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The Monstrous World

Corporeal Discourses in Phlegon of Tralles’ «Mirabilia»


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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III. Phlegon and the Monsters in Context


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III.  Phlegon and the Monsters in Context

Every age has its own monsters; it seems, however, that particularly in the times of the Roman Empire, when Phlegon lived, the monstrous became an object of great desire and fascination. Many scholars have already noticed the increasing interest toward the monstrous from the times of the Emperor Augustus onwards, and have proposed different explanations for this phenomenon.391

Two works are especially worth mentioning here. Robert Garland, in his brilliant study on the deformed in the Greco-Roman world, devoted a chapter to the role of the monstrous in imperial Rome titled The Roman Emperor in his Monstrous World.392 The scholar interprets the popularity of monsters as a trend initiated by the Roman emperors and their court and then adopted eagerly by the upper class of society.

Carlin A. Barton, in The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans, which is a fascinating psychological study on the emotional life of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, includes an entire section under the significant title of The Monster, in which she draws a group portrait of Roman society in post-republican Rome, depicting it as an organism driven by extreme emotions such as envy, desire, despair and fascination. Referring to the monster – a deformed, odd and ambiguous creature – as a symbolic figure that enabled these emotions to be expressed, the scholar attempts to explain the Romans’ particular admiration for the monstrous:

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