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Opibusque ultra ne crede paternis: Fathers and Sons on the Wrong Side of History in Valerius’ Argonautica

Timothy Stover

Recent studies of the Latin Argonautica reveal how Valerius’ poem reflects the social and political pressures the Roman élite faced in the early imperial period, particularly in Valerius’ narratives of kinship (Davis 1990; Otte 1992; Zissos 2003; Bernstein 2008). This paper builds on these studies by focusing specifically on the fathers and sons in Valerius’ epic who can be dubbed “history’s losers”. These figures illustrate further how Valerius’ poem reflects the socio-political context in which it was produced—the aftermath of the civil war of 68-9.

A key component of the Valerian Jupiter's imperial agenda is the voyage of Argo, a ship manned in part by his own sons (Hercules, Castor and Pollux).  Jupiter's stake in the mission's success is both political and personal. Argo’s voyage not only inaugurates a new world order, but provides Jupiter’s sons with an opportunity to win undying fame (1.531-73). Valerius frames the Argonautic voyage as ushering in a new era of world history, one ruled by Jupiter. It has been argued that this aspect of the text reflects the recent rise to imperial power of Vespasian and his sons and the inauguration of the Flavian dynasty (Stover 2012).  By charting the political advancement of Jupiter and his sons, Valerius indirectly comments on the contemporary political landscape as a zero-sum game.  When one family acquires power, other prominent kinship groups suffer; the events of 68-9 brought fresh awareness of that fact. Little of the fighting during the “Year of Four Emperors” opposed the Principate as an institution; rather, political élites wished to promote leaders thought capable of improving the status of their supporters and their supporters’ families (Morgan 2006, 7). The ultimate victory of Vespasian and his sons benefitted some, but not everyone. The paper traces the (mis)fortunes of the losers as reflected in the failed familial ambitions of Valerius’ epic. In the wake of the Jovian Argo, Father/son pairs such as Sol and Aeëtes, Neptune and Amycus, and Aeëtes and Absyrtus emerge as casualties of the new world order.

The boxing match between Amycus and Pollux showcases how Jupiter’s rise to power thwarts a formerly more prominent father/son pair. We are constantly reminded that Pollux is Jupiter’s son (4.256, 311-14, 327-8, 341-3), while Amycus is Neptune’s son (4.109, 114-30, 150, 186, 213, 256, 319)—a repeated emphasis not found in Apollonius’ Argonautica. Valerius foregrounds the fact that the combatants are cousins, but cousins on opposite sides of history. His Amycus is out of step with the new Jovian dispensation, given his antipathy both to Jupiter himself and to the hallmark of his new regime, seafaring (4.219-21).  Apollonius’ Amycus expresses no such antipathy to Zeus or to the Argo’s innovation. Valerius shades the episode with familial and political dimensions lacking in his primary model. Pollux triumphs over Amycus not simply as a glorious personal achievement, but rather as proxy victory for his father Jupiter (victoriparenti, 4.343). While his son’s victory further enhances Jupiter’s status, Amycus’ loss reflects poorly on Neptune’s place in the political pecking order. Once, Neptune’s prominence might have aided his son; now Jupiter and his favorites rule the day: nate…opibusque ultra ne crede paternis. / iam iam aliae vires maioraque sanguine nostro / vincunt fata Iovis (4.125-7). In Valerius, the Amycus episode depicts how victory for one father/son pair involves—indeed necessitates—loss for another father and son.

Such figures prompt Valerius’ audience to ponder anew the effects of one family's rise to absolute power, a process that marginalizes other, once prominent kinship groups.  Valerius' text thus reflects how the post-civil war acquisition of power by Vespasian and his two sons rewrote Rome’s history by writing their rivals out of it.

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Family Values: Fathers and Sons in Flavian Literature

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