This paper uses the astronomical references in Apollonius’ Argonautica to determine the date of and/or occasion celebrated by the poem.
The current scholarly consensus places the final publication of Apollonius’ Argonautica somewhere within the thirty-year period from 270 to 240 BCE (Hunter 1989: 1-9; 1993b: ix-x). This range of dates, however, is derived by accommodating mutually exclusive literary arguments about the priority of the Argonautica vis-à-vis Theocritus’ Idylls 13 (Hylas) and 22 (Amykos) and Callimachus’ Aitia and Hymn to Apollo (Köhnken 1965: 26-121; Hunter 1989: 1-9, 1993b: ix-x, 1996, 1999; Vian 2002: VII-XIII; Lefkowitz 2008). However, as Adolph Köhnken has recently reiterated: “in contrast to contemporary Alexandrian poetry such as Callimachus’ Aetia and Hymns, and Theocritus’ Idylls, the Argonautica does not mention contemporaneous events or Ptolemaic kings or queens and always remains within the mythical timeframe of the story of the Argonauts” (Köhnken 2010: 136). This lack of explicit contemporary references combined with the suspicion under which the biographical tradition is generally viewed leaves the Argonautica without an anchor to the Alexandrian ‘present’ and modern scholars, to be frank, without much more than their own intuition and aesthetic preferences to formulate judgments about the priority of one poem over another (Lefkowitz 1980, 1981: 117-135, 2001: 51-72; cf. Cameron 1995: 185-228, 247-56). And despite the sound criticism of Reinhold F. Glei and others that most of these literary arguments are at best subjective, fallacious and ultimately inconclusive, 270 to 240BCE has, nevertheless, now become the basis for a number of recently published political readings of the Argonautica (Glei (2001: 22-23); Stanzel 1995: 229-230; Erskine 2010; Harder 2010; Strootman 2010; Stephens 2010; Mori 2001, 2008a, 2008b).
In this paper, rather than revisiting the literary arguments about the priority of Apollonius, Callimachus or Theocritus or the attempts to harmonize their disparate biographies, I follow Quintilian (Instit.220.127.116.11), who advised the aspiring orator to pay attention to the astronomy in poetry because “the poets use the rising and setting of stars and constellations to indicate the times.” What I submit here is that the astronomical references in the Argonautica, specifically those in the Hylas and Amycus episodes, which have been at the center of the literary controversy, provide a far more objective approach to the questions of priority and even point to the date/occasion the poem was ultimately intended to commemorate.
I begin by establishing the poem’s internal calendar using Francis Vian’s tables, which count the days in books 1 and 2, and I focus particularly on the period between the Argonauts' departure from Lemnos (1.910) to their landing at Colchis where there is no ambiguity. The reference to the heliacal rising of Arcturus (2.1097-1099) as observed from Alexandria makes it possible to link this poetic calendar to our modern one, so that by mapping the other astronomical events onto this poem-internal calendar and searching for correspondences in the real sky of the 3rd cent. BCE reveals that this stretch of the first two books mirrors one specific year during the period 283 – 221BCE (i.e. the beginning of the reign of Ptolemy II to the end of the reign of Ptolemy III). My evidence and calculations, which have been vetted by astronomers, demonstrates that the astronomy in books 1 and 2 points unequivocally to the year 238BCE, the jubilee year of Ptolemy III Euregetes I, the year he introduced the first 365 ¼ day calendar. This result challenges the prevailing view that the Argonautica was published before certain poems of Callimachus and Theocritus during the reign of Ptolemy II. Meanwhile, this result corresponds generally with the biographical tradition (Suda, the two Vitae Apollonii, P.Oxy. X.1241) that Apollonius flourished during the reign of Ptolemy III.
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