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Physiognomy is the practice of evaluating human character through bodily features, often in comparison with the physical attributes of animals. The zoological premises of physiognomy appear as early as the Old Babylonian Empire and underwent systematic study in the ps.-Aristotelian Physiognomonica (Raina 1994, Böck 2010). But it was during the Second Sophistic that physiognomy attained peak popularity, as orators mesmerized audiences with embodied performances (Evans 1969, Gleason 1995 and 2002). The success of physiognomy coincided with the formal entry of fable exercises into the rhetorical curriculum of the early Roman Empire. While adult sophists like Polemo compiled treatises about the animalistic features of their peers, schoolboys wrote fables about animals who partook in human speech and power struggles.

Although scholars have addressed the relationship between physiognomy and ancient medicine, philosophy, and ekphrasis (Swain 2007, Cale Johnson and Stavru 2019), no scholarship has yet analyzed the zoological premises of Imperial physiognomy in connection with school fables. This paper argues that the fable exercises taught in the progymnasmata and rhetorical schools provided a scholastic foundation for physiognomy in elite sophistic circles. Students who learned to compose credible fables in school had been primed to identify the hierarchy of “manimals” in adult social settings. In this way, animal discourses within Roman paideia both naturalized and reified the public procedures of social discrimination that physiognomists practiced in their critiques of the human body.

The first half of this paper introduces fable exercises in Imperial school papyri and educational manuals. I draw upon the fable assignments in Quintilian and the progymnasmata to demonstrate that while students actively invented fables, they had to conform to strict rubrics of plausibility concerning animals’ perceived social ranking. Students had to avoid any suggestion that “a mouse give council on the governance of animals or a lion savor the scent of cheese” (ὁ μῦς περὶ βασιλείας τῶν ζῴων ἐβουλεύετο ἢ ὅτι ὁ λέων ἐζωγρήθη ὑπὸ τυροῦ κνίσης, Nicolaus, Progym. 7.18-8.4). The “natural” order of the world (phūsis) held sway not only because the fable was rooted in nature, but also because the aspiring orator had to grasp conventional parameters of power and justice (Morgan 2007a and 2007b).

The latter half of this paper then turns to zoological theories in the physiognomy of Polemon, as preserved in its Arabic translation and the anonymous Latin Physiognomonia (4th c.). I conduct a close reading of Polemon’s second chapter – which classifies a catalogue of animals by disposition – to identify critical correspondence with the animal attributes defined in the fable exercises. Polemon reiterates that recognizing “the gait, the voice, the movement of the eyes, and the nature of each animal” is essential to the physiognomic project (TK 3245, fos. 24b). Finally, I examine two examples of Polemo’s typologies of mankind derived from familiar fable creatures (lions and sheep) to show that physiognomists anticipated rhetorically-trained readers. School fables and sophistic physiognomy thus provided a zoological framework for “reading” the world of Roman men within the fixed and unforgiving categories of the “manimal” kingdom.