As pretty much everyone knows by now, at the recent Republican National Convention, Melania Trump plagiarized much of a speech made by First Lady Michelle Obama eight years ago. But Donald Trump's third wife wasn't the first to ever steal content from its rightful owner.
As classicist Jake Nabel noted on Twitter, the ancients pretty much had a monopoly on copying others' words. Even Cicero joked about it in his letters. As far back as classical Greece, critics and writers accused others of stealing their work, but the Romans stole the idea and began applying it to their own works in the second century B.C.E. One the most famous instances of plagiarism from the ancient world came from Vitruvius's On Architecture, which chronicles how the first librarian of the Library of Alexandria was found. Vitruvius has the greatest disdain for plagiarists; he admits his own "obligations to all those authors" whose sources he used.
Once, a king of Egypt threw a series of games to celebrate, complete with prizes for literature. He chose six judges, but needed a seventh, so someone suggested a "certain man named Aristophanes [of Byzantium], who with great labour and application was day after day reading through the books in the library." When the poets recited, the judges were almost unanimous in their opinion of who should be the winner...
But Aristophanes claimed that only one of the competitors was a real poet; the others had plagiarized! How did he prove it? Aristophanes "quoted a vast number of books on certain shelves in the library, and comparing them with what had been recited, made the writers confess that they had stolen from them." His great memory served Aristophanes well; the king punished the plagiarists and made him the head of the Library of Alexandria. Although this tale was apocryphal, this type of activity holds true with what we know of Aristophanes the librarian.
The Library of Alexandria, as reconstructed by Atlas Documentary Films.
The Roman poet Martial was the first to invent a word to apply to stealing someone's words, as opposed to just calling it theft. In one epigram, he eviscerates a man named Quinctianus: "To you, Quinctianus, do I commend my books, if indeed I can call books mine, which your poet recites." He jokes about Quinctianus serving as a lawyer defending Martial's poems; the thief should tell everyone the poems were stolen. Martial quips, "If you will proclaim this three or four times, you will bring shame on the plagiary." In another epigram, Martial accuses a man named Fidentinus of "glaring theft" of his work.
The famous doctor Galen tried to define different kinds of plagiarism: what was really stealing and what was riffing off of someone else's work, which was more acceptable? A play that's a "revision" is a rewritten version of another's writing; some elements are the same, while there are also "some things added, and some revised." This type of exchange - whether plagiarism or "revision," as Galen called it - caused some controversy in the ancient world.
The brilliant comic playwright Aristophanes (not the same guy as the librarian) accused a man named Eupolis of stealing his work. Eupolis's Maricas was supposedly derived from Aristophanes's Knights, but Aristophanes himself developed others' work in his own play. This wasn't one-sided; a poet named Cratinus claimed Aristophanes stole his own ideas, but then borrowed Aristophanes's motifs in his work. Hypocrisy? Not so much. This type of textual engagement isn't plagiarism as we know it today, per se. Certain ideas were part of the intellectual "public domain," as David Letao notes; poets and playwrights, who competed publicly, were allowed - and perhaps expected - to use each other's work as outright inspiration.
Feature image via Miami Herald.