Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Mark Heerink, Gesine Manuwald (ed.), Brill's Companion to Valerius Flaccus. Brill's Companions in Classical Studies. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014. Pp. xiii, 438. ISBN 9789004227415. €149.00.

Reviewed by Jessica R. Blum, Yale University (jessica.blum@yale.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

As Mark Heerink and Gesine Manuwald point out, Valerius has been the last of the Flavian epicists to benefit from the burgeoning scholarly interest in this field, and it is high time that he do so. This volume provides an in-depth introduction to the Argonautica and accurately illustrates the current state of the field. Five sections ("Text, Language and Poetic Techniques"; "Themes and Contexts"; "Characters"; "Latin Intertexts"; "Reception") offer many points of access and show the methods that may usefully be applied to the poem's interpretation. Juxtaposing a range of possible readings – pessimistic, optimistic, and in between – it reflects the existence of conflicting ideologies at work throughout the poem in a series of accessible and persuasive essays.

The editors prioritize this interpretive polyphony in order to illustrate the variety of possible approaches and the richness of Valerian scholarship. In this, they succeed admirably. The brevity and organization of the chapters provide an effective introduction that combines accessibility with a thorough presentation of recent scholarship and methods. This begins with the introduction, in which Heerink and Manuwald helpfully provide an outline of the poem's plot and survey of recent scholarship, and continues throughout the volume. All passages are translated in full – especially important for a poem that is both just outside the canon and famously compressed – and listed in an index that facilitates the reader's appreciation of key interpretive loci. In addition, individual chapters provide, implicitly or explicitly, a great deal of essential background material for both the Argonautic myth and the poem itself (Ruth Taylor-Briggs, Alain Deremetz, and James Clauss in particular). Several indicate potential directions for future research (Alison Keith, Ruth Parkes, Anthony Augoustakis), an important element in a volume that seeks to establish the Argonautica's interest for scholars in a variety of fields. While it would be impossible for this review to give each contribution the attention it deserves, it will attempt to point out particularly intriguing and convincing points.

Taylor-Briggs offers a clear, concise, and accessible summary of the Argonautica's manuscript tradition. Drawing together recent advances in Valerian manuscript studies, she shows with engaging detail the importance of each new branch of chronological reconstruction. Comparing the traditions of Italy, Northern France and Belgium, she argues for the independence and authority of more branches of the tradition than previously recognized.

Michael Barich's contribution raises the question of how Valerius's contemporary readers experienced his dense and allusive poetic style. This is, to some extent, unanswerable, but once raised, I would have liked the chapter to take this question a little further. Discussing Valerius's Virgilian "idiom," Barich asks how sensitive contemporary readers would be to subtle contextual interplay, and how they would separate purely verbal imitatio from thematic resonance. This last point has immediate relevance for modern scholars, yet with it Barich moves away from more compelling issues to a discussion of Valerius's poetics. His reading demonstrates the complexity and consistency of thematic integration throughout the Argonautica, while leaving open the question of how accessible such stylistic density is and was.

Deremetz and Heerink offer compelling readings of Valerius's self-presentation within the epic tradition. Developing Barchiesi's model of "allusion in a future tense" (p.62),1 Deremetz shows Valerius's construction of his poem as "the facsimile of the foundational epic that will lead the tradition to Homer, Virgil and Ovid." Through themes of sea-storm and war, Deremetz shows that Valerius establishes the Argonautica as the arche from which all other epics derive. Heerink analyzes the Argonautica's two major ecphrases, the paintings on the Argo and the doors of Sol's temple in Colchis, in relation to Juno's temple in Aeneid 1. Assembling the numerous verbal and structural parallels, he shows that both episodes comment metapoetically on Valerius's relationship to Virgil to reveal a "poetics of inversion" (p.74). His insightful reading reveals Valerius's play on his audience's expectations and his violations thereof.

