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A Forger Fooled By Forgery

In my previous post I talked about my scholarly book on forgery (Forgery and Counterforgery) and gave some of the opening paragraphs of the Introduction.  Here I’ll give the very first part of the first chapter.  I wanted to start out on a light and humorous note, even though I was writing at a scholarly level.   And so I began with an amusing anecdote from the annals of ancient forgery, a case where a forger was intentionally deceived by someone else’s forgery, to his deep chagrin.


Heraclides Ponticus was one of the great literati of the classical age.  As a young man from aristocratic roots he left his native Pontus to study philosophy in Athens under Plato, Speusippus, and eventually, while he was still in the Academy, Aristotle.  During one of Plato’s absences, Heraclides was temporarily put in charge of the school; after the death of Speucippus he was nearly appointed permanent head.  His writings spanned a remarkable range, from ethics to dialectics to geometry to physics to astronomy to music to history to literary criticism.  Diogenes Laertius lists over sixty books in all.   Ten others are known from other sources.  Few texts remain, almost entirely in fragments.

Diogenes is our principal source of information outside the primary texts.  As is his occasional wont, he betrays much greater interest in regaling readers with amusing anecdotes than in describing Heraclides’ contributions to the intellectual world of his day.   And so we are told that Heraclides’s penchant for fine clothing and good food, which produced a noticeably corpulent figure, earning for him the epithet Heraclides Pompicus.

Of particular interest to Diogenes are instances in which Heraclides was involved in conscious deception.  At one point, Heraclides had fallen desperately, even, he thought, mortally ill.  Concerned for his post-mortem reputation, he entrusted a family servant with the ploy.  Feigning his death, he arranged for his pet snake to be placed, instead of his (not yet deceased) corpse, under the cover of the funeral bier; at the internment, those attending his funeral would take the appearance of the sacred snake as a sign that Heraclides had been bodily assumed into the realm of the gods.  The plot failed, as it turns out; the snake prematurely slithered out from cover during the funeral procession, and it was immediately recognized that the entire proceeding had been a ruse.  Heraclides was discovered, and, in the event, he was destined to live on, with more deceits in store.

This near-death experience is paired, by Diogenes, with an episode that did end Heraclides’s life.  When the region of Heraclea was suffering a famine, its citizens sent to the priestess at the oracle of Pythia to learn what they were to do in order to regain divine favor.  Heraclides bribed the envoys and the oracular priestess herself to publish a fake prophecy:  the Heracleans’ plight would be resolved when they installed Heraclides as royalty with a golden crown, and vowed to bestow upon him honors worthy of a hero at his death.   The citizens took the fabricated oracle to heart, but the falsity of the envoys and priestess were soon uncovered: when Heraclides was crowned as directed in the theater he was struck by a fit of apoplexy and died, thwarted in his desire for posthumous honors.   The envoys were stoned to death, and the priestess was later dispatched by a poisonous snake at her shrine.

Even at the height of his career, the Diogenic Heraclides was involved in scandal.  His literary treatise dealing with Homer and Hesiod was shown to be a bald plagiarism.  And he committed forgery, according to the musician Aristoxenus, who claimed that Heraclides composed tragic plays in the name of Thespis.   Richard Bentley was the first to argue that the few surviving fragments of Thespis are in fact Heraclidean inventions.

What Heraclides is best known for, however, is an instance of deceit in which he was the victim rather than the culprit.  This involves arguably the most famous instance of mischievous forgery in the history of the practice, Heraclides’s deception at the hands of his former student Dionysius (Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 5.92-93).

Dionysius Spintharos (“the Spark”) earned the epithet Metathemenos, the Renegade, in his old age, after a severe illness effectively disabused him of his life-long Stoic view that pain, which is morally neutral, cannot therefore be considered evil.  According to Diogenes, earlier in life Dionysius played a trick on his former teacher, by forging a play called the “Parthenopaeus” in the name of Sophocles.  In one of his works of literary criticism, Heraclides drew on the play, citing it as authentically Sophoclean.  But Dionysius then informed him that in fact the play was a forgery, perpetrated by none other than himself.   Heraclides refused to believe it, and so Dionysius brought forth evidence: at the opening of the play, the first letters in a group of lines formed an acrostic, “Pankalus,” the name of Dionysius’s own lover.

Heraclides insisted that the matter was a coincidence, until Dionysius brought forth two additional and yet more convincing proofs.  The first was a subsequent acrostic that said, “An old monkey is not captured by a trap; yes, it is captured, but it is captured after some time.”  The final acrostic was irrefutable: Ἡρακλείδης γράμματα οὐκ ἐπίσταται οὐδ’ ᾐσχύνθη (Heraclides does not know letters, and is not ashamed.)

Diogenes’s passage has generated some scholarly discussion.  In his edition of the fragments of the philosophers of the Aristotelian school, F. Wehrli gives reasons to think that it was not the Partheopaeus that was fabricated, but Diogenes’ anecdote itself.  The story may be humorous and clever, but for the acrostics to have worked, Wehrli argues, Dionysius would have had to be relatively certain that Heraclides in particular would be deceived and make a public display of his ignorance.

Wehrli makes a strong point but perhaps is not completely suasive.  Two of the three acrostics have no explicit connection to Heraclides; the other could just as easily have been placed in the text to satisfy Dionysius’s rather scandalous sense of humor.  If so, Heraclides just happened to step into a trap particularly suited for his corpulent frame.

