Alexander the Paphlagonian (ca. second
century C.E.)
The oracle of Abonotica, an obscure Paphlagonian town,
who for nearly twenty years held absolute supremacy in the empirical
art. Born about the end of the second century, a native
of Abonotica, he possessed little in the way of worldly wealth.
His sole capital consisted in his good looks, fine presence, exquisite
voice, and certain talent for fraud, which he was soon to
profit from in an extraordinary manner. His idea was to institute
a new oracle, and he chose Chalcedon as a suitable place
to begin operations. Finding no great encouragement there, he
spread a rumor to the effect that Apollo and his son Aesculapius
intended shortly to take up residence at Abonotica. The
rumor at length reached the ears of his fellow townsmen, who
promptly set to work making a temple for the gods. The way
was thus prepared for Alexander, who proceeded to Abonotica,
diligently advertising his skill as a prophet, so that on his arrival
people from many neighboring towns consulted him, and his
fame soon spread as far as Rome. We are told that the Emperor
Aurelius himself conferred with Alexander before undertaking
an important military enterprise.
Lucian gives a possible explanation of the Paphlagonian
prophet’s remarkable popularity. Alexander, he says, came in
the course of his early travels to Pella in Macedon, where he
found a unique breed of serpents, large, beautiful, and so tame
and harmless that they were allowed by the inhabitants to enter
their houses and play with children. A plan took shape in his
brain that would help him attain the fame he craved. Selecting
the largest and finest specimen of the Macedonian snakes that
he could find, he carried it secretly to his destination. The temple
that the credulous natives of Abonotica had raised to Apollo
was surrounded by a moat, and Alexander, ever ready to seize
an opportunity wherever it presented itself, emptied a goose
egg of its contents, placed within the shell a newly hatched serpent,
and sunk it in the moat. He then informed the people
that Apollo had arrived. Making for the moat with all speed,
followed by a curious multitude, he scooped up the egg, and in
full view of the people, broke the shell and exposed to their admiring
eyes a little, wriggling serpent. When a few days had
elapsed, he judged the time ripe for a second demonstration.
Gathering together a huge crowd from every part of Paphlagonia,
he emerged from the temple with the large Macedonian
snake coiled about his neck. The head of the serpent was concealed
under the prophet’s arm, and an artificial head, somewhat
resembling that of a human being, allowed to protrude.
The assembly was astonished to find that the tiny serpent of a
few days ago had already attained such remarkable proportions
and possessed the face of a human being, and they appeared
to have little doubt that it was indeed Apollo come to Abonotica.
By means of ingenious mechanical contrivances, the serpent
was apparently made to reply to questions put to it. In other
cases sealed rolls containing the questions were handed to the
oracle and returned with the seals intact and an appropriate
answer written inside.
His audacity and ready invention enabled Alexander to impose
at will upon the credulous people of his time, and these,
combined with a strong and attractive personality, won and
preserved for him his remarkable popularity, as they have done
for other ‘‘prophets’’ before and since.

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