BMCR 2005.04.16

Mainly Apollonius: Collected Studies

Steven (Steven B.) Jackson, Mainly Apollonius : collected studies. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 2004. 141 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9025611931

Sooner or later, those who travel the slender path of Hellenistic poetry are bound to track the scholia through the fragmentary wonders of paradoxography and the treasury of details found in local histories and foundation literature. The Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, like other third-century Alexandrian poems, leaves a trail of self-conscious allusions to guide the reader toward the traditional material that serves as a touchstone for its larger dramatic and aesthetic purposes. The poet’s omissions and diversions from these traditions may thus be as telling as the details he selectively admits: all provide clues for the ideal, learned reader.

Jackson’s energetic pursuit of such clues is apparent in this collection of twenty-three previously published articles and reviews. These have now been gathered, as J. explains in the preface, for the convenience of students whose university libraries may no longer be able to sustain subscriptions to a wide range of academic journals. The present volume is also meant to celebrate J.’s association both with Trinity College Dublin, where he obtained his doctorate and currently holds the position of Honorary Research Associate, and with his publisher, which has produced J.’s Selective Creativity in Apollonius’ Argonautica in 1993, Myrsilus of Methymna: Hellenistic Paradoxographer in 1995, and Istrus the Callimachean in 2000.

J.’s interest in lesser-known authors occasionally causes him to be critical of scholars whose readings of the Argonautica draw predominantly on comparison with Homeric epic, yet his own interpretations tend to be limited despite the broad range of sources at his disposal. For J. Apollonius’ elaboration of traditional myths and legends has two principal motivations: to flatter Ptolemaic political interests, and to delight those who enjoy Hellenistic literary games for their own sake. Hellenistic poetry being what it is, J.’s interest in such motivations is not without justification, and his insistence on the integral role of a playful Quellenforschung goes some way toward unifying a collection whose organization is rather randomly conceived.

As the title suggests, the book deals mostly with Apollonius, and includes all of J.’s short publications on the poet as well as research on Callimachus and Theocritus. The rationale for the exclusion of other articles, such as J.’s numerous studies of Istrus, is not made clear, although one assumes that the publisher was wary of stepping on the toes of the recent Istrus the Callimachean. These fifteen articles and eight reviews, ranging in date from 1987 to 2003, are reproduced in their original format and without emendation. Indeed, the production has been kept to a minimum, with only a short list of periodical abbreviations and a subject index. No bibliography has been provided, nor has the author taken advantage of the opportunity offered by such an edition to expand, update, or even frame his work by means of an introduction or additional commentary.

The table of contents does not make explicit the breaks between sections, but the first eight articles are evidently arranged according to the order of events in the Argonautica, beginning with a general discussion of Jason, then proceeding to articles on the Doliones (1.1063-69), Heracles and the Boreads (1.1296ff.), the Etesian Winds (2.498-527), Sinope (2.946-54), Ariadne (3.997-1004), Thetis (4.869-76), and Euphemus (4.1537ff.). The next three articles are more loosely related to the poem (Argo as first ship, the odor of the Lemnian women, and Apollonius as author of the ktisis of Lesbos). Three reviews of recent books on Apollonius conclude the section. The Callimachaean section comprises three articles and two reviews that are primarily concerned with the Aetia, while the Theocritean section is made up of one article and two reviews. The volume closes with a brief review of Images and Ideologies: Self-Definition in the Hellenistic World (California, 1993), edited by A.W. Bulloch et al.

J. argues here, as elsewhere, for Apollonius’ use of “creative selectivity” in regard to his sources, which the poet divulges through poetic games meant to test and tease his readers’ expectations. J. does not here explain how he would differentiate the “creative selectivity” of Apollonius from that of either Callimachus or Theocritus, although all three construct these types of literary puzzles. The paper chase generally leads through some fairly dense referential thickets, an enterprise that today necessitates a high degree of critical acumen but that would have induced, as J. repeatedly assures us, nothing short of a literary frisson in the hearts of the poem’s intended audience. Be that as it may, J.’s analyses are vulnerable to charges of circularity, beginning as they do with the assumption that Apollonius is “creatively selective” and ending with the conclusion that Apollonius has once again been selective in a very creative way.

This is not to imply that J. uniformly fails to convince. He is often persuasive, as is the case with “Argo: The First Ship?” (1997), which shows that for Apollonius, as for the poetic tradition in general, Argo was not the first ship, but rather the first ship to enter the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. In “Apollonius of Rhodes: Death on Tenos” (2003) and “Apollonius of Rhodes: The Cleite and Byblis Suicides” (1997), J. also rightly draws attention to the political cachet of geographical references in the poem: Apollonius’ revision of traditional episodes involving Heracles, the Boreads, and the Doliones gratifies Ptolemaic interests in Cos, Tenos, and Caria, respectively. In “Apollonius of Rhodes: Author of the Lesbou Ktisis ?” (1995), J. similarly argues that a rider on the fate of the ill-fated Pisidice imprinted the foundation legends of Lesbos with allusions to the Greek cultural heritage.

