Valerius Flaccus

(fl. c. 90 ad)

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Roman poet, author of the Argonautica, an epic poem on the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. There is no external evidence for his biography apart from Quintilian's remark (c.ad 95) that ‘we have recently suffered a great loss in Valerius Flaccus’ (10. 1. 90); since Quintilian can use ‘recent’ of Caesius Bassus' death in ad 79 (10. 1. 96), the conventional dating of Valerius' death to the early 90s is without foundation. The evidence of the poem itself is controversial. The conventional claim that Valerius was a quindecimvir sacris faciundis (guardian of the Sybilline books) is based on lines in the proem which by no means dictate such a conclusion (1. 5–7). The one certainty is the reference in a simile to the eruption of Vesuvius, which occurred on 24 August 79 (4. 507–9; cf. 3. 208–9). The date of the composition of the proem, which alludes to Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, is keenly contested, with advocates for a date under each of the three. The most that can be securely stated is that the Argonautica is a Flavian epic (a fact of more than chronological importance).

Indebted to the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius (and perhaps of Publius Terentius Varro Atacinus, but moulded above all by Virgil, Valerius' poem follows the Argonauts' expedition through many famous adventures to the point where Jason absconds from Colchis with Medea. The poem breaks off at 8. 467 as Medea is persuading Jason not to hand her back to her brother Absyrtus. The conventional view is that the poet died before finishing his work, although the latest editor believes that the poem was completed in eight books, with the second half of the last book lost in transmission.

The poem owes much to Apollonius' Argonautica as a quest with a strong interest in the problems of epic heroism. Valerius, though, departs radically from Apollonius when he concentrates on Argo as the first ship, harbinger of human civilization (1. 1–4), placing his poem in a long and energetic Roman tradition of appropriation of the golden age and iron age myths. A cosmic frame is provided by Jupiter's concern for the expedition, which will reproduce on earth the patterns of order and dominance guaranteed universally by his own recent victory in the Gigantomachy. The cycles set in train by Argo's voyage will carry on down to the contemporary world of the Roman empire (1. 537–60), where the Flavian house likewise rules after the chaos of civil war. Hyperbolically inflating Apollonius' interest in aetiology, Valerius recounts the origin of warfare and imperial institutions, so that the poem is studded with overt references to contemporary Roman practices (in marked contrast with Statius' Thebaid). Valerius exploits Virgil's Georgics and Seneca the Younger's Medea to stress the ambivalence of iron age achievement, for navigation is a violation of natural boundaries, and hence either magnificent or impious in its audacity. In cunning and ironic counterpoint to these grand themes is the love story which overtakes the narrative in book 5. Valerius rises to the daunting challenge of going where Apollonius, Virgil, and Ovid had gone before, exploiting his great goddesses to present a sombre and frightening image of Medea's passion.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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