Untimely epic: Apollonius’ Hellenistic Argonauts

Congratulations to former Anachronism and Antiquity post-doctoral research associate Tom Phillips on the publication of his monograph Untimely Epic: Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica (Oxford University Press, 2020). The book uses analytical frameworks developed by Tom while working on the Anachronism project to re-read this complex and subtle contribution to the epic tradition.

Untimely Epic book cover

Tom writes:

Epic poems are concerned with what is fundamental. They dramatize the concepts, beliefs, and actions that orient their societies: the ‘fame’ pursued by Homeric heroes, the pietas of the Aeneid, and the ‘eternal Providence’ of Paradise Lost. Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, although long recognized as an important representative of Hellenistic poetic culture, has tended to be treated more as masterpiece of learned, self-conscious artistry than as a serious reflection on the exigencies that mould historical life.

This book, by contrast, reads the Argonautica as  deeply invested in the question of what it means, or might mean, to be a Greek in the third century BC. This question is staged in the poem’s presentation of characters, but it also emerges when readers are prompted to consider the historical, ethical, and aesthetic sources of their agency.

The ‘untimely’ is crucial to Apollonius’ project: in the course of their journey, readers are confronted by a lament that sounds unceasingly but is only heard once, a shepherd who lives out an echo of the golden age, nymphs whose harmonious world has been mauled unmendably by Heracles, and many other phenomena constituted by their complex situation in time.

The imaginative and formal subtlety with which Apollonius dramatizes these events impels readers to consider the grounds on which they construct the past as meaningful, and themselves as meaningful in relation to the past.

The story of Jason’s journey has been retold many times since Apollonius wrote his version in the third century BCE. Perhaps the most familiar and iconic modern version is Ray Harryhausen’s 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, which used both live-action and stop-motion sequences to capture the complexities of the story. Jason’s mythical journey provided a vehicle for new cinematic techniques just as it had for Apollonius’ development of the possibilities of epic told in hexameter verse.

The bronze man Talos confronts Jason and the Argo, from Jason and the Argonauts.
The bronze man Talos confronts Jason and the Argo, from Jason and the Argonauts.

For more on Untimely Epic see both the OUP website and our Publications page.

  • If like us you love the beautiful cover art on this book, check out photographer Paul Kenny’s website for more of his amazing work.

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