The Argonautica (Greek: Αργοναυτικά) is a Greek epic poem written by Apollonius Rhodius in the 3rd century BC. The only surviving Hellenistic epic, the Argonautica tells the myth of the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts to retrieve the Golden Fleece from the mythical land of Colchis.
In the first book, the ship Argo is built and a crew of around fifty heroes is assembled in response to an oracle received by King Pelias. Led by Jason, the heroes include Hercules and his companion Hylas, Castor and Pollux (the Dioscuri: sons of Tyndareus and brothers of Helen and Clytemnestra), Orpheus, Meleager, Zetes and Calais (sons of Boreas), Peleus (father of Achilles), Laertes (supposed father of Odysseus), Telamon (father of Ajax), and the ship's builder, Argos. Their goal is to travel to Colchis and to obtain the Golden Fleece. After Jason suggests the election of a leader, Hercules recommends Jason himself, and the heroes agree.
Setting sail from the eastern coast of Thessaly, the Argonauts first reach Lemnos, where the women, led by their Queen Hypsipyle, have murdered all of their husbands. Omitting the murder from her story, Hypsipyle convinces the men (except for Hercules) to breed with the women in order to repopulate the island. If Hypsipyle, Jason’s choice of consort, has a son, he tells her, send him to my parents; then the Argo sets sail. Traveling through the Hellespont, they reach land of the Doliones; though the King, Cyzicus, is friendly, the Argonauts accidentally fight with the Doliones and kill Cyzicus, and his widow Cleite then commits suicide, and Jason makes sacrifices in order to appease the gods. The Argonauts’ next destination is Kios, where Hercules' companion Hylas is abducted by nymphs. Heracles becomes upset and the Argo is obliged to leave him behind, though Glaucus appears from the sea to reassure its crew that they made the right decision.
The second book begins in Bebryces, where King Amycus challenges the heroes to a boxing match. Pollux accepts, killing the king. At Bosporus, Zetes and Calais drive the Harpies away from Phineas, a former king being punished for the misuse of his prophetic gifts; Phineas rewards them with the secret to passing through the Clashing Rocks. Passing through the Clashing Rocks, using this secret and the aid of Athena, they visit many strange lands: the land of the Amazons, led by Hippolyte; the land of Mossynoikoi, who make love in public; an island sacred to Ares, where they are attacked by Ares’ birds. Passing near the place where Prometheus is chained, they rescue the survivors of a ship from Colchis, and the Argonauts gain the grateful sons of Phrixus as accomplices in their bid to steal the Golden Fleece. Arriving in Colchis, Jason considers the best way of approaching the cruel King Aeëtes.
The third book begins with Hera and Athena, determined to help Jason in his quest, asking Eros to cause Aeëtes’ daughter Medea to fall in love with Jason. Jason goes to the Aietes's accompanied by Phrixus' sons, who Aeëtes is suspicious to see home so early, and who tell him of their shipwreck and rescue by the Argonauts. Aeëtes sees a conspiracy in this story, and tells Jason he can take the fleece if he passes a test of strength and courage: harness the bulls with bronze hooves, plow the plain of Ares, and plant the teeth of a serpent, giving rise to an army of soldiers. Medea, powerful and skilled with drugs and magic, sees the hopelessness of the task and prays to Hecate. Jason, seeing that Medea is a useful tool and that she is under a divine love spell, asks her for drugs and aid and receives them; he returns her affection, asking her to follow him to Greece and to be his wife.
After he sacrifices to Hecate, Medea’s favored goddess, Jason sprinkles Medea’s drug on his skin, clothing, spear, and sword. Protected by the drug, he is able to withstand the charge of the bulls, and to harness them to plow the field. Planting the teeth in the plowed field, the earth-born warriors rise from the ground, and Jason places a great round rock among them. They go to war over this rock, and Jason joins in the fighting until all are slain. Jason has succeeded at his task, but Aietes does not intend to release the Golden Fleece.
In the last book, Medea offers to put the dragon guarding the fleece to sleep in exchange for the Argonauts taking her aboard their ship and away from the father she has betrayed. Jason agrees, promising again to marry her, and she uses her skill with drugs to neutralize the dragon. Departing with the Golden Fleece, the Argo is pursued by Aietes and by Medea’s older brother Absyrtus. Jason proposes to leave Medea to Artemis, protector of virgins, an idea which causes an enraged Medea to threaten setting fire to the ships until Jason explains she is the bait in a trap set out for Absyrtus; the trap works, and Absyrtus is ambushed and killed by Jason, causing the Colchians to scatter.
A few incidental adventures later, the Colchians return, demanding the return of Medea. They are persuaded that Medea, since she left voluntarily, may stay with Jason if their marriage has been consummated, but she may not if she is still a virgin; Medea and Jason then consummate their marriage and Medea is allowed to remain with her husband. At Lake Triton, possibly the Nile, they come across a serpent killed by Hercules, but are unable to find the hero himself. On Crete, the Argonauts encounter Talos, the last survivor of an ancient race of men, who attacks them; Medea comes to the rescue with her spells, and slays Talos, who bleeds ichor as he dies. Euphemus, son of Poseidon, casts a clod of earth he received at Lake Triton into the sea, creating the island of Kalliste (Thera); and at long last, the Argo reaches the coast of Thessaly and home.
The Argonautica differs in some respects from traditional or Homeric Greek epic, though Apollonius certainly used Homer as a model. The Argonautica is much shorter than Homer’s epics, with four books totaling less than 6,000 lines, while the Iliad runs to more than 15,000. Apollonius may have been influenced here by Callimachus' brevity, or by Aristotle’s demand for "poems on a smaller scale than the old epics, and answering in length to the group of tragedies presented at a single sitting" (Poetics). Argonautica meets Aristotle's requirements; each of the Argonautica's four books are around the same length as a tragedy. Tragedies were traditionally performed in groups of four, three tragedies and a satyr play, whose total length was very nearly that of the Argonautica.
Apollonius’ epic also differs from the more traditional epic in its weaker, more human protagonist Jason and in its many discursions into local custom, aetiology, and other popular subjects of Hellenistic poetry. Apollonius also chooses the less shocking versions of some myths, having Medea, for example, merely watch the murder of Absyrtus instead of murdering him herself. The gods are relatively distant and inactive throughout much of the epic, following the Hellenistic trend to allegorize and rationalize religion. Heterosexual loves such as Jason’s are more emphasized than homosexual loves such as that of Heracles and Hylas, another trend in Hellenistic literature as heterosexual love gained prestige.
Many critics name the love of Jason and Medea in this book as the best and most beautiful part of the Argonautica, inspiring some of Apollonius' finest writing:
So Love the Destroyer Blazed in a coil around her heart, her mind's keen anguish Now flushed her soft cheeks, now drained them of all color. (line 297-299.)
- Editio princeps (Florence, 1496).
- Merkel-Keil (with scholia, 1854).
- Seaton (1900).
- 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
- Green, Alexander to Actium: The political evolution of the Hellenistic age (1990), particularly Ch. 11 and 13.
- Longinus (De Sublim, p. 54, 19)
- Quintilian (Instit, x. 1, 54)
- Aristotle (Poetics)
English translations: Verse:
- Edward Burnaby Greene, The Argonautic Expedition (1780)
- Francis Fawkes, The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius (1780)
- William Preston, The Argonautics of Apollonius Rhodius (1803)
- Arthur S. Way, The Tale of the Argonauts (1901)
- John Gardner, Jason and Medeia (1973)
- Peter Green, The Argonautika by Apollonios Rhodios (1987)