Fakes & Forgery in Classical Literature
Epic Fake? Forgery, Fraud, and the Birth of Philology
A set of epigrams in the Planudean Appendix to the Greek Anthology record the trope that even in antiquity seven different cities contended for the right to be considered the birthplace of Homer. Several are clearly inscriptions, no bigger than a couplet:
nn? p-lei? m-rnanto sof-n di? r-zan Om-ro?
The more flowery elaboration upon this lapidary couplet at 296 is attributed to Antipater of Sidon, and approaches a more modern conception of the epigram by making a vatic sort of claim on his own behalf in order to assert Homer’s own divinity:
Others, like 293, try to resolve the questions about Homer’s identity by ascribing authorship of the poems to Zeus himself. The overall effect is uncanny — to realize that the nexus of ideas relating antiquity to uncertainty, to fraudulent claims and rumor elevated to the status of fact, were already present in antiquity, and to some degree Homer’s value lies in that very elusiveness. By the time of the Noctes Atticae of Aulus Gellius, the seven birthplaces of Homer would even be depicted as a standard subject of learned antiquarian speculation — he concedes that “de patria quoque Homeri multo maxime dissensum est” (Noctes III.11) — and then Gellius’ catalogue of the cities differs from those in the Greek Anthology, suggesting that additional cities must have begun staking a claim even after it had already become a topos, or even a meme of sorts, that while Homer’s authenticity was guaranteed by his great antiquity, at the same time antiquity always brings with it the prospect of fakes and forgeries. It strikes me that the seven birthplaces of Homer are like a metonym for the study of classics altogether: for Aulus Gellius no less than ourselves, the claim is like an advertisement for tourism, an invitation into a kind of fake authenticity.
Yet even to us it is easy to speculate how some of the cities recorded could have staked a credible claim to authenticity: Ithaka, for example, is included on most of the lists, for reasons that would seem obvious. But to stake a claim for Ithaka would be necessarily to imply a tendentious reading of Homer’s own work, and a definition of epic, and what epic does, which mistakes Homer for Vergil. Of course, one of the traditional claims made on behalf of the cultural and aesthetic primacy of epic is that, within its vast scope, there is generally at least one moment to everyone’s taste — and in our own cultural moment, in which an informational revolution comparable to that represented by the Homeric poems, considered in the terms laid down by Milman Parry, a clear artifact of oral culture that would make the transition to written and recorded culture. In the ensuing decades since Parry’s thesis gained its wide acceptance, and with the birth of the Internet, we now have seen Homer atomized. Even the word “epic” has undergone a debasement, whose trajectory is precisely similar to that undergone by the word “awesome”; contemporary Hollywood has produced a generic film comedy entitled, flatly, “Epic Movie” (2007), whose genre is, unsurprisingly, mock-epic; in the same period Internet slang has introduced the term “EPIC FAIL” (derived, unsurprisingly, from a video game) as a term of mockery. It seems that in our own cultural moment, the proliferation of epic fakes is presumably a necessary adjunct to the possibility of real, agreed-upon authenticity.
Yet this is a cultural moment which has clear analogues with certain moments in the history of the classical world as well: by the first century C.E., the texts of Dares of Phrygia and Dictys of Crete were already in circulation, purporting to be eyewitness accounts of the Trojan war, one told from the standpoint of a Trojan ally, one from the Greek. At the very moment when the Hellenistic world was forced into accommodating encroaching Romanization, the forged version of the epic emerges. And after the western Roman empire had fallen, the texts would be translated into Latin and embellished with additional forgeries: the fourth century Latin text comes with an additionally forged letter to Sallust from Cornelius Nepos describing his discovery in Athens of the text of Dares of Phrygia:
Cornelius Nepos Sallustio Crispo S. Cum multa Athenis studiosissime agerem, inveni historicam Daretis Phrygii, ipsius manu scriptam, ut titulus indicat, quam de Graecis et Trojanis memoriae mandavit. Quam ego summo amore complexus, continuo transtuli. Cui nihil adjiciendum vel diminuendum reformandi causa putavi, alioquin mea posset videri. Optimum ergo duxi, vere et simpliciter perscripta, si eam ad verbum in Latinitatem transverterem, ut legentes cognoscere possent, quomodo hae res gestae essent: utrum magis vera existiment, quae Dares Phrygius memoriae commendavit, qui per id tempus vixit et militavit, quo Graeci Trojanos oppugnarent; an Homero credendum, qui post multos annos natus est, quam bellum hoc gestum fuisset: de qua re Athenis judicium fuit, cum pro-insano Homerus haberetur, quod Deos cum hominibus belligerasse descripsit. Sed hactenus ista. Nunc ad pollicitum revertamur.
