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Alternate spelling: Argonautica, Apollonius Rhodius
Alternate spelling: Argonautica, Apollonius Rhodius
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 contain a number of arresting discrepancies. Did he turn to poetry early or late in life? He was royal tutor to one of the Ptolemies—but which one? He was head of the Alexandrian Library—but directly before and after whom? Why is there arguably no direct surviving evidence from his own day for the notorious literary quarrel it is claimed (by the Souda, s.v. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) he had with his near-contemporary Kallimachos? How, chronologically speaking, is his retreat or exile to Rhodes to be related to his appointment as librarian and tutor? Under which Ptolemy was his floruit? The evidence is such that scholars have put his birth as early as 300 and as late as 265, and his death anywhere between 235 and 190.
The central problem occasioning such disagreement is not so much the lack of testimony (above all of early testimony) as the awkward fact that our few late surviving witnesses on occasion so flatly contradict one another (though some of the disagreements, as we shall see, turn out to be more apparent than real). I therefore set them out here. The Lives were transmitted with the MSS of the Argonautika; scholarly efforts to trace them back (e.g., to a first-century B.C. critic called Theon), while praiseworthy, do not offer enlightenment or remove any difficulties. The same applies to the two entries from the Souda, a late-tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia.
(i) Life A: "Apollonios, the author of the Argonautika, was by birth an Alexandrian, of the Ptolemaïs tribe, and the son of Silleus (or, according to some, Illeus). He lived during the reign of the Ptolemies, and was a student ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of Kallimachos. At first he was an assistant to ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) his own master, Kallimachos; but in the end ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) he turned to the writing of poems. It is said that while still a youth ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) he gave a reading of the Argonautika and was unfavorably received. Overcome by the opprobrium of the public and the sneers and abuse of his fellow-poets, he left his native land and took off to Rhodes. It was here that he polished and corrected his text, going on to give readings of it which won him the highest renown—the reason why in his poems he calls himself 'the Rhodian', He enjoyed a brilliant teaching career there, winning Rhodian citizenship and other honors."
"During the reign of the Ptolemies" is the reading of most MSS, generally dismissed as, in Hunter's words, "too obvious to need saying." If so, one wonders, why was it said? In fact, when we seek a specific identity for "the Ptolemies", plural, the answer at once presents itself: they are, and can only be, Ptolemy II Philadelphos and his sister-wife Arsinoë, the first and by far the most famous of the dynasty's incestuous royal couples, known as the "Sibling Gods" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and regularly portrayed together on both gold and silver coinage (Green 1993, 145–46, with fig. 57). It is also often argued that the account of his youthful literary performance is inconsistent with what precedes it—that is, that he turned to poetry "late"; but such flagrant self-contradiction within the space of two sentences is unlikely even for a late scholiast. The Greek surely means no more than that he began as Kallimachos's scholarly assistant (in the Library?), afterwards branching off on his own as a poet (Delage 1930, 22–25). The ambiguity of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is worth noting: it can imply anything from casual acquaintanceship to cohabitation and sexual intercourse.
(ii) Life B: "Apollonios the poet was an Alexandrian by birth, his father being Silleus or Illeus, his mother Rhodé. He studied with Kallimachos, who was then a grammatikós [teacher, scholar] in Alexandria, and after composing these poems [sc., the Argonautika] gave a public reading of them. The result, to his embarrassment, was a complete failure, as a result of which he took up residence in Rhodes. There he was active in public affairs and lectured on rhetoric [cf. nn. 3 and 5]. Hence the readiness of some to call him a Rhodian. It was there, then, that he resided while he polished his poems. Afterwards he gave a hugely successful public reading—so much so that he was adjudged worthy [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of Rhodian citizenship and high honors. Some sources state that he returned to Alexandria and gave another public reading there, which brought him to the very pinnacle of success, to the point where he was found worthy [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of the Museum's Libraries, and was buried alongside Kallimachos himself."
We see, then, that both Lives are fundamentally in agreement on the facts and, equally important, the sequence of events in Apollonios's career, though B adds the important information concerning his return to Alexandria and his success there. To "be found worthy of" the Libraries clearly means appointment as librarian, or perhaps in the first instance as a Museum scholar, not, as has sometimes—rather fancifully—been suggested, the admission of his works to the Library's holdings, for which inclusiveness, not merit, was the criterion. The close relationship with Kallimachos, whose own career is firmly pegged to the decades 280–50, and with Theokritos, who seems to have written mostly before 270, would point us firmly in the direction of Ptolemy II's reign—the Golden Age of Hellenistic poetry—even without Life A's reference (as I maintain) to the Sibling Gods.
