|Born||Early 3rd century BC|
|Died||Late 3rd century BC|
|Occupation(s)||Epic poet, librarian, scholar|
Apollonius of Rhodes (Ancient Greek: Ἀπολλώνιος Ῥόδιος Apollṓnios Rhódios; Latin: Apollonius Rhodius; fl. first half of 3rd century BC) was an ancient Greek author, best known for 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.
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.
Until recently modern scholarship has made much of a feud between Callimachus and Apollonius. The evidence partly rests on an elegiac epigram in the Palatine Anthology, attributed to "Apollonius the grammarian". It blames Callimachus for some unstated offense and mocks both him and his most famous poem, the Aetia ("Causes"):
Καλλίμαχος, τὸ κάθαρμα, τὸ παίγνιον, ὁ ξυλινὸς νοῦς,
Callimachus, that discard, that plaything, that mahogany noggin,
Ancient sources describe Callimachus's poem Ibis — which does not survive — as a polemic and some of them identified Apollonius as the target.[note 1] These references conjure up images of a sensational literary feud between the two figures. Such a feud is consistent with what we know of Callimachus's taste for scholarly controversy and it might even explain why Apollonius departed for Rhodes. Thus there arises "a romantic vision of scholarly warfare in which Apollonius was finally driven out of Alexandria by a triumphant Callimachus". However, both of the Lives of Apollonius stress the friendship between the poets, the second Life even saying they were buried together; moreover Callimachus's poem Ibis is known to have been deliberately obscure and some modern scholars believe the target was never meant to be identified. There is still not a consensus about the feud, but most scholars of Hellenistic literature now believe it has been enormously sensationalised, if it happened at all.[note 2]
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 and to address philosophical themes in 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.
Main article: Argonautica
The Argonautica differs in some respects from traditional or Homeric Greek epic, though Apollonius certainly used Homer as a model. The Argonautica is shorter than Homer's epics, with four books totalling fewer than 6000 lines, while the Iliad runs to more than 16,000. Apollonius may have been influenced here by Callimachus's 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" (the Poetics).
Apollonius' epic also differs from the more traditional epic in its weaker, more human protagonist Jason and in its many digressions 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 Apsyrtus instead of murdering him herself. The gods are relatively distant and inactive throughout much of the epic, following the Hellenistic trend to allegorise and rationalise 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. Many critics regard the love of Medea and Jason in the third book as the best written and most memorable episode.
Opinions on the poem have changed over time. Some critics in antiquity considered it mediocre. Recent criticism has seen a renaissance of interest in the poem and an awareness of its qualities: numerous scholarly studies are published regularly, its influence on later poets like Virgil is now well recognised, and any account of the history of epic poetry now routinely includes substantial attention to Apollonius.
A handful of fragments are all that survive of his other work, mostly ktiseis (κτίσεις) or 'foundation-poems', apparently dealing with the mythical origins of cities, a theme that Apollonius also touches on in Argonautica (as for example in the foundation of Cius, 1.1321-23). The fragments have been given considerable attention recently, with speculation about their authenticity, about the subject matter and treatment of the original poems, their geo-political significance for Ptolemaic Egypt, and how they relate to Argonautika.
Apollonius's poetic skills and technique have only recently come to be appreciated, with critical recognition of his successful fusing of poetry and scholarship.