Roots of identity theft have ancient ties

The first translation of one of the most challenging Latin texts ever produced, the so-called Cosmography of Aethicus Ister, has just been published by York Professor Emeritus Michael Herren, Distinguished Research Professor of Classics.

One of the most skilful forgeries of the Middle Ages, the Cosmography of Aethicus Ister has puzzled scholars for more than 150 years, not least because of its challenging use of Latin (knMichael Herrenown as Latinity). Written at a western centre in the first part of the eighth century, the work purports to be a heavily censored epitome made by St. Jerome of a “cosmography” by an Istrian philosopher named Aethicus.

Right: Michael Herren

Accompanying Herren’s groundbreaking translation is a new critical edition, a detailed commentary and an introduction of 119 pages covering every aspect of this text – its sources, date, provenance, Latinity and what can be known about the anonymous author. The edition/translation was published by Brepols N.V. (Belgium) in the series Publications of the Journal of Medieval Latin, and runs to 480 pages.

The Cosmography of Aethicus Ister, which according to Herren was composed in stages in different parts of Western Europe, was a clear act of identity theft. “The author attempted to pass himself off as the great Church father Saint Jerome (author of the Latin Vulgate Bible), who professed to have discovered, edited and censored an otherwise unknown cosmographical tract by a pagan philosopher named Aethicus the Istrian, a “Scythian” of noble extraction,” says Herren. “The forgery was unmasked only in the 19th century.”

The original work has all the elements of a riveting drama.

“The first part of the work presents a ‘flat-earth’ description of the universe and its creation. The earth is purportedly attached to the heavens by hinges, the seas are held in by ramparts around the edges of the earth and the sun travels around the earth on a dense bed of clouds,” says Herren. “The second part records the travels of Aethicus through the world, especially the unknown parts of the North and East. There the author-hero encounters not only savage races, but also monsters, Amazons and other figures of Greek mythology. Alexander the Great also figures prominently: he creates a mountain prison called the ‘Caspian Gates’ and walls in ‘the unclean races’, who, according to St. Jerome in his study, painted in 1480 by Domenico Ghirlandaioprophesy, will escape to ravage the world at the coming of the anti-Christ.”

Left: St. Jerome in his study, painted in 1480 by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Herren says that Aethicus is not only a philosopher and moralist, but also an inventor, prospector and builder of ships and bridges. “His inventions include a submarine illuminated by a ‘sun mirror’ and able to attach itself to the ocean floor; a ship specially designed to shoot Greek fire; an armoured siege engine that can be raised by bellows; a bridge connecting Greece and Africa; and an alphabet that can be used for encoding riddles!” says Herren.

But not everything is fantasy or satire, says Herren.

“Aethicus’s description of the effects of volcanoes and his attempt to explain how they work will surely interest historians of science, as will his effort to explain the desalination of underground salt water. There is also much of interest for students of seventh-century Byzantine history,” says Herren. Yet despite the real author’s career in Western Europe, allusions to datable events in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean can be identified.

“In the last chapters of the work, Aethicus and his family are made out to bThe cosmography of aethicus ister book covere victims of slave raids in the Balkans perpetrated by Byzantine emperors masquerading as the ancient kings of Rome,” he says.

Herren hopes that the translation and commentary will make this enigmatic work fully accessible to classicists and medievalists of all disciplines. “The Cosmography is particularly valuable because it shows that scholars of the ‘Dark Ages’ were capable of producing works other than saints’ lives, biblical commentaries, and chronicles,” explains Herren. “The neglect of this work by scholars to date can be attributed to the corrupt state of the Latin text and the exceptional difficulty of the Latin in many places.”

Over his 45-year career, Herren has specialized in reconstructing and translating Latin writings from the early medieval period that were inaccessible to most scholars because of their linguistic difficulty. In addition to receiving the prestigious title Distinguished Research Professor from York University, Herren is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, and an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy. In 2004 he received the Konrad Adenauer Research Prize for lifetime work in the humanities.