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The Monstrous World

Corporeal Discourses in Phlegon of Tralles’ «Mirabilia»

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Julia Doroszewska

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.

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I. Introduction

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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...

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