BMCR 2023.09.08

The concept of news in ancient Greek literature

, The concept of news in ancient Greek literature. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 141. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. xxii, 270. ISBN 9783111021669



Scholars have long been interested in the transmission of news in antiquity. Through most of the twentieth century, the focus was on telecommunication methods for military or diplomatic purposes, often with a conscious comparison between ancient messaging systems and the telegraph.[1] This paradigm started to shift towards the end of the century with the publication of Sian Lewis, News and Society in the Greek Polis, which recentered the study of news on its civic and cultural importance.[2] The new book by Raquel Fornieles adds another dimension by viewing news as a cultural institution that is shaped by social forces. This research question resonates with contemporary concerns regarding media consumption and as such, its appearance in the De Gruyter series “Trends in Classics,” which examines the place of Classics in modern cultural studies, is nothing but natural.

The introduction starts with the methodological problem of finding a universal definition of “news.” Fornieles writes that while there may be some key concepts—such as important information previously unknown to the recipient—a precise categorization remains elusive. First, since “importance” is subjective, and second, because the term “news” itself is contingent. News did not emerge in the modern era, with journalism and the invention of print, but in the conception of language itself, and hence, it pertains to all human societies.[3] But every society has its own understanding of the kind of information that is worth reporting. In order to understand how news was conceptualized by the ancient Greeks, Fornieles targets the word ἄγγελος and its derivatives diachronically according to literary genres.

The Homeric epics serve as a natural starting point for this discussion (chapter 1), especially given the prominent place of communication in both the Iliad and Odyssey. Homer has two words referring to reporting agents, ἄγγελος and κῆρυξ; although the two can overlap in meaning, the latter alludes to an individual who is a herald by profession whereas the former refers to any bearer of reports, be it a human, a god, an animal, or an abstract entity like “rumor.” A distinctive feature of Homeric ἄγγελοι, however, is their lack of self-initiative: they are always dispatched by a third party that issues the report. News in the epics, moreover, is transmitted efficiently and taken at face value by the recipients. Fornieles argues that information is considered newsworthy when it is related to the main characters and develops the plot: the Iliad considers every piece of information pertaining to warfare news whereas the Odyssey associates news with nostoi.

Chapter 2 discusses lyric poetry, focusing on the epinician and dithyrambic works of Pindar and Bacchylides. Laura Nash has detected a structural topos in Pindar’s epinician poetry that relates to ἀγγελία: “Like the herald’s proclamation at the festival, the epinician aggelia announces the victor’s name, father and city.”[4] The ἀγγελία forms a type of public and formal discourse, the announcement of the triumph. In the lyric poems, the main announcements are the victories, which are reported using the verb ἀγγέλλω, and the ἄγγελος likewise functions as the person in charge of the public proclamation of victors. This suggests that terms derived from ἄγγελος gradually accumulated specific and technical meanings related to the transmission of news.

In Greek tragedy, the subject of chapter 3, the ἄγγελος is a specialized character with a specific method of transmitting information necessary for the plot’s development. The messenger speech, ἀγγελικὴ ῥῆσις, becomes a convention with a clear structure. The tragic ἄγγελος is a character that bursts onto the scene to report news that cannot be represented on stage, using specific lexical terms. Thus, other types of reporting characters, such as heralds (κήρυκες), can practically be ἄγγελοι when employing certain vocabulary. The tragic ἄγγελος, unlike in Homer, is not anybody, but a professional who acts on his own initiative and must comply with specific conventions. Their information is considered reliable since they witnessed the reported event, and they often reinforce their speeches via statements made by the relevant character(s). Messenger-scenes are an established element of Attic drama and are used to deliver information on various subjects, such as war, murders, suicide, escapes and miracles. But in all three tragedians, news is always related to the main characters, is relevant to the plot, and has significant consequences.

Chapter 4 discusses Aristophanic comedy in which the ἄγγελος character and the typical messenger-scenes are dramatized for the sake of parodying tragedy, and not to fulfill functional dramatic needs. Some comedies have several paratragic messenger-scenes, such as the Acharnians and the Birds (three and four respectively). Aristophanes uses the same conventions and vocabulary as in tragedy—that is, ἄγγελος and its derivatives—but to deliver ridiculous news. The comedy-writer furthermore removes elements of solemnity: while tragic messenger-scenes can start with a dramatic exclamation, such expressions are ridiculed in comedy through excessive repetitions. The lexical examination shows that the verbs ἀγγέλλω, ἀπαγγέλλω and εἰσαγγέλλω always refer to news whereas other compound verbs, like ἐπαγγέλλω and παραγγέλλω, have different applications. This observation supports the hypothesis that there were technical terms for the transmission of news.

Moving away from poetry, chapter 5 revolves around the historiographical writings of Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. News in historiographical writing is public in nature since it relates to the entire community, particularly in matters of diplomacy and warfare (including espionage). In this respect, ἄγγελος and κῆρυξ are virtually synonymous, when both act as envoys under the orders of formal authorities. In addition, Herodotus introduces a new type of news-bearer, the royal messenger of the Persian king: ἀγγελιηφόρος and εἰσαγγελεύς. The lexical study shows that the derivatives of ἄγγελος have acquired specific technical meanings; save a few exceptions that refer to commands or the denouncing of a conspiracy, these words are fully established as specialized jargon concerning the transmission of news. Furthermore, three compound verbs—ἀπαγγέλλω, εἰσαγγέλλω and καταγγέλλω—begin to appear in legal contexts to refer to public denunciations. These derivatives, therefore, seem to serve as technical terminology in the judicial realm.

