Forgeries in the Ancient World: acceptable or condemned practice?

Konrad Kujau – An infamous forger of Hitler’s Diaries

On the 28th of April 1983, the front page of the German newspaper magazine Stern published a picture displaying a ground-breaking message: Hitlers Tagebücher entdeckt (“Hitler’s Diaries discovered”). This news was brought to the public eye only after the distinguished historian H. Trevor-Roper confirmed the authenticity of the documents. But soon after the release, doubts began to emerge. Eventually, Hitler’s Diaries turned out to be nothing more than a modern forgery. The architect of this scam, Konrad Kujau, was captured and sentenced to 4 years in prison. The unquestionable reputation that Trevor-Roper had was forever shaken. However, forgeries are not exclusive to modern society. Since the act of lying is as old as language, forgery could be seen as old as the act of writing. In scholarly terms, this phenomenon is called pseudepigraphy – an action of illicitly impersonating another person in a text. To put it simply: if someone writes a document claiming the be another person he (or she) is writing a pseudepigraphic text. In this post, I’ll talk about the phenomenon of forgery opposing a presupposition that the act of forgery in the ancient world was morally acceptable. In contrast, I’ll show that it was conceived as a form of lying or deceit.

As a starting point, one has to look at the etymology. In the ancient world, two Greek words were usually used for the term pseudepigrapha: ψεῦδος and νόθος. The first one literally translated means “lie” or “deceit”, and from that comes the derivative ψευδεπίγραφα (false inscription). The word νόθος in the ancient world was connected to the children born out of wedlock who, due to that fact, had no rights. At this elementary level of terminology, one can see problems in concluding that pseudepigraphy was a morally acceptable category in the ancient world. Nevertheless, scholars are keen to this notion. A. Lincoln in his commentary of Ephesians notes that pseudepigraphy was a widespread and accepted literary practice in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures. However, a closer look at the available sources reveals a different picture. Ever since Homer, the history of western literary tradition is interpreted through concepts of individual authors and their relationship with their texts. In other words, there was a clear distinction between authentic works and those that were not authentic – a distinction that originates from the 5th century BCE. Events following the completion of large libraries in Pella, Antioch, Pergamum, and Alexandria vividly illustrate the position of pseudepigraphy in the ancient world. Hellenistic kings attempted to collect large numbers of valuable works written by famous Greek philosophers. Copies needed to be as old as possible in order to be closer to the author. Particularly notable was Ptolemy II (3rd century BCE) who was willing to pay a very high price for the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Inevitably, this attracted a number of forgers that attempted to profit from the naivety and ignorance of the king.

The first documented example of suspicion regarding the authorship of a certain work is found in Herodotus’ work where he, for example, openly questions Homer’s authorship of the Epigoni epic. Discussing the existence of a mythical race of giants called Hyperboreans, Herodotus states: Hesiod, however, mentions them, and Homer also in the Epigoni, if that be really a work of his. Based on the testimony of Diogenes Laertius, a Greek writer and philosopher from the 5th century BCE, Ion of Chios suspected that Pythagoras ascribed some of his work to Orpheus. Quintilian (a Roman author from the 1st century CE) wrote about the assignment that grammarians in Pergamum and Alexandria have set for themselves:

For not only is the art of writing combined with that of speaking, but correct reading also precedes illustration, and with all these is joined the exercise of judgment, which the old grammarians, indeed, used with such severity that they not only allowed themselves to distinguish certain verses with a particular mark of censure, and to remove from their sets, as spurious, certain books which had been inscribed with false titles, but even brought some authors within their canon, and excluded others altogether from classification.

A critical view of intellectual property is also depicted by the actions of the head librarian in Alexandria during the 3rd century BCE who is believed to have categorized books as authentic (γνέσια), forged (νόθα), and those with the questionable origin (μφίβολα, μφιδοξούμενα, μφιβαλόλενα). Although there was no legal system to protect intellectual property, the awareness of the importance of authentic work, as opposed to forged work, clearly existed. The Roman philosopher and physician Galen (2nd century CE) devoted an entire book to educating readers, without proper grammatical and rhetoric training, to recognize if they are reading his authentic work or a forgery. Ironically, Galen wrote this book in response to his encounter with two strangers who were arguing about the authenticity of one of his books. Another Roman author and a poet Martial (1-2nd century CE) complain about his work being forged: My page has not wounded even those it justly hates, and fame won with another’s blush is not dear to me! What does this avail me when certain folk would pass off as mine darts wet with the blood of Lycambes, and under my name a man vomits his viperous venom who owns he cannot bear the light of day?

The repeated disapproval of writers and philosophers concerning pseudepigraphy in the ancient world suggests an absence of any moral acceptance. Looking at this issue from the perspective of ancient people, the term “forgery” seems to be justified. Although there was no legal punishment for forgers, we possess information about the cases where forgers were severely punished. The Epicurean philosopher Zeno (5th century BCE) allegedly found and killed Diotimus, a Stoic, who slandered Epicurus by forging fifty scandalous letters in his name. A Jewish historian Josephus (1st century CE) informs us about an example of king Herod’s servant who forged a letter in the name of Herod’s son Alexander. When this was revealed, Herod had the servant killed.

As to the motives, there is much more to be said. What motivated people in ancient times to make a forged document or a text? No single cause could explain all the ancient forgeries, but the most common was to establish the validity of one’s views. Christian philosopher from the 6th century CE David clearly explains one of the motivations behind the phenomenon of forgeries: Whenever there was someone unimportant and insignificant, and he wanted his writing to be read, he would write in the name of some ancient and illustrious person, so that through that person’s credibility, he can get his writing accepted. Precisely this motivation can be seen with regards to Salvian of Marseilles – a Christian writer from the 5th century CE. Salvian admits that had he written his book in his own name, rather than in the name of Timothy, no one would listen to him.

So, in contrast to several modern scholars, forgeries were not seen as a morally acceptable category in the ancient world. Whenever they are mentioned it is in the context of a lie or deceit, punishment, and moral condemnation. Nevertheless, some scholars have found the opposite examples from the Greco-Roman sources that, in their mind, prove the theory that there actually were cases where the forgery was considered normal and acceptable practice. To those examples, we turn in the next post.


Still the best scholarly book on this topic is Speyer’s magnum opus: Die literarische Fälschung Im Heidrischen und Christlichen Altertum” – see here!

As to the English-speaking world, the best book about the forgery in the ancient world is Bart Ehrman’s study entitled “Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics” – see here!

1 thought on “Forgeries in the Ancient World: acceptable or condemned practice?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *