Crossing the Water with the Argonauts
The Lighthouse at Alexandria (from the series The Eighth Wonders of the World) After Maarten van Heemskerck, 1572. Artist: Galle, Philipp (1537-1612)

The Lighthouse at Alexandria (from the series The Eighth Wonders of the World). After Maarten van Heemskerck, 1572. Artist: Galle, Philipp (1537-1612)

by Christopher Childers

Apollonius of Rhodes. Jason and the Argonauts. Translated by Aaron Poochigian. Penguin Classics 2014. 272 pp. $15.00 (paper)


Not one body, but five : This surprising announcement came in January, nearly three months after the disappointing news that none had been found or were likely to be. The bodies in question belong to the massive burial complex at Amphipolis in Macedonia, the most important archaeological discovery in Greece in a century. For those interested in such things, the excavation has offered more twists and turns than most forensic crime dramas can cram into a season. In 2012 archaeologists began to dig, having previously discovered a marble wall running around Kasta Hill in the ancient city of Amphipolis. Public interest intensified with each new discovery: thirteen steps leading down; headless sphinxes guarding an enormous sealed entrance; two gorgeous caryatids flanking a second doorway; in the middle chamber, a magnificent floor mosaic depicting Hades’ abduction of Persephone. As workers proceeded to clear the third and last chamber, speculation was rampant: Who was buried there? Could it be Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, or his wife Roxane, or his mentally impaired half-brother, Philip III Arrhidaeus? Once cleared, the chamber at first seemed to be empty. But then, in the sort of turnaround one would expect more from Jerry Bruckheimer than an archaeological dig, a cist vault, sealed and hidden in the floor, was located. When, some weeks later, the initial forensic analysis came in, it only deepened the mystery: Who in the world did we find?

It’s the historical context that makes the discovery so tantalizing. All indications are that the tomb dates to the period of upheaval immediately following Alexander’s death in 323 BC, while its unprecedented scale—the perimeter measures over sixteen hundred feet—suggests great power and wealth. Before the excavation, it had been reasoned that if the body of a woman in her fifties was found, it had to be Olympias; if a man in his thirties, Philip III. But the results met no one’s expectations: There was a woman in her sixties; two middle-aged men, one of whom died by the sword; one infant; and one cremated body from which nothing can be gleaned. More tests are planned to date the remains and determine whether the dead were related. One thing, at least, is clear: The site’s interpreters will be busy for a while.

It goes without csaying that the finds are as exciting as they are confusing—everyone loves a mysterious pile of bones. If the mysteries are solved, however, I wonder what we’re likely to learn. Many will remember the sensation when, in 2012, the body of Richard III of England was exhumed from a parking lot. Bioarchaeologists found eleven battle wounds on the king, diagnosed him with scoliosis, deduced that his diet consisted of freshwater fish and exotic birds, and calculated a ninety-five-percent probability that his eyes were blue and a seventy-seven-percent probability that his hair was brown. From the body of Alexander’s father Philip II, identified just last year, we can tell that he suffered from sinusitis and pleuritis. King Tut’s mummy shows signs of inbreeding, including genital deformity, though we still don’t know what killed him. It’s all information, I guess, but how much of it is knowledge? Nevertheless, for all that silence of the bones, we still want to know Olympias, or Alexander, or Philip, not only through books but in the flesh; though the chasm is uncrossable, such discoveries feel like a bridge.

Alexander’s body will probably never be found. Thanks to the exertions of Ptolemy, one of his generals ended up in Alexandria, and has no doubt long been lost in the gradual subsidence of the Egyptian coast into the sea. Alexandria is a town well versed in irrecoverable loss—not a day goes by without scholars and ancient-history buffs thinking wistfully of the seven hundred thousand scrolls held by the famous library at its height. Those vanished texts constitute a lost heritage that lovers of literature and history would value far more highly than any body, even Alexander’s.

The books may be gone but the library, surprisingly, is not. Inaugurated in 2002, its reincarnation is called the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and it seems intent on looking forward, not back. So, at any rate, its striking architecture suggests. The building, a massive, slanted, glass-ceilinged disc set in a reflecting pool, resembles nothing so much as a spaceship rising from its own crater. The mise-en-abyme of disc and pool is intended to evoke the library’s two chief purposes: to be the world’s window onto Egypt and Egypt’s window onto the world. Though it will never be the intellectual center it once was, it remains, as the Termini railway station is for Rome, an image of Egypt’s aspirations in the present.

But to get on with things. This essay is about another sort of reconstruction: Aaron Poochigian’s new translation of the Argonautica, the epic poem by Apollonius of Rhodes, published by Penguin Classics under the title (presumably chosen for marketing reasons) Jason and the Argonauts. It tells the story of Jason and his band of sailors as they journey far from Iolcus in Thessaly to win the Golden Fleece from Aeëtes, the barbarous King of Colchis, and of how Jason’s love affair with the powerful and dangerous maiden-witch Medea paves the way for his safe return. In one sense, Jason’s task is not unlike that of the archaeologists at Amphipolis. In another, Poochigian’s reminds us of the new library: He draws on the past to illuminate the present. I’d like to consider the context and meaning of Apollonius’ poem, as well as Poochigian’s quest to smuggle it, like the fleece, out of the distant Hellenic past and into the Anglophone present.

The Argonautica is a strange poem. Very strange. Let’s take one passage from the end. The first two books describe the voyage of the Argo to Colchis. The third details the love between Jason and Medea, and Jason’s completion, with her help, of the trials set by Aeëtes, while the fourth follows the vicissitudes of the Argo on her difficult journey home. Eventually the Argonauts land on the island of Anaphe (“Epiphany”), revealed to them by Apollo in the midst of a “deep and nightlike darkness” off the coast of Crete. One of them, Euphemus, has a dream:

[I]t seemed that he was clutching to his breast
a clod of earth, a sacred gift, and white
droplets of milk were somehow nursing it,
and from the clod, small as it was, emerged
what seemed a maiden. Ravenous desire
took hold of him, and he made love to it
but afterward cried out in lamentation—
he felt as if he had deflowered the daughter
he had been nourishing with his own milk.

Then the “daughter” speaks. She turns out to be Thera, a child of Triton, destined to be “the grounds for all of your descendants.” Jason somehow understands everything. He tells Euphemus to throw the clod—given to him by Triton while they were sailing around Lake Tritonis—into the sea: “the gods will make an island out of it, / and there your children’s children shall reside”:

So Jason read the omen, and Euphemus
did not invalidate his friend’s prediction.
No, giddy with prophecy, he flung
the clod of earth into the sea and from it
emerged the sacred island of Callista,
the nursemaid of Euphemus’ descendants.

