Tag Archives: Thucydides

Fake news was a thing long before Donald Trump — just ask the ancient Greeks



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Peter S. Field, University of Canterbury

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.

Donald Trump at a rally with crowds and placards
Fake news is good news: Donald Trump on the campaign trail in 2020.
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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.




Read more:
An ancient Greek approach to risk and the lessons it can offer the modern world


Declining democracies

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.

Statue of Thucydides
Statue of Thucydides in Vienna.
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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.




Read more:
Ancient Greeks would not recognise our ‘democracy’ – they’d see an ‘oligarchy’


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.

Statue of Plato
Statue of Plato in Athens.
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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.The Conversation

Peter S. Field, Head of Humanities and Creative Arts and Associate Professor of American History, University of Canterbury

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Thucydides and the plague of Athens – what it can teach us now



Pericles Funeral Oration on the Greek 50 Drachmai 1955 Banknote.
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Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

The coronavirus is concentrating our minds on the fragility of human existence in the face of a deadly disease. Words like “epidemic” and “pandemic” (and “panic”!) have become part of our daily discourse.

These words are Greek in origin, and they point to the fact that the Greeks of antiquity thought a lot about disease, both in its purely medical sense, and as a metaphor for the broader conduct of human affairs. What the Greeks called the “plague” (loimos) features in some memorable passages in Greek literature.

One such description sits at the very beginning of western literature. Homer’s Iliad, (around 700BC), commences with a description of a plague that strikes the Greek army at Troy. Agamemnon, the leading prince of the Greek army, insults a local priest of Apollo called Chryses.

Apollo is the plague god – a destroyer and healer – and he punishes all the Greeks by sending a pestilence among them. Apollo is also the archer god, and he is depicted firing arrows into the Greek army with a terrible effect:

Apollo strode down along the pinnacles of Olympus angered

in his heart, carrying on his shoulders the bow and the hooded

quiver; and the shafts clashed on the shoulders of the god walking angrily.

Terrible was the clash that rose from the bow of silver.

First he went after the mules and the circling hounds, then let go

a tearing arrow against the men themselves and struck them.

The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning.

Plague narratives

About 270 years after the Iliad, or thereabouts, plague is the centrepiece of two great classical Athenian works – Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and Book 2 of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides (c.460-400BC) and Sophocles (490-406BC) would have known one another in Athens, although it is hard to say much more than that for a lack of evidence. The two works mentioned above were produced at about the same time. The play Oedipus was probably produced about 429 BC, and the plague of Athens occurred in 430-426 BC.

Thucydides writes prose, not verse (as Homer and Sophocles do), and he worked in the comparatively new field of “history” (meaning “enquiry” or “research” in Greek). His focus was the Peloponnesian war fought between Athens and Sparta, and their respective allies, between 431 and 404 BC.

Thucydides’ description of the plague that struck Athens in 430 BC is one of the great passages of Greek literature. One of the remarkable things about it is how focused it is on the general social response to the pestilence, both those who died from it and those who survived.

Statue portrait of historian Thucydides outside the Austrian parliament in Vienna.
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A health crisis

The description of the plague immediately follows on from Thucydides’ renowned account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (it is important that Pericles died of the plague in 429 BC, whereas Thucydides caught it but survived).

Thucydides gives a general account of the early stages of the plague – its likely origins in north Africa, its spread in the wider regions of Athens, the struggles of the doctors to deal with it, and the high mortality rate of the doctors themselves.

Nothing seemed to ameliorate the crisis – not medical knowledge or other forms of learning, nor prayers or oracles. Indeed “in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things”.

He describes the symptoms in some detail – the burning feeling of sufferers, stomachaches and vomiting, the desire to be totally naked without any linen resting on the body itself, the insomnia and the restlessness.

Michiel Sweerts’ Plague in an Ancient City (circa 1652).
Wikimedia

The next stage, after seven or eight days if people survived that long, saw the pestilence descend to the bowels and other parts of the body – genitals, fingers and toes. Some people even went blind.

Words indeed fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure.

Those with strong constitutions survived no better than the weak.

The most terrible thing was the despair into which people fell when they realized that they had caught the plague; for they would immediately adopt an attitude of utter hopelessness, and by giving in in this way, would lose their powers of resistance.

Lastly, Thucydides focuses on the breakdown in traditional values where self-indulgence replaced honour, where there existed no fear of god or man.

As for offences against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that a far heavier sentence had been passed on him.

The whole description of the plague in Book 2 lasts only for about five pages, although it seems longer.

The first outbreak of plague lasted two years, whereupon it struck a second time, although with less virulence. When Thucydides picks up very briefly the thread of the plague a little bit later (3.87) he provides numbers of the deceased: 4,400 hoplites (citizen-soldiers), 300 cavalrymen and an unknown number of ordinary people.

Nothing did the Athenians so much harm as this, or so reduced their strength for war.

A modern lens

Modern scholars argue over the science of it all, not the least because Thucydides offers a generous amount of detail of the symptoms.

Epidemic typhus and smallpox are most favoured, but about 30 different diseases have been posited.

Thucydides offers us a narrative of a pestilence that is different in all kinds of ways from what we face.

The lessons that we learn from the coronavirus crisis will come from our own experiences of it, not from reading Thucydides. But these are not mutually exclusive. Thucydides offers us a description of a city-state in crisis that is as poignant and powerful now, as it was in 430BC.The Conversation

Chris Mackie, Professor of Classics, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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