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Coast of Outopia: the Argo in the Tyrrhenian Sea

Carolyn MacDonald

Long thought of as highly refined, densely allusive, and fiendishly obscure, Hellenistic poetry has hardly enjoyed a reputation for worldliness. As recent scholarship has amply shown, however, the poets of Ptolemaic Alexandria were in fact deeply engaged in the literary construction of a new Hellenistic world: a polycentric, heteronomous oikoumene extending from the Black Sea to the Western Mediterranean (Selden 1998, Bing 2005, Asper 2011, Thalmann 2011, e.g.).  Yet while Posidippus, Callimachus, and Apollonius were creating the geopoetics for their changed and changing Greek world, its westernmost cities were entering the expanding ambit of Roman power.  Rome’s influence in Magna Graecia grew substantially in the wake of  the Pyrrhic wars (280-278 BCE, 276-5 BCE), and this did not go unnoticed in Alexandria: shortly after Pyrrhus’ retreat from Italy, Ptolemy II dispatched an embassy to Rome and established a treaty of amicitia (273 BCE).  Greek historiographical fragments from this period of intensifying political and cultural contact likewise suggest a degree of interest in positioning Romans vis-a-vis Hellenes (Gruen 1984: 319-20).  Which begs the question: What of the poets?  Where was Rome in the world circumscribed by their verses? 

My goal is to begin exploring this question by analyzing the representation of Italy in Book 4 of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica. Although Callimachus’ fragmentary aetion of Roman Gaius and the contested Roman passage in Lycophron’s Alexandra also deserve attention, I will here focus on the treatment of Italy in the Argonautica because it is complete and its authenticity is not in question.  My paper will argue that, in marked contrast to the other regions traversed by the Argonauts, the Tyrrhenian coast is excluded from the epic’s Hellenocentric spatial system.  Italy is given no defined relationship to the Greek oikoumene.

I begin by identifying four discourses deployed by Apollonius to bring various locales into a relationship with the Greek world: topography, ethnography, Argonautic aetiology, and Herakles myth. I then use these four categories to compare Apollonius’ representation of the eastern Pontus as a non-Greek space with his representation of Italy as simply a non-space.  For example, the eastern Pontus is populated with peoples living according to inverted Greek norms (the Amazons, 2.985-1000; the Chalybes, 2.1000-1008; the Tibarenoi, 2.1009-14; and the Mossynoikoi, 2.1015-29).  Insofar as they are defined precisely as non-Greek Others, however, these peoples and their land are still available for inclusion in a Greek understanding of the world. The islands and coast of the Tyrrhenian sea, in contrast, have no inhabitants except for Circe, her creatures of undefined form (phuen adeloi, 4.681), and the half-bird half-maiden Sirens (4.898-9).  Unlike the eastern Pontus, western Italy is not constructed as non-Greek and so defined vis-a-vis the Greek world; rather, it is left unconstructed and indefinite.

After establishing the placelessness of Italy in the Argonautica, I next demonstrate that Apollonius would have had access to topographic, ethnographic, aetiological, and Heraklean material related to the region.  Timaeus’ Histories, for instance, clearly contained such details about Italy, and we know that Callimachus was familiar with it (Fraser 1972: 764).  What is more, the range of material available even in what survives today suggests that Apollonius could have used it to define Italy either as a non-Greek space like the eastern Pontus or as a future Greek space like Libya.  The decision to suppress this material and leave Italy an indefinite blank is thus all the more worthy of attention. I will conclude, therefore, by suggesting that Apollonius’ exclusion of western Italy from the spatial system of the Argonautica is a marked response to the rise of Roman power: the indefiniteness of the Tyrrhenian coast reflects an understandable uncertainty over Rome’s changing place in the Hellenistic world.  

Session/Panel Title

Intrageneric Dialogues in Hellenistic and Imperial Epic

Session/Paper Number

4.2

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