Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.23 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.23

Edmund P. Cueva, Javier Martínez (ed.), Splendide Mendax: Rethinking Fakes and Forgeries in Classical, Late Antique, and Early Christian Literature.   Groningen:  Barkhuis, 2016.  Pp. ix, 369.  ISBN 9789491431982.  €95.00.  

Reviewed by Colin Whiting, American School of Classical Studies at Athens (

Publisher's Preview
[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Splendide Mendax: Rethinking Fakes and Forgeries in Classical, Late Antique, and Early Christian Literature is an edited volume containing 19 chapters about, very broadly, ancient fakes, forgeries, lying, deception, and so on. As such, it functions as a sort of companion volume to Fakes and Forgers of Classical Literature/Falsificaciones y falsarios de la Literatura Clásica, a 2010 volume edited by one of the present volume’s editors, Javier Martínez, and reviewed in BMCR 2012.07.20 by the other, Edmund P. Cueva. Martínez, with Isabel Velásquez, also edited a 2012 volume entitled Realidad, ficción y autenticidad en el mundo antiguo: La investigación ante documentos sospechosos (full bibliographic information available here).

Javier Martínez’s introduction to the collection starts with a bracing discussion of a papyrus scrap called the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” that Karen King had argued was a genuine Christian text dating to the 7th or 8th century; her presentation of the fragment prompted countless debates over its authenticity in journals, conferences, and internet discussion forums. Martínez offers very harsh criticism of King, stating that hers would be “a parody of responsible scholarship” (p. 5) if the fragment turned out to be forged. (It’s worth noting here that King is by no means the only scholar to face sharp criticism from Martínez in this chapter.) Regretfully, the chapters for this volume were written before an explosive exposé by Ariel Sabar was published in June 2016 for the Atlantic (available here) that essentially ended the case for authenticity; King herself said, “It tips the balance towards forgery.”

Martínez does not dwell on this subject alone, but uses it as a springboard for a discussion that moves between such disparate elements as ancient texts, early modern poetry, and the Book of Mormon. The basic premise of his introduction is that popular feminism (as reflected in modern novels, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code chief among them) and changing attitudes in society toward homosexuality explain recent scholarly interest in texts like the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” and the so-called Mar Saba letter (a letter supposedly written by Clement of Alexandria containing an alternate reading of Mark); modern tastes also explain a lack of interest in, for example, possible connections between the apocryphal Gospel of Peter and Petronius’s Satyricon.

Martínez’s chapter is intentionally provocative, but nevertheless serves well as an introduction: he provides a lively discussion and raises a host of interesting questions that could be asked of ancient forgeries and frauds, suggesting that debates over mere authenticity might be less interesting than the meanings and motivations behind forgeries and frauds in antiquity. The introduction ties in well with the subtitle of Splendide Mendax, which promises chapters concerned with “Rethinking Fakes and Forgeries.”

The chapters, however, concern a wide array of topics on deceit in general, with some only tangentially related to this theme, and only a few really attempt to engage with these broader, more interesting questions. Most are specific case studies of a specific text or, in a few instances, of a specific theme, and many do limit themselves to narrow arguments over the authenticity of particular texts. The absence of any dialogue between the chapters is also noticeable. For instance, Reyes Bertolín and Edmund P. Cueva both include very fine philological discussions of words related to “truth” and the role that truth and falsehood play in narrative structures; while both are strong as they stand, they could have also benefitted from reference to one another. Sometimes the lack of interplay is quite jarring, as when one reads Michael Meckler’s sophisticated attempt to introduce the use of modern literary theory into discussions of the Historia Augusta following the unquestioning acceptance of the Historia Augusta’s sensational Elagabalus account by Gaius C. Stern.

The chapters are broken into six parts: the Introduction, Classical Works, Greek Literature, Latin Literature, Late Antique Works, and Early Christian Works. The volume’s organization, despite this, remains mysterious. “Classical Works,” for example, seems to be a makeshift category for two chapters without an obvious home elsewhere, as one contains a discussion of Hebrew and other Near Eastern texts and the other outlines examples of Persian, Greek, and Roman imposters. Other chapters seem misfiled, as, for example, when Meckler’s aforementioned chapter on the Historia Augusta appears in “Latin Literature,” not “Late Antique Works,” while Kristi Eastin’s interesting overview of the illustration program of an 18th-century edition of Virgil appears under “Late Antique Works.”

The editing is generally careless, with typos and inconsistencies appearing regularly throughout the text. The reference lists are particularly prone to error, except for that of one chapter with no reference list at all. These mistakes do not necessarily impede the understanding of any chapter’s arguments, but readers must be careful (as, for example, when the word “alone” is conspicuously replaced by the word “along”) or be prepared to do a little extra digging (as, for example, when an author named “Weigall” is discussed at length under the name “Weigel”).

As there are 19 chapters, there is no space to fully discuss them all; suffice to say that their quality varies greatly, as is common in collections like this. Several chapters are either overly descriptive or overly speculative. While I would like to highlight some of the better or more interesting chapters below, the selection should not be taken to imply that all of the remaining chapters were poorly written or without value. Some of the aforementioned chapters are excellent, for example. Others, particularly Mikel Labiano’s discussion of the possible Aristophanic authorship of Dramas or Niobus and Klaus Lennartz’s discussion of Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, provide exemplary and valuable philological and textual arguments about specific works, but do not aim to address any broader questions about deception in antiquity.

