• From Zero to Hero: Jason's Redemption and the Evaluation of Apollonius' Argonautica

    Thomas J. Nelson (see profile)
    Classical literature, Greek literature
    Item Type:
    Conference paper
    Conf. Title:
    ‘Failure in Ancient Literature’, Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Ancient Literature (AMPAL) 2014
    Conf. Org.:
    University of Cambridge
    Conf. Loc.:
    Cambridge Faculty of Classics
    Conf. Date:
    6th-7th September 2014
    Hellenistic Poetry, Argonautica, Apollonius Rhodius, Classical Greek literature, Classics
    Permanent URL:
    Is there a connection between the success or failure of a text and the success or failure of its central protagonist? To answer this question, I shall explore the issue of ‘heroism’ in Apollonius’ Argonautica, a constant bugbear of modern scholarship, especially in its attempts to determine Jason’s suitability and success as a leader of the Argonautic crew. While he was once commonly lambasted as a weak figure (e.g. Wright 1932, Bowra 1933), recent scholarship has found many ways to rehabilitate Jason as a worthy hero of Apollonius’ epic: his journey imitates that of an ephebic rite of passage (Hunter 1988), his qualities reflect the ideal attributes of fourth-century kingship (Sandridge 2005), and his characteristics embody the qualities of Apollonius’ new modern epic, in contrast to Heracles, who reflects the outmoded nature of Homeric and cyclic epic (Heerink 2010). Jason has, in short, been transformed from a failure into a success. In this paper, I propose to explore these shifting perceptions of Jason and set the increasingly optimistic assessment of his character in the context of the re-evaluation of the Argonautica as a piece of literature. Once the Argonautica was no longer regarded as “a magnificent failure” (Wright 1932), but recognised as a sophisticated epic, its protagonist could no longer be dismissed as a failure either: he too had to be redeemed. The assessment of text and protagonist thus seem inextricably intertwined. After tracing these developments, I shall conclude by exploring their consequences for our approaches to ancient literature: does the assessment of a character really have to follow that of its text, and for a text to be successful, does it really need a successful protagonist? Ultimately, is failure a problem that has to be explained away at any cost to justify a text’s or a character’s worth?
    This document contains the transcript, handout and abstract of the talk I presented at AMPAL 2014. I have uploaded it here for anybody who is interested in reading it. I have no intention of publishing it formally, so if you would like to cite it, please do so as follows: Nelson, T. J. (2014) ‘From Zero to Hero: Jason’s Redemption and the Evaluation of Apollonius’ Argonautica.’ Paper presented at ‘AMPAL 2014: Failure in Ancient Literature,’ University of Cambridge, 07/09/2014.
    Last Updated:
    6 years ago


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