Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.22
Gabriella Vanotti, Aristotele. Racconti meravigliosi. Introduzione, traduzione, note e apparati. Testi a fronte, 104. Milano: Bompiani, 2007. Pp. 235. ISBN 978-88-452-5843-5. €10.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 1617 words
Among the minor works attributed to Aristotle is a treatise known as the Περὶ θαυμασίων ἀκουσμάτων. The conventional Latin title is De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus or, more simply, De Mirabilibus. Although the work is certainly not by Aristotle, it is nevertheless a very curious and useful compendium of ancient lore, and an important representative of the paradoxography genre. Gabriella Vanotti, of the Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale Amedeo Avogadro (Vercelli), has produced a handy edition of the book, with the Greek text (reproducing Bekker's 1831 edition, with emendations) plus a facing text Italian translation (approximately 80 pages), along with copious notes and bibliography (approximately 90 pages), as well as a highly informative introduction (approximately 50 pages). The book will be of interest to anyone with a penchant for paradoxography, with its legends of marvelous plants and animals, along with fantastic tales of myth, history and the geography of the ancient Mediterranean world.
The Greek text consists of 178 short chapters. Approximately two-thirds of the chapters fall into the category of what could be termed "nature lore," with anecdotes about plants, animals, minerals and other natural phenomena such as weather, physical geography, etc. The nature lore portion of the work is clearly indebted to the work of Theophrastus and other scholars of the Peripatetic School and its heirs. The remaining one-third of the chapters are devoted to fabulous legends with mythological and historical themes. These anecdotes are not as clearly indebted to the traditions of the Peripatetic School as the natural history lore surely is, and speculation about their source(s) is necessarily much more tentative. Vanotti considers Timaeus of Tauromenium to be one likely source, although any definitive conclusions are made impossible by the fragmentary and incomplete evidence. The De Mirabilibus itself is notably reticent on this matter, only very rarely making any reference to its source materials.
Just as it is reticent about its sources, the De Mirabilibus is silent about its purposes as well. There is no preamble of any kind and the author simply plunges into its first anecdote, a description of the legendary "bolinthos" (called "bonasus" by Pliny, and known as "bonnacon" in later bestiary texts), a bovine creature which squirts out burning excrement to a distance of twenty-four feet. You will also find iron-eating mice and bears whose breath is so bad that it causes flesh to putrefy, along with all sorts of other amazing animals; a whirlpool in Cilicia that brings dead creatures back to life and a river in Crathis that bestows blond hair on everyone who bathes in it, plus many other bizarre aquatic phenomena; along with all manner of surprising minerals, such as a type of lead found in India which, if melted, will jump out when you try to pour it into cold water. As for the mythological and historical anecdotes, you will find stories here about Heracles, Daedalus, Diomedes, and the Cumaean Sibyl, to name just a few. The "marvelous" dimension of these mythological and historical anecdotes is often connected with the aetiological motifs of the natural and geographical lore that pervades the De Mirabilibus as a whole. For example, we learn that there is a place off the coast of Apulia where Heracles once fought with the giants, spilling so much ichor that the seaway has been rendered unnavigable as a result. There are also stories that have no zoological or aetiological significance, but which simply qualify as "marvelous" tales, such as the vengeful statue of a man named Bityos (or perhaps Mityos): when the man who had murdered Bityos came to gaze upon the statue, the statue fell down on top of the man and killed him... an event which, as the text assures us, was no mere coincidence!
There is no clear overarching structure to the chapters of the De Mirabilibus, but there are some sequences of chapters which are clearly arranged according to a thematic order, albeit vague. Vanotti's notes are helpful in identifying the ties, however loose, that connect one chapter to another, as well as alerting readers to breaks in the sequence of the chapters that give potentially useful clues to the evolution of the text, which is certainly the product of several centuries' worth of editorial revision and expansion. Readers interested in questions about the work's authorship and provenance will find a detailed discussion in Vanotti's introduction. To make a long (and intriguing) story short: Vanotti concurs with those scholars who contend that the De Mirabilibus contains a core of early material from the Hellenistic period which was then added to over time, including some material that was added in the 2nd century C.E. or even later.
