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Juvenal and the Lost Boys of the Argonautica: Daedalus, Jason, and the end of Roman epic

Jessica Blum

University of San Francisco

Juvenal famously opens Satires 1 with a biting criticism of contemporary poets’ recycling of epic motifs: “no one’s home is better known to him than the grove of Mars is to me…what else? the seas struck by the boy and the flying artisan” (Sat. 1.7-8, 54). Jason’s theft of the Golden Fleece and Daedalus’ escape from Crete cannot compare with Juvenal’s own poetic crawl through modern-day Rome. Why, then, write epic? Juvenal singles out Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica—marked by the “grove of Mars,” (Freudenburg 2001: 210-12)—as an object of particular scorn. But the Argonautica is not the escapist myth-making that Juvenal imagines. In this paper I suggest that for Valerius, as for Juvenal, the myth of Daedalus and his lost son Icarus provides a means to reflect on the overriding concerns of the Domitianic age: the absence of ethical and generational continuity in Rome (cf. Rebeggiani 2013, citing Hardie 1993). Through the myth of Daedalus, and specifically Vergil’s treatment of it on the doors of Apollo’s temple in Aeneid 6, Valerius’ epic, like Juvenal’s satire, explores the discontinuity between past and present.

In Satires 3, Juvenal’s protagonist Umbricius hastens to Cumae, the end of Daedalus’ flight (Sat. 3.24-5), in search of a place where Roman virtue is still rewarded. Through the lens of Aeneid 6, Cumae embodies the lost Roman world for which he longs, the site where Aeneas encounters Rome’s future history in the shape of the Dardania prolesshown him by Anchises (Aen. 6.756). It is also, however, a monument to family discontinuity. On the doors of Apollo’s temple, Daedalus carves his own flight from Crete, but is too grief-stricken to record the death of his son, Icarus, who flew too close to the sun (Aen. 6.14-33). In stark contrast to Aeneas’ achievement of linking Trojan past and Augustan future, Daedalus and Icarus represent the sacrifice of inheritance to art.

It is in this myth that Juvenal and Valerius find common ground. Through reference to Vergil’s Cumae, Valerius reflects on the consequences of his epic moment. The Argonauts’ ground-breaking voyage represents the dawn of a new age, but, as for Daedalus, their journey comes at a high price. Setting out from Iolcos in Book 1, Jason kidnaps the son of his wicked uncle Pelias, in revenge for sending Jason on his deadly mission. Watching them sail off, Pelias is compared to Minos viewing Daedalus’ escape (VF. 1.704-5), marking the Argo’s voyage as disruptive innovation. On reaching Colchis in Book 5, in turn, Jason views a series of carvings on the doors of Sol’s temple—as in Aeneid 6. Among the various myths represented are the death of Phaethon, a youth, like Icarus, who flies too high in his attempt to follow his father, and Jason’s future abandonment of Medea, prefiguring her murder of their children in Corinth. Like Juvenal’s Cumae, and Vergil’s temple doors, the end of Jason’s road is a monument to lost inheritance, but, unlike Aeneas, it is Jason’s own family that he sees cut short.

What, then, can we understand in Juvenal’s response? Valerius’ framing of Jason’s journey with monuments of parental loss suggests the consequences of breaking from the past. Although, like Daedalus, he completes his journey, it is mapped as movement to and from the ghost town of Cumae, an encounter not with Jason’s future descendants, but with the end of his familial legacy. Juvenal’s representation of Cumae, and of the Argonautica, as narrative dead ends reflects the emptiness of adherence to tradition. In contrast to Vergil’s construction of Aeneas’ legacy, Valerius’ and Juvenal’s poetic material is the discontinuity between past and present, a world in which heroic virtus no longer guarantees glory. The Argonauts’ attempt to navigate uncharted waters, and Umbricius’ longing for a lost past, take them to the shadowland of Cumae, while their authors chart a new journey through the un-heroic world of Flavian Rome. 

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Latin Hexameter Poetry

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