This is quite charming in its way, but certainly not persusasive. But there is no other way to interpret the invention of these particular texts in this particular period than to understand it as a response to Romanization, or even just Roman tourism (if that is the word for the strange cultural victory-lap taken by Nero in the Peloponese). But the Romans seemed capable of approaching Homer, and epic, from many different angles — if we truly are in their position, then it might be worth considering some of their own approaches. By way of thematic introduction to this collection of essays on the issues of fakes and forgeries in Classical literature, I would like to think about the way in which issues of epic fakes and forgeries might be used to illuminate our own ideas of what constitutes authenticity. Nowadays we all know that “Homer” never actually existed: yet we continue to argue about him, or even her (in terms of one of the more avant-garde interpretations of the Homeric poems advanced in the nineteenth century, which attempted to prove scientifically that Homer was a woman).
As textual criticism of the Greek and Roman classics began to assert itself as a discipline (or at times even as a science) in the Renaissance and thereafter, questions of authenticity began to surface with increasing frequency in discussions of classical literature. Anthony Grafton’s article on “Forgery” for the 2010 Belknap Press cyclopedia on The Classical Tradition (which Grafton edited with Glenn Most and Salvatore Settis) gives a relatively solid and sober account of the various fakes and forgeries that were uncovered in what may now seem like a golden age of classical philology, yet the frustrating thing about Grafton’s account here (especially when he has been so illuminating elsewhere about the history of Renaissance scholarship) is that Grafton tells a relatively sedate detective story without ever really talking about the crime. A fake or a forgery is a theatrical performance, in some sense — since it is an artifact intended to deceive, it has a keen sense of its audience. (Sometimes too keen: the legendary forged Vermeers of Van Meegeren today strike almost no viewer as possibly authentic, because they lean in the direction of gratifying a buyer’s wish that Vermeers should be a bit more decorative, more in the style of Thomas Kinkade.) Grafton’s article gives no sense that — in early eighteenth century England for example — Bentley’s classical scholarship was the equivalent of our contemporary tabloid fodder, an occasion for gossip and snark and sneering denunciations of shoddy scholarship. Bentley’s exposure of the epistles of Phalaris as a forgery would have a profound effect on the intellectual and cultural life of eighteenth century England. Grafton does acknowledge Richard Bentley as Casaubon’s equal in establishing the historical philology of classical Greek as a sort of science, as the means whereby (in Grafton’s words) he “demoted the elegant letters ascribed to the tyrant Phalaris.” Phalaris himself in the classical world had first been a byword for the sadistic cruelty of tyrants, although being from the Greek colonies in southern Italy would then transform him, in a later tradition dating from the Roman empire, into a kind of legendary found of wisdom like Numa or Solon. Yet at the moment Bentley exposed the forgery, within the context already of Pope’s “Augustan” translations of Homer into rhymed English verse, suddenly vernacular mock-epic would become the defining literary genre of the moment, and Pope’s Dunciad and Swift’s Battle of the Books would use classical epic as a stick with which to beat Bentley over the head. The great irony, of course, is that The Battle of the Books is couched as a defense of the classics against classical philology, undertaken because Swift’s own patron (Sir William Temple) had just edited a new edition of the epistles of Phalaris, touting their authenticity. In other words, the great defenses made in this period of the authenticity of classical epic were done in the service of defending a forged work which now has slipped out of the canon with hardly a critical comment.
The abbreviated account of Bentley’s work in Greek philology gives some sense of Grafton’s overall approach. In trying to responsibly represent the birth of modern scholarship, Grafton shies away from representing the attractions of the phony, the lurid and melodramatic aspect which captures the imagination: his account of forgery in the classical tradition (and in The Classical Tradition) is like a biography of Al Capone which omits all discussion of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre to concentrate on the minute details of the tax-evasion statues under which Capone was ultimately convicted. Grafton is content to rehearse the relatively familiar tale of Casaubon’s investigation into historical philology of Greek could be used to expose a forgery which had been committed in the classical world itself: as Grafton puts it, “Isaac Casaubon proved, phrase by phrase, that as Porphyry had suggested, the dialogues ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus had not been translated from Egyptian but composed in Greek, and late Greek at that.” In other words, we have an authentic classical source already complaining that there was something inauthentic about the Hermetic Corpus, so why were later readers so easily taken in by the forgery? What is beyond Grafton’s purview here, perhaps, are the melodramatic tidbits familiar to readers of Frances Yates: the fact that early humanists from Marsilio Ficino to Giordano Bruno took the Hermetic Corpus very seriously indeed, that it inspired a sort of broad scale social movement, almost an attempted revival of classical religion, concerned with the idea of discovering a prisca theologia, a sort of fountainhead of religious truth that might be seen to predate Christianity. In other words, what Grafton neglects to mention is that Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for espousing heretical beliefs which he considered the Hermetic Corpus to have demonstrated, which included a revived Pythagorean or Platonic belief in metempsychsosis. If Porphyry could assert in the third century that Hermes Trismegistus was a fake, then what could possibly have motivated Bruno to have died, essentially, in defence of their authenticity?
