Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.5.8

William Hansen (transl. and comm.), Phlegon of Tralles' Book of Marvels. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997. Pp. xvi, 215. £11.95. ISBN 0-859-89425-8 (pb).

Reviewed by Jason P. Davies, University College London,

Some books have a headstart in being welcome simply for their existence and H.[ansen]'s text and accompaniments belongs in that category. It is misleading to consider this just as an edition of an author who has more to offer than many would expect; there are lengthy commentaries on the texts that barely cover 40 pages in themselves with appendices of similar or related material from Proklos and Philostratus, as well as Goethe's (alleged1) adaptation in his Bride of Corinth. It cannot be doubted that a number of these texts are long overdue for translation although the omission of any Greek text even as an appendix seems criminal; though most of the Greek is unproblematic and simple there are particular extracts, especially the Sibylline Oracles, where, as the author admits, translation is far from effective in rendering the Greek text with all its oddities and ambiguities.

So, with the complaint made that the full Greek text remains buried in the pages of Jacoby for the time being, there is still cause for celebration that we now have Phlegon in English because it makes available to the ever-growing number of Greekless students some rather interesting material.

Hansen sets himself a number of related projects: introduction, translation and commentary. Little needs to be said about the translation; the Greek is not complicated except where corrupt and for the most part allows little scope for elegance or error. Some of the different sections suffer in either language from being unreadable (the reader surely only peruses five pages of 'long-lived persons' before we reach the only entry of interest, the Sibyl), for which H. can hardly be blamed (though arguably the only reason for their inclusion is a sense of order).

The apology for paradoxography (I refer to the introduction) endeavours to locate the genre both in the ancient world and the modern, and then relates the interest in the bizarre to a universal human taste (chiefly via analogy with the tabloids). H., as throughout the book, consistently refers the reader to relevant or at least similar materials such as Ps-Lucian, episodes in Pliny's Natural History, Philostratus etc. Indeed this feature is surely the book's strength: it functions almost as an index to similar or related stories, which has the welcome effect of allowing the reader to appreciate how much 'bizarre' material is still extant.

The commentaries on the various texts draw on the assumptions and argument of the introduction about interest in the bizarre, and the vast majority of the entries require no particular comment here. H. borders on the exhaustive in his enthusiasm, which gives us comments ranging from the superfluous (such as 'Phlegon's account is vague') to the sensitive (for instance on Tiberius' handling of the discovery of giant bones in Asia Minor (p.143)). H. is generally alive to issues concerning both narrative and historical likelihood (such as his handling of the name of the Roman general 'Publius', p. 107).

The three longer episodes in the Peri Thaumasion give H. a chance to look a little deeper into what is his chief contribution, the appearance of folk-motifs in the stories: the story of Philinnion is discussed within the context of similar (Irish) folk-tales to establish the likelihood of an international motif. The second of P.'s 'Marvels' is the story of Polykrites, the 'Aitolarch' who comes back from the dead, eats his own hermaphrodite child and disappears for the head to make a prophecy. This is followed by a story placed within the Roman campaign against Antiochus in 191 BC where a general, 'Publius', is dismembered by a red wolf and his head also ventures to speak, this time to an audience of rather surprised Romans. These episodes more than any others merit commentary and give the only real chance after the introduction to offer anything beyond the translation. As usual, H. provides readable discussion on the implications of various piecemeal features and generous reference to bibliographical material, such as there is, on issues like the clothing of the average Greek ghost. He also attempts to establish repeated patterns in other stories; Orpheus is mentioned as is Achilleus in Philostratus' account (sensibly included as an appendix), and the legend reported by Pliny of Gabienus (NH 7.52.178-9). Most of H.'s account over these three stories is interesting but ultimately frustrating: the story of Philinnion (along with Cupid and Psyche) is said to belong with a folk-tale type known as "AT 425J", a subtype of AT 425 'The search for the lost husband'. A few pages later (p.100) H. 'identifies' a type based on similarities between the story of Achilleus in Philostratus (where the hero, still living on Leuke, procures a girl from Troy and tears her limb from limb) and Polykrites the 'Aitolarch'. He calls this 'type' 'The Dissembling Revenant' and adds that 'it is not attested elsewhere' yet by p. 104 we are comparing Buplagos in the next story with the 'Dissembling Revenant'. Publius, also of the next story, shares certain features with this 'type' but is not included, though the similarity of the prophesying head is noted in passing.

