Today I would like to present a case study in fraud. The story is that of Friedrich Wagenfeld (1810-1846), one of the most daring forgers in the history of the Classics. At the age of 25, Wagenfeld undertook to deceive the world into believing he had discovered the lost work of the Phoenician historian Sanchuniathon (also transliterated as Sanchoniathon), whose Phoenician History exists only in the fragments preserved by Eusebius. After the brazen forgery—which fooled some of the leading Classicists of Germany—Wagenfeld went on to some minor acclaim as a folklorist in Bremen, though his most famous stories, such as the “History of the Seven Lazy Brothers” (commemorated in Bremen to this day), were later found to be fictitious. He descended into alcoholism and died at the age of 36.
The following chapter chronicling Wagenfeld’s forgery comes from James Anson Farrer’s Literary Forgeries (1907), and the author makes an important point at the end about the ease with which historiography can be corrupted.
A GERMAN FORGER: FRIEDRICH WAGENFELD.
A breast of triple brass must be his who ventures on an imposition with the learned world in Germany. Yet this boldness must be placed to the credit of Wagenfeld, who in his twenty-fifth year (1835) tried to palm off on his contemporaries a work which, had it only been genuine, would have constituted the greatest historical discovery of the nineteenth century.
Wagenfeld had been a student of theology and philosophy at Gottingen for four years (1829-1832), and in the course of his studies had doubtless become acquainted with the Evangelica Praeparatio of Eusebius. In the first book of this work are somewhat copious extracts from Porphyry’s lost work against the Christians, containing passages from an alleged Greek translation by Philo Byblius of the nine books of the history composed by the Phenician Sanchoniathon.
Sanchoniathon (whose name meant the Lover of Truth) had, in a time before the Trojan War, collected all the ancient history of Phenicia from monuments supplied by its several towns, and had related with the greatest exactitude all that related to the Jews from the memoirs of the priest Jerombal. This history had been dedicated to Abibal, King of Berytus, and after examination by alleged competent judges accepted as true. It was this history which Philo Byblius had translated from Phenician into Greek.
Eusebius quotes extracts from Philo’s preface to the first book of his translation, telling how Sanchoniathon had studied the writings of Taautos, the inventor of letters, and the secret writings of the Ammonians; and then gives several most interesting pages about the cosmogony and theology of the Phenicians. But there is unfortunately nothing more in Eusebius of Sanchoniathon’s history.
Here therefore was a gap in the history of the world that sorely needed closing up. What would the world not give to know more about the early history of that great and mysterious Phenician race? What would it not give to possess again in its entirety the lost books of Philo’s translation of Sanchoniathon (assuming that such a work had ever existed). And in the thirties of the last century the researches of the learned Gesenius at Gottingen had renewed public interest in the history of Phenicia.
What finer opportunity could have been offered to a man of vivid imagination and of irreproachable Greek scholarship? But imagine a young man of twenty-five not quailing before the task of reproducing in Greek the lost books of Philo’s translation adapted to the model of the few pages in Greek preserved of Philo in Eusebius. Yet it was no less a task than this to which young Wagenfeld addressed himself: surely one of the boldest literary labours ever undertaken. And, if anything could have justified the attempt, it was the ability displayed in it.
Wagenfeld appears to have begun his assault on German credulity by a letter to G. H. Pertz, the celebrated historian, dated 18th October, 1835, purporting to have come from Oporto, from a certain John Pereiro, knight. It was written in Latin, and told how in the monastery of Santa Maria de Merinhao, situated between the rivers Duero and Minho, the complete nine books of Philo’s translation, of which Eusebius had only preserved the imperfect remains of one, had been found in a perfect state. The writer begged that the learned world should be acquainted with news of the discovery. On 30th October, 1835, the Hanover Zeitung announced it.
This was followed by a second Latin letter from Pereiro to Wagenfeld in November of the same year, purporting to send the MS., but asking him not to publish it at present, except in an epitome, and to show the Greek MS. to no one. The reason was, that the happy finder was at some difference with the monks, who, willing at first to let Pereiro have the MS. for a mere trifle, had raised their price to £50. But this letter was signed Pereira, not Pereiro.
Wagenfeld’s connexion with Pereiro was supposed to have been made through Pereiro’s nephew, who was said to have resided at Bremen during the summer of 1835 and to have helped Wagenfeld to learn Portuguese. What then more natural than for the nephew to inform Wagenfeld of his uncle’s wonderful discovery, or for the uncle, on his nephew’s advice, to send Wagenfeld the work? The MS. had been found not in the library of the cloister, but in a box in a cupboard of the room in which Pereiro chanced to be lodging. Three other MSS., afterwards corrected by the uncle to thirteen, had also been found in the same wonderful box.