What is more interesting than the specific question of dating the present work is the discussion Vanotti provides of the origins of paradoxography itself, and its connections to the ancient libraries and the scholars who worked in those libraries. Although the Περὶ θαυμασίων ἀκουσμάτων claims to be about things "heard," it is far more likely that the contents reflect things read and copied from books, rather than things actually heard in the field by anyone gathering information from local informants. Vanotti acknowledges the literary tradition of "marvel tales" going back to Homer's Odyssey and the inclusion of fantastic legends in historical writers such as Herodotus, but she argues that the decisive factor in the emergence of paradoxography as a genre of its own was the advent of the ancient library at Alexandria. It is no coincidence that the first works that can be classified as actual "paradoxography" were compiled by Callimachus of Cyrene, working in that library and engaging in conversations with other scholars there. As Vanotti explains: "It is clear that the author of a paradoxography could not manage without a big library, any big library: Alexandria, Pergamum, Athens, etc. It's natural that paradoxographers worked not only at Alexandria, but also at Pergamum, Athens, and at Antioch" (p. 27). Vanotti also discusses in some detail the fate of Aristotle's own personal library, and the role that its transmission may have played in the formation of the Peripatetic core materials that she sees at the heart of the De Mirabilibus.
As for the intended audience of the text, Vanotti hypothesizes that this could be both a popular and a scholarly work. While she does not explore this aspect of the topic in detail, she does provide some suggestive comments about the way in which the disjointed format of paradoxographical texts could reflect the activities of a scholar engaged in the preliminary task of simply collecting and compiling materials, prior to reformulating those materials for other, more elaborate purposes, such as their use in a scientific or historical or philosophical treatise. Just as the De Mirabilibus might have served different purposes for different audiences in the ancient world, the same is true today. As Vanotti states in the concluding words of the introduction, the De Mirabilibus could appeal to two quite different modern audiences: "With its own endowment of curious tales, occasionally rare and sometimes unique, the De Mirabilibus can be used as a valuable research tool for scholars of mythography, ethnography, historiography, and antiquities in general, while also serving simply as a literary divertissement" (p. 53).
While there are two easily accessible English translations of the De Mirabilibus (W.S. Hett's 1936 translation for Aristotle's Minor Works volume in the Loeb Library, and Launcelot Dowdall's earlier 1909 translation which is available online in various formats, although with several pages missing, at the Internet Archive), there is no commentary in English comparable to what Vanotti provides in this book. Even readers who do not read Italian will find her extensive citations of ancient and modern works to be of great value in their study of the Greek text.
There is, however, one extremely serious drawback to Vanotti's book: it has no indexes. Given the way people are most likely to consult the De Mirabilibus, the absence of indexes is a serious deficit. The real value of this kind of ancient anthology is in the bits and pieces of information it supplies about a whole range of topics, from plants and animals to place names and people. Yet without indexes, there is no way to find the chapters that might provide the information you are looking for. As it stands, readers can try to make do with the indexes in the Loeb edition, and there are also indexes in A. Giannini's Paradoxographorum Graecorum reliquiae (which includes the De Mirabilibus). What is really needed, however, is a set of indexes to Vanotti's book that encompass both the text of the De Mirabilibus and the extensive materials in her introduction and commentary. Perhaps this lack of indexes might be remedied in future editions of the book, or perhaps the author might be able to publish some indexes to the book online. Such indexes would considerably enhance the book's value for research purposes.
Except for the peculiar lack of indexes, all the other features of Vanotti's book are quite commendable, both as a literary divertissement and as a research tool. As a scholar who specializes in Greek historiography and ethnography, Vanotti is able to provide extremely detailed comments on the mythological and geographical chapters, which are likely to be the materials of most interest in the De Mirabilibus, in addition to the thorough commentary she also supplies for the chapters on animal and plant lore. The genre of paradoxography recently got a big boost with William Hansen's English translation of Phlegon of Thralles's Book of Marvels (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997). With this handy Italian edition of the De Mirabilibus, aficionados of ancient "news of the weird" have yet another valuable book to add to their shelves.