Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica is a real hidden gem in classical literature. Find out why you should read it and which translation is the best!
First of all, let’s get one thing straight. This is NOT the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes. If you’re interested in Apollonius, read my post about his version of the Argonautic myth.
This is the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus. Valerius was a member of the ancient Roman elite and he lived in the 1st century CE. Now we finally have a good modern translation (or two) of his Argonautica, so there is no excuse not to dive in.
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If you’re in a rush, here’s the quick info: I recommend Michael Barich’s English translation of the Argonautica.
If you have more time, keep reading to learn all about Valerius Flaccus’ epic and the various English translations. This Roman retelling of the voyage of the Argo has never received the attention it deserves – it’s time to change that!
What is Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica?
Originally written in Latin in the 1st century CE, the Argonautica is an epic in eight books that narrates the quest of Jason and the Argonauts. At 250 pages, it is on the shorter end for ancient epic, but there is still so much to appreciate.
A word about the name. “Argonautica” comes from Greek and means “things related to the Argo”. The Argo is the ship on which Jason and his companions have their adventures.
The story of Jason and the Argonauts was ancient even by Valerius Flaccus’ day. In fact, the first mentions of Jason and his exploits come in the Odyssey, which dates to around the 7th century BCE.
That’s over 800 years before Valerius picked up his pen. And in those intervening centuries, many ancient authors told their version of the story.
One such version is the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes. Valerius takes a lot of inspiration from this account, which was originally written in Greek in the 3rd century BCE.
So what happens in the Argonautic myth, which has now survived almost three millennia?
Jason’s wicked uncle Pelias sends him on a mission to claim the Golden Fleece. The Fleece is in the custody of the tyrant Aeetes and it’s guarded by a giant serpent. As if that weren’t bad enough, it’s located in Colchis at the edge of the world (aka modern Georgia).
But Jason gathers a crew of heroes from all over Greece and sets out in the Argo, the finest ship ever made. He sails for Colchis and encounters all kinds of friends and foes along the way. In Colchis, he will meet his most dangerous ally: Medea, daughter of Aeetes.
That’s the basic storyline. But the beauty of Greco-Roman myths is that they are retold constantly. Each new version adds its own twists and its own subtleties.
Valerius Flaccus’ Version
Valerius Flaccus tells the story of Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts from the perspective of imperial Rome. He lived in a time when imperial power could be unstable and where emperors could be fickle.
In 69 CE, Rome descended into bloody chaos after the assassination of the emperor Nero. The Flavian dynasty soon established peace, but the problems weren’t over. Romans like Valerius couldn’t be sure that more civil war wasn’t on the horizon.
A sense of unease shines through in Valerius’ retelling. On their journey the Argonauts encounter political instability in various cities in Greece and beyond. Not to mention that Valerius inserts an entire civil war at Colchis that is not part of the traditional myth.
Valerius Flaccus may rely a lot on Apollonius, but this is no Latin copy of a Greek original. The Colchian Civil War is just one example of innovation. One of my favorite parts is Valerius’ portrayal of Medea. She is a complex character who, despite her maidenly innocence, wields incredible magical power.
Hints of her dark future as a murderess abound, but in the present we see her strong principles and her determination to resist temptation. Unfortunately, the gods (and literary tradition) will not let her deviate from her doomed trajectory.
This is the Argonautica as you have never read it before. This is also, regrettably, an unfinished Argonautica. Scholars argue about whether Valerius intended his epic to have 8 books or 12, but he died before he could finish it.
The story breaks off in the midst of an argument between Jason and Medea – to my eternal frustration. But the parts of the epic that we do have make up for what is missing.
Those familiar with classical epic will enjoy the combination of Apollonian and Vergilian themes. But even if you have never read anything about Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts, I highly recommend this book.
Best Translation of Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica
As I mentioned up above, my favorite translation of the Argonautica is Michael Barich’s. Here I will cover the pros and cons of three translations.
We will go in reverse chronological order.
Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica (2009), trans. Barich
Michael Barich, a professor of Classics at Kenyon College, has produced a charming translation of the Argonautica in blank verse. Barich uses contemporary English with a formal slant, but – as he writes in his preface – he dips into more colloquial or more elevated styles when appropriate.
This translation is highly readable and you will get swept away in the adventures and disasters of Jason and his crew. At the same time it stays true to the Latin – no small feat. Furthermore, Barich provides helpful introductory information to contextualize Valerius and Argonautic myth in general.
Most useful to the casual reader is the “Back Story to the Argonautica”, a quick two-page summary of everything you should know before diving into the text. This, and the glossary of names at the back, will get you up to speed on everything.
I love Barich’s translation and I will now recommend it to all of my students and colleagues. The only negative is that it was published by a small press (XOXOX Press) and as a result there are occasional punctuation errors and formatting issues. (The page margins are a bit too narrow throughout and the introduction is in very small type, surely to preserve paper.)
But, all in all, whether you are a mythology enthusiast, a scholar, or simply curious, Barich’s translation of the Argonautica is your best option. (And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Consider this review by a professor of Classics.)
Voyage of the Argo (1999), trans. Slavitt
David Slavitt’s translation is another solid option. The English, once again in blank verse, is contemporary and entertaining.
The primary drawback is that Slavitt can be rather free with his translation. Sometimes he inserts his own thoughts or puts his own spin on things, as this review explains in detail. Another issue is that occasionally the language becomes too colloquial for my taste.
For example, in a fit of rage the foreign prince Styrus shouts at the Argonauts. Slavitt’s translation includes obscenities and other phrases not found in the original. The speech culminates with: “Is she saving Jason’s bacon with mumbo-jumbo again? Too hell with that hoo-doo horseshit.” (8.344-345)
While amusing, this is not exactly an accurate representation of Valerius’ Latin. On a more serious note, Slavitt’s edition lacks the introductory material found in Barich. There is not even a glossary to help out readers confused by the many names.
Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica (1934), trans. Mozley
Mozley’s Loeb translation is thankfully no longer our only option. If you are familiar with the Loeb Classical Library, then you may know that the English tends to be old-fashioned and tedious. The Argonautica translation is no exception.
I would never recommend Mozley for pleasurable reading. However, this book – like all Loeb texts – has the advantage of presenting the Latin and the English side by side. If you want to read the Argonautica in the original Latin with a bit of English guidance, then this is an excellent option.
And there you go. Now you know the strengths and weaknesses of the three main English translations of Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica. On the whole, Barich is definitely my favorite.
Go Read Valerius Flaccus!
Valerius Flaccus has never received the attention he deserves, mostly because he lived in the late 1st century CE. Classicists like to call this the “Silver Age” of Latin poetry (in comparison to the “Golden Age” of Vergil and Ovid).
This label has scared off many a prospective reader, but it’s time that we stop being prejudiced. Valerius isn’t Vergil. He’s his own author, and although he adopts a lot of Vergilian themes, he puts his own distinctive spin on them.
Quite frankly, I enjoyed the Argonautica more than the Aeneid. (Unpopular opinion, I know.)
In any case, my point is that it’s time to branch out. There are so many fascinating works of classical literature that no one has ever heard of. So go read Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica and experience a new piece of the ancient world!
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