BMCR 2021.03.48

The first pagan historian: the fortunes of a fraud from antiquity to the Enlightenment

, The first pagan historian: the fortunes of a fraud from antiquity to the Enlightenment. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 366. ISBN 9780190492304 $74.00.


Who, you might ask, was Dares the Phrygian, the first pagan historian of Frederic Clark’s title? A Trojan Dares is mentioned once in the Iliad; another one appears in Aeneid 5; and two more of them wrote about the Trojan War as eyewitnesses, long before Homer. One is a Greek poet mentioned by Aelian, who was probably invented by Ptolemy the Quail. And then there is the Dares who wrote a brief account of the Trojan War in which there is no Trojan Horse and Aeneas as well as Antenor betrays Troy. This text allegedly survived in autograph until the first century BCE, when Cornelius Nepos (as he says in a prefatory letter to Sallust) supposedly found it in Athens and translated it into the extant Latin text of De excidio Troiae.

Wars spawn memoirs, and the Trojan War is no exception. We know of four, including Dares. Two of them are long lost: Sisyphus of Cos was, according to Malalas, the first: he was Teucer’s scribe and one of Homer’s sources; Corinnus, according to the Suda, was a follower of Palamedes and wrote a verse Iliad (which Homer copied) in the Doric characters invented by Palamedes.[1] And the Latin Dares has a companion, the six-book Ephemeris belli Troiani written on palm leaves punicis litteris by Dictys Cretensis, a follower of Idomeneus. It was buried in a tin box with its author, but when an earthquake opened the grave in the reign of Nero, shepherds brought it to the authorities and it was first copied in Greek script, and then translated by one L. Septimius, who dedicated it to one Q. Aradius Rufinus.

Dictys’ Ephemeris is a far longer and more ambitious work than Dares’ De excidio; it is also in much better Latin. But Dares was far more widely known between the eighth and fifteenth centuries than was Dictys, although thereafter the proportions change and Dictys’ fortunes rose relative to those of his simpler companion. That is one of the problems that Clark acknowledges: in telling the story of Dares’ reception up to the Enlightenment, he is forced to pay ever less attention to Dares himself, and ever more to contexts within which Dares plays only a small part. In six chapters, bracketed by a methodological introduction and a conclusion, Clark recounts in generally chronological order a set of episodes in which Dares features, starting from Isidore (ch. 1), and including among other topics medieval Frankish chronicles and Geoffrey of Monmouth (ch. 2), poetic versions setting Dares’ account of Aeneas against Virgil’s, with particular attention to the twelfth-century epic of Joseph of Exeter (ch.3), Coluccio Salutati, Polydore Vergil, and Annius of Viterbo (ch. 4), sixteenth century catalogues of historians, including Bodin’s (ch. 5), and the remarkable confusions caused by the mis-identification of Joseph of Exeter’s epic adaptation of Dares as the genuine work of Cornelius Nepos (ch. 6). In his conclusion he discusses the commentary on Dares written by Anna Dacier and the place of Dares in the Querelle des anciens et des modernes.

Clark has done very good work in unearthing some impressively obscure books and scholars: I freely admit that before reading this book I had never heard of Joseph of Exeter, Gaspar Barreiros, Albanus Torinus, Johannes Spondanus, or Otto Heurnius, to all of whom Clark devotes considerable attention. More familiar figures, of course, also appear, but most of them—Geoffrey of Monmouth, John Dee, Casaubon, Scaliger, or Jean Hardouin—have cameo roles only. Dares, as Clark knows full well, is a minor figure largely noticed by equally minor figures, and long before anyone took the trouble to demonstrate in detail the inauthenticity of the text, intelligent readers like Salutati could simply dismiss it in passing as an obvious apocryphon. Clark’s Dares makes an appearance in a number of important controversies, not just about forgery or ancient chronology but about the construction of European ancestry and the interpretation and contextualization of Homer among others, but he has only a walk-on part: he seems to be a kind of Zelig of European intellectual history from the eighth century to the eighteenth. And while that makes a good film, it does not lend itself to a coherent scholarly argument.

Clark structures his book around a few themes, and from time to time he comments on how a given example fits into them: “The Phrygian played central—albeit very different, and perhaps even opposite—roles in two macro-narratives that we moderns have told about ourselves: the first was the triumph of criticism over forgery and falsification, and the second was the triumph of a disenchanted form of history over myth and fable” (25). Both of these seem to me to be straw men. Clark keeps pointing out instances in which early modern scholarship shares some of the characteristics of medieval ignorance or that uncritical acceptance of fakes—and indeed the making of new fakes—continues well beyond the time when we should have moved from darkness to light and from superstition to rationality. But does anyone still believe that the dawn of the Renaissance meant an end of inherited and uncritical belief? or that the Enlightenment put an end to darkness? or that the Scientific Revolution ended all that unscientific nonsense with one big bang? And surely no-one who has lived through the past five years or so in the United States can think that disenchanted history (or fact) has trumped fable. Dead horses like these no longer need to be beaten, and they hardly demonstrate the importance of Dares.[2]

