Category Archives: Greece
The idea of “news” is a pretty new thing. So is the concept of “fake news”, as in false or misleading information presented as news. Accordingly, we don’t expect to understand the term outside of our own epoch.
Most people identify “fake news” with Donald Trump, as he used the term widely to challenge mass media coverage of his 2016 presidential campaign. Trump ran as much against the “fake news” of the New York Times and CNN as against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.
For sure, it’s a long way from Trump to Thucydides, the famous Athenian historian and general. There was no “news” in the ancient world, unless we consider the scuttlebutt in the agora (city square) as a kind of Athens Times or some such.
And poor Thucydides would probably cringe at being compared to Trump. Yet there seems to be a meaningful analogy between Trump and fake news, and Thucydides and myth. More on that in a moment.
Mistrust and misinformation
By news, we mean something like truth, facts about the world. In that sense, fake news is an oxymoron. News can be false, of course. But we’d like to believe that untrue in this case really means a mistake, a gaffe that in some sense is always correctable. News agencies can and do retract stories and reporters file corrections.
News suggests the default is truth or a commitment to truth. If they are true to their profession, journalists demonstrate a higher commitment or calling, to get stories right, or at least not to fake it. Intentional falsification results in professional suicide.
Which brings us back to Trump and Thucydides. Trump’s brilliance, if we can call it that, was his grasp of a certain presentiment in the American electorate that proved strong enough to catapult him to victory in 2016.
People’s mistrust in institutions seems to be at an all-time high. They feel they are being gaslighted, that there exists a cabal of smug elites who hold them in contempt. As Trump would have it, that cabal includes a press corps, threatened by new media, that has sold out and joined with the deep state and the Democratic Party.
Trump realised he could not become president by preaching to Republicans only, to those who never or almost never voted Democratic. He needed those whose distrust of institutions was compounded by a sense of betrayal.
The point of all of this is the importance of truth. Real fake news (as opposed to the claim that all news is fake) is about serving up falsehood as truth. No news or fake news in a democracy can be extremely pernicious, as representative government relies on information.
In the US today, a fundamentally ill-informed public produces inferior laws and weak administration. Over time it may well bring about the ultimate disintegration of the democratic regime altogether.
So, too, went the argument in ancient Athens 26 centuries ago.
There was no Trump or (fake) news. But there was Thucydides (and Plato) and a democracy that needlessly destroyed itself. By engaging in the disastrous Peloponnesian War, the Athenians forfeited their empire, upended their democracy and lost their freedom.
Thucydides and Plato lived through the crisis of Athenian democracy and, not unlike Trump, informed posterity that the fate of their beloved Athens resulted from the systematic misinformation and mis-education of the citizens.
The wrong myths
Demagogues easily manipulated the Athenian demos (common people), precisely because they had mistaken the fake for the real, because they had been systematically mis-educated. Of course, neither blamed the press or journalists. They blamed the poets.
Athenians read, or had read to them, Homer and the stories of epic heroes and war trophies and great victories on the battlefield. Thucydides and Plato decried Homer as the fake news of the ancient world. These heroes were the wrong kind and the myths containing their stories had to go.
Plato seemed desperate to displace Homer. His teacher Socrates was offered as an antidote to the sullen, self-centred, violent heroes of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Socrates was a new hero for a new time, a hero of logos (reason) for a new era where the reed would be mightier than the sword.
So too with Thucydides. Throughout his history of war and plague, he demonstrated with scientific observation the futility of appealing to gods and myths. What good did sacrifices to the gods do the Athenians? How did faith in a higher justice serve the Melians or the people of Mytilene?
Homeric fake news doomed the citizenry of Athens to war and decline. Salvation depended on the people dis-enthralling themselves. Survival entailed embracing the logos and adopting a science of society.
The Athenians instead exiled Thucydides and offered Socrates a hemlock milkshake. Trump got off lightly, being merely impeached twice.
This story is based on the author’s public lecture, “Fake news in ancient times: Thucydides, Plato and the expense of truth”, University of Canterbury, February 25.
Aspirin is one of the most widely used drugs in the world. Its main ingredient comes from a natural product, salicin, found in plants such as willow and myrtle.
Aspirin is also a good example of how myths build up around ancient medicines.
