Arguably, ancient Greek historians were the world’s first journalists. In style, method, and approach, ancient Greek history reads much more like journalism than history.
Journalism, broadly, is thought to be a profession of the modern day and age. Journalism is thought to have begun with brief leaflets distributed among British, French, and Spanish colonial cities in the Americas around four hundred years ago.
But re-reading the works of historians such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, it is easy to appreciate the fact that the journalistic epoch began thousands of years ago. Ancient Greek historians, who wrote about events that they had experienced and lived through, were not only the world’s first historians, they were the world’s first journalists. If journalism is describing the world you lived in and events you were a part of, then ancient Greek histories definitely fit that description.
Journalism, as a professional tradition, therefore has its origins around two thousand five hundred years ago.
So who then, is the founder of journalism if this is the case? The founder of journalism is Herodotus (484-c. 425 BCE), the world’s first and most unreliable historian. So what did the first work of journalism ever concern?
The world’s first work of journalism was a work of wartime journalism. Herodotus’s “The Histories” (published in 440 BCE) focused on the wars between the Greek city states and the Persian Empire from 480 to 449 BCE. A man focused on “never letting the truth get in the way of a good story” (as Mark Twain might say), Herodotus told an exaggerated form of history. His work talked of an army of five hundred thousand Persians invading Greece (a logical and logistical impossibility at the time), of centaurs, and of gold eating ants. Herodotus probably loved to drink wine and eat unusual mushrooms. And his work reflected that. “The Histories” is a work that was epic, exaggerated, and often ridiculous. But it none the less described events that had actually taken place, using the firsthand accounts of Greek soldiers who had fought the Persians. Although realistically more akin to Gonzo Journalism than Traditional Journalism, “The Histories” remains the first true work of journalism within world history, as well as the first true work of history in world history.
As the ancient Greek city states grew more powerful militarily and culturally, they also became less united. The Greek cities began to war among each other, which led to entirely new forms of histories. The most notable of these was “The Peloponnesian Wars” by the Athenian historian and journalist Thucydides (460-400 BCE), which centered upon a series of wars between the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 BCE. At the center of “The Peloponnesian Wars” was a tale of moral collapse similar to the tales of moral collapse told in more contemporary works of journalism such as George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” (1938) and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” (1966). “The Peloponnesian Wars” centered on how the Athenians, once held up by the other Greek cities as a model of moralism and virtue, became corrupted and vicious as they attained power over the other Greek cities. Eventually, fed up with the Athenians, the Spartans and multiple other Greek cities united against Athens and brought Karmic retribution upon the city and its people. Athens was sacked and subjugated to the will of the Spartans and the other Greek states.
Thucydides, as an Athenian, was extremely close to the action and told first-hand of events that he witnessed during the Peloponnesian Wars. He was therefore a journalist in multiple senses of the word.
Both Thucydides and Herodotus were journalists in that they used sources and referred to events that happened within their lifetimes. However, no Greek historian/journalist was as close to the action as Xenophon. A native born Athenian who worked as a mercenary within the Persian Empire, Xenophon (c. 430-354 BCE) wrote about events that he personally was involved in and events that he witnessed with his own eyes. His major work, “Anabasis” (or “The Ten Thousand”), told of how Xenophon and ten thousand other Greek mercenaries found themselves stranded in the heartland of the Persian Empire after their Persian paymaster, the noble lord Cyrus the Younger, was killed in battle. The work focuses on how the Greeks marched thousands of kilometers, battling enemy kings and warlike tribes along the way. It was a heavily personal piece of work, and frequently featured Xenophon’s personal opinions e.g. his admiration of Spartans and other warrior societies, vivid and subjective descriptions of ancient Middle Eastern cultures, and his philosophical perspectives. The work concludes with the Greek soldiers reaching the Greek coastal cities of the Black Sea, ready to sail safely by boat back to Greece. An epic tale, “Anabasis” was Planet Earth’s original first person account of a soldier at war. It is also thought of as a major work of ancient philosophy, as it describes the philosophies of the ancient Greeks in practical action i.e. how philosophical thinking was applied when at war.
Early Greek histories were strongly influential and had a significant impact on later Greek histories as well as histories from the Roman era, which were themselves written as first person accounts and extremely subjective. Writers such as Polybius (2nd century BCE), Julius Caesar (1st century BCE), Cassius Dio (2nd-3rd centuries CE), and Amminaus Marcellinus (4th century CE) all wrote works of history that were heavily subjective, and strongly resemble journalism in terms of their approach and style. These tales of soldiers at war, of past empires and conflicts that shook the ancient world, have influenced the imagination of the cultural West for thousands of years. These were the first works of history, and they have been invaluable to the Western cultural record and the Western cultural memory. But they were also something else. They were the first works of journalism.
They were humanity’s first attempts at describing and depicting the world we see, the world we experience, and the world we witness. And for that we all owe Herodotus and co an enormous debt.