My chief complaint about this approach is that it becomes relatively meaningless within a few pages: if (and there is an 'if' here) we are to focus on classifying these stories then this is a most unsatisfactory way of doing so. Certain characters appear in passing (such as Orpheus) and others are excluded from one type but not another, such as Publius. Polykrites appears to belong to two types. The usefulness of this classification becomes dubious when it is done in such an incidental and cavalier fashion. Even if we were to admit these classifications we are in danger of simply ignoring the local issues that form the 'flesh' of the particular version. If we can identify a 'skeleton' that is surely a useful starting point for exploring the way that specific historical factors have worked with a type; it is the contrasts that offer an historian some openings, not the 'answer' of classifying stories in a way that does more to neutralise them than deal with the challenge that they represent. Admittedly this is partly the result of the fact that H. has tried to keep these comments brief and within the structure of the commentary but the price is confusion and a lack of conviction. To the historian scanty interpretation is probably worse than none.

On a similar note, H. has missed what may be a productive line of comparison for "type AT 425", namely the failure to regain the lost husband or partner, as discussed by Monnier2 and experienced by the likes of Orpheus: not all the features listed for AT 425 are present but at least Monnier's discussion endeavours to relate a human meaning and context for the story.

This complaint about the lack of a broad context can be extended to the work in general: while I cautiously welcome the attempt to make accessible the admittedly bizarre material recorded by Phlegon, the sense that H. is on the defensive makes it, though somewhat awkward and ultimately unconvincing, understandable. So, in the introduction, after comparing such 'real-life' modern headlines as 'Amazing 2-Headed Baby Is Proof Of Reincarnation. One Head Speaks English, The Other Latin' with a Phlegonic 'Talking Head Foretells Future', H. proceeds with 'of course there are differences'. It seems to me that invoking a superficial human taste for the bizarre in order to create a false impression of accessibility could be somewhat irresponsible. To pick one example, Phlegon's invaluable record of the Sibylline Oracle of 217 BC, fails to belong within this categorisation when we look closely. For a serious student of ancient religion the alarm bells go off at this point since the cultural divide should begin at this point to show in sharper relief than H. would have us believe. The treatment of this episode and other related issues is superficial; one does not get much of the sense of the apparently huge importance placed upon prodigies (and especially hermaphrodites) and prediction in the ancient world as a whole and Roman state religion in particular. For Phlegon, as a writer under the Roman empire, to record a story about a hermaphrodite cannot be easily compared to an interest in whether Elvis was in fact abducted by aliens nowadays. The writers of such stories are (I hope) not high-ranking civil servants or whatever approximate equivalent we would like to suggest for an imperial freedman on Hadrian's staff. Beyond the obvious, and I would argue virtually meaningless, concession that there is 'a general taste for the bizarre' at work here, it is perhaps the differences that we would appreciate knowing more about than the similarities. Indeed one might say that these stories are an excellent opportunity to explore such fundamental differences as we would perhaps not like to admit exist; by relegating them to a category akin to the modern gutter press perhaps H. will allow us to dismiss them too soon. As the commentary implies, the story of the giant tooth from Asia Minor and Tiberius is as much as story about the emperor as a mirabile, and to focus on the bizarre episodes as bizarre (and therefore unintelligible) too closely is to forget that P. collected rather than composed these stories. A 'talking head' news report would arouse derision in the present day; as the story recorded by Pliny seems to indicate, it would be a powerful authenticating device in antiquity -- possibly the most compelling and belief-inducing part of the story.

One might contend that nonetheless P. did collect these stories apparently for their bizarreness; yet is this so obviously what it appears to be? How should we understand a list of 'long-lived people' that begins in the most ordinary manner, drawn from censuses, with Lucius Cornelius of Placentia (100 years old) via the slave Faustus (136) and Herodotus' Arganthonios (150) to the Sibyl and her prophecy that seems to underpin the Roman Secular Games? An ancient reader might well have found the story of the Sibyl to be the culmination of the list, whereas for us it is the point at which any hope of credulity vanishes utterly, though we might have been prepared to concede some credence to the occasional centenarian. And if that appears patronising, consider how we 'rationally' consider what might be possible technologically 'one day' (with science, 'once upon a time', the realm of the fantastic and incredible, has moved into the future after all). The boundaries of rationality and the location of the fabulous have shifted dramatically since antiquity and if this sort of material is to offer a starting point for exploration it is that sort of issue and methodology that would be most promising.

The format of a commentary does not allow for the type of discussion espoused here, though perhaps that problem could have been anticipated and avoided. It is questionable whether we really needed the full Olympiads or Peri Macrobion except for completeness' sake, but greater liberties with the format would have allowed the discussion to reach some depth; still, as it stands it spreads itself quite well without providing any real depth and it must not be forgotten H. has brought P., once reasonably well-known to students of antiquity, back into the fold. Now perhaps we might even see courses run on paradoxography to beat alterity into second place for novelty.


1. The History Department at UCL is about to publish a collection of pieces on the third mirabile, among which is a detailed study of authorship by Rebecca Flemming; a Greek text and translation are also included.

2. In P. Borgeaud (ed.), Orphisme et Orphée (en l'honneur de Jean Rudhardt) Recherches et Rencontres 3 (Geneva 1991).