Once, Octavius read out the secret will of Mark Antony in the Senate of Rome. The Roman Senate was just like our parliaments, as it had around 900 members who used to give advice to the Roman emperor on various issues.
Those who were present at the Senate on that day knew that the eastern states of Rome were under the control of Antony, who was living with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. Cleopatra, ‘the woman of surpassing beauty’, married her two adolescent brothers before enjoying a relationship with Julius Caesar. Later, she married Antony and gave birth to twins – Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene.
Antony was considered as a hero in Rome, while Octavius was not only a hero, but also an excellent orator. As per the ancient Roman tradition, Senators had to wear a red sheet or ‘toga’ before entering the Senate. Just before young Octavius entered the Senate, the toga suddenly fell on his feet and it was an evil sign.
However, unperturbed Octavius told the Senate: “I bow down to Jupiter, the God of heaven. The God shows that the toga will be under my feet and help me keep my head high”. That, which was an evil sign, was turned around by Octavius and was made the sign of blessing. Later, he became the Consul of the Roman Republic.
On that day, Octavius informed the Senate that he found Antony’s will inside a secret vault of Temple of Vesta. It was a well known fact that the Temple of Vesta had a number of women priests and Octavius used to give advice to them on many issues. He also informed the Senate that Antony clearly mentioned in his secret will that Cleopatra’s children would be the heirs of the victorious kingdoms after his death.
No one knows whether Anthony really wrote such a will. Even if he wrote the will, why did he leave it in a Roman temple? But, every member of the Senate was angered by Antony’s will. The Senate ordered the concerned authorities to hang copies of that will in market areas and in walls of important palaces and buildings. The Senate also dismissed General Antony from the Roman army.
This is called the clash of civilisation. On that day, the Roman people ignored the fact that Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Greek family of Macedonian origin that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great’s death during the Hellenistic period.
To them, only Romans were civilised and the rest of the world was uncivilised. In ancient Egypt, marriage between brothers and sisters was acceptable and they were allowed to rule the state. In ancient Egypt, women used to enjoy the equal rights as men under the law. On the contrary, the Roman civilisation was very much patriarchal.
The Roman society thought that Antony destroyed himself in Egypt. He forgot how to rule the state after spending time with Cleopatra and alcohol. Rome had no idea that Cleopatra was an efficient ruler. Romans wanted to believe that Cleopatra destroyed Antony’s “Roman” character and Octavius “tactfully” encouraged them to believe so. Octavius knew how to prepare fake news.
Fake news? The whole Roman Empire knew that Antony was a symbol of the East. Octavius suppressed the fact that there were a number of great Roman soldiers in Antony’s army. He did so because he got what he wanted. Rome was tired of seeing Antony-Brutus rivalry. And it was not even an Octavius-Antony fight, it was a fight between civilised Romans and uncivilised Egyptians.
The next incident is known to all of us – the defeat of Antony, who ultimately committed suicide by stabbing himself in the stomach with his sword. Cleopatra, too, killed herself by inducing an asp (Egyptian cobra) to bite her. From Shakespeare’s novel to Liz Taylor’s movie, Cleopatra has always been portrayed as a nymphomaniac. However, Octavius still remains alive in history as Emperor Augustus Caesar and will remain so forever.
So, people, who blame the media or social media for creating fake news, make a mistake. Fake news is a complex labyrinth and a product of our great civilisation. We should not forget Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The two American media moguls were competitors. However, they were on the same side on February 15, 1898. Soon after US Navy warship ‘USS Maine’ was destroyed in Havana and 266 marines were killed, the two rival newspapers (one ran by Pulitzer and another by Hearst) blamed Spain, as Cuba was under Spanish control at that time.
Even, then US President William McKinley did not blame Spain for the incident. Pulitzer and Hearst did so because they were interested in publishing fake ‘anti-Spain’ news to increase the sale of their newspapers. The New York Evening Post wrote: “There is no more scandalous fraud in the history of journalism.”
In fact, Hearst sent a journalist to Cuba and he reported that there would be no war. However, Hearst rubbished the report, telling the journalist: “You furnish pictures, I shall furnish the war.” The reporter had nothing to do after receiving such instruction. Several fake pictures were published in Hearst’s daily for the next few days and the daily also reported that American women were strip-searched by Cuban officers. Finally, the US attacked Spain and captured some islands of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Hearst and Pulitzer not only published fake news, but also triggered the first media-sponsored war in the world history.
William Randolph Hearst
Fake news has not only encouraged war, but also triggered communal tensions. Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was the first European to use the printing press in 1439. And it was heard in 1475 that a two-year-old child went missing in the Italian city of Trento. A priest accused the Jews of murdering the child. Thereafter, 15 Jews were burnt alive for committing the crime without any evidences. Pope Sixtus IV tried his best to restore peace in Italy, but failed. The pope, who rightly realised that newspapers did not publish such fake news, said that superstitions encouraged people to spread fake news.
In fact, the first true newspaper in English was the ‘London Gazette’ of 1666. And in 1761, body of a 22-year-old man, named Marc-Antoine Calas, was found in Toulouse, France. Rumours had it that his father Jean Calas had killed his son because Marc intended to convert to Catholicism. Despite overwhelming evidence that the death was a suicide, a local court held that Jean Calas had murdered his son. The father was tortured in an attempt to get him to admit that he was guilty. His arms and legs were stretched until they pulled out of their sockets. More than 17 litres of water was poured down his throat. He was tied to a cross in the Cathedral Square, where each of his limbs was broken twice by an iron bar. Yet with all this torture, he continued to declare his innocence.
On March 9, 1762, the regional legislature of Toulouse sentenced Jean Calas to death on the wheel. On March 10, at the age of 64, he died tortured on the wheel, while still very firmly claiming his innocence.
When fake news poses as real in India
Later, Voltaire dissected the whole incident in an article. He raised some important questions, including whether Calas really understood the meaning of conversion and why should a peace-loving citizen encourage his son to commit suicide for the sake of religion. Voltaire also mentioned in the article that a devastating earthquake rocked Portugal few years ago. At that time, many French and Portuguese newspapers said that God punished sinners. The great French philosopher wondered why God had a hands-off policy when it came to natural disasters, like earthquake. Can Catholic-Protestant conflict be the only reason for committing suicide, asked Voltaire.
The French Enlightenment writer managed to influence the public opinion. The concerned authorities in France made clear that publishing fake news should be stopped and the judiciary should verify all the evidences before delivering a death sentence.
There is nothing new under the sun. The only way to get rid of fake news is to follow Voltaire’s rationalist way of looking at things.
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