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.
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.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
In a time and place that offered few career opportunities for women, the job of the priestess of Apollo at Delphi stands out. Her position was at the centre of one of the most powerful religious institutions of the ancient world. The competing Greek city states had few overarching authorities (political or otherwise), so the significance of her voice should not be underestimated.
Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the Pythia was at the core what we today call a “knowledge economy”. Her role may well have involved the gathering, re-packaging, and distribution of information, with the ultimate intent of providing sound advice on the trivial and not-so-trivial questions of life in the ancient world.
The “Pythia” is the official job title. We know of several women by name who, during the long history of this institution (from ca. 800 BCE to AD 390/91), held that role, including Phemonoe and Aristonike. Indeed, at some stage Delphi became so busy that three Pythias were appointed to serve in the role simultaneously.
The oracle was consulted by the movers and shakers of the ancient world on a diverse range of problems. For the Pythia, this meant the opportunity to comment on a variety of issues of public and individual concern: cult matters, warfare, the relationships between existing city-states, and the foundation of new ones.
Numerous personal questions were also put to the oracle on matters of lovesickness, career advice, child birth, and how to get offspring. So, by all standards, this job was demanding yet also diverse and rewarding — a position powerful enough to change the course of history.
Yet right from the beginning, efforts to deprive the priestess of her power prevailed, particularly in older classical scholarship. Surely a woman, especially one in such a paternalistic society as ancient Greece, could not hold that powerful a position?
Some scholars suggested that the Pythia actually babbled unintelligible gibberish and that her words were later put into beautiful, deep, and meaningful hexameter verse — by male priests.
Yet in our ancient sources there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it was anyone other than the Pythia herself who came up with the responses. To the contrary: she is regularly named as the one and only source of the prophecies delivered at Delphi. There is no word of male priests, beyond those in purely administrative and assisting roles.
The position of the Pythia seemed to have entailed the extraordinary opportunity to speak unwelcome truth to those in power.
A Spartan once approached the oracle with the intention of being confirmed as the wisest man in the world. In response to this question the Pythia named another person who was wiser.
The Greek city of Megara allegedly asked the Pythia in about 700 BCE who were the best of all the Greeks, hoping to be named first. The Pythia mentioned two better cities , concluding with the line, “[Y]ou, o Megarians, [are] neither third nor fourth.” Surely, the Megarians did not see that coming!
Cleisthenes, meanwhile, the famous tyrant of Sicyon, asked whether he should remove the cult of the hero Adrastus from the city. He received an oracle that came straight to the point: “Adrastus is king of Sicyon, and you but a common slayer.”
This kind of reality check and straight talk would certainly have upset those with egos accustomed to flattery and agreement.
Of course, it is not always possible to tell whether these and other responses of the oracle were authentic or whether the whole incident was part of later historiographic lore. Yet whatever the case: the fact is that it was a woman who was attributed such a sharp, judgemental voice.
And her voice proved extraordinarily unimpeachable. The Greeks thought that it was the god Apollo who conveyed his superior divine knowledge through the mouth of the Pythia, so the priestess herself was largely beyond reproach. While itinerant seers, augurs, and oracle mongers feature in classical literature as corrupt and unreliable, the position of the Pythia seems to have stood above all criticism.
Being a Pythia was not always easy. Several ancient enquirers sought to influence the kind of answer they hoped to get from the oracle. Subtle manipulation in how the questions were put, not-so-subtle bribery, and even an attempt to force the oracle to deliver responses on a non-auspicious day are all on record – as are complaints about unfathomable responses.
For instance the Greek historian, philosopher, soldier, and horse whisperer Xenophon allegedly enquired at Delphi to which deity he should sacrifice and pray so that the military expedition he was about to join would be a success. He was later reprimanded by the philosopher Socrates for having posed a manipulative question. Socrates felt he should have asked whether it would be a success, rather than how.
Cleisthenes was said to have bribed the Pythia to deliver the same response to all Spartan requests at the oracle, no matter the question: to free Athens from the rule of tyrants.
And after a series of spectacular mishaps based on misread oracles, the Lydian king Croesus complained at the Delphic Oracle about having been misled. The Pythia responded that he himself was to blame for his misfortune: He should have interpreted the Pythia’s word correctly.
We also know of several instances in which the Pythia refused outright to respond to a question that, in one way or another, seemed unreasonable.
What did it take to become the Pythia? Was she a local girl from a neighbouring village? Was any kind of training provided to candidates? Or were they thrown in the deep end?
