BMCR 1998.12.09

The Argonautika by Apollonios Rhodios

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Until recently, there were only two translations of the Argonautica in English: R.C. Seaton’s Loeb (1912) and E.V. Rieu’s Penguin edition (1959). Between 1990 and 1997, three new translations of the epic have appeared: Barbara Hughes Fowler’s in Hellenistic Poetry: An Anthology (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wis. 1990) 73-231, Richard L. Hunter’s Jason and the Golden Fleece, (Oxford University Press, 1993), and now Peter Green’s translation for the University of California Press. What is more, Green’s translation has been published in three different formats: the hardback copy with notes, a paperback edition without notes, and an audio edition by HighBridge, which actually hit the market one year before the hardcopy. What must Phthonos be whispering into Apollo’s ear now!

We learn in the preface that the translation was begun in 1988 and finished in 1991, an impressive feat, especially considering the quality of the translation. From the completion of the translation to the final publication, the author wrote the commentary (159 pages) and glossary (67 pages) which together amount to almost 55% of the book. We are also informed that, while the translation is for those who do not know Greek, the commentary studies “the historical, cultural, geographical, and literary background in far greater detail than is usual in a translation, grappling in the notes with a considerable number of textual problems that will only be of concern to those with some experience in classical Greek” (xiii). Green is quite right in noting that his book will have two audiences, though the more experienced group will need to have more than “some experience in classical Greek.” Rather, a fair amount of exposure to classical scholarship will be necessary for a reader to make full use of the notes. The rationale for such an extensive commentary is the lack of a comparable work in English on all four books of the poem, with the exception of Mooney’s 1912 edition.

Green also states in the preface that his work on the Argonautica was a “labor of love,” inspired by a youthful reading of the saga in Andrew Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece, which he describes as a “retelling of ancient myth for young people” (p. xiv). When recast as an adventure story with all the scholarly detail and moral ambiguity removed, the Argonautic expedition can certainly capture the imagination of young readers. I remember seeing the film Jason and the Argonauts (1964) as a young boy and being enchanted by the tale. Nonetheless, when I first read Apollonius, both in Greek and in English, bells did not ring; in fact, I disliked the poem very much. Like single malt scotch or moldy cheeses, inter alia, Apollonius’ Argonautica is an acquired taste and should be sharply distinguished from modern romanticized versions. That Green’s initial love for the story was not undone by his first reading of the Hellenistic epic is, to my mind, admirable. It took me some time and a lot of work before I could fully appreciate what makes this a successful epic poem instead of an excuse for showcasing erudition on a wide array of topics. But I have to wonder if Green was really serious when he stated that modern literary criticism, American in particular, is “an aridly sterile desert” lacking in genuine pleasure that almost robbed him of his enjoyment of ancient literature (ibid.). Literary criticism too is an acquired taste and, like the Argonautica, can offer more than a showcase for scholarly erudition.

In the Introduction, Green offers a vigorous challenge to current thinking among scholars of Hellenistic poetry about Apollonius’ relationship with Callimachus. He begins with a very useful analysis of the ancient lives and comes to the following conclusions: Apollonius was born in Alexandria between 305 and 290 and studied with Callimachus when the latter was still a school teacher in Eleusis; between 285 and 280 in his late teens he gave the unfortunate recital that led to his sojourn on Rhodes, which was “more sympathetic to epic, not least an epic largely bound up with the sea, than … Ptolemaic Alexandria” (p. 6); he returned to Alexandria c. 265 when he became tutor for Ptolemy III Euergetes and head of the library; when Euergetes ascended the throne in 246, he put Eratosthenes in charge of the library upon the honorable retirement of Apollonius after some 20 years of service; if Apollonius were buried next to Callimachus, Green proposes that this does not necessitate a reconciliation between the two scholar-poets, but suggests the possibility of a special cemetery for distinguished Museum scholars.

The Suda entry on Callimachus’ Ibis states that this poem was written against the poet’s enemy, who is identified as Apollonius, the author of the Argonautica. Many reject this identification as speculation, derived from the poems themselves, that crept into literary history long after the fact. Green calls this position into question on the basis of the social and aesthetic environment in which the writers lived and wrote. First, life in the Museum was known to be rather vicious. As Green aptly states, “Leisure, combined with the arbitrary uncertainties of royal patronage, must have made backbiting and paranoia endemic” (p. 9). What is more, we know that Callimachus had literary enemies. Second, Callimachus’ programmatic pieces advocate “brevity, originality and refinement, whether of style, language, or form” (p. 10). Assuming that Callimachus included epic among the long poems to be avoided and given that Apollonius was ultimately a successful and highly visible practitioner of the genre, Green concludes that Callimachus must have abhorred the Argonautica.

