Thaumata and Mirabilia

Working Papers on Nervan, Trajanic and Hadrianic Literature 1.36 (22/3/15)

‘Thaumata and Mirabilia: Phlegon and his Roman contemporaries in the shadow on Pliny’s Naturalis Historia’                                                                                                              Kelly Shannon

Abstract for a paper given at the project’s 3rd Literary Interactions conference, in Boston, 18-19 June 2015:

The Περὶ Θαυμασίων written by Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of the emperor Hadrian, is an important piece of evidence for literary interactions across the barriers of time, language, and genre during the Hadrianic period. Phlegon’s work, which has often been considered a subliterary text intended as pleasure-reading for literate Greeks in the imperial era, catalogues a number of marvellous phenomena: dead people returning to life (Mir. 1-3); hermaphrodites and spontaneous sex changes (4-10); monstrously large bones (11-19); unusual births, including deformed babies (20-21, 25), humans producing animal offspring (22-24), men giving birth (26-7), and astounding multiple births (28-31); unusually speedy aging processes (32-33); and living centaurs (34-35).

On the one hand, Phlegon’s work is firmly rooted in a literary tradition that had been popular in the Greek-speaking world since the Hellenistic era. A long line of so-called paradoxographers – Greek authors who compiled collections of marvellous or paradoxical material presented in list form – stretches back to Callimachus. His work (perhaps entitled Θαυμασία or ᾽Εκλογὴ τῶν παραδόξων) survives only in fragmentary form but seems to have catalogued marvels of the natural world (rivers and springs, animals, plants, stones, etc.). Callimachus’ successors in the ‘genre’ of paradoxography followed suit, creating similar compendia of diverse types of marvels apparently united only by the fact that they were in some way unusual or worthy of notice. These Greek paradoxographers had a tendency to emphasize their place as successors of Callimachus by citing his works (e.g. Antigonus 129) or those of each other, to give their own catalogues a literary pedigree. Phlegon, too, selfconsciously claims his place in this literary tradition. His Περὶ Θαυμασίων, like the works of his paradoxographer predecessors, also reads as a laundry-list of marvels not united by any narrative structure or apparent principle other than their wondrousness. He also makes sure his reader is aware of his place in the literary tradition by providing frequent citations of the authors from whose works he takes many of his miracles (e.g. Mir. 2.1, 3.1, 11.1, 13.1).

The content of his work, as well as the bookish nature of his research, allow Phlegon to lay claim to being an heir of Callimachus, in the sense that his collection resembles previous collections. Yet Phlegon’s text also shows significant differences from those of the paradoxographers who had gone before him. Whereas Callimachus and most of his successors seem to have focused on features of the natural world which astonish but do not necessarily present a challenge to the reader’s conception of how the world works (Giannini 1964, 129–30), Phlegon seems more interested in the supernatural than the natural. That is, Phlegon focuses on thaumata that violate the natural order of things by crossing the boundaries between life and death, male and female, human and non-human.

Phlegon’s paradoxographical material, while slightly unusual in comparison with other Greek works in the Callimachean tradition of paradoxography, have very good analogues in an earlier text written in Latin: Pliny the Elder’s monumental Natural History. Although Phlegon never cites Pliny directly, there are several close correspondences between their works. Phlegon’s report of the body of a centaur brought to Rome as a present for an unidentified ‘Caesar’ (Mir. 35-36) bears remarkable similarities, both in content and in presentation, to Pliny the Elder’s report of a centaur’s body preserved in honey and given to Claudius (HN 7.35). Both authors are interested in humans with extremely long life spans: Pliny devoted a portion of book 7 of the Natural History to this topic (Pliny HN 7.153-64), and Phlegon composed an entire work listing long-lived individuals (the Περὶ μακροβίων, another paradoxographical catalogue). Both authors also focus on human oddities, such as hermaphrodites and spontaneous changes of sex. They both present their accounts of hermaphrodites in very similar ways, choosing to authenticate their reports by claiming to have seen a sex-changer themselves (Pliny HN 7.36, Phlegon Mir. 9). These similarities of both content and presentation strongly suggest that Phlegon was aware of the Natural History, and that Pliny the Elder’s work influenced the way that Phlegon compiled his Περὶ Θαυμασίων.

This indebtedness to Pliny the Elder puts Phlegon in line with other authors working in a variety of genres during the Trajanic and Hadrianic era. For example, Pliny the Younger in his Letters (4.30, 8.20) discusses marvellous springs and lakes to which his uncle had devoted attention in the Natural History (HN 2.209, 232); Tacitus’ report of a phoenix (Ann. 6.28) may owe something to Pliny the Elder’s interest in the same phenomenon (HN 10.5); and Suetonius’ description of an omen that appears to Livia at the beginning of Augustus’ principate (Galba 1) is remarkably similar to Pliny the Elder’s presentation of the same event (HN 15.136-7). Like Phlegon, none of these authors cite Pliny the Elder directly, but he strongly seems to be lurking in the background. Thus it appears that Pliny the Elder exerted some influence over paradoxography after him: anyone who wanted to write about marvels during the Trajanic and Hadrianic era had to do show in the shadow of the Natural History. And the fact that this seems to have been just as true of Phlegon as of Roman writers proves that Pliny’s influence did not depend on whether the ‘paradoxographer’ in question was Greek or Roman. Thus Phlegon, far from being the one-off literary oddity he may appear, is actually remarkably connected to what looks to have been a part of the cultural Zeitgeist of the Trajanic and Hadrianic era: an interest in marvels coloured not just by the Greek Callimachean tradition of paradoxography, but also by the Roman writer of the great Naturalis Historia.


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One thought on “Thaumata and Mirabilia

  1. Maureen Coffey

    Times never seem to change: “… marvels not united by any narrative structure or apparent principle other than their wondrousness.” When I read your account of oddities that Phlegon enumerated I spontaneously thought of the contemporary Internet and how the so-called “urban legends” are created, then spread, then come full-circle often times and are “reported” once again ten years later as if they had just happened. Often they are similar to previous narratives but do often not acknowledge them nor seem their authors even always aware of the veritable pedigree some of these legends have. There may be on exception, the “Fortean Times”, which at least professes to report unusual phenomena that are meant to be verifiable. However, a lot of these are also based on e.g. mediaeval and ancient texts so once again could be “Callimachia” in disguise.

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