Unfortunately, the ancient sources are silent. The Nobel prize-winning author William Golding in his (posthumously published) last novel The Double Tongue, written from the perspective of a Pythia, sees her as a local girl who was unable to get herself married and so took on that role.
Yet again, this sounds like speculation designed to downplay the position.
The kind of skills required to be successful in the role are easier to reconstruct. The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi served as a marketplace for representatives from all over the ancient Greek world (and beyond) who came for a variety of reasons.
In addition to the oracle, the sanctuary housed regular athletic competitions (the so-called Pythian Games, analogous to the more famous Olympic Games). With its numerous temples and monuments, the site was also a popular tourist destination. All these activities together served to establish a busy hub, where information, news, and gossip of all kinds would have circulated freely.
So perhaps the key to the Pythia’s success was simply to listen closely? There is good evidence to suggest that the fantastic tales of prediction and fulfilment are a matter of the (later) historiographic tradition and that it was mostly quite straightforward questions of everyday life that were put to the Pythia for comment, along the lines suggested by the ancient author Plutarch, who was also a priest at Delphi: Will I win? Shall I marry? Is it a good idea to sail the sea? Shall I take up farming? Shall I go abroad?
If this was indeed the case, it would, more often than not, have been possible to glean the information necessary to answer any particular enquiry from the chatter of those queuing to consult the oracle, to watch or participate in the games, or to take in the monuments. The Pythia may have trailblazed the knowledge economy millennia before the arrival of “big data” and the invention of the internet.
In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
Rarely does L.P. Hartley’s dictum that “the past is a foreign country” hold more firmly than in the area of sexuality in classical art. Erotic images and depictions of genitalia, the phallus in particular, were incredibly popular motifs across a wide range of media in ancient Greece and Rome.
Simply put, sex is everywhere in Greek and Roman art. Explicit sexual representations were common on Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. They are often eye-openingly confronting in nature.
The Romans too were surrounded by sex. The phallus, sculpted in bronze as tintinnabula (wind chimes), were commonly found in the gardens of the houses of Pompeii, and sculpted in relief on wall panels, such as the famous one from a Roman bakery telling us hic habitat felicitas (“here dwells happiness”).
However these classical images of erotic acts and genitalia reflect more than a sex obsessed culture. The depictions of sexuality and sexual activities in classical art seem to have had a wide variety of uses. And our interpretations of these images – often censorious in modern times – reveal much about our own attitudes to sex.
When the collection of antiquities first began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries, the openness of ancient eroticism puzzled and troubled Enlightenment audiences. This bewilderment only intensified after excavations began at the rediscovered Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Gabinetto Segreto (the so-called “Secret Cabinet”) of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli best typifies the modern response to classical sexuality in art – repression and suppression.
The secret cabinet was founded in 1819, when Francis I, King of Naples, visited the museum with his wife and young daughter. Shocked by the explicit imagery, he ordered all items of a sexual nature be removed from view and locked in the cabinet. Access would be restricted to scholars, of “mature age and respected morals”. That was, male scholars only.
In Pompeii itself, where explicit material such as the wallpaintings of the brothel was retained in situ, metal shutters were installed. These shutters restricted access to only male tourists willing to pay additional fees, until as recently as the 1960s.
Of course, the secrecy of the collection in the cabinet only increased its fame, even if access was at times difficult. John Murray’s Handbook to South Italy and Naples (1853) sanctimoniously states that permission was exceedingly difficult to obtain:
Very few therefore have seen the collection; and those who have, are said to have no desire to repeat their visit.
The cabinet was not opened to the general public until 2000 (despite protests by the Catholic Church). Since 2005, the collection has been displayed in a separate room; the objects have still not been reunited with contemporary non-sexual artefacts as they were in antiquity.
The Vatican Museum in particular (but not exclusively) was famed for altering classical art for the sake of contemporary morals and sensibilities. The application of carved and cast fig leaves to cover the genitalia was common, if incongruous.
It also indicated a modern willingness to associate nudity with sexuality, which would have puzzled an ancient audience, for whom the body’s physical form was in itself regarded as perfection. So have we been misreading ancient sexuality all this time? Well, yes.
It is difficult to tell to what extent ancient audiences used explicit erotic imagery for arousal. Certainly, the erotic scenes that were popular on vessels would have given the Athenian parties a titillating atmosphere as wine was consumed.
These types of scenes are especially popular on the kylix, or wine-cup, particularly within the tondo (central panel of the cup). Hetairai (courtesans) and pornai (prostitutes) may well have attended the same symposia, so the scenes may have been used as a stimuli.
