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Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: The Medium of Heralds

[by Cheryl Rofer]

I started reading Book II about the time this tweet appeared.

Book II begins…

The war between the Athenians and Peloponnesians and the allies on either side now really begins. For now all intercourse except through the medium of heralds ceased, and hostilities were commenced and prosecuted without intermission.

War is often accompanied by a break in communications. In ancient Greece, that communication involved a human carrier. Communications now never really end.

The United States and Russia are not at war now, pace those who would have a new Cold War, but relations are tense. Some official channels of communication have been cut off, but others remain. Although each side claims at times that the channels of communication over Syria have been broken, the dialog starts up again.

The tweet above, however, is more like what Athenian and Spartan soldiers would have yelled at each other across the field. I won’t unpack all the insults contained in it, but I can see at least five.

This tweet is from the Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom. That account has become famous for its insulting tweets. It tweets a lovely photo of somewhere in Russia most mornings, and retweets more or less standard news. Then BAM! One like the above.

The pattern is regular enough that it is probably strategic, part of Russia’s information warfare. Did the Athenians and Spartans have anything similar? When communications depend primarily on in-person interactions, it’s much more difficult. But rumor-spreading has always been an option, as has been misinformation about war plans and governmental actions. And those insults.

Communications to and from the battlefield have changed in similar ways. Even small insurgencies are now able to communicate rapidly.

The intensity and volume of the information war is new. Hacking and counter-hacking, although most of it is psychological, with the goal of destroying trust in institutions or people. Because I suspect you all share my fatigue with the information war of the US election, I’ll leave it to you to find the examples.

When the election is over, we will still be left with, most notably but not exclusively, the information war between the United States and Russia. Social media have become “the medium of heralds.” But the heralds have many masters, many goals.

3 Responses to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book II: The Medium of Heralds”

  1. zen Says:

    Nice tie in to contemporary geopolitics.
    The Romans were experts at insulting, scatological graffiti about their leaders. We don’t think of Rome that way when we look at the ruins, but we forget it was the New York City of the ancient world over a million strong that had its version of the Bronx, Harlem, Brooklyn and organized street gangs on the periphery of all that marble.
    The Greek polities never reached such gargantuan populations but they were true urban cultures and indeed eclipsed Rome in sophistication for many centuries. I wonder if Greek “information warfare” included graffiti? The putting up of trophies after a battle was in some ways, a “trash talk” about a defeated enemy

  2. John Winterton Says:

    One example of mockery of an opponent in Thucydides can be found at 6.63, during the Sicilian expedition. After the Athenian force failed to act decisively on its arrival at Syracuse, Thucydides notes that the Syracusans came to despise them; ‘And Syracusan cavalry were constantly rding up to the Athenian force as scouts and insulted them in various ways, especially by asking if they had themselves come to live with them in a foreign land rather than to resettle the Leontines in their own territory.’

    For mockery of a defeated, captive enemy there is 4.40, relating to the Spartans capured on Sphacteria. The fact that Spartans had surrendered, rather than fighting to the death, occasioned some surprise; one of the Athenians’ allies therefore asked one of the captured Spartans if their dead had been noble and brave men (implying that the captured Spartans weren’t).

    There may well be other examples; these two just sprang to mind.

  3. Neville Morley Says:

    I think the best bit of inter-state trolling is in Book 1 – the Spartans’ demand that the Athenians should sort out the curse of the Alcmaeonids. Digging up embarrassing ancient history, trying to provoke Pericles and/or stir up opposition to him…

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