BMCR 2021.02.46

Untimely epic: Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica

, Untimely epic: Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 368. ISBN 9780198848561 $105.00.


Tom Phillips (University of Manchester) reads Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica in terms of its temporal frames, creating an approach that emphasizes how the Alexandrian poet creates a new practice of reading the mythical past, asking readers to engage tensions between different perspectives on that past. The book comprises five sections: first on time and emotion, second on how Apollonius models poetic performance and reception, third how the Argonauts both look back to earlier myth and forward to historical ritual, fourth on the problematics of exemplarity in the Argonautica, and last, on Apollonius’ presentation of fantastic elements of the myth. Philips’ approach is primarily literary, examining how the poet treats time as a theme or poetic device; philological and historical concerns are touched on as they relate to the primary argument. As a point of clarification, narratological methods, comparing the “story” and “discourse” along the lines made familiar to classicists especially by de Jong[1] are not a central concern of this study. This is a sensitive and thoroughly researched approach. Much of the argumentation proceeds through close reading of the poem and setting its themes in their poetic contexts, and Phillips’ broadly humanistic approach, emphasizing the Argonautica as a product of Apollonius’ lived experience, its invitation to readers to identify with its characters, and how it impacts the imaginative lives of its audience serves nicely to counterbalance recent approaches that focus on the poem as an embodiment of political forces or scholarly debates.

The first section, then, begins from the familiar observation that the Argonautica self-consciously sets itself earlier in mythological time to central texts like the Iliad and Euripides’ Medea, foreshadowing events that are recorded in already-established works. Phillips extends this approach, emphasizing how characters construct heroic narratives for themselves out of the language of Apollonius’ antecedents, often introducing a tension between their heroic language and more mundane deeds. Thus, Hypsipyle claims that an Iliadic οὐλομένη … μῆνις governs her narrative of the Lemnian men looting the Thracians. Similarly, in Libya the Herossae greet the Argonauts using language reminiscent of the proems of the Odyssey and Herodotus Histories, with the difference that theirs is not a narratorial voice and their audience is not for future generations, but the heroes themselves. The second part of the chapter turns to approach Apollonius as an authorial consciousness behind the text. Phillips weaves a number of familiar tropes: Orpheus as figure for the author, Apollonius’ Homeric scholarship, the Argonautica’s inward turn, the narrator’s professed lack of control in book 4, to suggest that it is productive to view the poem as an expression of the author’s subjectivity, as fits Phillips’ humanistic viewpoint, but against the general trend to see the authorial voice as a construct.

The second chapter focuses on models of performance and reception in the Argonautica, looking at Orpheus’ paean to Apollo at Thynias, the Heliades’ lament for Phaethon, and the vocal battle of the Sirens and Orpheus. In exploring Orpheus’ paean, Phillips again begins with a familiar critical position, that Apollonius is providing an etiology for the paean parallel to Callimachus’ etiology in the Hymn to Apollo. He notes, however, that the poetic function of the etiology, to relate the heroic context of the Argonauts to a contemporary Alexandrian context by their establishing a ritual that continues to be part of the Hellenistic religious landscape, is complicated by Orpheus’ deferral of the etiology of the name “paean” to a further past, when Apollo slew the Python. Phillips presses the point that Apollo’s conquest does not straightforwardly figure Jason’s overcoming of the serpent guarding the Fleece, but adumbrates a tension between Apollo’s heroic violence and Jason’s reliance on guile and magic. Given that Orpheus produces an Apollonian narrative, Phillips suggests that the Argonauts figure the readers, and that their multiplicity of responses signals that there is not a single appropriate response to the Argonautica. Phillips pursues this tension between the Argonautica’s modelling of poetic production and reception on the one hand and Apollonius’ problematizing that model on the other in the cases of the Heliades and Sirens: The temporal confusion of the Phaethon episode—the primordial metamorphoses of Phaethon and the Heliades break into the heroic age narrative—is figured by the Heliades’ lament appearing inarticulate from the Argonauts’ perspective. Thus, the reader’s experience as “knowing” or “pleasurable” contrasts with the Argonauts’ as uncomprehending and unpleasant. Beyond dramatic irony, Phillips argues that Apollonius’ tactics here emphasize communicative ruptures: as the Argonauts cannot interpret the Heliades’ lament, so Apollonius’ readers cannot enter the Argonauts’ experience, the medium of epic poetry being unfit for representing inarticulate sounds. An exemplum of non-exemplarity, then. Again, Phillips reads the context between Orpheus and the Sirens in terms of the problematics of reading: the layering of Orpheus’ and the Sirens’ songs figures the multivalence of Apollonius’ own text, which at once rewrites Homeric and other archaic texts, engages in philological debates, and the like. That the Argonauts hear this as auditory confusion, then, is taken as humorous self-deprecation, but also raises an important aesthetic issue: at what point does verbal and allusive density tip from producing the pleasure of recognition to mere noise.

