Apollonius of Rhodes, also known as Apollonius Rhodius (Latin; Greek Ἀπολλώνιος Ῥόδιος Apollōnios Rhodios), early 3rd century BCE - after 246 BCE, was an epic poet, scholar, and director of the Library of Alexandria. He is best known for his epic poem the Argonautica, which told the mythological story of Jason and the Argonauts' quest for the Golden Fleece, and which is one of the chief works in the history of epic poetry.
He did not come from Rhodes, but was a Hellenistic Egyptian. 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
; and a 2nd century BCE papyrus, P.Oxy.
1241, which provides names of several heads of the Library of Alexandria
. 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.
- Birth. The two Lives and the Suda 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 say that he came from Alexandria; Athenaeus and Aelian say that he came from Naucratis, some 70 km south of Alexandria along the river Nile. 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. 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; this must have been after 247/246 BCE, the date of the accession of Ptolemy III Euergetes, 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.
The Palatine Anthology
preserves an epigram, attributed to "Apollonius the grammarian", which mocks Callimachus and his most famous poem, the Aetia
Καλλίμαχος, τὸ κάθαρμα, τὸ παίγνιον, ὁ ξυλινὸς νοῦς,
αἴτιος, ὁ γράψας Αἴτια Καλλιμάχου.
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.
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
runs to more than 16,000. Apollonius may have been influenced here by Callimachus’ brevity, or by Aristotle
’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, 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 and Hylas, 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 is now well recognised, and any account of the history of epic poetry now routinely includes substantial attention to Apollonius.
- Greene 1780
- Fawkes 1780
- Preston 1811
- Way 1901
- Green 1989
- Coleridge 1889
- Rieu 1959, The Voyage of Argo: The Argonautica (London) ISBN 0-14-044085-2
- Hunter 1998, Jason and the Golden Fleece (Oxford) ISBN 0-19-283583-1
- Anderson, C.R. 2002, Ancient Poetry, 3rd ed. (London) ISBN 0-86516-607-2
- Simmons, N.J. 2000, Argonautica of Apollonius (Cambridge) ISBN 0-521-81036-1
- Montgomery, M.A., and M. Cuypers (edd.) 2002, Studies in Apollonius of Rhodes and the Argonautica (London) ISBN 90-429-1629-X
- Montgomery, K.L. 1999, The Argonautica of Apollonius (Worcester) ISBN 0-521-41372-9
- Smith, D.P. 2001, Vergil's Aeneid and the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius (Leeds) ISBN 0-905205-97-9