Meta-historical conspiracies: Part 1

Article by Mike Hearn
March 17, 2019
Meta-historical conspiracies: Part 1

Were the great texts of Roman history forged?

I have some unusual interests, but one of my favourite ways to waste time has to be researching meta-historical conspiracy theories. In this essay I want to introduce you to the great joy of learning European history by investigating the beliefs of people who think it’s not real.

Vincent of Beauvais writing the Speculum Historiale, a history of the world. Circa 1480 AD

Many of them don’t believe we’re living in the year 2019. Some think the true date is somewhere around the 1700s, and the most radical argue that you’re reading this article in the year 1019 AD — that a whole one thousand years of history has been created via an an endless, self reinforcing set of errors in dating and chronology.

Others think that nearly everything we know about Greek and Roman history is a work of fiction, created and perpetuated by medieval con artists.

They aren’t mad or stupid, flat earthers or anti-vaxxers. There have been people with these beliefs for hundreds of years, so most of them don’t explain their theories through YouTube. Instead they write books with detailed citations of historical sources, which lay out complex arguments raising difficult questions about history and the study of it. They point to many implausible and troubling things which are usually airbrushed out of our collective narrative.

Some of these people are nobodies. But they also count amongst their numbers scientists, mathematicians and historians stretching across the centuries, including an extremely famous one: Sir Isaac Newton, whose treatise The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended was published in 1728 after his death. Newton believed hundreds of years had been accidentally inserted into the timeline.

Are they right? Would it matter if they were? Answering that isn’t the goal of this series of essays. I’ve always enjoyed history, but it’s so large that it’s easy to become lost in the endless sea of sources and tidbits. Checking the claims of these strange theories gives me structure and takes me down paths I’d never have explored otherwise. In the end I’ve developed no strong opinions on whether their theories have merit, but that’s OK. The process of trying to find out is in some ways more rewarding than the answers.
In these essays I’m going to argue for history being wrong as if I believe the theories. Don’t assume I actually do — it’s just more fun to present them that way. I’m going to start with the idea that Roman history is largely forged and maybe tackle timeline shifts, radiocarbon dating and tree ring dating later.

So. Do you want to learn new things whilst feeling like Robert Langdon in the Da Vinci Code? If yes, you should dive into the upside-down world of alternative chronologies …

The origins of European history

When I was young and learning about the Roman Empire for the first time I heard many detailed stories of characters and events from thousands of years ago. I also saw Latin inscriptions written on great monuments and statues. The obvious inference was that the things we know about the Roman Empire come from chiselled writing that was preserved by the hardness of stone and metal.
Eventually it became clear this couldn’t be the case. The knowledge was far too detailed to ever fit on statues or monuments, no matter how many were made. Our knowledge of Roman history turned out to come from books written on parchment. Of course,

Poggio Braccolini, noted Renaissance humanist and medieval version of Lara Croft

how else could it be. But something still didn’t seem quite right. 2000 years turns almost everything to dust; outside of waterlogged peat bogs and other unusual archaeological sites, only non-biological things made of stone, clay or metal survive these kinds of time periods. How exactly did these books survive when nothing else did?
It turns out that when you start asking questions about where historical knowledge comes from, you open up an infinite spiral of obscure, strange and often deeply implausible stories.
Let’s start with an interesting fact. If you try and trace the origins of any historical document discussing ancient Rome, you can never get further back than around the 10th century AD. Virtually everything we know about the Roman Empire comes from manuscripts of medieval origin.

The Fall And The Darkness

Conventional history goes like this. When the Roman empire fell a dark age lasting nearly 1000 years blanketed all of Europe. Culture and learning disappeared. Skills were forgotten; engineering feats once regarded as routine became impossible. Italy became depopulated, falling from around 7 million people to only 2 million. Books written by sophisticated ancient historians like Tacitus — books that described life in the Empire through detailed and entertaining Latin — stopped being of interest to the population. Worse, early Christian popes went on book burning exercises to expunge the world of heretical thought. But fortunately a tiny handful of copies were taken by monks to their monasteries, and faithfully copied over and over for endless centuries. Generations of scribes devoted themselves to the preservation of knowledge, even when the decay became so extreme they sometimes couldn’t even understand what they were copying — so completely lost was the learning and enlightenment of early European civilisation.

