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Rogue Bulls and Troubled Heroes: heroic value in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica

Jessica Blum

Wabash College

In the de Rerum Natura, Lucretius describes his mission in terms of dispelling the shadows of ignorance that cloud human knowledge and bring fear to the minds of men (DRN 1.146-7). His account, he tells us, is designed to reveal what has true value in the contemporary world. In this, Lucretius’ philosopher-hero, Epicurus, provides the guiding light that will push through the dark boundaries of human ignorance: e tenebris tantis tam clarum extollere lumen/ qui primus potuisti inlustrans commoda vitae (DRN 3.1-2).

For the barrier-breaking protagonists of Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, the question of how to progress beyond the limits of the known world is equally pressing. Throughout the poem, these characters explore the heroic qualities necessary in Jupiter’s brave new world—essentially, the way that value is assessed. This paper will examine the competitive imagery of bulls from a narratological perspective, with a focus on the political and literary historical models offered by such a representation of heroism.

Both Lucretius and his epic successor Vergil use the figure of bulls to represent excessive emotions. In DRN 5, Lucretius illustrates the antithesis of self-control by describing of bulls and lions trampling their masters in battle (DRN 5.1309-40). Vergil, likewise, figures human strife and emotion through his depiction of two bulls battling for control of the herd (Georgics 3.219-23). In the Aeneid, however, his hero fails to exhibit the ideal qualities of Lucretius’ Epicurus: Aeneas’ foremost trait is a blind and dutiful adherence to the will of the gods, and his final triumph comes at the cost of his self-control, bringing with it a descent into animalistic violence figured by the very bulls that Lucretius had condemned: cum duo conuersis inimica in proelia tauri/ frontibus incurrunt (Aen.12.716-7). Both Aeneas and his opponent Turnus are reduced to the same level, goaded by desire for political supremacy. Aeneas, therefore, runs the risk of self-destruction, showing his—and the future Roman people’s—capacity for internal strife when self-control is abandoned. This model of heroism, then, is far from ideal.

In the Flavian Argonautica, the debate over virtus, over what kind of heroic modus operandi will succeed, is likewise figured through the imagery of bulls. In the context of the Argonauts’ group mission to Colchis, the need to stand out from the crowd becomes even more urgent for Jason, the would-be hero of the story. In this, however, he is at a distinct disadvantage. In both strength and renown, he is overshadowed by the towering figure of Hercules, whose imposing presence continually—if inadvertently—pushes his companions out of center stage. Hercules’ career in the Argonautica, however, is short-lived, and the mechanism of his departure is particularly telling. In his maddened search for his lost companion Hylas, Hercules disappears into the trackless paths of Mysia, leaving the expedition behind. Most importantly, he is compared to a bull stung by a gadfly, a hero suddenly out of control: volucri ceu pectora tactus asilo/ emicuit Calabris taurus (Argo.3.581-2). Clearly, this model of madness is not the one to follow.

Freed from this shadow, Jason begins to come to the fore, offering a new paradigm, a middle road between Lucretian ratio and Vergilian determination. A fighter and a tactician, he emerges from the densa caligo of battle in Argonautica 6, as he will later emerge unscathed from the fire of the bulls and the weapons of the terrigenae. The image of enraged bulls suggests the link between the two loci at which Jason must prove himself the primary hero of the expedition: he must match the standard set by Hercules, and, equally, tame the Colchian bulls and overcome the clouds of armed men. In terms of the poetics of the Argonautica, Jason’s quest for visibility mimics the relationship of the poet to his own “Herculean” predecessors, Vergil, Apollonius Rhodius, and Homer—both struggle to emerge from the clouds of their literary antecedents, to win a new epic prestige.

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Latin Epic (organized by the American Classical League)

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