After this, only about twenty-five lines remain before the poem comes to an abrupt end. A modern reader is bound to be baffled, maybe even put off, by the weirdness. Why should this passage serve as the denouement to the oddly lurching travelogue that is the Argonautica ?

Apollonius knew exactly what he was up to. His goal, as a citizen of the Greco-Egyptian city of Alexandria and head of its famous library, was to forge connections between Greece and Egypt. He knew that the people of Euphemus’ island Callista (modern Santorini/Thira) had gone on to found Cyrene, a sometimes-friendly neighbor of Alexandria to the west. If the myth establishes the Greek origin of one of North Africa’s most important cities, on a deeper level it suggests a fusion between Greek and Egyptian culture. In his dream, Euphemus’ breasts drip milk and he fears he is committing incest with his daughter—incest and androgyny being quintessentially Egyptian, at least in Greek eyes. Yet the passage as a whole reworks Pindar’s Fourth Pythian Ode, whose long narrative about the Argonauts opens with an account of the clod. Thus the Argonautica ends by grafting Greek literature onto Egyptian culture in exactly the same way that the Greek city of Alexandria, and the Greek empire of the Ptolemies, are grafted onto Egyptian territory.

Let’s imagine it’s January, sometime in the 270s BC. Alexandria, only midway through her first century of existence, is the chief city of the Mediterranean. Athens and Thebes are mere shadows of their former selves, put down for good by Philip II at Chaeronea in 338. Turbulence following the death of Alexander, Philip’s son, has rendered rival court cities—Pella in Macedon, Seleucia and Antioch on the Orontes in the Levant—unable to compete with stable Alexandria. Rome, like Carthage, is rising, but remains an intellectual and cultural backwater. Alexandria’s heyday is at hand. It boasts a new lighthouse, one of the wonders of the world, on Pharos Island, and, in the Egyptian district, the first temple of the new god Serapis. A soon-to-be-renowned gymnasium, with six hundred feet of porticos, is going up. On the north coast, the Ptolemies’ enormous palace complex includes the magnificent Museum (not a museum in the modern sense but a temple of the Muses), to which the library, perhaps already under Apollonius’ direction,1 is attached. Along the hundred-foot-wide central thoroughfare known as the Canopic Way is the golden tomb of the deified Alexander. Here the genius of the Macedonian conqueror has come to rest, and his city shines not only in its architecture: A numerous fleet fills its harbor, exotic animals populate its zoological gardens, and the greatest minds of the age toil in its library. And today there will be a parade.

This parade, known to us as the Grand Procession of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, is most likely part of the Ptolemaea, a festival initiated by Ptolemy to honor his father, Ptolemy I Soter (“the Savior”), who was the city’s first king, and Alexander, who chose the location and laid its foundations in 331. Within months of Alexander’s death, Ptolemy had hastened to the city and swiftly taken over. Staying relatively aloof from the in-fighting and dynastic intrigues of his peers, he shored up Egypt’s economy and exploited its natural resources. He improved farmland, agricultural practices, and mining, and introduced Greek crops and animals. Instead of waging war, like the other generals, to reclaim Alexander’s kingdom, he used his military mainly to defend what he already possessed and maintain useful alliances, though he did annex a few strategic areas beneficial for trade, such as Coele-Syria. When he abdicated in 284, his son, Ptolemy II, inherited a rich, powerful, stable, diverse, and thriving kingdom, one mostly content to compete with its rivals culturally rather than militarily. It is toward this end that the Grand Procession is now being held.

All of Alexandria’s diverse citizenry is on hand. People fill the Palace Stadium and line the thoroughfares, where officials dressed as Silenuses practice crowd control; many take up positions in the poor Egyptian district of Rhacotis to the south, and many more in the Delta, the Jewish quarter to the east. Perhaps the king himself and his chief courtiers, among dignitaries from all corners of the Hellenistic world, are watching from the elevated citadel near the Inner Palaces, where an enormous pavilion has been erected in the shade of myrtles and laurels, and furnished with golden couches, silver tripods, and marble statues. The floor is strewn with so many roses, white lilies, and other flowers that it gives “the appearance of a most divine meadow,” according to the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus. Wave after wave of richly dressed figures and armed companies file past, causing intakes of breath and exclamations of amazement in a babel of Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, and various Syrian and Gaulish tongues.

Philadelphus is putting the enormous wealth and reach of his empire, its exotic profusion and massive accumulations, on display. There are a hundred and forty chariots, drawn by elephants, antelopes, oryxes, buffaloes, ostriches, gnus, and zebras; “barbaric palanquins” (Athenaeus again) loaded with Indian prisoners carrying great weights of cassia, saffron, and other spices; Ethiopians holding elephant tusks, ivory logs, and goblets of gold and silver overflowing with gold dust; over two thousand dogs, from places like India, Iran, and Albania, and two thousand sacrificial bulls; a hundred and fifty trees, “from which were suspended birds and beasts of every imaginable country and description,” followed by many other birds, including parrots, peacocks, guinea fowl, and pheasants; hundreds of statues of gods and kings, all crowned with ivy or olive leaves of gold; and upwards of fifty thousand foot soldiers and twenty thousand cavalry, flaunting Alexandria’s military might.

Even the small army of intellectuals usually cloistered in the “birdcage of the Muses,” as the Antigonid poet Timon of Phlius mockingly termed the library, has joined the crowd in Ptolemy’s pavilion. I imagine Ptolemy rising after the feast and bidding these scholars to share their work with the assembled dignitaries and diplomats. The Alexandrian native Euclid leads them through a proof from his Elementa Mathematica. Zenodotus of Ephesus, inventor of textual scholarship, discusses his principles for editing Homer and reads from his corrected Iliad. Aristarchus of Samos explains the math behind his discovery that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of the universe. The vivisectionist Herophilus of Chalcedon shares his conclusion that the brain, rather than the heart, is the seat of intelligence. Then come the poets: Callimachus of Cyrene declaims from his encyclopedic Aetia (“Origins”), whose lively verses, some of the most polished in Greek, explain local rituals and obscure traditions. Finally, Apollonius reads passages from his epic in progress about Jason and the Argonauts, which aspires to ground his upstart city in the mythic past. All of these writers and thinkers are part of Alexandria’s great project, but only the work of Apollonius and Callimachus reproduces, as if in synecdoche, the ambition and scope of the whole, and it is only Apollonius’ masterpiece, the Argonautica, that survives today in its entirety. Poochigian’s translation serves as an occasion to reassess the poem, in terms of both its origins and its enduring fascination.

