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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 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.
Much has been written about the chronology of
Alexandrian literature and the famous Library, founded
by Ptolemy Soter, but the dates of the chief writers are
still matters of conjecture. The birth of Apollonius
Rhodius is placed by scholars at various times between
296 and 260 B.C., while the year of his death is equally
uncertain. In fact, we have very little information on
the subject. There are two “lives” of Apollonius in the
Scholia, both derived from an earlier one which is lost.
From these we learn that he was of Alexandria by
birth,* that he lived in the time of the Ptolemies, and
was a pupil of Callimachus; that while still a youth he
composed and recited in public his “Argonautica”, and
that the poem was condemned, in consequence of
which he retired to Rhodes; that there he revised his
poem, recited it with great applause, and hence called
himself a Rhodian. The second “life” adds: “Some say
that he returned to Alexandria and again recited his
poem with the utmost success, so that he was honoured
with the libraries of the Museum and was buried with
Callimachus.” The last sentence may be interpreted
by the notice of Suidas, who informs us that Apollonius
was a contemporary of Eratosthenes, Euphorion and
Timarchus, in the time of Ptolemy Euergetes, and that
he succeeded Eratosthenes in the headship of the
Alexandrian Library. Suidas also informs us elsewhere
that Aristophanes at the age of sixty-two succeeded
Apollonius in this office. Many modern scholars deny
the “bibliothecariate” of Apollonius for chronological
reasons, and there is considerable difficulty about it.
The date of Callimachus’ “Hymn to Apollo”, which
closes with some lines (105- 113) that are admittedly
an allusion to Apollonius, may be put with much probability
at 248 or 247 B.C. Apollonius must at that date
have been at least twenty years old. Eratosthenes died
196-193 B.C. This would make Apollonius seventytwo
to seventy-five when he succeeded Eratosthenes.