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Iterum belli diversa peragrat: Argonautic and Roman Civil War

Leo Landrey

It has long been understood that the Argonauts’ battles against Cyzicus and Perses in Books 3 and 6 of Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, respectively, are narrative doublets (Schenk). The poet reduplicates the conflicts in structure and tone, providing Jason and his crew with two eerily similar opportunities to display their martial recuperation (Hershkowitz; Stover) against enemies eerily similar to themselves. In this paper I show that the poet’s prominent alignment of these twinned battles suggests a close relationship between the events of the Argonautica and the reiterative civil wars of 69 CE.

            Valerius recasts the Argonautic legend as a journey across a landscape riddled by civil war. Where Apollonius Rhodius devotes little space to the Argonauts’ nighttime battle with the Doliones (AR 1.1012-1056), Valerius delivers a robust narrative of the episode (Arg. 3.1-248) and later innovates its daytime döppelganger, the Colchian war of Book 6. These changes invite Valerius’ readers to question why he transforms the Argonauts into recurrent civil warriors. One possible answer, which I propose in this paper, is that Valerius shapes his Argonautica to evoke the civil wars of 69 CE and their two decisive battles, Bedriacum and Cremona. Both battles left lasting social scars, the former as the first violent clash of rival Roman armies since Actium and the latter as the contest that led to the razing of Cremona. Fought in nearly the same location and within the same year, they offer useful tools with which to interpret the duplication of Valerius’ own battles.

            In order to examine how Flavian history resonates with the Argonautica, I compare the battles of Books 3 and 6 with the most contemporary accounts of Bedriacum and Cremona, Tacitus’ Historiae 2.39-45 and 3.22-25. I first compare Jason’s battle against Cyzicus with Tacitus’ account of Cremona (Hist. 3.22-25), night fights that both authors develop along similar lines. Tacitus and Valerius, I argue, emphasize how nocturnal combats confuse discrimina in a way characteristic of civil war (Hist. 3.22.3 ~ Arg. 3.186-189). Both narratives play with the effects of darkness on battle (Hist. 3.23.3 ~ Arg. 3.194-196) and conclude with sunrises that eliminate warfare’s confusion (Hist. 3.24.3 ~ Arg. 3.249-258). When Valerius’ text laments the inability of guest gifts to alert combatants to their oaths of friendship (Arg. 3.168-177), it implicates participants in civil war—mythological and historical—in the pointlessly destructive suspension of social compacts.

            The second pair of civil battles (Argonautica 6 and Historiae 2.39-45) jolt disjointedly from scene to scene. Both narratives start by transitioning suddenly from a commander in the midst of issuing orders to outright war (Hist. 2.41.1 ~ Arg. 6.26-30), and these abrupt beginnings presage chaotic compositions (Ash; Wijsman). In particular, both authors juxtapose separate battlefield vignettes using parallel devices that call attention to their compositional jumble (Hist. 2.43.1-2 ~ Arg. 6.265). This narrative confusion creates deeply unsettling accounts that are hard to understand, again erasing the distinctions between theoretically distinct combatants. Valerius’ Colchian war evokes the trauma of Italian civil war in a way that raises questions about the purpose, and therefore the value, of personal valor in the fractured, meaningless combat of civil war.

            The demolition of  discrimina within individual narratives of civil war leads to larger, even more destabilizing boundary violations. In reshaping his narrative to evoke the events of Bedriacum-Cremona, Valerius draws contemporary history into early mythology. While the Argonautica’s iterative wars are nominally conflicts with foreigners, their evocation of Rome’s own doublet battles finally blurs the distinction between justified foreign war and criminal civil war. The duplication of Valerius’ civil conflicts, moreover, not only evokes the repetition of Bedriacum and Cremona in the same year, but also hints at earlier repetitions of Roman civil war such as Pharsalus, Philippi, and Actium. In recasting his Argonautica as an epic of inveterate and irrepressible social conflict, Valerius points to the inability of the principate to keep its foundational promise of guaranteeing peace.

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After 69 CE: Epic and Civil War in Flavian Rome

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