BMCR 2017.04.15

Valerius Flaccus. Argonautica, Book III. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics

, Valerius Flaccus. Argonautica, Book III. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. ix, 286. ISBN 9781107697263. $39.99 (pb).

Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica has enjoyed its share of the renewed interest in Flavian epic over the past few decades, and has benefited in particular from a spate of commentaries. I myself have a dozen on my shelf; Jessica Blum, in her review of the present commentary,1 cites 21 since 1980. In all of this, however, Gesine Manuwald’s new edition and commentary represents the first (in any language) dedicated solely to Argonautica 3, and the first entry for Valerius Flaccus in the venerable Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series. In line with the aims of that series, Manuwald’s express purpose is to increase our store of “adequate teaching materials” (p. vii) on the epic, while at the same time filling a gap in scholarship on book 3. She succeeds in these goals, consistently providing the information needed for students (and indeed, many grateful scholars) to understand Valerius’ difficult text, while capably situating the Argonautica in its contemporary scholarly context. My only reservation (discussed below) is that Manuwald does not take enough opportunities to explore the intertextual richness of Valerius’ writing; readers with interpretive priorities different from mine may not feel this lack as acutely.

Manuwald’s notes cumulatively represent a model of well-planned and erudite commentary writing. They are meticulously organized, with generous citation of parallels and scholarship, and a carefully observed balance between the needs of student and those of specialist readers. Students in particular will appreciate how Manuwald consistently chooses the right moments to provide a basic explanation of a difficult passage, and consistently chooses the right way to do so (offering a general discussion, paraphrase, translation, parallel passage, or prose-order equivalent). She is also especially perceptive in discussing Valerius’ adaptation of the Argonautic myth for his poetic purposes. A minor but striking feature of her commentary is the attention she pays to the microstructure of Valerius’ writing, in particular her frequent consideration of the various connective words the poet employs. In a few cases, these explanations verge on the obvious (e.g., the note on nec … nec and -que … -que in 88-90), but in general they will help readers think carefully about a seldom considered aspect of Latin epic technique.

Manuwald prefaces her commentary with an introduction divided into four standard sections: “The poet”, “The poem”, “Book 3”, and “Text and transmission”. Throughout the introduction she provides rich citations of primary and secondary sources. Sections 1 and 2.2 offer sensible evaluations of the limited evidence for Valerius’ life and the poem’s composition, endorsing the “broad consensus” (6) that the Argonautica was originally planned as an eight-book epic and, more cautiously, favouring a date of composition confined to the 70s c.e., rather than extending into the early 90s. Her discussion of the poem’s date rightly focuses on the interpretive significance of its composition under the Flavians (as Blum well notes).

In the remainder of the second section (“The poem”) Manuwald covers earlier versions of the Argonautic myth (focusing, of course, on Apollonius, as she does perceptively throughout the notes), the contents and structure of the epic, various prominent themes in the poem (most notably a lengthy subsection on “Gods, fate, and humans”), the epic’s intertexts, and Valerius’ language, style, and metre. The sections on intertexts and style are perhaps too short, but the treatment of the epic’s prominent themes is strong, and continues throughout the commentary. The third section of the introduction discusses the structure, “meaning and relevance”, and characters of book 3. Most useful, perhaps, is a detailed structural analysis, dividing the book’s contents into three main sections and 15 subsections (with many more sub-subsections). This mapping carries through to the impeccably structured notes, where each major and minor section is summarized, discussed, and often provided with relevant bibliography.

The final section discusses the text of the poem. This is a text that is “unusually problematical”, as Zissos observed in his introduction to Argonautica 1,2 stating more concisely Delz’s observation that: “the task of editing Valerius Flaccus is a very difficult one for two interconnected reasons: his language is often violently distorted or tantalizingly allusive, and the transmitted text is utterly corrupt.”3 Having recently navigated the labyrinthine manuscript tradition and contested text of the Thebaid, I have much sympathy for Manuwald’s challenges here in editing and presenting Valerius’ text and transmission, challenges made more acute by the (necessarily) limited space afforded her in the introduction and the intended wider audience for the volume. Nevertheless, I do not feel that Manuwald fully succeeds in explaining either the Argonautica ’s manuscript history4 or her own editorial approach in the introduction. In the text and notes, she emerges as a cautious editor, ready to obelize if no variants or emendations fully convince her (she mostly follows Liberman in this regard), and suspicious even of the conjectures she accepts.5 This stance is perhaps not ideal when editing a text as manifestly damaged as the Argonautica, but the final product is good, and I found myself disagreeing with Manuwald’s editorial choices only rarely. In any case, she is generous in her discussion of textual problems in the notes, and interested readers will learn much from her.

