The Monstrous World

Corporeal Discourses in Phlegon of Tralles’ «Mirabilia»

by Julia Doroszewska (Author)
Monographs 189 Pages


Revenants, oracular heads, hermaphrodites, sex-changers, human-animal children, multiple pregnancies, births, body features … This is just a sample of subjects that Phlegon of Tralles explored in the 2nd century AD in his "Mirabilia". This study identifies the common motifs of Phlegon’s text and determines his criterion of selection: using the cultural category of "monster", it argues that Phlegon exclusively collected stories of either hybrid creatures or human "record-breakers" with respect to scale, size and multiplicity of their corporeal features. In this light, the "Mirabilia" appear to be a book on monsters and the monstrous that corresponds with a general fondness for marvels and oddities during the Roman imperial period.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • I. Introduction
  • I.1 Aims
  • I.2 Method. Monster as the Key and the Key to the Monster
  • I.3 The Author and the Work. A Few Facts and Even Fewer Pieces of Gossip
  • I.4 Survey of scholarly literature
  • II. Phlegon’s Monstrous World
  • II.1 Monsters
  • II.1.1 Neither Dead Nor Alive
  • II.1.1.1 Revenants or Walking Corpses
  • Philinnion: The Story of a Proto-Vampire
  • Speaking in Riddles: The Plot of the Story
  • “Farewell!” The Epistolary Form of the Narrative
  • Peeking through the Keyhole: Philinnion from the Folktale
  • “Neither properly dead, nor properly alive”. Why do the dead return?
  • Was Philinnion a Demon?
  • Monstrous Identity, Monstrous Desires
  • The Revenant Anthropophagous vs. the Oracular Head: The Story of Polycritus
  • When Locrian Women Gave Birth to Monsters
  • “Unharmed by the Stones”
  • Revenant, Red Wolf and More Oracles: Buplagus and His Story
  • Not Haunting, Just Warning
  • Monstrous Corpses
  • II.1.1.2 The Oracular Head
  • Among Monstrous Divine Mouthpieces: Conclusions
  • II.1.2 Neither a Woman nor a Man
  • II.1.2.1 Hermaphrodites. The God vs. the Monsters
  • The Monster. The Child of Polycritus and Others
  • The God
  • II.1.2.2 Sex-changers
  • Women who became Monsters. Conclusions
  • II.1.2.3 The World Reversed: Births from Males
  • II.1.3 Neither Human Nor Animal
  • II.1.3.1 Monstrous Births
  • II.1.3.3 Hippocentaurs: Humanoids?
  • II.2 The Monstrous
  • Monstrously Old, Monstrously Big: Giant Bones
  • Two Heads, Four Heads: Monstrous Redundancy
  • Monstrous Multiples
  • Monstrously Productive Couples
  • Juvenile Mothers and Young Old Men: Monstrously Fast Maturation
  • Monstrous Longevity: Phlegon’s Macrobii
  • Phlegon’s Monstrous World. Conclusions
  • III. Phlegon and the Monsters in Context
  • The Emperor as a Patron of Monsters
  • Monsters for Sale, Monsters on Display: Deformed Slaves
  • Monstrous Literature: Paradoxographers and Others
  • Conclusions
  • IV. Bibliography
  • Abbreviations
  • Books and Articles
  • Editions of Phlegon’s Mirabilia
  • Translations without the Greek Text
  • Editions of ancient authors

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I am especially indebted to and thank Professor William Hansen, whose fascinating book on the Mirabilia was my source of inspiration and guide in my adventure with Phlegon of Tralles, and whose support and aid I enjoyed during my research stay at Indiana University of Bloomington. I am also happy to express my gratitude to Professor Gościwit Malinowski for all of his critical remarks which contributed to improving this book. Last but not least, I would like to thank my husband Filip for his love and understanding during the best and worst moments of my work. ← 7 | 8 →

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I.  Introduction

Revenants, oracular heads, hermaphrodites, sex-changers, child-bearing males, human-animal children, giant bones, amazing fertility, multiple births, multiple body features… This is just a sample of the themes explored by Phlegon of Tralles in his compilation of odd stories, On Marvels.

