Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern: The Rumour Mill

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient and Modern: The Rumour Mill

Article excerpt

Geoffrey Dickens's ancient dossier of (alleged) paedophiles in high places cannot be found among the 138 miles of government files, and rumour immediately takes wing. The ancients knew all about rumour: phêmê in Greek, fama in Latin, both words relating to 'speech'.

In 415 bc, the Athenians sent an expedition to Sicily, and Syracuse was rife with rumours about it. In the Assembly, one speaker said it was all nonsense, stirred up by agitators wishing to create fear and thus gain power. It was a reasonable assumption: in 411 bc a revolution occurred in Athens as a result of rumour. Rumour has not lost its power as a modern political weapon either. Ancient grain-traders were also suspect: we hear of the charge that they spread rumours of storms and shipwreck designed to raise prices. Today's stock markets are not exactly immune to the problem.

Greeks adopted two main criteria by which to evaluate such rumours. First, had the speaker himself been present at the event he was reporting, or had he just heard it from someone else? …

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