BMCR 2018.03.39

Collectors, Scholars, and Forgers in the Ancient World: Object Lessons

, Collectors, Scholars, and Forgers in the Ancient World: Object Lessons. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xv, 276. ISBN 9780198759300. $105.00.


Forgeries continue to fascinate. Numerous television programs about finding fake artworks and museum exhibitions that put forgeries alongside ‘original’ objects prove that we think their stories are worth telling. The forgery of texts and objects specifically from the Greco-Roman world has a long history, and in this monograph Carolyn Higbie takes us back to the ancient past and explores how Greeks and Romans thought about such fakes themselves. She has addressed some of the themes of this work before,1 and here her main aim is to situate ancient instances of forgery in a world of ancient collectors and scholars. Her interests are chronologically broad, and the work contains an impressive range of ancient examples. To overcome the possible generalisations that can arise from such a wide scope, her focus stays largely on specific individuals and their stories. The result is a sometimes uneven journey, but such is the terrain of a topic that, at its core, ought to make us question not only the reliability of our understanding of ancient texts and objects but also the notion of reliability itself.

In her introduction, Higbie discusses the multifarious nature of forgery and points out that ancient opinions on the topic differed just as they do today. Changing ideas throughout time meant that objects and documents that might have once been considered forgeries were reinterpreted as originals, some documents were the transcriptions of oral materials complicating the idea of originality, and some texts were misattributed long after their creation. She argues that these different possibilities should be seen on a continuum, echoing the terminology previously used by Peirano in relation to a similar problem [2]]. She broadly defines a forgery as ‘an object or document that is not what it is said to be’ (p. 12-13). As the monograph progresses, it becomes clear that what is ‘said’ about an object or document is often more important for determining its status than an object or document itself.

The work is made up of four thematic chapters most of which begin in Greece and end in Rome. The ancient material in each chapter is bookended by examples of forgery from later periods, from objects (supposedly) made from Shakespeare’s mulberry tree to a comb once thought to be five centuries older than it is. These attest to the relevance of this project, since many of its ideas have long, subsequent histories across different cultures and time periods. In future, it would be interesting to investigate the later receptions of Higbie’s ancient examples of forgery in order to know whether reactions shifted with new generations of scholars just as interpretations of Roman copies of Greek sculpture have. This would add a further dimension to the conversation about what ‘fake’ and ‘authentic’ mean, bringing the past into dialogue with the present and historicising our own interpretations of these ancient examples.

The first chapter, ‘Collectors, collecting and collections’, traces the history of collecting from the fifth century BC to early imperial Rome. Higbie cites the collections of powerful and wealthy figures seeking to prove their knowledge and erudition, as well as those accumulated in temples, which gave an opportunity for the public to do the same. Sections on various Greek and ‘foreign’ characters give her the opportunity to discuss a different aspects of collecting culture: Croesus not only adds to the collections of objects at Greek sanctuaries but also features in Herodotus’ work about objects that the historian claims had been deliberately mislabelled (1.51.3-5); Xerxes appears as a collector of people as well as objects as he conducts surveys of his forces; Aristotle collects ‘on a grander scale than anyone else before him’ (p. 44); and Alexander the Great amasses knowledge and objects from the lands he conquers in actions that Higbie calls ‘intellectual looting’ (p. 48). After a section on the forgery of oracles, the next part of the chapter is devoted to the Hellenistic-era rulers of Pergamon, whose collections Higbie sees as evidence that more interest was brewing in collecting the art of earlier ages. Several Roman examples including Cicero, the Julio-Claudian emperors, Pliny the Younger, and others are then discussed. The final section details the relationship between scholars, forgers, and collectors, who, depending on circumstances, could have ‘differing degrees of knowledge and culpability in the forging of fakes’ (p. 76).

The second chapter concerns itself with what Higbie calls ‘Visual Forgeries’. It begins with a brief introduction to how Greeks and Romans wrote about art and artists and follows this with a section on signatures, which summarises examples of the use of artists’ names on pottery and sculpture. The chapter also contains a discussion of ancient connoisseurship and sections on ancient interest in art from earlier periods, the place of famous Greek artists in Roman collections, and the ‘developmental view of art’ found in the works of Pliny the Elder and Pausanias.

The topic of the third chapter is ‘Textual Forgeries’. Here Higbie begins by exploring ancient references to the collecting of objects once owned by famous poets and compares how their names ‘carried an aura’ similar to those of the sculptors mentioned in the previous chapter (p. 142). Such links continue as she then turns to manuscripts that were believed to have been written by poets themselves, rather than copied by scribes. The following sections address stories of the detection of forged texts and the perils of making one’s text available to the public and open to alteration. Next are sections on methods of authentication, with the documents from Alexander the Great’s life and the Lindian Chronicle as case studies, and sections on legal documents and coins. The chapter’s conclusion comments that many of the texts and objects discussed here did not usually interest collectors and, as in chapter one, that scholars could be forgers or authenticators.