Eventually the dark ages ended. A new era began: the Renaissance (literally “rebirth”) started to flourish in Italy. Funded by ultra-rich patrons like the Medici family and the Vatican, the so-called humanists scoured all of Europe for copies of long forgotten books. These Indiana Jones-like quests for artefacts of power took the Italian humanists to the edges of the known world; they spent years pursuing clues, journeying into the mountains to reach forgotten abbeys, exploring dark towers and murky dungeons. By bringing books back to the civilised world, they revived the ancient wisdoms of art, culture and science. Learning began again and progress has been continuous ever since.

The incredible luck of Renaissance historians

There are a few things worth observing at this point.
The first is that not many books survived. We aren’t drowning in Roman literature. The Roman Empire is presented to us with enormous amounts of detail, yet in TV shows and museums it’s hardly mentioned that much of that detail frequently traces to not only a single author but a single physical copy of a single book. Here’s just one example.

Tacitus was a prolific historian, whose enormous volume of 30 works provides vivid colour and detail about the Roman Empire. Wikipedia says this about his books:
“His work is our most reliable source for the history of his era”
Lots of our knowledge about antiquity is like this: for each era we have only one source.

The second thing worth observing is the astonishing luck involved with the survival of these epic works:
Though most has been lost, what remains is an invaluable record of the era. The first half of the Annals survived in a single copy of a manuscript from Corvey Abbey, and the second half from a single copy of a manuscript from Monte Cassino, and so it is remarkable that they survived at all.

The testimony of Renaissance humanist Giovanni Boccaccio make it clear just how unlikely it is that anything from the Roman era made it through the dark ages. He visited the monastery at Monte Cassino and described it like this:

‘he found the room which contained this treasure without a door or key, and when he entered, he saw grass growing in the windows and all the books and shelves covered with a thick layer of dust. When he turned over the [manuscript] he found many rare and ancient works with whole sheets cut out, or with the margins ruthlessly clipped. As he left the room he burst into tears and, on asking a monk whom he had met in the cloister to explain the neglect, was told that some of the monks, wishing to gain a few soldi, had torn out whole handfuls of leaves and made them into psalters, which they sold to boys, and had cut off strips of parchment, which they turned into amulets to sell to women.’

by Prof Albert Clark

It’s an amazing story, worthy of Hollywood. The last copy in the world of a book containing a priceless history of the ancients, saved from certain destruction by a tiny cohort of wandering adventurers. And just in the nick of time! Who knows when such books might have just been thrown away, or burned for warmth?

We may start suspect something is odd about this story when it becomes clear just how frequently it’s told. The Histories by Marcus Velleius Paterculus traces to a single manuscript discovered by Beatus Rhenanus in 1515 at Murbach Abbey. No other copy was ever found and the original was lost immediately after Rhenanus made a duplicate. The famous speech by Cicero, Pro Sexto Roscio Amerino, along with dozens of other documents, all trace back to unique manuscripts discovered by a single man: Poggio Bracciolini, the most famous Florantine humanist of the Renaissance era. There is invariably no information about where the manuscripts came from before that, the originals are usually ‘lost’ soon after discovery and in many cases Bracciolini doesn’t even bother to specify which monasteries he found them in. An example of one set of manuscripts:

The traditional story of their discovery is that Poggio found them under a heap of rubbish and this would account for their mutilated condition and corruption. [CLARK]

And in another case:

‘[the books were in] a filthy and dark prison, namely, in the basement of a tower, not fit to receive criminals convicted of a capital charge’

Do any monks care about actually reading their priceless books vs just duplicating them? According to conventional history, not really. At the monastery of St. Gall:

‘When we looked narrowly at it, and beheld this library stained and defiled with dust, moths, soot, and everything which causes the destruction of books, we wept, thinking that the Latin tongue had thus lost its proudest jewels. This library, could it but speak, would call out loudly, “Ye, that truly love the Latin tongue, suffer me not to be utterly destroyed by this neglect; snatch me from the dungeon where the splendour of these books cannot be seen”. The Abbot of the monastery and the monks were wholly ignorant of literature.’

