From Troy to Colchis: The ‘Argonautic Cycle’ of Apollonius Rhodius

Manos Tsakiris, University of Edinburgh*
To say that Apollonius was influenced by Homeric poetry would be—apart from redundant—an understatement. Apollonius writes an epic story in dactylic hexameter, closely imitating the Homeric diction throughout his poem and (rather heavily) drawing from the Homeric epics in ways that are still being studied after centuries of scholarship on the Argonautica. This paper aims to demonstrate that Apollonius was also particularly influenced by the Greek Epic Cycle: not only as a source of poetry capable on its own and regardless of Homer of offering inspiration to subsequent poets, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in its relationship with the Homeric epics, at least as it was perceived or even fashioned by ancient scholarship.
The Homeric epics share a lot with the poems of the Trojan Cycle; most obviously, the poems share a set of characters and they narrate different—but occasionally overlapping, too—parts of a story that had come to acquire collectively the significance of cultural heritage for dozens of generations. The epics of Homer, however, are particularly cautious with some of the elements which abound in other Cyclic poems, as Griffin has well observed in his deeply influential paper from the 1970s. [1] Poems of the Cycle are replete with magic, the supernatural and romance; the Iliad and the Odyssey, on the other hand, although they feature larger-than-life heroes and gods who are too willing to participate, even physically, in the deeds and wars of humans, are more cautious with magic and fantasy, and arm their characters with a “very real humanity”, to echo Griffin again. [2]
In this respect, Apollonius’ Argonautica is rather un-Homeric. To offer but a brief summary of the Argonautica here, the poem follows the adventures of Jason, commanded by the king of Iolcus, Pelias, to retrieve the Golden Fleece. Jason assembles a group of the finest and most famous heroes of his time (including the archetypal hero Heracles) to help him with his quest. After a dangerous journey, which famously entails their passing through the Clashing Rocks, the Argonauts arrive at Colchis and request from king Aeetes the Golden Fleece, the once living and flying ram that carried Phrixus and Helle away from their stepmother Ino. The king agrees to hand the Argonauts the fleece only if Jason performs a seemingly impossible task; yoke fire-breathing bulls, plough an enormous piece of land and kill warriors that will sprout from the earth. Jason despairs but the task is eventually facilitated by the princess Medea who (with the help of the gods) falls madly in love with him. Medea provides Jason with drugs that render his body indestructible for a day so that he can accomplish the task, and later she lulls to sleep the gigantic serpent which guards the fleece. Having secured the fleece, Jason, Medea and the Argonauts embark on the equally adventurous return journey.
It is apparent from the brief summary of the poem that the element of magic is applied generously to the plot of the Argonautica. [3] Aside from Jason’s invulnerability thanks to the drugs provided to him by the sorceress Medea, [4] and Medea’s bewitching of the snake (4.145–161), the Argonautica features a talking crow (3.927–937), a talking ship (4.580–591), Medea’s killing of a giant merely with the power of her mind (4.1620–1688), characters who have superhuman skills, such as the hero Lynceus who benefits from super-human vision (1.153–155), the sons of Boreas who, like their father, have wings and can fly (1.211–223), and Orpheus whose supernatural music can move trees and alter landscapes (1.23–34); all constant reminders of the heightened role of magic and the supernatural in the mission and, indeed, of the thematic similarities with Cyclic poetry. [5] What is more, the Argonautica even features characters and episodes which are drawn from some of the poems of the Cycle. Lynceus, whose super-human eye-sight features in the Cypria, [6] is one of the Argonauts; the Argonauts come close to engaging in battle with the Amazons (2.962–1001), who appear in the Aethiopis; and the goddess Hera recounts the wedding of Thetis (4.790–809), one of the most famous episodes of the Cypria. [7]