In treating the Argo's crew as a character in its own right, Helen Lovatt's chapter identifies an important point of investigation for the Argonautica. She thoroughly analyzes the tensions surrounding Hercules's role among the crew and Valerius's emphasis on his catasterism alongside the Dioscouri and the Argo itself. Particularly engaging is her discussion of the death of Tiphys in Argonautica 5, showing how Valerius uses Virgilian intertexts to comment on the teleology of the poem as a whole (p.222).

Clauss's essay on mythopoesis in the Argonautica appeals on many levels. He examines Valerius's articulation of Flavian cultural values through mythopoeic manipulation: "Intertextuality and myth work hand in glove to articulate and account for the return to an older sense of greatness based on heroic aspirations…not family…" (p.107). Clauss identifies Valerius's poetic enterprise as an attempt to locate the new Flavian regime in universal history and mythic tradition, and provides an important model for the inseparability of intertextual and socio-cultural readings of epic.2

Attila Ferenczi's contribution neatly complements the chapter by Clauss, demonstrating the overlapping concerns of epic and philosophy with (e.g.) origins, the telos of global history, and the role of the individual. Both essays locate the Argonautica in its contemporary intellectual environment, finding, in this case, the poem's relevance in its exploration of the ethical framework for human action. Examining the integration of (at times contradictory) ideas about fate, determinism, and human labor, Ferenczi elucidates the aesthetic effects of Valerius's importation of philosophical concepts into his narrative.

Along similar lines, Neil Bernstein considers Valerius's response to the imperial system. Through the lens of cultic practice, he shows the poem's constant play between character and reader perceptions of the chain of causality; the contrast between the two renders provisional contemporary claims to religious restoration (p.162). He finds further evidence in the often-noted ubiquity of tyrants in the Argonautica, and suggests that this, too, undermines any positive image of political power.

Marco Fucecchi, Cristiano Castelletti, and Peter Davis respond to ongoing debates in Valerian scholarship: the narrative's integration of love and war, and the question of Jason's heroism. Fucecchi describes how love and war, through the integration of Homeric and Virgilian traditions, "undergo programmatic redefinition as literary themes," and seek new compatibility within the narrative plot (p.135); he reads this process as a metaliterary comment on epic categories. Castelletti and Davis both analyze Valerius's characterization of his protagonists in terms of the tension between epic and tragedy. Castelletti views Jason as a reflection of the poem's overall evolution, examining Valerius's use of tragic and epic exemplars to illustrate the antinomies embedded in the narrative. Like Ferenczi, he raises the issue of individual culpability, but by summarizing interpretive problems Castelleti reflects rather than advances debates about Jason's heroic character. Davis discusses Valerius's reconciliation of Medea's roles as epic princess and tragic mother. He notes as distinctive Valerius's focus on future rather than past, showing that both halves of the poem remind the reader of Medea's entire story, and, importantly, her role in world history. Particularly effective are Davis's exposition of Valerius's use of Homeric, Virgilian, and Ovidian models, and his reading of Medea's resistance to divine influence as her most salient Valerian characteristic.

Both Randall Ganiban and Robert Cowan explore how Valerius, through interaction with the Aeneid, problematizes the ethical framework in which his characters operate. Cowan's engagingly titled "Argonautic Antagonists and Valerian Villains" shows how Valerius keeps optimistic and pessimistic views of the Argo's voyage in tense balance throughout the poem. Sympathetic voices complicate otherwise unambiguous depictions of the Argonauts's opponents, while Valerius hints at his heroes's susceptibility to the temptations of political power. Cowan demonstrates that "Valerius's remarkable achievement is to paint his villains as black as can be, but still render his readers uncomfortable at the victory of his heroes" (p.248). Ganiban revisits a primary locus for Valerius's engagement with the Aeneid, Jupiter's prophecy in Book 1. He teases out the implications of Valerius's substitution of Sol for Venus, showcasing Valerius's practice of adopting a Virgilian structure while changing its thematic or ideological meaning (a point also made by Heerink). Illustrating the generational tensions between Jupiter and his interlocutor, and the centrality of dynastic concerns to both sides, Ganiban argues that Valerius's Jupiter rejects a Virgilian worldview (p.252). He persuasively concludes that Jupiter's assertion of impartial rule is dramatically undermined by his blatant favoritism towards his sons and his unrelenting prioritization of political supremacy.