Brian R. Doak treats the Near Eastern habit of recording prophecies after events have already transpired (the vaticinia ex eventu of his chapter’s title), the prophecies (mirabile dictu!) turning out to be very accurate indeed. It is easy and common to argue that these were fraudulent demonstrations of prophetic powers, or mere propaganda. Doak argues that these prophecies were instead demonstrations that their authors understood the proper flow of history. At the other end of antiquity, Argyri Karanasiou frames Clement of Alexandria’s use of Euripides within an ancient Greek tradition of “borrowing” content from earlier authors and reusing it. His discussion of Clement as a “legitimate forger” thus positions Clement as a conscious commentator on this longstanding tradition of “borrowing” while demonstrating that Clement was an active participant in it as well. Both Doak and Karanasiou make compelling cases and do exactly what the volume promises: take the idea of “fraudulence” and find unique ways of approaching it.

Valentina Prosperi’s chapter sounds like the kind of topic only an ill-informed undergraduate would try to answer in a handful of pages: “The Trojan War: Between History and Myth.” What follows, however, is a discussion not of whether the Trojan War accounts of Dictys the Cretan and Dares the Phrygian are authentic (they are obviously not) but the reasons these accounts became as successful and popular as they did. Prosperi nicely situates her suggestions, rooted in Hellenistic and later Greek historiography, within a brief theoretical discussion of genre as it relates to forgery and fraud. Jakub Filonik likewise argues that later accounts of trials for impiety in 5th-century Athens are largely fictional or at least fictionalized. Filonik’s argument is a disheartening one – think of how many interpretations of the history of fifth-century Athens are based in these accounts! – but demand full consideration and response. Like Prosperi, Filonik moves on from questions of authenticity (perhaps too quickly, though the space in a chapter is obviously limited) to ask why later authors would create these fictionalized accounts and how these would find willing audiences.

Andrew Sillet’s discussion of Quintus Cicero’s Commentariolum is in part a simple discussion of authenticity, but stands out for the quality of its arguments. Sillet does a very convincing job situating the document within the context of Quintus’s education and life and trends among Roman elites of the late Republic, and of providing interesting crumbs of evidence from within the text as well. While his final suggestion—that Marcus is the true Ciceronian author—is tantalizing, it remains mere suggestion (as Sillet himself admits).

Several chapters use questions of authenticity to address trends in modern scholarship, including Anne-Catherine Baudoin’s chapter on The Report of Pilate to Tiberius (which demonstrates adept handling of the text’s complex manuscript history and historical context) and Markus Mülke’s chapter on forgeries in Cyprian’s letters (where he makes a good case that Jerome may be disliked by modern scholars, but this does not make Jerome wrong when he criticizes Rufinus). Scott Brown, one of the most prominent defenders of the Mar Saba letter’s authenticity in recent years, gives an overview and scathing critique of scholarship questioning the authenticity of the letter. Brown perhaps spends too much space refuting the more outlandish criticisms of the Mar Saba letter’s discoverer, but the chapter is effective.

In sum, this volume never quite coalesces into a complete whole and the quality of its contents is uneven. It will be most useful to specialists considering specific texts or subjects, not as a standalone volume about fakes and forgeries in antiquity. That having been said, there are some excellent chapters that do fulfill the potential apparent in the volume’s subtitle and prompt one to consider fakes and forgeries almost as a genre unto themselves.

Authors and Titles

I. Introduction
Javier Martínez, “Cheap Fictions and Gospel Truths”
II. Classical Works
Brian R. Doak, “Remembering the Future, Predicting the Past: Vaticinia ex eventu in the Historiographic Traditions of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East”
Gaius C. Stern, “Imposters in Ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome”
III. Greek Literature
Reyes Bertolín, “The Search for Truth in Odyssey 3 and 4”
Valentina Prosperi, “The Trojan War: Between History and Myth”
Emilia Ruiz Yamuza, “Protagoras's Myth: Between Pastiche and Falsification”
Jakub Filonik, “Impiety Avenged: Rewriting Athenian History”
Mikel Labiano, “Dramas or Niobus: Aristophanic Comedy or Spurious Play?”
Edmund P. Cueva, “ὃ γὰρ βούλεται τοῦθ̓ ἕκαστος καὶ οἴεται: Dissembling in the Ancient Greek Novel”
IV. Latin Literature
Andrew Sillett, “Quintus Cicero's Commentariolum: A Philosophical Approach to Roman Elections”
Klaus Lennartz, “Not Without My Mother: The Obligate Rhetoric of Daphne's Transformation”
Michael Meckler, “Comparative Approaches to the Historia Augusta
V.  Late Antique Works
Anne-Catherine Baudoin, “Truth in the Details: The Report of Pilate to Tiberius as an Authentic Forgery”
Kristi Eastin, “Virgilius Accuratissimus: The ‘Authentic’ Illustrations of William Sandby's 1750 Virgil”
Luigi Pedroni, “The Salii at the Nonae of October:  Reading Lyd. Mens. 4.138 W”
Cristian Tolsa, “Evidence and Speculation  about Ptolemy's Career in Olympiodorus”
VI. Early Christian Works
Scott Brown, “Mar Saba 65: Twelve Enduring Misconceptions”
Argyri Karanasiou, “A Euripidised Clement of Alexandria  or a Christianised Euripides? The Interplay  of Authority between Quoting Author and Cited Author”
Markus Mülke, “Heretic Falsification in Cyprian's Epistulae?”
Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010