Despite its formative influence on the Aeneid, the Argonautica found little enthusiasm among ancient critics. Quintilian, with damning faintness, called it “no contemptible work” and praised it for maintaining “a sustained middle course.” Longinus allowed that Apollonius “makes no mistakes in the Argonautica” but then asked, “Would you rather be Homer or Apollonius?” With the end of antiquity, the poem dropped out of view, attracting few readers and little interest until the nineteenth century, when Sainte-Beuve rhapsodized over Apollonius’ brilliant depiction of Jason and Medea in Book III. Unfortunately, he didn’t care for the rest of the poem, and even as he rescued it from neglect he furnished future critics with an ample vocabulary of opprobrium. “What it seems mainly to lack,” he complained, “is unity of subject and general interest.” The subject “does not lend itself to a grand national design, like that of the Aeneid; it is of no especial interest for any particular people; it dissipates itself in a host of origin-stories and incunabula . . . The poet-narrator seems preoccupied, picking his way, trying not to forget anything.”

For over a century Sainte-Beuve’s assessment went unchallenged. Whenever Apollonius was compared to other writers of epic, not just Homer and Virgil but even Valerius Flaccus and William Morris, it was to his detriment. In 1911 J. W. Mackail found the Argonautica “fundamentally wrong” and charged Apollonius with “the fumbling of a scholar”: Mackail feels him to be confused in aim, lacking in genius, and haplessly encumbered by his Homeric models. In 1928 M. M. Gillies did his best to praise the poem, but still held that Apollonius “falls between the stools of poetry and science” and that “the taint of the Museum is in the blood of all her sons, and not even the Alexandrine leopard can change his spots.” And in 1932 F. A. Wright summed up the consensus: “Every one agrees that the poem is overloaded with irrelevant details, that many of the episodes are only of antiquarian interest, that the divine machinery lacks grandeur and creaks at times very clumsily, and that Jason is a weak and insignificant hero.” Not until the 1950s did the poem begin to receive positive attention from scholars more interested in analyzing what Apollonius had written than criticizing him for what he hadn’t. Thus began the ongoing project of rehabilitating his reputation—a project that led, in the Nineties, to several translations aimed at the general reader.2 In this new translation, which he calls “a labor of love,” Poochigian joins the flotilla of Hellenists looking to proselytize for Apollonius by making his poetry as accessible and enjoyable as possible.

Every age finds in the classics a mirror of its own interests and concerns. That readers have failed to find such a mirror in Apollonius may help account for his long critical disrepute. He has been consistently censured for not meeting readers’ expectations of what epic should be. The scholars of the library are partly to blame: By so meticulously establishing a canon, they made it easy to brand the artists of their own age decadents and epigones. Apollonius’ detractors have judged him by the lights of their times. Sainte-Beuve, though he wrote of widening “the Temple of Taste,” was Frenchman enough to consider “lack of unity” one of Apollonius’ chief demerits. Mackail, firmly under the spell of the Romantics, liked only the parts of the Argonautica that he could imagine having been written by Wordsworth or Keats; he wondered what would have happened “had [the poet] trusted the Romantic impulse and let himself go.” Apollonius’ admirers have been no less susceptible to the influence of the era. For example, interpretations of Jason and his apparent weakness as a leader have varied by the decade. In the disillusionment that followed McCarthyism, Jason was a corrupt career politician, an anti-hero, his character flaws part of the meaning of the work. In the wake of the sexual revolution, he became a love-hero, successful mainly because of his sex appeal. Towards the end of the Cold War, he was seen as a sort of evangelist for empire, a cog in the Ptolemaic propaganda machine. Today, the trend is towards contextualization and multiculturalism. As far as I’m concerned, it’s neither interesting nor useful to condemn, according to arbitrary aesthetic principles, whatever in the Argonautica seems strange or different or contra expectationem; I would much rather seek to understand the poem on its own terms.

Let’s look at another passage. As Jason and crew draw near to Colchis, they encounter a number of alien races. There are the Amazons of the Doean plain. There are the non-agricultural, iron-working Chalybes (“Dawn never rises for them without toil, / more toil, unending toil in soot and smoke”). And then there are the Mossynoeci:

Odd laws and customs mark their way of life.
Everything that we do out in the open
either in council or the marketplace,
they find some way to do inside their homes,
and all the things we do inside our homes,
they do out in the middle of the street
without the least compunction. Public sex
is not disgraceful there. Like boars in heat,
they feel not even slight embarrassment
with others present but engage their women
in open copulation on the ground
Their ruler sits inside the highest tower,
rendering personal verdicts to his subjects—
poor wretch, since, if his rulings seem unfair,
they lock him up in prison for a day
without a meal.

I quote this passage both because it’s entertaining and because it’s practically a versification of a passage in Herodotus. Compare:

Just as the climate that the Egyptians have is entirely their own and different from anyone else’s, and their river has a nature quite different from other rivers, so, in fact, the most of what they have made their habits and their customs are the exact opposite of other folks’. Among them the women run the market and shops, while the men, indoors, weave; and, in this weaving, while other people push the woof upward, the Egyptians push it down. The men carry burdens on their heads; the women carry theirs on their shoulders. The women piss standing upright, but the men do it squatting. The people ease nature’s needs in the houses but eat outdoors in the streets; their explanation of this is that what is shameful but necessary should be done in secret, but what is not shameful should be done openly. No woman is dedicated to any god, male or female, but men to all gods and goddesses. There is no obligation on sons to maintain their parents if they are unwilling, but an absolute necessity lies on daughters to do so, whether they will or not.

Elsewhere, Herodotus tells us that the “Colchians are clearly Egyptians,” and Apollonius makes it clear that he agrees (see below). In crossing the water to Aea, Jason metaphorically travels to Egypt, and his stormy love-affair with Medea is nothing less than a meeting of opposites: the urban, secular, sea-going, patriarchal Greeks, and the rural, theocratic, riverine, semi-matriarchal Egyptians.

Two characteristics of the historical Alexandria strike me as particularly germane to the Argonautica. The first is the duality of the encounter between the Greek ruling class and the Egyptian populace. Apollonius’ Alexandria was an archetypal city of culture shock. There, Greeks and Egyptians found themselves in sustained and intimate contact for the first time. Greek political institutions, cultural practices, and literary productions all had to accommodate, or at least avoid offending, Egyptian sensibilities. The Ptolemies had to fill the role of both Greek king and Egyptian pharaoh—the former political, the latter religious. They invented Serapis, who was the Egyptian deity Osiris-Apis in human form (such form being more congenial to the Greeks). The Grand Procession, though largely secular in nature and Greek in imagery, would have engaged the Egyptians, for whom ritual processions were an important part of religious tradition, and also overawed them. It was simultaneously an outreach and a warning.

