BMCR 2002.11.19

Vergil’s Aeneid and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. ARCA 39

, Vergil's Aeneid and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. ARCA, classical and medieval texts, papers, and monographs, 39. Cambridge: Francis Cairns, 2001. xii, 519 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0905205979 £70.00.

Following on the footsteps of Knauer’s monumental Die Aeneis und Homer,1 Nelis offers a comprehensive and exhaustive study of the relationship between Vergil’s Aeneid and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. This book fills an important gap in our understanding of the poet’s allusive program and seeks to establish the Argonautica as a model that is as pervasive for the Aeneid as the Homeric epics. Nelis argues that it is impossible to appreciate fully Vergil’s use of Homer without a firm grasp of his use of Apollonius. Furthermore, he proposes that it is through Apollonius’ use of Homer that Vergil adapts Homeric material in the Aeneid. The book is highly successful in demonstrating the importance of the Argonautica for the Aeneid as a whole: the author illustrates meticulously and convincingly that Apollonius’ import is paramount for individual scenes, large narrative structures, and the major interpretative problems of Vergil’s epic. The book will also serve as an excellent reference work for the Vergilian and the Apollonian scholar, as it contains tables with correspondences between the two texts, facilitated by a sensible and easy to use key, as well as with diagrams, and a good index (which incorporates a useful index of passages discussed). Nelis’ important achievement is twofold: he provides numerous insightful and perceptive analyses throughout his exposition of the shared material; at the same time, the massive quantity of material he covers inevitably raises more questions than the author can answer. As a result the book is certain to inspire fresh interest in the study of Vergilian intertextuality with respect to the Argonautica and will lead to exciting new interpretations of both texts.

Since Nelis’ work falls within the larger critical framework of the study of allusion, a few words on the methodology employed are necessary. In the opening chapter, the author announces that he will make use of the concepts of “two-tier” allusion and “window reference,” in order to describe the ways in which the Aeneid shares intertextual material with the model ( Argonautica) as well as with the model’s models ( Iliad and Odyssey) and to identify the processes through which the imitator “looks through” one model to the other. Although obviously familiar with the recent work on allusion by Thomas, Farrell, and Hinds (the omission of J. Pucci’s 1998 book on allusion is unfortunate),2 Nelis remains traditional in his approach and chooses not to engage with recent theoretical work on allusive relationships. The lack of a more rigorous methodological discussion, however, often leaves the reader with an interest in the processes of intertextuality wondering about the contours of imitation: for instance, terms such as “imitation,” “model,” “similarity” often refer to very different methods of intertextual borrowing which are not clearly defined. Nelis speaks of “precise verbal reference” while what exactly qualifies as a precise reference is not discussed. Similarly, the phrase “thematic imitation of longer narrative structures” embraces many different aspects of borrowing (situational, imagistic, structural) that require further explication. These complaints should not diminish the many exciting analyses that are to be found throughout the book. Nevertheless, an articulation of a firmer theoretical framework by taking into account the advances of recent scholarship would be desirable, especially since Nelis’ insights on that score would have been most welcome.

The main body of the book is structured thematically around each major episode of the Aeneid, offering a detailed analysis of individual scenes and their relationship to the Argonautica. In various places the author gives (though not consistently) summaries, which are helpful for those readers who will use only sections of the book at a time but which (unavoidably) after a while become tedious for the reader who goes through the book in linear fashion. A summary of the chapters’ contents cannot possibly do justice to the wealth of material covered by the author, nor could any reader be in agreement with all the arguments presented therein. A review can only offer a brief outline of the major arguments and discuss a handful of passages that illustrate the books’ strengths and possible weaknesses.

Chapter 2 deals with Aeneid 3 and the voyage from Troy to Carthage, giving a detailed analysis of each stage of Aeneas’ journey as it relates to various episodes of the Argonautica. Nelis argues that Aeneid 3 involves imitation of Argonautica in its entirety, encompassing both the voyage to Colchis ( Arg. 1-2) and the return journey from Colchis to Pagasae ( Arg. 4). The two legs of the Argonautic journey reflect the twofold nature of the Trojans’ voyage as a nostos and as a narrative of colonization. The author concludes that the Aeneid employs Apollonian styles of reporting a voyage: of the many Apollonian characteristics, Vergil’s use of aetiology is the most salient and points to a Hellenistic aesthetic. Nelis aptly draws connections between the Argonautica as an epic exploring the definition of Greek identity abroad and the Aeneid as a work that grapples with the problem of Roman identity.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the episode of Dido: the arrival of Trojans in Carthage in Aeneid 1 and Dido’s love for Aeneas in Aeneid 4, respectively. Carthage emerges as an Apollonian Colchis and Medea as a model for Dido. Detailed examination of each Vergilian scene in Book 1 (e.g. the landing in Libya, the role of the divine figures, Juno’s temple, the Dido-Diana simile) leading to the events in Book 4 demonstrates that the links between Colchis and Carthage on the one hand and Dido and Medea one the other are meticulously prepared. Nelis also explores other interesting links between Dido and Aeetes and Hypsipyle, as well as the episode’s cosmic dimensions viewed from an Empedoclean perspective (which in turn is filtered through Apollonius). The author demonstrates that in Book 4 Medea is consistently the foremost model for Dido. He argues that the hunting and wounding imagery, pervasive throughout the Dido narrative, is indebted to Apollonius’ depiction of Medea as wounded by the arrow of Eros; the scenes between Anna and Dido recall Medea’s exchange with Chalciope; and Dido’s suicide actualizes a passing thought in Medea’s mind. The chapter contains an excellent discussion of Dido’s magic ceremony and its debt to Apollonius which illuminates this highly problematic passage.

