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Aetolia Shall Rise Again? Phlegon Peri Thaumasion 3 as Anti-Roman Alternative History

Kelly Shannon-Henderson

University of Alabama

This paper focuses on a fictional story, preserved in the Peri Thaumasion by 2nd-century AD paradoxographer Phlegon of Tralles, of Rome’s surrender after its war against Antiochus, and assesses its value as Greek “resistance literature” against Roman rule. The story offers an alternative history written from the perspective of conquered Greeks, in which the Romans are intimidated by dire prophecies of avenging invaders from the East into abandoning their conquest of the Greek world. The story was open to a variety of possible interpretations and had different valences of meaning for Greek audiences under Roman rule reading in a variety of historical and political situations between its likely date of initial composition shortly after 188 BC and Phlegon’s inclusion of it in his work in the AD 110s.

Phlegon recounts a fictionalized, alternative version of events in Aetolia in 191 BC, just after the forces of the consul M’. Acilius Glabrio had defeated Antiochus at the Battle of Thermopylae. Because the details of Glabrio’s movements given in Phlegon seem accurate, in that they closely parallel what is described in Livy (36.3.7-14), the story that served as Phlegon’s source was probably composed shortly after the Peace of Apamea in 188 BC that ended the conflict (Martelli 1982: 251; Porqueddu Salvioli 1982: 4–6; Gruen 1984: 328). But in Phlegon’s story, a narrative of successful Roman conquest is subverted by prophecies of doom. First Bouplagos, a soldier for Antiochus who has fallen on the battlefield, rises from the dead and delivers a prophecy to the Roman soldiers plundering the corpses that Zeus will send upon them an avenging army to “put a stop to your dominion, and pay you back for the things you have done” (Mir. 3.5). The frightened Romans then consult the Oracle at Delphi, and on its advice “they completely g[i]ve up the intention of making war upon any of the peoples dwelling in Europe” (Mir. 3.7) and make a compensatory sacrifice. But the prophecies are not yet over: “The strategos Publius” goes mad and delivers extensive predictions, in prose and verse, that Rome will be invaded and punished by an unspecified Eastern foe (Mir. 3.8-10). His body is then devoured by a red wolf, but his severed head continues to deliver prophecies (Mir. 3.9-14). The Romans are frightened into abandoning their war and returning home, and, the story claims, “All the things that Publius said would occur came to pass” (Mir. 3.15). Adding to the uncanniness is the fact that “Publius” may be meant to evoke P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus (cf. Crawford 2000: 148), who was involved in the campaign (e.g. Livy 37.34-37, 37.45) but most certainly did not die in this way.

The text is striking for its counterfactual history: the Romans clearly did not give up their conquest of the Greek East, nor was Rome’s most famous second-century military hero devoured by a wolf. This paper will assess the value of these “inaccuracies,” and seek to understand the story’s continued popularity despite them. To what extent is this a rare example of a “vast, vanished anti-Roman historiography” (Shannon-Henderson 2019; cf. Fuchs 1938: 5–7; Martelli 1978: 130–31; Martelli 1982: 251; Ferrary 1988: 263–64; Donaire Vázquez 1990: 356–57; Seibert 1995: 237–38) now lost to us? I will also assess how it might have been re-interpreted across the centuries. It would have had special relevance a century after its composition, in 88 BC, when Mithridates’ threat to Rome’s Eastern provinces inspired a range of apocalyptic literature in Greek (e.g. Oracula Sibyllina 3.350-366). The prophecy of conquerors from the East would have continued to resonate more than three centuries later, in Phlegon’s time, when Trajan had recently added the provinces of Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Assyria to the empire but the Parthian threat still loomed on the Eastern frontier. 

Session/Panel Title

Voicing the Past

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