Phantasmal Journeys: Space and Place in the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus

Gregory W.Q. Hodges

Trinity College School

The geographical descriptions that mark the voyage of the Argo grant insight into Valerius Flaccus' evaluation of imperial Rome. By nature the journey of the Argonauts maintains the complementary pretence of being presented poetically as the first iterative epic. The circumstances launching the action of the poem are those circumscribed by Pelias' own concern to insulate himself from the political threat of Jason's succession (Hardie 1993). Without having recourse to what would become the traditional avenues of military engagement or Herculean monsters, Pelias must generate a new labor intended to be the destruction of our promised hero (1. 31-34). Novelty itself is a structuring theme of the Argonautica with the difficulty being that the subject and medium both threaten its effectual deployment. Valerius Flaccus challenges his audience to find comprehensiveness in the world through which the Argo will sail, a world circumscribed by intertextual allusion but that still retains the elemental quality of novelty vis-à-vis both narrative space and place.

The itinerary of the Argo is developed not only in the deployment of traditional mythological episodes, but also by the poet's selective deployment of geographical aspects of this journey. The space through which the boat travels, and the associated descriptions of the peoples that inhabit them, establishes a literal and figurative context both for Jason's quest and for Valerius Flaccus' programmatic poetic adventure. As the poet prepares for the introduction of Cyzicus in Book II, he offers an etiological account of the rupture that would separate Europe from Asia and Africa both (2.613-620; cf. 4.724-732). By nature these lands were distanced from one another thus affording the simple circumstance required for Jason's journey. Spatial distancing can account for the inherent foreign character of those people met en route. This particular ethnographic effect and other geographical details serve as fundamental tools by which the Greek heroes, and the poet's Roman audience, are afforded a deductive ethnic portrait by which they might understand effectively the role each is to assume in the world generated by Valerius Flaccus. The relationship between Jason and Medea, emblematic of that between Europa and Asia, suggested at first a reconciliation of this disjointed world but the result is none other than promised, prolonged conflict (8. 395-396). The journey of the Argo might thus be read as a survey not only of the epic tradition, but more as an overview of Roman imperium and the comprehensiveness of its command.  Thus the geography of this epic may be understood as a poeticized depiction of those peoples and places over which Flavian Rome would pretend control (cf. Nicolet 1991).

In his Argonautica, Valerius Flaccus is remapping the world, re-presenting it for his heroes and his audience. The effect of his poetic program is that of re-creating a world within which meaningful, heroic challenge might be undertaken in order to lend useful substance to the otherwise static Golden Age. Space and place both within the narrative text and comprehended by the journey itself, allude to a structured ethnographic system whereby longstanding regional enmities can be explored. The poem can then be viewed within an established spatial context that imparts meaning to the many episodes that speak to the epic tradition itself. Were this poem simply a complex of poetic and mythological traditions, hobbled by an awkward attempt at Callimachean adornment, few would embark. As the poetic helmsman, Valerius Flaccus will set a course through a world marked not only by inter-textual reference, but also by ethno-geographical details that endeavour to account for a fragmented world the Romans would try to bind with their imperial power.


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