I want to start today by thanking David Bradbury for calling to my attention an astonishing medieval account of the discovery of Pallas’s body that is believed to be completely independent of and nearly contemporary with that of William of Malmesbury that I discussed yesterday. The text, from an untitled manuscript on ancient history known conventionally as the Status imperii Iudaici, dates from between 1137 and 1170 and contains bizarre details that are certainly worthy of mention. Since the text, which varies a bit among the five extant manuscripts, appears never to have been published in English—and indeed isn’t even mentioned in the scholarly cross-references on the various accounts of the discovery of Pallas’s corpse—it’s worth translating and quoting in full. The passage appears at 1.17:
Romulus, after he had grown up, built the city of Rome, having imposed upon it his own name as its name. In this very place there had been an ancient town, which was called Pallanteus, as the historians say, built by King Evander, in honor of his son, the young man Pallas, who was killed by Turnus, the son of Daunus, king of the Tuscans, while fighting against Aeneas for the kingdom of Italy, as Virgil writes in the tenth book of the Aeneid (10.439-609). It is evident that Pallas had been buried in the place where Rome was later founded. And in the time of Philip, king of the Franks (Philip I of France, 1052-1108), his body was found uncorrupted in Rome, in a kind of underground vault, as some of our compatriots who were then at Rome bear witness. Moreover, the body was preserved with balm and precious aromatic salts, having as its source the top of a pair of bronze (variant: silver) urns similarly filled with balm. And from each a hollow tube of the same metal, which entered the body through the nostrils, transported the powerful spices into the body. Thus the fact is that he looked like one asleep lying atop a table of bronze, remaining uncorrupted for more than two thousand years. Here a lamp was found still burning, along with much silver and gold, and an inscription of this kind: “Here lies, according to his custom, Pallas, the son of Evander, whom the spear of the knight Turnus killed.”
I have no idea what to make of it. Many of the elements have Classical precedents, but the nose tubes are certainly a new one on me, but not to medieval people. The details closely parallel the description of Hector’s tomb in the Old French Le Roman de Troie, in which Priam builds for the dead hero Hector a golden mausoleum and preserves his body with aromatic spices pumped into the body through golden tubes. His tomb also features an eternal flame. The same description occurs in Guido delle Colonna’s Historia destructionis Troiae and all the medieval poems derived from one or both of these. E. R. Truitt, writing in Medieval Robots, suggested that such descriptions derived from medieval automata—moving statues—and efforts to preserve the bodies of the saints. Embalming techniques were in their infancy, but did exist. Whether this is the real solution is beyond my scope, but the key text, the Roman de Troie of Benoit de Saint Maure was published between 1155 and 1160—just about the same time that the Status author applies the same description to the tomb of Pallas. That can’t be a coincidence. The magical embalming would also be attributed to the body of Teuthras in Joseph of Exeter’s Antiocheis 4.451.
I imagine that should sufficiently establish that the Status’s account is unlikely to be true, but who first came up with the claim I could not say. The embalming method must have some tenth or eleventh century origin, perhaps as Truitt suggests, from Catholic corpse preservation efforts, though I simply don’t know enough about that to say for sure. I wonder, though, if the claim doesn’t derive in a backhanded way from medieval Arabic descriptions of Egyptian mummies and the canopic jars, which were suspiciously similar in discussing perfectly preserved bodies in stone coffins with jars or basins of aromatic compounds beside them. Such tales were perhaps filtered through Byzantine or Syriac sources, but I don’t know since I am no expert in medieval literature, and Romedio Schmitz-Esser wrote in a recent academic article that the history of medieval European awareness of Arabic knowledge of mummies and embalming is largely unknown and unstudied. According to Schmitz-Esser, Arabic writings on embalming techniques had just begun to spread in Europe at just about precisely the same time Benoit and the author of the Status described the embalming of Hector and Pallas. Gerard of Cremona offered, for example, a Latin translation of a Persian treatise of Ar-Razi, though it was perhaps not circulated until after out texts. Nevertheless, the Crusades likely diffused accounts of embalming and mummification back to Europe, which in turn seem to have manifested in our texts.