The second characteristic, which sprang from the first, is a kind of universalist ambition. Alexandrian poetry, voracious of pluralia, echoed this ambition by including as many characters, voices, registers, myths, factoids, and odds and ends as it could hold. Unable to conquer the known world as Alexander did, the Ptolemies wanted to possess it; the parade, the library, the exotic collections, the stable of scholars, even the immigration policies and the linguistic polyphony attest to how far they succeeded.

Almost nobody was from Alexandria; in this respect, it fell far short of the Greek notion of ethnic purity summed up by Isocrates: “No city which recruits large numbers of citizens without discrimination from the world over should be considered happy, but rather that which preserves more than any other the stock of those who lived there from the first.” Alexandria’s Egyptian population had been forcibly uprooted and transferred from neighboring villages. Under Ptolemy I the city saw a surge of immigrants: Greeks, Egyptians, Jews, and a scattering of minorities. Their attraction to Alexandria had much to do with the fact that they were allowed to live in their own neighborhoods and govern themselves according to their own laws. The city was less a melting pot than a petri dish of difference, where each culture remained separate and distinct. As the classicist Daniel Selden put it, “Alexandria was a city where to be an outlander was paradoxically the norm.” This was certainly the case for the “caged birds” of the library, almost all of whom were enticed there from abroad.

Founded in 295, the library was modeled after Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens, that beacon of universal knowledge. Demetrius of Phalerum, the library’s first president, had been a pupil of Aristotle’s, and was given (according to the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates) “vast sums of money” by Soter “for the purpose of collecting together, as far as he possibly could, all the books in the world,” with the initial goal set at five hundred thousand volumes. Greek translations from books in (among other languages) Assyrian, Egyptian, Latin, and Hebrew were commissioned, including the epoch-making Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah. Invited by the Ptolemies and tempted by their resources, luminaries flocked from all corners of the Greek world to the paradisal Brotherhood of the Muses. From Thrace on the Greek mainland and the Cycladic island of Cos, from the eastern islands of Samos and Rhodes, from all over Greek Asia Minor—Chalcedon, Byzantium, Lampsacus, Ephesus, Cnidus—and from Cyrene and Pelusium in Egypt itself, came the historians and scholars of Homer, the mathematicians and physicists, the naturalists, astronomers and geographers, the doctors and proto-humanists, all eager to join the greatest community of learning ever assembled. It must have been like winning a fellowship at a fantastically distinguished interdisciplinary center.

Whether Apollonius himself was one of these foreign scholars is a matter of speculation. One might assume, based on his epithet “Rhodius” (“the Rhodian”), that he came from Rhodes. Yet his early biographers claim that he was, like Euclid, a native of Alexandria, and that he acquired his epithet in the following way. When his first public recitation of the Argonautica met with ridicule, the young poet stormed off to Rhodes to sulk and polish his poem. Years later he returned in triumph and was dubbed “Rhodius” because of the time spent on Rhodes. It’s a nice story, and harmonizes with another colorful bit of gossip, nowadays little trusted, about a feud between him and Callimachus. Ancient biography, however, is notoriously unreliable, and Apollonius might have been a native of Rhodes after all. Whatever the case, every page of the Argonautica reflects the cacophonous multiculturalism of Alexandria, and of the library in particular.

When Gillies tells us that “the taint of the Museum is in the blood of all her sons,” he’s making the same point made by Yeats at the end of “The Scholars”: “Lord, what would they say / Should their Catullus walk that way?” The criticism is fundamentally Romantic: Poets shouldn’t be shut up in libraries, they should be running around Byronically, having sublime experiences, seducing women, and liberating oppressed countries. One can also detect a backlash against Aristotle, whose prestige leant authority to a number of erroneous and bizarre scientific theories that could have been, and eventually were, disproved by simple experiments. “Study nature, not books!” (i.e., not Aristotle’s books) was the rallying cry of those who finally shook the scales from their eyes. Today, neither perspective seems particularly relevant.

At any rate, the dense weight of scholarship and literary tradition in the Argonautica, far from being a ball and chain, contributes to its rich and fertile strangeness. Let’s look at some examples of this “Alexandrianism.” The most noticeable vein—and perhaps the strangest for a modern reader—is etiological: Apollonius often makes brief digressions on the origin of some custom or feature of the landscape. Such explanatory tales are known in Greek as aitia. I’ve already mentioned the aition of the clod in Book IV; Apollo’s involvement there links it to another in Book II. The Argonauts have just made it through the Clashing Rocks. Exhausted, they pull ashore at Thynias, where they receive a divine revelation: Apollo, in propria persona, striding north, toward the land of the Hyperboreans. His grandson Orpheus (an important member of the expedition) speaks up:

“Come now, and let us dedicate this island
to Phoebus God of Dawn and name it for him
since it was here that we have seen him passing
before us as the sunrise. We shall build
a seaside shrine and give what offerings
we can procure.”

The Argonauts then set to sacrificing and feasting. After Orpheus sings a hymn to Apollo (“Be gracious, lord, I beg you. Eternally / your tresses are unshorn, eternally.”), the Argonauts build a shrine to commemorate the event:

                                                       Still today
the shrine of kindly Harmony remains there,
the very one the heroes instituted
in honor of a venerable goddess.

When the Argonautica was written, Alexandria and the Ptolemaic Kingdom were less than a hundred years old. Etiologies like this one, along with the story of the clod and many others (by one scholar’s count, there are nearly eighty in the epic), serve to bind the Alexandrian present to the mythic past. They also enrich the narrative and deepen our sense of the breadth and fullness of time. The effect is vertiginous: The Argonautica ’s present is a past dreamed by the future, where gods walk undisguised and cry out from mountaintops, and where heroes leave, on every scarp and promontory, temples and shrines still visible today.

This dizzying sense of history may be most pronounced in the passage where Apollonius discusses the Egyptian origins of Colchis, which the Greeks believed to have been founded by the semi-legendary pharaoh they called Sesostris. (They may have been thinking of Senusret III, Seti I, Rameses II, or some conflation of the three.) When the Argonauts are trying to decide what route they should take back to Greece from Aea—they have been told they must not return the way they came—Phrixus’ son Argus launches into a long digression on the Egyptian origins of civilization. He says that, “Way back before / Pelasgia was under the illustrious / sons of Deucalion,3 the land of Egypt, / mother of all the men of old, was called / the fecund ‘Misty Land,’ and River Ocean / went by the name of ever-flowing Triton.” And then

                                        a certain king, relying
upon his soldiers’ courage, might, and vigor,
pushed through all of Europe, all of Asia,
founding settlements along the way.
Some of the cities have survived, some not.
Though many ages have expired since then,
Aea has remained right where it was . . .