Chapter 5 focuses on the Trojans’ arrival and stay in Sicily and argues that, just as Aeneas’ departure from Carthage is modeled on Jason’s flight from Colchis, so this next stage of Aeneas’ journey back to Sicily and on to the Tiber corresponds to the return journey of the Argonauts. More specifically, Nelis makes the interesting and convincing suggestion that the games in honor of Anchises constitute a kind of purification from the pollution that the death of Dido generated and correspond to Circe’s purification of Jason and Medea after the murder of Apsyrtus in Argonautica 4. Sicily is thus modeled on Aeaea, and the subsequent journey of the Trojans from Sicily to the Tiber is linked to the Argonauts’ voyage from Aeaea to Phaeacian Drepane. In discussing the ship race, Nelis proposes that the contest enacts the entire Argonautica as well as Aeneid 1-6, as it frequently evokes or anticipates events taking place throughout the first part of the Vergilian epic. Apollonian influence extends to the episode of Palinurus. The death of Aeneas’ helmsman has been shown to be an offering to Neptune. Similarly, Typhis serves as a sacrificial victim for the Argonauts’ safe passage from the Symplegades.

The next chapter concentrates on Book 6 of the Aeneid and proposes that Vergil’s nekuia is modeled on the Argonautica, where Jason’s voyage to Colchis is cast as a symbolic visit to the Underworld. Nelis argues that Apollonius draws on different aspects of Odyssey 11 (voyage, nekuiomanteia, katabasis) to present the voyage of the Argonauts as a kind of mock katabasis. Katabasis elements can be found in Argonautica 2 and 4, which in turn serve as models for Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld. In this way, the Sibyl evokes Apollonius’ Phineus (who combines the Homeric models for the Sibyl, i.e. Circe and Tiresias), while the golden bough corresponds to the golden fleece, which can be seen as located in a symbolic underworld, Colchis. Nelis goes on to illustrate further connections between Misenus and Apollonius’ Idmon, Avernus and the Acherusian headland, Aeneas’ sacrifices to the gods of the Underworld, and Jason’s rites before he fights the fire-breathing bulls. Many of these connections are important and convincing and will certainly inspire even further interpretations of these episodes. Yet they do not appear to play an integral a role in the making of the Vergilian underworld. As a result, the argument that Vergil is aware of the existence of katabasis elements in the Apollonian narrative, though perfectly plausible, need not imply the primacy of the Apollonian model. The influence of Apollonius appears more profound in the discussion of Aeneid 5-7 (the voyage from Libya to Tiber) as an inversion of the Argonauts’ journey from Circe’s island to Libya.

In chapter 7 Nelis argues that Aeneid 7 reworks material from Argonautica 3 and that Vergil models the war at Latium on the obstacles which stand between Jason and the capture of the golden fleece. Latium is shown to be based on Colchis, Lavinia on Medea, Latinus on Aeetes, and Turnus on the fire-breathing bulls and earthborn men. Of the many valuable discussions here, the omen of Lavinia stands out. This neglected episode of Book 7 is re-examined in view of the poet’s invocation of Erato, thus suggesting connections with Apollonius’ Medea. Nelis pays close attention to the fire and wedding imagery that pervades the episode and notes that they foreshadow the links between the themes of love and wedding on the one hand and the unleashing of disastrous passions on the other. He further argues that the flames in Lavinia’s hair transform the secret fires of Medea’s passion for Jason in Argonautica 3 into public and political turmoil. I found less successful the discussion comparing Juno’s dispatching of Allecto with Hera’s and Aphrodite’s plan to send Eros to Colchis. Although the author rightly sees many erotic elements in the depiction of Allecto’s actions, the Apollonian scenes presented as models appear to have a less organic function than in the cases of Dido and Lavinia. Similarly, the importance of Medea’s wounding by Eros as the blueprint for the major scenes in the book (Amata and Turnus’ frenzy, the shooting of the stag by Iulus) is not as convincing. Although the wounding scene has obvious relevance, it is hard to accept that it is constitutive of the book’s action. By contrast, the discussion of the chthonic elements accompanying the description of Turnus is most interesting. Nelis views Apollonius’ casting of Jason’s fight with the earthborn men as a perversion of farming and suggests a connection with the war in Latium “as a movement from georgic, or even pastoral, to epic, in a perversion of natural agricultural processes” (p. 301).

