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Going for the Gold: Virtus and Luxuria in the Argonautica

Jessica Blum

talis ab Inachiis Nemeae Tirynthius antris ibat…(Argo.8.125)

What does it mean to become Hercules? In this paper, I will argue that Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica traces a link between Hercules’ civilizing career and the moral decline brought by imperial conquest. Throughout the Argonautica, comparisons to Hercules provide a thematic counterpoint to Jason’s pursuit of the Golden Fleece, and the heroic standard it represents. As he shoulders the Fleece, he is compared to Hercules with his lion skin (Argo.8.125-130), identified by the gilded image of his first conquest. Jason’s pursuit of gold, however, does not only follow Hercules’ example.

By associating exemplary images of heroism with golden objects, Valerius activates negative stereotypes of Eastern luxuria to link inextricably heroic achievement and its corruption. Seal (in Augoustakis 2014, pg. 131, 133) has recently argued that Valerius’ Lemnian and Cyzican episodes both show a causal link between overseas conquest and familial violence. I will show that this link is represented by the presence of golden objects that trick the heroes into self-destructive action.

I will suggest that the presence of gold in the Argonautica also traces Jason’s pursuit of false or inappropriate objects, with sinister implications for the effect of foreign conquest on the conqueror. In creating this theme, Valerius responds to the polysemous concept of “Easternness” in the Aeneid: it represents both Rome’s epic legacy and her moral corruption in the present. In the Argonautica, the designation “Phrygian” activates not only images of immorality, but also of civil war. It suggests that the pursuit of conquest, and the golden objects that represent it, render victor and victim indistinguishable.

Starting with the ecphrasis of Cyzicus’ cup (Argo.2.655-662), Jason’s desire for heroic glory is at once laudable (and in contrast to Apollonius’ less heroic portrayal) and destructive: he wishes for epic challenges, but fails to see himself in the role of the attacking Pelasgians depicted on the cup. Cyzicus, too, succumbs to desire for a false trophy, killing one of Cybele’s lions in his eagerness for booty and thereby setting the goddess’ revenge in motion (Argo.3.22: ingenti praedae deceptus amore). Both heroes pursue lion skin trophies, one real, and one figurative: while Cyzicus hunts an actual lion, Jason aspires to Hercules’ iconic image. Seeking these shiny objects, they recreate the scene on the cup. By conflating the motives of amor rerum and amor praedae, Valerius shows how they are led into their fatal battle, and furthermore hints at the wider implications of Rome’s Eastern origins.

Valerius’ construction of the battle between the Argonauts and the Cyzicans as a type of civil war offers a still more sinister twist on Jason’s pursuit of the Herculean ideal. In his battle against the Sown Men in Colchis, Jason distracts his opponents by throwing his drugged helmet among them. Like Cybele, he leads his victims astray, sending them after a shiny trophy. Jason plays the part of both Seneca’s Juno and Valerius’ Pelias, forced by the absence of real monsters to create false opponents for their rivals (Sen.HF.40: monstra iam desunt mihi…; Argo.1.33-34: sed neque bella videt Graias neque monstra per urbes ulla…). Strikingly, the Sown Men are described as Phrygians maddened by the same goddess:…qualis ubi attonitos maestae Phrygas annua Matris ira….miseros agit in sua proelia fratres (Argo.7.631-640). They mimic not only Cyzicus pursuing the forbidden lion, but also a tragic Hercules, who mistakes his kin for the enemy. Through their distraction by gold, both conqueror and conquered fall into a self-destructive trap, in which civil war replaces civilizing conquest.

Through its interaction with Vergilian stereotypes of Eastern luxury, Jason’s shouldering of the Fleece shows the inevitable consequences of his “mandated” conquest: a progressive assimilation to those he conquers. He follows his Herculean model to the bitter end, undermining his conquests by turning into the image of his enemy: nempe pro telis gerit/ quae timuit et quae fudit: armatus venit/ leone et hydra (Sen.Herc.Fur.44-46).

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(Inter)generic Receptions in and of Early Imperial Epic

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