BMCR 2006.02.57

Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica, Book 1: A Commentary

, Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica, Book I : a commentary. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 1 online resource (xviii, 506 pages).. ISBN 9781429427074 €159.00.

From 1986 to 1991, A. J. Kleywegt (henceforth ‘K.’) published a valuable series of articles, five in all, devoted to textual criticism and exegesis of Book 1 of Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica.1 In the first of these, K. declared that they were to pave the way for an eventual commentary on the same book. Almost two decades later, the commentary has appeared, the third on the Roman Argonautica to be published by Brill in recent years.2 The timing is a little unfortunate: K.’s hefty opus comes three years after the first installment of Spaltenstein’s commentary on the entire epic, covering the first two books.3 Spaltenstein’s volume, which devotes 282 pages to Book 1, is unlikely to be superseded as it is, in most respects, a more rigorous and incisive piece of scholarship. K. may nonetheless find an audience among those who prefer reading English to French or who prefer his detailed exegesis and conversational writing style to Spaltenstein’s terse academic prose.

The commentary proper is preceded by a brief introduction (pp. xi-xv), in which K. offers his views, mostly conventional, on basic questions concerning Valerius Flaccus and his incomplete epic: composition began in the reign of Vespasian; the poem was never finished, due to the author’s untimely death around 90 CE; the intended length was eight books. More problematic is K.’s disjointed and at times simplistic discussion of Valerius’ debt to Virgil — characterized in Statian terms as “the master” against whom later epicists, Valerius included, “had to contend without aspiring to surpass” (p. xii). K. is right to dwell on Valerius’ linguistic and thematic debt to Virgil, but omits any discussion of the decidedly un-Virgilian features of the poem, which have been a major critical focus since Mehmel’s seminal study of 1934.4 In K.’s estimation Valerius is also “Virgilian” in his fundamental optimism (p. xiii) — a view that could be challenged on either side of the equation. Given the shortness of the Introduction, it is surprising to see K. devoting space to a discussion of the differences between the three “so-called ‘Flavian epicists,'” taking it upon himself to dispel a purported critical tendency to treat these poets as a group and to “disregard the considerable differences between [them]” (p. xiii). The indices (pp. 505-6) are minuscule and idiosyncratic — the only author, ancient or modern, listed is Claudian — and so will be of little use to most readers; the lengthy bibliography (pp. 493-503) is more worthwhile.

The format of the commentary proper follows the two previous Brill offerings on Valerius. The text is not separate and continuous, but is supplied in full in the lemmata to individual notes; a convenient list of deviations from Liberman’s 1997 edition is provided (pp. xvii-xviiii).5 In laying out the commentary, K. divides Book 1 into four major sections: 1-21 (“Prooemium”), 22-349 (“Thessaly”), 350-699 (“Outward bound”), 700-850 (“Home and Parents”), the first three of which are further divided into subsections. Individual speeches are also broken down according to perceived structure. Other ‘user-friendly’ features include a chart of Aeolid genealogies (p. 43), and a neat tabulation of various poets’ use of individual elements in a quasi-formulaic invocation (p. 13).

A particular strength of K.’s commentary — and the one area in which it clearly surpasses Spaltenstein — is its detailed and vigorous treatment of textual issues. Here, as in his earlier articles, K. demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the textual tradition and an extraordinary command of printed editions from the editio princeps (1474) onwards, as well as the myriad conjectures offered in those editions, in monographs and in modern journals. On numerous occasions he corrects mistaken attributions or omissions in recent editions. He has no qualms about challenging the prevailing scholarly communis opinio, as evidenced in his decision to opt for 74 superet (MSS) against speret (Gronov), printed in virtually all modern editions. It seems unlikely that many such choices will gain critical traction, but Valerian studies are sure to profit from the debates they provoke.

Another praiseworthy feature of K.’s commentary is its meticulous discussion of syntax and sense. Though Valerius, like many subsequent poets, tends to reproduce Virgilian formulations and modes of expression, his language is innovative in important respects: most obviously in its freedom of word order, its deployment of words and expressions in novel combinations and senses, and its striking use of abridgment. The consequent tension between conventional and innovative linguistic forms results in a poetic idiom that is among the most difficult in Latin literature. Unresolved semantic and syntactic debates swirl around many passages in the poem, and K. discusses these in a lucid and helpful manner, even if, inevitably, one does not always agree with his conclusions. A nice example is the detailed exegesis of the difficult tripartite statement at 100-2 (pp. 75-6). Equally felicitous is K.’s suggestion at 127-8 constitit ut longo moles non pervia ponto / puppis et ut … to take puppis in apposition to preceding moles : “when the massive structure had come into existence … (now) a ship!, and when …” (p. 87). The semantic range of individual words or phrases is dealt with in a painstaking manner, with full discussion and appropriate references to standard dictionaries and grammars. There is a good deal of tabulation of diction à la Axelson: K. regularly reports the frequency with which Valerius uses a word or phrase, often listed against its (more or less poetic) synonyms, with the derived ratios set against the practice of other epicists. Readers will also welcome K.’s frequent fleshing out of Valerius’ elliptical patterns of thought.

The virtues of K.’s commentary, then, are manifold; at the same time, it manifests certain shortcomings that emerge the more clearly when set against Spaltenstein’s aforementioned volume. Put simply, K. is more erratic than Spaltenstein, and says rather less of substance, despite devoting an additional 200 pages to Book 1. Physical formatting clearly accounts for much of the discrepancy — Spaltenstein’s pages are noticeably denser — but some part is played as well by needless exegesis and irrelevant annotation.6 The commentary also contains its share of questionable assertion or analysis: in what follows I offer a representative sampling from lines 1-183 (pp. 5-117).

