“Have You Heard the News?”: Information Flow in the Ancient Mediterranean

We see alliances and friendships being concluded between faraway states, and trade routes linking Sicily, Egypt and the Black Sea being established and maintained. Every few years, Panhellenic festivals brought together fellow Greeks from all four corners of the world. The Mediterranean, simply put, was a world in constant motion and contact. 

And in-between these formal structures of contact, we find informal inter-personal channels of communication and socio-political engagement that functioned as networks of communication and information exchange. We have many accounts of people travelling up and down the Aegean Sea and beyond for personal or professional purposes. They carried with them news about what was happening around them, including artisans, doctors, poets, and grain traders (Lys. 22.15). To this list we may add the myriads of itinerant migrants who sought their fortunes all along the Mediterranean coast, and who inadvertently acted as informal nodes of communication. The most infamous example is found in Plutarch’s account of how news of the Sicilian Disaster during the Peloponnesian War reached Athens:

“A certain stranger, as it would seem, landed at the Piraeus, took a seat in a barber’s shop, and made statements of what had happened as though the Athenians already knew The barber, on hearing this, before others learned of it, ran at the top of his  speed to the upper city, accosted the archons, and at once set the story going in the market place. Consternation and confusion reigned, naturally, and the archons convened an assembly and brought the man before it. But, on being asked from whom he had learned the matter, he was unable to give any clear answer, and so it was decided that he was a story-maker, and was trying to throw the city into an uproar. He was therefore fastened to the wheel and racked a long time, until messengers came with the actual facts of the whole disaster”

(Plut. Nic. 30).

The passage testifies to the speed with which information could travel, reaching Athens from Sicily even faster than the public envoys tasked with delivering the news. Rumor proved indeed to be the swiftest god.

Small talk. Agrigento Painter (Greek (Attic)) Attic Red-Figure Column Krater, 470–460 B.C., Terracotta 33.5 cm (13 3/16 in.), 78.AE.380.1. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California, Gift of Theodore Wolfberg.

This “extra-institutional public sphere,” as Alex Gottesman (Politics and the Street in Democratic Athens. Cambridge, 2014) calls it, helps us fill in gaps in our understanding of ancient communication and the swift dissemination of information. Take, for instance, the war that broke out in 220 BCE between Byzantium and Rhodes over a duty tax that an impoverished city of Byzantion imposed on all merchandise passing through the Hellespont, known today as the Bosporus strait. The Rhodians were joined by other discontented factions, most notably king Prousias of Bithynia, whose trade profits were affected by what they saw as a rapacious move on the part of the Byzantines. The conflict has all the markings of a modern economic war over competing regional trading interests. Inevitably, the war came to involve other parties whose own financial interests in the area hinged on de-escalation. The ancient historian Polybios tells us, for instance, that king Kavaros of the neighboring Galatians grew worried about the escalation and tried to act quickly to make peace between Prousias and the Byzantines. His involvement in turn spurned a hurried counter-reaction from the Rhodians who “finding out about Kavaros’ effort and the compliance of Prousias, and hurrying to bring to an end their own goal, chose Aridikes as ambassador to the Byzantines, and Polemokles they also sent along in charge of three triremes, wanting, as it is said, to send to the Byzantines both the spear and the herald’s cane” (Polyb. 4.52.1-3).

Polybios does not tell us how the Rhodians got wind of Kavaros’ intervention so quickly as to be able to send their own representatives in time for the peace talks, or, for that matter, how Kavaros himself managed to coordinate such a quick diplomatic response. In fact, historical records often merely offer vague statements that decision-makers “heard” or “learned” about some faraway event without detailing how they stumbled upon that information. But by paying attention to the so-called “extra-institutional public sphere,” we can piece together how information quickly travelled across the Mediterranean, be it by means of military physicians, local peasants (Liv. 37.14.3), traders carrying diplomatic missives (Polyaen. Strat. 4.7.4), or refugees trying to escape conflict or military service (SEG 49.1041, ll. 101-121). All these movements of people and inter-personal encounters explain the swiftness by which communities in different Mediterranean regions learned about what was going on beyond the confines of their communities. They also speak to the geo-political interconnectedness of the Mediterranean where a local crisis was seldom a local problem but spilled over and affected – or was affected by – the wider world. However, this phenomenon in antiquity is not always apparent to modern readers in part because ancient authors took for granted that their readership knew what they referred to when they hinted at the dissemination of information; it’s as if I were to mention to my colleague that I was going to be in touch, without me necessarily having to clarify that I might do so by email, phone, or Facebook Messenger. 

There is perhaps no better example of the complexity, sagaciousness, and velocity of ancient communication like the famous Isthmian Proclamation delivered by the Roman general Quinctius Flamininus in 196 BCE proclaiming the freedom and autonomy of “all Greeks,” whom he protected from the imperial aggression of the Macedonian king Philip V.  Polybios’ account of the event paints a stunning picture:

“The Isthmian games being now close at hand, the most distinguished men from almost the whole world having assembled there, owing to their expectation of what would take place, many and various were the reports prevalent during the whole festival, some saying that it was impossible for the Romans to abandon certain places and cities, and others declaring that they would abandon the places which were considered famous, but would retain those which, while less illustrious, would serve their purpose equally well, even at once naming these latter out of their own heads, each more ingenious than the other”.

(Polyb. 18.46)

The festival was an arena for contact and exchange of ideas, goods, and knowledge, and speaks to the flurry of discussions and contacts that preceded Flamininus’ actual proclamation. This was not actually news to anyone, but merely the culmination of a relentless outreach effort expressed through discussion and speculation, that rendered the eventual proclamation a mere formality. The rumor-mill had been operating well in advance through both formal and informal channels of communications across the Mediterranean, and managed to reach in time all the Greek communities who wanted to personally witness the promise of Rome. But what the Greeks had not been informed about, was that they were in fact listening and acquiescing to Roman doublespeak, where freedom and autonomy actually stood for subjection and submission. That particular message, however, would ultimately reach them much later and too late.

Paul Vadan