Gaius Valerius Flaccus

Gaius Valerius Flaccus

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Gaius Valerius Flaccus was a Roman
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

 who flourished in the "Silver Age" under the emperors Vespasian
Vespasian , was Roman Emperor from 69 AD to 79 AD. Vespasian was the founder of the Flavian dynasty, which ruled the Empire for a quarter century. Vespasian was descended from a family of equestrians, who rose into the senatorial rank under the Emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty...

 and Titus
Titus , was Roman Emperor from 79 to 81. A member of the Flavian dynasty, Titus succeeded his father Vespasian upon his death, thus becoming the first Roman Emperor to come to the throne after his own father....

 and wrote a Latin Argonautica that owes a great deal to Apollonius of Rhodes
Apollonius of Rhodes
Apollonius Rhodius, also known as Apollonius of Rhodes , early 3rd century BCE – after 246 BCE, was a poet, and a librarian at the Library of Alexandria...

' more famous epic.

He has been identified on insufficient grounds with a poet friend of Martial
Marcus Valerius Martialis , was a Latin poet from Hispania best known for his twelve books of Epigrams, published in Rome between AD 86 and 103, during the reigns of the emperors Domitian, Nerva and Trajan...

 (1.61.76), a native of Padua
Padua is a city and comune in the Veneto, northern Italy. It is the capital of the province of Padua and the economic and communications hub of the area. Padua's population is 212,500 . The city is sometimes included, with Venice and Treviso, in the Padua-Treviso-Venice Metropolitan Area, having...

, and in needy circumstances; but as he was a member of the College of Fifteen
Quindecemviri sacris faciundis
In ancient Rome, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis were the fifteen members of a college with priestly duties. Most notably they guarded the Sibylline Books, scriptures which they consulted and interpreted at the request of the Senate...

, who had charge of the Sibylline books
Sibylline Books
The Sibylline Books or Libri Sibyllini were a collection of oracular utterances, set out in Greek hexameters, purchased from a sibyl by the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, and consulted at momentous crises through the history of the Republic and the Empire...

 (1.5), he must have been well off. The subscription of the Vatican
Vatican Library
The Vatican Library is the library of the Holy See, currently located in Vatican City. It is one of the oldest libraries in the world and contains one of the most significant collections of historical texts. Formally established in 1475, though in fact much older, it has 75,000 codices from...

 manuscript, which adds the name Setinus Balbus, points to his having been a native of Setia in Latium
Lazio is one of the 20 administrative regions of Italy, situated in the central peninsular section of the country. With about 5.7 million residents and a GDP of more than 170 billion euros, Lazio is the third most populated and the second richest region of Italy...

. The only ancient writer who mentions him is Quintilian
Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was a Roman rhetorician from Hispania, widely referred to in medieval schools of rhetoric and in Renaissance writing...

 (10.1.90), who laments his recent death as a great loss; as Quintilian's work was finished about 90 AD, this gives a limit for the death of Flaccus.

His only surviving work, the Argonautica, dedicated to Vespasian on his setting out for Britain
Roman Britain
Roman Britain was the part of the island of Great Britain controlled by the Roman Empire from AD 43 until ca. AD 410.The Romans referred to the imperial province as Britannia, which eventually comprised all of the island of Great Britain south of the fluid frontier with Caledonia...

, was written during the siege, or shortly after the capture, of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD. As the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD is alluded to, its composition must have occupied him a long time. The Argonautica is an epic poem probably intended to be in eight books (though intended totals of ten and twelve books, the latter corresponding to Virgil's "Aeneid", an important poetic model, have also been proposed) written in traditional dactylic hexameter
Dactylic hexameter
Dactylic hexameter is a form of meter in poetry or a rhythmic scheme. It is traditionally associated with the quantitative meter of classical epic poetry in both Greek and Latin, and was consequently considered to be the Grand Style of classical poetry...

s, which recounts 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...

's 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...

. The poem's text, as it has survived, is in a very corrupt state; it ends so abruptly with the request of 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...

 to accompany Jason on his homeward voyage, that it is assumed by most modern scholars that it was never finished. It is a free imitation and in parts a translation of the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes
Apollonius of Rhodes
Apollonius Rhodius, also known as Apollonius of Rhodes , early 3rd century BCE – after 246 BCE, was a poet, and a librarian at the Library of Alexandria...

, "to whom he is superior in arrangement, vividness, and description of character" (Loeb Classical Library). The familiar subject had already been treated in Latin verse in the popular version of Varro Atacinus
Varro Atacinus
Publius Terentius Varro Atacinus was an early Roman poet, more polished than the more famous and learned Varro Reatinus, his contemporary, and more widely read by the Augustans, who apparently dared not mention the other Varro's name...

. The object of the work has been described as the glorification of Vespasian's achievements in securing Roman rule in Britain and opening up the ocean to navigation (as the Euxine
Black Sea
The Black Sea is bounded by Europe, Anatolia and the Caucasus and is ultimately connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas and various straits. The Bosphorus strait connects it to the Sea of Marmara, and the strait of the Dardanelles connects that sea to the Aegean...

 was opened up by the Argo
In Greek mythology, the Argo was the ship on which Jason and the Argonauts sailed from Iolcos to retrieve the Golden Fleece. It was named after its builder, Argus.-Legend:...


In 1911, the compilers of Encyclopaedia Britannica remarked, "Various estimates have been formed of the genius of Flaccus, and some critics have ranked him above his original, to whom he certainly is superior in liveliness of description and delineation of character. His diction is pure, his style correct, his versification smooth though monotonous. On the other hand, he is wholly without originality, and his poetry, though free from glaring defects, is artificial and elaborately dull. His model in language was 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...

, to whom he is far inferior in taste and lucidity. His tiresome display of learning, rhetoric
Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. As a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, rhetoric has played a central role in the Western...

al exaggeration and ornamentations make him difficult to read, which no doubt accounts for his unpopularity in ancient times."

The first printed edition was in 1474. Increased interest in the last decades has resulted in a full-length general introduction, two new editions, in 1997 (Liberman) and 2003, and commentaries by H.J.W. Wijsman, 1996 (Book V) and 2000 (Book VI), F. Spaltenstein, 2002 (Books I and II), and Adrianus Jan Kleywegt, 2005 (Book I) which attempts to amend the faulty text. The most recent translation of the poem into English is a version in blank verse by Kenyon College Classics Professor Michael Barich (XOXOX Press, 2009).

Flaccus also appears as a recurring character in Caroline Lawrence
Caroline Lawrence
Caroline Lawrence is an English American author, best known for The Roman Mysteries series of historical novels for children. The series is about a Roman girl called Flavia and her three friends: Nubia , Jonathan and Lupus...

's Roman Mysteries series of children's novels. In the television adaptations
Roman Mysteries (TV series)
Roman Mysteries is a television series based on the series of children's historical novels by Caroline Lawrence. It is reportedly the most expensive British children's TV series to date at £1 million per hour....

 he is played by British actor Ben Lloyd-Hughes.


  • Valerius Flaccus. Argonautica, Book I. A Commentary by A. J. Kleywegt (Leiden: Brill, 2005) (Mnemosyne Supplements, 262); A Commentary on Book 4 of Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica by Paul Murgatroyd (Leiden, Brill, 2009) (Mnemosyne, Supplements, 311); Book V. A Commentary by H.J.W. Wijsman (Leiden, Brill, 1996) (Mnemosyne, Supplements, 158); Book VI, A Commentary by Henri J Wijsman (Leiden, Brill, 2000).
  • Barich, Michael (trans.), Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica (Gambier, OH: XOXOX Press, 2009).

External links