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Elisions of Death and the Ethics of Warfare in Apollonius’ Argonautica

Nicholas Kauffman

The most famous battle in the Argonautica is the tragic scene in which the Argonauts mistakenly fight and kill their former hosts, the kindly Doliones (1.1025-52). This episode is generally taken to exemplify Apollonius’ response to the warfare of the Iliad: scholars have found in it a criticism of the traditional martial ethos (e.g. Hunter 1993, 43-44; Goldhill 1990, 317-19), or even a condemnation of war itself (e.g. Effe 2008). In this paper, however, I argue that this scene provides only a partial picture of Apollonius’ approach to the ethics of warfare, and suggest that we must also consider the later battle with the Bebrycians (2.98-134). This episode is seldom discussed alongside the earlier one, and indeed it would seem to pose a problem for the interpretations mentioned above, since its violence is presented as fully justified: the Argonauts fight in self defense, confidently and capably vanquishing lawless enemies. Scholars regularly highlight the rightness of this battle, noting that the slaughtered Bebyrcians receive their “just deserts” (Knight 1995, 99; see also Clare 2002 and Thalmann 2011, 104).

Though these two battles seem to have little in common, I suggest that together they represent a coherent reflection on death in battle—or rather, on the way epic poetry assigns meaning to such death. My analysis hinges upon a crucial but hitherto unnoticed point: that the apparently gruesome and decisive battle with the Bebrycians is in fact virtually deathless. The scene is structured in a wholly Iliadic manner, as a series of individual duels, and scholars have accordingly seen it as “a detailed account of a series of killings” (Cuypers 1997, 135; see also Knight 1995, 93 and Matteo 2007, 97). But as I show, the scene diverges quite sharply from the Homeric mode, in that the outcome of all but one of the encounters is left ambiguous. Notably, the only verb of killing in the scene occurs in the negative (οὐ κατέπεφνεν, 2.112), and the one wound that does seem fatal is received by a man who, remarkably and unhomerically, is left unnamed.

I read this elision of death as deeply significant, especially in light of the first battle. There, the friendly Doliones are killed quickly and simply, and the casualties are more dense than anywhere in the Iliad (thirteen named victims are listed, with verbs for killing or dying appearing seven times). Moreover, the scene is developed with many pathetic touches, so that the reader is made to mourn for the men slain, and especially for Cyzicus, their young and newly-married leader. In the later battle, by contrast, the Bebrycians really are unjust and hostile, but the poet refuses to narrate their deaths, or even to let the reader know that they are killed.

At one level, these two scenes might be seen as working together to show a uniformly negative view of warfare. Apollonius, on this reading, detests war and violence (Carspecken 1952, 93); he dwells on the cruel death of the Doliones, but refuses even to show the death of the brutal Bebrycians, which might become a source of satisfaction, a demonstration of the poetic justice so cherished by ancient readers (Bouchard 2012, 195-96). But I think there is a more complex dynamic at play here, that Apollonius is not critiquing warfare per se, but rather poetry about warfare—like Homer’s—which makes battlefield death into a site of intense emotional meaning. He creates an overabundance of death in one scene, and a dearth of it in the next, and goes out of his way to manipulate emotions and defy expectations in the process. In so doing, he draws attention to the mechanisms of the narrative, exposing the poet’s own role as the fabricator of both the deaths themselves and the emotions they evoke. Thus, I argue, he problematizes the poetics and ethics of martial epic more profoundly than has been recognized to date.  

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Men and War

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