Alison Keith, Tim Stover, and Emma Buckley offer comprehensive discussions of Valerius's relationship to his imperial predecessors. Keith traces Valerius's interaction with the Metamorphoses through a series of episodes, positing a relationship wherein Valerius uses Ovid to "trace fissures in the optimistic Virgilian epic paradigm" (p.269). She notes, in particular, Ovidian landscapes and the story of Io as loci for Valerius's incorporation of metamorphic themes. Stover reiterates the argument of his recent monograph, that Lucan's Bellum Civile provides Valerius with a point of departure from which the later author enacts "a poetics of amelioration and reconstruction" (p.291).3 Stover's elegant reading, while demonstrating the importance of this intertext, fails to capture the ambivalences and ambiguities illustrated by several other essays in this volume (see especially Cowan, Ganiban, and Buckley).

Buckley offers an illuminating counterpoint to Stover's thesis, exploring Valerius's use of Senecan tragedy to maintain awareness of the poem's tragic aftermath within his recuperated epic mode. She shows how Senecan intertexts in Book 1 "adumbrate interpretative choices about the value of the voyage of the Argo, its socio-political outlook, and its narratological drive" (p.308). Particularly noteworthy is her intriguing demonstration that Valerius uses the Hercules Oetaeus to hint at an optimistic end to the story. Valerius's Hercules, she concludes, represents both the poem's overdetermined tragic ending and the possibility of its triumphant rewriting.

Both Parkes and Augoustakis explore the nature of the intertextual process, offering compelling readings of material and thematic allusion in Valerius's immediate successors, Statius and Silius. Parkes argues that the Thebaid and Achilleid position the Argo's voyage as a recent event, in parallel to Statius's own status as Valerius's successor. She traces a familial dynamic through the image of Peleus and Achilles in Argonautica 1, suggesting that Statius uses Valerian intertexts to construct a sense of inevitability in the tradition. Parkes also shows the combative element of their relationship: Statius corrects the details of overlapping material, and integrates Valerian references into his characteristic method of multiple interpretation. Augoustakis examines Silius's response to Valerius as part of his attempt to construct a new national epic in contrast to the Aeneid. Focusing on the mass suicide at Saguntum in Punica 2 and Hercules's repeated appearances, he demonstrates Silius's use of allusion to promote Flavian ideology in the very different context of historical epic. Both show the Flavian authors's exploitation of their epigonal status, and indicate avenues for future research.

As the only essay in the final section ("Reception"), Andrew Zissos's chapter on Pio's 16th c. addition to the Argonautica looks a bit like an afterthought. In its discussion of Pio's close engagement with both Apollonian and Valerian poetics, however, this essay nicely complements Taylor-Briggs's opening chapter. Zissos focuses on Pio's dual authorial persona, as both Apollonian translator and Valerian continuator, roles that are, he suggests, at times mutually exclusive. In his attempt to fill in Valerius's text with Apollonian material, Pio illustrates the interpretive difficulties inherent in the Argonautic tradition.

Heerink and Manuwald's volume provides not only a comprehensive and stimulating introduction to the Argonautica, but also an invaluable starting point for future research. As Valerian scholarship continues to grow, this companion showcases the excellent work currently being done and the different, fruitful, methods that they employ, offering new models for the evaluation of a belated work in the epic tradition. It attests to the richness of Valerius's poem: its generic and allusive interplay, incorporation of contemporary political and philosophical discourses, and impact on the literary tradition, both in the short term and at a remove. This compelling work will appeal to the general reader in Classics as well as specialists, and is a most welcome contribution to the field.


1.   Citing Barchiesi (1993), "Future Reflexive: Two Modes of Allusion and Ovid's Heroides." HSCP 95: 333-365.
2.   See Hardie's introduction to Barchiesi (2015), Homeric Effects in Vergil's Narrative. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press: ix.
3.   Stover (2012), Epic and Empire in Vespasianic Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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