I shall address this issue below, but digress for a moment to consider Green’s statement that Hecale“reads like a reluctant attempt to emulate Hellenistic epic” (12). His reading of the fragments was clearly influenced by the well-known scholiastic comment on Hymn II (ad 106), according to which Callimachus was forced to write the epic by his critics. Yet, can the Hecale truly be said to imitate Hellenistic epic — which, according to Green, he rejected because it was deficient in the qualities mentioned above — when it lacked the length, linear flow of the narrative, and primary focus on the male hero or king that is typical of the archaic genre? While the poem contains a narrative in hexameters about an episode in the life of one of the great Greek heroes, the poet appears to have foregrounded what is non-heroic in the story and as such challenged the conventions of the genre, as Philetas is believed to have done before him. Moreover, I do not sense the poet’s reluctance in the fragments. It is not clear to me how such an impression might arise apart from the scholiast’s remarks. If anything, the long success the Hecale enjoyed and the fragments themselves suggest that Callimachus wholeheartedly embraced the project wherein he could question the way in which traditional epic verse was perceived and composed.

In the next section of the Introduction, Green suggests that there existed a conflict between tradition and innovation among writers of Apollonius’ time. Archaic myths and legends, it is argued, were either rationalized or allegorized by modernists or left unquestioned by traditionalists. The former group would have found the “anthropomorphic Olympian deities [and] paranormal phenomena such as the Kyklops, the Clashing Rocks, or Aeetes’ fire-breathing bulls, both artificial and embarrassing” (p. 18). Moreover, he states, “[e]ven were there no evidence whatsoever for a fundamental conflict between the Kallimachean school and the author of the Argonautika, it would still be necessary to postulate its existence” (ibid.). Assigning Callimachus to the modernist side of the conflict, as Green appears to do, is problematic, since his verse contains Cyclopes (H. 3), a floating island (H. 4), and two aetia dealing with the Argonautic myth ( Aetia Frr. 7-21, 108-09 Pf.), among other traditional stories. Callimachus’ mythic verse is neither rationalizing nor allegorical, it is literary, and in this he is no different from Apollonius.

In Green’s view, the Argonautica was “a remarkably consistent and thorough reversion to that archaic worldview consciously discarded by the intellectual pioneers of the Periklean age — on the dead end of which allegorists and rationalists were still hopefully battening” (p. 40) — which makes Apollonius a “throwback to the archaic worldview enshrined in literature from Homer to Pindar” (p. xii). Apollonius includes all sorts of marvelous people and places without trying to explain them away (p. 36), but rather “relies on aetiologizing traditionalism” (p. 30). Contrary to Dionysius Scytobrachion, who removed all the fantastic elements of the story, thus making it little more than a sea adventure, Apollonius is said to have embraced the epic tradition and the helplessness that was a part of this unpredictable world (p. 17) and to have set vulnerable heroes that have more in common with the poet’s contemporaries than Homeric heroes (p. 36); this, we are told, accounts for Jason’s ἀμηχανία (p. 17). Green goes so far as to suggest that Philadelphus appointed Apollonius as librarian over Callimachus because his “weakness for gigantism” was more amenable to “a staunch upholder of Homeric expansiveness” than to an elegist and epigrammatist (p. 20).

In his preface, Green acknowledges that his views make him the “odd man out,” and he is right. To be sure, the views of the majority need to be challenged more often perhaps than they are, and Green offers a spirited, albeit at times caustic, challenge. His overall view of Apollonius’ life based on the ancient testimony is thorough and well reasoned. The environment at the Museum did in fact generate nasty disagreements among the scholars and poets, as Green points out, and, although the only evidence for a quarrel between Apollonius and Callimachus comes from a late source, it is certainly possible that the two poets had an unpleasant falling out. Moreover, despite Cameron’s argument, I agree with Green that Callimachus’ poetic dicta probably included epic in some fashion, but he could not possibly have censured epic verse as a whole, since the Hecale would have been considered as much an ἔπος as the Argonautica. If some elegies can be deemed better than others, then some ἔπη should be able to be treated likewise. The only concession to Callimachean fashion that Green ascribes to Apollonius is his self-conscious literary irony and constant aetiologizing (p. 41). And yet, both these and other features in the poem (e.g., intricate structure of episodes, the creation of a fastidious “presque Homerique”, engagement with contemporary Homeric criticism, inter alia) make the Argonautica as original and refined in style, language, and form, to use Green’s summary of the Callimachean poetic (p. 10), as the Aitia. Moreover, when compared with many, if not most, other epics, wouldn’t the Argonautica be considered brief at four books, 5835 lines?

