is no reason to think that Valerius continued work on his poem for long after this. The debate over the date of the Argonautica customarily centers on this reference along with two points raised in Valerius's proem: the question of whether ille in 1.15 refers to Titus or Domitian, and whether the delubra of Vespasian are actually under construction while Valerius was writing (Arg.1.15018). The reference in Quintilian gives only a very rough boundary of 96 CE for Valerius's death (the interpretation of nuper is highly debatable).

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