The Argonautica; Jason and the Golden Fleece; Jason and the Argonauts; apparently the book with a million names, by Apollonius of Rhodes (can we also acknowledge that he wasn’t even from Rhodes).
So, because who cares about chronology lets jump many years into the future for my next ‘Books that made me’ instalment: from secondary school the early years to university the early years. This book first entered my life in January of 2012 – recently enough that I can be that specific. It was one of the three set texts for my Classical Literature course in the 2nd term of my 2nd year at university. The course itself was all about Ancient Epic and featured along side The Argonautica Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid. Neither of which quite did it for me in the way Apollonius’ work did.
This was my first dedicated course to the literature of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. We had touched on poetry and tragedy in my first year classes and paid particular attention to the the historical texts of antiquity from Herodotus to Suetonius. Never, however, had the focus of my learning been on understanding, analysing and appreciating ancient literature and its cultural significance. This course was not even a mandatory course for me. I was enrolled at the university under the degree title of ‘Ancient History & Classical Archaeology’. I had no choice but to complete the Classical Archaeology and Classical Art modules available on the timetable but Classical Literature was optional. Both through a love of literature and anything ancient, however, I knew that for me personally their was no doubt about whether I would choose to fill in the gap in my timetable with this course. I wanted to know everything there was to know about the Ancients.
Little did I know that the draw of classical literature was something I would eventually be unable to escape.
As I mentioned, although interesting, I cannot credit the Iliad or the Aenied with this invigorated fascinating with Ancient, specifically Greek, literature. It was the Argonautica that would capture my heart for ever. The Argonautica is a Hellenistic (3rd cen. BC) epic poem of a much shorter length than works like the Odyssey and the Iliad. It follows the journey of Jason and his fellow crew-mates the Argonauts i.e. the sailors of the ship the Argo, to the island of Colchis to acquire the Golden Fleece that belonged to the island’s King. It is on Colchis that Jason meets the princess Medea who helps him in his mission.
One thing I enjoyed most about studying this as a piece of Hellenistic literature is the experimental nature of this period’s art, literary and otherwise, the Argonautica not excluded. That idealised Classical art form was being stretched and manipulated to create something new and that was what excited me, really demonstrating to me what the Greeks were capable of. Not to mentioned I loved studying intertextuality, literary tradition, myth and imagery through this work; this may be a shorter work of epic but it is no less full of excitement than its precursors. Naturally this was the poem that out of the three I chose to write both my essays on for that class.
I loved it so much in fact that by the time the term was up I was no longer enrolled in Ancient History & Classical Archaeology I was now enrolled in Classical Studies – in a bid to express my newly formed focus on the texts of Ancient Greece as opposed to their physical remains.
I even wrote my final year undergraduate dissertation in large part on Apollonius’ Argonautica and, in turn, the influence it had had on later Greek literature. And I can honestly say I found writing that dissertation a thrilling and inspiring exercise.
Today, my PhD research is focused more on the historical documents of Ancient Greece as opposed to the literary (not the perfect description to delineate the two but the best I could do right now – and certainly never as clear a distinction as it sounds here). What remains steadfast, however, is that I deal with textual sources in my study of Antiquity and I will be forever bound to the literature of the Ancient Greeks. That’s a pretty impressive feat for one book.