— Cencio [CLARK]

Not only was the survival and discovery of these books lucky, but often the timing too. De aquaeductu is a two book treatise giving everything you might want to know about the details of the Roman aqueduct system. Wikipedia cites Simon Schama to claim:

With the recovery of Frontinus’ manuscript from the library at Monte Cassino in 1425, effected by the tireless humanist Poggio Bracciolini, details of the construction and maintenance of the Roman aqueduct system became available once more, just as Renaissance Rome began to revive and require a dependable source of pure water.[1]

The cost of books

Why did men like Bracciolini work so hard to locate so many texts? In a word, money. The Renaissance was kick-started by a fashion amongst the wealthiest members of society for all things ancient and civilised. They decided to pay vastsums for newly discovered works of antiquity. Poggio was willing to charge 100 ducats for a collection of books, a weight of gold worth about $15,000 in today’s money (so how much it was worth back then is hard to imagine). The Vatican advertised bounties for the recovery of new works:

John de Medici, that magnificent Pope, had been scarcely elected to the Pontifical chair by the title of Leo X. in the spring of 1513, when he caused it to be publicly made known that he would increase the price of rewards given by his predecessors to persons who procured new manuscript copies of ancient Greek and Roman works … 500 gold sequins were counted out from the Papal Treasury to the greedy discoverer [ROSS]

The rewards for discovering these books were life changing in scale. Bracciolini often wrestled with debt and an extremely lavish lifestyle, so it’s no surprise he devoted so much effort to locating them.

There’s another strange problem to do with the cost of books. All these manuscripts were written on parchment, a writing material made of animal skins. The production of parchment was extremely expensive. It required animals to be raised, fed, killed and skinned. Then the skin had to be washed and scrubbed with lime, left to soak for days, pinned to a frame and left to dry under tension for yet more days, then treated and have hair removed again, before being scrubbed once more. One animal might yield only 3–4 pieces of writing material.

Modern Vellum Production in Britain

So as you can see, the production of a book was an extraordinarily expensive endeavour. There’s even a word for a parchment that’s been scraped clean of text and reused — a palimpset. This leads to two questions:

  1. Why were these books produced at such great expense, dumped in the wildest reaches of the Empire, then abandoned unread?
  2. Given the expense of writing material it was common in early texts for authors to save space via extreme measures, like skipping vowels. How did Roman authors manage to develop such a fluent and flowery writing style that they easily filled dozens of books in a single project? They didn’t know about paper yet sound as if they’ve been writing their entire lives.

So as you can see, the production of a book was an extraordinarily expensive endeavour. There’s even a word for a parchment that’s been scraped clean of text and reused — a palimpset. This leads to two questions:

  1. Why were these books produced at such great expense, dumped in the wildest reaches of the Empire, then abandoned unread?
  2. Given the expense of writing material it was common in early texts for authors to save space via extreme measures, like skipping vowels. How did Roman authors manage to develop such a fluent and flowery writing style that they easily filled dozens of books in a single project? They didn’t know about paper yet sound as if they’ve been writing their entire lives.

The implausible nature of these events

The survival and discovery of these books is described by Wikipedia as ‘remarkable’. That’s the wrong word to use: it’s astonishing.

Let’s repeat what we’re being asked to accept here:

  • That after Rome fell people collectively and completely forgot vast amounts of useful knowledge, despite the existence of books which contained that knowledge in great detail.
  • Enormous amounts of what we know about ancient Rome can be traced only to books that had one single copy in the entire known world.
  • These books were discovered rotting and decaying in dungeons, owned by monks who didn’t know or care about them despite having spent 1500 years faithfully copying them at great expense.
  • Despite the staggering monetary value of what these monks had, despite the enormous poverty they lived in, and despite that rewards for finding these works were publicly announced by the Pope himself, none of them ever exploited their own treasure troves.Everybook I’ve investigated so far that claims to originate in Roman times was recovered by a secular humanist from the ignorant monks who guarded it.
  • Despite that these books contained enormous detail on practical matters like how to construct buildings and aqueduct systems, they were entirely forgotten about until the very moment they happened to start being useful. Most of these books were never referred to by medieval authors up until the moment of their ‘rediscovery’.

