The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The long history of disinformation during war

While we might crave information, we are right to be suspicious of the sources that provide it

Russian President Vladimir Putin on a TV screen at the stock market in Frankfurt, Germany, on Feb. 25. (Michael Probst/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

From the battlefields in Ukraine to a terrorist attack on mass transit here in the United States, we live in a world of high tension — and tweets. We are eager for information to protect our safety, to sympathize with human suffering or to see wrongdoers brought to justice. But while we might crave information, we are right to be suspicious of the sources that provide it. After all, we are living in the golden age of “fake news.”

Yet some caution is warranted: Today’s brave new world of disinformation is hardly new. True, it’s now possible to generate false information and transmit it practically anywhere on the planet instantaneously. But the facts of disinformation — and its aftereffects — are as old as war itself.

Consider the case of the Roman Empire and the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. It was one of the most momentous sea battles in history, because Rome itself was at stake. And it offers an important lesson for coping with modern disinformation campaigns: When politicians speak, especially about war, expect misdirection.

The battle was fought off the western coast of Greece, not far from Italy. Its combatants came from as far away as Gaul and Syria, but nobody attracted as much attention as Egypt’s controversial ruler: Cleopatra. She was brilliant, ruthless, ambitious and relentless. She was not, however, the focus of the war, although you wouldn’t know it from the way one side talked.

The two principals in the conflict were Octavian and Mark Antony. Octavian ruled Rome and the western half of the empire. Antony ruled the eastern half from its capital city of Alexandria, home of Cleopatra, who happened to be his mistress and financier. Antony and Cleopatra had three children together. A man of easy morality, Antony thought nothing of being married to Octavian’s sister Octavia at the same time and having two children with her. But it was a political marriage, and when war with Octavian loomed, Antony divorced Octavia.

The showdown between Octavian and Antony was about which of the two men could more rightly claim the mantle of Rome’s great ruler, Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated a dozen years earlier. Caesar had been Antony’s commander, but he was Octavian’s great-uncle, and Caesar had posthumously adopted the young man. Afterward Octavian called himself Caesar. (For the sake of clarity, historians call him Octavian.) Antony’s claim on Caesar’s legacy stemmed from his current relationship with Cleopatra, who was also Caesar’s former mistress.

For more than a decade, Antony and Octavian seesawed between cooperation and conflict, but the two sides grew increasingly apart. Octavian shut off Antony’s ability to recruit new legionaries in Italy. Antony announced plans to make his children with Cleopatra the rulers of the eastern Mediterranean. Eyeing each other warily, both men built fleets. When Antony faltered in a battle against Persia, Octavian seized the moment and declared war, about a year before the showdown at Actium.

Octavian now launched a disinformation initiative. His enemy was a fellow Roman, but the Roman public would not support a civil war. So Octavian instead declared war on Cleopatra. He accused her of being a foreign sorceress who had unmanned the once-noble Antony. Cleopatra was hardly a witch on a broomstick: She was a Roman citizen, highly educated, and a speaker of a half-dozen or more languages. Octavian also claimed to have discovered Antony’s last will and testament, in which he allegedly ceded his empire to Cleopatra.

Some Romans fell for it; others were unimpressed. Meanwhile, Antony and Cleopatra spread disinformation of their own. They targeted Octavian’s ancestral link to Caesar. In fact, he was related to Caesar only through his mother. Octavian’s father came from a prosperous but minor Roman family. Antony twisted Octavian’s heritage and made class-based or racist charges about it — making Octavian, depending on the audience, either the heir of a moneylender, a baker or an African person. By contrast, since Antony came from the Roman nobility, he appealed to the Roman Senate as the only true defender of the republic left. It was so effective a rallying cry that one-third of the Senate defected to Antony and the rest were kept under close watch by Octavian.

Then there was Antony’s trump card, Cleopatra’s teenage son, Ptolemy XV Caesar, better known as Caesarion, the product of the love affair between Caesar and Cleopatra. Although Caesar never formally acknowledged the boy, he allowed Cleopatra to give the child his name, and he honored her with a statue in Rome that possibly showed her holding Caesarion in her arms. Caesarion allowed Antony and Cleopatra to argue, in effect, that the real Caesar was Cleopatra’s son in Egypt.

This propaganda infused the war. Antony used newly minted coins with war galleys and legionary eagles to pay his troops, while reminding them of his connection to Julius Caesar. Other coins celebrated Antony on one side and Cleopatra on the other, while another set called Cleopatra a queen and implied that she was a goddess.

By contrast, Octavian issued coins that underlined his even closer connection to Julius Caesar. The coin reportedly noted that Octavian was the “Son of a Deified Man,” Caesar. One side showed Caesar’s statue in his temple in Rome, and the other side showed Octavian in profile.

Unfortunately for Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian had solid military advantages, notably the help of a superior combat leader, Marcus Agrippa. Together, they settled the war, like most, with blood and iron. They defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and drove them to take their own lives. Octavian soon took the name Augustus, which marked him as Rome’s first emperor.

Propaganda didn’t decide the war, but it allowed each side to rally its troops. The lesson is clear: Clever and ruthless leaders target not the real enemy but the most convenient one. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, hides his aggression against Ukraine under the guise of “denazification.” Even more-benign leaders twist the facts to their own ends. It is critical to look behind the curtain and ask for the real story. If our leaders are frank with us, more power to them. But if they are pulling an Octavian, hiding the real purpose of a war, or pulling an Antony, defaming a rival, then we need to push back.