In any event, this is not the only instance of roguish forgery from the ancient world designed to bamboozle an intellectual opponent.  Galen indicates that Lucian decided to ridicule a much beloved, but unnamed, philosopher whom he considered a braggart, and did so by penning an obscure and senseless philosophical treatise in the name of Heraclides.  He had it presented to his enemy for an interpretation.  When he complied, Lucian turned the tables, mocking him for being unable to see through the swindle.

More to my purpose here, however, is the pure irony of Diogenes’s own Heraclides.  In a game of intellectual boomerang, the one who is guilty of swindles, lies, plagiarism, and forgery – in a word, deceit — is himself a victim of deceit.  The deceiver is deceived.

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Different Kinds of Literary Deceit
My Book on Literary Forgery



  1. Avatar
    nbraith1975  April 22, 2018

    On the subject of forgery – I read an interesting post about the “Testimonium Flavianum” by Richard Carrier.

    Here is an excerpt and a link to the post:

    “No one can ever cite any expert opinion on whether Josephus mentioned Jesus, if that opinion was published before 2014. Why? Because so much new research has been published on the subject in the last ten years, that opinions published earlier were uninformed (the latest important findings were published in 2013 and 2014, but crucial new results have come out from 2008 on; and one from way back in 1995 that has been ignored until now). Anytime someone cites or quotes someone saying Josephus mentioned Jesus, ask them, “When was that published?” Because if it was published before 2014, it doesn’t count. It’s like that scientist who says no data storage lasts beyond a few centuries. Because he wasn’t up to date on his own literature.”


    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2018

      Yes, that certainly shows how his brain works.

      • Avatar
        Tony  April 23, 2018

        It is also the way your brain works as you rightfully questioned a reference you dated to 1904 as a result of my typo.
        Carrier legitimately identifies that recent publications, identifying the TF as likely an Eusebian interpolation, are being ignored in favor of older work supporting existing dogma. Specifically, he refers to work by Goldberg (1995), Hopper (2014) and Olson (2013).

        • Bart
          Bart  April 24, 2018

          Why does he refer to Goldberg, given his claim you can’t refer to anything that early? But you’re right, it does show how my brain works. My brain thinks that there are extremely valuable contributions made to scholarship made by scholars who wrote more than five years ago, and I’m willing to defend that view to the hilt.

          • Avatar
            Tony  April 24, 2018

            I won’t argue the point as your comments on the subject appear to be mostly driven by polemics and not context.

            Just started to read Price’s book about you. It seems more like a comparative analysis between you, other scholars, and him. It strikes me again that, based on interpretations and opinions, it is possible to bake any kind of cake you want from the available data.

            Did you read it?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 25, 2018

            I’m just saying that if you claim that it is bad scholarship to refer to any scholarship prior to 2014 and then do so yourself there is something wrong.

            Bob sent me the book and I”ve looked at it, but haven’t read it cover to cover.

          • Avatar
            CRoldan  April 28, 2019

            Bart Please debate Richard at some point. He is weird.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 29, 2019

            Carrier? No, I have no interest in that. He seems to think mockery is a form of academic discourse, and I have better things to do with my life!

        • Avatar
          EchoRomeo  May 11, 2018

          Tony, that’s typical Richard playing the victim of “no one pays attention to his views”. It’s really a conspiracy theory that scholars are purposely ignoring his arguments. Most scholars do not have time to be berated by a little man with a blog who calls everyone who disagrees “delusional, known liars, incompetent,”. He accuses people who have critiqued his book by saying they haven’t really read it. Richard thinks that any fringe view that he agrees with are the ones that must be correct, but are ignored. There is no reason for Josephus scholars to be afraid of his work or any others who are writing against the consensus. Please do not accept Richard’s narcissism/inflated sense of importance as a way of his history being right. Read the arguments he makes. Anyone can pick at arguments, but historians do history. They base on probabilities. They don’t throw away history because there are “strange” things in it. He is clever and witty, but really his whole case is based on his own militant anti-theistic presuppositions

      • Avatar
        EchoRomeo  May 11, 2018

        Conveniently that is that same time frame when Richard wrote his book. Richard has this idea that every “peer-reviewed” article he produces are ending debates.(Funny that he had to go back to the 1970s to find a few fringe scholars who supported his view on interpolation.) His work on Tacitus and the Josephus’ passage on James is atrocious.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  April 22, 2018

    One of the reasons it can be hard to tell fact from fiction is that humans enjoy drama so much. Feeling real life is too drab and predictable, they dress it in finery–whether by making up grand stories–or living them out, stage-managing their own lives.

    But what really happened can, even without such manipulations, sound like an implausible fable. And then the person recounting strange events will be competing with actual fabrications with regards to arranging and presenting the known facts. Life imitates Art, and vice versa. The worst crime, after all, is to be dull.

  3. Avatar
    ask21771  April 23, 2018

    How do we know the methodology by which the new testament canon was forged

    • Bart
      Bart  April 23, 2018

      To see if an alleged author actually wrote a particular book, you look to see if the vocabulary, writing style, points of view, presupposed historical context, and so on fit in with what we know of the author otherwise. One issue with the writings of the NT in particular is whether someone like a lower-class rural day-laborer like Peter or James could write at *all*. My view: almost certainly NOT!

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