The above reveals not only the generous application of magic and the supernatural to the plot of the Argonautica, but the presence in Apollonius’ epic of characters strongly identified with Cyclic poetry as well. The Argonautica, then, appears to bear rather strong similarities with Cyclic poetry in terms of content. What I aim to propose, is that Apollonius drew inspiration from the structure of the entire poetic construct of the Trojan Cycle as well. A brief reference to the structure of the Argonautica will be of help. Apollonius separates his story into four books; the same structural unit as the one found in the Homeric epics. Interestingly, however, unlike Homer who includes a proem only at the beginning of the first book to introduce the content of his poem, Apollonius includes proems at the beginning of three out of the four books. This rather puzzling innovation reflects the thematic segregation of the three stages of the Argonautic mission. Books 1 and 2 recount the outward journey of the Argonauts, from their departure from Iolcus to their arrival to Colchis. Book 3 covers the adventures of the Argonauts at Colchis: the meeting of Jason and Medea and the execution of the seemingly impossible task. Book 4 recounts the return journey of the Argonauts to Iolcus. The three proems, then, at the beginning of Book 1, Book 3 and Book 4, signify the commencement of the distinct phases of the mission. It is the proem of Book 3 (1–4) which is particularly interesting for my argument:

Εἰ δ᾿ ἄγε νῦν, Ἐρατώ, παρά θ᾿ ἵστασο καί μοι ἔνισπε,
ἔνθεν ὅπως ἐς Ἰωλκὸν ἀνήγαγε κῶας Ἰήσων
Μηδείης ὑπ᾿ ἔρωτι· σὺ γὰρ καὶ Κύπριδος αἶσαν
Come now, Erato, stand beside me and from that point on tell me how Jason because of Medea’s love brought the fleece to Iolcus. Because you have obtained a share of Cypris too

Possible references and allusions to poems belonging to a variety of genres have been put forward by scholars. [8] I would like to suggest that there is a particular fragment of poetry (Aristoxenus fr. 91 Wehrli), thus far overlooked in scholarship, which is most likely alluded to by Apollonius in the proem of Book 3:

Ἔσπετε νῦν μοι, Μοῦσαι Ὀλύμπια δώματ’ ἔχουσαι,
ὅππως δὴ μῆνις τε χόλος θ᾽ ἕλε Πηλεΐωνα,
Λητοῦς τ᾽ ἀγλαὸν ὑιόν · ὁ γὰρ βασιλῆι χολωθείς
Tell me, now, Muses, you who dwell on Olympus, how the rage and anger possessed the son of Peleus and the splendid son of Leto. Because he, infuriated with the king

The similarities between the two proems are particularly noticeable—especially the structural ones. Both proems feature an invitation by the primary narrator to the Muse to tell, ἔνισπε/ἔσπετε, now, νῦν, to the narrator, μοι, in the first line, followed by an indirect question introduced with ὅ(π)πως in the beginning of the second line. Both indirect questions are completed with the caesura in the third foot of the third line, and they are immediately succeeded by explanatory sentences, whose second word is γάρ (ὁ γάρ/σὺ γάρ). [9] Although there are undeniable dissimilarities between the two proems, I argue that Apollonius closely observes the structure of this particular fragment and maps the structure of his own proem onto this alternative proem to the Iliad; the reason he does so is no other than Cyclic poetry, as I will demonstrate.