The namelessness of that “certain king” allows, even encourages, Greek readers to picture Sesostris as a proto-Alexander, setting out from Egypt to conquer the world and founding Aea on the way. Egyptian readers, however, would have seen Alexander as a latter-day Sesostris, picturing his Macedonian face with an Egyptian mask. In the passage, Egypt claims cultural priority over Greece, but with the catch that the Ptolemaic occupation of Egypt now belongs to an originally Egyptian project, while all this empire-building, both Greek and Egyptian, is given a mythological and literary counterpart in the voyage of the Argo: Heading home, the Argonauts will reverse the course of Sesostris, following routes preserved by his priests to get from Colchis back to Greece. Alexander in turn will head back in the other direction, following Sesostris and conquering from Egypt to the boundaries of the known world, along the way laying the foundations for the Ptolemies. History, then, comes full circle, with Alexandria as the infant inheritor of an ancient Greco-Egyptian domination. The Argonautica, far from lacking “a grand national design,” as Sainte-Beuve asserted, or being of no interest to “any particular people,” seeks to engage both the Greeks and Egyptians of Alexandria and to help forge a unified national culture.

If the scholarship of the Argonautica parallels, in a kind of synecdoche, Alexandria’s “universalism,” the same can be said of its polyphony. Any time Apollonius descended into the thronging streets and markets, dined with his fellow scholars in the Museum refectory, or set foot in the royal court, he would have heard a welter of voices, each inflected with the origin of its speaker. The poem echoes that array with a large collection of voices belonging to a rich and varied cast of characters. The Argonauts, that great gathering of statesmen and heroes all ready to contribute their skills, speak their mind, and occasionally pick fights with each other, no doubt resembled the Ptolemaic court, with Jason as the diplomatic Ptolemy. The foreign princess Medea gives voice alternately to adolescent lovesickness and Machiavellian cunning. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, when they get together for a chat, sound like the Real Housewives of Olympus. And Apollonius assigns speaking roles to figures who might have seemed beneath the dignity of traditional epic: Unnamed persons, referred to in the Greek as τις, “someone or other,” give voice to general disgruntlement; one of the Argo’s wooden planks issues a prophetic warning; and the moon makes an odd little speech full of resentment of Medea’s magic power over her. The poem has, in short, an ensemble cast whose range of tones and voices goes well beyond what traditional epic would admit.

Something similar can be said of the voice of Appolonius’ narrator. Homer, famously characterized by Matthew Arnold as rapid, plain, simple, and noble, set the gold standard for epic narrators. If we assume, as certain nineteenth-century critics did, that Apollonius strove to emulate Homer, we’ll have to brand him a failure. But he seems not to have been aiming for such unity, any more than Alexandria was aiming at ethnic purity. His voice, which Poochigian describes as “elastic,” at times rises to conventional epic heights but also descends to frankly comic volleys. Here he is at his most conventionally Poetic, setting the voyage in motion:

                                                        As soon
as radiant Dawn with her resplendent gaze
looked on the steep cliff face of Pelion,
and day broke fair, and breezes stirred the sea
that dashed, in turn, upon the headlands, Tiphys
awoke and roused the dozing crew and bade them
hasten aboard and man the oars.

What has always baffled Apollonius’ readers is that a poet capable of such passages also writes ones like the following, in which Jason summons the Argonauts after waking from a dream he doesn’t fully grasp:

                            He shouted to his comrades
far into the distance, as a lion
wandering through a forest roars to summon
his mate, and even distant mountain valleys
tremble at the sound, and all the herdsmen
and oxen shake with fear. (But Jason’s cry
was not at all upsetting to his men
because it was the bellow of a friend
calling to friends.)

Why, following a perfectly serviceable (if somewhat grandiose) epic simile, does Apollonius feel the need to butt in and let us know that Jason’s friends are not as scared of him as they would be of a lion? Does he think we’re dumb? A possible answer has to do with the Argonauts’ dire situation at this point in the narrative: Even the similes are breaking down.

One passage has struck readers as a particularly egregious example of Apollonius’ narrative ineptitude. Mackail, before quoting it, remarks, “Every now and then he pulls himself up with an obvious jerk to get back into the main subject; the effect is awkward, and according to the reader’s mood either distressing or ludicrous.” The Argonauts have dispatched “Aethalides, the posthaste messenger” to convince the Lemnian women to let them harbor on Lemnos for the night. The narrator seizes the opportunity and remarks:

Although Aethalides has long since sunk
under the silent tide of Acheron,
forgetfulness has never seized his spirit—
no, he is doomed to change homes endlessly,
now numbered with the ghosts beneath the earth,
now with the men who live and see the sun . . .
wait, why have I digressed so widely, talking
about Aethalides?

Why indeed? Assuming we’re able to restrain our inner Mackail from throwing the book across the room, we might find this passage funny—I laughed out loud the first time I read it. Apollonius seems to take the position of a bewildered reader, stepping back and exclaiming, “Wait a second, you blowhard, who cares about that guy?” But if we choose to take the question seriously, it becomes strangely moving. Compare the Seferis poem “The King of Asine,” about the void beneath a name we know only because Homer mentioned it once in the Iliad ; all the king is is a word. All we know about Aethalides is his name and profession, and that might be all Apollonius knew as well. As a “posthaste messenger,” he must have spent his life traveling. Now, in death, he spends much of his time “with the ghosts beneath the earth”—that is, in the unread depths of the library. But when the poet encounters him in some obscure mythographical tome, or when we do so in the Argonautica, he takes on new life, and rejoins “the men who live and see the sun”; the name has become the man. With his “jerk to get back” to the main narrative, the poet-narrator portrays himself as a bit of a garrulous imbecile, puncturing the melancholy atmosphere with a joke at his own expense. The obviousness of the maneuver encourages our resistance and reflection; neither the humor nor the pathos of the passage would come through without the “distressing or ludicrous” lurch Mackail derides.

At the same time, Apollonius is fun . We never know what to expect from him, and thus find ourselves in the same position as the Argonauts, who get walloped with all sorts of bizarre tribulations. At one point they must steer through an obstacle course of floating islands; it sounds like navigating an asteroid field. Hera seeks help from Thetis, who rallies her fellow Nereids to the cause:

Nereus’ daughters hiked their skirts
above their gleaming knees, clambered atop
the rocks protruding from the froth of surf,
and stood in two lines, one on either side . . .
Imagine maidens standing
upon a sandy shoreline, how they roll
their gowns up to their waists, pick up a ball,
toss it around or high into the air
so that it never hits the ground—that’s how
the Nereids passed the ship to one another,
keeping it in the air, above the breakers,
always above the rocks, and all the while
sea spray kept shooting up around the heroes.

