BMCR 2021.08.32

Apollonius Rhodius, Herodotus and historiography

, Apollonius Rhodius, Herodotus and historiography. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xii, 244. ISBN 9781108492324 $99.99.

Apollonius Rhodius, Herodotus and Historiography offers a welcome new study of the ways that Apollonius uses and responds to Herodotus in the Argonautica. While there have been scattered discussions on this topic and Jessica Priestley’s 2014 Herodotus and Hellenistic Culture touches on the Argonautica throughout, a book-length study was lacking. And there are many reasons to want such a treatment, as Morrison points out in his introduction: both authors have a panhellenic focus, analyze Greek contact with non-Greeks, feature kings and tyrants, and respond to Homeric epic. Morrison’s treatment is valuable because he not only notes parallels between individual passages (what Conte calls a modello-esemplare) but also the ways that Apollonius responds to Herodotus as the representative and founding member of the genre of historiography (a modello-codice). (Morrison uses Conte’s terms throughout the work, although he switches to the term “example-model” at times, particularly in chapter 5). Just as Apollonius responds to Homer as the founder of Greek epic, he responds to Herodotus as the founder of Greek historiography, and passages that incorporate historiographical methods and conventions should be read in light of Herodotus’ Histories.

Morrison’s overall conclusion is that Apollonius exploits the differences between the modes of epic and history in order to subvert aspects of the epic narrative and cast doubt on the narrator’s abilities. This skeptical and pessimistic reading is consistent with and informed by his chapter on Apollonius in The Narrator in Archaic Greek and Hellenistic Poetry(2007). There Morrison argues that the narrator in the Argonautica experiences a crisis akin to that of the Argonauts themselves and develops from a self-reliant and scholarly narrator to one who has little control over his own narrative and is reliant on the Muses. Readers who were convinced by Morrison’s arguments in his 2007 work will probably be sympathetic to his interpretation here, while those with questions about it may have similar questions at the end of this work.

Chapter 1, “Receiving Herodotus,” explores what Herodotus’ Histories meant for Apollonius’ Hellenistic readers. Here Morrison surveys what we know about the degree to which Apollonius’ readers were familiar with Herodotus’ Histories, looking to papyrus fragments, a commentary on the Histories by Aristarchus, and Herodotus’ influence on Hellenistic writers such as Nearchus and Hecataeus of Abdera. Much of this material comes from Murray’s 1972 article, “Herodotus and Hellenistic Culture,” but Morrison applies Murray’s insight that Herodotus serves as a model for describing the remote past (including myth) and ethnographic history to Apollonius’ Argonautica. Morrison also observes another way in which Herodotus may influence the Argonautica: although many Hellenistic authors described local or regional customs, Herodotus served as a model for how to integrate local history and customs into a wider narrative of transcontinental contact and conflict between Greeks and non-Greeks. Although some of these themes are incipient in early epic (especially the Odyssey), this chapter points out how Herodotus further develops these themes in a way that is distinct from other historians. These are also important features in the Argonautica, and this sets up the argument for the next two chapters showing that Herodotus served as a modello-codice for Apollonius.

I found Chapter 2, “Creating Authorities,” the most compelling and interesting chapter of the work. Here Morrison sets out what distinguishes historiographical writing from epic and how Apollonius incorporates historiographical conventions into his epic work. Although both the Histories and Homeric epic touch on similar topics (κλέος, the deeds of past generations, causes of conflict), Herodotus approaches his sources with intelligent criticism while the Homeric narrator does not require corroboration from the Muse. Herodotus often compares different versions of events and shows his own critical faculties in dealing with conflicting or unreliable sources, presenting himself as an interpreter of signs (σήματα). Apollonius incorporates a similar awareness of sources through his use of historiographical λέγεται, mentions of σήματα, and by presenting multiple versions of a story. Morrison argues that it would be unsettling for a Hellenistic reader to see these elements applied to a myth that is not rationalized and retains fantastic elements. Furthermore, the overall effect is not to highlight the narrator’s critical abilities but to show problems in building mythological narrative based on sources and to draw attention to the narrator’s limitations. Here there is room for disagreement since some readers may find a narrator’s admissions of his limitations to be reassuring when it comes to the overall narrative or attribute some aspects of the narrator’s persona to the influence of other genres (such as lyric poetry). Still, I found Morrison’s observations on the narrator’s treatment of sources in the Argonautica to be perceptive and thoughtful, and they helped clarify the ways in which Apollonius’ epic is influenced by historiographical conventions.

Chapter 3, “Explaining the Past,” begins with a discussion of the types of aetiologies used in Herodotus and historiography in general and how these differ from Homeric or mythic explanations. Relying on Kowalzig’s division between historical aetiology (beginning with present events and follow a chain of causal events to the past) and mythic aetiology (which authorizes present practices without a causal chain, relying solely on myth as cause), Morrison argues that Apollonius uses both types of explanation, but his use of historical explanations at key points in the narrative destabilizes the predictability of human action. This complicates the relationship between past and present and prevents the straightforward use of Argonautic exempla for the Hellenistic present. Apollonius’ narrator points out that a community’s mythic aetiologies can be incorrect (as when Agamestor is honored instead of Idmon at 2.849-50) or leaves gaps that the reader must fill in (as the relationship between Thera and Cyrene in book 4). While readers may fill in the gaps for themselves, Morrison’s point that the omissions are intentional and noteworthy is worthwhile.