The passage under consideration appears to be an alternative proem to the Iliad, known in antiquity to Aristoxenus, [10] in whose fragments it survives. The passage has led scholars to a number of different suggestions regarding its purpose; one of the first scholars who detected ties to Cyclic poetry in this passage is the late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century German scholar Eric Bethe. [11] Bethe’s argument, which I find convincing, has been particularly influential. Bethe considers this alternative proem as the product of the urge of standardisation of the Homeric epics and the poems of the Trojan Cycle by early Hellenistic scholars; in other words as part of the scholarly editorial problem of the Trojan Cycle. The proem was composed at a later date, probably by early Hellenistic scholars, who were uneasy with the fact that the Iliad and the Odyssey were most probably composed as self-standing poems and simply did not fit neatly within the broader poetic construct of the Trojan Cycle. Some of these scholars, argues Bethe, set out to make the necessary changes or edits to make the Iliad and the Odyssey fully compatible with the remaining poems. A problem which needed to be remedied was the proem of the Iliad. In adjusting the proem by replacing the first nine lines of the Iliad, the scholar (or scholars) aimed at reconciling the Cypria with the Iliad and presenting a natural flow between them. The first line of this alternative proem is one that is deployed several times within the epic itself. [12] By using in the proem a line which occurs several times within the epic, [13] the scholar aims at downplaying the unity of the Iliad as one poem and portraying it as one part of a bigger poem, or a larger whole. There are other theories regarding the composition of this passage. Muellner, for example, argues that the alternative proem was a “genuine product of the evolving epic tradition”, and not an artificial, scholarly passage, [14] yet the passage’s ties to Cyclic poetry have been broadly accepted by scholarship. [15]
In his capacity as a scholar and, especially, as the head of the Library of Alexandria, Apollonius must have had access to a wealth of Homeric and para-Homeric scholarship, amongst which was available—we can assume—this alternative incipit to the Iliad too. [16] This allusion to an alternative proem serves, I argue, a substantial function in the structure of the Argonautica. The allusion to a version of the Iliad, in a passage as suitable for programmatic declarations as the proem, on the one hand connotes indeed an Iliadic setting at the beginning of Book 3. The allusion to an alternative proem of the Iliad, however, inevitably carries along the alternative uses that this proem was devised for. I would like to propose that in this allusion Apollonius suggests that the interrelationship of the books of the Argonautica imitates the interrelationship of the poems of the Trojan Cycle. The use of proems at the beginning of three of the four books of the Argonautica and the ensuing thematic segregation of the action already suggests a degree of relative independence of the books from each other. The proem of Book 3, then, suggests that the progression from the end of Book 2 to the beginning of Book 3 imitates the progression from the preceding poem in the Trojan Cycle, which happens to be the Cypria, to the Iliad, and especially the progression as envisioned by certain scholars. [17]
As, then, the relationship of the first two books with Book 3 is highly reminiscent of that between two separate poems constituting part of a bigger poetic construct, i.e. the Trojan Cycle, it follows that Apollonius effectively proclaims Books 1/2 and Book 3 as, on the one hand, belonging to the same poetic design, and on the other hand, as separate, semi-independent poems, connected by the fact that they recount different parts of the same story. Furthermore, the allusions to the alternative proem of the Iliad in the proem of Book 3 place Book 3 in the position of the Iliad itself; Book 3 of the Argonautica becomes the equivalent of the Iliad in the Trojan Cycle. Books 1/2 and Book 4, preceding and succeeding the martial epic, shall be seen as also affected by the same pattern. Especially in the case of Book 4, the easily discernible similarities of Book 4 with the Odyssey in terms of content—as they both recount the return of a hero/heroes to their home—alongside certain allusions to the proem of the Odyssey in the proem of Book 4, which I will not be discussing in this paper, suggest that Book 4 takes indeed the place of the Odyssey, namely a nostos poem.
One might object that the proposed interpretation of Book 3 as adhering to the tropes of a martial, Iliadic, epic, as attempted here via examination of the similarities of the two proems, is incompatible with the fact that Apollonius introduces love as the subject matter of his narrative in Book 3: how could an emotion like love be the main subject of a martial epic? However, an argument as such would seriously undermine the prominence of emotions in the Homeric epics. Love itself is by no means foreign to the Iliad and the Odyssey: we see it in the relationship of Odysseus and Penelope, the feelings of young Nausicaa for Odysseus in the Odyssey, in the farewell scene between Andromache and Hector and the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. Even more importantly, the Iliad is in its entirety about an emotion: Achilles’ anger (μῆνις, or χόλος in the alternative proem). In Book 3 of the Argonautica, then, love substitutes anger as the emotion which entangles two persons and whose repercussions drive the plot forward. Homer has already demonstrated that a single emotion may well be the subject of an entire martial epic; Apollonius, once more, simply follows in Homer’s steps. Love and anger, in the final analysis, are not far from each other—certainly not in ancient thinking. [18] Book 3 of the Argonautica will be Apollonius’ Iliad.