On the imperial panegyric at 7-9, in which Vespasian is, like the Argonauts, credited with opening up a sea route, K. remarks that “the parallel drawn … is obvious” (p. 13). Obvious to whom? The reference is to Claudius’ British expedition of 43 CE, in terms of which pelagi … aperti is both a gross exaggeration (the expedition to Britain was not the first, so no sea route was opened) and implausibly credited to Vespasian, who was not commander.

On 95 robora (referring to the trees on Pelion from which Argo is built), K. insinuates Valerius’ inconsistency in that “the vessel is elsewhere denoted as pinus (1.457 etc.) or alnus (1.203 etc.). Cf., on the other hand, quercus (1.302 etc.)” (p. 72). But robora is almost certainly meant in the generic sense “timber” (thus Mozley; cf. OLD s.v. 3), as the trees on Pelion from which Argo was built were traditionally pine. As for pinus and alnus, these are stock poetic metonymies for “vessel” that had ceased to particularize building materials long before the Flavian period; and quercus at 1.302 refers only to the plank of oak taken from the oracular forest of Dodona that was inserted into Argo’s keel.

On 147-8 K. speaks of “the situation of a man assailed by his attackers” compelled to “conceal his head in the golden cup” (p. 100). In fact Hippasus is not a man, but a centaur; he is not described as being assailed by anyone; and he is probably not using the cup for concealment. As Strand and others have pointed out, the Ovidian model ( Met. 12.316-9) and the bathos of the verb condit suggest rather that Hippasus has lost consciousness and let his head fall into the vessel (whose emptiness — sc. of wine — likewise hints at a state of inebriation).7

At 156-60 K. identifies the eagle omen as “the only instance of Jupiter personally intervening in the action” (p. 108), an error compounded by its misattribution to Schubert.8

On 168-9 (Jason speaking) o quantum terrae, quantum cognoscere caeli / permissum est, pelagus quantos aperimus in usus! K. remarks that “the second element seems to be added only for the sake of completeness: the different aspect of the sky in foreign countries, if expected at all by Jason, is hardly an incentive” (p. 111). This is miscontrued: Valerius’ elegant variation on the usual tripartite universal expression (earth/sky/sea) refers to ‘sciences’ associated with the three realms. The middle term speaks to astronomy, whose connection to sailing is a leitmotif of the early narrative.

The principal strengths of K.’s commentary, then, are its extensive discussion of textual issues and its detailed and helpful elucidation of Valerius’ difficult poetic language. In other respects it is less uniformly rigorous, and scholars consulting it will want to keep their copy of Spaltenstein close at hand.


1. “Praecursoria Valeriana (I)-(V).” Mnem. 39 (1986), 313-49; Mnem. 40 (1987), 107-23; Mnem. 41 (1988), 355-72; Mnem. 42 (1989), 420-440; Mnem. 44 (1991), 137-59.

2. The earlier commentaries, both by H. J. W. Wijsman, are on Books 5 (1996) and 6 (2000).

3. F. Spaltenstein, Commentaire des Argonautica de Valérius Flaccus (livres 1 et 2) (Bruxelles 2002). Though I am loathe to use this review to advertise my own work, I should, in the interests of full disclosure, mention that I have myself recently completed a commentary on Book 1.

4. F. Mehmel, Valerius Flaccus (Hamburg 1934). K.’s treatment of the literary tradition is somewhat uneven. As a general rule, the influence of Virgil is well handled in the commentary; but other sources and models do not always fare as well. On 121-48 (describing construction of the ship), K. comments “this part of the story is almost skipped by [Apollonius Rhodius], who refers to the building of Argo in just two lines (1.18f.)” (p. 85). In fact the vessel’s construction is mentioned by Apollonius in a series of flashbacks at 1.111-2, 526-7, 721-4, 2.1187-9, 3.340-2, 4.580-3. In the discussion of 140 parte alia … Iaccho, (p. 95) K. fails to mention the echo of Cat. 64.251 at parte ex alia … Iacchus, relevant as a formula of transition within an ecphrasis involving multiple tableaux in a crucial poetic model.

5. G. Liberman (ed.), Valerius Flaccus. Argonautiques. Chants I-IV (Paris 1997).

6. A few representative examples will serve to illustrate this pervasive tendency. On 111-2 quos talibus amens / insequitur solitosque novat Saturnia questus, I am at a loss to understand why the reader must be told that “In the second clause … the relative pronoun no longer has a function” (p. 81). Likewise, in discussing the ecphrasis at 127-48, K. feels compelled to warn the reader that the description of Medea (leaving her Colchian homeland with Jason and his companions) at 8.204 deiecta residens in lumina palla does not refer to the eventual catastrophe at Corinth (p. 89): again, I cannot fathom why anybody would think that it does. (K.’s contention that it somehow constitutes a “reference” to the subsequent fight on Peuce is scarcely more credible.) On 174 K. quite rightly points out that Bährens’ error, made in the nineteenth century, of taking parato as an imperative “has been exposed often enough by now” (p. 114). But this just begs the question: why has K. seen fit to expose this “howler” one more time?

7. J. Strand, Notes on Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica (Göteborg 1972), p. 56.

8. W. Schubert, Jupiter in den Epen der Flavierzeit (Frankfurt 1984), p. 117. But Schubert actually says “In der ganzen Handlung der Argonautica gibt Jupiter nur einmal ein Zeichen ( Arg. 1.156ff.).” K.’s (misattributed) assertion is clearly contradicted by, e.g., 4.15-7 and 75-9.