Apollonius Rhodius Analysis

Life (Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

The Greek poet Apollonius Rhodius (ap-uh-LOH-nee-uhs ROH-dee-uhs) has traditionally been identified with the island of Rhodes—where he may have withdrawn because of a quarrel with his teacher Callimachus or because his poetry had been poorly received. In any case, Apollonius served as director of the famous library at Alexandria from about 260 to 246 b.c.e.

Apollonius’s major work is the Argonautica (third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1780), a long poem in four sections describing the adventures of a band of Greek heroes aboard the ship Argo. The heroes have been given the quest of seizing the Golden Fleece from King Aeëtes of Colchis on the far shores of the Black Sea. The most famous section of the work describes the passion of King Aeëtes’ daughter Medea for the expedition’s leader Jason.

Influence (Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Apollonius’s Argonautica is the most important classical retelling of the myth involving the Golden Fleece. It has sometimes been compared unfavorably to such epic works as the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) of Homer, but it embodies a more psychologically sophisticated treatment of human character.

Other Literary Forms (Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Apollonius Rhodius is credited with several works besides the Argonautica. A collection of epigrams passed under his name, but only one has survived. Besides these, he seems to have written a poem or group of poems called Ktiseis, dealing with the founding of the cities of Alexandria, Naucratis, Cnidos, Rhodes, and Caunus; in this work, Apollonius might well have been poaching on Callimachus’s preserve, since he wrote something similar. Apollonius also wrote philological works in prose, including Against Zenodotos (third century b.c.e.). A variety of other works are attributed to Apollonius, but it was not necessarily this Apollonius who wrote them, since the name was a common one.

Achievements (Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Apollonius Rhodius’s principal work, the Argonautica, which has survived in revised form, is a deliberate challenge to Callimachus’s fundamental literary principle that poems should be short, for it fills four lengthy books with its 5,834 hexameter lines. It is a book of excellent stories told in good verse rather than a regular and unified epic poem, and its merit lies in its episodes, notably in the admirable recounting of the loves of Jason and Medea, which fills the third book and part of the fourth.

Hellenist Influences (Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The poet frequently accounts for contemporary customs by seeking explanations in early history, and in this way he links his own time with the mythical past. A true Hellenist, Apollonius devoted much of his poem to etiological matters, interspersing the narrative of the voyage with a wealth of such stories.

As a portrayer of emotions, especially of those which Eros brings to the human soul, Apollonius belongs entirely within the sphere of Hellenistic poetry. It has already been pointed out that his highest achievement was his description of Medea’s pangs and doubts. After the long-winded description of the outward voyage, which at times sinks to the level of a learned guidebook, the realm of true poetry is entered. This is confirmed by the tremendous subsequent influence of book 3 in ancient literature. The characterization of Medea recalls Apollonius’s predecessor Euripides in that the effective portrayal of individual emotion is more important than a finished portrait of a character. Medea the lovesick girl and Medea the great sorceress could not be readily combined in one description.

There is also an Alexandrian element in the many descriptions of nature which, in the traditional epic, would be unthinkable. Successful color effects are achieved in descriptions of seascapes, as in the sailing of the Argo when the dark flood foams under the beat of the oars, the men’s armor flashes like fire in the morning light, and the long wake seems like a bright path in a green meadow. Apollonius also shares with the rest of Hellenistic art the discovery of children. The Eros of the celestial scenes of book 3, who in his day was a formidable god, has here been reduced to an ill-mannered boy. He is the epitome of the spoiled rascal who cheats his comrades at play and can be persuaded by his mother Aphrodite to perform a service only by means of an expensive present.

Apollonius cannot be characterized concisely. He proved himself to be a poet of considerable importance in several passages, but he was not completely successful in blending the rich epic tradition with his own creation. His fire was too weak to fuse all the heterogeneous elements into one whole.

Bibliography (Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Albis, Robert V. Poet and Audience in the “Argonautica” of Apollonius. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996. This short study of the poet’s major work concentrates on the rhetorical position of the poet relative to his audience, with significant attention paid to poetic performance as a point of scholarly inquiry. In addition, Albis examines the figure of the poet and the inscribed audience in the poem.

Apollonius Rhodius. The Argonautika. Translated with an introduction, commentary, and glossary by Peter Green. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Beye, Charles Rowan. Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. The section on Apollonius examines his relationship to his literary patrons, including the Greek scholar Callimachus, and to the cultural milieu of ancient Alexandria. The study offers a significantly original interpretation of the Argonautica and counters ancient critical theories characterizing Apollonius’s major work as both derivative and flawed.

Clauss, James Joseph. The Best of the Argonauts: The Redefinition of the Epic Hero in Book One of Apollonius’ “Argonautica.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. This study presents the argument that Apollonius’s major poem demonstrates a shift in the popular definition of heroism in ancient Greece, away from the notion of the protagonist as an autonomous superhero and toward later concepts of the protagonist as a tool of fate.

Hutchinson, G. O. Hellenistic Poetry. New York: Clarendon Press, 1988. This study adopts a necessarily broader view to position each of its subjects within the main currents of ancient Greek literature and culture and its impact on later Roman writers. The discussion of Apollonius Rhodius is fairly general.

Hunter, R. L. The Argonautica of Apollonius: Literary Studies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Papanghelis, Theodore, and Antonios Renggkos. A Companion to Apollonius Rhodius. Boston: Brill, 2001. An anthology of scholarly articles borrowing heavily from various literary theories, this work examines subjects such as Hellenistic poetry and genres such as epic poetry and includes character studies of Jason and Medea.