Who were these writers "of no mean authority", and what sort of books had Gellius added to his library? Ctesias, Onesicritus and Hegesias may be counted (however grudgingly) among the historians; the shadowy Aristeas most comfortably among the mythographers. Isigonus and Philostephanus, however, are the authors of works entitled, respectively, Ἄπιστα (Incredible Things) and περὶ παραδόξων ποταμῶν (On Strange Rivers).
The umbrella term ‘paradoxography’, now used to describe such works, is not an ancient one: first coined by Tzetzes in the 12th century, it was used by Westermann for his 1839 edition of the Scriptores Rerum Mirabilium Graeci, most of which authors included either of the adjectives θαυμάσιος or παράδοξος in their titles. It is a genre that has its origins in the Hellenistic world; parasitic on historical, geographical, ethnographical and scientific writings, it dons the guise of Alexandrian scholarship in the careful citation of the sources on which are constructed its claims to truth. Indeed, at the fount of this genre stands no less a figure than Callimachus, who in a work of uncertain title – citations suggest παραδόξων ἐκλογή (Selection of Strange Things) or θαυμάσια (Marvels) – provided a catalogue of marvels from all the world using as sources, among others, Aristotle, Megasthenes, Theophrastus, Theopompus and Timaeus.
Like much ancient writing in the historiographical and related genres, paradoxography is produced by compilation and excerption, but unlike the former resolutely refuses to place its pillaged data in any theoretical – or, frequently, even formal – framework. Paradoxography, like its modern ‘believe-it-or-not’ descendants, depends for its effect on decontextualization; it constructs a conceptual space where, there being no given norm against which to measure them, the fantastic and unbelievable themselves become the norm, the external world reduced to a paratactic yet disjointed sequence of the bizarre and ‘unnatural.’ Yet these marvels are all ‘true’, all culled from ‘authorities.’
Paradoxographical literature could not exist without the prior and contemporaneous existence of a body of ‘real’ knowledge of the human and natural worlds, based on careful empirical observation and rational analysis, for it is on such knowledge that it depends for its validation. The proliferation of such writing is predicated on the burst of scientific activity which was a feature of the Hellenistic era. This activity in turn stemmed immediately from the work of Aristotle and his school in the field of the natural and physical sciences, and from the new data made available by the conquests of Alexander.
The Paradoxographical Texts
Few paradoxographical works survive in anything approaching their entirety; many are known to us only through a handful of later excerpts and notices, some so ambiguous as to render the very existence of the text – or, indeed, the author – a matter of dispute. Of those texts that can be securely identified as collections of παράδοχα, not all can be dated with any degree of certainty, particularly the anonymous works known to us from the manuscripts as the Paradoxographi Palatinus, Vaticanus and Florentinus.
Furthermore, some attributions are clearly erroneous or garbled – thus, both Ephorus and Theopompus are credited by later sources with books of marvels that are highly unlikely to have existed in the forms posited. Broadly speaking, paradoxographical writing falls into two different strands (though a single author may well deal with aspects of both). The first finds its subject-matter in “respectable” works of natural history and of human history in its broad, Herodotean sense, encompassing geography and ethnography.
Natural wonders, culled mainly from the likes of Aristotle and Theophrastus, are presented (at least by the earlier exponents of the genre) as a catalogue of the striking and anomalous, rather in the manner of the Guinness Book of Records, but are not – at any rate within the framework of ancient natural history – in themselves impossible or unnatural. Later works dealing with the natural world, and in particular the animal kingdom (such as Aelian’s περὶ ζῴων ἰδιότητος, On the Characteristics of Animals) tend far more towards an anthropomorphic and affective depiction of animal behaviour, a tendency which can also be discerned in generically non-paradoxographical works such as Pliny’s Naturalis Historia.
Human biology is treated largely in the same manner as the animal kingdom, supplying interesting nuggets of, for example, physiological or genetic knowledge, but tending to steer clear of the freakish or monstrous. The variety and oddity of human culture are demonstrated by ethnographic details of the customs of various Greek or more exotic peoples which, again, rarely stray beyond the bounds of what one might find in works of history proper. (The more scrupulous paradoxographers even eschewed the temptation of the exotic but unreliable – Antigonus, for example, refuses a germane citation of Ctesias on the grounds of that author’s mendacity.)
The paradoxa are almost always the fruits of excerption rather than observation; initially second- or at most third-hand, from the works of naturalists or historians who had themselves relied on autopsy, but as time went by, increasingly at yet greater removes as earlier compilations themselves became the sources for their successors. Thus, a passage from the 3rd-century Antigonus (whose main sources are Aristotle’s History of Animals and Callimachus’ lost book of paradoxa, which directly epitomizes Aristotle) becomes in turn the source for the later Paradoxographus Vaticanus.
The second strand of paradoxographical writing concerns itself with matter which is not so much striking as bizarre, where it is even credible, and having more in common with the genres of romance than of scientific knowledge. Monstrous or multiple births, hermaphrodites, oracle-spouting severed heads, spectral revenants take the place of the comparatively mundane curiosities of the natural and cultural spheres. Although this development may be somewhat later than the origins of paradoxography in the time of Callimachus, it soon found an ever-expanding niche in the constitution of the genre. The earliest substantial surviving text is that of Apollonius, who includes chapters on such figures as Aristeas of Proconnesus and Abaris the Hyperborean alongside snippets of natural history. Here, at least, we are still within the outer limits of history, since Apollonius’ sources include Herodotus and Theopompus. For a more thoroughgoing example of this ‘sensationalizing’ strand of paradoxography, we can turn to Phlegon of Tralles..
The brief outline of the principal paradoxographical texts which follows draws extensively on Ziegler’s 1938 entry in RE XVIII.3. The most complete survivals will be dealt with first, then the works which remain only in fragmentary form.
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