Andrew Zissos (ed.), Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica, Book 1: A Commentary. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. lxx, 450. ISBN 9780199219490. $200.00.
Reviewed by Antony Augoustakis, Baylor University (Antonios_Augoustakis@baylor.edu)
It would be an understatement to say that interest in Valerius Flaccus's Roman Argonautica has increased in the first decade of this century: without including the publication of commentaries on several of the eight books of the poem, the appearance of three commentaries on the first book of the Argonautica alone in the past eight years confirms the claim that publications have indeed multiplied (Spaltenstein 2002 in French, Kleywegt 2005 in English: BMCR 2006.02.57, and Galli 2007 in Italian). The publication of a worthy, new English translation of the poem will also successfully promote the dissemination of this Flavian epic to a wider audience (Barich 2009, BMCR 2009.09.52). Zissos's book complements and advances the work of previous commentators, providing an outstanding scholarly commentary on Argonautica 1.
The book proceeds in the expected commentary format by providing an introduction followed by the Latin text with facing English translation. Then follows the actual commentary itself, with bibliography and two indices (Index nominum et rerum and Index verborum).
In his lengthy and detailed introduction, Zissos addresses several important issues of interest for the student and critic of the Flavian poem, from the scant details of Valerius Flaccus' life, about which we do not have much information except for a plethora of suppositions, adroitly treated by Zissos, to the poem's composition, matters of prosody, and the history of the manuscripts. This is a series of elegant essays that provide the reader with an informative background concerning several aspects of the Argonautic myth and their development in the Valerian poem in particular. Zissos examines the history of the saga from Homer and the epic cycle to Pindar and Apollonius, into the Roman tradition from Ennius and Accius through Catullus to Ovid and Seneca, including the regrettably lost version produced by Varro of Atax. Then Zissos proceeds to examine the question of the poem's incompleteness and that of its intended length, mainly summarizing Valerian scholarship on those two tantalizing problems. Zissos's essays on narrative style and literary models showcase some of the contributions made by this new commentary, in advancing our appreciation of the complex nature of Valerius' composition: Zissos presents the two models of "homogeneous" and "heterogeneous" imitation, the former designating a direct adoption, while the latter represents a "diffuse reworking" (xxxv) of the model passage from a previous author. In addition, in the section "Modes of Allusion" (xl-xlii) Zissos talks about the role of "negative allusion," a term on which he has also elaborated in earlier published articles, as well as the function of allusions "in the future tense" (from Barchiesi's model) in the Argonautica. A very informative section of the Introduction centers around similes, tropes, and figures, as well as the language, a particularly intriguing aspect of Valerius' diction, often characterized by its recondite, elliptical style. Finally Zissos turns to questions of meter and versification before addressing briefly the history of the manuscript tradition.
Zissos's commentary is exemplary in its richness, providing an abundance of explanatory notes that help the reader understand how Valerius conforms with or alters the details attested elsewhere in the Argonautic tradition. The commentary itself, I would say, can be used both by those readers interested in the Latin and by those interested in the ideas and the socio-political/cultural aspects of Valerius' poetry: Zissos's introductory discussions to individual episodes in Book 1 are exemplary and exhaustive, such as the sections on Hercules and Hylas in conjunction with Juno's hatred (pp. 140-1, 145-6), Orpheus' song (pp. 214-16; cf. also pp. 292-3 on Orpheus listed in the catalogue), the catalogue of the Argonauts (pp. 239-42), the storm (pp. 328-9), and the necromancy and suicide at the end of Book 1 (pp. 379-82). In what follows, I shall focus on a few of Zissos's textual choices (and the implications thereof), discussed in the commentary, which deserve mention or further consideration.
In vv. 11-13, Zissos adopts Samuelsson's transposition of the beginning of the hexameter in v. 13 namque potes (emended from potest) to the beginning of v. 11, and vice versa with the beginning of v. 11 sancte pater. The transposition is indeed necessary (and is also suggested independently by Getty); Zissos further supports it by the change of veneranda into the vocative venerande (following Baehrens): thus an allusion to the Culex functions as a neat poetic gesture on Valerius' part, also observed elsewhere in imperial epic, in Lucan and Statius.
As already announced in his Preface, Zissos often resorts freely to emendation. In v. 15 adopting centum instead of genti makes good sense, if Valerius intended indeed to underline the hyperbole of Vespasian's apotheosis and deification upon the emperor's death: Vespasian's offspring (Titus or Domitian) will establish a hundred temples in his honor. I do not necessarily see a difficulty with genti as a second dative: the Flavian emperor's sons will set up tibi cultusque deum delubraque genti, where tibi designates Vespasian exclusively, while the all encompassing genti includes the whole Flavian immediate family, as a reference to the Temple of the Flavian gens. Liberman's gentis is a more conservative and perhaps more suitable choice here. This is, however, a highly contested line, and Zissos does a good job in defending and supporting his choices here and elsewhere.
v. 36 The identification of the pair of bulls, whose horns were broken by the hero who defeated them, has been another vexing question. Zissos leans towards the identification of the second bull with Achelous. In my opinion, Zissos is correct in drawing the intertextual parallel from Silius Italicus' Punica, where Achelous' defeat and loss of his horn is depicted on the doors of the Gades Herakleion, a possible contemporary allusion to Valerius.