Painted erotica was replaced by moulded depictions in the later Greek and Roman eras, but the use must have been similar, and the association of sex with drinking is strong in this series.
The application of sexual scenes to oil lamps by the Romans is perhaps the most likely scenario where the object was actually used within the setting of love-making. Erotica is common on mould-made lamps.
The phallus and fertility
Although female nudity was not uncommon (particularly in association with the goddess Aphrodite), phallic symbolism was at the centre of much classical art.
The phallus would often be depicted on Hermes, Pan, Priapus or similar deities across various art forms. Rather than being seen as erotic, its symbolism here was often associated with protection, fertility and even healing. We have already seen the phallus used in a range of domestic and commercial contexts in Pompeii, a clear reflection of its protective properties.
A herm was a stone sculpture with a head (usually of Hermes) above a rectangular pillar, upon which male genitals were carved. These blocks were positioned at borders and boundaries for protection, and were so highly valued that in 415 BC when the hermai of Athens were vandalised prior to the departure of the Athenian fleet many believed this would threaten the success of the naval mission.
A famous fresco from the House of the Vetti in Pompeii shows Priapus, a minor deity and guardian of livestock, plants and gardens. He has a massive penis, holds a bag of coins, and has a bowl of fruit at his feet. As researcher Claudia Moser writes, the image represents three kinds of prosperity: growth (the large member), fertility (the fruit), and affluence (the bag of money).
It is worth noting that even a casual glance at classical sculptures in a museum will reveal that the penis on marble depictions of nude gods and heroes is often quite small. Classical cultural ideals valued a smaller penis over a larger, often to the surprise of modern audiences.
All representations of large penises in classical art are associated with lustfulness and foolishness. Priapus was so despised by the other gods he was thrown off Mt Olympus. Bigger was not better for the Greeks and Romans.
Myths and sex
Classical mythology is based upon sex: myths abound with stories of incest, intermarriage, polygamy and adultery, so artistic depictions of mythology were bound to depict these sometimes explicit tales. Zeus’s cavalier attitude towards female consent within these myths (among many examples, he raped Leda in the guise of a swan and Danae while disguised as the rain) reinforced misogynistic ideas of male domination and female subservience.
The phallus was also highlighted in depictions of Dionysiac revelry. Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, theatre and transformation was highly sexualised, as were his followers – the male satyrs and female maenads, and their depiction on wine vessels is not surprising.
Satyrs were half-men, half-goats. Somewhat comic, yet also tragic to a degree, they were inveterate masturbators and party animals with an appetite for dancing, wine and women. Indeed the word satyriasis has survived today, classified in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a form of male hypersexuality, alongside the female form, nymphomania.
The intention of the ithyphallic (erect) satyrs is clear in their appearance on vases (even if they rarely caught the maenads they were chasing); at the same time their massive erect penises are indicative of the “beastliness” and grotesque ugliness of a large penis as opposed to the classical ideal of male beauty represented by a smaller one.
Actors who performed in satyr plays during dramatic festivals took to the stage and orchestra with fake phallus costumes to indicate that they were not humans, but these mythical beasts of Dionysus.
Early collectors of classical art were shocked to discover that the Greeks and Romans they so admired were earthy humans too with a range of sexual needs and desires. But in emphasising the sexual aspects of this art they underplayed the non-sexual role of phallic symbols.
Is cheating at the Olympic Games a symptom of modernity? Do recent scandals involving athletes signal the decline of the Olympic idea?
While in antiquity instances of bribery remained the exception – and were heavily punished – there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that attempts to manipulate the outcome of the competitions are as old as the Games themselves.
Take the example of Damonikos of Elis. One father of a young and promising athlete bribed the father of his son’s opponent to ensure his offspring a victory in wrestling. Both fathers were found out and fined.
Or consider the case of the Athenian Kallipos, who bribed his opponents to secure victory in the pentathlon. He, too, was caught out and a heavy fine was imposed on him and on those who had accepted the bribe.
Athens, however, refused to pay and even boycotted the Games. It took the intervention of the Delphic Oracle to resolve the situation: Delphi announced that no more oracles would be delivered to the Athenians until the they had paid up.
Such attempts to influence the outcome of the Games confirm that the competitive streak ran strongly through ancient Greek culture. In a world where few believed in an afterlife, this-worldly glory mattered immensely. And what better opportunity to show off than competing with others before an audience from all over the Greek world?
From 776BCE on, the Greeks gathered every four years to celebrate the Olympic Games and compete in a number of disciplines, including the foot race, boxing and various equestrian skills. The Games became part of an elaborate festival circuit, which also featured competitions in trumpet-playing and the recitation of poetry. Even beauty contests – for men! – are attested, albeit not at Olympia itself.
