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Epic on the Margins: Valerius Flaccus’ “Ovidian” Argonautica

Raymond Marks

University of Missouri

The importance of margins and peripheries to Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica is clear from the story it tells, a sea voyage – the first one, in fact – that takes the Argonauts to distant, exotic lands (Manuwald 2013; Slaney 2013). Less clear is how this thematic project mirrors its literary program, specifically, the ways in which it situates itself outside the boundaries of traditional epic (Blum 2019) and uses Ovid to do so. The aim of this paper is to show how the concept of marginality unifies Valerius’ epic on these multiple levels – thematic, generic, intertextual – and how its use of Ovidian material, in particular, is central to the conception and execution of that literary plan. It is hoped that from this analysis we gain a better appreciation of how innovative Valerius’ epic program is and how critical Ovid is to that innovation.

The first part of the paper lays the groundwork for this interpretation. Beginning with a review of Ovidian material in the proem and the Argo’s ekphrasis in book 1, it shows how Valerius aligns his literary program with Ovid and a tradition of Callimachean-neoteric poetics and thereby prepares us to read his epic as an Ovidian “vehicle” that goes “off the beaten path” in literary terms, just as the Argo herself does during her voyage (Zissos 2008; Stover 2010; Tzounakas 2012). That the epic/Argo takes such an alternate, Ovidian path is next demonstrated by a brief overview of Valerius’ use of Ovid in connection with the ship’s outbound itinerary; here we shall see that Ovid figures prominently in “digressive” passages such as ekphraseis and embedded narratives (Wijsman 1996; Zissos 2004; Davis 2009) and that echoes of his exile poetry often inform the Argo’s journey as an exilic one (Keith 2013, 2014).

The second part focuses on the epic’s end and addresses how it illustrates the relationship between the poem’s sense of its own marginality and its Ovidian literary orientation. It will be observed, for one, that the Argonauts at this point are on the island of Peuce in the Black Sea, which is not where they are in the corresponding scene in Apollonius’ Argonautika, but is close to where the life and poetic career of Ovid ended, Tomis. Significant too from an Ovidian perspective is that the next event we expect to take place is the murder of Medea’s brother Absyrtus (Nesselrath 1998); in Tristia 3.9 Ovid derives the name of Tomis from Medea’s dismemberment or “cutting” (cf. tomē Gk.) of her brother there. More significant still – to continue with the “cutting” trope – is that Valerius cuts off his epic before recounting the murder; this parallels Ovid’s Medea, who cuts off her account of the murder in Heroides 12 (113-116). Finally, by cutting the epic short here Valerius makes his poem resemble the Argo, which lost a piece of its end too, its stern, when passing through the Clashing Rocks (4.691-693); this aligns the epic with its Ovidian program as well, the Argo itself being an Ovidian “vehicle.”

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Hybrid Epicenters: Peripheral Adaptation in Flavian Literature

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