It’s perhaps not surprising that faced with this set of claims, and the vast sums of money being handed out in return for ancient books, a small number of scholars started suspecting a long con.

Were the Annals of Tacitus forged?

It’s universally agreed that at least some ancient Roman documents have been forged, because in at least one famous case the forgery was detected hundreds of years later. The Donation of Constantine was a document claiming to have been written by 4th century emperor Constantine the Great, granting control over the entire western Roman empire to the Pope. For centuries it was used as evidence for the legitimacy of papal power, until Lorenzo Valla (another humanist) argued that the language used couldn’t possibly date from earlier than the 8th century. Eventually everyone, including the Vatican, accepted that it was a fake.

The idea that Tacitus might have been forged by Poggio Bracciolini first appeared in the 1800s in a book by John Wilson Ross. He makes many arguments for why the books are unlikely to have been written in Roman times, and I can’t possibly cover all of them here. But let’s take just one, not because it’s the most convincing, but because it shows how mysterious glitches and contradictions in the historical record get covered up and “fixed” by historians.

The earliest history of London is believed to go like this: on arriving in Britain the Romans discovered a wild country populated by barbarian tribes who barely knew agriculture, let alone civilisation. They were rapidly conquered and the Roman settlement at London was founded in 43 AD. Archaeologists think it was a tiny village barely half a square mile in size — that’s the size of modern day Hyde Park. There were other settlements nearby that were larger and more important, like at Verulamium. There would have been no serious trading activity at this time as there’d have been nothing to export: the surrounding lands were overrun with the Iceni and Britain manufactured nothing of interest to the Romans.

A 19th century proposed map of Roman London around the time Boudiccea destroyed it

Yet according to Tacitus, by the time of the Iceni rebellion just 17 years later it had become a trading centre famous throughout the Roman empire. It’s very interesting to see how modern translations try to wallpaper over this strange belief Tacitus had. Check out the Latin and the modern English side by side:

“Suetonius, however, with wonderful resolution, marched amidst a hostile population to Londinium, which, though undistinguished by the name of a colony, was much frequented by a number of merchants and trading vessels”

“Much frequented”. Here’s the original Latin:

At Suetonius mira constantia medios inter hostes Londinium perrexit, cognomento quidem coloniae non insigne, sed copia negotiatorum et commeatuum maxime celebre

You don’t have to be fluent in Latin to guess what “maxime celebre” means, but if you’re still wondering try plugging it in to Google Translate. You get “the most famous”. Ross provides this alternative, likely more accurate translation:

It is then the height of absurdity to believe that if Tacitus wrote the Annals we should have heard in that work London spoken of as “remarkably celebrated for the multiplicity of its merchants and its commodities

As he points out, it is unbelievable that London could have gone from nothing to being a trading port famous throughout the continent in only 17 years, when surrounded by primitive tribes and being only the size of Hyde Park. But it’s very believable that a Florentine Renaissance forger who had heard all about London and its wondrous prosperity for his entire life, could make the mistake of assuming it must have been prosperous in ancient times too.


The story of how Tacitus was ‘corrected’ during translation sets the scene for exploring other interesting mysteries that have been quietly covered up over the years. History is filled with strange records and ancient testimonies that stretch plausibility, or contradict the standard timeline. They’re written off as mistakes or confusions by the ancient authors, in an attempt to create a narrative that’s completely smooth by dropping data points.

In recent years there’s been a growing awareness that much of the output of academia is suspect. Psychology and biology papers don’t replicate. Social science papers are riven with statistical errors. Economists make predictions that turn out to be wildly wrong. All of these things occur as a group. The root cause is widely seen as misaligned incentives — researchers are rewarded for publishing papers, not being right, and they’re accountable only to committees of their own peers. If at least somewhat scientific subjects like psychology and economics have such severe problems, what kinds of horrors lurk in the darkest corners of history and archaeology?

Join me in part two to continue our exploration of ancient skeletons in the closet!