William Hansen (ed. & tr.), Phlegon of Tralles' Book of Marvels. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996. Pp. xvi + 215, incl. introduction, translation, commentary, and 3 appendices. ISBN 0-85989-425-8. UKú11.95.
Department of Classics, University of the Witwatersrand
This year's edition of the Guinness Book of Records features a man with size 25 feet, the highest balloon walk at 18,800 feet, the largest hair collection worth 1.5 million U.S. dollars, and the most extravagant wedding for two cats (they arrived in a Rolls-Royce and helicopter respectively). In the Graeco-Roman world there was a genre specifically associated with this type of compilation, which we now call paradoxography.[]
The recording of wonders from the natural and human world seems to have originated with the Alexandrian writer Kallimachos who compiled an assortment of natural wonders. His work is typical of the ancient approach to the genre which was simply to provide a collection of examples with little in the way of explanation or comment. Another 38 paradoxographical texts are known from antiquity.[] Amongst these authors the work of Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of the Emperor Hadrian, is particularly interesting since his method was not typical. He shows little interest in wonders of the natural world, preferring instead to concentrate on human and divine wonders, many of which have an apparent historical connection.
Up until now the fragments of Phlegon's works have only been available in Jacoby's collection.[] Hansen's major contribution is to make the work of Phlegon more readily available to a wider audience through this first translation into any language. There is little to complain about in Hansen's translation of the fragments of the PERI\ QAUMASI/WN (Concerning Marvels), the PERI\ MAKROBI/WN (Concerning Long-Lived People) and the two major fragments of the )OLUMPIA/DEJ (Olympiads, frr. 1 and 12) which is carefully worked out and shows a sensitivity to the demands of the Greek text.
Hansen's introduction briefly considers Phlegon's life and career and the genre of paradoxography before discussing the works themselves. One of the shortcomings of this book, which has the 'general reader as well as the classical scholar in mind' (p. viii), is that it occasionally fails to cater for the former. For example, on p. 2 Hansen refers the reader who wants to know more about Phlegon's life to Frank's article in RE.[] For the reader who does not know German or does not have access to a university library the instruction is not very helpful. On the other hand the modern-day comparisons (drawn from the English papers Weekly World News and the Sun) on p. 12 with the headlines of Phlegon on p. 13 are illustrative and a good example of the accessibility of this commentary. Also of interest to the English scholar or the more general reader is Hansen's brief discussion of the influence of Phlegon in the 16th and 17th centuries, including Goethe's reworking of the ghostly tale of Philinnion, The Bride of Corinth, which is included in appendix 2. The discussion of the sources and approach that Phlegon had is adequate but I would have liked to know more about how the *)OLUMPIA/DEJ may have formed the basis of the PERI\ QAUMASI/WN. For example, it would have been useful for the reader to have seen the evidence of fr. 13 (an infant that spoke) or fr. 15 (an eclipse of the sun) which obviously fall into the realm of the miraculous.[] Moreover, such prodigious events had been a feature of Graeco-Roman historiography from the time of Herodotos onwards. This might have been a subject worth pursuing.
The nature of the actual fragments demonstrate the sort of sensationalist headlines that sometimes make their way into popular daily papers. A dismembered head foretells the future (p. 31), a man changes into a woman and back again (p. 37-38), the true nature of a hermaphrodite is discovered on the point of marriage (p. 38), a tooth one- foot long is uncovered (p. 44), men give birth (p. 47) and centaurs inhabit the earth (p. 49). The PERI\ MAKROBI/WN tells us that the Sibyl of Erythrai lived for just less than 1000 years (pp. 55-57). The fragments of the
*)OLUMPIA/DEJ place us on more secure ground. They contain references to winners at the Olympic Games, Roman successes and defeats, the births of famous people and other important events (pp. 58-62).
Hansen's commentary is most useful as an introduction to these fragments. His lucid analysis contains much of interest for both classicists and general readers. He considers the probability that some of the stories were invented and the possible contexts of their invention. The apparent gullibility of Phlegon and the later author Prokles (pp. 66f., 199f.) in this regard is duly noted and provides a point of comparison (and contrast) with the ways in which modern scholars are taught to review their material.
For the reader unfamiliar with Phlegon Hansen provides careful explanation of the action of the stories which leaves little room for doubt as to their interpretation as is the case in the examples of Philinnion and Polykritos the Aitolarch (p. 101). For general readers there are explanations of key terms (p. 87 discusses the words for sacrificers and diviners: QU/THS [Latin extispex], TERATOSKO/POS and MA/NTEIJ; pp. 88 and 148 respectively investigate the two meanings of TE/RAJ [Latin prodigium and monstrum, English 'prodigy' or 'portent']). In addition, Hansen provides brief comments on the origins and nature of various institutions such as the Sibylline books at Rome (pp. 126-29) and the Olympic games (p. 190). Ever mindful of the general reader, there is comparative literature from the Middle Ages and more modern times to illustrate points regarding prodigious creatures (pp. 154 and 158) or hermaphroditism (pp. 120-26). From a scholarly point of view there are useful references to the most important scholarly literature on, for example, prodigium (p. 89).
However, it would have been useful to learn more about the ways in which Phlegon was using his material. The apparent gullibility of Phlegon and of Prokles begs the huge question of how ancient writers approached historical data. I would have liked to have known why the early fragments of PERI\ QAUMASI/WN concentrate on types of oracular response as opposed to the more usual marvel from the natural world. Moreover, what did Phlegon think was their historical importance? Why did he think that these might be suitable material for the paradoxographical genre? But these questions are of minor importance when compared to Hansen's excellent treatment of these fragments. His considerate translation and in- depth commentary makes even the fragments of the tedious PERI\ MAKROBI/WN accessible to readers from all backgrounds.
Hansen's edition of the Phlegon fragments offers a good introduction to this author specifically but more generally allows us an insight into the under- valued and under- studied genre of paradoxography in antiquity.
[] The Greek title of such works may be PERI\ PARADO/CWN from which, of course, the modern term is derived although just as common was the title PERI\ QAUMASI/WN, see K. Ziegler, 'Paradoxographoi', RealEncyclopaedie der classischen Altertumwissenschaft 18.3 (1949) 1137f.
[] See Ziegler [] 1137.
[] F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (Berlin and Leiden 1923-1958) IIB 257.
[] E. Frank, 'Phlegon', RE 20.1 (1941) 261-64.
[] Jacoby 3.IIB 257 frr. 13 and 15.