Everybody has heard of the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, and yet its poet is obscure. If Apollonius, the third-century BCE Alexandrian author of the Argonautika, could boast one reader today for every thousand who have read the Iliad or the Odyssey, he would have to count himself lucky. One of the aims of Professor Peter Green’s new translation is to adjust this imbalance.
Have previous translators served up Apollonius cold? Or does the problem lie with the original product? It would be hard to maintain that Apollonius lacked talent as a poet: every page of his poem gives evidence of a sparkling verbal genius. His visual effects are especially impressive. Here is his account of the departure of Jason and his comrades in search of the fleece from the Argo‘s home port on the mountain-ringed Pagasaean Gulf:
As the ship moved…
…the long wake shone ever white behind them, like some
track seen dwindling away across the green savannah.
On that day all the gods looked out from heaven
at the ship and this race of demigods, valiantly steering
over the deep. On the topmost peaks of Pelion,
the nymphs gazed in amazement as they witnessed
Athena of Iton’s handiwork, and the heroes themselves,
fists gripping and plying the oars. From his mountain summit
Cheiron, Philyra’s son, came down to the seashore,
and where the waves break brine-gray, in the shallows
splashed fetlock-deep…waving them on their way….
Elements of this have Homeric an-tecedents, but it was a brilliant, innovative idea to exploit the bay’s amphitheater-like shape to depict, on physical grades of elevation, the various stages ascending from the human to the divine, and so to capture them all in a single and unified picture.
Another trait that might have been expected to win Apollonius a wider readership is his interest in sex, an interest which Homer, if he has it at all, keeps well under control. It is a subject matter that combines nicely with Apollonius’ visual knack. In the third book (of four) of the Argonautika, the witch-princess Medea, wracked by an unsatisfied and illicit passion, goes to meet her beloved, and takes a dozen handmaidens along with her. Two of these join her in her little cart, while the other ten, “holding on to the carriage from behind, canter/ down the broad road, raising up as they run/their gauzy fine skirts to their white upper-thighs” (3.873–875, my translation). Homer gives us a delightful description of the nubile princess Nausicaa and her handmaidens playing ball on the beach (Odyssey 6.99– 109), but he never smacks his lips quite like this.
Occasionally Apollonius goes straight over the top, and achieves a certain lurid magnificence in doing so. When the Argo is forced to pass through the dangerous Wandering Rocks, the well-disposed Hera summons Thetis and her forty-nine sister-nymphs, the Nereids; their arrival is compared, in its appearance and its effect upon the …