BMCR 2013.11.52

The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake: Latin Pseudepigrapha in Context

, The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake: Latin Pseudepigrapha in Context. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. x, 311. ISBN 9781107000735 $99.00.


Irene Peirano addresses a marginal but also curious group of poetic texts which she terms ‘fakes’: “texts which self-consciously purport either to be the work of the author to whom they are attributed or to be written at a different time from that in which they were composed”; the former she calls ‘impersonations’, the latter ‘chronological fictions’ (p. 3). As Peirano justly notes, in traditional scholarship “texts that […] are suspected of being fakes are taken into consideration only for as long as it takes either to rehabilitate them as authentic or to banish them from the canon as unwanted impostors” (p. 8). In contrast, Peirano aims “to build a case for the existence of the fake as a distinct literary type with its own internal rules and, in the process, to suggest new and profitable interpretations of texts that have been neglected and often poorly understood” (p. 31).

The Introduction considers the fake in the context of other kinds of spurious texts (and provides, at pp. 31-35, a detailed “overview of the individual chapters”). Chapter 1 sketches ancient attitudes to literary fakes. Chapters 2 to 5 deal with individual cases of (alleged) fakes (impersonations: the Catalepton, the Panegyricus Messallae, the Laus Pisonis, the Ciris; chronological fictions: the Consolatio ad Liviam and the Elegiae in Maecenatem). The Epilogue sums up the results and adds one more case study (the Helen episode in Aeneid 2).

Peirano’s material largely intersects with that covered in N. Holzberg’s edited volume on the Appendix Vergiliana 1 (to which Peirano’s monograph owes the subtitle). But, regrettably, two of its contributions directly relevant to Peirano’s own argument, that by M. Marinčič on the Elegiae in Maecenatem and that by G. Bretzigheimer on the Ciris, are not even mentioned.

One cannot but agree with Peirano that texts rejected as inauthentic often deserve more attention than they have been given and that it is beneficial to approach them as pieces of literature and to seek out their virtues rather than faults. Quite likely some of them are indeed fakes of the kind Peirano speaks about. What seems problematic is the actual set of texts chosen for analysis and, more fundamentally, the reasons behind the choice. Abstractly speaking, for a text to be considered a fake, two conditions are required: first, it must claim to be by a particular author; second, it must not be by that author. In a great number of cases, one of the two premises cannot be sufficiently demonstrated. As a result, a considerable portion of the texts Peirano discusses as fakes are more or less likely not to be fakes. For instance, I am convinced that neither the Ciris nor Catalepton 9 (texts I am most familiar with among those treated in the book) pretend to be by Virgil. The problem is not that Peirano’s view of literary fakes in antiquity may be incorrect (it is both sophisticated and illuminating), but that her method fails rigorously to distinguish fakes from other kinds of spurious texts. The decision whether or not to accept Peirano’s interpretations will largely depend on the reader’s a priori willingness to view a particular text as a fake.

Peirano’s discussion of the Catalepton is illustrative of her approach in general. In contrast to the traditional view of the collection “as a heterogenous mass of spurious and authentic material” (p. 80), Peirano postulates that the whole of it was written by a single author as a Virgilian impersonation. As Peirano points out, Catalepton 1 and 7, addressed to (Virgil’s posthumous editors) Tucca and Varius respectively, together with Catalepton 15, which is an editorial sphragis, manifest some sort of intentional design. But she over-interprets Catalepton 15.3 illius haec quoque sunt diuini elementa poetae : quoque “must surely imply that other Virgilian elementa were known to the editor(s) and the audience. The editorial sphragis thus presents the Catalepton as an addition to the corpus of other already familiar Virgilian iuuenilia ” (p. 85). On the contrary, this quoque obviously means “as well as the Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid ”, thus presenting the Catalepton as the collection of Virgil’s minor poetry. It seems therefore intrinsically likely that at least some pieces are genuinely Virgilian (supplemented with fakes either by the editor or through interpolation).

