BMCR 2021.03.50

Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica, Book 7

, Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica, Book 7. Edited with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Oxford Commentaries on Flavian Poetry. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 320. ISBN 9780198767190 $110.00.

In recent decades, scholarship on Valerius Flaccus has experienced what must be called a proper renaissance. Major editions of the Argonautica have been published, notably Ehlers for Teubner (1980), and Liberman for Budé (2002), alongside commentaries, both on the whole epic (Spaltenstein 2002-2005), and individual books (Book 1: Kleywegt 2005, Galli 2007, and Zissos 2008; Book 2: Poortvliet 2002; Book 3: Manuwald 2015; Book 4: Murgatroyd 2009; Books 5 and 6: Wijsman 1996 and 2000; Book 8: Pellucchi 2012). Book 7 has to my knowledge been commented on three times in recent years, once in German (Stadler 1993), and twice in Italian (Taliercio 1992 and Perutelli 1997). P. J. Davis’ commentary, here under review, is the first to comment on the seventh book in the English language. Scholars and students interested in the Flavian epic, therefore, previously at the mercy of Langen’s 1896 Latin-language commentary, have as of recently a plethora of material to go to.

Written between 70 and 96 AD, the Argonautica is no mere translation of its Greek predecessor; there are changes to the storyline, to be sure, but compared to Apollonius Rhodius, the most significant discrepancies concern the psychological portraits of the story’s protagonists, Medea in particular, and the ideological implications of the poem. Much like the Aeneid, proffering a divine plan for the world, the Argonautica has been interpreted as an optimistic response to Lucan’s pessimistic view of the world and the Principate in particular, and, in turn, itself prompted a response in Statius’ Thebaid. Unlike his predecessors, furthermore, Valerius Flaccus launches the Argo as the first ship, whose voyage sets a series of human interactions in motion that culminate with the rise and triumph of the Roman empire.

Book 7 centres around Medea and her unsuccessful efforts not to fall in love with Jason. Most of the book is about her internal strife and interactions with Jason, and ends rather swiftly in a series of action-packed scenes in which Jason, with Medea’s help, yokes Aeetes’ fire-breathing bulls, sows the dragon’s teeth, and defeats the earthborn men. Valerius’ narrative complements the story as told by the tragedians and paints a complex picture of Medea as she combats the influence of Venus and Juno, who each wants her for her own purposes, and eventually ends up betraying her father and helping Jason acquire the golden fleece.

Davis has produced an eminent vademecum to Book 7. The introduction helpfully sets the stage for the text in sections on the Poet, the Poem, the Myth, Medea, and Reception. The commentary is said to be “primarily literary” (dust jacket), but to this reader’s delight, is also philological in the sense that it helps the reader parse the text and identify figures of prosody and rhetoric. One of the challenges experienced by neophyte readers of Latin poetry is to understand why a certain word or grammatical construction is used in a certain position and what precise level of meaning it conveys. A good commentary will serve to elucidate such figures without the reader having to flip through a grammar in the hope of finding a similar expression or construction. Thus, Davis helpfully – and admittedly very basically – identifies and explains, for example, uses of adversative at (26), ille autem (32), accusative and infinitive in exclamations (38-39), the historic infinitive (6-7; 613), the inceptive imperfect (133), tmesis (220-22), and other sundry grammatical features at the level of basic grammar (e.g. at 424 iussisset: “The pluperfect subjunctive is used in a jussive sense to express what ought to have been done”). Otherwise the commentary offers parallels, models, allusions, historical, and literary and mythological contextualizations. It is rich indeed, but sometimes lacking what is perhaps too obvious. At 36 Quis furoretc., for instance, was the reference to Lucan 1.8 too obvious to state? Reading with a commentary can sometimes be irksome – if the entries are too long and straying too far off topic – and detracting from the appreciation of the text itself. Again, Davis provides a balance: even when treating more complicated issues, his notes are brief enough that you can go back to the text without having forgotten what it was about.

Increasingly, a majority of classicists seem to take the ancients texts for granted and show little interest in how they survived centuries of transmission in order to reach us today. Valerius is a case in point of an author whose tradition is particularly precarious. Somewhat unexpectedly, therefore, the reader of Davis’ edition must wait until after the text and translation to learn about how the text was established. Here, on pp. 80-89, we are presented with sigla and a list of manuscripts and early printed editions, a critical apparatus, and a list of differences between this and two recent editions: Ehler’s Teubner (1980), and Liberman’s Budé edition (2002). The critical apparatus is announced as ‘selective’ (isn’t it always?), and set uninvitingly in smaller font size bungled together in one long paragraph that stretches two-and-a-half pages. Apart from the line number references, which are set in bold, all other apparatus text is in Roman type. Not only are manuscript sigla not italicized, no distinction is made between lemmata, which makes it difficult to distinguish the name of a conjecturer from the conjecture he is supposed to have introduced. An example, printed exactly as it stands on p. 83: “33 capit Heinsius: aperit γ.” This entry, instead of clearly expressing that Heinsius introduced the conjecture capitfor the reading aperit transmitted by the main textual branch of the stemma, for a split second leads the reader (at least this one) to think that capit Heinsius is the reading of the text as established by the editor. Printing all apparatus text that is not manuscript readings in italics would easily have solved this issue. It is surprising that no one on the editorial board thought of that. Here is another, even more disturbing example, in which the the apparatus is actually written in English: “452 superis … in istis Thilo: final three syllables lacking in γ.”