These facts appeared in a letter to the publishing firm of the brothers Hahn at Hanover, dated 16th January, 1836. Wagenfeld’s first letter to them, suggesting the publication of the more important parts of the discovered translation, was dated 20th December, 1835, and was signed Wilde. In a subsequent letter, when he had succeeded in persuading the learned Oriental scholar G. L. Grotefend to write a preface to his epitome of Sanchoniathon, he excused himself for having used his mother’s name for a pseudonym ; he could not find it in his conscience to let “the worthy Director Grotefend” sign his name to a work issued pseudonymously. And in another letter of January, whilst expressing regret that the injunctions of Pereiro prevented him from sending Grotefend the Greek MS., he alluded to his readiness to send him two other MSS., if Grotefend was interested in mediaeval literature. One of these was a copy of the Sachsenspiegel in Low German of the fourteenth century; the other was a hymn to the Virgin by “poor Conrad”.
It appears from a letter to Grotefend himself of 27th February, 1836, that the first of these was actually sent to him by Wagenfeld. He sent it as a sign of his gratitude for the kind reception Grotefend had vouchsafed to his Phenician discovery. Was it one of the thirteen MSS. found in the same box with the Philo Byblius? In that case it looks as if Wagenfeld had contemplated a whole series of forgeries to follow the one already in hand; but his memory is so heavily burdened with the forgery he accomplished that those which never emerged from conception may be suffered to lie lightly upon him.
By the middle of April Grotefend was in possession of Wagenfeld’s epitome, together with a short facsimile of the clearly preserved Greek original. The preface he wrote is dated 24th May, 1836, and its connexion with the “Early History of the Phenicians” (Urgeschichte der Phœnizier) affords a melancholy but amusing illustration of the occasional fallibility of the learned. For Grotefend, one of the most learned men of his time, was completely deceived. He expressed his delight at the discovery of this oldest known history of Phenicia. There was no name, no incident, in Wagenfeld’s purely fictitious history which he did not accept with the most childlike faith. Some of the Phenician legends, he argued, must have been the source of certain passages in Genesis. A certain hymn over Sidon, in which that city is compared to a pearl or to a star fallen from heaven, was comparable, in his esteem, to the prophet Ezekiel’s song over the fall of Tyre. Only the Phenician poetry struck him as being of higher order than might have been expected of so commercial a people: it had a marked tendency to the elegiac. He appears in short to have accepted the forgery, not only implicitly but with enthusiasm.
For him the story was true of King Joram having an account of the Phenician expedition to Ceylon (which was identified of course with Ophir) inscribed on a pillar in the temple of Melicertes at Tyre; whereon was also inscribed a most elaborate account of the military strength of the various cities and colonies of Phenicia, and some account of the countries they traded with. Joram had four copies of this inscription taken and sent to other cities. But when an earthquake had destroyed the pillar, and the four copies had also perished, Sanchoniathon resolved to copy it verbatim from the fallen pillar. This copy was called “the Periplus of Joram,” and Wagenfeld had felt it to be so important that he gave it word for word in German in the eighth book of Sanchoniathon.
This Phenician writer was now discovered to have been the son of Kusabas, and the grandson of Okalathon, both writers to the king; and he wrote his history about the middle of the ninth century B.C. In this he frequently referred to his sources and authorities, such as the Books of Taaut, the Deeds of Bethebalus, the Songs of Nama, and so forth. And he told some wonderful things: of Titans, half-naked savages, who obtained white horses from Media, and worshipped them as gods, and whom Grotefend readily identified with certain people mentioned by Ezekiel; of giants who frequently fought with the Phenicians, and on one occasion were destroyed by fire from heaven; of two marvellous horses, called Dolixurus and Mira; of a miraculous equestrian virgin; of a priest of Saturn who in the reign of Garusaus lived for many years without touching food; of another priest of Egyptian origin who was the inventor of scythed chariots for use in war; of King Leonturgus who used to go round the watch at night and kill any sentinels he might find drunk; of Damascon, an exile from Egypt, who fought for King Bimalus and afterwards founded the city of Damascus.
There were the names of all the kings of Sidon and of Byblos for a long period. Grotefend drew up a list of twenty-one kings of Sidon, and of fifteen in Byblos, and attempted a comparative chronology of their dates. He was also able from the “Periplus” to draw up an accurate table of the total military and naval resources of all the Phenician cities and of their colonies; of the latter there were ten in number, four in Rhodes, two in Cyprus, two in Liguria, one in Malta and one in Crete. All which would have been vastly interesting and a valuable addition to the knowledge of the world, if only it had been true. One can imagine the inventor’s glee at having his astonishing history accepted as undoubtedly genuine by such an authority as G. F. Grotefend.