My admiration for Manuwald’s work should now be clear; my criticisms are very few indeed. She is perhaps too ready to identify transferred epithets, even when the transference is obvious, unremarkable, or unnecessary.6 She might have paid more attention to metrical effects, and indeed prosody in general (the treatment of metre in the introduction is also brief).7 Most significant for me (and not all readers will agree here) is a reluctance to test the full interpretive potential of the poem’s intertexts. Manuwald consistently notes large and small links to other texts, and her characterization of these links as “engagement rather than imitation”, which produces “richness rather than sterility” (as Blum aptly puts it), points to the depth of interpretation possible. But, with few exceptions, she declines to suggest how these intertexts might affect our understanding of the poem’s meaning, and thus loses an opportunity to persuade readers of their interpretive importance. Similarly, although she correctly points out that “no clear references to the other Flavian epics have been found in [Valerius’] text” (1), I worry that strict adherence to the theory of Valerius as writing before Statius and Silius may close off potential interpretive avenues. For instance, the most obvious comparand for the appearance of Tydeus in the nocturnal battle at Argonautica 3.103-7 is his nocturnal battle at the end of Thebaid 2, and indeed there are links between these scenes that may plausibly be interpreted with Valerius as the alluding author.8 Manuwald’s notes on this section, however, do not mention the Thebaid as a possible point of contact. While I largely agree with her approach of prioritizing Apollonius Rhodius and Virgil as intertexts for this wider-audience commentary, it is to be regretted that the co-editor of the groundbreaking Flavian Epic Interactions has not offered more of her thoughts on those interactions here.9

Still, this complaint is minor, and points more than anything to the challenges and rewards awaiting future students of Argonautica 3. In her modest goals of providing adequate teaching materials and addressing gaps in the scholarship on Valerius’ poem, Manuwald has more than succeeded. I am a better reader of the Argonautica, and of Latin epic in general, for having encountered this commentary.


1. CJ Online 2017.02.03.

2. Zissos, A. (ed., tr., comm.) (2008), Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, Book 1 (Oxford), lxvi.

3. As quoted by Manuwald on p. 34 n. 109.

4. For instance, I understood the place of the florilegia in the tradition (and in Manuwald’s editorial process) only after several readings of pp. 32-3, and remain confused about the status of Π – a copy of [S], as stated on p. 31, or a copy of a copy of [S], as on p. 32? The various divisions of evidence in Carrio’s editions are carefully distinguished on p. 33 (following Liberman’s edition), but some of the distinctions are unclear – Liberman’s French descriptions of the sigla C 1, C 2, C make it clear that they are the reading of Carrio’s lost manuscript as recorded in his first, second, or both editions, but Manuwald’s Latin translations of Liberman’s French seem to suggest inadvertently that these sigla describe some other difference in the attestation of the information ( testimonia in prima/secunda editione Carrionis and cod. Carrionis secundum eius duas editiones). Furthermore, after all these careful distinctions, I read, in the first line of the apparatus, C *, a siglum nowhere to be found in Manuwald’s list (it is in fact a typo for Liberman’s c *).

5. At line 47 she rejects emendation of iussa ferens to iussa serens or iussa gerens as “major changes”. At 138 she defends the correction of the transmitted Echelum/Ethelum to Echeclum (the name’s spelling in Homer and Ovid) as a “required and generally accepted light emendation”.

6. At 415 the gelidos … currus that the Moon rides may indeed imply that “the moon and thus the night are cold”, but surely too the Moon’s chariot itself is cold. At 562 ( illa auidas iniecta manus) it is of course technically the nymph, and not her hands, that are “greedy”, but this transference hardly merits comment.

7. For instance, the expressive elisions in Jason’s speech at 293 ( me hospitio) and 304 ( me hospita) or the hemistich filling Amphitryoniades at 733, or indeed the elision of morae impatiens at 613, which ‘improves’ on Lucan’s impatiensque morae ( BC 6.424). More basically, the plural number of ullis … aequis at 648 and the singular of inclita … dextera at 703-4 are determined as much by metrical considerations as by the reasons Manuwald advances.

8. Gervais, K. (ed., tr., comm.) (2017), Statius, Thebaid 2 (Oxford), 285.

9. Manuwald, G. and Voigt, A. (eds) (2013), Flavian Epic Interactions (Berlin).