Gossip was a powerful tool for the powerless in Ancient Greece


At the heart of the greatest works of Ancient Greek literature are mighty acts of revenge. Revengers overcome their enemies through superior physical prowess, as when Achilles kills Hector in a single combat to avenge the death of his comrade Patroclus; or through their employment of trickery and deceit, as when Medea slays Creon and his daughter by using poisoned clothing in revenge against Jason, her unfaithful husband. But how could a person lacking in physical strength, magical abilities or supportive friends take revenge?

Low-status women without strong family connections were among the weakest in Ancient society but they wielded a powerful weapon in ensuring the demise of a hated enemy: gossip.

Idle gossip or rumour is personified by the Ancient poets. In Homeric epic, rumour is said to be a messenger of Zeus, rushing along with the crowds of soldiers as they muster, conjuring an image of the way she speeds among people from mouth to mouth, spreading through crowds. Hesiod also portrays her as in some way divine, but equally something of which to be wary, ‘mischievous, light, and easily raised, but hard to bear and difficult to be rid of’. The fourth-century Athenian orator Aeschines alludes to gossip about private matters being spread seemingly spontaneously through the city. Ancient people from all walks of life, men and women, free and slave, young and old, were thought to indulge in gossip, ensuring its swift passage to all corners of the city. The propensity for a huge range of members of society to gossip opened up conduits between the lowliest and the mightiest, the weakest and the most powerful.

While Aristotle suggests that gossiping was frequently a trivial, enjoyable pastime, he also makes clear that gossiping could have malicious intent when spoken by someone who has been wronged. This evaluation of words as weapons in the hands of the wronged is particularly pertinent when thinking about how the Athenians made use of gossip in the law courts in Athens, because Ancient court cases were based heavily on character evaluation of those involved in the case rather than on hard evidence. In the absence of professional judges, the aim of the speakers was to discredit their opponents’ characters in the eyes of the jurors, while presenting themselves as upstanding citizens. The power of gossip was feared by ancient litigants, so they carefully outlined how the negative stories the jurors might have heard about them weren’t true, and had been spread intentionally by their mendacious opponents.

From the Ancient orators, we learn that public places such as shops and marketplaces were useful locations to spread false rumours aimed at discrediting an opponent because of the crowds that gathered there. In one case, written…

Marcela
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Marcela

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COO @oneqube | Angel Investor | Proud mom | Advisor @TheTutuProject | Let's Go #NYRangers
Marcela
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