Given how much of alternative history rests on false, fabricated, or outright non-existent documents, I thought it might be fun to discuss a ninety-year-old case of intellectual fraud that sent the media into a tizzy when a respected professor claimed to have discovered not one but all of the lost books of Livy. The story bears more than a passing similarity to the recent efforts of the Republic of Georgia to concoct a suitable epic past for their country by rewriting ancient Linear A texts as Georgian. Here’s how Time magazine reported the story on September 15, 1924:
Classics and History students read with excitement an announcement from Naples that one Professor di Martino-Fusco, recluse paleographer, had discovered a complete collection of 150 codices, comprising the 142 books of Titus Livius, Roman historian (59 B.C.-A.D. 17), of which only 35 books have been known to scholars since the 7th Century. The authenticity of the find was endorsed by Professor Delis, Director of the Neapolitan Library, and by Professor Nicola Barone, Director of the State Archives at Naples.
Much, but not all, of the information that follows I have borrowed from B. L. Ullman’s 1973 essay “The Post-Mortem Adventures of Livy.”
A few weeks earlier, on August 5, Revista Indo-Greco-Italia, a well-regarded classical journal, published a notice announcing the discovery, noting that Di Martino was the editor of Mouseion, another classical journal, giving credibility to the claim. According to later statements by the Revista editor, he had contacted Di Martino by telegram on August 27 to verify the claim, verified that Di Martino had convinced other classical scholars that he had the Livy texts, and sought verification of the claims from independent classical experts. After passing all three levels, the editor published the notice despite the fact that neither he nor anyone else had seen the texts.
On August 21, the Times of London published the first popular notice of the find, and the Italian government took notice. Government officials contacted Di Martino and the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini—which fetishized ancient Rome and had every reason to want to trumpet the find—began official proceedings to forbid export of the manuscripts because they were national treasures. Punch joked that schoolboys everywhere protested the publication of any more Livy, there already being quite enough for them to read and translate as it was.
However, critics noted that no one had seen the alleged codices. Nevertheless, the Hume Professor of Latin Literature at Victoria University, R. S. Conway, an expert on Livy, published a stirring defense of Di Martino, arguing that no hoaxer would be so motivated as to fabricate 15 thick codices of Latin text on vellum in historically accurate ink. (The number of alleged codices varies by source, sometimes 15 and sometimes 150.) “It would take an army of superlunatics to begin such a task,” Conway wrote. Conway, of course, had never seen the codices but could not imagine that Di Martino would lie about their very existence.
Di Martino himself would only tell reporters that he was copying the text one book at a time and would publish the Second Decade of Livy, after which he would allow other scholars to see the codices. American and British papers made offers on the publication rights to English translations. Di Martino reportedly asked for a million gold marks for German publication rights and a million pounds sterling for English language rights. To back up this demand, a German friend of Di Martino’s offered a facsimile photograph of the first few lines of the text, which read, in part “Ubi multitudo hominem inspirata occurit…” R. S. Conway pronounced it in the style of Livy and likely genuine Livy. But professors at Oxford and Cambridge recognized the text as the first page of Sulpicius Severus’ Life of St. Martin of Tours. Conway was humiliated when it was discovered that Di Martino’s German friend had simply lifted the photo from a Neapolitan newspaper, where it had been published as an illustration of what a Latin codex looked like.
From there the story began to unravel. Ullman believes the German friend, Dr. Max Funke, had fabricated all of his claims from a German-language short story called “Die verlorene Handschrift” by Gustav Freytag in which a professor discovers a complete lost manuscript of Tacitus. Many of the details of the stories matched—from the age of the manuscript, to the type of location where it was found (a castle), to the fact that monks supposedly kept it hidden to protect it from foreign invaders.
Di Martino never published anything about the fictional Livy texts in his own classical journal. Calls for him to produce the codices increased, and the Italian government became involved. An official inquiry discovered no evidence of any manuscripts, and they proclaimed the claim a hoax. The Italian government arraigned Di Martino on charges, and Di Martino confessed that he had not actually found the codices but rather had been studying medieval book culture in Naples and had come across references to Livy manuscripts that suggested to him that such texts must exist somewhere in the city. Di Martino signed a confession.
That ended the affair for the most part, but it launched a conspiracy theory. In 1925, a man named G. L. Perugi, a humanist professor and an inventor of a “photographic deciphering system” published a pamphlet claiming that Di Martino had in fact found manuscripts but that these contained a dark secret that the Italian government considered a threat to world security and contrived to suppress. He called on the government to release the texts.
Granted, it was a different time, but it’s amazing how willing the media and even scholars were to endorse something they had never seen. A parallel immediately arises in my mind in the wacky claims for Henry Sinclair’s trip to America, which spring from an Italian text almost no one involved in the hunt for Sinclair history has read and that says nothing of the sort. Perhaps closer, though, is Erich von Däniken’s uncritical acceptance of the Stanzas of Dzyan as genuine ancient records of prehistoric astronauts despite the fact that no one had ever seen the originals that Helena Blavatsky allegedly found squirreled away in a Himalayan monastery. Coincidentally, monks also supposedly protected the Naacal tablets recording the history of Mu, also unseen by any eyes but those of James Churchward, just two years after the Livy hoax.
The most famous missing originals are probably Joseph Smith’s ancient “reformed Egyptian” golden tablets, which share quite a similar story to Di Martino’s fake Livy. Smith, the founder of Mormonism, allegedly had an angel show him the ancient texts hidden within an ancient burial mound, and he, too, refused to let anyone else see them. Even the man who supposedly helped him translate and record the contents never saw the texts and had to work on the other side of sheet from Smith. Nevertheless, Smith convinced everyone who met him that he really had lost gold texts from a pre-Columbian Jewish civilization. Martin Harris, an acolyte of Smith’s, took a transcript of some of the writing from the tablets to the great classical scholar Charles Anthon, who proclaimed it a hodgepodge of characters copied without context from a variety of published texts. The Mormons, however, simply asserted that Anthon agreed with their position and canonized that version as official scripture, teaching to this day in the Pearl of Great Price that Anthon authenticated the text, confirmed Joseph Smith’s magical translation skils, and fulfilled biblical prophecy in so doing. Conveniently, the golden tablets vanished back up to heaven, a trick that Di Martino might have tried were Livy not a secular author.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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