Peirano argues that the Catalepton is plausible as autobiographical fiction: “the pseudo-autobiographical poems […] provide answers to questions that were current in the reception of Virgil from the years following his death down to the time of Servius” (p. 105). For instance, the author of Catalepton 5 could easily deduce “Virgil’s involvement with philosophy […] from an autobiographical reading of a well-known passage at the end of Georgics 2” (p. 112). But if we know anything about Virgil’s life for certain from independent sources, it is precisely the fact that he actually had connections with the Epicureans (Virgil is addressed in a treatise by Philodemus2). Similarly, Peirano connects Catalepton 5 with Servius’ interpretation of the Georgics passage in terms of “the longstanding debate over the respective merits of the philosophical and country life” (p. 113). But the truth is that the conflict between poetry and philosophy in Catalepton 5 finds a much more relevant parallel (arguably a model) in Philodemus’ epigrams.3 Catalepton 5 looks plausible as a Virgilian impersonation precisely because it may actually have been written by Virgil. At the other end of the spectrum are pieces that evidently do not purport to have been written by the real Virgil; these Peirano interprets as exercises in the “exploration of the ‘what ifs’ of literary history”: “What if Messalla, and not Maecenas, had been Virgil’s patron (a scenario developed in Catalepton 9)?” (p. 95).

To recapitulate, the main methodological problem of Peirano’s approach is that she is more interested in the ‘genre’ of the fake (on which she makes many interesting observations) than in the individual texts she assigns to that ‘genre’. The question Peirano asks is not ‘What kind of text is this?’ but ‘Let us assume this is a fake, what can we make of it?’ The paradox is that while Peirano aims at a positive reappraisal of “authorially unstable texts” that have long suffered from the “policing approach” with its “almost legalistic tone of harsh moral and aesthetic condemnation” (p. 8), the classification of a poem as a fake often rests on conclusions obtained through such negative criticism. To prove, say, that a text is not by Virgil it may be necessary to demonstrate that it imitates post-Virgilian texts. As Peirano rightly warns, judgements on the relative chronology of two intertextually related texts “are oftentimes intertwined with considerations related to aesthetic quality, so that on the whole scholars […] are more willing to identify whichever text they deem aesthetically superior as the source-text” (p. 81). Yet in practice, Peirano only questions the negative aesthetic evaluation of the recipient text, but not its status as the recipient text (rather than the source text). For instance, “by relying on the methods of Prioritätskritik ” (p. 174), Peirano accepts a post-Virgilian dating for the Ciris (which is necessary for it to be a fake) – but in order to do so she ignores D. Gall’s detailed demonstration, based on the same methods, that the Ciris predates Virgil. 4

There are a few misprints: “ Interpretationae ” (p. 17), “Haephaestus” (53 n. 55), “as Richard Hunter as shown” (72), “Cecropica” (124), “sola Sophocleo tua digna cothurno” (127), “ satis requiescere ” (145 n. 76), “ De elecutione ” (171), “Smyrrha” (185), “ultos” (190), “ iniquiis ” (218), “ Perigetae ”, “ Vergiliane ” (311). There are errors in punctuation and diacritics. The use of v/u and V/U in Latin quotations is inconsistent, e.g. “ nouos et pravos ” (223 n. 47).

The review has mainly focused on the more questionable aspects of Peirano’s book, but, keeping all these caveats in mind, it is well worth reading. Peirano has a keen eye for detail, especially for intertextual parallels, which she interprets ingeniously. Everyone interested in the (unduly) unpopular texts that are the subject of this book can profit from Peirano’s close readings. Peirano’s discussion of the cultural background of the fake is both well-informed and original. ​


1. N. Holzberg (ed.), Die Appendix Vergiliana: Pseudepigraphen im literarischen Kontext (Tübingen, 2005).

2. M. Gigante, M. Capasso, ‘Il ritorno di Virgilio a Ercolano’, SIFC 7 (1989) 3- 6.

3. See e.g. D. Clay, ‘Vergil’s Farewell to Education ( Catalepton 5) and Epicurus’ Letter to Pythocles’, in D. Armstrong, al. (eds.), Vergil, Philodemus, and the Augustans (Austin, 2004), 25-36, at p. 35 n. 17 (absent from Peirano’s bibliography).

4. D. Gall, Zur Technik von Anspielung und Zitat in der römischen Dichtung: Vergil, Gallus und die Ciris (München, 1999). Whether or not Gall’s arguments are decisive is another matter. Peirano cites, but does not discuss, Gall’s monograph. ​