To conclude, Apollonius appears to be structuring his Argonautica as consisting of three semi-independent poems which cover distinctive parts in the timeline of the story: these three separate stages in the story are introduced with the three proems to be found within the Argonautica in Books 1, 3 and 4. As essentially different poems, these three sub-sections of the Argonautica can be read independently, yet paint the bigger picture more clearly if read in conjunction. [19] It eventually becomes evident that Apollonius’ poetic construct is of heightened ambition: he is constructing his very own Argonautic Cycle, a modern version of Cyclic poetry. The abundance of influences from the Trojan Cycle (in terms of both content and structure) in Apollonius’ epic reveals indeed Cyclic poetry as a fertile field from which Apollonius harvested to create his Argonautica and further corroborates its reading as a Cyclic poem. Some scholars, such as Fantuzzi, Hunter, Cuypers and Mori, have already tentatively placed the Argonautica closer to Cyclic poetry than epic. [20] I hope that this paper has provided sufficient evidence to substantiate the very sensible instincts of these scholars and, perhaps, brought scholarship one step closer to re-examining the Argonautica’s generic classification as a mere epic in favour of Apollonius’ ambitious construction of an Argonautic Cycle. [21]


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Bethe, E. 1929. Homer: Dichtung und Sage. Zweiter Band, II Teil. Kyklos, Zeitbestimmung: Nebst den Resten des Troischen Kyklos. Leipzig.
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———. 1988. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen.
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Graver, M. 2002. Cicero on the Emotions: Tusculan Disputations 3&4. Chicago.
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———. 2008. “The Poetics of Narrative in the Argonautica.” In Brill’s Companion to Apollonius Rhodius, ed. T. D. Papanghelis, and A. Rengakos, 115–146. Leiden.
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[ back ] * I would like to express my gratitude to Professors Karakantza and Burgess for organising the conference and offering me the opportunity to present my work. I also owe particular thanks to Prof. Yoshinori Sano for his feedback and support, and to my PhD supervisors, Dr. Calum Maciver and Dr. Donncha O’Rourke.
[ back ] 1. Griffin 1977.
[ back ] 2. Some famous examples of magic and the supernatural in the poems of the Cycle include among many others the daughters of Anius, Oeno, Spermo and Elais (Wine-girl, Seed-girl, Oil-girl) who could produce the commodities after which they were named at will (Cypria), the wound of Telephus curable only by the weapon which made it (Cypria), Philoctetes and his arrow as talismans for Troy (Ilias Parva), the impossibility of conquering Troy before removing Palladium (Iliou Persis). See Griffin 1977:40.
[ back ] 3. The close affinity of the Argonautica with magic and the supernatural has been briefly explored by Fantuzzi and Hunter 2004:96–97 in terms of potential ties with Cyclic poetry.
[ back ] 4. Considered by Knight 1995:100 and Schaaf 2014:171 as an element picked up from Cyclic poetry.
[ back ] 5. Griffin 1977 uses the Argonaut story, which is mentioned in the Odyssey (12.69–72) and was, thus, a very early subject of epic poetry, to demonstrate the difference of the Homeric epics to earlier or concurrent epic poetry, as, unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Argonaut story entailed Lynceus, the flying Boreads, Orpheus and the talking ship. See also Hunter 2008:145. On the relationship of the Odyssey with the Argonaut story see West 2005.
[ back ] 6. fr. 13 Davies = Schol. Pindar Nemean 10.110.
[ back ] 7. fr. 2 Davies; fr. 3 Davies = Schol. (D) Iliad 16.140. See Bethe 1929:229; West 2013:70.
[ back ] 8. Hunter 1993:96 discerns references to Pindar’s Pythian 4 and to Mimnermus (fr. 11). Campbell 1994:4–5 sees a range of literary allusions or reminiscences, such as Homer, Hesiod, lyric poets including Pindar, Mimnermus, Empedocles, Euripides and even Callimachus. He also asserts that the Homeric poems are not the primary sources here. Sistakou 2016:156 traces in the proem a shift from the epic to the tragic mode. More convincingly—in my view—Knight 1995:291 considers the proem a “fresh start”, as it includes elements found at the beginning of the Homeric poems. [ back ]
[ back ] 9. A further similarity can be noted in the commencement of the third line of each passage with a spondee (and the name of a female figure in the genitive).
[ back ] 10. Aristoxenus, fr. 91 Wehrli; Bernabé 1996:64.