Or to exaggerate even further the contrast between seemingly abstruse philological questions of textual fraud which nonetheless have noteworthy real-world consequences — what could be less significant than a textual quibble over a catalogue of names in the chorus of one of Seneca’s tragedies? What could be more historically significant than the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 which began the European conquest of the New World? Yet James Romm has noted the way in which textually fraudulent classical materials — a variant reading (most likely incorrect) of Seneca’s Medea, the forged correspondence of Seneca with Saint Paul — would be seriously considered by Christopher Columbus and Bartolome de las Casas as a prediction of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Columbus did not live long enough to see philology firmly enough established that we may confidently assert that Columbus’ text of Seneca, which predicted “Tiphysque novos / detegat orbes” — a new Tiphys (the helmsman of the Argonauts) would uncover new worlds — is corrupt; the reliable manuscript tradition has “Tethysque novos / detegat orbes,” where the revelation of new worlds by the sea-titaness Tethys sounds more like a prediction of the re-emergence of Atlantis from the sea-floor, or the birth of new volcanic islands pateat tellus Tethysque novos detegat orbes nec sit terries ultima Thule
Most manuscripts of Seneca’s tragedies give lines 377-9 as pateat tellus Tethysque novos detegat orbes nec sit terries ultima Thule
A small textual emendation, but it changes gender, swaps mortal for titaness, and implies an entirely different sort of act of unveiling or revelation. Scholarship does not view these two manuscript variants in the text of Seneca as anything other than a subject for scientific analysis, in order to be able to confidently assert which reading ought to be preferred — but the uses to which a forgery can be put are, of course, astonishing. Grafton again captures the details of scholarship without allowing us to glimpse the magic of the classical forgery when he discusses the early scholarship (in this case, by Lorenzo Valla in 1440) which would expose the supposed historical document from the Roman empire, the so-called Forged Decretals of Isidore including the Donation of Constantine, as a forgery. But Grafton does not mention some of the more sensational historical effects that regarding the Donation of Constantine as authentic would have: that it was employed as the legal justification whereby Nicholas Breakspear (better known as Pope Adrian IV, i.e., the only Englishman ever to attain the Papacy) would declare Ireland a possession of the British monarch. In other words, the real-world effects of this particular classical forgery can still be counted in acts of violence and social protest.
Obviously classical philology is not ordinarily, as in Giordano Bruno’s case or as with the English occupation of Ireland, a matter of life and death. Yet there is a strange way in which these matters somehow instinctively take on an air of high seriousness, most likely for the same reason why Bruno was put to death: the intersection of Greek and Roman classics with the foundation of Christianity. It is a very short step from textual emendations made to a garbled passage of Homer or Vergil to proposing similar changes to Holy Writ. Yet this overlooks the fact that, to a certain degree, Homer and Vergil had a status not unlike that of Holy Writ. Vergil particularly would be regarded as quasi-scripture at the same time as he was receiving his first critical and scholarly commentary: after all it is the Historia Augusta (that loose conglomeration of historical texts first edited by Isaac Causaubon) which records the practice of using Vergil’s text for quasi-religious divination, the sortes vergilianae, which was probably one reason why Vergil was able to be syncretically assimilated into the Christian middle ages, with an interpretation of the fourth eclogue which took it for an authentic prophetic miracle, rather than a set of accidental textual coincidences. The “Life of Vergil” which is attributed to Donatus encouraged such speculation by giving the name of Vergil’s father-in-law as “Magus” or “Magius,,” and by the time of the Speculum Maius in the twelfth century and the Gesta Romanorum in the late thirteenth century a tradition is well in place describing Vergil as a kind of wizard or sorcerer: in “De Perfectione Vitae” (Gesta LVII) Vergil is described as having built a magical statue that talks. Or what are we to make of the evidence of Vergilian centos from the later classical period? The Medea attributed to Hosidius Geta is a fake that managed to offer philologists a chance for an even greater leap into exalting the fraudulent — composed as a cento, which is to say, entirely of previously existing phrases from Vergil cut and pasted to create new hexameters, and in this case producing a clumsy Latin version of the Euripidean tragedy. The text proved irresistible to curious philologists at first, who saw the