Rewriting Fate in
Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica

David A. Guinee

DePauw University

Certainly prophecy is part of the stock in trade of epic in general, but in Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica we find an unusually high population of prophets and prophecies. In addition to the usual omens about success or failure throughout the epic and the unveiling of Jupiter's grand design in Book I, the Argo carries not one, but two prophets (Mopsus and Idmon); the ship itself is identified first as fatidicam ratem (1.2); the blind seer Phineus plays a central role in helping the Argonauts reach their destination; and Valerius himself extends the commonplace notion of the epic poet as vates by presenting himself as a "real world" interpreter of prophecies, one of the quindecemviri sacris faciundis.

Early in the first book Argus and Idmon produce successive prophecies about the prospects for the Argonauts' journey, and the two prophets present differing styles or modes of prophecy. While Idmon is confident, reassuring, and stately, presenting a picture of trials endured and ultimate triumph, Mopsus, wild and frenzied, produces a terrifying glimpse at the future, focusing on the horrors that lay ahead. And yet, in spite of their differing styles, which seem to predict drastically different outcomes, both prophets are correct. Both, I would argue, represent different approaches that Valerius could take to rewriting and rereading the story of the Argonautica. Throughout the epic Valerius vacillates between presenting the journey as, on the one hand, part of the grand divine design that leads through the Aeneid to the present greatness of Rome, and, on the other, an event that leads to the end of the Golden Age and brings in its train madness, murder, and horror.

At issue is the poet's ability to present anything original, especially in an Argonautica. The prophecies on this journey have been created by the accepted canonical version of the tale, that of Appollonius, and in Valerius' Book V the issue comes to a head, as Valerius begins to enter the territory of Apollonius III, where, I would argue, his audience's expectations would be the strongest. Here Valerius constantly promises to produce something different (cantus alios, 5. 217) and regularly marks as fatum events that he presents differently than we find in Apollonius. What is fatum in Valerius' text is not what has been spoken (fatum) before. Valerius chooses prophecy to figure his own struggle against mere recapitulation of literary precedent.


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