Text #9253"Apollonius of Rhodes", in .
Apollonius of Rhodes (fl. first half of 3rd century BCE), is best known as the author of the Argonautica, an epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. The poem is one of the few extant examples of the epic genre and it was both innovative and influential, providing Ptolemaic Egypt with a “cultural mnemonic” or national “archive of images”, and offering the Latin poets Virgil and Gaius Valerius Flaccus a model for their own epics. His other poems, which survive only in small fragments, concerned the beginnings or foundations of cities, such as Alexandria and Cnidus – places of interest to the Ptolemies, whom he served as a scholar and librarian at the Library of Alexandria. A literary dispute with Callimachus, another Alexandrian librarian/poet, is a topic much discussed by modern scholars since it is thought to give some insight into their poetry, although there is very little evidence that there ever was such a dispute between the two men. In fact almost nothing at all is known about Apollonius and even his connection with Rhodes is a matter for speculation. Once considered a mere imitator of Homer, and therefore a failure as a poet, his reputation has been enhanced by recent studies, with an emphasis on the special characteristics of Hellenistic poets as scholarly heirs of a long literary tradition writing at a unique time in history.
The most reliable information we have about ancient poets is largely drawn from their own works. Unfortunately, Apollonius of Rhodes reveals nothing about himself. Most of the biographical material comes from four sources: two are texts entitled Life of Apollonius found in the scholia on his work (Vitae A and B); a third is an entry in the 10th-century encyclopaedia the Suda; and fourthly a 2nd-century BCE papyrus, P.Oxy. 1241, which provides names of several heads of the Library of Alexandria. Other scraps can be gleaned from miscellaneous texts. The reports from all the above sources however are scanty and often self-contradictory.
The Lives and the Suda agree that Apollonius was a student of the poet and scholar Callimachus. Vita B states that Callimachus was his instructor in rhetoric (γραμματικός), but the terminology is anachronistic. Moreover, in ancient biographies “pupil” and “student” are figures of speech designating the influence one poet may have exercised over another. Their poetic works do in fact indicate a close relationship, if only as authors, with similarities in theme and composition, style and phrasing, but it is not easy to work out who was responding to whom, especially since ‘publication’ was a gradual process in those days, with shared readings of drafts and circulation of private copies: “In these circumstances interrelationships between writers who habitually cross-refer and allude to one another are likely to be complex.”
The second Life, the Suda, and P.Oxy. 1241 attest that Apollonius held this post. Moreover P.Oxy. 1241 indicates that Apollonius was succeeded in the position by Eratosthenes; this must have been after 247/246 BCE, the date of the accession of Ptolemy III Euergetes, who was probably tutored by Apollonius and who appointed Eratosthenes. Unfortunately, the chronology of P.Oxy. 1241 bears some signs of confusion since it lists Apollonius under Ptolemy I Soter (died 283 BCE), or Ptolemy V Epiphanes (born 210 BCE). The Suda says that Apollonius succeeded Eratosthenes, but this doesn’t fit the evidence either. There was another Alexandrian librarian named Apollonius (“The Eidographer”, succeeding Aristophanes of Byzantium as library head) and this may have caused some of the confusion.
The epithet Rhodios or Rhodian indicates that Apollonius had some kind of association with the island of that name. The Lives and the Suda attest to his move there from Alexandria. They differ about whether he died in Rhodes or came back to Alexandria to take up the position of head of the Library. According to Vita A, he was a famous teacher in Rhodes, but it may have confused him with yet another Apollonius (Apollonius the Effeminate) who taught rhetoric there. In fact the epithet “of Rhodes” need not indicate any physical association with the island. It might simply reflect the fact that he once wrote a poem about Rhodes. According to Athenaeus, he was also called the “Naucratite”. Some modern scholars doubt that he was ever given that title but, if he was, it may be because he composed a poem about the foundation of Naucratis.
Only the two Lives give information about Apollonius’ death, and they disagree. The first reports that he died in Rhodes; the second reports that he died after returning to Alexandria and adds that “some say” he was buried with Callimachus.
Ancient biographies often represent famous poets as going into exile to escape their ungrateful fellow citizens. Thus for example Homer was said to have left Cyme because the government there would not support him at public expense (Vit. Herod. 13-14), Aeschylus left Athens for Sicily because Athenians valued him less than some other poets (Vit. Aesch.), while Euripides fled to Macedonia because of humiliation by comic poets (Vit. Eur.). Similarly Vitae A and B tell us that Apollonius moved to Rhodes because his work was not well received in Alexandria. According to B, he redrafted the Argonautica in such fine style at Rhodes that he was able to return to Alexandria in triumph, where he was rewarded with a post in the library and finally a place in the cemetery next to Callimachus. These stories were probably invented to account for the existence of a second edition of Argonautica, indicated by variant readings in ancient manuscripts. …
Apollonius was among the foremost Homeric scholars in the Alexandrian period. He wrote the period’s first scholarly monograph on Homer, critical of the editions of the Iliad and Odyssey published by Zenodotus, his predecessor as head of the Library of Alexandria. Argonautica seems to have been written partly as an experimental means of communicating his own researches into Homer’s poetry. It has even been called “a kind of poetic dictionary of Homer”, without at all detracting from its merits as poetry. He has been credited with scholarly prose works on Archilochus and on problems in Hesiod. He is also considered to be one of the period’s most important authors on geography, though approaching the subject differently from Eratosthenes, his successor at the library and a radical critic of Homer’s geography. It was a time when the accumulation of scientific knowledge was enabling advances in geographical studies, as represented by the activities of Timosthenes, a Ptolemaic admiral and a prolific author. Apollonius set out to integrate new understandings of the physical world with the mythical geography of tradition and his Argonautica was, in that sense, a didactic epic on geography, again without detracting from its merits as poetry.
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