Many incorrectly imagine that the life of a Classicist involves a blind obsession with the particulars of the ancient Greek subjunctive or debates over the hexameters of Sulpicia. However, ancient historians who wish to access the everyday world of the past must also become astute ethnographers of the present. I spend most of my days giving words to the non-elites of antiquity, most of whom have few—if any—surviving words of their own. This preoccupation may be one reason why the memoirs, cookbooks, and self-help books of celebrities have become my favored literary genre as of late. The name on the front cover or the celebrity author attributed on the New York Times listing is not of immediate interest to me. I am far more intrigued by the often-anonymous ghostwriters paid to pen these glossy tomes.
In 1987, Tony Schwartz infamously penned Donald Trump’s bestselling The Art of the Deal. Schwartz is one of the few ghostwriters known by name in the historical record, even if the art of ghostwriting has been practiced since antiquity.
In Classical Athens, the term λογογράφος, (from the ancient Greek for “word” and “writer”) was a newly derogatory title hurled at paid men who wrote speeches performed by other orators. These men had already been known within the court system for Athens, where there was an expectation that speakers deliver eloquent but spontaneous oratory. Speeches which conformed to the rules of the court were given from memory and without parchment or papyrus notes. When in doubt of their eloquence, it seems many men on trial turned to logographers to express their alleged emotions and pleas for them.
Famed ghostwriters were also known in the Roman world, though the practice appears deeply frowned upon within a culture wherein elite men were expected to write, to speak, and to inspire through their own words. The salacious (but delicious) Roman imperial biographer Suetonius remarks on a certain scholar named Lucius Aelius Stilo, who wrote speeches for late Republican orators in the first century BCE. In Cicero’s Brutus, a dialogue recounting the history of Roman oratory, Cicero even comments on earlier rumors questioning the authorship of speeches denouncing the Gracchan reforms at the end of the second century BCE.
Persuasion is and was a skill that every politician needed to acquire in ancient Rome, but as it turns out, certain types of verbal charisma can be purchased. Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician who wrote a handbook on oratory in the late first century CE, discusses the ghostwriting phenomenon in a section on the practice of literary imitation. In it, he calls out none other than Cicero for writing speeches given by the likes of Gnaeus Pompeius—otherwise known as Pompey.
“For there are many speeches composed by Greek and Latin orators for others to deliver, the words of which had to be adapted to suit the position and character of those for whom they were written. Do you suppose that Cicero thought in the same way or assumed the same character when he wrote for Gnaeus Pompeius and when he wrote for Titus Ampius and the rest?”
Many historians writing in antiquity commented upon the fact that famed writers and rhetoric teachers were occasionally hired to write the legal pleas given in a criminal or civil trial. While hired speechwriting in the political and legal spheres might seem de rigueur today, it appears to have been a source of shame in antiquity.
The insinuation that a Roman elite used a ghostwriter was not isolated to senators, statesmen, and those on trial. It was said by Tacitus in his Annals that Nero’s poetic compositions were actually the product of collaborative literary dinner parties where much more talented poets joined in and improved the verses the emperor meant for posterity—sometimes with their own poetry brought to the table in lieu of a bottle of wine. We know that the Stoic philosopher Seneca, Nero’s tutor, wrote speeches for the adolescent Julio-Claudian and that those Romans who attended the emperor Claudius’ funeral snickered at the realization that his tutor had actually written the eulogy given. In the last hours before his suicide, Nero was rumored to have uttered, ‘Qualis artifex pereo’ (“What an artist perishes in me!”), but he was an artist dependent in part upon the artistry of others.
Today, ghostwriting is big business among celebrities, though the long-lasting stigma attached to the practice remains. There was the allegation that Carole Radziwill, a former journalist and daughter-in-law of Lee Radziwill, used a ghostwriter for her moving memoir, What Remains, and the contention that Real Housewife Teresa Giudice used a ghostwriter for her bestselling Italian cookbook allegedly filled with family recipes. Far fewer people indict public relations specialists for writing tweets, speeches, or statements for their clients, or chastise authors who benefitted from the practice like Tom Clancy or H.P. Lovecraft.
How then do we understand the millennia-long derision of ghostwriters for politicians? It perhaps comes down to the ways in which the public continues to expect and to redefine what the word “authenticity” means to us. Who has it and who does not is often gauged not by actions, but rather by their written words. As The New York Times pointed to in an article on the booming business of ghostwriting for everyday people, Americans are composing and finding meaning in and through words—digital or otherwise—more than they ever have before.
And we still expect politicians to be writers as well as orators; just one reason why both of the memoirs actually penned by the Obamas themselves have touched so many. Whether in ancient Rome or today, humans continue to view the act of writing as a window into and metric for an individual’s authentic self. This is perhaps why most Americans now reject The Art of the Deal, and look instead to Trump’s tweets for the true measure of the man in charge.