The Boxing Match in the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes
The ancient Greek corpus contains a not insubstantial body of literature describing and depicting many different types of boxing and wrestling encounters. Perhaps the most famous of these are the duels held in honor of Patroclus’s death, as Homer presents them in the Iliad (eighth century BCE). When I was choosing a text to translate for David Scott, however, I could not resist attempting a verse rendering of the boxing match from Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautica (third century BCE).
Apollonius’s unconventional epic, that mocks the ‘high’ values of tradition, finds in this representation a stylistic condensation of its narrative strategy. The heroic Pollux (here Polydikes) answers Amycus’s challenge with a humane brand of courage, filled with a confidence and slyness that would have been out of place in Homer, but that, as a result, fits the romanticized space of a boxing ring – as it exists in the modern imagination – all the more aptly. Heroic values are subverted and replaced with an immanent coolness, and a feud-like atmosphere develops the characters, psychologically, into a new literary type – one that is brave, rascal-like and stoic – charged (to use a loaded phrase) with an all too human energy.
Finally, a couple of notes on the translation. I have chosen to open in medias res with Amycus’s challenge to the heroic party – eliminating the first ten or so lines of Book II. Although I prepared a very literal rendering as part of my compositional process, I then worked on its versification into English verse – and do not expect specialists to necessarily appreciate some of my decisions. I have tried to condense and re-complicate Apollonius’s lines in a way that makes more sense in English. This is because the inwardly turning and complex syntax of the original seems to me a structural echo of the boxing match itself, and wanting to recreate this in English, I have taken some syntactical liberties to keep lines short and carefully sub-ordinated.
This all notwithstanding, it seemed to me that, dealing with an author who embraces and makes great use of anachronism, proposing a somewhat anachronistic translation might be just one way a translator can try to render the vividness of Apollonius’s narrative. He did after all, unlike Homer, take a first-hand interest in these men as men, and not as historical heroes – a fact that is all too often overlooked. And his way of speaking about them is markedly more down-to-earth.
In this same vein, I allowed for some free-play when selecting the image that should accompany my translations. The sculpture depicting a Roman boxer fastening his caestus (an ancient kind of boxing glove made of strips of hide and/or leather), is on display in the open storage section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And while its classical inspiration is self-evident (it was modelled on a number of Italian sculptures), Charles H. Niehaus prepared it in 1883, as part of his experiments in anatomical realism. In this respect, inspired by the ancient ideals (at least insofar as the Renaissance puts them forward), but also interested in a bone and sinew kind of realism, Niehaus’s work makes a suitable accompaniment to Apollonius’s poem.
‘Listen, seafarers, to that which it befits you to know:
It is the law that no foreign men who have landed
Here at the land of the Bebricians may set out to sail
Until one of you has first raised his hands up against my own fists.
Therefore, let whoever it is you judge to be the best boxer
Amongst you step forward to wrangle with me right here!
If you trample on the law laid down, neglecting to heed it,
Then necessary justice will turn hatefully upon you.’
So he spoke with great pride, and wild anger seized
Those listening. The rebuke hit Polydikes most:
Suddenly, he set himself forward as the champion, saying:
‘Hold now, whoever you may be. Do not reveal your brutal
Violence to us. We will leave in accordance with the law.
I myself promise to meet you face to face in this very spot.’
So he spoke, bluntly. The other gazed at him with reeling eyes,
Like a lion, struck by a javelin, who is being surrounded by hunters
On a mountainside – as the besieged animal, who does not heed
The whole party, looks only upon that man who earlier
Hit him and did not succeed in killing him.
The son of Tyndareus put down his delicately-threaded,
Closely-woven mantle – that one of the Lemnians gave to him
As a host’s gifts when he joined their company – and the king
Threw down both the clasps from his black robe, and the jagged,
Knotted shepherd’s staff of wild olive wood that he carried with him.
Immediately, they looked for a nearby spot that pleased them,
And all their companions sat in two groups upon the sand.
Neither in body nor in stature did they appear to resemble each other.
One seemed to be a destructive son of Typheos, or
A monstrous offspring of Earth herself, such as she long ago
Gave birth to in her wrath for Zeus. But the other,
The son of Tyndareus, was equal to a star of heaven
That is most beautiful when, in the evening, it shines brightly through the night.
Such was the son of Zeus, the bloom of the first down still on his cheeks,
Youthful gladness in his eyes. But his strength
And might stirred like a wild beast’s. He poised his hands
To check if they were still as deft as before
And not weighed down through toil and rowing.
Amycus, on his side, made no trial but, standing
Silently, he kept his eyes on Polydikes from a distance,
And his own spirit strained in the yearning to dash the blood from his chest.
Lukoreus, the servant of Amycus, placed between them,
At their respective feet, two straps of raw parched
Leather, whose edges were hardened dry.
Then the king spoke arrogant words to his opponent:
‘Take whichever of these you wish, readily, without casting lots
In your hands, such that you may not blame me at a later time.
But bind them to your hands! You will learn and tell another
How skilled I am both at carving out the dry skin of oxen
And at spreading blood over men’s cheeks.’
So he spoke; the other threw back no taunts,
But subtly smiled. He took up those which lay
By his own feet, without discussion. And to him came Castor,
And mighty Talaus, son of Bias, to quickly bind
The straps, and greatly encourage his resolve.
And to Amycus came both Aretos and Ornutos, foolishly,
For neither could have known they were binding his hands
For the last time, and that he would be taken by his apportioned fate.
And then, when they had prepared their straps, they stood a little apart
And at once put up their heavy hands before their faces
And bore their might against each other, face to face.
At first the Bebrycian king seemed like a wave of the sea,
That forms a rough and nimble crest against a ship that
Barely steers clear, turning, by the concerted skill of the pilot,
Just as the wave bears over into its walls. In this manner
He followed the son of Tyndareus, trying to rout him, and did not allow
Him to rest. But Polydikes, yet unwounded, skilfully
Avoided the blows. And immediately saw in the harsh boxing
Where Amycus’s strength could not be overcome, and where it was weaker.
He stood unmovably and returned blow for blow.
And like when ship-makers, leaning on planks that would strain apart
Drive the nimble bolts through by striking them with a hammer,
Blow after blow, thudding until he is satisfied,
Likewise cheeks and jaws were struck on either side,
And there arose an unspeakable gnashing of teeth.
They did not stop standing over each other and striking
Until they were both overpowered, stifled by heavy breathing.
They stood a little apart wiping copious sweat from their brows,
Panting as their breath grew more wearisome.
Once again they rushed toward each other, like bulls,
Grudgingly wrangling for the same grazing heifer.
And when Amycus rose to his tallest stature
Like a bull-slaughterer, stretching his feet, and struck
A heavy blow again him that quivered, the other darted under it,
Bending his head down, in this way receiving his fore-arm
Scarcely. And coming near to him, slipping his knee past the king’s,
He struck him above the ear as he rushed toward him, and broke
Into the bone. Amycus threw himself upon both knees in pain.
At this the Argonauts cried out. In a gush Amycus’s soul rushed out.
 Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, ed. G. W. Mooney. (London: Longman & Green, 1912).