Lessons from an ancient Athenian in an era of 'fake news'

About 2,500 years ago, Thucydides travelled ancient Greece, gathering stories about a brutal war that plunged the ancient world into chaos. He set high standards for accuracy, objectivity and thoroughness in his reporting. IDEAS producer Nicola Luksic explains why his account of the Peloponnesian War is relevant today.

Historian Thucydides set a standard for accurate, unbiased reporting

Greek troops rushing forward at the Battle of Marathon (490BC), depicted by the artist Georges Rochegrosse in 1859. Decades later in his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides set a new standard for accuracy in recording events. (Wikimedia)

This is the first part in a two-part series on Thucydides's lessons for the 21st century. This episode originally broadcast June 7, 2011.

Nearly 2,500 years ago, a man named Thucydides set clear standards for journalism and accuracy in reporting. 

"He's the first war correspondent writing about something as it happens and he's intimately involved in it," said military historian Victor Davis Hanson.

"He's a man of action. He's taken enormous risk to his person to get on the scene."

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) ravaged the Ancient Greek world. To a Greek, it would be on-par with the World Wars of the 20th century.

"Every city in Greece was involved and the magnitude of the suffering was enormous," said Clifford Orwin, professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of The Humanity of Thucydides. "Each city sucked in experienced extraordinary dislocations and loss of life."

Without Thucydides, the details and lessons of the war would have been mostly lost. 

Principles for impartial reporting

Thucydides was an Athenian general who was exiled in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. His exile gave him more time to travel the country, gathering and recording the great military battles and political speeches that unfolded. 

Eight bookes of the Peloponnesian Warre written by Thucydides, the sonne of Olorus. It was published in London, in 1629. (Wikimedia/Houghton Library)

"He believes you have to get the facts on the ground from the people who knew best, who were there at the time," said Carolyn Dewald, professor emerita of Classical Studies at Bard College, and author of Thucydides' War Narrative: A Structural Study.

Prior to Thucydides, events were mostly captured and shared through means of poetry and song, and were strongly influenced by mythology of the time.

His account of the Peloponnesian War runs roughly 500-pages of modern print. At the very beginning of his account he established his method, marking a standard of accuracy, distinct from other forms of storytelling and reporting that came before him.

"With regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war, I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way and not even to be guided by my own general impressions either. I was present myself at the events which I have described. Or else I heard them from eyewitnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that the truth was easy to discover, Thucydides wrote in The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Thucydides added that eyewitnesses gave different accounts of the same event, not being impartial or relying on imperfect memories.

"Most people, in fact, will not take the trouble in finding out the truth, but so much more inclined to accept the first story they hear."

A dedication to the truth about war

Thucydides traveled all the way through the Greek world, interviewing people on all sides.

"He really was collecting facts and collecting them very carefully," said Dewald. "He would get right who the commanders of the ships were. How many people were involved, where precisely the battle took place. He really tried as hard as he could to be describing military facts on the ground in ways that we can still study. We can still plot out how a facility and battle might have occurred."

My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but it was done to last forever.- Thucydides

His reporting was not designed to ingratiate himself to either the Athenians or the Spartans. His dedication to reporting the truth meant that neither side would have been entirely happy with his account.

Thucydides makes it clear that no one who has biases about the Peloponnesian War is going to be gratified by his history because whatever city you're from, he's going to present a version of the war that is not your city's version of what happened," said Orwin.

"It's not [an account] that's going to vindicate your city's justice or praise its courage. He exposes the truth about the war, which is not ultimately flattering to any of the participants."

The Spartan general Lysander has the walls of Athens demolished in 404 BC, as a result of the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War. (Wikimedia/The illustrated history of the world )

"He would not be like Fox News. He would not seek to characterize anybody in reductive, simple minded terms that dismissed their importance," said Dewald.

"He's not interested in reductively making a cartoon out of any of the players in the history."

Orwin adds that Thucydides' purpose in writing the book was not to call attention to himself — or to justify his role in the conflict. 

"He wants to teach the reader what he regards as the most important lessons about human political life," said Orwin.

Thucydides writes in The History of the Peloponnesian War:

"It will be enough for me... if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past, which human nature being what it is, will at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future."

Guests in this episode:

Carolyn Dewald is professor emerita of Classical Studies, Bard College. She's also the author of Thucydides' War Narrative: A Structural Study.

Victor Davis Hanson is a historian at the Hoover Institution. His focus is classics and military history.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science, classics, and Jewish studies, and a Senior Fellow of the Berlin Thucydides Center. He is the author of The Humanity of Thucydides.

Robert B. Strassler is the editor of The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War.

Thanks to Linden MacIntyre for reading the part of Thucydides.

** This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic.

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