The image of maidens tossing a ball runs from Homer and Anacreon through to the fourth-century-AD frescoes near Piazza Armerina in Sicily, but nowhere else is it so unexpected and delightful. It’s easy to see why Poochigian finds the narrator’s voice as “elastic” as “endearing.” From this juxtaposition of registers and tones emerges not one speaker of Homeric authority so much as a kind of chorus, conducted in a (sometimes uneasy) harmony.

The narrator’s self-consciousness, digressions, and disintegrating similes will not be to everyone’s taste. But Mackail is wrong when he says they represent “a failure of ordinary intelligence.” Plenty of postmodern writers, from Borges to Barthelme and beyond, have used similar tricks to shake us from the “dream of fiction” (as John Gardner called it) and expose the inner workings of our favorite literary forms. Apollonius knows and subverts our expectations as he takes us “across the water” to a strange epic place we’ve never been.

If Apollonius deserves some defense from the brickbats he’s received over the years, the test of a translator is how well he brings out his author’s acknowledged virtues. Apollonius has been praised for psychological realism, mainly in his depiction of Medea’s love for Jason in Book III (Virgil’s Dido would never have been what she is without Apollonius’ Medea as a model), and for the striking beauty of certain discrete passages. Mackail quotes several lines from Book III without translating them, on the grounds that “their clear beauty and imaginative quality depend so largely on their actual form and music that a translation would be blurred and disappointing.” Let’s look at them, first in Greek and then in translation. At Hera’s request, Venus has just persuaded her son Eros to make for Colchis and infect Medea with love for Jason. Apollonius describes the path he takes down from heaven:

            ἔνθεν δὲ καταιβάτις ἐστὶ κέλευθος
οὐρανίη· δοιὼ δὲ πόλον ἀνέχουσι κάρηνα
οὐρέων ἠλιβάτων, κορυφαὶ χθονός, ἧχί τ’ ἀερθεὶς
ἠέλιος πρώτῃσιν ἐρεύθεται ἀκτίνεσσιν.
νειόθι δ’ ἄλλοτε γαῖα φερέσβιος ἄστεά τ’ ἀνδρῶν
φαίνετο καὶ ποταμῶν ἱεροὶ ῥόοι, ἄλλοτε δ’ αὖτε
ἄκριες, ἀμφὶ δὲ πόντος ἀν’ αἰθέρα πολλὸν ἰόντι.

Here is Richard Hunter’s translation:

From this point the road from heaven descends, and two peaks of soaring mountains hold up the sky, heights of the earth, where the risen sun blushes red with its first rays. In his passage through the vast sky, the fertile earth, the cities of men and the sacred streams of rivers opened up beneath him; elsewhere were mountain-peaks, and all around the sea.

Presumably Mackail loved this passage in Greek at least in part because it reminded him of something out of Wordsworth or Shelley—“Mont Blanc,” perhaps. The enjambment on οὐρανίη (“from heaven”), followed by an early caesura, conveys a visual and sonic sense of descent, while the k sounds (καταιβάτις κέλευθος, “downward path”) evoke the hard edges of the road cut through bedrock. Enhanced by the next enjambment, the “sheer mountains” (οὐρέων ἠλιβάτων) ascend from the previous line’s twin peaks (δοιὼ κάρηνα), on which they depend grammatically, though mountains and sky remain tied together by sound, since both begin with the same syllable and sit right on top of each other (οὐρανίη over οὐρέων). In addition, the context (especially καταιβάτις and ἠέλιος) playfully suggests an etymology for the solid Homeric adjective ἠλιβάτων (“sheer”)—as if it meant “where the sun (ἥλιος) steps down (βαίνει).” Behind the peaks, the risen sun brightens in stately spondaic rhythms (ἐρεύθεται ἀκτίνεσσιν). From there we survey all that lies below: fertile earth (γαῖα φερέσβιος), cities of men (ἄστεα ἀνδρῶν, recalling the opening of the Odyssey), holy streams (ποταμῶν ἱεροὶ ῥόοι), peaks (ἄκριες), and sea (πόντος). Only at the end, when we reach ἰόντι, do we realize we have been following Eros in his flight.

As for Richard Hunter’s translation, it bears out Mackail’s prediction, remaining faithful to the Greek yet conveying little of its beauty. The clean, unadorned syntax catches the passage’s simplicity, but prose can hardly convey the expressive interrelationship of meter, line, and sense. For that, we need verse. Here is Peter Green’s version:

From there a vertiginous sky-borne path
runs downward: the peaks of two high-towering mountains,
roof to the world, support this vault of heaven
where the rising sun’s first rays glow blushing-red.
Down below he could see, in the course of his long flight,
now fertile stretches of farmland, teeming cities,
the lines of rivers; now mountains and the surrounding sea.

Green does nice things with enjambment, his strict use of one line of English for each line of Greek allowing him to imitate Apollonius’ enjambments with some precision, as in “runs downward.” Unfortunately, the rhythms are a different story. Like Richmond Lattimore, Green attempts to imitate the cadences of Greek hexameter but—again like Lattimore—often ends up with awkward clumps of syllables (such as the tongue-twisting “first rays glow blushing-red”) and a sort of ungainly loping (“the lines of rivers; now mountains and the surrounding sea”). In this last he is clearly trying to mimic the dactylic rapidity of line 166 (ἄκριες, ἀμφὶ δὲ πόντος ἀν’ αἰθέρα πολλὸν ἰόντι), but the effect is one more of a drunken stumble than a sprint.

Now consider Poochigian’s version:

opens the downward path; there double peaks
like pillars of the earth vault ever upward
to keep the sky from falling; there the sun,
first upon rising in the morning, ruddies
the summits with extended beam. As Eros
was coasting unobstructed through the air,
plump tilth and bustling towns and nymph-abounding
waterways passed into his view and then
strange ridges and a rounded swatch of sea.

You’ll see at a glance that this is the longest of the three translations— that’s because Poochigian stretches out the compressed Greek phrasing. It’s also the most ornate, and in my opinion the most attractive, written as it is in soaring, energetic English. In the third line, for example, Poochigian transforms the adjective ἠλιβάτων (discussed above) into a verb phrase (“vault ever upward”) and interprets the appositive κορυφαὶ χθονός (“heights of the earth”) as a simile. The result is an energy and momentum lacking in the other versions. Similarly, “unobstructed” extends the sense of the Greek (ἀν’ αἰθέρα πολλὸν simply means “through the abundant air”), but we feel the air’s abundance in a way we don’t with the others. And then “nymph-abounding” strikes me as a clear improvement on ἱεροὶ ῥόοι (“holy streams”). I must admit, however, to being somewhat uneasy with the “strange” ridges and the “rounded swatch” of sea: The language is sharp and striking, but Apollonius merely describes the ocean as being “all around” (ἀμφὶ).