I also accept the view espoused here that a facet of Apollonius’ originality lies in his poem’s being a “reconciliation of opposites, an epic geste as experienced by heroic yet vulnerable human beings” (35). Nonetheless, the overall picture Green offers of Apollonius as a literary throwback to the archaic era who possessed an unquestioning belief in the historicity of the Argonautic saga and an all-pervasive anti-rationalism does not to my mind characterize the author of this Argonautica. The Apollonius I read is not a poet whose verse evinces a naive belief in the events he recounts, but an artist whose poetic vision was strongly influenced by a scholar’s need for, and even delight in, an impeccably researched production. So, while he and Callimachus might have had a contentious parting of ways, their scholarly and poetic tastes and originality in pushing the limits of the genres in which they worked suggest that they were in the same camp, but fighting different battles.

The translation is masterful, as one might have predicted from so accomplished a translator. In his desire to create a poetic version of the Argonautica, Green employs “the long, loose 5/6-beat stress equivalent developed by Day Lewis and Lattimore” (p. xv), and with considerable success. The well-paced and constant rhythm of the translation and the numerous trochaic clausulae create the feel of hexametric verse, a feeling that comes across both in reading to oneself or aloud, but particularly when listening to Juliet Stevenson’s elegant recitation in the recorded version published by Highbridge. (I should add that Stevenson’s narration is strategically punctuated by charming musical interludes that provide the perfect ambience in which to experience the poem.) Encountering the Argonautica in this fashion allows one to appreciate the poet’s achievement with greater immediacy. I fully agree with Robert Fagles who said that Green has “restor[ed] Apollonius to his rightful place in epic poetry — midway between the Homeric poems and Virgil’s Aeneid” (recorded on the dust jacket). The Greekless reader is now in a position to understand why Apollonius’ epic was so successful and influential in antiquity and perhaps even why pseudo-Longinus might have described it as “impeccable” (33.4). There is no doubt in my mind that this is the best of the Argonautica s.

As an illustration of the translations’ power and musicality, I cite a brief passage from Book 3 (275-284) and compare it with the other versions currently available.

(Seaton, prose, p. 213)

Meantime Eros passed unseen through the grey mist, causing confusion, as when against grazing heifers rises the gadfly, which oxherds call the breese. And quickly beneath the lintel in the porch he strung his bow and took from the quiver an arrow unshot before, messenger of pain. And with swift feet unmarked he passed the threshold and keenly glanced around; and gliding close by Aeson’s son he laid the arrow-notch on the cord in the centre, and drawing wide apart with both hands he shot at Medea; and speechless amazement seized her soul.

(Rieu, prose, pp. 116-17)

Meanwhile Eros, passing through the clear air, had arrived unseen and bent on mischief, like a gadfly setting out to plague the grazing heifers, the fly that cowherds call the breese. In the porch, under the lintel of the door, he quickly strung his bow and from his quiver took a new arrow, fraught with pain. Still unobserved, he ran across the threshold glancing around him sharply. Then he crouched low at Jason’s feet, fitted the notch to the middle of the string, and drawing the bow as far as his hands would stretch, shot at Medea. And her heart stood still.

(Fowler, verse, p. 152-53)

Eros, meanwhile, went unseen though the gray mist, distracting as the gadfly that attacks the heifers and that the cowherds call the breese. Quickly beneath the lintel in the entrance he strung his bow and took from his quiver an arrow, not shot before, to bring much pain. With quick feet he slipped unseen across the threshold and glanced sharply around. He crept, crouched down, past Aeson’s son, and fitted his notched arrow end to the middle of the string, stretched it with both hands, and shot Medea. She was struck utterly speechless.

(Hunter, prose, p. 72)

Meanwhile Eros came unseen through the bright air, moving busily like the gadfly which attacks young heifers and which oxherds call myops. He quickly reached the foot of the door-post in the vestibule; he strung his bow, and selected from his quiver a new arrow destined to bring much grief. From there he swiftly crossed the threshold unobserved, peering sharply around. He crouched down low at Jason’s feet, fitted the arrow-notch to the bowstring, and stretching the bow wide in his two hands shot straight at Medea. Her spirit was seized by a speechless stupor.

(Green, verse, p. 120)

Meantime through a gray mist came Eros, invisible, an itch, a sting, like the gadfly that swarms up against grazing heifers, and that known by oxherds as the breese. Under the hall-door lintel he quickly strung his bow, and pulled from the quiver a shaft unhandselled, quick with trouble; then, stepping swiftly, he crossed the threshold unseen, glancing sharply around, and crouched, a tiny figure, at Jason’s very feet; settled his arrow’s notch to mid-bowstring, then with both arms drew the bow and let fly at Medeia, striking her heart speechless.