Its origins have been closely linked with Hippocrates, the famous ancient Greek doctor and so-called father of medicine. He’s said to have used willow for pain relief, inspiring the development of aspirin centuries later.
But his writings barely mention willow. So why do we still believe the myth?
What’s all this about willow?
But when we look at what Hippocrates actually wrote, there is just one reference to burning willow leaves to make smoke for “fumigating” the uterus to get rid of a miscarried pregnancy.
This is pretty much the only reference to willow — ιτεα or itea — as a drug in these writings.
Could willow actually relieve pain?
Willow bark and leaves were used in some ancient medicines. However, these were often used externally, rather than swallowed. Because ancient weights and measures are confusing — and sometimes missing altogether in recipes — it’s hard to tell whether there was enough salicin in an ancient recipe to make a difference.
The bark of white willow (Salix alba), which Hippocrates may have been talking about, doesn’t contain much salicin, compared with other willows and salicin-rich plants like the myrtle tree.
A clinically effective dose of 60–120mg of salicin would be very hard to obtain from simply chewing white willow bark or drinking willow tea.
White willow also contains toxic, bitter-tasting tannins. These would make it hard to consume enough bark or tea to reach that dose, and would cause stomach pain long before you got there.
Natural salicin is more abundant in other ancient plants, such as the myrtle tree. But even then you would still probably give yourself a terrible stomach ache after ingesting enough of the plant to relieve pain.
Dioscorides was an ancient Roman who wrote a guidebook of medicines, still in print today. He described willow as a remedy for stomach ache, the respiratory disease tuberculosis, and as a contraceptive.
He said if you burned willow bark, soaked it in vinegar, then rubbed it on corns and calluses, it would remove them. He also recommended a hot pack containing willow leaves for gout (which we know now as a type of arthritis).
Celsus, another Roman medical writer, said warm willow packs or poultices would treat a prolapse of the womb or bowel (where the organ literally falls out of the body). Celsus advised to push it back in, and then bandage the warm dressing on the outside.
Salicin is used today to treat corns and warts. But this doesn’t mean Dioscorides’ recipe worked because of the salicin. Vinegar is acidic and is said to soften corns on its own. Applying any kind of warm pack will also relieve pain.
If willow bark and leaves were handy and potent painkillers, we would have used them almost to extinction by now. Instead, by early modern times in Europe, willow was considered largely useless as a medicine.
This doesn’t mean willow was actually useless. It still contained salicin, but this hadn’t yet been isolated or refined into its modern form.
So, if it wasn’t Hippocrates, who was it?
It was English cleric Reverend Edward Stone who “rediscovered” willow.
In around 1757, Stone chewed on white willow bark out of curiosity and was struck by how bitter it was. He wondered whether it could be used medicinally, like the bitter cinchona bark (where the malaria drug quinine comes from).
Stone gathered and dried around half a kilogram of willow bark, then ground it to powder, before taking small doses every four hours to reduce his fever. Drying the bark would have concentrated the salicin, making its effect stronger.
When the powder seemed to relieve his fever, Stone tried it on his parishioners when they were sick. In 1763, he wrote to the Royal Society, reporting it worked.
How did a plant extract turn into aspirin?
Italian researchers Brugnatelli and Fontana managed to extract salicin from willow bark in 1826. Then German pharmacologist Johann Andreas Buchner created the name “salicin” in 1828 from the Latin word for willow, salix.
Felix Hoffmann, a researcher at the German company now known as Bayer, chemically modified the related molecule salicylic acid, which was eventually named aspirin. The company patented the name in 1899.
Today aspirin is used for pain relief, reducing swelling, lowering body temperature and preventing blood clots.
Why do we keep repeating the willow myth?
Researchers keep repeating the myth that ancient people understood the link between willow and salicin for pain relief, partly because everyone loves an epic tale. And the story of aspirin can be turned into one, with a bit of imagination. But it’s a good reminder to look at original texts if you can.
It’s also an example of how confirmation bias works. We know salicin is in willow, and salicin relieves pain. So when we find ancient references to willow, we think ancient people discovered salicin before us.
Modern medicine likes a respectable family tree. It helps give today’s manufactured products a good pedigree. It also helps us think of these products as safe, beneficial and part of a long healing tradition.
But the “ancient” history of aspirin has a lot of holes in it. So next time you pop an aspirin, thank Hoffmann rather than Hippocrates.