Fake news, Roman edition

Twisted tales are as old as time

Boris Johnson’s insistence earlier last month that official public health guidance had not advised it was “very unlikely” that anyone would become infected with Covid-19 in a care home setting right up until 12th March was perhaps one of the most blatant government fudges ever.

The guidance said exactly that, as the Labour leader Keir Starmer pointed out. The government then switched to arguing that it was quoted out of context and did not refer to the situation in mid-March (when, as we now know, the virus was already running rampant in care homes), despite still being online at the time.

Such retrospective editing is hardly unique. “Fake news” is both a serious threat to democracies, and a pointed accusation with which to discredit opponents with valid concerns. And we are told that it is getting worse, spurred on by social media that magnifies every false prophet from the simply misguided to disingenuous bad faith actors.

But the fake news problem is nothing new. Indeed, by Roman standards, modern fake news is almost tame. While propaganda is virtually as old civilisation, the Romans were particularly adept — and blatant — in their efforts to reimagine reality.

Examples are plentiful, from epitaphs that describe individuals far too virtuous to have ever existed, to accounts of religious rituals whose absurdity stretches the realms of plausibility. Many credit the victory of Octavian (later the emperor Augustus) in winning over Roman hearts and minds with a dubious document claiming to be the will of his rival Antony, in which he supposedly intended to bequeath legacies to his children with Cleopatra, thus ceding Roman territory to Egypt.

That particular dodgy dossier potentially changed the course of western history. The stakes could not have been higher. It secured the end of the Roman Republic and shaped the incipient empire. But it is the more opportune and audacious examples of reality distortion that have always impressed me the most.

Take the Arval Brethren and their ability to bend the laws of space and time. This obscure priesthood was tasked with offering prayers for the safety of the emperor, who was head of the order. Administrative accounts rarely capture the imagination, but a fragment from 69 AD provides a wonderful insight into the ability even of priests to be creative with the truth.

69 AD was the Year of the Four Emperors. Four years after Nero allegedly fiddled while Rome burned (never mind that the earliest variants of the violin did not appear until the fifteenth century), he was deposed, thus ending the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. There followed a year of civil war, in which four imperial hopefuls — Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian — were named emperor in quick succession.

This presented a problem to institutions concerned with retaining imperial favour. Public praise for the emperor of the day could quickly turn into a liability.

The Arval Brethren’s minutes for early in the year state that “the day before the Ides of March, prayers were offered for the health and safe return of the emperor Vitellius”. This is highly unlikely, given that Otho was emperor on that date, and would not be overthrown by Vitellius until a month later. Such a flagrant fabrication makes the argument over the date of care homes advice look like a rounding error.

But my favourite example is one that any visitor to Rome will have encountered. You can’t miss it. It is carved in giant letters onto one of the city’s most famous tourist attractions: the Pantheon. The inscription just above the imposing columns reads “M AGRIPPA L F COS TERTIVM FECIT”. It tells us that Marcus Agrippa (right-hand man to Augustus) built it just as the emperor’s reign of peace of prosperity — the so-called Golden Age of Rome — was beginning.

In fact, the Pantheon was built 140 years later, under the emperor Trajan.

Why the epic lie etched on a national landmark? Stamping an Augustan-era inscription on his own monument was a way for the new emperor to associate his regime with the glorious past. It’s a bit like today’s Prime Minister choosing to mimic Churchill’s great “end of the beginning” oratory when he told the nation “we are coming now to the end of the first phase of this conflict”.

That doesn’t make the Pantheon inscription any less misleading. Trajan’s excuse would have been that Agrippa did build a temple on that site, and that his own contribution was merely a renovation. It’s a convoluted defence reminiscent of the government’s insistence that it really did hit 100,000 Covid-19 tests “performed” a day by the end of April — never mind that this includes tests mailed out and tells us little about the number of people actually tested. At any rate, the archaeological evidence on the Pantheon is clear — the original temple had been almost completely destroyed, and what exists now is very much Trajan’s creation.

Some might find it disturbing that our government’s affinity for stretching, bending, and outright ignoring the truth has ancient precedents. But to me, it is reassuring.

Individuals, institutions, and governments have always fudged the facts. Inflating the number of tests or trying to backdate advice are relatively mild infractions compared to praising an emperor who doesn’t exist, staging a coup with a fake legal document, or using a civic monument to lie for you. Just one more thing the Romans have done for us.

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