The words and syntax of a speaker are as revelatory of identity as a fingerprint, a ballistics test, and a DNA sample are to a criminologist. The critical inquiries of the scholar, or the practiced eye of the native speaker, will as readily deduce the origin of a written text from an examination of its lexicon and constructions, as might a forensics scientist derive a wealth of information from a study of a fragment of bone, a scrap of tissue, or a tuft of hair. While this truth has not often been appreciated, it remains one that has been consistently demonstrated. We will discuss three examples that illustrate our proposition.
Readers may be generally familiar with the medieval document known as the “Donation of Constantine.” It purported to be a decree issued by the fourth century emperor Constantine the Great that gave the Church of Rome trusteeship over the Western Roman Empire. The text of the Donation first surfaced in the eighth century. It was used by the popes throughout the Middle Ages to gain leverage over European kings in their frequently tense negotiations over the division of temporal and spiritual powers.
While for many centuries its authenticity had been suspect, no one was able to demonstrate its fraudulence conclusively until Lorenzo Valla circulated his brilliant essay De Falso Credita et Ementita Constantini Donatione (On the Falsely Believed and Erroneous Donation of Constantine). His analysis exposing the forgery (which was heavily rhetorical in tone) was composed in April and May of 1440. The work circulated in manuscript for many years, but its revelations were so devastating that it could not be formally published until 1517—sixty years after Valla’s death.
How was Valla able to prove that the Donation was not what it claimed to be? He accomplished this feat by focusing his formidable erudition and intellect on the document’s language and syntactical structures. Valla had an intimate knowledge of the Latin language and its evolution since the days of the early empire. He could distinguish the epoch and origin of a document as readily as an English speaker today could recognize the difference between a text written in 1722 and one written in 2022.
Valla first points out the absurdity of an emperor (i.e., Constantine) giving away title to half of his empire to a pope in Rome. Rulers do not behave this way; kings and emperors seek to enlarge, not diminish, their holdings. The Donation contained terms (Valla calls them “barbarisms”) that could only have come from a period much later than the fourth century. Valla notes that words like satrap, and phrases like princeps sacerdotibus and imperialia sceptra, were incongruous, and would never have been used in an official document in Constantine’s day. The clumsy, overwrought feel of the Donation suggested it had been prepared by someone with a mediocre level of education. The repetition of terms like we adorn, we decree, imperial, imperatorial, and power betray too conscious an effort to wrap the decree with an authoritative mantle. These and other arguments were enough to refute the authenticity of the Donation so convincingly that it could never be rehabilitated.
For our second example, we will turn to Cornelius Nepos’s Latin collection of biographies known as Lives of the Great Commanders (De Excellentibus Ducibus Externarum Gentium). This entertaining and highly instructive work has a fascinating background. The book first surfaced during the reign of Theodosius I, who occupied the imperial throne between A.D. 379 and 395. An otherwise obscure court grammarian named Aemilius Probus, wishing to ingratiate himself with his master, claimed the collection of biographies were composed by his father (or mother) and grandfather. This shameless thief then “dedicated” Nepos’s work to Theodosius, adding to it some groveling and maudlin verses in the bargain. For centuries, no one apparently cared enough, or was learned enough, to notice what Probus had done. The first printed editions of Nepos’s work in the 1470s and 1490s actually credited it to Probus, perpetuating the literary crime committed a thousand years earlier.
But everything changed in 1569 when a French scholar named Denis Lambin (Dionysius Lambinus) published his own corrected edition of the text. Lambinus, whose grasp of the Latin language was as nuanced and deep as that of Valla, noticed unmistakable stylistic peculiarities that made it highly unlikely that the biographies could have been written during the later empire. First, Nepos’s style is terse, clear, and unadorned. This clashed glaringly with the more ornate, verbose, and rhetorical style used by court historians of the third and fourth centuries. Second, Cicero’s friend Atticus is addressed in the book’s introduction, which is something that would have made no sense for the unknown Aemilius Probus to do.
Third, the writer of Nepos’s book has strong feelings about the virtues of a free society and republican institutions. This sentiment would have been very much out of place in Probus’s time (even personally dangerous), when the empire had seen generations of dictators and despots assume the imperial purple, one after the other. Consider this sentence, which appears in the biography of Eumenes:
Thus there is a great danger that our military men will behave in the same manner as the Macedonian generals, and destroy everything through their lack of restraint and self-serving outlawry—not just those who oppose them, but even the accomplices who aid them in their plans.
It is inconceivable that a writer in Theodosius’s time could have written such a sentence, and I remember thinking as much when I first read it. It is the product of a free mind, a proud mind, one that has not been debased by generations of absolutism and subservience. By Theodosius’s time, the empire had already seen general after general seize power by violently disposing of his predecessor. Lambinus knew that only a writer of the late Roman republic, disgusted with the civil wars that had plagued Rome for years, could have written this way. But the natural disputatiousness of scholars, and the ponderous weight of tradition, meant that Lambinus’s thesis took a long time to gain acceptance.
It has even been proposed that Probus did something more nefarious than appropriating Nepos’s work and passing it off as his own. Under this disturbing theory, Probus could have abbreviated Nepos’s original biographies, possibly still intact in his time, and then might have maliciously destroyed the original, extended versions to cover his tracks. Yet it is difficult to imagine such a callous disregard for a work of literature. More likely, it seems that Nepos’s original biographies had already been abbreviated in antiquity long before Probus, who received them in substantially the same form we have now. The condensed version of Nepos’s book survived, but the extended original did not. Probus was a thief, not a lunatic.
A third example of the use of forensic linguistics involves a much more recent case. In 2022, Dr. Michael Fontaine, of Cornell University, published an English translation of an anonymous Latin work that purported to be Cicero’s lost Consolation. This Latin work appeared in Italy during the late Renaissance, and bore strong similarities to extant Ciceronian works. Yet its murky origins, and lack of a clear manuscript tradition, raised suspicions at once. Computer analysis of the text in the late 1990s suggested that the essay was probably not written by Cicero, but irrefutable proof of the text’s inauthenticity was not obtained until Fontaine completed a careful study of the text in 2021. He described his findings in 2022.
Fontaine noticed that the essay contained what purported to be excerpts of Plato translated into Latin. These passages seemed to him inappropriate in tone and content. Fontaine researched the language of one quotation, and discovered that it was, in fact, a nearly verbatim quote of something written by the Platonic scholar Marsilio Ficino in 1477. The presence of this lifted quotation in the Latin text of the alleged Ciceronian Consolation was definitive proof that the essay could not have been written any earlier than 1477. This was a major achievement of forensic linguistics, and is a discovery that deserves wide recognition.
In retrospect, the three forensic discoveries discussed here seem almost obvious. Of course they do: in hindsight, discoveries are always “obvious” to those who have not done the supremely difficult work of discovery. This is a fallacy we must not be tempted to indulge in. The achievements described above were the result of unrelenting labor, inspired insight, and linguistic expertise. We know this because for centuries these revelations were not obvious at all.
Why had no one made the connections and insights that Valla made, when he studied the Donation? Why had no one noticed what Lambinus had noticed, when he prepared the text of Nepos for publication? Why could no one perceive that Nepos’s biographies could only have been written by a writer of the late republican period? And why, despite the fact that the forged Ciceronian consolation was available for centuries, had no one spotted that it contained a spurious Platonic quote lifted from a 1477 book by Marsilio Ficino? The answer is quite simple: the right eyes and the right minds had not yet arrived that would permit these texts to speak fully. Only then could the testimony of language be unequivocally heard in the courtroom of scholarship.
Explore the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders: