Barry Baldwin ~ The Old Dupe Pedlars

Reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter.

(titular apologies to Tom Lehrer)

“Imposture merges away into self-deception so that only relatively has there ever been an impostor”-Fort Books, p669.

The first classical hoax was Helen of Troy (below). Herodotus (Histories, bk2 chs118-20) believed she remained in Egypt for the war’s duration, Achilles and company spending 10 years fighting over a doppelganger, perhaps a phantom. Some scope for Churchillian cadences here – Some Chick. Some …

Persian king Cambyses should have been succeeded by son Smerdis. But he was dead. 30 the throne usurped by his physical double, one of the Magi. It worked for several months, until the fake Smerdis was detected by one of his wives who, taking her first turn in his bedroom rotation, discovered that he was earless, the result of a previous punishment End of usurper  – Herodotus, bk3 ch361-79. A North Korean solution – keep the dead ruler in official charge – might have been a better bet.

Upon his accession, Tiberius had Augustus’s grandson Agrippa Postumus liquidated in his island exile. Three years later, Agrippa’s slave Clemens masqueraded his late master and appeared in Italy to great acclaim – such impostures were easy in a world without photographs or television, An alarmed Tiberius had him arrested in Rome and done away with in the palace – Tacitus, Annals, bk2 chs3940.

After his ‘artistic’ suicide (think Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis?) and secret burial, three fake Neros appeared in regular sequence (AD 69, 79, 89) over the next decades, the last one being especially popular with Rome’s eastern enemy, Parthia – obvious chance to cause trouble: Suetonius Nero. ch.57 para2 Tacitus, Histories, bk2 ch. 8-9; Dio Cassius, Roman History, bk64, ch9 para3.

We ought perhaps to ask why the evil Nero remained so talismanic? Shades of those reported Hitlerian epiphanies after the War? Or Nero’s understandable popularity for (e.g.) lavish shows in Rome, rending Greeks all taxation and suchlike goodies?

At the imperial level, hoaxes went both ways. Suetonius (Caligula, ch47) says that the emperor dressed up slaves & prisoners of war to boost an undeserved triumph. Tacitus (Agricola. ch39 para1) levels the same charge against Domitian. I have read that this same stunt was pulled by the modern Caligula, Idi Amin.

In his own lifetime, Nero was duped

(Tacitus, Annals, bk16 chs1-3) by a lunatic Carthaginian, Casellius Bassus, who (claiming many previous successful manifestations) told the cash-strapped emperor that a dream had revealed to him the site of Queen Dido’s immense buried treasure. Hopes ran high, nothing was found, Bassus took refuge in suicide.

Philostratus (Life of Apollonius of Tyana, bk6 ch39) mentions a fellow who sacrificed to Mother Earth in hopes al excavating buried treasure – a tip for lottery hopefuls?

One of the thaumaturge Apollonius’s acolytes was a quack doctor whose come-ons (what spam he would nowadays have generated) included ads for love-charms,  lethal spells against enemies (what Kipling called ‘sendings’), and how to find buried treasure. All this seduced his young rent-boy Alexander of Abanoteichus into pulling off one of the biggest scams in ancient history.

Lucian, who finally unmasked him along with (strange bedfellows) local Christians and Epicureans,  tells the story in his Alexander the False Prophet. His rascally career (AD 150-170), in which he duped more than one high Roman official is attested by coins and inscriptions. Along with a freelance pop-song writer Cocconas, Alexander concocted his grand design, financed by a credulous rich widow. Planted fake prophecies, the cooked up public discovery of divine serpent, oracles delivered in impressive gibberish along with fake religious seizures, and the staging of godly utterances through ‘autophones’ (thereby anticipating The Wizard of Oz) earned him notoriety any modern televangelist would envy.

Lucian reports his comeuppance with undisguised glee “a most wretched death” from gangrened leg and maggots infesting his groin – a fate the likes of Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts unhappily escaped.

One Byzantine look-in (Agathius, Histories, bk5, chs6-8). Quarrelling with his Constantinopolitan neighbour Zeno, the famous architect-engineer Anthemius (designer of Justinian’s Hagia Sophia) contrived mock earthquakes and thunderstorms with contraptions of boiling cauldrons, elaborate pipes, and powerful solar reflecting devices to terrify his enemy into public flight and consequent embarrassment — strong candidate for  ‘Neighbour From Hell’ status.

Of course, if we believe the much-publicised allegations of Anatoly Fonenko that all ancient history is a medieval delusion, then everything in this column is itself a hoax.

Classical Corner 135: Fortean Times 273 (April, 2011), p. 19.