(iii) P. Oxy. 1241, col. ii (Grenfell and Hunt, pt. 10: 99 ff.): "[Apollo]nios, son of Silleus, an Alexandrian, called the Rhodian, a student [or perhaps 'acquaintance': [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of Kallimachos: he also [was?] the [t(eacher): word almost wholly illegible, possibly [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], but could just as easily be [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of the [fi]rst king. He was succeeded by Eratosthenes, after whom came Aristophanes of Byzantion and Aristarchos. Next was Apollonios of Alexandria, known as the Classifier [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], and after him Aristarchos son of Aristarchos, an Alexandrian, but originally from Samothraké, who [was] the tutor of
This text is an extract from some sort of chrestomathy or handbook (second century A.D.), listing, in chronological order, some of the chief librarians in Alexandria. The column immediately preceding it is lost, but must have named the first appointee, whom we know from the Souda (s.v. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 74) to have been Zenódotos, Homeric scholar, epic poet, and tutor to Ptolemy I's children. Ptolemy II was born in 308: thus if we place Zenódotos's appointment c. 295, we shall not be far out. But who succeeded him? Some scholars would like to believe it was Kallimachos, presumably on the principle of academic merit reaping its just reward; but the almost unanimous silence of our ancient sources is not encouraging, and it should also not be forgotten that the librarian was a crown appointment. Perhaps not coincidentally, both Zenódotos and Apollonios were epic poets and Homeric scholars: this may well reflect Ptolemy II's own preferences. The likelihood of Apollonios having been appointed as Zenódotos's direct successor is very great. Unfortunately, it is not certain beyond all doubt: both chronologically and based on P. Oxy. 1241, there is room for Kallimachos's tenure between the two. On the other hand, Apollonios must, on chronological grounds, have been tutor to Ptolemy III rather than Ptolemy I, and scholars have therefore agreed that "first" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) was a slip, perhaps through misreading a slovenly hand, for "third" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). After Apollonios the sequence makes complete sense (though Aristarchos is mentioned twice: I suspect that the scribe had the Samian as well as the Samothrakian in mind) and can be accepted.
(iv) The Souda (s.v. '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] no. 3419, Adler, 1: 307): "Apollonios, an Alexandrian, writer of epic poems; spent some time on Rhodes; son of Silleus; a student of Kallimachos; contemporary with Eratosthenes, Euphorion, and Timarchos, in the reign of Ptolemy known as The Benefactor [Euergétes], and Eratosthenes' successor in the Directorship [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] of the Library in Alexandria."
This encyclopedia entry differs sharply in two (clearly related) aspects from our other testimonia: it dates Apollonios firmly in the reign of Ptolemy III and later (Euphorion was appointed librarian in Antioch by Antiochos the Great at some point after 223), and makes him Eratosthenes' successor, rather than predecessor, as chief librarian. The obvious explanation, provided by (iii) above, is that the author of this entry confused our Apollonios with Apollonios the Classifier. Some, however, prefer, for whatever reason, to accept the Souda's dating, against all our other evidence, and to place Apollonios's librarianship after that of Eratosthenes. Such a choice cannot be sustained, and most recent scholarship rejects it. Dating apart, nothing in the Souda entry contradicts our other sources.
The biographical notice that can be constructed on the basis of these witnesses, and reinforced with circumstantial literary and historical testimony, differs somewhat from currently accepted scholarly versions of Apollonios's life. The main premiss of these is that the central episode related by the Lives, Apollonios's youthful literary setback, and his sojourn on Rhodes as a consequence of this, as well as his quarrel with Kallimachos, must be viewed as a fiction. I see no need for such an assumption. Nor do I feel the need to refute some other claims made about him that have no basis whatsoever in the evidence—for example, that his departure to Rhodes took place late in life, or that he was exiled. Here, then, is my reconstruction of his life and career (for the four sources discussed above, I use the abbreviations L1, L2, P, and S).
Apollonios, the son of Silleus and Rhodé (L1, L2, P, S), an epic poet (S) and author of the Argonautika (L1), was an Alexandrian by birth, of the Ptolemaïs tribe (L1), and thus the first native-born Alexandrian poet. (His family may have moved to Alexandria from Naukratis.) Since he flourished under Ptolemy II Philadelphos (L1) and was a student of Kallimachos (L1, L2, P, S), who was born c. 310, his own birth can be placed somewhere between 305 and 290. The earlier range seems much more probable, especially if his relationship with Kallimachos began when the latter, not yet Ptolemy II's protégé, was still a grammatikós (L2; S, s.v. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in the Alexandrian suburb of Eleusis—that is, before 285. Thus Apollonios's early, unfortunate, public reading (L1, L2) will have taken place—if the term "youth" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) be interpreted in its strict sense—when he was between eighteen and twenty: that is, at some point in the period 285–280, and (interestingly enough) while he was still attached, as student or assistant (L1), to Kallimachos. It was after this, late in the day (surely that [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in context, has to be ironic?), that he determined to make his prime activity poetry rather than criticism (L1) and removed himself to Rhodes (L1, L2, S) in order to do so.
