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The Politics of Colchian Space and Movement in Argonautica 4

Evan Judge Armacost

The Fessenden School

This study capitalizes on recent interest in the cultural history and geography of Apollonius’ Argonautica while exploring an understudied viewpoint. Thalmann’s 2011 treatment of the Argonauts’ movement in space throughout the epic leaves open the subtle movements of the Colchian antagonists throughout Argonautica 4. I endeavor to fill that gap, outlining the spaces of Colchian settlement in Apollonius’ work and analyzing their deeper significance. I submit that the Colchians’ engagement with space marks them as cultural equals of the Hellenic Argonauts whom Jason eludes only by deception. Despite this prowess, Apollonius’ representations of Colchian space signal that the heroic world of the Colchian people is passing away.

After Colchian prince Apsyrtos dies at Jason’s hands on the islands of Artemis, his remaining forces choose to remain expatriates under the new name ‘Apsyrtides’. Yet while the Colchians colonize these islands, it is Jason who leaves behind a trace of ritual significance by dismembering the corpse of Apsyrtos and burying the bones in the ground (IV. 477-81). Therefore Jason, the Argonauts, and even future Hellenes can take credit for the ritual that provides the very raison d’etre for the islands’ settlement under the Colchians. Even if the Apsyrtides inhabit the land, Apollonius’ indication that Jason was the one to lay the foundation for this settlement threatens the Colchian claim to their own dwelling.

Fleeing a second detachment of Colchian reinforcements, the Argonauts pass three Liburnian islands: Issa, Dyskelados, and Pityeia. While Apollonius mentions these islands’ Colchian population, each one’s name signifies the bitter end of its inhabitants. ‘Issa’ appears in Greek literature during the 4th and 3rd Century BCE as an exclamation indicating “malicious triumph over another’s distress (LSJ).” ‘Dyskelados,’ which may represent an adjective here rather than a proper name, translates to “ill-sounding” or “shrieking”; such an epithet bodes ill for any Colchians who may have settled in the area. ‘Pityea’ likely derives from πίτυς (“pine tree”); in an explanation of the idiom πίτυος τρόπον ἐκτρίψειν, Herodotus records that “the pine tree alone, once it has been cut down, imparts no shoot of all its branches but perishes in absolute ruin (6.37, translation mine).” Ancient sources do not indicate the reasons for the desertion of these three islands, but the increasingly sorry state of various Colchian stragglers throughout Book 4 does not indicate a favorable departure.

By exploring an understudied component of Argonautica 4, I seek to build on the wave of recent scholarship about this Hellenistic epic while making an original contribution from a new perspective. Rather than writing a derivative echo of Homer’s twin masterworks, Apollonius speaks in the language of his predecessor to comment on the Hellenization of the Mediterranean at the expense of local cultures. Furthering this conversation, I seek to demonstrate that Colchian movement in Apollonius’ final book reveals the ill-fated throes of a dying people against the cultural domination of their western aggressors.

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Homer and Hellenistic Literature

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