Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Roman Fake News? Documentary Fictions in the Roman Empire

How can theories about modern disinformation help to understand how Roman documentary fictions functioned?

2023 - 2027
Rens Tacoma

Its unwavering speed of transmission and widespread interconnected audience have allowed the communication of our modern world to reach levels never before seen in history. Hand in hand with this advance came a rise in so-called ‘fake news’: texts and information that bend the truth, either because it has been tampered with or because it is plain forgery. The impact of this ‘fake news’ on modern societies cannot be understated and is therefore rigorously studied as a new phenomenon. Within this research, a look into the past that goes beyond simple analogies is uncommon. It seems, however, that precisely this type of research may yield valuable results. When looking at the Roman world, texts can be identified that share similarities with modern forms of disinformation. As long as the differences and similarities are kept in mind, studies into these ancient cases can teach us more about their use and their link to the modern world. The research project ‘Roman Fake News? Documentary Fictions in the Roman Empire’ will endeavour just that, examining ancient texts, referred to as ‘documentary fictions’, in the context of ‘fake news’. In that way, the modern phenomenon will be made more transparent and less threatening.

An academic project for a wider audience

A special corpus has been compiled for this project, containing seven clusters of documents of which their legitimacy has been questioned. Examples of these clusters are the Acta pro Judaeis, the Acta Alexandrinorum, and the Optatan appendix. The documentary fictions within this ‘fake corpus’ range in function, textual form, and degree of manipulation. Analysis of this corpus aims to elucidate the ancient situation by giving a broader and clearer understanding of the situation as a whole. Because of its connection to modern-day ‘fake news’ and the theories surrounding it, this project aims to present its findings in academic writing and share them with a wider audience. The project will be presented during the Maand van de Geschiedenis 2024, which has ‘Echt Nep’ (‘Real Fake’) as its theme. The project will also work together with the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities Leiden (RMO) to produce a podcast series. More outreach activities are still on the horizon.

Three subprojects

This project will consist of a threefold of studies. Principal investigator dr. Laurens E. Tacoma will write a synthetic monograph to contextualize the ‘fake corpus’. This study aims to provide an understanding of the documentary fictions through a socio-cultural analysis of how they were produced, circulated, and used in Roman times. Ph.D. candidate Indira C. Huliselan will write a dissertation in which she aims to analyse the Christian use of official documents written around the time of emperor Constantine’s public support of Christianity in the early fourth century. She will do so by means of a detailed analysis of the imperial laws and letters that the early fourth-century CE scholar Eusebius cites in his Church History and the Life of Constantine. She will furthermore examine the Optatan appendix, a dossier of ten early fourth-century documents pertaining to the Donatist controversy in North Africa. In the project’s second year, a post-doc will be recruited to join the project team. He or she will write two journal articles on one specific cluster within the ‘fake corpus’. This cluster contains 192 official documents that have been cited in the Historia Augusta. In these articles, the post-doc aims to follow new scholarly trends of classifying this work as literary and to expand on those trends by using the ‘fake corpus’ as a contextual background for further study.

A diverse methodology

This project aims to employ current theories about ‘fake news’ for the analysis of ancient documents. The relatively young nature of these theories results in the absence of a single coherent theoretical framework at the time of this project. To tackle this problem and still use the rapidly developing series of concepts and methods, each of the subprojects will follow one of these three approaches:

  1. A generalising socio-cultural approach focusing on structural societal forces that produce ‘fake news’. ‘Fake news’ is an embedded phenomenon, rooted in attitudes towards authoritative texts, and part of a particular political culture; it thus needs contextualisation.
  2. A detailed historical approach focusing on specific circumstances and particular periods in which ‘fake news’ suddenly might take centre stage. Due to major shifts in social balances certain groups might at specific moments in time feel the need to renegotiate their position in society and define their identity through texts.
  3. A detailed literary approach focusing on the way ‘fake news’ finds its way into history writing. Processes of mediatisation, by which closely circumscribed types of communication become the norm, increasing the urgency to authorise one’s claims and the verbatim quotation of documents (authentic or not) may help to do so.
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