Jurassic Marc: Adventures in Decoding Cicero’s Consolation

Mike Fontaine

The following essay is a supplement to How to Grieve: An Ancient Guide to the Lost Art of Consolation, which is published on Tuesday.

Sooner or later, every Latinist hears about Cicero’s lost masterpiece. Known as the Consolation, it was his searching and personal exploration of overwhelming grief. He wrote it on the death of his daughter, Tullia, and as a later writer, Lactantius (AD c.250–325), put it:

Tullius in sua Consolatione pugnasse se semper contra fortunam loquitur, eamque a se esse superatam, cum fortiter inimicorum impetus retudisset; ne tum quidem se ab ea fractum, cum domo pulsus patria caruit: tum autem, cum amiserit carissimam filiam, victum se a fortuna turpiter confitetur. “Cedo,” inquit, “et manum tollo.”

In his Consolation, Marcus Tullius says he always fought Fortune and won, in thwarting his enemies’ attacks. She didn’t break him even when he’d been chased from home and homeland. When he loses his dearest daughter, though, he shamefully admits that Fortune has defeated him: “I give up,” he says. “It’s over.” (Divine Institutes 3.28.9)

Tullia, the light of his life, was only 32.

The Angel of Grief, a sculpture in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome, Italy.

From those depths of despair, Cicero found a way out – and it consisted of the Consolation itself. It seems his essay was equal parts philosophy and self-help book. And with it, Cicero later boasted to his friend Atticus, he’d done something no one ever had before: “I talked myself out of depression” (ipse me per litteras consolarer, Att. 12.14.3).

Admired for generations, Cicero’s Consolation was lost at some point during or after the 4th century. All that remained were 23 fragments quoted in books or letters by Lactantius, Pliny the Elder, Augustine, and Cicero himself. The direct quotations amount to only 500 words, with allusions to its contents adding a couple thousand more. Petrarch (1304–74), who rediscovered Cicero’s letters, lamented that he couldn’t find this book.

In 1583, though, against all odds, the text sensationally resurfaced in Venice. Or did it? Unlike most recovered texts, it appeared as a printed book, not as a manuscript, and it didn’t give any clue as to where it had come from. Some suspected a hoax, and polemics broke out instantly. These went back and forth for years, and skeptics predominated, but there was no conclusive proof either way.

Title page of the of the first edition of the Consolation (Hieronymus Polus, Venice, 1583).

The problem was that the text seemed so real. It contained all the known fragments of the lost Consolation, and the rest sounded exactly like Cicero as well. It included many famous examples of Romans who survived grief, examples that Cicero had made inquiries about in contemporary letters to his friends. Much of the content matches what we find in the Tusculan Disputations (45 BC), Cicero’s next book which he began writing very soon after the Consolation. And the style itself is highly Ciceronian.

Four centuries after the polemics petered out, a computer program analyzed the style in 1999 and concluded that it was “probably” not authentic. The computer was right. I was able to prove it definitively last year, and what I discovered in the process was startling. Here’s the story.

My 2022 translation of the 1583 Consolation.

The 1583 Consolation isn’t much read these days. It’s long, the Latin is hard, there are no commentaries, and it was last translated into (flowery) English in the mid-18th century. It hasn’t even been reprinted in a couple of hundred years. That’s why many Latinists have heard of the real thing, but few are aware of the forgery.

Probably not authentic. I kept thinking about the computer’s verdict when I started translating this work, and wondered if I could settle the issue. I knew that past scholars had identified some parallel thoughts and expressions between the Consolation and other texts, but I assumed the similarities were just that – similarities.

But then I found a smoking gun, an example of outright plagiarism. It was a paragraph stolen from a different book – a different book of Cicero’s, in fact. It came in section 38. As I read, I could see it was a translation of Plato’s Apology, a famous passage I’d first read 25 years ago – and one you’ve probably read, too. But the tone seemed wildly off. It was lighthearted, sarcastic. Huh, I thought, Crazy. Would Cicero in his heartache really have translated it like that?

The Young Cicero Reading [maybe?], Vincenzo Foppa, Milanese fresco, c. 1464 (Wallace Collection, London, UK)

So I googled the rarest words in it, and my jaw dropped. Up came Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations – the very book Cicero wrote just after the Consolation. The passages were virtually identical. Verbatim.

Remember those polemical pamphlets I mentioned? I knew they’d found similarities (including this one), but a verbatim quote was something different. And valuable! Because:

  • If authentic, it implied that Cicero reused his translation of Plato from the Consolation in the Tusculan Disputations – in two consecutive books.
  • If bogus, it suggested the forger of the Consolation cribbed it from there. After all, what better way to forge a text than to steal the same author’s exact words – and from a more obscure work?

I soon found a second clue. In section 57, there’s a long quotation attributed to Plato:

sapienter philosophorum princeps et magister Plato: “quae sensus appetit aut timet nihil aliud esse quam somnia: itaque penitus contemnenda esse. mala vero ut vitentur, ad aeterna properandum: quo nisi confugias, vitari numquam posse.”