I mentioned that ἠλιβάτων and ἄστεα ἀνδρῶν (“cities of men”) make us think of Homer. Apollonius was renowned as a Homeric scholar, and the Argonautica is saturated with references to Homer, on the level of episode and scene as well as word and line. Poochigian similarly enriches his translation with echoes of Milton, the Homer of English. In the passage I’ve been discussing, the verb “coast” (line 7) recalls Milton’s description— in Paradise Lost, Book III—of Satan “Coasting the wall of Heav’n on this side Night / In the dun Air sublime.” It’s a fully appropriate association for the little devil Eros. And then, in line 6, there’s “extended beam”—quite a departure from the original’s “first beams.” To me this seems a clear nod to a passage in Book II of Paradise Lost. I’ll quote it:

As when from mountain tops the dusky clouds
Ascending, while the North wind sleeps, o’erspread
Heav’n’s cheerful face, the low’ring Element
Scowls o’er the dark’n’d lantskip Snow or show’r,
If chance the radiant Sun with farewell sweet
Extend his ev’ning beam, the fields revive,
The birds thir notes renew, and bleating herds
Attest their joy, that hill and valley rings.

Poochigian performs a double trick: His Miltonic borrowing layers the language in the same way that Apollonius’ Homeric borrowings layer his, while also suggesting that Milton’s model (or at least one of his models) for the passage was Apollonius. Nothing could be more Alexandrian, or more like Apollonius, than this subtle intermingling of voices and historical periods to make a scholarly point that is nevertheless of more than antiquarian interest. Among the several other passages in which Poochigian performs this trick, let me single out his description of the fall of Phaëthon in Book IV:

The ship dashed onward under sail and reached
the halfway point on the Eridanus
where Phaëthon, chest smitten by a flashing
lightning-bolt, fell, half-incinerated,
out of the chariot of Helius
into the river muck, and to this day
foul vapors rising from the smoldering wound
bubble out of the brackish slick.

The use of enjambment here echoes Milton’s description of the fall of Hephaestus-Vulcan, while the phrasing points toward the passage in which Satan is cast from heaven:

                             Him the Almighty Power
Hurl’d headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.

The allusion helps pinpoint the voice of Apollonius’ narrator as interpreted by Poochigian. While much of his prosody and syntax seem modeled on Milton, Poochigian’s diction is less so, despite the occasional deliberate echo. In the sentence above, the syntax moves with Miltonic virtuosity, but the diction is less lofty. A phrase such as “half-incinerated” sits in the line not unlike “bottomless perdition,” but in a lower register, one that brings the high events (pardon the pun) down to earth. And Milton’s relentless grandeur could never admit “muck” or “brackish slick.” Like Apollonius, Poochigian mostly inhabits a middle register, influenced by Milton but “elastic” enough to accommodate earthy “muck” as well as sublime heights.

In short, Poochigian’s translation teaches the reader with a nose for such things as much about Apollonius’ influence on Milton as Apollonius teaches us about Homer. That, however, is by no means its chief virtue. Poochigian asserts in his “Note on the Text and Translation” that the Argonautica has long “needed a verse translation in which the poetic rhythms reinforce syntactic units, as do the rhythms of the original, and in which the electricity of language we expect in poetry is sustained.” His own translation seems to me to do these things: In the passages quoted above and countless others, meter, enjambment, and sound are used to wonderfully expressive effect, and the charged language compels attention, even—or especially—in the antiquarian passages that have often proven an obstacle to enjoyment.

I do have a few small reservations. With the pedantry proper to classicists, I sometimes object to the pronunciations of Greek names as indicated by Poochigian’s meter. For example, when one reads the line “The Cyclopes were seated in it, plying,” one wants to say “CYcloPES,” but the omega of the Greek demands “cyCLOpes.” (It may be that Poochigian has his own method of determining Greek pronunciation in English; he never addresses the issue, presumably because he thought it would bore readers rather than enlighten them.) I had this problem with perhaps a third of the names, of which there are a lot. Second, while Poochigian’s metrical ear is generally flawless, he seems to have an odd quirk of treating words like “world” and “wild” as two syllables; at least, that’s the only way I can hear five beats in a line like “could see the world with distinguished men.”

Niggles aside, Poochigian has produced a lively, vivid, readable, and lovely translation, whose excellencies of diction, meter, and syntax make it by far the most Apollonian Argonautica available in English.

I could quote many favorite passages, but I’m going to limit myself to three. At the very end of Book II, the Argonauts—having gotten past the Mossynoeci and the arrow-shooting birds on the Isle of Ares, and having rescued the shipwrecked sons of Phrixus—are sailing up the River Phasis towards Aea when they see a giant eagle overhead:

The heroes spotted outspread wings toward dusk
passing above the masthead near the clouds.
The huge and churning pennons loudly whispered,
puffing the sails. No, this was not a normal
bird of the air, but bigger, and it worked
its feathered wings like smoothly polished oars.

Soon after, they hear a blood-curdling scream: It is Prometheus, howling as the eagle tears out and devours his liver. (Later, we learn that his blood, dripping from the eagle’s beak, causes an herb to sprout—one that Medea uses to make the magic potion Prometheon, which protects Jason from the fire-breathing bulls.) The magical strangeness and danger of the world is everywhere apparent, but nowhere more than in those “huge and churning pennons” of the eagle rowing through the heavens, which, like the Argonauts, is bound to violently tear something immortal from its owner.

The second passage comes in Book IV, when the Argonauts are on the island of Phaeacia. King Alcinoüs is about to decide whether to return the fleeing Medea to the Colchians or allow her to remain with Jason. It’s conventional in epic to describe the dawning of important days, and Apollonius is in rare form here:

Dawn had returned, and her ambrosial beams
scattered the dusky darkness from the sky.
The island beaches laughed, the dew-drenched pathways
laughed as they ran in from the distant plains,
and there was movement in the streets, the townsfolk
were stirring, and the Colchians were stirring
out on the farthest spit of Macris island.

This is exquisite poetry. The repetition of “laughed” and “were stirring,” not found in the original, enhances the symmetry and euphony and contributes to the passage’s verb-rich liveliness. But the thing I like most is the way the lushness overflows its context, even seems detached from it. This day is a small island of triumph in a sea of trouble. Alcinoüs has already decided that if Jason and Medea have consummated their relationship, he will let them stay together. Informed of this, the pair hastily wed, and the Phaeacian king keeps his word. Even though we know—because everyone knows, and because Apollonius foreshadows it elsewhere—of the tragic suffering in store for them, the passage sparkles with joy. Indeed, it’s too joyful for the qualified optimism of the moment: It bubbles over, its exuberance conveying a worldly wonder and abundance divorced from any sense of providence.

