Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica: Abbreviated Voyages in Silver Latin Epic

By Debra Hershkowitz | Go to book overview

PREACE

'To have to contend for laurels not only with Virgil but also with Apollonius is Valerius' misfortune: add further the epic's incompletion and the total of disadvantages is formidable.' Thus declares Vessey in his appraisal of Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica in The Cambridge History o Classical Literature, going on to conclude that Valerius did indeed fail to live up to his ambitious poetic programme ( Vesscy, 1982b: 85, 94). Although Vessey's view has begun to be challenged by recent scholarship, it is still representative of the general approach to Valerius: he did his best and had his moments, but all-in-all he wasn't quite up to the job.

The first 'abbreviated voyage' of the subtitle of this book refers to what Vessey identifies as the capping misfortune of the Argonautica, its lack of proper closure, and, consequently, the cutting

short of its Argonauts' journey. The other abbreviated voyages refer to the structure of the book itself. In it I offer a re-evaluation of Valerius' work, not by mapping out the Argo's path to and from Colchis, but by venturing into a number of critical terrains which the epic visits en route. These stylistic and thematic areas, located outside the seemingly secure borders of Augustan literature, are often described as negative features of the poetic landscape of the Silver Age. Taking Valerius' epic as a sort of flagship for that age, this book explores, in brief forays, some of the critical assumptions behind these descriptions, and suggests that it is possible to view these negative features in a more positive light.

Chapter 1 begins at the end, looking at the various problems and possibilities which arise from the incompleteness of the Argonautica. Literary-historical belatedness is another apparently insurmountable obstacle faced by the Argonautica in its quest for originality, and Chapter 2 discusses the dangers but also benefits of following in the wake of, among others, Apollonius' Argonautica and Vergil's Aeneid. The following two chapters examine in more depth two areas of the epic especially affected by belatedness: characterization and plot. An easy accusation to level at Valerius' Argonauts and their acquaintances is that they have lost the subtlety of their

-vii-

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