Gaius Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica & Quotes

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Gaius Valerius Flaccus was a Roman poet who lived in the first century AD. His most famous work, The Argonautica is an updated, more detailed, and considered a more enjoyable work concerning Jason and the Argonauts than the original Greek story.

A New Era in Rome

The first century Roman world was, in many ways, an entirely different reality compared to the previous centuries. The Pax Romana or Roman Peace (27 B.C.E. to 180 C.E.) was still in full force, allowing unheard of stability that offered artists, writers, and other creative people ample opportunity to develop their crafts.

The Roman road system and common language allowed rapid travel and the easy transmission of thoughts, ideas, and information in unprecedented ways.

All of these advantages, combined with the overwhelming wealth of Rome and its people, were a catalyst for amazing artistic achievements and development of philosophies as well as the revisiting of some of the most ancient writings of the Greeks.

Gaius Valerius Flaccus

This is the living situation of which first century poet and writer Gaius Valerius Flaccus found himself the benefactor, and he took full advantage. One of his most notable pursuits was a rewrite of the original Greek story of Jason and the Argonauts, henceforth known as The Argonautica. This story, along with The Odyssey and The Iliad, is considered one of the great epics of ancient Greece.

An ancient Greek manuscript of The Argonautica.

The tale of Jason and the Argonauts' quest to find the Golden Fleece is a major epic of ancient Greek literature, revered by Roman culture. However, Flaccus apparently felt there was room for improvement. He not only made some literary and grammatical changes, he manipulated characters' attitudes, motivations, and personalities.

The Flaccus Version of The Argonautica

In the story, Jason and his crew take to the seas aboard their ship, the Argo. The adventure is set in motion by Pelias, the king of Iolcus, after he is told by Apollo that Jason will bring about his demise.

Rather than directly kill Jason, Pelias sends him on a suicide mission to Colchis to retrieve the Golden Fleece. Along the way, Jason and his heroic crew meet many dangers including harpies, sea creatures, and the Sirens.

However, eventually they accomplish their dangerous mission with the help of the sorceress Medea of Colchis, who becomes Jason's love interest as they complete the adventure together:

''And as a maiden catches on her finely wrought robe the gleam of the moon at the full, as it rises above her high-roofed chamber; and her heart rejoices as she beholds the fair ray; so at that time did Jason uplift the mighty fleece in his hands; and from the shimmering of the flocks of wool there settled on his fair cheeks and brow a red flush like a flame.''

Character Development

While the story format and plot of Flaccus' interpretation remains much the same as the original, his character development, especially with Jason, Medea, and Hercules, is markedly different and more engaging. Flaccus presents the main characters as more sympathetic and powerful, drawing on imagery and action to highlight their skills and motivations.

He also develops the characters' personalities more deeply. For instance, instead of a background character to be used by Jason, Medea is a skilled and integral part of the adventure who is fully possessed of herself and her own desires. Hercules is also shown as a character of high moral character, desiring only to complete the adventure with honor and nobility.

Jason is also developed into a deeply sympathetic character who engages the reader through his heroism and strength of character as well as his skill in battle. Altogether, the tone of Flaccus' interpretation of The Argonautica is one of humanity and triumph rather than oppression and drudgery.

A relief depicting Jason and Medea receiving the Golden Fleece.
Jason and Medea

The Argonautica: A Literary Analysis

Flaccus wrote The Argonautica as an epic poem, a common form in ancient Roman times. The poem was written in hexameter, which consists of six syllables of varying lengths and emphasis. This was a method standard to the great Latin and Greek literature of the time.

The poem is divided into eight books and ends abruptly before the finale with Medea begging Jason not to leave her on Colchis. However, the writing style of Flaccus is considered superior to other versions in that he uses emotionally impactful language and situations to move the story forward.

For example, Medea puts a serpent under a sleeping charm while Jason attempts to steal the fleece. However, during the episode, Medea has thoughts about feeling sympathy for the serpent, a literary device far outside the norm in ancient Greek and Roman literary expression.

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