Intertextuality in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica: Conference Report

Happy 2016 everyone! I always find the Christmas break a bit disorienting – time seems to stop still and then suddenly accelerate just in time for term to start again. That certainly just happened to me when I came to writing this piece and realised that it’s only been 2 weeks since I attended a conference hosted at UCL on Intertextuality in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica. For those interested, a programme of the whole conference is currently available to download here (it’s a safe link I promise). The conference itself was very stimulating, with scholars attending from both sides of the Atlantic and from across Europe to share their thoughts, and has given me a lot to chew over (especially with regards to my own research on Martial).

Although there was no paper specifically focused on the question of what we mean by intertextuality (in general the term refers to any event where one text alludes to another) it was very apparent that scholars have been getting far more sophisticated in recent years. Papers generally moved closer to a “window allusion” model than a standard open quotation model – matching up words that occur in both texts seems less academically interesting these days (still relevant, but sometimes a quercus is just a quercus), and there is a tendency to prefer a model of intertextual analysis that explores how texts evoke a general feeling of the hypertext. In this way I was particularly persuaded by Jessica Blum’s discussion of how Flaccus depicts Hercules in a manner akin to Sophocles’ Ajax (in his eponymous play), of a hero out of place in a more technologically advance world where brains are more powerful than brawn.

Similarly, Antony Augoustakis delivered an exceedingly comprehensive overview of a selection of similar burial scenes in Flaccus’s Argonautica and Silius Italicus’ Punica. Augoustakis’ paper examined episodes where Flaccus and Silius both depict non-Romans burying the dead in decidedly Roman (and not Homeric Greek) fashion. Augoustakis suggested that the similarity probably reflects contemporary ritual and religious practice, offering a promising “why” for this intertext after listing all of the “how.”

Helen Lovatt gave a paper on how faithfully Flaccus adhered to his Alexandrian predecessor, and how and why he departs from Apollonius of Rhodes’ Greek version of the text. Her analysis itself focused on the scenes towards the fragmentary end of Flaccus version (an argument about fides between Jason and Medea), and suggested that Flaccus wrote a “creative misreading” of Apollonius by using what Andrew Zissos terms “negative allusion” (highlighting what the poet is not actually saying). Also of interest was her consideration of how important ancient artwork could have been on poetry, and how much is lost to our understanding through our loss of material evidence.

This argument between Jason and Medea was also discussed by Emma Buckley in a paper on the supplement to the text written in 1519 by Giovanni Battista Pio in order to “finish off” the work once and for all. Buckley showed that Pio actually relied rather heavily on Apollonius’ version to finish off the text, even when it contradicts earlier events in Flaccus’ epic. Some of the deeper questions raised by Buckley’s paper (which unfortunately I couldn’t quite put into words at the time) were how we can understand intertextuality working – once we read Valerius Flaccus, for instance, can we read a temporally previous text like Vergil’s Aeneid or Apollonius’ Argonautica in the same way? With intertextuality there always seems to be a certain amount of writing back to previous times, and changing our own modern understanding of the hypertext with a different interpretation (a projection of the text that exists somewhere between hyper- and hypotext). Naturally we’ll read a series of texts in chronological order, but some texts seem to do their best to disrupt this sequence.

Indeed, this seems somewhat to be the case with Mark Heerink who explored allusions to events and the language of Lucan’s Bellum Civile to suggest that Flaccus’ poem has a far more depressing outlook than is usually associated with it. Heerink did qualify this by stating that he himself may be to blame for this reading, but this is another example of how intertextuality breaks down the borders between texts and seems to twist and change our viewpoints with alarming ease.

Darcy Krasne’s contribution explored how a series of intertexts surrounding the Aeolian Islands serves to underpin the whole text with strong Lucretian undertones. Again, her paper exhibited the rich tapestry of intertexts at play in ancient literature.

Finally, Leo Landrey’s paper on Triptolemus in Flaccus and Ovid’s Tristia offered a much needed cross-examination of the Flavian usage of the Augustan elegist. In particular, he presented the elegiac desire of Ovid, particularly a mournful desire from exile to return, that depicts helplessness in the Argonautica whenever it appears there.

From this brief overview it is readily apparent that for a conference lasting one day there was a huge amount of subject matter packed into the event, but never at a loss to the overall aims of the conference. I sincerely hope that this meeting develops into a book, not only for its treatment of a leading Flavian epicist, but also for the thoughts it provokes about the field of intertextuality in Latin literature and in general. The conference organisers (Gesine Manuwald and Bridget England) should both be congratulated on such a successful and well organised event. I certainly came away thinking a lot more about the wide-ranging intertextuality present in Valerius Flaccus, and I hope this is the start of a series of interesting written pieces on the matter.