This unusual and strange work, originally titled Περὶ θαυμασίων in Greek, and better known today under the Latin title of Mirabilia, will be the object of the present study. The author, Phlegon of Tralles, who lived in the 2nd century AD, as well as his writings, have for many years garnered limited attention of scholars and still remain quite little known even among the classicists; this is largely due to the fact that Phlegon was regarded as a rather mediocre writer, and his output was considered derivative and secondary. It seems that his contemporaries also did not attach importance to his literary production since – although it may only be accidental – very few references to his works have survived from antiquity to our times.

However, Phlegon of Tralles definitely deserves attention as he left behind one of the most peculiar works of ancient literature. The Mirabilia is a collection of stories about various extraordinary phenomena that Phlegon compiled from earlier sources. Despite the fact that the author did not title the chapters of his work, its composition is clear and cogent; the guiding themes by which he grouped all thirty-five stories that comprise the collection can be easily distinguished. The thematic order that the compiler applied inspired the modern editors and translators of the Mirabilia who used to divide the work into parts and title them on the basis of the main themes.

According to such a classification, the Mirabilia raise the following issues: revenants, hermaphrodites and sex-changers, the discovery of giant bones, monstrous newborns, births from males, unusual multiple pregnancies, amazing fertility, abnormally rapid development, and the discovery of live centaurs. To complete this overview, another important theme should be added, i.e. that of the oracular head, which is missing from the list above because it does not appear independently but does appear twice in the stories about apparitions.

The Mirabilia is a fascinating text and by all means one that requires comment, since so far it has not been examined in its entirety. The lack of a comprehensive study which would discuss its specificity may likely result from the fact that, besides Phlegon of Tralles’ “bad reputation”, the compilation is quite heterogeneous, i.e. the collected stories drastically vary in content, style, and size; ← 9 | 10 → thus, only selected issues were separately examined by scholars, yet no attempt has been made to approach the text as a comprehensive whole.

I.1  Aims

There is no doubt that the Mirabilia constitutes subject matter that still requires an in-depth study. So far there has been one notable exception: William Hansen’s work titled Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels (Exeter 1996). This is the first English translation of the text that is provided with an exhaustive commentary which also briefly presents the compilation within its literary genre, i.e. paradoxography.

The term paradoxography1 is not ancient; it is derived from the Greek word παραδοξογράφοι, which was attested already in Tzetzes (Chil. 2.35.154), who used it, although inconsistently, to describe authors writing on paradoxical and unusual phenomena. The first to introduce the term as the name of the genre was the modern German scholar Anton Westermann (1839), who applied it to works which listed accounts of facts or alleged facts considered as marvels by ancient authors. Callimachus is said to have been the inventor of this kind of literary production, as he authored the first paradoxographical treatise (which is now lost). His work had many followers, particularly in Hellenistic times, but also in subsequent ages; collections of wonders were popular in the Roman Empire, although they often did not constitute autonomous compositions but were included as parts of works devoted to natural history or ethnography, such as Pliny’s Natural History. Phlegon is the only extant author from the times of the Roman Empire whose work is sensu stricto a paradoxographical compilation.

While classifying Phlegon’s text as paradoxographical writing, Hansen (1996): 2ff. stresses its originality. He points out that other works of this kind usually collect reports of various unusual phenomena of either an animate or inanimate nature, such as the extraordinary properties of rivers, rocks, plants, animals, etc., whereas Phlegon’s compilation is focused exclusively on human oddities, and this is the feature which distinguishes the text from other works of this literary genre. In his reflection upon the specificity of the Mirabilia William Hansen does not go any further; meanwhile, the most interesting question is why Phlegon, when composing his Mirabilia, did not follow his predecessors’ lead? Why did he give up the wonders of the natural world to focus instead on those which ← 10 | 11 → concerned humans in their most abnormal form? These questions deserve an answer, but in order to do so the originality of the Mirabilia needs to be examined more thoroughly.

Since the simple statetment that a focus on human oddities makes the compilation exceptional among paradoxographical writings is far from satisfactory, this leitmotif of Phlegon’s text has to be disccussed in a more extensive manner so that it will help to reveal the meaning of the Mirabilia. And this is the aim of the present study – to determine if there is a common pattern of all thirty-five stories on human oddities collected in the Mirabilia, and to apply a category by which the overall compilation could be examined and interpreted (see Method below).

