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Nulla fides, nulli super Hercule fletus? Shifting Loyalties in the Argonautica of Valerius Flaccus

Tim Stover

Panelist 2 examines fides in the Roman Argonautica by focusing on the debate over whether the Argonauts should resume the voyage to Colchis without Hercules, who has vanished, or continue looking for him (3.598-725). The first part of the paper tracks the alterations Valerius has made to his primary model, Apollonius 1.1273-1343. The poet’s formal gestures are then historicized in the paper’s second half, where it is suggested that this episode evokes the crisis of fides triggered by the civil wars of AD 68-9, a period marked by protean loyalties.

As critics have noted, Valerius’ depiction of the aftermath of Hercules’ disappearance differs radically from the version found in Apollonius (see Garson [1963] 265-6; Adamietz [1976] 51; Kleywegt [1991] 232-5; Lovatt [2014] 218-21). For example, in Valerius the Argonauts do not accidentally leave Hercules behind, but rather are fully aware that he is not present as they prepare to depart from Mysia. This change puts a much “greater emphasis on dissension and debate” (Lovatt [2014] 218). Indeed the most salient feature of the Valerian episode is the introduction of a bona fide debate between Telamon, who argues that the Argonauts should stay and look for Hercules (3.637-45, 697-714), and Meleager, who advises the men to move on without him (3.645-89). Telamon’s devotion to Hercules is a feature of Apollonius’ narrative (1.1289-95). Meleager’s involvement, however, is a Valerian innovation; it is his role—and the influence his suasoria has on the men—that merits further investigation. For in the contentious atmosphere of a fully fledged debate over what to do in the face of a leader’s abrupt disappearance Valerius’ text evokes the shifting loyalties of men whose leaders experienced sudden changes of fortune during the ‘Year of the Four Emperors’.

Valerius’ smooth-talking Meleager is the type of individual who knows how to exploit the confusion caused by a sudden change of fortune, i.e. he is a demagogue (3.645-9, with Spaltenstein [2004] 183). From his first entry into the poem, Valerius depicts Meleager as a “jealous rival to Hercules” (Zissos [2008] 278). Thus Meleager’s desire to set sail immediately and to forget about Hercules, whom he portrays as a shameful deserter (3.677-8), has an air of self-promotion about it. Now that Hercules is gone, Meleager demands to be given what in the past would have been literally Herculean tasks (672); for him, this is an opportunity to better his standing within the group.

In addition to denigrating Hercules, Meleager’s strategy entails proclaiming his allegiance to Jason (3.670-2). In fact, his words recall the oaths of loyalty sworn by soldiers to their commanders, a practice that gets a lot of press in Tacitus’ Histories. Tacitus reveals that an oath of loyalty was sworn anew each time a new ruler emerged (see Campbell [1984] 25-32). Given that Meleager had previously proclaimed Hercules to be his favorite (3.699-702), his vow of allegiance to Jason as soon as Hercules is gone is evocative of the swift mutability of fides during the civil wars (Hist. 1.76). Indeed, the Valerian Meleager’s actions are reminiscent of the political machinations of self-aggrandizing demagogues like Caecina Alienus and Antonius Primus, whose loyalties during the civil wars of AD 68-9 shifted to suit whichever path brought them greater influence and whose rhetorical skills were used largely for self-promotion (see Ash [1999] 147-65 and Morgan [2006] 167-9).

Meleager’s arguments win the day. Although the Argonauts initially miss Hercules terribly (3.601-3), after hearing Meleager’s words they are incited to depart without him (690-1). And yet, after Telamon makes one final plea for delay, the men are again reduced to grief and tears, even as they leave without Hercules (715-25). Thus the Argonauts are depicted as a “fickle mob”—a staple of Roman political discourse—primed for manipulation by an ambitious demagogue like Meleager. This feature of Valerius’ narrative constitutes yet another way in which the episode evokes the inconstant fides of the times.

Session/Panel Title

Fides in Flavian Poetry

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