Why Rhodes? No one has bothered with this question, except (by implication) through the mistaken claim (Lefkowitz, 12–13) that, against all the evidence, Rhodes was in fact his birthplace. I have elsewhere (Green 1993, 203–4) suggested that the independence of that proud maritime republic perhaps offered an atmosphere more sympathetic to epic, not least an epic largely bound up with the sea, than did Ptolemaic Alexandria. Since then an excellent article has been published pointing out what a deep and personal knowledge the Argonautika reveals of navigation, maritime life, ship-building, and nautical expertise in general—expertise surely gained, in the first instance, on Rhodes. How long did he remain there? To become genuinely knowledgeable about seafaring, as well as to engage in public life, pursue a distinguished teaching career, complete his revised Argonautika—fragments of a prior draft of book 1 survive embedded in the scholia—and achieve a position of international literary eminence would all take considerable time. This indeed would seem to have been the case. The terminus ante quem for his return to Alexandria would have to be the inception of his tutorial duties with the young Ptolemy III Euergétes, who cannot have been more than fifteen at the time, and may have been as young as twelve. Euergétes was born at some point between 288 (the year of his father's marriage to Arsinoë I) and 275. We are therefore looking at a date not earlier than 273 and possibly as late as 260. If Apollonios emigrated to Rhodes in the period 285–80, he would have spent a minimum of thirteen years there, and more probably about twenty. He could thus easily have been forty—a perfectly acceptable age for such honors—at the time of his triumphant return (L2), and appointment by Ptolemy II as royal tutor (P) and chief librarian (P; S?): I would suggest a date around 265.
There followed a long period of uneventful success and productiveness. It would have been in these years that Apollonios wrote foundation poems on the origins ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) of Alexandria and Naukratis, and an aetiological poem entitled Kanobos, just as during his Rhodian residence, he had similarly composed works about Kaunos, Knidos, and Rhodes itself. He was equally busy in his capacity as a Museum scholar, with critical works on Homer (including a monograph attacking his predecessor Zenódotos), Hesiod, and Archilochos. It is possible that he also began a second revised edition of at least part of the Argonautika, which got no further than book 1, and that it was the existence of this revision which occasioned references to the "previous edition" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) by the scholiasts.
On his accession early in 246, Ptolemy III Euergétes summoned Eratosthenes from Athens to take over the office of chief librarian. There was no question of his old tutor being dismissed, let alone exiled: Apollonios had served with distinction for twenty years, was now in his sixties, and had earned an honorable retirement. If there is any truth in the tradition (L2) that after he died (probably at some point in the 230's), he was buried beside Kallimachos, that suggests, not (as has been romantically inferred) a reconciliation between the two men, but rather the existence of a special burial site or private cemetery for distinguished members of the Museum community.
When considering Apollonios's place in Hellenistic literature, it is impossible to ignore the tradition, whether true or fictional, of his alleged quarrel with Kallimachos, since this lurks at the heart of several much-debated problems: appointments and working conditions in the Library and the Museum; the nature of third-century epic, the interpretation of Kallimachean aesthetic principles, and the relationship of the Argonautika to both; finally, the precise meaning and scope of the tradition hostile to Kallimachos, as testified to by passages in that poet's works such as lines 105–14 of the Hymn to Apollo, or the partly fragmentary preface (1–38) of the Aitia attacking the "Telchines"—malevolent mythical dwarfs here standing in for literary opponents. This is not the place to attack such problems in detail; but anyone who wishes to read the Argonautika with a reasonable degree of understanding should at least be able to appreciate the social and aesthetic context in which it came to be written. Even if we regard a personal vendetta between two distinguished officers of the Alexandrian Library as unproven (though hardly, bearing modern academe in mind, intrinsically improbable), are the respective literary positions of Apollonios and Kallimachos such that hostility, even if nonexistent in fact, could easily be presumed in theory?
It is fashionable nowadays to assert "that both quarrel and controversy are entirely modern inventions." Like many such assertions, this one is not true. Though the Souda is regularly trawled for useful (i.e., supportive) evidence, but briskly dismissed as late and untrustworthy when it records testimony at odds with the theory du jour, the entry on Kallimachos (its format suggesting derivation from Hesychios of Miletos) contains the following comment on one title in a list of Kallimachos's works: "Ibis, a poem of deliberate obscurity and abusiveness, directed against a certain Ibis, who had become Kallimachos's enemy: this person was Apollonios, the author of the Argonautika." The reason for the hostility is not stated, but there is at least a strong chance of its having been literary. We might have guessed that such feuds were common in the Museum, and a famous squib by Timon of Phleious confirms it: "In the polyglot land of Egypt, many now find pasturage as endowed scribblers, endlessly quarreling in the Muses' birdcage." Kallimachos himself, imitating Hipponax, urged scholars not to be mutually jealous. But with "free meals, high salaries, no taxes to pay, very pleasant surroundings, good lodgings and servants", there was, as Pfeiffer remarks, "plenty of opportunity for quarrelling with one another." Leisure, combined with the arbitrary uncertainties of royal patronage, must have made backbiting and paranoia endemic.
Excerpted from The Argonautika by Apollonios Rhodios, Peter Green. Copyright © 2007 Peter Green. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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