Chapters 4 and 5 explore more specific intertextual links between the Argonautica and the Histories. These chapters help support the argument that Apollonius uses Herodotus as a modello-codice if we assume that a modello-codice would also be used as a modello-esemplare. Chapter 4, “Telling Stories,” largely focuses on particular locations such as Lemnos, Libya, Lake Tritonis, Thera, Thessaly, and the Halys and Ister rivers. It argues that Apollonius considers similar geographic spaces to those considered by Herodotus, and his treatment of these locations often shows Herodotean influence. Chapter 5, “Greeks and Non-Greeks,” considers the ways Apollonius and Herodotus define membership in the Greek world and the customs and characteristics that define belonging and otherness. Morrison points out that some of the locations the Argonauts visit were Greek by the time Herodotus was writing or by the Hellenistic period, so the Argonautica emphasizes “how different the cultural and ethnic make-up of the [the] Mediterranean and Black Sea of the Argonauts is from … the Hellenistic period.” (page 147). Much Herodotean scholarship has focused on the extremes of ethnography, i.e., on non-Greeks who are most dissimilar to the Greeks (particularly the Egyptians). Morrison focuses on the intermediate ethnoi: the peoples who are similar-yet-different from the Greek Argonauts and from Herodotus’ Greeks, such as the Lemnians and the Lydians. I found this focus on similarities (rather than extreme differences) to be a useful reminder in reading both Apollonius and Herodotus. The most controversial part of this chapter is Morrison’s objection to what he calls an “Egyptianizing” reading of the Argonautica (page 164), by which he means readings that “assume ‘otherness’ or difference in Hellenistic poetry is code for Egypt” (page 161). Morrison repeatedly cites Susan Stephens’ 2003 Seeing Double in this connection, and he appears to view her approach as an epitome of the type of reading he resists here. Morrison might have engaged with a broader range of sources on this point, but Stephens’ approach may be more consistent with Morrison’s than this chapter would suggest. After all, Morrison explicitly espouses a reader-response theory of intertextuality and argues that intertextuality is a matter of readers and happens in the reader (page 20). Thus, Morrison’s own framing should allow for readers who see Egyptian—as well as Herodotean—influence on the Argonautica.

In chapter 6, “Kings and Leaders,” Morrison argues that although the Argonautica cannot be divorced from the socio-political context of its composition, the kings and leaders in the epic are not straightforward examples of good or bad leadership, and their exemplarity is complicated (in a manner that is sometimes enhanced by the Argonautica’s incorporation of Herodotean models). For example, portrayals of kingship that are more positive (such as Alcinous) are complicated by the future we expect from Euripides’ Medea. Far from seeing Alcinous and Arete as examples of Ptolemaic sibling rulers, Morrison sees parallels with Darius and Atossa from Histories book 3, where Atossa’s suggestion that Darius invade Greece leads to future catastrophe. Similarly, Alcinous’ decision to let Medea go with Jason will ultimately lead to the death of Medea and Jason’s children and the Persian wars (if we accept Herodotus’ account in the prologue of the Histories). Here Morrison is responding particularly to Anatole Mori’s 2008 work, The Politics of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, but Morrison’s reading of the Argonautica depends on understanding it as a prequel to Euripides’ Medea and on a reader intimately familiar with Herodotus’ Histories. Some scholars (including Mori) have pointed out that there are differences between the characters in Euripides’ Medea and the ones Apollonius crafts, and some of the connections to Herodotus’ work seem strained. This chapter benefits from appearing at the end of the book, with the weight of previous parallels to buoy it. But the value of the chapter lies in the way that it points out problems in leaders who are portrayed in a positive light and forces a closer reading of the Argonautica and the ways ethnography and political philosophy intersect. For example, in Herodotus there is no easy identification between tyranny and non-Greeks on one hand and Hellenic freedom on the other (page 193). Similarly, in the Argonautica, both Greek and non-Greek kings can be problematic (Pelias, Amycus, Aietes).

The work concludes with a brief “Conclusions and Consequences,” followed by a select bibliography, index of subjects, and index of passages.

Overall, I found Morrison’s close readings of passages (both Herodotean and Apollonian) persuasive and thought-provoking. I am fully convinced that Apollonius used Herodotus as modello-codice and modello-esemplare. The weakest point in the argument is what effect this has on an overall reading of Apollonius’ work. Morrison makes a plausible case for the skeptical position that the deployment of Herodotean methods in the Argonautica undermines the authority of the narrator and the stability of his narrative. But some readers may find that Herodotean intertexts serve to enhance an epic narrator’s credibility because he is more transparent about multiple versions of a story. Nevertheless, this is a valuable contribution to the study of Herodotus and Apollonius and the ways that historiography in general and Herodotus in particular can influence epic. I expect that it will be useful not only for scholars studying these authors but also for those interested in later epic. How, for example, does Herodotus influence Virgil (through Apollonius)?

I noticed a few minor typos: ὣςς for ὣς on 57, “the Thera” for “to Thera” on 107, and “their” for “there” on 201. I also noticed at least one mistake in the alphabetization of the select bibliography (“Seaton” between “Saïd” and “Schiesaro” on page 229).