BMCR 2005.02.25

The Path of the Argo. Language, Imagery and Narrative in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius

, The path of the Argo : language, imagery, and narrative in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. x, 301 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0521810361. $65.00.

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

R.J. Clare’s “Path of the Argo,” which grew out of a Cambridge dissertation,1 largely foregoes discussion of the topics which have most occupied Apollonian scholars in the past, i.e. book 3 and the figures of Jason and Medea, and focuses instead on books 1-2 and 4, and on the Argonautica as the story of a voyage. In particular, Clare (C.) sets out to illustrate how “the poet, as he constructs the complex itinerary and sequence of adventures which, when put together, constitute the story of Argo, constantly and consistently changes the frame of reference for the interpretation of the epic voyage” (p. 22). This is the guiding principle of the book’s first section (entitled, with an allusion to an altogether different epic tradition, “There and Back Again,” chapters 1-4), where C. discusses a number of episodes in the order in which they occur in the narrative. The second section contains three separate studies held together (albeit rather loosely) by the theme of tension between order and disorder, which emerged as crucial from the discussion in section one (“Order and Disorder,” chapters 5-7).

Chapter 1, “Epic Beginnings” (pp. 9-32), offers a systematic reading of the Argonautica‘s proem (1.1-22) against that of the Odyssey. Here C. lays the foundations for an ongoing comparison of the Argonautic voyage with that of Odysseus, and an ongoing evaluation of the importance of the motif of nostos in the Argonautica. He rightly emphasizes that Apollonius’ proem establishes “the voyage of the Argonauts” (and not “the adventures of Jason and Medea”) as the poem’s theme, and that it leaves many questions unanswered. A potentially problematic aspect of this chapter seems C.’s reading of the opening of the Argonautica as an impression on a blank canvas. Ancient readers of the Argonautica probably never started on the poem without some previous knowledge of the story: they would have interpreted new strokes of Apollonius’ brush not only in relation to his previous strokes but also in relation to the layers of paint that are already there. This presents complications for C.’s linear reading of the poem throughout section one.

In Chapter 2, “Outward Bound” (pp. 33-83), C. follows the path of the narrative as it transports the Argonauts from Iolcus to Colchis ( Arg. 1.23-2.1285). He discusses, in due order, the Catalogue of Argonauts, the departure scenes in Iolcus, the election of the expedition’s leader at Pagasae, the song of Orpheus, the departure scene, the events at Lemnos and Mt. Dindymum/Cyzicus (all from book 1), and the prophecy of Phineus (from book 2). This chapter argues no single point but advances many insights that contribute to a better understanding of the poem, such as the importance of the aforementioned themes of nostos and order. It also contains many sharp observations. For example, C. rightly stresses the importance of the Catalogue in general (and of the entry for Canthus and Mopsus in particular) in establishing a geographical context for the action and, more generally, in defining the “cosmos” in which the story takes place (a theme further developed in the song of Orpheus).3 He also provides an excellent description of the psychology and rhetoric which underlie the election of the expedition’s leader, arguing, among other things, the importance of Il. 1.285-92 and Od. 12.24-58 as intertexts, and the significance of Apollonius’ repetition of the verb semaino.

Chapter 3, “Other Journeys” (pp. 84-118), fills in some of the gaps left by Chapter 2 (where book 2 remains largely un-discussed) by exploring three other journeys narrated in the poem against which the voyage of the Argo must be measured (just as in the Odyssey the journey of Odysseus must be measured against those of Menelaus and Telemachus). Theseus’ expedition to Hades gives occasion for a short discussion of catabatic elements in the poem (a theme revisited on pp. 167-8); the chapter closes with a discussion of the aborted “anti-Argonautic” expedition of the sons of Phrixus to Orchomenus, which includes excellent analyses of the altercations between Argus and Jason and Argus and Aeetes. Sandwiched in between are Heracles’ wanderings during his labors. Since this topic is as much a staple of Apollonian scholarship as “the character of Jason,” C. is here forced to rehearse much that has been said before. I was also surprised by a number of omissions. There is, for example, no discussion of the Argonauts’ encounter with the birds of Ares, where Heracles is explicitly mentioned, nor of that with the eagle of Prometheus, where a reference to Heracles is conspicuously absent. And given the book’s title, it might also have been useful to observe that the actual labor which, in 4.1432ff., the Argonauts fail to witness Heracles performing by merely a day, brings the great hero just as close to the end of his own journey to immortality as the Argonauts have come to theirs.

