Apollonius' purpose in including Heracles among the Argonauts in his Argonautica has long confused interpreters. After all, Heracles is abruptly abandoned by the Argonauts at the end of Book I, and appears only through others' narratives inthe rest of the epic. Many scholars have blamed Heracles for not fitting in with the group: Heracles is too primitive and bestial (Lawall 1966); too archaic for a Hellenistic poem (Galinsky 1972); too independent for a collective endeavor (Feeney 1986; Hunter 1988); or simply too big (DeForest 1994). Others claim that Heracles has no place in the narrative at all (Wray 2000). But these unsatisfying arguments do not account for the full range of Heracles' presence in the poem.
I will show instead that Heracles serves a crucial purpose: to model for the youthful Jason both the positive aspects of heroism that he must attain and the dangers of erotic attachment that must be avoided. And Apollonius uses Jason's response to this model to define his character. For Jason, though persuasive and attractive, cannot accomplish his mission and a safe nostos through his own heroic prowess. Apollonius emphasizes Jason's fear and dependence (see Carspecken 1952; Lawall 1966), a "problem" that leads some scholars to insist that Jason, in his lack of traditional heroism, represents a new kindof hero, a romantic hero (Beye 1969; Clauss 1993; Zanker 1979).
In contrast, Heracles demonstrates genuine, successful heroism throughout the poem. In his introduction in the Catalogue (I.122-32), Heracles is already an established hero, interrupting his legendary Labor of the Erymanthian Boar to join the Argonauts. When the Argonauts must select a leader, the men unanimously choose Heracles as "the best man"; with great tact and diplomacy, Heracles avoids a narrative crisis by deferring the honor to Jason (I.332-62). Heracles easily conquers the Earthborn Giants who threaten the Argo (I.985-1078). Even after Heracles has been separated from the Argonauts, they find heroic success by imitating his civilizing imposition of justice on the lawless (II.774-810) and his strategy to defeat the Stymphalian Birds (II.1047-89).
While Heracles demonstrates the importance of physical strength, skill in battle, and clever strategy for heroism, equally significant is his one spectacular failure in the poem: the loss of his beloved, Hylas. Heracles, a famously lustful philanderer, here in the Argonautica remains sexually continent with the Lemnian women and Melanippe; instead, he is excessively devoted to Hylas. So exaggerated is his erotic attachment to Hylas that, when the boy is abducted by a nymph, Heracles experiences a fully unheroic collapse (I.1207-72). The master hunter conceives no plan for tracking and finding the lost boy, but instead rushes about heedlessly. The message is clear: when Heracles acts as a lover, he experiences heroic failure. The Argonauts' subsequent and implausible abandonment of Heracles is thus marked by Apollonius as a narrative choice responding to Heracles' defeat.
Heracles' singular failure reveals the dangerous effect of Eros on heroism. Jason displays his own susceptibility to erotic attachment by lingering with Hypsipyle on Lemnos, a sojourn that obstructs his heroic development (I.853-78). But in Colchis, instead of denying eroticism, Jason uses his sexual charms to encourage Medea's erotic attachment to him; her magic compensates for his lack of strength, and though they successfully gain the Fleece, Jason fails to become a hero like Heracles. The narrator treats Eros with an increasingly negative tone, culminating in the sacrilegious murder of Apsyrtus in Book IV (IV.421-81). When the cloak of Dionysus and Ariadne suggests the possibility that Jason could abandon Medea, Jason instead binds himself closer to Medea through murder and marriage. Concern for his heroism there after disappears from the poem: Jason absorbs neither "lesson" provided by Heracles. Thus, Heracles' didactic purpose is interwoven into the themes of the entire epic, and Apollonius uses Heracles' successes and failures to shape the very character of Jason himself.