Finally, a simile. Midway through Book II, the Argonauts are headed straight toward the Clashing Rocks. Athena decides to help them, and hastens down “to do the crew a favor”: 

                                        When a man
goes traveling outside his fatherland
(as we long-suffering mortals often do),
no land seems out of reach, the ways and means
shine in his mind, and he can see his house
and picture traveling by path and channel
and with his swift thoughts visit now one country
and now another in imagination,
so Zeus’ daughter leapt out of the cloud . . .

It’s hard not to see in these lines the scholarly immigrant to Alexandria yearning for home, even as he travels in his imagination to all corners of the known world through the books of the library. It’s also hard not to reflect that we readers of the Argonautica have spent the entire book in just such imaginative travel. That, Apollonius suggests, is a godlike privilege— one associated particularly with Athena, patroness of Wisdom.

In his Translator’s Note, Poochigian justifies his choice to translate the Argonautica into verse by referring to the character of Orpheus, the great poet who joins the crew and proves the most important Argonaut next to Jason. We’ve already seen him, after the revelation of Apollo, take the lead in building a shrine to Harmony. But he does more than that. He gets the gods on the heroes’ side by singing hymns. He teaches the Argonauts the secret rites of Electra and leads them in the Dance in Armor for Cybele. He even saves their lives three times. When the Argo sails past the Sirens, he outsings them and stops the crew from leaping overboard. When the heroes are dying of thirst among the Hesperides, he calls on the nymphs, who point the way to a spring. And when they are lost on Lake Tritonis, he suggests that they “lug / the tripod of Apollo off the ship / and set it on the shore, to leave a gift / for any local power that might guide / their homeward journey.” The god Triton appears, gives them directions, and offers Euphemus the clod that will become the island of Thira. In other words, poetic speech—here synonymous with a deep knowledge of places, rituals, and the mysteries of the divine—is powerful and efficacious, even salvific. It also harmonizes. Right at the beginning of the epic, the brute Idas starts to pick a fight with the seer Idmon, until Orpheus steps in and sings a song about the origins of the world. Once his “ambrosial voice” falls silent, Apollonius tells us that “his comrades still / leaned forward longingly, their ears intent, / their bodies motionless with ecstasy.”

It’s no accident that Orpheus is responsible for the shrine to Harmony. The Alexandrian court, the library, and the city itself must have been, like the Argo, jostling, competitive, and contentious, full of strong opinions and varied talents. Who could lead such a varied chorus in a coherent melody? Who could soothe the dysfunctional marriage of Greece and Egypt, illuminating for both parties their common origins? Who, finally, could do both at once, and make of the strange union a kind of harmony that still calls out to and unsettles us today? Orpheus the Argonaut, along with his alter ego Apollonius, and his surrogate, Aaron Poochigian.

The notion of “the Other” may strike some people as academic cant, but I find it useful, mainly because of its flexibility. A sort of empty vessel that can be filled up in different ways, it changes in relation to the point of focus. Today, we may consider the world of Apollonius “Other,” while his countrymen, if they had had the term, could have used it for the Egyptians, and the Argonauts for the Colchians.

At any rate, it seems to me that there are two ways of reacting to the presence of “Otherness” in life: You can be suspicious, shunning, and oppressive, or else curious and welcoming. I think of education as, among other things, a process of shifting into the second mode. We’re born selfish and struggle to imagine ourselves in others’ shoes, but we can grow by gradually broadening our horizons. One hopes societies will develop along parallel lines, from exclusion and oppression toward admission and acceptance. Even love, that great journey (to quote Yeats) “Into the labyrinth of another’s being,” can be figured under this sign. Small wonder, then, that we are so fascinated by the bones of Macedonian kings—Death is the ultimate Other, with ancient royalty not far behind.

Small wonder, too, that so many periods of cultural and literary ferment involve a direct confrontation with an Other. Examples are numerous, but I’ll mention three. During the Archaic period, at the time of Homer’s so-called floruit (“flourishing”), Greek art was influenced by Egypt and Assyria, and the Greek alphabet was adapted from the Phoenician. The zenith of Augustan Rome coincided with the Roman appropriation of Greek culture and literature. And the Renaissance took root in the expanded study of Latin and, especially, Greek literature and philosophy. Similar conditions obtained in the Alexandria of the first three Ptolemies, and the literary efflorescence they produced continues to challenge us today with its sheer strangeness—a strangeness that, however, arouses our curiosity and rewards our efforts.

It’s fitting that Apollonius should at last be so excellently translated, since he himself lived in a great age of translation, when Greeks, at the Ptolemies’ encouragement, were finally beginning to show an interest in “barbarian” literature, to translate it into Greek, and to include it in the library. However, the most important translation to come out of Alexandria had nothing to do with the library. The story goes that one of the Ptolemies, at the behest of Demetrius of Phalerum, wrote to the high priest Eleazar in Jerusalem, requesting that seventy-two Greek-speaking scholars of the Law, six from each of the twelve tribes, be sent to Alexandria for the purpose of translating the Hebrew Bible. They were lodged on Pharos Island, where for seventy-two days they brought the Pentateuch over into Greek. The text they produced, the Septuagint, marked the beginning of the end for Greco-Roman paganism and gave Hellenized Jews a foothold in the Ptolemaic Kingdom. One of these latter-day Jews, Philo of Alexandria, praised the translators as “prophets and priests of the mysteries,” and added:

Therefore, even to the present day, there is held every year a feast and general assembly in the island of Pharos, to which not only Jews but multitudes of others cross the water, both to do honor to the place in which the light of that first version shone out, and also to thank God for the good gift so old yet ever young.

It can be a great thing to cross the water, and Poochigian’s Argonauts make excellent travelling companions.


1 Apollonius was probably the second head librarian. We know for certain neither his dates of service nor those of the first head, Zenodotus of Ephesus, but it seems probable that Apollonius served under Ptolemy II and was succeeded by the polymathic, Renaissance-style humanist Eratosthenes of Cyrene in 246.

2 Barbara Hughes Fowler published a translation of the poem in Hellenistic Poetry: An Anthology (1990). Other translations are by Richard Hunter (1993), Peter Green (1997), and, for the new Loeb edition, William H. Race (2009).

3 In other words, before the flood. Pelasgia is Greece and Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha were the flood’s only survivors.

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