The grand master of philosophers, Plato, put it wisely: “The objects that our senses desire or fear are nothing but dreams, and hence should be utterly despised. To actually avoid evil, you must resort to eternity; without seeking refuge there, avoiding it is impossible.”

Where does Plato say that? I wondered. It didn’t ring any bells for me, but I’m no expert on his works. Surely, I assumed, in 450 years somebody must have traced this quote to its source?


Marble bust of Plato, Roman copy of a Greek original from the 4th cent. BC (Vatican Museums, The Vatican).

Now, the prospect of having to falsify a quote from Plato is daunting. Plato wrote in Greek, but Cicero routinely translated Greek authors when he quoted them (think of the Timaeus!), so a simple Google search wasn’t going to settle the matter. Two colleagues I asked, Tad Brennan and Charles Brittain, agreed that it didn’t sound quite like Plato’s ipsissima verba. That seemed promising.

Meanwhile, almost simultaneously, I caught the edge of the quotation on a Google Books search. It eventually led me to a page of Marsilio Ficino’s popular Life of Plato, first published in Italy in 1477 and frequently reprinted during the Renaissance (but not since). (The OCR – ‘optical character recognition’ – used by Google Books frequently fails with early tomes, due to archaic typefaces, crude printing, and general wear and tear). Ficino presented the words as his own paraphrase of Platonic theory, not a direct quotation from Plato.

Bingo. There it was: proof that the 1583 Consolation was written no earlier than 1477. The skeptics were right. And once again, the quotation was all but verbatim.

Are there other passages cribbed from Cicero or other authors? It would take a ton of work to find out. How far down does the rabbit hole go

Then I broke my right ankle, and suddenly found myself with plenty of time to find out.

An ankylosaurus (fl. 67,000,000 BC).

Fast forward, and behold my “Secret Decoder Ring”:

The Secret Decoder Ring for How to Grieve.

The Secret Decoder Ring is a data set named in honor of the toy you used to get in a box of cereal, and it’s the product of zillions of hours of Google searches I hope to never repeat. I finally get why Germans call it Sitzfleisch!

In parallel columns, it shows what the forger must have done in assembling the Consolation: namely, comb every single one of Cicero’s philosophical essays for relevant passages, as well as other consolatory classics in both Latin and Greek. We can imagine the forger copying them out onto hundreds of notecards, spreading them out on a table, and then carefully assembling them into a coherent whole. The result is akin to the best historical fiction of Robert Harris – but written in Ciceronian Latin. (Incidentally, Robert Harris wrote the definitive account of the “Hitler Diaries”, the most famous forgery of modern times.)

As you’ll see, the 1583 Consolation is made up of hundreds of source quotations, massaged into a smoother flow. I could never have detected the extent and closeness of the borrowings without the help of computer searches. Some are almost verbatim, others loose, and a few are changed or combined with breathtaking cunning. Since in theory these imitations could have worked in either direction, the intended effect is clear: the forger wanted readers to think that any later authors whose work echoes the Consolation got their inspiration from Cicero’s Consolation, or from one of the sources Cicero quotes. Whereas in reality, of course, the 1583 Consolation was built out of these later works.

Seeing the source code as it really is.

For example, the Consolation contains many echoes of Valerius Maximus’ Memorabilia and of (Pseudo?-)Plutarch’s Consolation to Apollonius. The common source for all three works is a lost treatise titled On grief by the philosopher Crantor of Soli (344–276 BC), a treatise which Cicero explicitly credited in one of the few authentic fragments of the Consolation. Likewise, when we find similar ideas in later writers such as Sallust, Horace, Seneca, Petrarch, and even Jerome’s translation of the biblical Book of Job, the idea is that Cicero’s Consolation had become the place to turn for an appropriate sentiment or phrasing. It’s a very clever and subtle sleight of hand.

A second implication is less obvious. Whenever the 1583 Consolation cites famous examples of Greeks and Romans who endured grief without complaint, they’re probably the same ones Cicero cited in the original Consolation – even though we don’t have fragments to prove it. Why? Because the annals of Rome and Greece only had a limited supply of such exempla (heroic examples) of coping with grief. When the same examples show up in other authors, therefore, it’s all but certain Cicero used them in the Consolation.

As I’ve remarked in my notes to the Secret Decoder Ring, it’s obvious that the forger used a lexicon of Ciceronian Latin – presumably the 1535 Thesaurus of Marius Nizolius (1498–1566) – to capture the authentic sound of Cicero’s words. (For background on that lexicon, see this excellent Antigone essay by Josey Parker.)

The title page of a later edition of Nizzoli’s Thesaurus (Aldine, Venice, 1570).

What all of this means is that the 1583 forgery is not a fabrication or imitation, but a meticulous and very skilled recreation. The analogy isn’t a fake Vermeer. It’s Jurassic Park, where scientists inserted missing stretches of dinosaur DNA to replace the lost parts.