The textual tradition of the Argonautica deserves, to my mind, a more sustained treatment, particularly since it is so deficient. Unlike the other Flavian poets, Martial and Statius, who continued to be read in the schools, the manuscript tradition of Valerius Flaccus is very poor: only one full medieval manuscript has survived, V (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 3277), from ninth-century Fulda, alongside Niccolò Niccoli’s transcription, L (Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Plut. 39.38), made in the 1420s of a manuscript (now lost) that may be identified as on the of the hyparchetypes of the tradition (named γ). Scattered fragments in other sources seem to bespeak a second hyparchetypal branch of the tradition, but the recentiores, and the editio princeps, derive from L. Since both V and L are available online, I could not restrain myself from collating them against Davis’ apparatus. While the readings of V and L are generally reliably reported by Davis, a few quibbles nevertheless arose from this exercise, of which the following are examples:

28 laetitiae meritique is the adopted text, offered by B-1474, an incunable printed in Bologna, whereas γ, according to Davis, display latitiae mentiri, when V in fact has latitiae mentirique (i.e. including the enclitic –que), and L laetitiae mentirique (the first diphthong is written so quickly as to look like the letter a).

At 46 the apparatus is misleading: “meos C B-1474: eos γ me C: missing from γ”—first, since it is the question of two distinct apparatus entries, some kind of separator between the two lemmata and their variants is called for (i.e. between meos and me); second, line 46 in V (114v) reads, offerrem eos which,[1] given the idiosyncratic nature of Carolingian word separation, may as well be taken as offerre meos. The same obtains for L, which, on 91v, has offerrem eos,[2] but separating strokes have been added to indicate that the final -m of offerrem actually belongs with the following word, eos.

Speaking of word division, of which V displays a good array of quite absurd examples, those may, of course, be ascribed to the Carolingian scribes, whose writing practices in many ways differed from ours, but sometimes I wonder if not quite a few of them might not be attributable to oral misunderstandings. Was the exemplar read out aloud to the scribe(s)? Line 297 certainly suggests itself in this regard: ne quo ferre fugam nec quo se uertere posset, which in V reads (121r): nec quo ferre fugam nequos euertere posset.[3]

In the text itself, editorial interventions are reported idiosyncratically: sometimes we are treated with square brackets to indicate editorial exclusions, but not in one instance will we know if the text in front of us contains editorial additions, unless we flip the pages to the critical apparatus. I do not know what fuelled this editorial prejudice against angle brackets, especially considering that the many loci desperati are signalled with the appropriate cruces. One such is the following:

358-359 quae sacer ille niues inter tristesque pruinas / †durat† editque cruor: V omits 322-359, thus also this line, and we have to rely entirely on L (durat edique) and the post-medieval tradition: durat alitque Bulaeus Ehlers, edit alitqueLibermann, dura teditque M (a fifteenth-century copy of L), durat hedique codex Burmanni, and durat editque T, durabat editque N (Renaissance copies derived from L). Since this passage describes the copious shedding of Prometheus’ blood, a simple solution would be to read edit editque cruor, and postulate the loss of one edit, easy enough in repeated phrases, and the effort of copyists to replace an obvious lacuna in the verse, thus yielding the nonsensical reading of L. Such repetition, or geminatio, while certainly not ubiquitous, is not uncommon in the poets and rhetoricians (see e.g. Aen. 2.770 iterumque iterumque and other examples conveniently gathered by Wills[4]); indeed, Valerius himself employs this figure at line 442 of this same book: Iuno ubi nunc, ubi nunc Tritonia uirgo.

On the whole, Davis establishes his text by deftly steering between the Scylla of conservatism and the Charybdis of conjecturalism. “While it is true that medieval manuscripts often present flawed readings, they … actually constitute the only available evidence for our author’s text […] it is not the editor’s task to ‘improve’ the text if it makes sense and is in other ways acceptable” (vii-viii). Against the most itching conjecturalists, whose ‘improvements’ sometimes “are so misconceived that they actually weaken the poet’s work,” Davis in many places defends the transmitted reading: at 8, 20, 25, 41, 43, 200, 226, 260, the order of 276-83, 318 (denegat but not †in ira†), and takes some of the more fanciful conjectures to task (e.g. 150 infestae/incestae). But he is not a senseless manuscript adulator, but propounds a balanced adoption of established emendations, sometimes proposing his own. The result is a text composed on grounds of careful thought and weighing of variants, conjectures, and sense; and, delightfully, the thought processes are often reported in the commentary.

The Latin text is furnished with an English (prose) translation, which does not claim higher literary pretensions but serves the purpose of helping the novice Latin reader to parse the sometimes convoluted or condensed text. Die-hard classicists of an older school will perhaps question the inclusion of a translation, especially when the commentary, linguistically at least, is already geared to novice Latin readers. This bitter pill must be swallowed, however, until linguistic instruction is again prioritized by the field. In this context, it should also be mentioned that, contrary to the praxis of similar earlier commentaries on Classical texts, written in more felicitous times, quotations from all languages made in the introduction and notes are here translated (thus not only from Greek and Latin, but also from current vernaculars).

The volume, finally, is lavishly produced, and seemingly competently copy-edited, as befits an Oxford publication. By contrast with earlier texts and commentaries of the same ilk, however, whose small format (190x120mm) suggested that they could be brought along everywhere, its larger size (234x156mm) indicates that this volume is intended for reading at the desk or, perhaps, in the armchair; indeed, the same fate seems to have befallen the Cambridge “Green and Yellow” series, whose volumes for unknown reasons have increased in size as of recently. I can only regret that the Classics have become too large to fit into my jacket-pocket.


[1] DigiVatLib Manuscript –

[2] Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana Carta: 91v.

[3] DigiVatLib Manuscript –

[4] Jeffrey Wills, Repetition in Latin Poetry: Figures of Allusion (Oxford: 1996).