v. 59 Since the reading certis in L and V is clearly problematic, I am not sure that changing to certus is free of problems either: the most obvious difficulty, as Zissos admits, lies with the imbalance in construction. The conjecture cautes, accepted by Courtney, makes good sense here as the accusative and infinitive object of conticuit, drawing attention to the prominent danger of the Clashing Rocks (cautes Cyaneas).
v. 130 Zissos agrees with Gronovius's insperatos, which gains strong support from insperato in the Codex Carionis. The reading sperata, however, although there is probably a lacuna in the verse, is effective by means of its concessive force: even though Thetis was a hoped-for wife for Jupiter, he has to obey the sinister prophecy concerning the birth of Achilles and subsequently the possible loss of his own power as king.
v. 149 Zissos's choice of nec, quamquam miranda viris, stupet Aesone natus, makes adequate sense here and explains further Jason's odd reaction to the paintings on the Argo, just described by Valerius in an ekphrasis (1.130-48). But though Zissos refers to the parallels in Aeneid 6.37 and Punica 3.61, where one can observe a "similar aesthetic disinclination, which creates a tension between the ecphrasis and its framing narrative" (p. 167), I would like to draw attention to the following divergence: Aeneas and Hannibal respectively try to digest the content of what they have just seen; Aeneas is interrupted by the prophetess, and Hannibal proves unable to understand the physical phenomenon of the tides at Gades. Jason does not spend any time, but rather inspired by the violent content of the second part of the ekphrasis, namely the Centauromachy, turns it into a vengeance plot against Pelias. Associated with Jason's resolve in 150-55, therefore, is my preference for conanti in 156, instead of which Zissos prefers cunctanti. I agree with Kleywegt (and others) that cunctanti is not appropriate here. Valerius underscores Jason's detachment from the content of the ekphrasis and his surprising plan of making Acastus follow the expedition. As he is ready to put his plan into effect, an omen takes place. Conanti here is used, as Delz and Watt suggest, with the meaning of "scheming" or "planning," rather than actually "trying, attempting," which would refer to actual rather than envisaged action (correctly distinguished by Zissos). I believe Jason is very much unlike Aeneas in Aeneid 4.390, where cunctor is used, as becomes evident from his reaction to the ekphrasis discussed above.
v. 199 Zissos's acceptance of the humanistic emendation avet is successfully completes the meaning of the line, instead of the concessive tamen.
vv. 224-6 Zissos could have discussed these lines in the context of the poem's incomplete state and intended length. Here Mopsus' prophecy foreshadows Jason's and Medea's wedding, the infanticide, and the deaths of Creon and Creusa.
v. 281 Not everyone will agree with Zissos's decision to keep the MS reading miserantibus; Bentley's emendation to mirantibus actually augments the feeling of pathos in the scene, as the flying of the boy on the ram causes the waves to marvel at this new spectacle, with an additional sense of impending doom implied with miror here: nature marvels at the novelty, which, as usual, will soon prove destructive.
vv. 357-8 Zissos correctly maintains Langen's lacuna after 357, as opposed to other recent editors.
v. 529 I side with Zissos : it is unavoidable to identify temptataque as a locus desperatus, since the participle yields several problems syntactically and metrically.
v. 662 The choice of qui over cum is wise here since the subordinate cum clause does not work well with what precedes in nondum ille furens. Zissos correctly resorts to de Clerk van Jever's emendation (followed by Langen), but not adopted by most recent editors, such as Kleywegt, Liberman, or Galli.
vv. 671-2 Another locus desperatus that needs to be placed within cruces; Zissos is right here in adopting the best emendation possible, if one needs to resort to accepting one. The meaning of the passage is clear, as Jason tries to explain the storm as a result of the necessary alternation between fair and adverse weather, but the phrase stare et opus remains inextricably awkward.
In sum, let me stress the importance of this commentary as an addition to the existing volume of commentaries and editions of Valerius' Argonautica. Its rich and stimulating discussions will be of significant value to students and critics of the Flavian Argonautica for generations to come.
The digital Loeb Classical Library extends the founding mission of James Loeb with an interconnected, fully searchable, perpetually growing virtual library of all that is important in Greek and Latin literature. Read more about the site’s features »
Gaius Valerius Flaccus, a Latin poet who flourished in the period ca. 70–90 CE, composed in smooth and sometimes obscure style an incomplete epic Argonautica in eight books, on the quest for the Golden Fleece. The poem is typical of his age, being a free rehandling of the story already told by Apollonius Rhodius, to whom he is superior in arrangement, vividness, and description of character.
Valerius’s poem shows much imitation of the language and thought of Virgil, and much learning. The chief interest of the epic lies in the relationship between Medea and Jason, especially the growth of Medea’s love, where Valerius is at his best. The long series of adventures and various Roman allusions suggest that the poet meant to do honour to Vespasian (to whom the epic is dedicated) with special reference to that emperor’s ships in waters around Britain.