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Mirrors on the Moon: Lucian's Sci-fi Technology and Anticipated Innovation

A. Everett Beek

North-West University

In Lucian’s True History, the narrator journeys to the moon and witnesses many outlandish phenomena, including a magic mirror (Ver. hist. 1.26). This mirror can be used to see anything happening on earth, from a greater distance and with greater accuracy than would ever be possible using a real-life mirror. As an improvement on existing technology, this mirror is presented as less an element of fantasy and more an element of science fiction, in contrast to fantasy-oriented elements in the True History such as women growing on vines or an island made of cheese (Georgiadou and Larmour 1998). Mirrors are common artifacts throughout the ancient Mediterranean, especially hand mirrors of polished bronze (Oberlander 1967, Zimmer 1991, Corpus Speculorum Etruscorum), but these only give a rough reflection; Paul’s well-worn quotation ‘through a glass, darkly’ (1 Corinthians 13:10-12) attests to the proverbial unreliability of the typical mirror. Despite the ubiquity of low-quality mirror technology, mirrors in the hands of a master craftsman could become extraordinary creations that could accomplish extraordinary feats.

Ancient literature, especially during the Roman empire, attests to popular interest in exceptional mirrors. Such wonders are reported as worthwhile sights in travel literature, or as marvels in fantastic fiction and paradoxography. From Horace’s cubiculum speculatum reported by Suetonius to the burning mirror used by the Vestal Virgins to light the Vestal flame in Plutarch’s Numa, from the degenerate Hostius Quadra’s hall of mirrors excoriated by Seneca to the distorting mirror on the wall of an Arcadian shrine reported by Pausanias, the many stories told about fantastic mirrors illustrate the idea that mirror technology is an object of wonder. Moreover, such stories make clear the idea that people of the time expected mirror technology to improve and provide them with fantastic services that were presently inaccessible. Over the course of Roman history many different mirroring technologies were developed: mirrors of silvered glass and silvered bronze have been recovered from archaeological remains, Vitruvius describes high-quality stucco that can be used to give a reflection, and Suetonius reports that Domitian used highly-polished stone walls to monitor people standing behind him (to say nothing of the Cycladic “frying pans”—possibly used as mirrors—that predated the Romans).

Lucian’s magic mirror is presented as a potential forthcoming innovation on improvable technology, an exotic artifact from a distant culture that could be harnessed by Greek scientists. Lucian calls attention to the scientific significance of such technology insofar as several of Lucian’s works (including the True History) show characters solving engineering problems within the narrative, as the narrator of the True History devises a method to sail a ship on a frozen sea or to release his ship from the whale that swallowed it. The magic mirror on the moon is presented as an inspiration that invites the readers to imagine potential innovations for future technology.

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The Ancient Novel and Material Culture

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