Apollonius of Rhodes

Apollonius of Rhodes

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Apollonius Rhodius, also known as Apollonius of Rhodes (Latin; Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

  Apollṓnios Rhódios), early 3rd century BCE – after 246 BCE, was a poet, and a librarian at the Library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria
The Royal Library of Alexandria, or Ancient Library of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt, was the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major center of scholarship from its construction in the...

. He is best known for his epic poem the Argonautica, which told the mythological story of Jason
Jason was a late ancient Greek mythological hero from the late 10th Century BC, famous as the leader of the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. He was the son of Aeson, the rightful king of Iolcus...

 and the Argonauts
The Argonauts ) were a band of heroes in Greek mythology who, in the years before the Trojan War, accompanied Jason to Colchis in his quest to find the Golden Fleece. Their name comes from their ship, the Argo, which was named after its builder, Argus. "Argonauts", therefore, literally means...

' quest for the Golden Fleece
Golden Fleece
In Greek mythology, the Golden Fleece is the fleece of the gold-haired winged ram, which can be procured in Colchis. It figures in the tale of Jason and his band of Argonauts, who set out on a quest by order of King Pelias for the fleece in order to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus...

, and which is one of the chief works in the history of epic poetry.

He did not come from Rhodes, but was a Hellenistic Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

ian. He lived in Rhodes for part of his life and while living there adopted "Rhodian" as a surname.


There are four main sources of information on Apollonius' life: two texts entitled Life of Apollonius found in the scholia on Apollonius; the entry on him in the 10th century encyclopaedia the Suda
The Suda or Souda is a massive 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, formerly attributed to an author called Suidas. It is an encyclopedic lexicon, written in Greek, with 30,000 entries, many drawing from ancient sources that have since been lost, and often...

; and a 2nd century BCE papyrus, P.Oxy.
Oxyrhynchus is a city in Upper Egypt, located about 160 km south-southwest of Cairo, in the governorate of Al Minya. It is also an archaeological site, considered one of the most important ever discovered...

 1241, which provides names of several heads of the Library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria
The Royal Library of Alexandria, or Ancient Library of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt, was the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major center of scholarship from its construction in the...

. Of these P.Oxy. 1241 carries much more weight than the others, as it is by far the closest to Apollonius' lifetime. Other miscellaneous texts provide further information.

Well-established events

  • Birth. The two Lives and the Suda
    The Suda or Souda is a massive 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, formerly attributed to an author called Suidas. It is an encyclopedic lexicon, written in Greek, with 30,000 entries, many drawing from ancient sources that have since been lost, and often...

    name Apollonius' father as Silleus or Illeus. (The second Life names his mother as "Rhode", but this is unlikely; Rhodē means "Rhodian woman", and is almost certainly derived from an attempt to explain Apollonius' epithet "Rhodian".) The Lives, the Suda, and the geographical writer Strabo
    Strabo, also written Strabon was a Greek historian, geographer and philosopher.-Life:Strabo was born to an affluent family from Amaseia in Pontus , a city which he said was situated the approximate equivalent of 75 km from the Black Sea...

     say that he came from Alexandria
    Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

    ; Athenaeus
    Athenaeus , of Naucratis in Egypt, Greek rhetorician and grammarian, flourished about the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd century AD...

     and Aelian
    Claudius Aelianus
    Claudius Aelianus , often seen as just Aelian, born at Praeneste, was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric who flourished under Septimius Severus and probably outlived Elagabalus, who died in 222...

     say that he came from Naucratis
    Naucratis or Naukratis, , loosely translated as " power over ships" , was a city of Ancient Egypt, on the Canopic branch of the Nile river, 45 mi SE of the open sea and the later capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, Alexandria...

    , some 70 km south of Alexandria along the river Nile
    The Nile is a major north-flowing river in North Africa, generally regarded as the longest river in the world. It is long. It runs through the ten countries of Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Egypt.The Nile has two major...

    . No source gives the date of his birth.
  • Student of Callimachus. The Lives and the Suda agree that Apollonius was a student of the poet and scholar Callimachus
    Callimachus was a native of the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya. He was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria and enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian–Greek Pharaohs Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes...

    . The second Life adds that "some say" Apollonius was buried with Callimachus.
  • Head of the Library of Alexandria. The second Life, the Suda, and P.Oxy. 1241 attest that Apollonius held this post. P.Oxy. 1241 establishes moreover that Apollonius was succeeded by Eratosthenes
    Eratosthenes of Cyrene was a Greek mathematician, poet, athlete, geographer, astronomer, and music theorist.He was the first person to use the word "geography" and invented the discipline of geography as we understand it...

    ; this must have been after 247/246 BCE, the date of the accession of Ptolemy III Euergetes
    Ptolemy III Euergetes
    -Family:Euergetes was the eldest son of Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his first wife, Arsinoe I, and came to power in 246 BC upon the death of his father.He married Berenice of Cyrene in the year corresponding to 244/243 BC; and their children were:...

