Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Maria Gerolemou (ed.), Recognizing Miracles in Antiquity and Beyond. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 53. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. xx, 430. ISBN 9783110530469. €119,95.

Reviewed by Trevor S. Luke, Florida State University (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume originated in a conference on miracles and wonders in antiquity and the Byzantine period held in the autumn of 2014 at the University of Cyprus. (Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.) Taken as a whole, Recognizing Miracles well represents the challenges one encounters when grappling with the topic of miracles and wonders in antiquity. From the outset the editor, Maria Gerolemou, acknowledges problems of definition that may nag at the reader throughout the volume. What is a miracle? How is it different, if it is, from a wonder? What impact does wonderment have on belief and knowledge? Is wonderment hostile to knowledge or does it induce one to search for greater understanding? The chapters in this volume address these and other questions, both directly and indirectly, making it worthwhile reading for anyone working on the topics of miracles, wonders, paradoxography, and the role of all these in Greek and Latin literature.

Both the strength and the limitation of this volume lie in its predominantly literary approach. The contributors generally stick to the literary analysis of texts featuring wonders and miracles. Those unfamiliar with the study of paradoxography will be exposed not only to analyses of miracles and wonders in a wide range of texts but also to bibliography that provides context for the larger scholarly discussion of these phenomena. Readers will thus gain a stronger grasp of the importance of paradoxography in Greek and Roman literature, as well as the nuances of different ancient authors' constructions of both their worlds and their authorial identities through their treatment of miracles and wonders. No one with Recognizing Miracles under their belt will have any excuse to treat Pausanias' conception of wonders the same as Polybius', vel sim.

Other readers, drawn to the book by its title, may be disappointed that innovative work in anthropology, archaeology, art history, and religious studies has not been engaged to their satisfaction. Naturally, no single conference or volume can hope to touch on every important aspect of such a vast and protean topic. The reader's sense of unfulfilled promises may arise in part from language in Gerolemou's Introduction (X-XI): "the volume approaches miracles and wonders as counter intuitive [sic] phenomena, beyond cognitive grasp, which challenge the authenticity of human experience and knowledge and expand the frontiers of intellectual and aesthetic experience based on the notion of credibility, rather than on the negative analysis of the concept as an affirmation of epistemological certainties or as an element of fiction." That is a tall order, as well as a provocative position to stake out, and it is unsurprising that not every contribution appears to have pursued this ambitious agenda. For those familiar with the work of Ann Taves, the word "experience" leaps off the page, but the reader soon realizes that here it is examined primarily as mediated by ancient authors' perspectives and agendas. 1

Nevertheless, what Gerolemou has written is true in that, departing from well-worn lines of argument on these topics, the volume explores the rhetorical and generic strategies ancient authors employed when writing (about) wonders and situating themselves within, or in relation to, the rich tradition of paradoxographic writing. Such questions have been frequently overlooked in favor of exploring the relationship between ancient views of wonders and the "epistemological certainties" of our time.2 Moreover, one can argue that ancient authors writing about wonders and miracles are participating in a culture that deems these phenomena special in a way that makes them worth writing about in the first place. Therefore, even the apparent limitations of literary evidence are not to be viewed as disqualifying or insurmountable problems when one considers the experience that underlies that evidence. Writing (about) wonders and miracles truly is part of the larger culture of wonders and miracles.3

A word of criticism must be added before summarizing the contents of the volume. One hesitates to carp at faults at a time when a great abundance of useful scholarship on even the most recondite of topics is being made widely available both electronically and also in hardcopy books. Still, one sometimes yearns for the skills of the able copyeditor. Recognizing Miracles suffers from uneven editing, resulting occasionally in passages that are difficult to parse. This problem must be partly attributed to the generous efforts of non-native speakers of English to make their work broadly accessible. Still, one has cause to wonder (pun intended) at the puzzling errors that crop up in Anglophone scholars' contributions. One must accept the trade-off between accessibility and polish, it seems, but lingering questions regarding authors' intended meanings can be distracting.

A synopsis of the contents of the volume is here provided, beginning with the First Section (the authors' full names are given below). In Chapter One, Nichols argues that Ctesias' Indica is not a paradoxography. Although it contains similar material, its subject matter was more wide-ranging, including such things as customs and medicine. Prêtre demonstrates in Chapter Two how the arrangement and content of the healing inscriptions at Epidaurus were designed to bolster the credibility of Asclepius and overcome, at the outset, potential skepticism regarding his powers. In Chapter Three, Kazantzidis illustrates how human oddities were segregated from other paradoxes until the Imperial period, when the two categories converged. Hau analyzes in Chapter Four Polybius' use of the word thauma to highlight the remarkable behavior and feats of cognition of great figures of history. Papaioannou traces recurring motifs of serpents, Apollo, and healing surrounding important political leaders in Roman historiography and biography from the Augustan to Trajanic eras in Chapter Five. In Chapter Six, Kraft demonstrates how the figure of Christ serves as an archetype for the figure of the Last Emperor in Byzantine apocalypses.

