Barry Baldwin ~ Duplicity: Ancient Literary Lapses

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

(Titular honours shared between Julia Roberts and Stephen Leacock. For a larger repertoire, see Joseph Rosenblum: Practice io Deceive: The Amazing Stories of Literary Forgery’s Most Notorious Practitioners, Oak Knoll Press, Delaware, 2000; also Melissa Katsoulis: Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes, Constable, 2009.)

“I can draw to line between imposture and self-deception” – Fort, Books, p670, apropos fraudulent claims (1924) to have discovered the lost books of Livy’s History, updated FT135:24.

Reflecting upon early records, Thucydides (History, bk1 ch13) warned against their easy fraudulence. On another side of the coin, Quintilian (Institutes of Oratory, bkl ch8) quipped that it was hard to argue against books that had never existed.

Thucydides himself may have been a victim. His Byzantine biographer Marcellinus (para43) says the final book eight of his History was concocted either by his daughter or his successor Xenophon, ruling out the former because a woman was incapable of such a thing – don’t doorstop me, feminists, I’m only the messenger.

Diogenes Lærtius (Lives of the Philosophers, bk5 para92) says Dionysius “The Renegade” composed a tragedy, Parthenopaeus, passing it off as by Sophocles. When the philosopher Heraclides fell for this, Dionysius directed him to the verses “An aged monkey is not easily caught;/ He’s caught indeed, but only after a time,” adding “Heraclides knows nothing of letters, and has no shame.” cf. Jim Schnabel: “Puck in the Laboratory: The Construction and Deconstruction of Hoaxlike Deceptions in Science,” Science, Technology & Human Values, 19, 1994, pp 459–92.

This prefigures the trick played by Bevis Hillier on rival Betjeman biographer AN Wilson, sending him a fake letter from Eve de Harben” (anagram for ‘Ever Boen Had”), containing the acrostic “AN Wilson is a shit.”

Politics as well as personalities played a part. His biographer Plutarch (ch10 para2) says Solon inserted verses into The Iliad to enhance Athens’s early history. X the Unknown knocked out fake diaries (remember the Hitler ones that took in Trevor Roper?) of Alexander the Great to prove him a drunk. The Donation of Constantine (eighth-century) were invented to justify papal earthly authority.

A diary of the Trojan War by ‘Dictys the Cretan’, supposedly found in Nero’s time, took in some later readers, as did its counterpart by ‘Dares the Phrygian’. Mary Byzantines swallowed the theological treatises purporting to be by the New Testament character, Dionysius the Areopagite.

The Augustan History, ostensibly a collection of post-Suetonian imperial biographies by six otherwise unknown writers under Diocletian and Constantine, is now widely regarded as the work of a late fourth-century single ‘rogue grammarian’ (Ronald Syme, author of sundry books and articles thereon).

No shortage of gullible takers. Lucian (Against the Ignorant Bibliophile, para4) mocks his victim for this, while his contemporary Galen had to write a pamphlet On His Own Books to separate literary wheat from chaff, having stumblod on forgeries being flogged in the Sandalarium (Rome’s Charing Cross Road).

Innumerable other examples could be adduced (see Katsoulis and Rosenblum above, also Anthony Grafton: Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Deception in Western Scholarship, Princeton UP, 1990). For easy examples, the 17th-century Nodot fake Petronius fragment, the Ossian business involving Satnuel Johnson, Clifford Irving’s ‘biography’ of Howard Hughes, the Hitler Diaries – like Mrs Thatcher, I want to go on and on…

Of course, if we believe John Ross’s Tacitus and Bracchiolini: The Annals Forged in the XVth Century (London, 1878; cf. “G.G: The Edinburgh Review, 148, 1878, PP-137–69), followed by the French Hochart (1890) and the German Weiner (1920), not to mention Jean Hardouin’s 1685 contention that virtually all Greek and Latin literature was forged by medieval Benedictines, then we are left with little except what the Germans so nicely call Schwindelliteratur”,

Classical Corner 138: Fortean Times 274 (Special, 2011), p. 19.