There is a great deal to learn from some of the material Clark adduces (particularly striking is his account of how the six-book poem of Joseph of Exeter based on Dares became identified as the work of Dares/Nepos himself), but too many of his arguments seem strained or irrelevant. A statement like “Dares multiplied instances of pseudonymity” (120) gives a bizarre intentionality to the juxtapositions in manuscripts (and printed books) in which collections of texts are grouped or melded; his sense that anthologizing is a medieval practice that lingered seems oblivious to the fact that we still compose such collections for our courses—because they are always useful, they are pretty much universal in one form or another. Clark frequently points out the moralizing tone of critics who condemned either Dares’ authenticity or his language—but much criticism, whether philological or aesthetic, shares the vocabulary of ethics: if I call an argument bad, that does not mean I think it is immoral. What is more, most of the language Clark sees as moralizing is nothing compared to that of some twentieth-century critics: for true moral outrage, Housman’s prefaces and reviews are both more vitriolic and much more entertaining. Clark also seems surprised (248) by the fact that Vossius, even though he attacked Dares as a fraud, still included him as a relic in his encyclopedic De historicis Latinis; but he is still present, and still described as a fake, in Stephen Harrison’s brief article on him in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Works of reference, then as now, do not cancel fakes; they warn us about them.[3]

Over the course of the book, Clark identifies and discusses the major problems attached to Dares in terms of how they intersect with various intellectual controversies in early modern Europe, but he never quite pulls them together. Until perhaps the nineteenth century, the Trojan War was a real event; and for Eusebius and Jerome as much as for Eratosthenes earlier and Scaliger later, it could be, and was, fitted into a larger chronological scheme. In antiquity, it was a purely Greco-Roman scheme; for Christians, it was fused with the chronology of the world as established in the Bible, and the Trojan War took place however many years after the creation and before the birth of Christ. And given that the Trojan War took place, there is no a priori reason to dismiss as a fake a text claiming to be an eyewitness account: one can compare it to other accounts (Virgil or, when he became available in Western Europe, Homer) and question the accuracy of one or another, but the fact that one does not believe Dares’ version does not mean that he is a fake; perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge from Clark’s account is that almost nobody until fairly late in the game seriously examined the content of Dares or Dictys. What was difficult about the Trojan War and about Homer’s version of it is precisely what “Nepos” emphasizes in his prefatory letter: the Athenians thought Homer insane quod deos cum hominibus belligerasse scripserit. Neither Dictys nor Dares has any divine machinery: all battles are among humans, and while Dictys admits the apparatus of religion without the gods themselves, Dares has none of it: his judgment of Paris is just a dream. Whether Christian worries about pagan divinities moved either author is unknown; but the purely human character of Dictys’ and Dares’ Trojan War made their texts far more palatable in a Christian world.

What was questioned, and clearly pretty early, was the form in which Dares survived. Clark sometimes seems surprised or disappointed that various critics dismissed Dares as worthless or as a fake without argument, but they did so, quite reasonably, on the grounds of language and style, not content—and they were right to do so. Nepos, the alleged translator of Dares, is not really a great stylist, but he is capable of complex sentences and thought; the Life of Atticus is a serious piece of scholarship and writing. Dares, on the other hand, is immensely repetitive, has a very limited vocabulary, and writes simple and extremely boring sentences. One does not need to write a philological commentary to recognize the extant version of Dares as late, second-rate, or both—and so nobody bothered to explain what was obvious on even a brief acquaintance. In that respect, the epic by Joseph of Exeter that was identified as Dares’ work probably came as a relief: it is a far better piece of writing, and a whole lot more interesting. One might say something similar about Clark’s book: it is itself much more entertaining than its subject.


[1] I take my information about Sisyphus and Corinnus from G. J. Vossius, De historicis Graecis libri IV (ed. 2, Leiden, 1651) 428. On Dictys and Dares, see further below. Note also the moving comments of Edward Spelman, The Roman Antiquities of Dionysius Halicarnassensis Translated into English, Vol. 1 (London 1758) 219: “I . . . must now lament the loss of Sisyphus Cous, Corinnus, Dares Phrygius, Dictys Cretensis, and Syagrus . . . of whom the first four lived in the time of the Trojan war, and writ the history of it; and the last treated the same subject in verse many years before Homer.”

[2] An example of the dead-horse method: “Hence the story of Dares . . . ought to challenge the easy distinctions between the Middle Ages and early modernity. Specifically, it cautions us against reading the latter period as the Ur-moment of a modern classical scholarship that invented clear-sighted philology and broke from its credulous or uncritical antecedents” (180).

[3] There are also a few problems with Clark’s Latin. Hactenus ista (18) means “enough about that,” not “as far as these things”; primum omnium historiam (179, quoted out of its grammatical context) does not mean “first history of all”; verecundior (187) does not mean “redolent of truth”; and a mistranscription of Scioppius’ lutulentam as luculentam (241n.) exactly reverses his meaning. So too we find “Aristaeus” for “Aristeas” (236) and “Rutilius Ruffus” twice for “Rutilius Rufus” (281). More important is that Clark’s index is inadequate and the book has no list of works cited or consistent method of citing secondary sources: it is an easy book to read, but a difficult one to use.