BMCR 2000.06.11

Die Argonautika des Apollonios von Rhodos: Untersuchungen zum Problem der einheitlichen Konzeption des Inhalt. Hermes Einzelschriften 80

, Die Argonautika des Apollonios von Rhodos: Untersuchungen zum Problem der einheitlichen Konzeption des Inhalt. Hermes Einzelschriften 80. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1999. 307.

It has long been a general point of consensus in Apollonian scholarship that the Argonautica lacks a formal unity of the sort demanded by Aristotle, though explanations for this disunity vary. Some scholars, particularly of an older generation, saw it as a simple failure on the poet’s part. Other critics have tended to explain the poem’s form and content as in one way or another a feature of a characteristically “Alexandrian” poetic program of engagement with the earlier epic tradition. In this revised version of his 1995 Mainz Habilitationsschrift (which retains for better and worse the fullness of argument and doxography characteristic of the genre), Pietsch rejects these positions as respectively naïve and anachronistic and argues instead that underlying the episodic structure of the poem is a conceptual unity of motivation, character, and theology. In so doing, Pietsch addresses the question of the extent to which Alexandrian poetry marks a break with the epic tradition, and he concludes that in significant ways, the Argonautica does not represent an ironic departure from and critique of earlier epic. In this regard, the book challenges some of the conclusions that have characterized much (though not all) of Apollonian scholarship for the last generation. The volume thus comes as a useful and interesting addition to the ever-burgeoning Apollonius bibliography, even if in my view Pietsch’s arguments are not always persuasive and his effort to eliminate irony from the Argonautica is sometimes heavy-handed.

The volume opens with a critical review of modern approaches to the presumed disunity of the Argonautica, followed by three distinct studies of various aspects of the poem. Like the episodes of the poem to which they are dedicated, each of these is self-standing and only loosely connected to its fellows. The first (Chapter 2) takes up the question of the motivation for the expedition. Zeus’ anger at the Aeolidae is mentioned as a motivating factor with particular prominence in two places (2.1179-95; 3.333-9). Pietsch persuasively notes that in each of these places the reference to Zeus’ anger has a specific rhetorical function and from an examination of the Phrixos myth elsewhere (and especially in Hdt. 7.197) concludes that the story involves no sin worthy of expiation in any case. Other possible motivations — Pelias’ desire to get rid of Jason and Athena’s and Hera’s interest in the success of the expedition — are similarly rejected as the underlying external cause of the events. Instead, Pietsch identifies an oracle in which Apollo is said by Jason (1.300-2; 360-2; 412b-14a) to have promised success on the expedition as the true external motivation of the expedition and not implausibly speculates on the context in which, prior to the events of the narrative, Jason might have sought the god’s advice. Here as often, however, Pietsch’s basic assumption that a single correct explanation is to be sought seems to me at least open to question; positive reasons why the poet would not have allowed competing and equally plausible explanations, about which the reader is to be left in a state of aporia, are not offered. The second half of the chapter turns to the internal motivation of the Argonauts themselves. In Pietsch’s view, the participants in the expedition were, like Homeric heroes, motivated at least in part by a quest for glory, and, taking his start from a remark by Idmon, he identifies the relationship of toil and suffering (which in the case of the Argonauts is often psychological) and the glory that is awarded by poetry in compensation for them as an overarching theme of the epic. Pietsch thus finds continuity rather than ironic disruption between the Argonauts and their epic predecessors.

