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UCL Greek and Latin Housman Lecture 2021: Susan A. Stephen

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'Jason and the Athletes' with Susan A. Stephen (Stanford University)

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At the high point of the action in Argonautica, book 3, when Jason undertakes the contest (aethlon) that Aeetes, king of the Colchians, has set for him, Apollonius juxtaposes the adversaries: we see Aeetes arming himself in true Homeric fashion while Jason strides forth naked (gymnos) and alone to face the bulls. To Apollonius’ contemporary audience, gymnos signalled that Jason was behaving not like a Homeric hero but like a Greek athlete. Elsewhere in the epic we encounter a boxing match (Polydeuces and Amycus), a race (the Boreads and Harpies), and even the establishment of a new athletic event (hydrophoria). For Greek immigrants to early Hellenistic Alexandria from city states with diverse political and cultic traditions now living within a mainly non-Greek world, athletics had come to be the primary mechanism for social bonding and for reinforcing Greek cultural identity. Membership in the gymnasium and ephebate and participation in civic and international athletic games was a restricted and highly prized marker of ethnic and/or cultural identity. This paper argues that Apollonius in the Argonautica made use of the growing importance of athletics both to demonstrate the differences between Greek and non-Greek and to signal a newer and non-Homeric means of achieving excellence and fame.

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