The other translations are accurate and not unpleasing, but Green’s asyndeta, enjambments, and creative diction (“unhandselled” for the extremely rare ἀβλῆτα, found only here, at Il. 4.117, and Greg. Naz. Carmina Moralia coll. 677.7) create a dynamism, even tension at times, that bring the epic to life.

My only criticism of the translation is the occasional use of a colloquial word or expression that momentarily undermines the high poetic tone that Green has managed so successfully to create. Here are a few examples: Heracles was looking for a “lame excuse” [ πρόφασιν λευγαλέην ] to make war on the Dryopians” (1.1218); there are plenty of men to steer the ship after the death of Tiphys who wouldn’t “mess up” [ ἰάψει ] the voyage (2.876); Argos returns to the palace to see if he can “luck out” [ τάχα ἂν πειρηθείην ] in securing Medea’s help (3.539); when Medea is hesitant about helping Jason, her pain is said to have “hot-wired her finespun / nerve ends” [ ὀδύνη σμύχουσαἀμφὶ ἀραιὰς / ἶνας ] (3.762-63) but she ultimately decided to give Jason “the magic stuff” [ θελκτήρια φάρμακα ] (3.766); crows warn Mopsus “Get lost, badmouth, bad prophet [ ἔρροις, ὦ κακόμαντι, κακοφραδές ] (3.936). One colloquialism in particular was downright confusing: “Triton, / humping the massive tripod, was seen (they thought) to enter / the lake” (4. 1588-90). The participle “humping” is used to translate ἀνθέμενος. Only after consulting the OED did I discover that the verb “hump” (OED s.v., 2) can also mean “To hoist or carry (a bundle) upon the back: chiefly to hump one’s swag (bluey, drum), to shoulder one’s bundle. Also more generally, to carry or shift (a heavy object), not necessarily upon the back, and to hump it. See also BLUEY sb. Chiefly Austral. and N.Z. slang.” Unaware of this meaning, one might call to mind another, more widely known, slang usage of the word (OED s.v., 5) that prompts an entirely different image, which, though colorful, veers quite far from the meaning and tone of the original.

The generous commentary in the hardback edition and the detailed and fully cross-referenced Glossary, included in both the hard- and paperback editions, with a slimmer version accompanying the audiocassettes, provide a wealth of information for the reader eager to navigate the numerous mythological, historical, literary, and geographical references in the poem. The maps at the back of the book are of excellent quality and marred only by the fact that the larger ones are split in two at the center of the book. As mentioned above, the level at which the commentary is pitched is too high for the average reader, which is not surprising considering that Green includes discussions of textual problems, alternate versions from sources both well known and obscure, literary parallels, and numerous references to modern criticism of the Argonautica. While Green is correct in saying that the translation and commentary do not perform the task of a critical edition, scholars of Apollonius’ epic and Hellenistic literature in general will want to have access to the many learned observations, interpretations, and information contained in the commentary. What is more, the comments are written in the same lively, at times pugnacious, style of the introduction and translation, and are thus bound to inform as well as entertain the scholarly audience. Given the already excessive length of this review, I shall limit my remarks on the commentary to these.

The University of California Press is fortunate to have Green’s Argonautica among its publications and was wise to have released it in two versions. At $13.95, though slightly more than the competition, I would not hesitate to order the paperback for a course on epic in translation. In fact, it was used recently in such a course taught here at the University of Washington and I was told by the instructor that some of the students chose to work on the Argonautica for their special project instead of the Iliad, Odyssey, or Aeneid, inspired no doubt by Green’s spirited rendition. While the attention scholars have paid Apollonius in recent years has given his poem greater visibility among Classicists, Green’s work, both in print and on tape, has the potential of spreading this renewed interest in the Argonautica well beyond its usual limited audience. Thus, for future printings of the paperback version a different introduction might be written that is more appropriate to non-specialists, limited to information regarding the life of the poet and his literary and cultural milieu and the place of the Argonautica in the epic tradition, among other issues of a general nature; the amount of highly opinionated detail currently offered, that includes some Greek plus a smattering of scholar-bashing, will be hard for many to follow and might even dissuade some from reading this superlative translation of a work which now stands to be more widely read as a result of Green’s significant contribution to Apollonian studies.

The Argonautika. The story of Jason and the Quest for the Golden Fleece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. xvi, 317. $13.95 (pb). ISBN 0-520-07687-7. Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautica. The Story of Jason and the Argonauts, Read by Juliet Stevenson, Highbridge Company: St. Paul, Minnesota 1996. 4 Audiocassettes plus Glossary Booklet. $29.95. ISBN 1-56511-136-2.