Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.06.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.06.15

Caterina Lazzarini, L'addio di Medea: Valerio Flacco, Argonautiche, 8, 1-287. Testi e studi di cultura classica, 55.   Pisa:  Edizioni ETS, 2012.  Pp. 281.  ISBN 9788846734464.  €25.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lee Fratantuono, Ohio Wesleyan University (

These are happy days for students of the Flavian epic Argonautica. There was a time when would-be readers of Valerius' unfinished poem of the celebrated voyage of the Argo in quest of the Golden Fleece had relatively little in the way of guidance on their difficult poetic journey; today, a number of commentaries and monographs are ready at hand. To the roster of these aides de lecteur we can now add the present volume, which constitutes a relatively detailed commentary on most of the incomplete eighth and “final” book of the epic. Lazzarini's commentary is the latest volume in the Testi e studi di cultura classicaseries, which for over thirty years has produced a steady stream of diverse and important titles on a wide range of authors and topics; the present volume is a companion of sorts to the 2006 edition in the same series of Argonautica 6.1-426 by Marco Fucecchi. All students of Valerius Flaccus' enigmatic and challenging epic tale of Medea and Jason will want to consult Lazzarini's notes on the poet's depiction of the sorceress' departure from Colchis for Greece.

Lazzarini's most immediate rival for the study of Argonautica 8 is the three-volume complete commentary of François Spaltenstein, with which the author does not engage.1 In at least one respect the present volume is very much reflective of its origins as a 1989 doctoral thesis: there is surprisingly little engagement with the great output of scholarship on imperial epic over the last two decades and more. This is especially unfortunate in the case of a work like Spaltenstein's, which engages with Valerius' text on a level of detail that sometimes exceeds that of Lazzarini's notes. In general, there is relatively little overlap between the two volumes, except in the matter of some collocations of parallel passages (where duplication is more or less inevitable). There is engagement with the work of Andrew Zissos, though not with his full edition of Book 1, a commentary with much of relevance for the study of the subsequent books of the epic.2 The (still valuable) notes of the variorum edition of Burmann are regularly cited, though the misspelling “Burman” mars an otherwise beautifully produced volume. Where the bibliography is strong is in the author's engagement throughout with older and still valuable studies of word use in particular. The bibliographies are relatively brief, but what is cited is thoroughly treated in the notes and not merely assembled for the sake of some attempt at “completeness.” That said, the notes might have benefited profitably from use of the TLL.

The introduction to the volume does not offer a general consideration of Valerius and his historical and poetic context, but rather a focused study of the subject of the section of Book 8 under consideration: Valerius' account of Medea's departure from Colchis.

The commentary notes are concerned mostly with lexical matters: here there is extensive engagement with Valerius' poetic (and prose) predecessors, especially in epic but also in lyric and elegiac verse (the poet's debt to his republican predecessors receives special and noteworthy attention). Many of the notes offer economical and helpful survey of the history of certain vocabulary items.3 There is also close study of Valerian syntax (especially the poet's use of conjunctions), and metrical matters are not neglected. The Valerian debts both to Apollonius and Homer are given due attention, but apart from some attention to Euripides' Medea there is less on the influence of other Greek sources (especially tragedy and lyric). While Lazzarini's text does not include an apparatus, the notes do consider the many and significant textual problems in the book.

A good example of Lazzarini's skill in explicating Valerius' riches is her set of notes on the beautiful sequence at. 8.24-35 where Jason encounters Medea in a grove before their departure. Here there is attention to chromatic registers and the poet's descriptions of color and light; the note on 30 roseo offers a fine illustration of the author's ability to craft a note that is both informative and elegant, a comment that reflects something of the spirit of the text for which it provides annotation. The discussion of Valerius' comparison of Jason and Medea to a hawk and a dove that follows is equally rich and exemplary of the quality of many of the notes.4 Astronomical and astrological matters (a source of common enough confusion in commentaries on epic) are handled adroitly and with particularly noteworthy skill (the note on 210 Hyperboreas...pruinas is a good example here). Geographic terminology is regularly explained with similar precision and attention to detail; this is true not only for proper adjectives and place descriptors, but also at the level of natural spatial phenomena; the note on 24 lucos constitutes an important contribution to the study of blissful locales (especially as the place where intense emotions are on full display in striking contrast to the serene surroundings).

Lazzarini's commentary will be especially useful to those who want to consult individual notes on particular words or syntactical phenomena. Particles and intensive pronouns and adjectives are given especially careful treatment. As with Spaltenstein's edition, literary criticism receives somewhat less attention, apart from the valuable brief introductions to the different sections of the book. In these introductions the author gives succinct and helpful elucidations of major themes in the poet's depiction of the conflicted Medea; these notes can be read profitably in close conjunction with the introduction to the volume. In short, this is the sort of commentary that one will want to consult even when reading another poem, an important hallmark of a good set of notes on a classical work.

Lazzarini also provides a useful index to most of the lexical and syntactical notes; more extensive is the list of parallel passages provided near the end of the volume.

The present volume is a useful addition to the bibliography on the extant literary depictions of Medea; Lazzarini's Valerius is no mere inheritor of a rich and complex tradition of epic and tragic verse, but a versatile and creative artist in his own right, a poet of skill and talent in his careful crafting of a tormented and troubled heroine. This is particularly true in the commentary's attention to the importance of Valerius to the rhetorical tradition: Argonautica 8 is especially rich in oratory of high emotional register.

Some users of this commentary may be disappointed by what might appear to be a relative lack of engagement with the monograph tradition and scholarly papers devoted to the Argonautica. Others will be pleased with the author's close attention to Valerius' language and word play. Lovers of the changing tones and nuances of Latin vocabulary over time and across disparate poetic traditions, of Valerius' debt to Ovid's Metamorphoses and Seneca's Medea in particular, and of the poet's original and unique contributions to well-trodden paths of mythological versifying will find much to treasure in the pages of this welcome commentary.5


1.   François Spaltenstein, Commentaire des Argonautica de Valérius Flaccus, Bruxelles: Editions Latomus, 2002-2004-2005 (on Books 1-2, 3-5, and 6-8 respectively).
2.   Andrew Zissos, Valerius Flaccus Argonautica Book 1, Oxford, 2008. Cf. also Paul Murgatroyd, A Commentary on Book 4 of Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica, Leiden: Brill, 2009, with equally important material for a general study of the epic. In some ways, Lazzarini's volume is particularly suited to scholars already relatively familiar with the poet: there is little in the way of background information on Flavian Rome, or on the manuscript tradition and preservation history of the poem.
3.   Lazzarini's lexical notes are especially useful in conjunction with Spaltenstein's helpful appendix/concordance of Valerian word use in the third volume of his commentary.
4.   Lazzarini is especially good at avoiding dogmatism and polemic in her notes; directions for further study are highlighted without criticism of divergent opinions.
5.   The notes also offer a good range of material for further study of the pervasive modeling of Valerius' epic on the Aeneid, not just with respect to the obvious comparandum of Aeneas and Dido, but also certain ethnographic questions of the second half of Virgil's epic. Throughout, Lazzarini's commentary satisfies an important desideratum of any lemmatized annotation of a classical work in providing raw material for future investigations.

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