Fables of the reconstruction: a reading of Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica
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Although critics have begun to question the politics of periodization within the study of Latin epic, Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica has remained largely neglected. With some important exceptions, criticism of his poem is dominated by formalism that is often predicated on a teleological and aestheticizing literary history in which temporal distance from the Vergilian ideal marks a given work’s level of poetic inferiority. Consequently, scholars have failed to appreciate the important position occupied by Valerius in the history of Latin epic poetry. Situated within the era of political reconstruction that followed the civil war of AD 69, Valerius’ Argonautica is, uniquely, a product of this time of renewed hope. The poem is structured by a desire for refoundation and the return of order out of chaos. It is immediately apparent why Valerius’ poetics of reconstruction have not appealed to the postmodern, ‘deconstructionist’ mind. My work on Valerius’ epic strikes a balance between formalism and historicism. By reading the Argonautica as an artifact of Vespasia nic Rome (AD 70-9), I propose a somewhat unorthodox date for the work. When read as a product of the 70’s, a number of Valerius’ formal gestures take on new significance. I argue that Valerius attempts to refound the epic genre in the wake of Lucan’s iconoclastic Pharsalia. I suggest that Valerius construes the refoundation of the imperial project and the reconstruction of the epic genre as mutually reinforcing acts of renewal and rebirth. In response to Lucan, Valerius refashions a divinely controlled teleology for human history, recuperates the category of the epic hero, and contains the Lucanian mode by various acts of poetic emulation. Whereas Lucan depicts a world that is coming to an end, Valerius takes us back to a new beginning, to an emergent ‘first time’ (the sailing of the first ship, Argo), a moment characterized by the possibility of expansion into a new world of political and poetic possibilities. The first ship, headlining the first epic to follow in the wake of civil war and Lucan’s indelible presentation of its effects, constitutes a new poetic beginning within a new political era.