Chapter 3 focuses on Jason’s character. Pietsch argues against the widely held view that Apollonius’ Jason is a radically new and greatly diminished hero, a sort of everyman whose weakness and tendency to despair, among other things, place him in fundamental contrast to the heroes of Homeric epic. Pietsch follows some recent work on the Argonautica in emphasizing that aspects of Jason’s representation find antecedents in Homeric heroes, perhaps even in lost treatments of the Argonautic myth, and he concludes that the behavior attributed to Jason in the Argonautica falls well within the range of what would be acceptable in earlier epic. Pietsch traces the modern critical categories of “heroic” and “unheroic” to late 18th- and early 19th-c. distinctions between the un-self-reflective heroes of Homeric epic and the more complex and internalized dramatic heroes of a later day. This doxographical excursus is useful and cautionary, but Pietsch’s conclusion that such distinctions are therefore anachronistic when applied to Hellenistic poetry in general seems to me overly sweeping. So too, his treatment of the much-debated definition of the tragic hero at Arist. Po. 1453a7-10 and his conclusion that ἁμαρτία there must denote a moral failing severely underrepresents the complexity of the issue. For Pietsch, the Aristotelian tragic hero, and thus the epic hero as well, is a man possessed of both positive and negative character traits, and so too is Jason. Among the hero’s positive attributes are his piety, his military prowess (perhaps, though I find myself sympathetic to the observation that there is a fundamental difference between asserting that a character is brave, as Apollonius does, and showing his bravery in action),1 and love of peace. Most important, however, are his political qualities. Pietsch finds in Jason’s willingness to seek and entertain the advice of his comrades a significant ancient comparandum in Hes. Op. 293-7, where the poet ranks as best the man who can understand all things for himself, as good the one who obeys good advice, and as useless whoever does neither. Jason, who falls into the second category, thus occupies the Aristotelian middle ground between preeminence and uselessness. Pietsch’s speculation that Jason, as primus inter pares and willing recipient of good advice, is presented as a representative of the “urbane leadership style of the early Ptolemies,” who received advice from a circle of friendly advisors (130), is hard to accept. There is no reason the Alexandrian rulers should identify any more with Jason than they would with Heracles, and if they did see themselves in the younger hero, it is difficult to imagine what they would have thought about his recurring ἀμηχανίη. Pietsch reviews individually each of the episodes in which the young leader falls into a state of helplessness, and he concludes that the weakness the hero shows in crucial situations forms part of a complex and unified portrait of a young and inexperienced, but not unqualified, leader.

The final chapter treats the theology of the poem. For most (though not all) modern critics, the Olympian gods of the Argonautica have seemed to be merely conventional vestiges of their counterparts in earlier epic, from whom they stand at ironic distance. In such views again Pietsch sees anachronism, whose origins he once more traces to the late-18th and early-19th centuries, and in particular to distinctions drawn in Schiller’s Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung. Tone is notoriously difficult to gauge, but Pietsch in this chapter seems to me to argue with a particularly heavy hand. His discussion of Theocritus and Callimachus, in which he argues that those poets treated the divine world seriously and without irony in Id. 17 and h. 1 respectively, is diminished by the narrowness of its scope and positivistic approach; that, for example, Callimachus argues for one mythological variant over another on the basis of a theological premise says very little about how his claim on the matter would have resonated with his original, learned audience. So too, few are likely to be fully convinced by Pietsch’s treatment of Hera and Athena’s visit to Aphrodite at the beginning of Book 3 and by his conclusion that that scene does not represent an ironic reduction of the Olympian world to a bourgeois, human level. Particularly unconvincing is the rejection of any ironic reference to the Judgment of Paris in Aphrodite’s words at 3.53-4. Nonetheless, this section contains some of the book’s most interesting arguments. In Pietsch’s view, the theology of the poem is unified and coherent, and illustrated by Phineus’ long account at 2.197-497. As in earlier poetry, the νόος of Zeus, who is represented as a concrete and personalized rather than abstract divine entity, lies behind the course of human events, and is furthered by the actions of lesser divinities, from other Olympians to more minor figures, who act in accord with the will of Zeus even while they pursue their own interests. Unlike early epic but as in Callimachus’ first Hymn, however, the divine world is harmonious, and the gods themselves lack the negative attributes of their forebears. Human beings, who cannot ordinarily comprehend the role the gods play in the course of history, still possess moral freedom. This section of the book features useful discussions of passages in which both divine causality and human choice are juxtaposed (e.g. in Medea’s decision not to kill herself, or the Boreads’ intercession on Phineus’ behalf) and is among the most successful in the book. The chapter concludes with a long discussion of human psychology in which Pietsch focuses in particular on the depiction of Medea in order to demonstrate that it is coherent throughout the second half of the poem.

The volume concludes with a concise summary, an ample bibliography, full indices of passages cited and modern authors mentioned, and a much less inclusive general index.

Pietsch’s book serves as a useful counterbalance to blithe assumptions about the disunity of the Argonautica. Pietsch does succeed in showing that the poem is more consistent in certain respects than has sometimes been recognized, but consistency is not necessarily the same as a deep underlying unity, and it is hard for me to feel that the book has advanced our understanding of the latter particularly far. On the question of the relationship between Apollonius and Homer, the author has performed a service by reminding us of the relatively modern intellectual roots of some widely held conclusions about the differences between early epic and Hellenistic treatments of gods and heroes. It does not necessarily follow, however, that those same conclusions are therefore misguided, and in my view Pietsch does not in the end succeed in showing why we should see only continuity rather than ironic discontact between the Argonautica and its epic antecedents.


1. J.B. Hainsworth, The Idea of Epic (Berkeley, 1991) 72.