Apollonius Rhodius c. 300 B.C.-c. 220 B.C.
Greek poet and historian.
Apollonius is known chiefly for his Argonautica, an epic poem which recounts the story of Jason and his ship's crew on a voyage in quest of the golden fleece. In the third of the work's four books, Apol-lonius focuses on the romance of Medea and Jason; it is believed to be the earliest extant work which treats erotic love as its major theme. Apollonius is also remembered for his quarrel with his former master, Callimachus, over the purpose, length, and style of epic literature. Each poet attacked the other in his writings. George W. Mooney has referred to the feud as "the most bitter in the ancient world of letters." Callimachus took the popular stance that epic was a thing of the past, that a "great book" was "a great evil," and sought to restrain the length of poetic works. Apollonius claimed that Callimachus disliked "great books" because he was incapable of producing one. An epigram probably written by Apollonius refers to Callimachus as trash, a cheap joke, and a blockhead. The claim has been made that Apollonius wrote the Argonautica out of a sense of bravado, to demonstrate that an epic could still be written in his time. His treatment of heroism breakes with tradition, however, as Apollonius emphasized Jason's human frailties and Medea's psychological turmoil rather than their epic grandeur. Apollonius also served as librarian for the Library of Alexandria, where he was recognized as an important scholar, and was a tutor of royalty.
Little is known for certain about Apollonius's life, including the dates of his birth and death. Possible years of his birth range from 300 B.C. to 260 B.C. and possible years of his death range from 235 B.C. to 190 B.C. Many scholars have used c. 300 B.C. to c. 220 B.C. as the most plausable dates for Apollonius. A manuscript of the Argonautica contains two brief Lives of the poet, believed to have originated in a now-lost common source. The Lives are incomplete and occasionally contradictory. It is generally accepted, however, that the Lives are essentially accurate, and scholars have attempted to make sense of the differences in the accounts. It is believed that Apollonius was Alexandrian by birth, the son of Silleus and Rhode. Apollonius was a student of Callimachus, the leading literary figure of the time. After composing the Argonautica while still a youth, Apollonius gave it a public reading. The reaction was extremely unfavorable on the part of both the public and his fellow poets, who treated Apollonius with sneers and scorn. Fleeing their abuse, he traveled to Rhodes, where he gained knowledge of ships and navigation, and reworked and polished his text. A public reading of the new Argonautica in Rhodes was hugely successful, bringing Apollonius citizenship, a teaching career, and high honors. Among his pupils was probably Ptolemy II. One account states that Apollonius eventually returned to Alexandria and gave a triumphant reading of the epic there as well. He was appointed head librarian for the Library of Alexandria and was buried next to Callimachus, in a place of honor reserved by the Ptolemies for people who had served in this important post.
Most of Apollonius's works other than the Argonautica are no longer in existence. He is said by Antonius Liberalis to have written epigrams, but none survive with the exception of the one concerning Callimachus, the authorship of which is still disputed among scholars. It is known that Apollonius wrote of the origins, histories, and characteristics of cities in Foundation of Caunus, Foundation of Canopus, Foundation of Alexandria, Foundation of Naucratis, Foundation of Cnidus, and Foundation of Rhodes, of which only one fragment survives. He also composed a poem entitled Kanobos, of which only three verses survive. Among his scholarly prose works are monographs on Homer, Hesiod, and Archilochos. Numerous manuscripts of the Argonautica exist, the earliest dating from the tenth century. Comparisons to papyri fragments leave no doubt that the text of the Argonautica as it exists today is corrupt, having undergone many changes in its various transcriptions over time; only the extent of this corruption is a matter for argument. Books One and Two describe the preparation and voyage to Colchis, while Book Four charts the wild, geographically impossible, return home. The voyage was ordered by Pelias to find the golden fleece; in so doing Pelias expected that Jason would meet his death. The popular Book Three takes place on Colchis. Eros fills Medea with desire for Jason, who is contemplating action against Aeetes, the King and her father, to force him to surrender the fleece, which is in his possession. Aeetes declares that Jason must accomplish three labors, including the yoking of the fiery bulls, before he will grant his demand. With guidance from Medea, Jason offers a sacrifice to Hecate and becomes the recipient of divine aid, proceeding to sow the dragon's teeth and kill the Earth-born Men. Book Three ends before Jason slays the dragon and gains the fleece.
The Argonautica was a favorite of Roman writers. It was translated by Varro Atacinus and copied by Ovid and Virgil. In more modern times, however, particularly in the twentieth century, the Argonautica has been neglected, "in exile from its proper place among the masterpieces of ancient Greek literature," as Marshall M. Gillies has written. Apollonius has been unfavorably compared to Homer and to his own followers, most notably Virgil and Valerius Flaccus. The general public has widely ignored Books One, Two, and Four, as have critics; Book Three has even been published by itself. Some critics have come to the defense of the other volumes, pointing out their importance, while admitting that the long catalogues contained therein do not make lively reading. Books One, Two, and Four have been criticized as lacking in narrative unity and being simply a series of unconnected episodes. Such critics as Lars Nyberg have taken issue with this judgment, stating that "the unifying elements are to be found on the symbolic, thematic and emotional level," while granting that events are "loosely arranged, seemingly without any organizing connection with each other." It is to the story of Jason and Medea's love for each other that Apollonius owes his reputation. Gillies, writing on a particular scene in Book Three, comments that "its subtle balance and symmetry are such as only the closest analysis can reduce to a formal pattern; and it is executed with a delicacy of feeling which it is almost an impertinence to praise." Scholar Barbara Pavlock has written, "Playful and ironic, the Argonautica reflects the poet's self-consciousness about the vast distance between his own age and the heroic period represented in Homer's two great epics." Modern criticism has explored the question of what genre best defines the Argonautica. Some critics have even claimed that the Argonautica is actually an anti-epic. Charles Rowan Beye has noted that while the work is formally an epic, its emphasis on "private narrative about private people" makes it more "like the romance or the novel."