As its title “Homeward Bound” suggests, Chapter 4 discusses defining moments which dictate the course of the homeward voyage in book 4 (pp. 119-72). C.’s overarching point, prepared for in Chapter 1, is that in book 4 well-planned travel gives way to wandering and improvisation: “the voyage of Argo, which until now has operated within closely defined parameters, is about to enter a new, more exotic and outlandish phase” (p. 131; or if you will, a more Odyssean phase). Unsurprisingly, the theme of nostos again looms large: what is a homeward journey for the Argonauts is a journey away from home (and, eventually, to a new home) for Medea and the Colchian pursuers, and an ambiguous one for the sons of Phrixus. Two more “other journeys” — Aeetes’ journey in the solar chariot to Circe’s western home, and those of the two Colchian fleets in the tracks of the Argonauts — supplement the discussion in Chapter 3. Particularly enlightening is C.’s analysis of Argus’ recollection of the pillars of Aea (4.257-93, pp. 124-31), which presents a close structural parallel to the prophecy of Phineus in book 2. He also devotes perceptive discussions to the negotiations between Medea, Jason, Arete, and Alcinous, to the Planctae episode,4 and to the Argonauts’ dark moments at the Syrtis and off Crete. Closure is provided by a short section entitled “Interpreting the Argo voyage” (169-72), which starts with a rehearsal of modern interpretations of the myth of the Argonauts (as some form of solar myth,5 as a symbolic catabasis, as a voyage of initiation, as a clash between East and West, and as a myth of colonization: Apollonius’ epic allows all) and ends with an evaluation of this specific Argonautica as a narrative.

Chapter 5, “Patterns of Action” (pp. 175-230) opens the thematically organized part of the book. Here C. concentrates on what he calls “the visualisation and choreography,” “patterns of action,” and “group dynamics” (p. 175) of crowd-scenes: the Argonauts and Jason proceeding through Iolcus; Jason moving through the crowd of Lemnian women; the Lemnian women themselves rushing to the shore first to fight the Argonauts, then to welcome them, and finally to say goodbye; the Argonauts’ battles with the Doliones, Bebrycians, and Colchians; various arrivals, departures, processions, and assemblies; and, finally, the Syrtis episode. Here C. once again shows that he has a sharp eye for the similarities between scenes and for repeated words, images, and narrative patterns. I wonder, however, if he does not overplay his hand in the chapter’s concluding section (“Formulaic Visualisation,” pp. 225-30), where he argues that “scenes of sad farewell and joyous welcome, scenes of aggressive attack and craven flight, of planned and unplanned congregation all borrow from a common, finite stock of stage-directions,” and that “when one reads the text of Apollonius for the scenarios presented therein, for the stage-directions so to speak, one finds little variation upon standard patterns” (pp. 227-8; cf. 230). The remarkable similarities between various scenes are perhaps better explained in terms of intratextual allusion than in terms of standard patterns and formulaic composition — which is not to deny that these repetitions also create an effect that is somewhat similar to Homer’s type-scenes.

“Orpheus and Medea” are the focus of Chapter 6 (pp. 231-60). Here C. argues that in the Argonautica Orpheus and Medea represent two different kinds of thelxis : a benevolent kind associated with order, harmony, and charm, and a malevolent one associated with disorder, violence, and compulsion. He also rightly emphasizes Orpheus’ religious role, and draws attention to the gradual exposition of the nature of Medea’s powers in books 3 and 4 (although here again one should perhaps reckon with the readers’ previous knowledge — Euripides’ Medea !). C.’s enlightening juxtaposition of all references to Orpheus’ and Medea’s magic left me wondering at the end if Orpheus ‘ thelxis of order’ does not also have metapoetic implications. After all it seems likely that Apollonius’ portrayal of this ‘singer of tales’ says something about how he himself would like to be perceived as a narrator.