In the third chapter Phillips turns to a series of the Argonauts’ encounters with liminal characters that represent “the past” from the perspective of the Argonauts in various way, so providing a multiplicity of models for the readers to approach the heroic past that the Argonauts themselves represent. Phillips first explores a number of primitivist perspectives available in Greek thought, setting up an interpretive framework where the Argonauts’ encounters with the past provide alternative imaginative communities that can offer the Greeks different kinds of wisdom. Thus, Dipsacus offers a pastoral model recalling Hesiodic or Dicaearcan golden ages and Prometheus’ cries offer a model of tragic resistance to tyranny. Circe’s creatures offer an encounter with richer associations: Apollonius exploits his Empedoclean imagery to suggest the creatures represent an irruption from the past, while at the same time uses the Homeric intertext to suggest that the creatures are a result of Circe’s magic, not a natural process; the Argonauts’ marvel at their “unclear form” (φυὴν ἀίδηλοι) then provides a model for Apollonius’ audience to marvel at his multi-layered allusiveness. Phillips suggests this is a key to approaching Orpheus’ cosmology: the Argonauts similarly marvel at a hybrid work that combines allusions to Empedocles’ cosmogonic and Hesiod’s theogonic texts, again suggesting an approach to Apollonius’ own text which further frames Orpheus’ song with allusions to Hermes’ theogony in the Homeric Hymnand Aristotle’s criticism of Empedocles’ obscurity. Examinations of similar episodes: Glaucus, Fair Harbor, Dindymum, Idmon’s Tomb, the Black Rock, Anaphe, and the Hesperides, help establish the centrality of the theme. Characters (places, rituals, etc.) that each figure the past in some way seem to offer some kind of wisdom, but the Argonauts’ responses are typically described not in terms of understanding but affectively (wonder, joy, etc.), suggesting this is the kind of response Apollonius was endeavoring to elicit from his audience.

Chapter four brings the problem of exemplarity in the Argonautica into focus, taking up observations in the previous chapters: exempla both explain phenomena on the primary level of narration and create tensions with them, responses to exempla by characters in the Argonautica tend to be affective rather than intellectual, suggesting a model for reading the Argonautica itself. The first part of the chapter approaches the ecphrasis of Jason’s cloak from several angles: thematic, as in Aphrodite’s appearance foreshadowing her role in book three; allegorical, following the scholia; figuring the Argonautica’s temporal complexity as being before and after Homer. Phillips builds on the work of earlier scholars, focusing on the limits of the interpretive approaches, for example, the praise of Amphion over Zethus does reflect the importance of “art” (broadly understood) in the Argonauts’ adventures, but Zethus-like “force” also has a role to play, as in Jason’s completion of the trials. Thus, the exempla on the cloak set up expectations about how to read later episodes, but those expectations regularly fall short of capturing the complexity of the episodes themselves. The second part of the chapter turns to the story of Theseus and Ariadne as an exemplum for Jason and Medea. Again, Phillips builds on earlier readings that highlight Jason’s rhetorical manipulation of the exemplum, noting that Jason decontextualizes Ariadne as an abstract ethical model for Medea to follow, producing the dramatic irony that the reader recognizes inappropriate elements in the parallel that Jason does not. Further elements fill out the approach to Ariadne: Apollonius’ description of the constellation of Ariadne’s Crown is both before and after Aratus, Apollonius focuses on Medea’s affective response over her intellectual response, Medea’s response is polyvalent with her words and gestures suggesting alternate emotional states, and Medea’s final rejection of her similarity to Ariadne (3.1107-8) shows her response evolving over time, demonstrating a dynamic concept of character in counterpoint to the static nature of the exemplum.

The final chapter turns to the fantastic elements of the epic: the fire-breathing bulls, the earth-born, and the conquest of the Golden Fleece. Phillips’ approach is to compare Apollonius’ practice to ancient understandings of φαντασία, alternatively in Plato, Aristotle, and Longinus. Thus, when Medea suddenly reverses her decision to kill herself, the narrator invites the reader to recreate her φαντασίαι of her friends and the sun, which activate the now familiar themes that the images import emotional responses and show the development of Medea’s inner life over time. In a characteristic turn, Phillips suggests that Apollonius self-conscious treatment of visualization prompts the reader to be similarly self-conscious, yielding an identification by the reader with the characters on the basis of their shared subjectivity. This model is then applied to the fantastic elements of the poem, arguing that by having the reader cooperate in the creation of this imaginary world Apollonius makes a new creative use of these episodes, answering the traditional criticism of them as falling off from Homeric realism.

This study of the Argonautica has numerous virtues: Its emphasis on the characters’ affective responses and how this models how readers can respond to the poem provides a needed balance for the intellectual nature of the dominant current approaches (rhetorical analysis, Ptolemaic context, etc.). The theme of the problematization of exemplarity is handled with sensitivity in individual passages and, in its suggestion that the problematic exemplarity enacted in the poem models a problematic exemplarity of the Argonautica for its Ptolemaic present, it provides, again, a balance for more straightforwardly triumphalist readings of the epic.[2] Phillips’ attention to ancient practices of reading, especially drawing on the scholia, is novel and welcome; at times the results of this approach are more suggestive than compelling as evidence for specific practices is sometimes available only much later than Apollonius (e.g., in the scholia), as is to be expected given the state of our evidence. Perhaps oddly, the starting point of “untimeliness” is the element that seems to work least well; it seems sometimes to be forgotten in discussions of specific passages, or the connections to the theme are not fully convincing: that Circe’s beasts evoke both primordial chaos and its post-Homeric description by Empedocles, thereby producing for the reader a frisson that represents the Argonauts’ θάμβος clearly and appropriately leverages the theme of untimeliness; that the ambiguity of ἀπηλεγέως (immediately/forthrightly) of the Siren’s delivery, representing the confusion of their and Orpheus’ songs, has a distinctly temporal resonance, maybe less so. But that is to quibble: Phillips’ readings of such passages are learned, sensitive to Apollonius’ contexts, and compelling in their own right.


[1] de Jong, Irene J. F. Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad. 2nd ed. Bristol Classical Paperbacks. Bristol: Bristol Classical, 2004.

[2] See esp. Stephens, S. A., The Poets of Alexandria. London: I. B. Tauris, 2018, pp. 115-140; Klooster, J., “Argo was here: the ideology of geographical space in the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes,’ in J. Heirman and J. Klooster, eds., The Ideologies of Lived Space in Literary Texts: Ancient and Modern. Ghent: Academia Press, pp. 159-174.