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Witch’s Song: Morality, Name-calling and Poetic Authority in the Argonautica

Jessica Blum

In his first Satire, Juvenal mocks the crowd of epic poets recycling hackneyed themes, questioning the relevance of such poetry for contemporary life. This paper will argue that Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica uses the very fact of its recycled subject matter as a means to explore the re-use of traditional language in a new setting. It will examine the appropriation of female tropes by the poem’s heroines, as a means to insert their voices and interpretations into their own story. In presenting a subjective version of their myths, Valerius’ women challenge the primacy of their poet and their canonical representations.

This paper will focus on the interaction of Roman moral discourse and autonomous female voices in the Argonautica and Ovid’s Heroides. Gareth Williams has shown that Medea’s anticipation of a maius opus in the Heroides and Metamorphoses represents her challenge to Ovid’s poetic primacy, as she progresses toward her final, tragic incarnation (Williams 2012). I will argue that Valerius’ heroines use the moral language of the Heroides to reflect on the role of traditional language in authorizing the voices that express it. By assigning culturally encoded roles to themselves and each other, they present the audience with alternative versions of their stories that undermine the very terms they employ. 

In Heroides 6 and 12, both Medea and Hypsipyle accuse their rival of being a paelex (whore) while asserting their own legal status as matronae. Both claim the authority to assign roles according to their own perspective, and implicitly exert control over Jason’s storyline as well. By depicting Jason’s agency or passivity on a linguistic level, they construct themselves as innocent victims and wives (matronae, coniuges) and their rivals as, variously, sluts, barbarians, violent stepmothers (novercae) and witches casting spells (carmina). The double meaning of carmen as both spell and song speaks to the challenge that these women represent to the poet as well as Jason’s legacy. Through their letters, they offer different versions of the Argonautic myth, exposing the vulnerability of even traditional material to rewriting.

Valerius takes the rhetoric of Roman morality from the opposing perspectives of the Heroides and puts it into the self-destructive action of his Lemnian episode: such speech, in the mouth of Venus, becomes the mechanism that makes the Romanized Lemnians into violent Furies. Venus’ manipulation of conventional vocabulary thus undermines the very social values she asserts: her interpretation of events reveals the vulnerability of such tropes to subjective reinterpretation in the narrative present.

The Lemnian episode showcases the instability of Roman morality as a point of communal identity. In a story of women punishing their husbands for perceived infidelity, coniunx is used throughout the Lemnian episode in such a way as to undermine its own validity: these coniuges are willing to carry out their roles only until their desire for revenge takes over. The character of Circe, which Venus adopts in Argonautica 7, enacts the same slippage between roles. She uses her own story as an exemplum to inspire Medea to run away with Jason, telling her that she is now the coniunx of Ausonian Picus (Arg.7.232). This self-representation directly contradicts the version of the story presented in Metamorphoses 14, in which Circe kills both Picus and, indirectly, his wife Canens in revenge for his rejection. Her rewriting of the myth plays into the characteristic Roman practice of learning from familial exempla, while simultaneously exposing the dangers of doing so.

Like the women of the Heroides, Valerius’ heroines enact the problems inherent in using the language of the past to interpret the present. The cultural vocabulary that authorizes their voices to an internal audience presents a serious threat to the community in the mouths of marginalized characters. In illustrating the slippage between the roles of wife, witch, heroine and whore, Valerius invites his audience to consider the function of tradition, both social and literary, as a lens through which to understand the present. 

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On the Boundaries of Latin Poetry

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