Reconstructing a lost work – as opposed to fabricating one out of whole cloth, like the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife – is an interesting business. You start with genuine shards of the original, and you carefully work out what the missing pieces must have been, where they went, and the logic or meter connecting them. Reconstructed Greek vases, friezes, and statues are obvious examples. But textual criticism, historical fiction, and even history itself aren’t all that different.

These examples can remind us how much forgers and scholars have in common. The ersatz Consolation fits into this second category. It’s an example of scholarship, and very impressive scholarship at that.

I’d like to note an unusual parallel here. Right around the time the book came out in Venice, an architect down the street in Vicenza named Andrea Palladio (1508–80) was busy recreating a Roman theater as described by Vitruvius.

Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico, recreated on a Roman model from 1580–5. (Credit: Didier D escouens).

The only difference between Palladio’s recreated Roman theater and the recreated Roman Consolation is that Palladio took credit for his work, and the author of the Consolation didn’t. Why not? Well, there are only two motives for forging art, and money seems irrelevant here. So that leaves glee at fooling the experts.

In How to Grieve, I argue that the 1583 Consolation was intended as a prank, and that once people had bought into it, the hoax would be revealed. That didn’t happen, though, because right after it came out, a notorious forger of wills got executed in Rome for his forgery. The hoaxer, whoever he or she was, apparently got spooked and never fessed up.

To my mind, the smoking gun is that bogus Plato quotation (in reality, a quotation from Ficino’s Life of Plato). It could be a blunder – a notecard that got mixed up on the forger’s table – but it’s simply too obvious. It looks like a deliberate trap, akin to the bogus “trap streets” that cartographers include on maps to protect their intellectual property. That quote is the “tell”.

“Newark Street,” a Google Maps trap street in Canterbury (Credit: Ian Betteridge via Flickr)

Furthermore, people who get enamored of their own ruse like to see how far they can push it. That mindset may explain why a few passages of the Consolation read almost like parody. For example, there’s a strange transition in section 176. In it, Cicero pauses and says:

ac mihi videor nimis etiam nunc anguste atque exiliter agere. qui enim latior obiici campus queat, in quo fidentius atque alacrius exsultare possit oratio? sed faciam impudenter, si medicinam deserens animorum, quam ex omnibus maxime utilem esse intelligo, ad meam unius delectationem sermonem omnem mentemque convertam.

I feel like I’m still being too bare-bones, too reserved. Where can I find a bigger field for my rhetoric to prance and play with greater confidence and energy? – But, no: psychotherapy is the most helpful of all treatments, I know, and it’d be obnoxious for me to abandon it and divert my essay and concentration just to indulge myself.

In a treatise on coping with grief at the loss of a child, the first two sentences seem absurdly out of place – even more out of place than the off-tone quote from Plato’s Apology which sent me tumbling down the rabbit hole to begin with. As I discovered, those two sentences come from Cicero’s Academica. They make sense there; but here, they look like the forger was having a bit of fun, trying to see how far he or she could take it. These sentences read like a parody, as do a few others that follow shortly after (as noted in the Decoder Ring).

Will anyone ever augment – or even use – all the source quotations I’ve assembled? I suppose an enterprising student could do a nice thesis reconstructing Crantor’s Grief from it. I won’t use it myself. I’ve proven to my own satisfaction that the 1583 Consolation is a forgery, and I don’t plan to continue the work.

But I feel completely different about the text itself. As I read it, the 1583 Consolation is remarkably affecting – far more so than the consolations we have from Seneca, Plutarch, and Boethius. The real shame is that the author of this forgery didn’t use his or her scholarship and cleverness for good. Because the result here is a truly impressive book written in Cicero’s voice. It just isn’t by Cicero.

A bogus Mike Fontaine expounds on bogus Sappho poems, 2022.

Mike Fontaine teaches Latin at Cornell University. Readers of Antigone will enjoy The Pig War, his bilingual edition of the Pugna Porcorum. He would like to thank Mark Saltveit for helping edit this essay.

Further Reading

Han Baltussen, “Cicero’s Consolatio ad se: character, purpose, and impact of a curious treatise,” in Han Baltussen (ed.), Greek and Roman Consolations. Eight Studies of a Tradition and Its Afterlife (Classical Press of Wales, Swansea, 2013) 67–92.

Michael Fontaine (ed.), (Inspired by) Marcus Tullius Cicero: How to Grieve: An Ancient Guide to the Lost Art of Consolation (Princeton UP, 2022)

Richard Forsyth, David Holmes, Emily Tse, et al., “Cicero, Sigonio, and Burrows: investigating the authenticity of the Consolatio,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 14.3 (1999) 375–400.

Robert Harris, Dictator: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Hutchinson, London, 2015).

Susan Treggiari, Terentia, Tullia and Publilia: The women of Cicero’s family (Routledge, London, 2007).