Tales of the Unexpected: Paradoxography, Fiction and the Culture of Wonder

Module titleTales of the Unexpected: Paradoxography, Fiction and the Culture of Wonder
Module codeCLA3260
Academic year2020/1
Module staff

Dr Sharon Marshall ()

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

This is a module for readers who love whodunnits, horror, and all things weird and wonderful. We will take as our starting-point the development in the ancient world of the literary genre which was devoted to the bizarre – paradoxography – and examine how this genre begins to inflect narrative fiction in the imperial period, producing a variety of strange and intellectually compelling works, from compilations of stories of wonder, such as  Phlegon of Tralles’ Marvellous Tales, to the sordid and magical adventures of the Roman novels (Petronius and Apuleius). Besides their obvious appeal, these texts offer us a unique insight into the ancient experience of fiction, and the (sometimes bizarre) intellectual tastes of imperial readers and their world-view. The module will also examine the dialogue between these fictions and their contemporary culture of wonder, including the world of the Roman amphitheatre and ancient avatars of the circus and freak show.  

There are no formal prerequisites for this module, but imagination, intrepid curiosity and a commitment to the transformative power of fiction are a must. 

Module aims - intentions of the module

To expand your abilities to examine fiction as a means for imaginative exploration of the ancient thought-world, and to examine the dialogue between fiction and its wider contemporary culture of intellectual inquiry and entertainment. Questions which will preoccupy us throughout include: Who read these texts and why? What questions do these narratives raise about their contemporary world – and about our modern world today?

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Demonstrate a detailed knowledge of a wide range of ancient prose fiction, and evaluate and discuss its significance
  • 2. Identify and explain the various theoretical approaches to prose fiction in the ancient world, and demonstrate awareness of the subject’s central themes and issues
  • 3. Demonstrate awareness of the extent to which interpretations of ancient prose fiction are shaped by changing modern concerns
  • 4. Demonstrate a good knowledge of the history and variety of scholarship on ancient prose fiction and an understanding of how this scholarship can inform your own interpretation of the texts

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 5. Identify, appreciate and engage effectively with different theoretical approaches to ancient texts
  • 6. Demonstrate sophisticated critical and analytical skills which can be applied to the analysis of texts and fictional narratives from any culture
  • 7. Demonstrate appreciation of the issues involved in using ancient texts as historical source material and relate texts to their socio-historical context

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 8. Demonstrate advanced independent and group study skills in research, critical analysis, and presentation of findings
  • 9. Demonstrate advanced ability to select and organise relevant material to produce an argument
  • 10. Demonstrate advanced ability to present a strong, coherent argument in both oral and written forms
  • 11. Demonstrate enhanced ability to reflect on your own work, to respond constructively to feedback, and to implement suggestions and improve work on the basis of feedback

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics: 

  • The genre of paradoxography and how this infiltrates the tradition of narrative fiction during the Roman imperial period, producing tales of wonder, horror and magical realism.  
  • Texts such as Phlegon of Tralles’?Marvellous Tales, Antonius Diogenes’?The incredible things beyond Thule, Petronius’?Satyrica?and Apuleius’?Metamorphoses


Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching221 x 2 hour seminar per week
Guided independent study128Independent study


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Outline of essay1000 words1-11Written comments and feedback from lecturer

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay1004000 words1-11Written comments, individual feedback in seminar, individual feedback from lecturer


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-10Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • S. J. Harrison (ed.),?Oxford readings in the Roman novel?(Oxford, 1999). 
  • H. Hofmann (ed.),?Latin fiction: the Latin novel in context?(London, 1999). 
  • N. Holzberg,?The Ancient Novel: An Introduction?(English tr., London and New York, 1995). 
  • G. Kazantzidis (ed.), Medicine and paradoxography in the ancient world (Berlin, 2019). 
  • I. Repath & J. Prag. (edd.),?Petronius: a handbook?(Oxford, 2013). 
  • G. Schmeling (ed.),?The novel in the ancient world?(Leiden, 1996/2003). 
  • P.G. Walsh,?The Roman novel?(Cambridge, 1970). 
  • T. Whitmarsh (ed.),?The Cambridge companion to the Greek and Roman novel?(Cambridge, 2008). 

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

Module has an active ELE page

Indicative learning resources - Other resources

Key words search

Ancient novel, fiction, paradoxography, Apuleius, Petronius, Phlegon

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date

December 2013

Last revision date