Scandal in the sanctuary
The ancient Games were celebrated not in a city called Olympia but at the sanctuary of Olympic Zeus on the western Peloponnese. They were organised by the city of Elis, which tended the site and provided the hellanodikai (judges) every four years to oversee the proper conduct of the Games.
The competitions were part of a lavish festival to honour the most powerful of the Greek gods and featured sacrifices, processions and dedications. Yet the religious setting did not necessarily ensure a more solemn and respectful attitude on the part of the participants. While most of the athletes stuck to the rules, some were prepared to do whatever it took to secure victory.
The Alexandrian boxer Apollonius arrived at the Games too late and was banned from competing. He claimed that bad weather had made it impossible for him to arrive on time. This was a straight lie: it turned out that Apollonius was late because he had secured himself a nice payout at some other Games.
What happened next was even more outrageous. In the words of the author Pausanias:
In these circumstances the Eleans shut out from the games Apollonius with any other boxer who came after the prescribed time, and let the crown go to Heracleides without a contest. Whereupon Apollonius put on his gloves for a fight, rushed at Heracleides and began to pummel him, though he had already put the wild olive on his head and had taken refuge with the umpires. For this light-headed folly he was to pay dearly.
As in the modern world, who was allowed to compete was crucial; in the ancient world, this meant (for most of the history of the Games) exclusively free Greek males. That was the theory, at least. In practice, there were times the citizens of a particular city were excluded from the Games for misconduct. This is why a Boeotian man once claimed to be from Sparta.
Women were not allowed even to visit the sanctuary during the Olympic Games, let alone compete. They had their own Games, the so-called Heraia. Once a young athlete’s mother managed to sneak in by masquerading as his male trainer. When her son secured the victory, she got overly excited and blew her cover.
Even the judges were not beyond reproach. In the equestrian disciplines, the owner of the winning horse took victory. A certain Troilos was able to win two contests over which he presided as judge. He apparently did not find this problematic: a bronze plaque boasts of his achievements to the rest of the Greek world.
The Eleans subsequently changed the rules, and judges’ horses were no longer allowed to compete.
Fines and prizes
At Olympia, competitors found to be cheating had to pay a hefty fine. The sanctuary featured a row of statues of Zeus – the so-called Zanes – that were financed by these fines and put on display for all to see. Visiting in the second century AD, Pausanias was still able to tell who had financed which statue and for what reason.
Even in the ancient world, it seems, cheating didn’t pay.
So what was at stake? The winner took all. Coming second or third did not rate and brought no public recognition. The winning athlete at Olympia received a crown of olive branches – at Delphi, fresh celery.
If this seems hardly worth the fuss, more lavish rewards waited at home in the form of cash, free meals and numerous public honours. Some winners also received life-size statues erected at Olympia or in their home town, or both.
The possibility of exploiting the Games for political ends and the opportunities for personal aggrandisement were not lost on the ancients: Emperor Nero moved the Games from AD 65 to AD 67 so that he could enter the competitions in chariot racing – which he did, with a ten-horse team.
During the race, the overly keen emperor fell from his chariot and was unable to finish. Nevertheless, Nero was awarded the crown. The officials simply argued that had the accident not happened, the Roman emperor would surely have won.
Nero’s Olympic “achievements” were later removed from the public records and the Games of AD 76 declared null and void. The intervention had been too obvious, particularly after it emerged that Nero had paid the judges a hefty bribe and also awarded them Roman citizenship.
Cheating, bribery and scandal, it seems, were part of the Games right from the start – as were attempts to prevent them. They are not a sign of the decline of the Olympic idea in the modern era, but part of human nature.
For better or worse, it seems, the absolute will to succeed can be absolute indeed and in antiquity just as today ambition cuts both ways, bringing out the best and the worst in people.
Fresh from victory over Greek forces at the Battle of Alamana, the Ottoman Army under Omer Vrioni was moving to attack the Peloponnese. However, they ran into the small force led by Androutsos at Gravia (Greece), who had fortified themselves within the inn.
A number of attacks on the inn took place with the Ottoman Army suffering heavy casualties and the Greeks very few (6 only). Vrioni odered up his artillery and during this time the Greeks managed to slip away through the Ottoman lines.
As a consequence of his heavy losses (some 300 dead and 800 more wounded), Vrioni retreated and withdrew. During this time the Greeks consolidated their position in the Peloponnese, including the capture of the Ottoman capital in the Peloponnese – Tripoli.