The fourth and final chapter addresses a subject that has already been touched on in the others: the forgery of texts and objects from the past. Beginning with antiquarians, the chapter then turns to specific examples: the Lindian Chronicle and its authors, Tharsagoras and Timachidas, reappear before separate sections on Mucianus, Pliny the Elder, Phlegon of Tralles, and Pausanias, where Higbie tells us about the different methods and interests of these figures. The rest of the chapter focuses on the Homeric world and its relationship to later texts, with Pausanias as the main protagonist in most sections, together with discussions on the Lindian Chronicle again, the Dictys, and Philostratus.

The book as a whole suffers from the way its sections have been organised. Higbie’s definition of forgeries, which I have cited above, leaves the topic open to too many examples for so short a work, and the chapter divisions between ‘visual’ forgeries, ‘textual’ forgeries, and the ‘forgery of the past’ have too many crossovers to prove useful. Another division of types of forgeries (exact copies, deliberate fabrications, deliberate misattributions, and honest misattributions, taken from an essay written for an exhibition; p. 125)3 unexpectedly appears in the second chapter. Subsections repeat information across and within the same chapters, making the whole effect somewhat superficial, especially since the subjects of collecting and scholarship in the ancient world have been covered by many in the past.

The most speculative of the chapters is the one focused on the visual. A large section concerns signatures found on objects or their bases and, since the broader topic is forgery, a worthwhile addition would have been a more detailed discussion on whether the term ‘signature’, with its modern associations with authentication, is appropriate in these cases. We could also ask what force such texts had as authenticating devices when most ancient objects do not seem to have featured them,4 and whether contexts of display had an effect on how much a viewer was concerned about knowing an artist’s name.

Another complication mentioned in the work is that of determining a maker’s motivations. With both objects and texts, this can make us enter the blurry territory between imitation, quotation, homage, and forgery. The slippery boundaries make the subject interesting, but how and why such labels have been attached to ancient materials by modern writers is something worth thinking about. Although throughout the work Higbie often leaves open to interpretation the reasons behind the creation of a text or object, she writes about the Piombino Apollo as a ‘deliberate’ fake (p. 127). She is not the first to do so, but we can wonder why modern authors see this archaising object on these terms, rather than as an example of the breadth of artists’ knowledge of older styles and their willingness to experiment, as well as of a buyer’s nostalgia. Without knowing original intent or ancient contexts of immediate or subsequent reception, the interpretation can go either way; the reasons for why this sculpture should be categorised in the realm of forgery rather than memory are not entirely clear.

Dealing with ancient references to forgeries rather than identifying them ourselves is easier because in such cases the ancients have done the detective work for us. Particularly interesting in this monograph is the discussion of Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ methods for determining the authenticity of speeches attributed to Dinarchus. Dionysius dismisses the work of previous scholars, determines the chronology of events, and attempts to use stylistic analysis. The fact that investigations such as these contributed to the development of literary and artistic criticism, and yielded scholarly production (since, for example, Dionysius provides more information about how he proved when something was fake than when something was genuine), is an important point about the place and value of forgeries in the ancient world.

The study of forgery is essentially the study of failed attempts because any successes make the act itself invisible. Consequently, to understand not only a culture’s methods of forgery but also its reactions to it is not a simple task. Higbie’s monograph provides a useful introduction to the topics listed in its title and gives readers a wide range of ancient materials to begin their study of this subject. Many deeper questions about the nature of authenticity and authorship in the ancient world are left open and, as in past works on the subject, the main issue remains one of definition. Nevertheless, since determining what is ‘fake’ and what is not has a newfound modern resonance, studies such as Higbie’s—which focus on how another culture tried to, or sometimes chose not to, answer that same question—can only help us along the way.


1. For example in Higbie, C. 2003. The Lindian Chronicle and the Greek Creation of their Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Higbie, C. 2014. ‘Greeks and the forging of Homeric pasts’ in Alroth, B. and Scheffer, C. (eds.) Attitudes Towards the Past in Antiquity: Creating Identities. Proceedings of an international conference held at Stockholm University, 15-17 May 2009. Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis. Stockholm studies in classical archaeology, 14. Stockholm: Stockholm University, 9-19; Higbie, C. 2015. ‘Cultural change and Greek perception of it: exegi monumentum aere prennius (Horace, Odes 3.30.1)’ in Gonzalez, José M. (ed.) Diachrony: Diachronic Studies of Ancient Greek Literature and Culture. Berlin: de Gruyter, 327-46.

2. Peirano, I. 2012. The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake: Latin Pseudepigraphia in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3. Johnson, K.C. 1973. ‘Fakes, forgeries, and other deceptions’ in Sachs II, S. (ed.) Fakes and Forgeries. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

4. Hurwit, J.M. 2015. Artists and Signatures in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, xvi.