In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Valerius Flaccus

  • Introduction
  • Biography
  • The Date of the Poem
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Texts and Translations
  • Manuscript Tradition
  • Collections of Essays
  • Poetic Technique
  • Political and Ideological Aspects
  • Book-Length Studies of Particular Topics
  • Reception

Classics Valerius Flaccus
Tim Stover
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0050


Gaius Valerius Flaccus Setinus Balbus, usually known simply as Valerius Flaccus, is the author of the Argonautica, an unfinished epic poem in eight books composed during the Flavian era (69–96 CE). This poem recounts the famous mythical voyage of Jason and the Argonauts, who sail from Greece to Colchis to retrieve the Golden Fleece. The narrative is full of adventure, as the heroes put in at many strange places on their journey eastward. Upon arrival in Colchis, Jason meets Medea, a Colchian princess and sorceress who falls madly in love with him and helps him secure the fleece. Although the poem is unfinished, it seems that only a few hundred lines at the end of Book 8 and some relatively minor revisions were never completed, presumably because of the author’s untimely death. Direct references to him in Antiquity are virtually nonexistent, but Valerius’s poem influenced his contemporaries, the epic poets Statius and Silius Italicus. Although his work has attracted intermittent attention over the years, the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have seen interest in Valerius’s Argonautica increase dramatically.


Gaius Valerius Flaccus Setinus Balbus is an extremely shadowy figure. We know practically nothing about his life and career except that he composed but never finished an epic poem in eight books, the Argonautica, at some point during the Flavian period (69–96 CE). Poortvliet 1991 contains a good discussion of the unfinished nature of the text, while Schetter 1959 argues that the epic was intended to occupy only eight books. There is only one certain reference to Valerius in our ancient sources, Quintilian’s brief obituary notice at Institutio oratoria 10.1.90, which fixes the poet’s death some time before 96 CE. It also appears that Valerius did not begin work on the poem before 70 CE. On these issues, see Cambier 1969. Pinpointing the period of composition more precisely has been the source of much debate (see Date of the Poem). The surname Setinus may indicate that the poet came from a town southeast of Rome called Setia. However, it is not clear that this name, along with the name Balbus, is to be attached to the author. A reference early in the poem to a tripod associated with Apollo has led some, most recently Tatum 2016, to suggest that Valerius was a quindecimvir sacris faciundis (one of the fifteen priests charged with handling sacred affairs). If this is so, then Valerius was a prominent Roman citizen of the upper class. However, Cairns 2019 argues that it is untenable to regard Valerius as a quindecimvir. For a succinct overview of these issues, see Zissos 2008.

  • Cairns, Francis. 2019. The prologue of Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica (1.1–21): Quindecimvirate, cortina and Caledonian Sea. The Cambridge Classical Journal 65:1–28.

    DOI: 10.1017/S175027051800012X

    Argues on linguistic grounds against the view that Valerius was a quindecimvir.

  • Cambier, Guy. 1969. Recherches chronologiques sur l’oeuvre et la vie de Valerius Flaccus. In Hommages à Marcel Renard, Vol. 1. Edited by Jacqueline Bibauw, 191–228. Brussels: Latomus.

    Discussion of biographical information concerning Valerius and a survey of various attempts to pinpoint the poem’s period of composition.

  • Poortvliet, Harm M. 1991. Valerius Flaccus and the last file. In Ratis omnia vincet: Untersuchungen zu den Argonautica des Valerius Flaccus. Edited by Matthias Korn and Hans Jürgen Tschiedel, 35–43. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms.

    Succinct discussion of the evidence for the unfinished nature of the Argonautica as it has come down to us.

  • Schetter, Willy. 1959. Die Buchzahl der Argonautica des Valerius Flaccus. Philologus 103:297–308.

    DOI: 10.1524/phil.1959.103.12.297

    Analysis of the intended endpoint of Valerius’s unfinished poem, arguing that it was designed to occupy eight books and thus that we are missing only a few hundred lines from the end of Book 8.

  • Tatum, W. Jeffrey. 2016. Why was Valerius Flaccus a quindecimvir? Classical Quarterly 66:239–244.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0009838816000227

    Makes a case for the rationale behind Valerius’s apparent self-fashioning as a quindecimvir in his poem’s prologue.

  • Zissos, Andrew. 2008. Introduction. In Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica: Book 1. Edited by Andrew Zissos, xiii–lxx. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The opening portion of the introduction (pp. xiii–xvii) to this commentary on Book 1 contains a very useful overview of the evidence for Valerius’s life.

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