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Apollonius, Reader of Xenophon: Ethnography, Travel, and Greekness in the Argonautica and the Anabasis

Mark Thatcher

     In Book 2 of Apollonius’ Argonautica, as the Argonauts sail past the southeastern coast of the Black Sea, the poet describes the customs of three tribes who inhabit this region: the Mossynoikoi, the Tibarenoi, and the Chalybes (2.1000-1029; cf. 2.351-81). Remarkably, the voyage of the Argonauts past these three tribes anticipates and mirrors another epic journey, this time a historical one: the passage of the Ten Thousand through the lands of these same tribes, as narrated by Xenophon in the Anabasis (5.4-5). Although scholars have previously noted Apollonius’ use of Xenophon as a source (e.g., Green 1997; contra, Pearson 1938), I argue that Apollonius’ engagement with Xenophon extends to the thematic level as well, as both authors use their travel narratives to reflect on the nature of Greekness.

     Apollonius reports many of the same ethnographic details also found in Xenophon, highlighting the importance of the Anabasis as a source. The Mossynoikoi, for instance, do in public what others do only in private, and in particular have sex in public (Anab. 5.4.33-4; Arg. 2.1015-25). This inversion of Greek customs clearly recalls Herodotus’ Egyptians (2.35), and Apollonius clearly drew on Herodotus’ ethnographical framework (Stephens 2003). Xenophon, however, provides here an even more acute parallel for the inversion of Greek customs.

     Yet the relationship between Apollonius and Xenophon runs much deeper than shared ethnographical details, since both texts construct a complex interrelationship between travel and Greekness. Lost in the heart of Persia, the Ten Thousand band together as Greeks to fight their way out; as they move back towards Greece, their panhellenic unity begins to fall apart (Ma 2004). The famous arrival at the sea (4.7.21-27) represents a key transition point in this process, as the Ten Thousand cross a boundary from barbarian space to Greek space. For Apollonius, portions of this process are reversed: the Argonauts are on their outward voyage, not returning home, and they encounter progressively more foreign peoples as the narrative proceeds. The strangeness of these tribes – and their marked difference from the collection of customs recognized as “Greek” – underscore the fact that the Argonauts have crossed the same boundary as the Ten Thousand, but in the opposite direction, and are approaching the ultimate foreign land of Colchis (Cusset 2004; Thalmann 2011). Moreover, the Ten Thousand constantly interact with the foreign peoples they meet, whether diplomatically or on the battlefield, which encourages them to unify as Greeks. Similarly, the Argonauts, earlier in the poem, engage with the peoples they encounter and shape the landscape into Greek, rather than barbarian, space: in the land of the Mariandynoi, for example, they prepare for the arrival of the Greek colonists of Heraclea by leaving a shrine of the Dioscuroi and a tomb for Idmon (2.743-850; cf. Thalmann 2011). Now, however, as they enter the regions traversed by the Ten Thousand, the Argonauts simply sail past the coast, unable to affect barbarian space. The strong thematic resonances between the Argonautica and the Anabasis thereby also constitute a reversal.

     Travel, ethnography, and reflections on the nature of Greekness had been strongly interconnected since at least the writings of Herodotus, and this rich tradition certainly lies in the background of Apollonius’ description of the southeast Pontus region. Xenophon, however, offered Apollonius something much more specific: a story about the creation of community and group solidarity through the shared experience of travel through foreign lands and encounters with foreign peoples. By referencing another well-known travel narrative that deals with the same thematic concerns and engaging with this text through the well-known technique of imitatio et variatio, Apollonius invites us to recall – and to import, mutatis mutandis, into his own epic poem – the complex ways in which Xenophon uses his travel narrative to reflect on the nature of Greekness.

Session/Panel Title

Contexts and Paratexts of Hellenistic Poetry

Session/Paper Number

61.2

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