“Apollonius’ Jason: Human Being in an Epic Scenario,” while methodologically distinct from the rest of the collection, is nonetheless suggestive. The article generally avoids references to earlier or contemporary sources and focuses instead on the poem’s internal dynamics to make the argument that Jason is sensible and pragmatic, suggesting that the Argonautica“is concerned with man’s inter-relationship with both his fellow-man and with the gods” (1). As a mortal hero Jason is subject to the constraints of necessity, but he is nevertheless “prepared to go, and … capable of going, much further than any archetypal epic hero” (7). By contrast, the analysis in “Apollonius’ Argonautica : Euphemus, a Clod, and a Tripod” (1987) more effectively integrates J.’s idea of the poet’s selective methodology with his thesis that Jason is a morally sensitive hero who is finally reconciled with the gods.

Less successful is the exegesis of Apollonius’ selectivity in “Apollonius’ Argonautica : The Theseus / Ariadne Desertion” (1999). J.’s claim is that while Apollonius suppresses numerous aspects of most poetic references to the Theseus/Ariadne story, Cercops’ sixth-century Aegimius, which is unique in describing Theseus’ desertion as intentional, must be the source for Jason’s initial speech to Medea because the allusion makes his reference to Ariadne’s fate more ironic. J. makes it clear that the problem is complex, but the potential sacrifice of irony does not conclusively demonstrate that Cercops was Apollonius’ source. It is hard to prove that the Aegimius is more appropriate here than other suppressed sources, especially when the overt point of Jason’s reference to Ariadne is the catasterism of her bridal crown, an image that is likely to have resonated in a positive way with a Ptolemaic audience.

In “Callimachus: Coma Berenices : Origins” (2001) J. takes issue with view that the ten-line nuptial rite in Catullus’ translation of Callimachus’ Coma Berenices ( C. 66.79-88 ) was introduced by the later poet. J. argues that the passage would actually have been appropriate, as Pfeiffer claimed, in an earlier version of the Coma because several features evoke aspects of Ptolemaic ruler cult, particularly in connection with the marriage of Isis and her fraternal consort Osiris. As he observes, the Egyptians cut their hair in mourning for Isis: “an act which was symbolic both of the loss of virginity and of a ritus nuptialis after Isis’ magical necrophiliac act of conception with the mummified Osiris. Like Osiris’ body in death, the lock had been cut, only later to undergo a form of resurrection” (100). J.’s abbreviated discussion would have benefited, however, by reference to Selden’s thorough analysis of the identification of Ptolemaic queens with Isis.1

Finally, another early article, “Myrsilus of Methymna and the Dreadful Smell of the Lemnian Women” (1990), recklessly proposes that the dysosmia responsible for the ritual isolation of the Lemnian women must have originated in menstrual taboo. One wishes here that J. had followed Apollonius’ lead in omitting any reference to the story, but instead he adopts a speculative line of argument, reasoning that ” … one can easily imagine the difficulty people had in having to explain the origins of such a malodorous stink, especially when also one considers the taboo surrounding it. Wary of this taboo, they disguised and shrouded the details of the ritual in the mists of pre-historic myth, a common and perfectly acceptable practice” (72). In support of this doubtful hypothesis, J. proffers a late and infamously misogynistic passage by the elder Pliny ( NH 7.15.63-67) as “representative” of ancient beliefs, while overlooking parallels closer to home, such as fourth-century Coan medical writers who, by the way, note the dislike of the animated uterus for bad smells and advise the judicious application of sweet or unpleasant aromatic ointments in order to restore it to its proper position (Hippocr. 5.344-6 LittrĂ©).

In the end, although this collection generally illustrates J.’s dedication to the hermeneutics of select poetic problems, the hasty production of the volume as a whole diminishes its value both for students, whose relatively limited knowledge of Hellenistic authors calls for supporting materials, and for scholars, who will presumably rely on Interlibrary Loan to supplement library holdings. As J. himself points out, the primary virtue of Mainly Apollonius is its convenient assemblage of already existing articles, yet this same convenience is likely to contribute to its obsolescence, for the deliberate redundancy of its content gives us no reason ever to cite it.


1. D. Selden, “Alibis.” Classical Antiquity 17.2 [1998] 290-420, at 326-54. For a learned discussion of the problem, see P. Bing, “Reconstructing Berenike’s Lock,” in G. W. Most, ed., Collecting Fragments (Göttingen, 1997), 78-94.