Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.05 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.05

Richard Hunter, Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica: Book IV. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2015.  Pp. xi, 339.  ISBN 9781107636750.  $39.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kathryn Wilson, Washington University in St. Louis (


For a long time, only three volumes in the Cambridge Greek and the Latin Classics series (the famous green-and-yellows) concerned Hellenistic poetry: Neil Hopkinson’s anthology, Richard Hunter’s collection of Theocritus’ Idylls, and his edition of Book 3 of Apollonius’ Argonautica. Hunter’s new volume for the series, on Book 4 of the Argonautica, comes on the heels of Alan Sommerstein’s edition of Menander’s Samia and speaks to the flourishing interest in Hellenistic poetry. One can hope it will also work towards redressing the scholarly imbalance that has long restricted the focus of much Apollonian study to Book 3. This new volume promises to offer access to the final section of the poem to a wider audience and hopefully will inspire more work on the poem as a whole. Since this series is primarily aimed at advanced students, most of my comments pertain to its usefulness for that audience.

The introduction includes sections on the date of the poem’s composition, the structure of the poem, the geography of the return journey, the poem’s relationship to the Odyssey, and the poet’s to Callimachus. These sections are informative and appropriate for the themes of Book 4. There is no general introduction to Apollonius and his life in Alexandria, or to the poem as a whole, however, for which Hunter refers the reader to his commentary on Book 3. Needless to say, this will likely prove rather cumbersome for the student who is wholly new to Apollonius.

Hunter’s text is Vian’s Budé edition, but he also includes discussions of a few unpublished Oxyrhynchus Papyri (see the entry for line 1029). In general, the commentary keeps textual discussions to a minimum; Hunter refers the reader to Vian for the stemma and intentionally keeps his apparatus slight. Textual problems are discussed when they affect the sense of the passage, with various proposed emendations explained, and Hunter typically does not force one reading over another (see, for example, the entry for line 376). This is a good approach for students, who should be introduced to such matters without being overwhelmed.

Hunter provides ample translation of words and phrases in the commentary; his glosses are not overly interpretive, but not all are essential to grasp the sense of the text. Because Apollonius’ Greek is so compressed, Hunter’s more expansive translations of words and phrases will certainly be helpful for students, but in many cases more grammatical exegesis might have been pedagogically preferable.

The commentary contains a large amount of direct explication of the narrative. Apollonius’ story-telling can be as compressed as his Greek and, especially at the beginning, where the action is heavily dependent on Book 3, Hunter’s comments will be useful to a student unfamiliar with the rest of the poem. The majority of entries contain references to earlier poetry, especially Homer, but Hunter has done an excellent job of highlighting how much tragedy (and not just Euripides’ Medea) has influenced Apollonius. He also includes a number of intertextual references to other Hellenistic poets, not only Callimachus and Aratus, but also more obscure figures such as Nicander and Pseudo-Scymnus. Hunter is careful not to push too hard on verbal similarities and only claims direct influence (in one direction or the other) when it seems indisputable. It does seem surprising that Theocritus is only mentioned once, in the entry for lines 57-8 (he also twice refers to the pseudo-Theocritean Idyll, 25). The debate about the relative chronology of Theocritus and Apollonius is especially fraught, and Hunter’s position on the subject was clear in his commentary on Theocritus’ Idylls (he sees Apollonius as the older poet). Since there are no passages in Book 4 that absolutely require discussion of Theocritus, this is not an especially pressing issue.

Metrical notes mostly pertain to how they mirror what is happening in the text or how it might pertain to a textual dispute; technical matters, such as Naeke’s law, are explained and then invoked regularly.

Geography is a central aspect of the book, and Apollonius provides a detailed, if not always realistic, account of exactly how the Argonauts got home. There are many entries in the commentary with references to a wide range of geographical texts, not only Strabo and Herodotus, but also Pseudo-Scylax and the aforementioned Pseudo-Scymnus. Hunter presents the necessary information without overloading the reader. In particular, he nicely highlights some of the theories about etymologies of place-names that Apollonius suggests through word play without providing a full explanation in the poem. There is one map at the very beginning of the book, of the entire route taken by the Argonauts. Unfortunately, in my copy, the two halves of the map did not align properly, which was rather frustrating. Given the importance of geography to Book 4, additional maps showing not only the geography as it is, but also as Apollonius conceived of it, would have been welcome, especially in places where Apollonius’ geography is quite speculative.

Other entries address Apollonius’ engagement with the scholarly tradition about Homer. The final entry, on how the ending of the Argonautica relates to debates about the ending of the Odyssey, is especially interesting. There are fewer entries on political and social history, and the few references to how Apollonius fits into the Ptolemaic empire were tantalizingly brief. The bibliography is thorough without being unnecessarily exhaustive, although I missed references to any scholarship by Adolf Köhnken, who has written articles on prominent topics in Book 4, such as Libya and Euphemus.

In sum, this is an excellent new contribution to the series, and should be quite useful for graduate students (and very advanced undergraduates), but also for scholars of Hellenistic poetry as well.

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