    , who seems to be the monarch that appointed Eratosthenes. (The Suda says that Apollonius succeeded Eratosthenes, but this is impossible: Apollonius studied with Callimachus, who died ca. 240 BCE; the first Life says Apollonius was contemporary with Ptolemy III; and Eratosthenes held the post until at least 204 BCE)
  • Removal from Alexandria to Rhodes. The Lives and the Suda attest to this; so does the attachment of the epithet Rhodios "the Rhodian" to his name. What is uncertain is whether he died there, or came back to Alexandria in order to take up the position of head of the Library afterwards.
  • Death. Only the two Lives give information about Apollonius' death, and they disagree. The first says he died in Rhodes; the second says he died after returning to Alexandria.

From this we can conclude that (1) Apollonius was born in either Alexandria or Naucratis; (2) he lived for a time in Rhodes; (3) he held the post of Librarian at least until 246 BCE. From this in turn we may infer that he lived in the early-to-mid 3rd century BCE. Beyond this point lies speculation.

Sensational stories

The Palatine Anthology
Greek Anthology
The Greek Anthology is a collection of poems, mostly epigrams, that span the classical and Byzantine periods of Greek literature...

 preserves an epigram, attributed to "Apollonius the grammarian", which mocks Callimachus and his most famous poem, the Aetia ("Causes"):

Callimachus: trash, cheat, wood-for-brains.
    aitios ("guilty"): the one who wrote Callimachus' Aitia ("Causes").

In addition, multiple sources explain Callimachus' poem Ibis — which does not survive — as a polemic against an enemy identified as Apollonius. Between them, these references conjure up images of a sensational literary feud between the two figures. However, the truth of this story continues to be debated in modern scholarship, with views on both sides. Both of the Lives of Apollonius stress the friendship between the poets, the second Life even saying they were buried together; and some scholars doubt the sources that identify the Ibis as a polemic against Apollonius. There is still not a consensus, but most scholars of Hellenistic literature now believe the feud was enormously sensationalised, if it happened at all.

A second sensationalised story about Apollonius is the account in the Lives of how, as a young man, he gave a performance of his epic the Argonautica in Alexandria. He was universally mocked for it, and fled to Rhodes in shame. There he was feted by the Rhodians and given citizenship. After this, according to the second Life, he made a triumphant return to Alexandria, where he was promptly elevated to head of the Library. It is unlikely that much of this is factual; the story is a mixture of "local boy makes good" and "underdog makes a heroic comeback". Fairytale elements such as these are characteristic of ancient biographies.

The 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 totaling less than 6000 lines, while the Iliad
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...

 runs to more than 16,000. Apollonius may have been influenced here by Callimachus’ brevity, or by Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

’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 discursions into local custom, aetiology, and other popular subjects of Hellenistic poetry. Apollonius also chooses the less shocking versions of some myths, having Medea
Medea is a woman in Greek mythology. She was the daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, niece of Circe, granddaughter of the sun god Helios, and later wife to the hero Jason, with whom she had two children, Mermeros and Pheres. In Euripides's play Medea, Jason leaves Medea when Creon, king of...

, 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
Heracles ,born Alcaeus or Alcides , was a divine hero in Greek mythology, the son of Zeus and Alcmene, foster son of Amphitryon and great-grandson of Perseus...

 and Hylas
In Greek mythology, Hylas was the son of King Theiodamas of the Dryopians. Roman sources such as Ovid state that Hylas' father was Hercules and his mother was the nymph Melite, or that his mother was the wife of Theiodamas, whose adulterous affair with Heracles caused the war between him and her...

, 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
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

 is now well recognised, and any account of the history of epic poetry now routinely includes substantial attention to Apollonius.

Further reading

  • Beye, C.R., Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil, 2nd ed. (Ithaca, 1993) ISBN 0-86516-607-2
  • Clare, R.J. The Path of the Argo: Language, Imagery and Narrative in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius (Cambridge, 2002) ISBN 0-521-81036-1
  • Harder, M.A., and M. Cuypers (edd.) Beginning from Apollo: Studies in Apollonius Rhodius and the Argonautic Tradition (Leuven, 2005) ISBN 90-429-1629-X
  • Hunter, R.L.
    Richard L. Hunter
    Richard Lawrence Hunter is a classical scholar and has since 2001 been the 38th Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University.-Education and academic career:Richard Hunter was born and grew up in Australia...

     The Argonautica of Apollonius: Literary Studies (Cambridge, 1993) ISBN 0-521-41372-9
  • Knight, Virginia H., The Renewal of Epic: Responses to Homer in the Argonautica of Apollonius (Leiden: Brill, 1995). ISBN 90-04-10386-4
  • Mori, Anatole, The Politics of Apollonius Rhodius' Argonautica (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
  • Nelis, D.P. 2001, Vergil's Aeneid and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius (Leeds)
  • Papanghelis, Theodore D. and Antonios Rengakos (edd.), Brill's companion to Apollonius Rhodius. 2nd rev. ed. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2008).

External links