Cycles of Time: The Legacy of Empedocles
in the Argonautika

Rob Groves (University of California, Los Angeles)

This paper will demonstrate the importance of the philosopher Empedocles in Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautika and how the Empedoclean references work within Apollonius’s epicWhile it has long been recognized that Orpheus’s song and Medea’s beasts feature elements of Empedocles’s creation and zoogony, our fragmentary knowledge of Empedocles has encouraged little investigation into why Apollonius included these references or what their importance may be in his greater project.  The wealth of Empedocles scholarship since the discovery of the Strasbourg Papyrus (Sedley 2005, etc.) provides us with new insights into Empedocles’s conceptions of time and the cosmic cycles, the very issues Apollonius deals with when invoking Empedocles.  A better understanding of the relationship between these two poets contributes to a fuller sense both of the legacy of Empedocles and the Argonautika of Apollonius.

Empedocles is most well known as the philosopher who threw himself into Mt. Aetna.   The Empedocles that has emerged from recent scholarship is no less colorful: not only a philosopher but also a shamanistic figure, who claimed power over the winds and rain, and claimed a unique access to the nature of the world and mortal life, based upon great cosmic cycles in which the four elements are combined and dissolved by the powers of Love and Strife (v. Kingsley 1995, etc.).   Ancient sources, including Cicero and Dionysius of Halicarnasus also reveal another Empedocles, one far too often lost as he is consigned to philosophers only, Empedocles the poet. Although Aristotle’s Poetics describes Empedocles as a man more justly called a physiologos than a poet, the extant fragments of Empedocles poem(s) provide us with ample evidence of his poetic craftsmanship.  Empedocles was considered, by some, to be an outstanding poet, the pinnacle of an austere style of hexameter verse, the analogue to Pindar, Thucydides, and Aeschylus in their respective genres.  Once Empedocles is understood as a highly influential literary figure, Apollonius is understood to have a parallel relationship with Empedocles as he does with Homer. 

From the moment baby Achilles is shown in Chiron’s arms as Peleus sails off to Colchis, there can be no doubt that Apollonius was acutely aware of the temporal relationships between himself and Homer, as well as the chronologies of their works.   This concern for time figures prominently in the Empedoclean passages.  The song of Orpheus (a figure whose connections with Empedocles cannot be overstated) relates the history of the world until the birth of Zeus; The monsters which accompany Circe are directly compared to those which appear in Empedocles’ process of zoogony.  These insertions of reminders of the cosmic cycles point the reader to an understanding of time, mythical and human time, as a cyclical entity.  In this context, the emphatic differences between Jason and Herakles (v. Beye 1982, etc.) exemplify a cycle of increasing love and strife in the human realm, especially against the mythological backdrop of the actions of Eris and Aphrodite.  Jason, a hero during the process of increasing Love is starkly different from both Herakles and the heroes of the Homeric poems, all figures belonging to the process of increasing strife.

An understanding of Apollonius’s use of Empedoclean models to explore the nature of heroism in different periods, rooted in the importance of Empedocles as an epic predecessor, sheds light not only on intriguing features of the Argonautika, but also helps us better understand the importance in antiquity of a major philosopher and poet.

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