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Fiction and Fakery

July 22, 2013

I was going to start this post with the Goebbels quote, “The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed.” Unfortunately it turns out that Goebbels probably never said it. According to this site, what he actually said was, “The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it…” Of course he may not have said that either, since I’ve only picked it up from the Internet, but it suits my purposes.

This is all by way of introducing a marvellous article by Charlotte Higgins in Friday’s Guardian. It begins thus (and this IS a genuine quote, copied and pasted):

In 1747, the sensational discovery of an ancient chronicle redrew the map of Roman Britain and gave us place names we still use today. There was only one problem. It was a sham. 

You can enjoy the rest of the article  here.

The antiquarians of the day were taken in, and despite what seem (with retrospect) some obvious blunders, De Situ Britanniae (On the Situation of Britain) was not exposed as a fake until a hundred and twenty years after its  alleged discovery.

Its author, Charles Bertram, drew on ancient sources to make his work convincing, and there’s no doubt that he intended to deceive. Whereas writers of historical fiction are honest folk who draw on ancient sources in order to weave new tales in and around the accepted ‘facts’…er, it’s all sounding rather similar, isn’t it? Except that reader and writer usually agree on the rules of the game. We all accept that much of what’s inside the book is made up. While we ‘believe’ in Marcus and Esca and their attempts to regain The Eagle of the Ninth, we all know they’re simply an invention of Rosemary Sutcliff’s imagination. However… I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve assured me that the Ninth Legion really did vanish in Scotland: something that now, in the face of evidence discovered long after the book was published, seems highly unlikely.

Sometimes we believe what we want to believe.  And sometimes an invention is useful.  It is, after all, very handy to have a collective noun for the range of hills that stretches up the spine of Britain. And the fact that it sounds remarkably similar to the Appenines, which stretch up the spine of Italy, might suggest a Roman source. Or an inventive mind…

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8 comments

  1. Thanks for this Ruth. I missed the original in the Grauniad for some reason. It’s pretty convincing!

    Btw after reading ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ at about 9-10 I was always convinced, until I read your article, that there was a lost Ninth Legion massacred by those living north of the Wall – and when I used to dig at Vindolanda I’m sure it was an accepted fact!

    Tony Kesten


  2. What a fascinating article, Ruth! I did know about the flaws in the Eagle of the Ninth plot (though it’s still a great tale) but I had no idea how the Pennines got their name. Thanks for sharing such an intriguing and entertaining piece of fakery.


    • No, I didn’t know about the Pennines either! Or indeed about the hoax, until I read the article. One wonders what other fakes we haven’t noticed yet…


  3. I first encountered Bertram’s hoax chronicle some years ago when trying to find out if there was any basis for the Roman naval station of Theodosia based at Dumbarton which Rosemary Sutcliff mentioned in the preface to another of her novels, “Mark of the Horse Lord”. This naval station makes a significant appearance in the story.

    I hunted high and low, and despite many snippets online confidently detailing its existence, there was no actual supporting evidence to be found anywhere. I finally did what anyone does when stumped- I consulted a librarian – in this case a friendly and helpful one with an interest in local history based at Dumbarton. He confirmed my suspicions about this purported naval station by explaining that it originated with “De Situ Britanniae” and only existed in Betram’s imagination. Though a good guess on Bertram’s part – it would seem logical that the Romans might have made use of a hill fort like Dumbarton – apparently no evidence to date, either archaeological or documentary, has been found of a Roman naval station at the site.

    It was a good example, too, of how misinformation gets repeated over time until it eventually becomes accepted as received wisdom.


    • That’s a fascinating piece of detective work, Anne – thanks for passing it on. I’d never come across Bertram before but am now beginning to wonder what else he’s responsible for. And having spend half the afternoon chasing up something on the internet that appears in many places but mostly quoting the same source (for which I can’t find the evidence) I think I have some idea of how you felt!


  4. I’m also intrigued by this aspect of human nature that has people clinging so determinedly to old bits of received wisdom or some cherished theory (like the loss of the Ninth) long after they’ve been debunked, and even keep disseminating them by one means or another (like the internet) regardless of the truth!


    • I guess the loss of the Ninth is a more intriguing theory than “they were posted to Holland”!



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