similarity between “Hosidius” and “Ovidius,” the historical evidence that Ovid had been banished by Augustus to the land of the Getae, and finally the record that Ovid had written a Medea now lost, and came to the conclusion that this must be the lost work of Ovid — only to discover that every word and phrase of the text is by Vergil, but Vergil did not write this Medea. But if Vergil is in some way a wizard, and if his work acquired some aura of Christian magic, what were readers then to make of the Cento Nuptialis of Ausonius? The formal preface by Ausonius survives, making it clear that the work is just a “ludus,” and moreover the verse is interrupted by a prose insertion apologizing for the most obscene passages, and defending the work with the claim that Vergil (presumably in the Priapeia, although Ausonius does not specify a locus) had composed obscene verses as well. We are, of course, working within a tradition now of Roman readers of Greek classics, and discover that the Romans had very different standards for textual authenticity than modern philology does — very few contemporary scholars take seriously the claim that Vergil wrote any of the Priapeia, although Priapeia LXIX provides exactly the sort of obscene epic burlesque that would excuse Ausonius’ composition. It is worth recalling likewise that the Romans believed, as we do not, in Homer’s composition of the Batrachomyomachia, the original topos for mock-epic in classical literature.
And it is here that we return to the question of “epic fake” — whether the sort of authenticity that has been credited to Homer is something that makes us shrink, or makes Homer shrink, or simply provides a sober warning about being too glib in the use of the word “authenticity.” After all, if we look back at the Batarachomyomachia — a work which the Romans considered to be authentic Homer, and which contemporary philology is most likely to regard as a forgery dating from the Hellenistic world — we can see that is own very opening is grounded in a complaint about the authenticity of those who compose epic poetry:
Reaching both ways — toward the traditional vatic invocation of a divine presence to grant authenticity to the words, while at the same time recognizing the wearisome exertions represented by the compositional tablets (? ) resting on his knee — this pseudo-Homer whom the Romans took for the authentic Homer is already at the position we are in, regarding fakes and forgeries in the classics. The spirit that may animate the fascination of a forgery may come and go, but the intellectual labor that went into it is always available (philologically) through the written text. If the author of the Batrachomyomachia is performing Homer en travesti for a learned audience in Hellenistic Alexandria or imperial Rome, and if the Romans took it for authentic, is there any value in allowing ourselves the immersive experience, and imagining the way in which it might be taken for real, rather than enumerating the philological proof yet once more as to why it is fake? And in any case, a tremendous amount of intellectual effort goes into fakes and forgeries: it seems a pity not to summon the equivalent amount in responding to them. The essays that follow represent a first step toward supplying fakes and forgeries with the kind of academic study that they deserve, and it is the hope of the authors that fakes and forgeries may be allowed to exert some fascination upon us, just as they did for the ancients.
Aulus Gellius. Noctes Atticae I. Edited with an English translation by J.C. Rolfe. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1927. Print.
Ausonius. Cento Nuptialis. In Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Ausonius I. With an English Translation. Cambrige, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, London: William Heinemann Ltd.;1919. Print.
Batrachomyomachia. In Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, With an English Translation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, London: Wiliam Heinemann Ltd.; 1954. Print.
Bentley, Richard. A Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris. London: Bowyer and Nichols, 1777. Print.
Dares of Phrygia. De Excidio Troiae Historia. The Latin Library. Accessed online 1 April 2011 at: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/dares.html
Dictys of Crete. Ephemeridos Belli Troaini Libri VI. Edited by Ferdinand Meister. Leipzig: Teubner, 1872. Print.
Grafton, Anthony. “Forgery.” In Anthony Grafton, Glenn Most, and Salvatore Settis. The Classical Tradition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2010. Print.
The Greek Anthology, Volume V. Edited with an English translation by W.R. Paton. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1918. Print.
Hosidius Geta. Medea. Edited with Translation by Joseph J. Mooney. Birmingham: Birmingham University, 1919. Print.
Seneca. Medea. In Frank Justus Miller, Seneca VIII: Tragedies, Volume I. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998. Print.
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