[ back ] 11. Bethe 1929:384–385. His argument was later accepted by Wehrli 1967:77.
[ back ] 12. Homer Iliad 2.484; 11.218; 14.508; 16.112.
[ back ] 13. Bethe compares the passage to Iliad 16.112–113. The first line constitutes a formulaic verse which appears several times in the Iliad but also in other works, such as Hesiod’s Theogony (114). Iliad 16.112–113 is more relevant in this case, as the indirect question which follows is introduced with ὅππως. Janko 1994:31 notes that this constitutes a rare variant, which, however, conforms to the tradition, as here “how first…” follows the line, instead of “who first…” in most other instances. Bethe 1929:384–385 argues that the author of this ‘alternative’ proem imitated the structure of the Iliadic passage in order to portray the entire Iliad as a section of a larger body, precisely as the section in the Patrocleia is presented by Homer as a particularly significant part of Book 16, yet still only a part, a portion of it.
[ back ] 14. Muellner 1996:97n.10.
[ back ] 15. See Davies 1986:95–96; Bernabé 1996:64; Burgess 2001:16. Burgess notes that this passage might constitute proof of “a ‘Cyclic’ edition of the Iliad.” West 1983:129 sees in this alternative proem proof of the existence of the Cycle of Trojan epics in the fourth century BCE. West 2013:22 agrees with Bethe that the alternative proem is composed to continue a narrative rather than to inaugurate a new poem, but rather supposes that it was intended to succeed a prefatory hymn.
[ back ] 16. According to the consensus, the Trojan Cycle was in existence by the Hellenistic period. See e.g. Burgess 2001:16; West 2013:24.
[ back ] 17. See Burgess 2001:13–33, 135–143 on the manufacture of the Cycle, the susceptibility of Cyclic poems to alterations due to their devaluation in relation to the Homeric poems, and the possibility that poems such as the Cypria and the Aethiopis were tampered with by rhapsodes/grammarians so that they would appear as built around the Iliad.
[ back ] 18. Anger and love often feature together in ancient treatises on emotions, e.g. in Aristotle Rhetorica II; Ethica Nicomachea 1105b21–23. The two emotions are connected by the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, in what survives of his treatise through Galen’s summary (Galen De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis 4.6.35–46). Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes 4.68–79, refers successively to anger and love in very similar terms, condemning them as perturbations of mind. Interestingly, Cicero exemplifies his condemnation of erotic love as woe with a reference to the Argonautic legend and the love of Medea (Argonautica 4.69). In Cicero’s argument, both love and anger lead to madness (4.65–66; 4.77). Although Cicero strays away from Stoic philosophy and moves closer to Epicurean philosophy (as he himself admits, Tusculanae Disputationes 4.70; 4.71–72) in his view towards love, when proposing very similar cures to love and anger he echoes the Stoic philosophy of Chrysippus. See Graver 2002, 174–181.
[ back ] 19. The book division is then particularly significant in the work of Apollonius. Cf. Beye 1982:36 who see Apollonius’ book divisions as “relatively unimportant structural elements.” Händel 1954:10 assesses the book division and proems as essential parts of the poem, considers them an influence from Homer and views them as the product of Apollonius’ desire to write an epic in books like his predecessor. He does not, however, address the issue of the absence of proems in the separate books of the Homeric epics.
[ back ] 20. Cuypers 2004:45 points out that the organisation of the Homeric epics is abandoned “in favour of the so called Cyclic epics and, indeed, historiography.” Fantuzzi and Hunter 2004:96–97 argue that “it would not be difficult to see the Argonautic story as (in some senses) a ‘cyclic’ one.” Hunter 2008:145–146 states that “it is not too much to view Apollonius’ epic as a Cyclic poem done in the ‘modern’ (?Callimachean) style.” Hunter 2008:134 also argues that Apollonius presents a closed structure to which the characterisation κυκλικόν could be attributed. Mori 2008:49 notes that the structure of the Argonautica finds several parallels with the Trojan Cycle.
[ back ] 21. This conclusion might (again) spark discussion on Apollonius and his stance in regards both to Callimachean and Aristotelian poetics concerning Cyclic poetry. Hunter 1993:190–195 has already provided a good answer on this.