But Grotefend’s son, Karl Ludwig, did not share his father’s easy faith. He published in September, 1836, a short but pertinent pamphlet, called The Sanchoniathon Question, in which he printed all the letters which had been written in connexion with the supposed Phenician find: two Latin letters from the supposed Portuguese Pereiro; seven letters from Wagenfeld, either in his own name or under the pseudonym of Wilde, to the publishers Hahn; and one from Wagenfeld to Grotefend, his father. This collection of hitherto unpublished letters went far to ruin the forgery.
But the elder Grotefend was not the only one to believe at first in the false Sanchoniathon. Gesenius, his equal in learning, who had published learned works on Phenicia, told Wagenfeld in a letter that he considered it almost impossible that the work could be a forgery. He was much struck by the identity of many of the proper names in Wagenfeld’s work with real Phenician names, such as he himself had found on inscriptions. This would have been remarkable in itself, had it not been explicable by the fact that Gesenius’ own work on the Phenician and Punic writing, published in 1835, afforded an easy mine from which to draw real Phenician names.
But the other learned men in Germany were of a more sceptical turn of mind. Dr. Schmidt of Bremen told how on one interview with Wagenfeld he was informed that he could not see the Greek MS. because it had been sent back to Pereiro, and how on another occasion he was informed that the MS. was still in Wagenfeld’s possession but would not be shown to him. Wagenfeld had also been unable to give the name of Pereiro’s nephew. Schmidt also wondered why Sanchoniathon, whom Porphyry had assigned to Berytus, and Suidas to Tyre, should now be assigned to Byblos; and why Buddhism, which only began in the sixth century B.C., should have been found in Ceylon in the eleventh. And the first Latin letter from Oporto bore the Bremen postmark, and was written on paper clearly made at Osnabruck in Germany.
The younger Grotefend also learnt from a friend in Portugal that there was no such cloister as the alleged one, and that the whole of Portugal did not possess an officer of any sort who could write a letter in Latin. Pereiro, too, was unknown as a Portuguese name; it was always Pereira.
But the extraordinary fact remains that in spite of all these discoveries, which discredited the work in the esteem of all who were competent to judge, Wagenfeld persevered, and in the spring of the following year (1837) published his Greek version of Philo Byblius’ supposed translation, with a Latin translation opposite to every page in Greek. The full title was: Sanchoniathonis Historiarum Pheniciæ Libros Novem Græce versos a Philo Byblio edidit Latineque versione donavit F. Wagenfeld. Bremæ 1837, ex officina Caroli Schunemanni.
This courageous work, containing some 205 pages, is for its great curiosity well worth possessing. K. O. Muller, as soon as it appeared, wrote a most damaging criticism of its claim to authenticity in the Gottingische Gelehrte Anzeige (1st April, 1837), but he admitted that the extreme cleverness of the work entitled its author to some admiration. It was no mean task to write nine books of Greek, adapted to the style of Philo Byblius as deducible from the extracts from his work given in Eusebius’ Præparatio Evangelica; and, in spite of some mistakes, this task the author had accomplished with considerable success. He had also caught the spirit of the ancient historians, and by a judicious mixture of fable with his supposed facts given an air of verisimilitude to the whole which was well calculated to deceive even the elect in the learned world.
This criticism by Muller virtually settled the question. Gesenius, who shortly afterwards brought out his work on the Monuments of the Phenician Writing and Language, explained in his preface that he had never attached more than slender credit to Wagenfeld’s discovery, and that subsequent criticism, since he had become possessed of the Greek version, had shattered his faith in it entirely. The work had no friend, nor did Grotefend, the elder, again act as its sponsor by writing a preface.
Muller concluded his article by the expression of a good-natured wish that Wagenfeld might in the future employ the great abilities and learning, of which he had given such brilliant proofs, in the service of knowledge more useful to others and more honourable to himself; but this wish was never fulfilled. For some years Wagenfeld’s life remained a literary blank, and the demon of drink is said to have taken possession of him. In 1845 ne published, however, an interesting collection of the Legends of Bremen (Bremen’s Volksagen), and in the year following a volume on the Military Expeditions of the people of Bremen (Kriegsgefährten der Bremer). That same year he died, at the early age of thirty-six. He is at least entitled to the fame, whatever his motive may have been, of having attempted one of the ablest and most daring fabrications in the history of literature, and of having made his victim for a time one of the most learned men in the learned world of Germany. Possibly he had no other motive; possibly he achieved his aim. And he certainly showed with what comparative ease the purest fiction may be dressed in the garb of truth, and romance be substituted for history.
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