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The Argonautica of Diodorus Siculus

Charles Muntz

An Argonautica is one of the most significant portions of the overview of Greek mythology in book 4 of the Bibliotheke of Diodorus Siculus. Diodorus’ Argonautica is largely based on a mythographical work by Dionysius Scytobrachion that was written at approximately the same time as Apollonius’ Argonautica, and which apparently heavily rationalized the story of the Argonauts to give it a more historical veneer (Rusten 1982). The limited scholarship on this section of Diodorus has largely focused on reconstructing and interpreting Dionysius’ work in the context of the middle Hellenistic period, and in particular Ptolemaic Egypt (Green 1997). However, in spite of Diodorus’ reputation as a mechanical summarizer, there are signs of other traditions in his Argonautica, suggesting that he is exercising a greater control over his source material than scholars usually attribute to him. Moreover, Diodorus was writing in a very different time and context than Dionysius Scytobrachion, namely that of the late Roman Republic and the Roman civil wars. Even if he used Dionysius extensively, through his own selection and summarization Diodorus’ secondary account of the Argonautica is ultimately going to reflect his own times and context (Bosworth 2003). 

During Diodorus’ lifetime the Romans were intensely involved in wars with Mithridates and his successors in the Pontic region where much of the Argonaut myth takes place. Among the generals who campaigned in the region were Sulla, Pompey the Great, and Julius Caesar, who celebrated a Pontic victory as one of his triumphs in 46. Mithridates, the Pontic king responsible for the wholesale slaughter of Italians in Asia, could clearly be related to Aeëtes of Colchis and his custom of killing any foreigners. There is clear evidence that the Romans saw themselves as later-day successors to the Argonauts in these endeavours, and contemporary Roman literature, such as the Argonautica of P. Terentius Varro Atacinus, may reflect this (Braund 1993). Diodorus himself makes connections between the mythical world of the Argonauts and the contemporary world of Rome - it is the Romans whose explorations refuted the story of the Argo sailing up the Ister. Numerous aspects of Diodorus’ Argonautica reflect Roman interest and a desire to make the story more relevant to the Romans. For example, according to Diodorus, the leader of the Argonauts was not Jason but rather Heracles. Traditionally, Jason was a rather uninspiring hero. Heracles was a far more appealing figure for the Romans to equate themselves with in their explorations of the Black Sea, especially given their preexisting connections to the Greek hero. At the same time, the use of Heracles also allows Diodorus to emphasize the civilizing aspect of the Argonaut mission to the most distant barbarian territories, which would appeal to the Romans as well.

However, Diodorus’ presentation of the Argonautica myth and its relation to the Romans is more complex. The most civilized figure in the narrative is Medea, who explicitly rejects the barbaric practices of the Colchians despite being well-versed in them, and joins the Argonauts. Medea turns assumptions about who is civilized and who is the barbarian on their head. Medea agrees to kill Jason’s uncle Pelias, yet only to prevent a larger outbreak of bloodshed and civil war. Even Medea’s subsequent murder of her children is portrayed sympathetically, with one account related by Diodorus claiming that she was tried and acquitted at Athens. It is also the barbarian Medea who cures the madness of Heracles. In contrast, the actions of figures like Jason are often unsavory. The ambiguity about who is civilized reflects Diodorus’ own ambiguous feelings about the world of the late Roman Republic. For him, the Republic is both a powerful force for peace and prosperity, but also a chaotic and destructive power, as he shows in Rome’s governance of the provinces (Yarrow 2006). Diodorus’ Argonautica thus forces the Romans to confront uncomfortable questions about how civilized they truly are.

Session/Panel Title:

Roman Imperial Ideology and Authority

Session/Paper Number

51.2

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