The similarities between Valerius Flaccus’ subsequent storm scene and its Virgilian model have long been noted in Valerian scholarship (Grüneberg, Nordera, Zissos 2006 and 2008), but the differences in the processes that unleash the storms, and specifically in the political position of Aeolus, have largely gone unexamined. In this paper I show that, whereas Virgil’s Aeolus was closely subordinated to the orders of his superiors, his Valerian counterpart emerges as a dangerous autocrat whose recently centralized authority, exercised without proper restraint and influenced by malicious counsel, allows Boreas to mobilize the whole system towards unsanctioned and undesirable ends.
I begin by quickly comparing the political position of Virgil’s Aeolus with that of Valerius’. The Aeneid’s god manages his subjects with skill and takes commands directly from his divine superiors (Aen. 1.60–63). In the Argonautica, by contrast, Aeolus rules through fear and without oversight from superior deities (Arg. 1.592–596). The abandonment of Virgil’s tightly articulated chain of command creates a “situation [that] is polarized and invested with a more overt ideological charge” (Zissos 2006, 83).
The second important Valerian change is the position of the winds as participants in determining Aeolus’ policy. Virgil’s winds are voiceless and lacking in agency, more closely aligned with horses than with humans. The situation in the Argonautica is altogether different. Boreas sees the Argo sailing from afar and reports back to his king, seeking (and advising) further instructions. In this capacity, the winds are more like provincial governors writing back to Rome to ask the emperor for rescripts signing off on their decisions, but other models for imperial courtiers – such as a Sejanus figure – are available in the text. The result is that Valerius portrays Aeolus as dependent on his winds, as if they were his administration’s governors, rather than as animals to be controlled.
Finally, I demonstrate that, in Valerius’ mythology, the winds recently enjoyed freedom before having a king imposed upon them (nec mihi libertas... qualis eram nondum vinclis et carcere clausus, Arg. 1.601–602). Their former autonomy guaranteed that the winds were, in fact, less dangerous, since there was no centralized location whence the winds could allbe deployed against a single target. Through intertextual reference to the Aeneid, Boreas presents his slavery as a Virgilian construction (cf. Aen. 1.53–54, ventos... vinclis et carcere frenat), aligning the promotion of Aeolus to his centralized kingship and the removal of freedom with similar developments under Augustus (Cairns). When Aeolus allows Boreas’ arguments for deploying the winds against the Argo to prevail, in ignorant contradiction of the will of Jupiter, the (imperial) government of the winds stands revealed as unauthorized, ill-informed and undesirable. Aeolus becomes a rogue autocrat at odds with the poem’s center of morality and authority (Hershkowitz, 216–217), which is the divine sanction for the Argo’s journey.
The implications for the principate, as an institution, are damning. The poetic storm and its aftermath, in Virgil as in Valerius, was a powerful place for political commentary (Zissos 2006). Valerius reads the Aeneid's model as legitimating autocracy, but rewrites King Aeolus with an eye towards the princeps. This case study is representative of a wider trend in the Argonautica, where the poet subtly undercuts the establishment of Rome's system of imperial government for the crimes of decimating elite control and identity (Sailor; Wallace-Hadrill) and failing to prevent the recursion of civil war in 69 CE. The former libertas of the winds represented not only a freer, but also a more dangerous system of government. When the morally sanctioned Argonauts are attacked by the winds, the deep injustice of Aeolus' kingship bleeds through the page.
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