VALERIUS FLACCUS: ARGONAUTICA BOOK III

Ed. by Gesine Manuwald

CUP (2015) p/b £23.99 (ISBN 9781107697263)

Valerius Flaccus (V F) gets little attention these days; there are no papers about him in the last five years of Classical Quarterly. His name crops up occasionally at meetings of the Virgil Society, but without respect. I know no-one who reads him.

So here is a pleasant surprise, for me: a new commentary on Book III, which contains the tragic fight against the Cyzicans, the following remorse and reparations, the resumption of the journey, the landing in Mysia to get a replacement for Hercules’s broken oar, the loss of Hylas, the frenzy of Hercules, and the departure of the Argonauts without him. It is the first separate commentary on Book III in English.

Manuwald (M.) provides a fine 33 page introduction, which covers, to select a few sections, what we know about the author (not much), and the date of composition and original length. Probably it always consisted of eight books, four for the voyage and four for the contest and return. The eighth book is short and fragmentary at the end, and may have been so in antiquity. The section on ‘Language, Style, Metre’ could with benefit have been longer. I will expand a little.

V F’s dactylic hexameter is not far from Virgil’s (V.). His treatment of the last two feet includes the demand for semantic weight on the last word, usually a verb or noun, and there are only two or three examples of polysyllables in this position. He uses elision less frequently than V., which is surprising. V F’s caesuras also vary from Virgil’s practice, with lines like consurgunt gemitu Rutuli, with word-endings after the 1st syllable of a foot being more frequent, and there are other variations. Moreover, he has no objection to monosyllables before important caesuras, which V. has.

M. draws attention to V F’s poetic speed (see below) and so arises the question of their use of enjambement. Does V F use more? I took a quick look at the position of full stops, on which commentators are relatively agreed, as opposed to the lesser pauses, and compared our V F III to one randomly selected from the Aeneid—book 5. It turns out that on average both V F and V. have full stops at the end of 1 in 4 lines, but that V F has a full stop in the middle of 1 in 10 lines, whereas for V. the figure is 1 in 19. This is fourth-form stylometry, and at the most only suggestive.

M. describes V F’s style as ‘elliptical, condensed, allusive and metaphorical’ and indeed it is. I can only take a few from her long list of V F’s textual aerobatics. He leaves words out, especially the parts of sum, but also prepositions, which he has no time for, resulting in many displaced, floating and undefined ablatives—or could they be datives? Epithets are frequently transposed and separated from their nouns by distant hyperbata. Conjunctions and prepositions, if not omitted, are often postponed. There are tight-stretched zeugmata, and constructions apo koinou, but only just. But the main word is ellipsis, and the result is that he is a fast, risky, dangerous, difficult and exciting poet.

Apollonius Rhodius (AR.) wrote a version of the story which is a pastiche of Homer, although he also did many good things which Homer could not do. I suspect that too many people think of V F as a failed pastiche of V. This is, to be blunt, wrong. V F and V. have little or nothing in common apart from the metre. V F has his own style, is his own poet, and he has one of the very greatest adventure stories to tell. The Aeneid, as an adventure story, is on the dull side, the poetry sublime, and V. had moral and political aims which V F does not have to bother with. V F likes fighting, so he extends the Cyzican episode compared with AR., and invents an unattested civil war for the Argonauts to join in when they reach Colchis. Of course he falls off now and again. In the Cyzican fight, there is a multiple hand-to-hand encounter, sparsusque cerebro / albet ager ‘the ground is white with scattered brains’ (lines166-7). But it was Homer who described both eyes falling to the ground after a blow to the head, once from a sword, once from a stone.

It has been hard for a potential reader to get into this poet. Commentaries are few, mostly in German, and hard to find. Until now. M’s notes will inform, I suspect, scholars, but they will certainly delight readers. She fills in, as it were, the ellipses, lassooes and brings safely to ground the flying ablatives, comments on all the proper names, personal and geographical, reposes the transposed epithets, supplies the sensum in ad sensum constructions, and gives a continuous comparison to relevant passages in other authors, particularly AR. and V. Equipped with this commentary, even a third millennium undergraduate could read V F.

So where next? No sane reader will be satisfied with one eighth of an adventure story. There is advice at the top of p. 262, just above the Bibliography, and easy to miss. Some will go, as I shall, to Mosley’s 1934 Loeb, where I started long ago. Beware: a line by line comparison shows that M. quite frequently disagrees, and with reason. But I will go back, and fortified by M. I shall read it better and have even more fun. Which must be one of the purposes of the Cambridge Green-and-Yellows—mustn’t it?

K.B. Saunders

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