Fake News in Ancient Athens

170109athenaThere’s been a lot of talk lately about fake news and its effect on politics, but the phenomenon is not a new one. Consider this story about how the tyrant Peisistratus seized power in Athens in 556 BCE.

There had been long-simmering unrest between three broad groups in Attica: the wealthy farmers of the plains, the fishing and trading people of the coast, and the poor villagers of the hills. Peisistratos organized the hill people as his base of support, promising to represent their interests if they helped him take power. After a first attempt that fell apart when the plains and coast factions organized against him, Peisistratos made a second bid for power a few years later when the coastal faction switched sides and backed him. Here’s how Herodotus tells the story of how Peisistratus managed to take power the second time:

In Paeania [a hilly region of Attica] there was a woman named Phye who was very tall and beautiful. They dressed her in full armor and put her in a chariot, decking her out to make her the most impressive spectacle, and drove her to the city. Heralds ran on ahead and when they reached the city they proclaimed: “Athenians! Welcome Peisistratus, whom Athena has honored above all! She herself is driving him to the acropolis!” They went all around saying these things and the rumor spread at once throughout Attica that Athena was returning Peististratus to the acropolis. The people of the city believed the woman to be the goddess herself, so they worshiped her and received Peisistratus as their tyrant.

– Herodotus, Histories 1.60

My own translation

Were the people of ancient Athens really that gullible? We shouldn’t doubt that most of them believed that the goddess Athena existed and could intervene in human affairs, but it’s still a bit of a leap from there to believe that she would show up in person to deliver a controversial politician back into power. The idea of dressing up a woman like Athena and having her ride into town in a chariot was nothing strange, either. The Panathenaic Festival, one of the major holidays in the Athenian year, featured exactly that. In fact, many historians believe that Peisistratus was actually using the festival as the occasion for his comeback. In that case, everyone knew that Phye was not really Athena, just playing a role in the procession. It may actually be Herodotus who is the gullible one and the “fake news” is the story that anyone was fooled by Phye at all, as opposed to participating in a well-orchestrated bit of political theatre.

We know from modern research that people tend to change their beliefs to suit their politics, not their politics to suit their belief. If anyone in Athens really did believe that Athena was bringing Peisistratus to town, it’s more likely that they were already a backer of his faction and so were willing to accept the story than that believing the story made them back Peisistratus. Similarly, Herodotus was a firm anti-monarchist, so he was disposed to believe that the Athenians must have been tricked into welcoming Peisistratus rather than willingly choosing him to be tyrant.

Either way you cut it, there’s nothing new about people believing false reports that happen to suit their political outlook.

Image: Athena carrying Heracles in her chariot, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Berlin; 420-400 BCE; red-figure pottery; by the Cadmus Painter)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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