The sixth chapter constitutes a natural chronological and thematic continuation by focusing on Attic oratory and specifically, the speeches of Isocrates, Lysias, Aeschines and Demosthenes. Although these orators produced many speeches concerning warfare and embassies, the word ἄγγελος is scarcely found in their works. Other terms concerning news-transmission however provide an abundance of attestations, whether they are derived from ἄγγελος or not. In addition to the word κῆρυξ, which appears in Demosthenes and Aeschines, we find the functionalist πρεσβευτής—an ambassador who must justify his actions before the Assembly. As in the case of historiography, the concept of news applies to information of public importance, namely warfare and its ramifications. The lexical family of ἄγγελος demonstrates further development: while some compound words were used in military language, others became distinct legal terms, such as εἰσαγγελία (‘state prosecution,’ ‘impeachment’). The verb εἰσαγγέλλω, which is used in these works to indicate the presence of news, bears a technical meaning in Attic oratory of presenting an accusation of high treason. Thus, the rhetorical accounts confirm the developing specialization seen in the previous chapters.

The seventh and final chapter differs from the previous ones inasmuch as it targets not a corpus of works but a concept: fake news. This newly coined term cannot be disentangled from today’s mass media and social networks, but Fornieles nevertheless borrows it in order to show the spread of disinformation in antiquity. Ancient Greek contains compound words specifically devised for the transmission of false news: the adjective ψευδάγγελος, the verb ψευδαγγέλλω, and the noun ψευδαγγελία. While these terms are rarely used, Greek tragedy and historiography give evidence of news designed and reported with the deliberate intention of deceiving its recipients. However, these false accounts are transmitted with the word ἄγγελος and its derivatives. Since the ἄγγελος was considered a reliable source of information, tragic characters reporting fake news take advantage of this reputation and imitate his behavior and language. In the works of the historians, fake news has a twofold purpose: on the one hand, deceiving and intimidating the enemy and on the other hand, encouraging the troops.

The book offers its reader a rich and comprehensive compendium of sources that span a wide period and range across genres to explore changes in the cultural institution of news. As Fornieles acknowledges, the volume presents a contribution to the study of news in Greek antiquity. While previous works have shown the transmission of information of public importance in ancient Greece, the current volume considers “news” an object of discourse that was shaped by social, political, and economic conditions. The lexical study of ἄγγελος and all its derivatives demonstrates how the concept of news developed in the transition from Homeric society to democratic Athens. Specifically, the development of compound words charged with judicial meanings mirrors aspects of the genealogy of the Attic legal apparatus. The final discussion on “fake news” is similarly striking; this term perhaps requires further theorization that would distinguish it from other, better-defined, categories, such as mis/disinformation. Nonetheless, the Greeks themselves had specific terms to denote false information and they furthermore recognized the possibility that the institution of the ἄγγελος might be exploited for manipulating and fabricating reports.

The methodology proves itself fruitful, yet the analysis of a circumscribed number of terms and works requires great caution. For example, contrary to the author’s claim (p. 22), the usages of εὐαγγέλιον in the sense of “reward for good news” does emerge outside of Homer, in later writings (e.g. [Speusippus], Ep. ad Philip 9.6–7; Plu. Demetr. 17). Moreover, the argument that the ἄγγελος becomes a profession in Greek tragedy merits further explanation, especially since scholars have already discussed the important role of non-messengers, such as traders, in the dissemination of information.[5] In a passage from Aeschylus’ Choephori, which Fornieles quotes (pp. 219–22), Orestes pretends to be an itinerant who met Strophius haphazardly rather than his professional messenger (674–82). Furthermore, recipients’ doubts of news-bearers are a greater issue in Homer and tragedy than the book allows (e.g. Hom. Od. 14.122–30; Aes. Ag. 864–5). This point, however, strengthens Fornieles’ argument that the ἄγγελος was associated with truth since those people whose accounts were deemed false are not described as ἄγγελοι.

Therefore, Fornieles advances the ongoing discussion of news in ancient Greece by combining contemporary notions with a diligent reading of the sources. While certain aspects could be expanded, the book establishes its central thesis: the contemporary understanding of news has a history that predates the modern era. Through a semantic exploration of ἄγγελος and its derivatives, it underscores shifts in the ancient Greek conceptual constructions of news across historical periods and literary genres, namely the emergence of technical terms concerning reportage.



[1] See, especially, W. Riepl, Das Nachrichtenwesen des Altertums mit besonderer Rücksicht auf die Römer (Leipzig, 1913), 91–122; J. P. Hershbell. “The Ancient Telegraph: War and Literacy,” in E. A. Havelock and J. P. Hershbell (eds.), Communication Arts in the Ancient World (New York, 1978), 81–92.

[2] S. Lewis, News and Society in the Greek Polis (Chapel Hill, NC, 1996).

[3] M. Stephens, A History of News: From the Drum to the Satellite (New York, 1988), esp. 9.

[4] L. L. Nash, The Aggelia in Pindar (New York and London, 1990), 15.

[5] C. G. Starr, Political Intelligence in Classical Greece (Leiden, 1974), ‏19–28; Lewis 8, 75–96 (see esp. 84–5 for tragedy).