But to continue on the theme of giant bodies, I found a particularly bizarre problem while trying to trace back a claim for a different Classical hero’s corpse. A Victorian man named Edward J. Wood wrote a book called Giants and Dwarves in which he made a number of claims about the discovery of giant skeletons. In trying to find the sources for these, I discovered that Wood was a plagiarist, and he lifted whole chunks of his discussion verbatim from an 1804 article on giants from Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, which in turn was none too careful about providing clear and checkable references. Thus, we find that Wood and Kirby give the following passage with only a few words changed:
Phlegenitral assures us, in his work De Mirabilis et Longaevis, that in the famous cavern of Diana, in Dalmatia, many bodies of the length of six yards were discovered. He likewise tells us that the Carthaginians, when sinking their trenches, met with two coffins, each containing the skeleton of a giant. The length of one was twenty-three cubits, and of the other twenty-four cubits. He adds, that in the Cimmerian Bosphorus an earthquake brought to light several huge bones, which being arranged formed an enormous human skeleton twenty-four cubits in length.
Turns out that “Phlegenitral” isn’t the author’s actual name but some weird abbreviation. Kirby is referring to the ancient historian Phlegon Trallianus (Phlegon of Tralles), who wrote On Marvels and On Long-Lived People, known collectively as the Opuscula de mirabilis et longaevis. In On Marvels Phlegon devotes eight chapters (11-19) to an inventory of gigantic bones. In chapter 11, there is an interesting parallel to today’s accounts of giants with double rows of teeth. This is my translation, given for reasons I’ll explain right after:
11. In Messina not many years ago, as Apollonius says, a jar of stone broke from the force of a storm and the inundation of much water, and from the broken jar there came forth a head three times human size, having two rows of teeth. When they tried to find out whose it was, it was revealed by an inscription. This was the inscription: IDAS. And so at public expense the Messinans devoutly prepared another jar, and they replaced the head of the hero within, and they carefully paid homage to this hero, whom they perceived to be the man of whom Homer wrote: “Idas, strongest of mortal men at that time, who for the sake of a beautiful nymph shot an arrow against Phoebus” (Illiad 9.558-960)
This passage has a very strange translation history; from antiquity down to the early twentieth century, the words were translated as I have given them, with the head understood to be three times human size. They so appear in eighteenth and nineteenth century academic treatises and in the Latin text of the Fragmenta historicorum graecorum. More recently, though, scholars have changed their tune, though I am at a loss as to why since the words haven’t changed. The key word is the Greek τριπλασίων, meaning “threefold” or “triple,” or “three times as great.” In Aristophanes’ Knights, for example, at line 285 the same word is used to indicate magnitude: “I’ll shout three times louder than you.” Polybius, in the Histories 3.107 similarly uses the word to mean “three times as great.” In the past, Phelgon’s usage was interpreted as referring to size, but now it is seen as numeric. In 1996, the standard translation of William Hansen called it “the triple head of a human body. It had two sets of teeth.” In his notes he expressed bafflement as to why Idas would have three heads. Adrienne Mayor also gives part of Hansen’s translation of these passages in her First Fossil Hunters, but her paraphrase of the key line states that there were three skulls, but only two jaws. Graham Anderson similarly translates the phrase as “threefold” and says that one skull had three jaws. Roger D. Woodard, in the Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, splits the differences and translates it as a “triple head.” While there is some ambiguity in the language, the context makes quite clear to me that this wasn’t seen as a monster but as a giant, so it would seem size rather than form was indicated.
But enough philology. Let’s see what else Phlegon has to say. I have placed the complete translation of T. Thomas, to which I have affixed the standard chapter numbers, on my Fragments on Giants page, but there are a few interesting passages that suggest the discovery of mammoth or other megafauna bones mistaken for those of giants:
12. In Dalmatia, too, in that which is called the cavern of Artemis, many bodies may be seen, whose ribs exceed sixteen cubits.
Note the similarities of 17 to the discovery of Pallas’s body at Rome in medieval literature. It was certainly a trend!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.