Chapter 8 discusses Aeneid 8 and suggests that Medea’s love for Jason is reworked in the amor ferri of Turnus; that Tiberinus and Venus correspond to Hera and Aphrodite in Argonautica 3; that Evander’s role is akin to that of Medea; and that Rome as depicted on Aeneas’ shield corresponds to the golden fleece. Of the many engaging discussions in this chapter, the connections between Jason’s cloak and the shield of Aeneas deserve more detailed mention. Nelis argues that both Vergil and Apollonius draw on allegorical interpretations of the shield of Achilles and that in both epics the action is placed against an Empedoclean backdrop where tension between philia and neikos is central. The idea that Vergil names the shield a textum having perhaps in mind Jason’s cloak is particularly attractive, since it creates a link between Vulcan’s craftsmanship, the female art of weaving, and the process of poetic creation,3 all important themes of the ekphrasis. Similarly welcome is the parallel between the fleece, the shield, and the Augustan golden age. Here the ethical questions behind Jason’s goal and the means he uses to achieve it further complicate these connections. Nelis’ comparisons can serve as fruitful ground onto which many of the vexing interpretative problems of Aeneas’ shield can be mapped.

In the ninth chapter, the author takes on the figure of Turnus and explores the associations between the war with Aeneas and Jason’s fight with the fire-breathing bulls and the earthborn men. Nelis connects the image of fire-breathing Chimaera on Turnus’ helmet to the chthonic bulls of Apollonius. But the subsequent discussion of the images of bulls that accompany Turnus’ action is less compelling. For instance, in examining the simile of the two fighting bulls ( Aen. 12.715-22), the author does not consider the implications of the simile for the character of Aeneas. Moreover, although the erotic element is here operative, as throughout the second half of the Aeneid, I would argue that it is one motivation out of many. Turnus is tormented by anger, his sense of honor, and the responsibility he bears for his community. And both Aeneas and Turnus are bull-like in their anger and determination to kill each other. With this I do not propose that the forging of such connections is not welcome. But the link between Turnus and the Apollonian fire-breathing bulls appears less critical in the characterization of Turnus than, for instance, his association with chthonic elements in general.

The final chapter draws together many of the strands that run through the main body of the book. Nelis begins with general remarks on Vergil’s epic artistry, reviewing the main strategies of imitation, the role of the narrator and of the divine, and the use of speeches, similes, and formulae. The chapter concludes with a valuable discussion about the socio-political context of the Argonautica and the reasons behind the highly aetiological and ktistic character of the epic. The Argonautica as an exploration of Greek identity and as a justification and a history of the Greeks’ presence in North Africa is indebted to the deeply political role that the Homeric epics have come to play during their long reception. The connections between the Hellenistic context and the socio-political backdrop of the Aeneid are obvious and are sure to trigger further debate on these crucial issues.

Nelis has produced an impressive work, full of learning and keen literary sensitivity. It will be indispensable to Vergilian and Apollonian scholars alike, as well as to all those with an interest in ancient epic.4


1. Knauer, G.N. Die Aeneis und Homer. Studien zur poetischen Technik Vergils mit Listen der Homerzitate in der Aeneis. Hypomnemata 7: Göttingen 1964.

2. Pucci, J. The Full-Knowing Reader: Allusion and the Power of the Reader in the Western Literary Tradition. Yale University Press: New Haven 1998.

3. See for instance, Putnam, M. Virgil’s Epic Designs: Ekphrasis in the Aeneid. Yale University Press: New Haven 1998: 187-88.

4. The volume is mostly free of errors. I noticed typographical errors on pp. 85 and 105. On p. 164 one accent in the Greek text is in the wrong place; on p. 209 the word rhochtei misses a circumflex, and on p. 238 thalamum should read thalamus. There are syntactical errors on pages 237 (there’s a word missing in the phrase “immediately he arrives at Cumae…”) and 373 (in the sentence “As well as these precise imitations …”). And on p. 360, item 6 in the summary, “Jason” should be replaced by “Aeneas.”