Apollonius Rhodius Rhodius, Apollonius - Essay


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal English Translations

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica [translated by R. C. Seaton] 1912

The Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius [translated by G. W. Mooney] 1912

The Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius [translated by M. M. Gillies] 1928

Argonautica: Book III [translated by R. L. Hunter] 1989

The Argonautika [translated by Peter Green] 1997

George W. Mooney (essay date 1912)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The "Argonautica" of Apol-lonius Rhodius, edited by George W. Mooney, Longmans, Green and Co., 1912, pp. 26-48.

[In the following excerpt, Mooney provides an overview of the Argonautica, describes some of its chief characteristics, including its unsurpassed use of similes, but (with the exception of Medea) criticizes its characterizations as vague.]


… Apollonius chose for his theme the legend of the Argonauts, the quest of the golden fleece. For the purposes of an epic poem such a theme was well adapted. The voyage of the Argo, the first vessel which ploughed the lonely deep, was placed...

(The entire section is 5779 words.)

Marshall M. Gillies (essay date 1928)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The "Argonautica" of Apol-lonius Rhodius: Book III, by Apollonius Rhodius, edited by Marshall M. Gillies, Ayer Company, Publishers, Inc., 1985, pp. xxix-xlv.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1928, Gillies summarizes the Argonautica, considers its relation to other Alexandrine literature, and discusses Apollonius's unprecedented treatment of romance in Book Three.]

(a) The Narratives of the Voyage

… The Argonautica begins, not with the departure of Jason from lolcus, but like a modern serial story, with a rapid synopsis of preceding events. Hard on the conventional...

(The entire section is 6470 words.)

Mary R. Lefkowitz (essay date 1980)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Quarrel between Callimachus and Apollonius," in Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Rudolf Habelt Verlag GMBH, 1980, pp. 1-19.

[In the following essay, Lefkowitz examines the contradictory evidence concerning the famous quarrel between Apollonius and Callimachus and explains the positions held by each of the two poets.]

I. The Evidence

Before I ever read a line of Apollonius I learned from my First Year Greek text that he was the target of Callimachus' quip: "a big book is a big evil" (F 465). Every assessment of Apollonius' work takes account of his alleged differences with Callimachus,1 although no...

(The entire section is 7605 words.)

R. L. Hunter (essay date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Apollonius of Rhodes: "Argonautica," Book III, edited by R. L. Hunter, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 9-12.

[In the following excerpt, Hunter discusses what little information can be gleaned from existing fragments concerning Apollonius's writings other than the Argonautica.]

Works other than Argonautica39

… About A.'s [Apollonius's] considerable output in both poetry and prose we are very poorly informed, but even scraps of information can help to place Arg. in its literary and intellectual context.

One late source40 refers to A.'s epigrams, but none...

(The entire section is 1404 words.)

C. Doumas (essay date 1991)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "What Did the Argonauts Seek in Colchis?," in Hermathena, No. 150, Summer, 1991, pp. 31-41.

[Below, Doumas suggests that the purpose behind the voyage of the Argonauts was to obtain the secrets of metallurgy.]

As an archaeologist seeking to interpret a myth, I too, like the Argonauts, am sailing in difficult and possibly dangerous waters, but like them I accept the challenge, I have my motives. For, like G. S. Kirk, I believe that myths 'retain elements from a period many generations earlier than their first recording' and that they offer 'a cause or explanation of something in the real world'.1 Thus I see the tale of the Golden Fleece and the Voyage...

(The entire section is 4695 words.)

Lars Nyberg (essay date 1992)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Love, Fate, and Deceit: Some Principal Themes in the Argonautica," in Unity and Coherence: Studies in Apollonius Rhodius's "Argonautica" and the Alexandrian Epic Tradition, Lund University Press, 1992, pp. 1-21.

[In the excerpt below, Nyberg replies to the criticism that the Argonautica lacks narrative unity, arguing that the poem's unity is found in its themes and imagery.]

1 Unity and coherence

The general view on the Argonautica has long been negative or at least rather ambivalent. As Levin has observed, there has been a tendency

to approach the Argonautica in...

(The entire section is 7715 words.)

Charles Rowan Beye (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Argonautica," in Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Vergil, Cornell University Press, 1993, pp. 187-218.

[In the following excerpt, Beye explores the literary background of the Argonautica, outlines the plot of the work, and argues that its difficult structure and unanswered questions create difficulties for readers.]

She would have taken out her soul from her
and given it to him, so thrilled was she at his
desiring her.
Desire cast its sweet flame out from Jason's
blond head;
It captured her gleaming eyes. Her wits
relaxed in the...

(The entire section is 13704 words.)

Richard Hunter (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Argonautica and Aeneid," in The "Argonautica" of Apollonius: Literary Studies, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 170-89.

[In the following excerpt, Hunter examines how Virgil incorporated the Argonautica into his Aeneid as a source of motifs and as a model for poetic techniques.]

The study of how the Argonautica is exploited in the Aeneid has a long, and occasionally distinguished, history.1 That it has not advanced further than it has is due to a number of factors, most notably the relative paucity of serious literary critical work on Apollonius' epic; until we have learned to appreciate the...

(The entire section is 8791 words.)

James J. Clauss (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Best of the Argonauts: The Redefinition of the Epic Hero in Book I of Apollonius's "Argonautica," University of California Press, 1993, pp. 1-13.

[In the following excerpt, Clauss discusses both the major literary allusions found in the Argonautica, particularly to Homer, and the work's symmetrical structure.]

Anyone who approaches the Argonautica for the first time, whether in the original or in translation, will find this epic unusual and challenging for a variety of reasons. First, the reader must have a detailed knowledge of the earlier versions of the Argonautic tale; he or she must also be reasonably conversant with...

(The entire section is 5358 words.)

Virginia Knight (essay date 1995)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Renewal of Epic: Responses to Homer in the "Argonautica" of Apollonius, E. J. Brill, 1995, pp. 1-48.

[In the following excerpt, Knight explores Appolonius's extensive use of the Iliad and the Odyssey as literary models and as sources of allusions and similes.]

The Argonautica has now emerged from a long period of comparative neglect to be considered in its own right, rather than merely as a stepping stone between Homer and Virgil. It may seem surprising, then, that I shall throughout this work measure the Argonautica against the Homeric epics, both in verbal detail and in more general themes. This approach is...

(The entire section is 19780 words.)

Peter Green (essay date 1997)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The "Argonautika," by Apollonius Rhodius, translated by Peter Green, University of California Press, 1997, pp. 1-13.

[In the following excerpt, Green reviews the known facts about the life of Apollonius and places in context his quarrel with Callimachus concerning the epic.]


The author of the Argonautika is a remarkably elusive character. We do not know exactly when he was born, or the date of his death. At least three cities—Alexandria, Naukratis, and, inevitably, Rhodes—were claimed in antiquity, and continue to be argued for today, as his birthplace. Our main sources for his life are not only late, but...

(The entire section is 6152 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Albis, Robert V. "The Poet's Ecstasy," in Poet and Audience in the "Argonautica" of Apollonius, pp. 17-42. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996.

Explores the importance of Apollo to the authority, content, and form of the Argonautica.

Bacon, Janet Ruth. "Some Interpretations," in The Voyage of the Argonauts, pp. 42-66. London: Methuen & Co. 1925.

Considers the many conjectures concerning the purpose of the voyage of the Argonauts and explains how each is lacking in credibility.

Beye, Charles Rowan. "The Heroes," in Epic and Romance in the "Argonautica," of Apollonius, pp. 77-99. Urbana:...

(The entire section is 624 words.)