Furthermore, the element of the bizarre and grotesque that is strongly present in the Mirabilia led Hansen to compare it to modern British and American tabloids which are based on bizarre human-interest stories. The scholar is both a folklorist and a classicist, so his view is broader and certainly more comparatively oriented. However, his approach, although very interesting, locates the problem elsewhere and takes the ancient text out of its cultural context. Obviously, applying modern categories to past phenomena is always a valuable and fascinating experience, but it seems to me that in such an approach the question that Hansen answers positively, i.e. the question of whether both the content and interest of the Mirabilia resemble the content and interest of modern tabloids, should be preceded by another question. That very question is whether the Mirabilia and similar works could have played such a role in their times as the tabloid press now plays in modern times. Getting slightly ahead of my story I would say that, in my opinion, the answer to this question is yes and no. But, as a matter of fact, in order to answer this question, the Mirabilia must be examined in the context of their times, and this is what I aim to do in the second section of this study. For, in the times of the early Roman Empire, i.e. from the reign of Augustus (27 BC – AD 14) onward, an evident fondness for unusual phenomena, especially for diverse human and animal curiosities, is to be observed. This tendency manifests itself, for instance, in the appearance of human monstrosities collections at the imperial court, or in the fad for deformed slaves in the households of well-to-do Romans, as well as in the inclination for preserving and displaying to the public anatomical rarities, or, last but not least, reports of people exhibiting extreme malformations in the oral tradition. This is also the context in which we need to set the Mirabilia – a work that is entirely devoted to human monstrosities – by Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of the Emperor Hadrian and a well-educated member of his entourage. The monster motif in the Mirabilia corresponds to the increasing popularity of the monstrous in Phlegon’s times, and with no ← 11 | 12 → doubt ought to be regarded as another manifestation of this tendency. Thus, in my opinion, an examination of this cultural background is highly important to understanding the text. Therefore, in the second part of this study I will discuss selected issues related to the monstrous in Phlegon’s times as parallels to the elements of the monstrous in the Mirabilia.

I.2  Method. Monster as the Key and the Key to the Monster

At first glance, the Mirabilia is quite a heterogeneous piece that is composed of various threads and motifs. There is, however, a common pattern to be observed in all of the stories: an exclusive interest in human oddities with no regard for other types of marvels. The corporeal aspect of the marvels and the focus solely on the human body distinguishes the collection from other works of this kind. As Phlegon seems to scarcely have edited the collected material, neither does he provide his reader with an introduction to his compilation; this feature ought to be considered as the author’s selection criterion for the compiled material. This criterion, in turn, may be seen as the most important and valuable trace of his literary activity and his work on the Mirabilia.

I am therefore going to focus on that criterion of selection to define it more precisely by answering the following questions: what types of human oddities were of greatest interest to the compiler, what characteristics do these marvels have in common, and what was their cultural significance? In my view, there is one category which for several reasons appears to be particularly useful and appropriate in order to define Phlegon’s criterion of selection in the most comprehensive way: the monster. For I think that all of the motifs of the Mirabilia fall into this category or, in fact, into one of its subcategories as derived from the term monster, such as monstrosity or monstrous. By using this wide-ranging category, I hope to gain deeper insight into Phlegon’s work and, finally, to gain a better understanding of its significance. Now I am going to explain why the ‘monster’ is the category to be applied to an examination and interpretation of the Mirabilia.

“The monster is more than an odious creature of the imagination; it is a kind of cultural category, employed in domains as diverse as religion, biology, literature and politics”.2 Being so broad and ambiguous, the category of monster is used by scholars of many fields: anthropologists, literary critics, sociologists, ← 12 | 13 → psychologists, historians and others.3 In its double, i.e. both literal and metaphorical meaning, the term ‘monster’ is applied to describe anatomical abnormalities as well as different cultural and literary phenomena. Thus it may refer to fictional beings – be it supernatural, mythical or magical products of the human imagination – and also to actual physical deformities and anomalies. Regardless of their type and origin, monsters (taken in the broad sense) always have some unchangeable common points. In general, they are distinguished by their horrendous, terrible and loathsome appearance. Most often they are hybrid creatures, combinations of two or more different animal species or of animal and human features which are shocking due to their odd, bizarre, and unnatural form. Since they stand on the threshold between two or more different worlds they in fact belong to neither of them and, consequently, remain liminal beings that destroy the standards of order, harmony and basics of human knowledge about the world, transgressing the boundaries of the normal. Monsters are dangerous because they are unclassifiable.