The Second Section opens with Gerolemou's discussion of the mnemonic function of thaumata in Herodotus' historiography. According to her argument, Herodotus exploits the emotional power of the thauma to shape readers' memories of the past. In Chapter Eight, Demetriou examines how Plautus uses the dramatization of wonders and wonderment to evaluate approaches to the divine and highlight the limits of human perception. Neger, in Chapter Nine, illustrates Pliny's epistolary architecture of the self through the lens of wonders of both nature and the supernatural. Delattre argues that the paradoxical is not inherent in the nature of the topic but is instead the effect a skilled author produces in Chapter Ten. The authority of the author is established in his ability to evoke the paradoxical. In Chapter Eleven, Mheallaigh elucidates how Lucian's treatment of the fraudulent techniques of charlatans such as Alexander of Abonouteichos serves as a mirror for the author's own literary marvels.

The Third Section opens with Hunziger's phenomenological foray into thauma in archaic Greek literature, wherein ancient authors' awareness of both the illusionary and intellectually fruitful aspects of wonder is illuminated. In Chapter Thirteen, Leyra maps out the relationship between wonder and science in accounts of miracles that occurred during the travels and conquests of Alexander the Great. Langerwerf, in Chapter Fourteen, expands on Elsner's earlier argument regarding Pausanias' Periegesis as an account of pilgrimage with the argument that the author is also very much an historian whose persona includes the skepticism expected of a pepaideumenos, something that his accounts of paradoxes allow him to establish.4 Tsakmakis discusses the role of miracles in biographical traditions and biography from the works of poets and biographies of pre-Socratic philosophers and into late antiquity, with special emphasis on Plutarchan biography, in Chapter Fifteen. Plutarch, following a historiographical tradition laid down by Thucydides, includes miraculous material, with necessary qualification, for the appropriate amplification of a grand subject. The final two contributions, by May and Lateiner, take us to the topic of miracles in the novel. May illuminates Apuleius' deft use of necromantic motifs, which "blur the boundaries between life and death" and prepare the reader for the transformative effect of Lucius' initiation into the mysteries of Isis. Lateiner situates the treatment of miracles in the Greek novel within the larger context of ancient literature, arguing that in the Greek novel miraculous themes were used to fine effect in a way that was both allusive and relatable to the daily experience of contemporary readers eager for emotional escape.

Addressing a broad swath of genres over a grand sweep time, Recognizing Miracles is not the first or definitive word on miracles and wonders in Greek and Roman literature, but it is recommended reading for both scholars who specialize therein and also readers who want to begin to grapple with issues regarding the literary role of these phenomena.

Authors and titles

Maria Gerolemou, Introduction: In search of the Miraculous
I. Miracles
1. Andrew Nichols, Ctesius' Indica and the Origins of Paradoxography
2. Clarisse Prêtre, The Epidaurian Iamata: The first "Court of Miracles"?
3. George Kazantzidis, Medicine and the paradox in the Hippocratic Corpus and Beyond
4. Lisa Irene Hau, 'One might rightly wonder'—marvelling in Polybios' Histories
5. Sophia Papaioannou, Omens and Miracles: Interpreting Miraculous Narratives in Roman Historiography
6. András Kraft, Miracles and Pseudo-Miracles in Byzantine Apocalypses

II. Workings of Miracles
7. Maria Gerolemou, Wonder-ful Memories in Herodotus' Histories
8. Chrysanthi Demetriou, Wonder(s) in Plautus
9. Margot Neger, Telling Tales of Wonder: Mirabilia in the Letters of Pliny the Younger
10. Charles Delattre, Paradoxographic discourse on sources and fountains: deconstructing paradoxes
11. Karen ní Mheallaigh, Lucian's Alexander: technoprophecy, thaumatology and the poetics of wonder

III. Believing in Miracles
12. Christine Hunzinger, Perceiving Thauma in Archaic Greek Epic
13. Irene Pajón Leyra, Turning Science into Miracle in the Voyage of Alexander the Great
14. Lydia Langerwerf, 'Many are the wonders in Greece': Pausanias the wandering philosopher
15. Antonis Tsakmakis, Miracles in Greek Biography
16. Regine May, Apuleius on Raising the Dead: Crossing the Boundaries of Life and Death while Convincing the Audience
17. Donald Lateiner, Recognizing Miracles in ancient Greek Novels
List of Contributors
Index Nominum et Rerum


1.   See Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton University Press, 2011.
2.   See, by way of contrast, R. L. Gordon, "Reality, evocation and boundary in the Mysteries of Mithras," Journal of Mithraic Studies 3 (1980) 21: "The fantastic element in religion is not itself particularly interesting, inasmuch as it is merely a sub-set of the entire human capacity for thinking and speaking about the non-actual . . . ."
3.   On the religious significance of ancient writing on religion, see Mary Beard, "A Complex of Times: No More Sheep on Romulus' Birthday," Classical Journal 33 (1987) 1-15.
4.   J. Elsner, "Pausanias: A Greek Pilgrim in the Roman World," Past & Present 135 (1992) 3-29.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.