C. addresses similar questions himself in Chapter 7, “Poetics and Rhetoric” (pp. 261-85), where he discusses the theme of communication in the poem and argues that “the poet draws attention throughout to the manner in which speech is expressed and understood; the strategies according to which tales may be told, whether in part or in full; the very nature of poetic communication itself” (p. 283). This chapter revisits some of the most discussed passages in the poem (such as the Muse-invocations and the story of Aethalides),6 but stands out from earlier discussions through its systematic evaluation of the implications of the altercations between characters for the communication between the poem’s narrator and his narratees.

This book somewhat resembles the poem it discusses in that its contents are easier to summarize than to evaluate. In the introduction, C. states that his chapters “follow on from each other in logical sequence and are thematically related, but (…) may also be read as discrete essays” (pp. 4-5). Readers who choose to savor select chapters should keep in mind that, due to C.’s organizational choices, many themes and passages are discussed in more than one place. The extensive indexes come in handy here,7 but eventually the only way to fully appreciate this book is reading it from cover to cover. Because C. is a writer of considerable skill and finesse (the last chapter ends with the word “beginning”) this is by no means a punishment. Even so the greatest merit of this book is perhaps in C.’s individual close readings of verbal and thematic links between passages, both intra- and intertextual — the sort of readings which he himself advocates in the introduction as “the only way to ensure that the full range of harmonies and disharmonies in Apollonius’ poem is heard” (p. 5). While I occasionally found myself wishing for deeper and more systematic analyses,8 which might have produced less elusive results, I found C.’s interpretations invariably stimulating. All in all this book invites comparison with Hunter’s “Literary Studies” (Cambridge 1993), to which C. acknowledges a large debt in his footnotes. Like that book, “The Path of the Argo” has many things to say about many topics, and should be on the reading list of all interested in the Argonautica.


1. Aspects of Space and Movement in the Odyssey of Homer and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius (1993).

2. The full text of the introduction is available online.

3. Here it is a pity that C. (whose bibliography closes in 1999) could not take into account J.J. Clauss, “Cosmos without imperium: the Argonautic journey through time,” in M.A. Harder a.o. (eds.), Apollonius Rhodius (Leuven 2000), 11-32. Note furthermore that Argo is also a heavenly Sign; discussion of this fact would have supported C.’s case.

4. Though in the Planctae discussion I am not convinced by C.’s solution for Hera’s notoriously problematic speech to Thetis in 4.783-90 (emending 4.486 te to ke seems inevitable).

5. On this topic see now also S. Noegel, “Apollonius’ Argonautika and Egyptian solar mythology,” CW 97 (2003/04), 123-36; and S.A. Stephens, “Apollonian cosmologies,” in Seeing Double: Intercultural Poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria (Berkeley 2003), 171-237.

6. See already S. Goldhill, The Poet’s Voice (Cambridge 1991), 284-333; and R. Hunter, The Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius: Literary Studies (Cambridge 1993), 101-51; also e.g. Hunter in A Companion to Apollonius Rhodius (Leiden 2001), 93-125; and R.V. Albis, Poet and Audience in the Argonautica of Apollonius (Lanham 1996); and most recently G. Berkowitz, Semi-Public Narration in Apollonius’ Argonautica (Leuven 2004); and M. Cuypers in I. de Jong a.o. (eds.), Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature (Leiden 2004), 43-62.

7. Caveat lector: the Index of Passages is not comprehensive (for example, the discussion of Cape Acherousia on pp. 87-8 is not indexed, and 2.859-63 is not only discussed on pp. 211-2 but also on 223-4).

8. It should be said that C.’s discussion of the intertextual dimension of the poem hardly goes beyond Homer (the index contains five references to Hesiod and one each to Herodotus, Parmenides, and Xenophon). The discussion of the proem, for example, would have benefited from consideration of the hymnic and Pindaric intertexts.