Such a formal, commonly accepted and interdisciplinary definition of ‘monster’ is adequate and useful in the study of Phlegon of Tralles’ Mirabilia since the compilation contains stories constantly pretending to be true and presented as such which talk about such monsters as revenants or centaurs; it also records cases of deformity and abnormality, such as hermaphrodites, sex-changers and other human oddities. Many of these creatures are hybrids combined with the features of two different species or orders, such as human-animal, male-female, or dead-alive.

Moreover, there is also another important reason, i.e. the etymological one, to apply the category of monster to the Mirabilia. The English word ‘monster’ derives from the Latin word monstrum, which signifies an omen or a prodigy, and stems from the root monere, ‘to warn’, related to monstrare – ‘to show’. Hence to be a monster means to be an omen – a warning sign – usually of a divine disfavor – and a portent of the future. In antiquity, almost all kinds of human and animal anomalies had the chance of being considered portents. In the Mirabilia, in several cases we encounter monsters that are regarded as omens, whereas other ← 13 | 14 → unnatural phenomena are not said to be of divine origin, which is likely due to the fact that the stories come from different times and places.4

The adjective ‘monstrous’, in turn, will be applied as a term to describe those phenomena in Phlegon’s writing which constitute anomalies due to their record-beating size or scale, such as extraordinarily multiple births, abnormally rapid development, incredible fertility, or extremely large body dimensions.

Concluding, when we speak about monsters we are technically using an ancient term, and this enables us to slightly approach the ancient idea of monstrosity. Furthermore, the category of monster and the monstrous and, in general, monstrosity, is useful and appropriate when defining the specificity of the Mirabilia, since the monster is the common pattern in all of these so different stories. Phlegon’s particular interest in monstrous creatures seems to reflect the ambience of those times when monsters were the object of a particular fascination. The aim of my study is to prove that the compiler deliberately selected extreme cases of human oddities which transgressed the boundaries of the normal concerning the human body and raised questions about the condition of the human species. Phlegon’s collection of monstrosities may be viewed as his creation of a “monstrous world” which reciprocally seems to reflect the world in which the author lived. Therefore, the monster as a leitmotif distinguishes Phlegon’s work within paradoxography but, on the other hand, it makes it emblematic of its time, which delivers a sample of second-century aesthetic tastes.

The book is divided into three parts; the first part is the Introduction, the other two are chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 1 discusses the origins and cultural meaning of monster motifs in the Mirabilia; this section includes two parts: The Monster (devoted to hybrid monsters) and The Monstrous (on human record-breakers). The part titled Monster categorizes monster motifs into the three following groups: 1) Neither Alive nor Dead, which deals with revenants; 2) Neither a Woman nor a Man, which deals with hermaphrodites, sex-changers, and males who gave birth; and 3) Neither Human nor Animal, which concerns accounts of human-animal children and hippocentaurs. The part titled The Monstrous considers cases of abnormal rapid development, monstrous fertility, extremely large body dimensions, extraordinary multiple births as well as multiple body features. ← 14 | 15 → In the last part of chapter 1, a reflection on the specificity of Phlegon’s work is provided. Chapter 2 is concerned with selected issues regarding the popularity of monsters during the times of the early Roman Empire which help set the Mirabilia in their cultural context.

I.3  The Author and the Work. A Few Facts and Even Fewer Pieces of Gossip

Information about Phlegon of Tralles as obtained from antiquity is very scarce. He was originally from the city of Tralles in the region of Karia in Asia Minor and is known as a freedman of the Emperor Hadrian (reigned AD 117–138), but his role at the imperial court remains unclear; however, he is suggested to have been Hadrian’s secretary and to have administered the emperor’s itinerary.5 Unfortunately, nothing is known about his birth, life, family, or education; AD 137 is the terminus post quem of his death.6


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Monsters Ghosts Sex-changers Paradoxography Ancient Greek Literature Ancient Imperial Literature
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016, 189 S.

Biographical notes

Julia Doroszewska (Author)

Julia Doroszewska is Assistant Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Silesia, Poland. Her field of interest is the literature of the Roman Empire and more particularly the writings of Phlegon of Tralles.


Title: The Monstrous World