Ancient Marketing and Propaganda

Viral marketing, branding, and propaganda. It is the bane of modern existence. If by modern you mean about as far as the written record goes back.

Turns out “modern” marketing techniques are as old as dirt, even celebrity endorsement.

The most commonly known ancient celebrity endorsement of Ancient times was athletes, in Grecian times they were Olympians, in Roman times, mostly gladiators. Either way, a retired legendary athlete could make a comfortable living off of endorsements and making appearances, which was good because the payment for actually competing in the games could be as simple as a stalk of celery (say you were competing in Isthmian games)

But the best marketer in Ancient Greece, and possibly of all time, was Alexander the Great. He is the reason you wear pants, leaders/pageant winners wear sashes, lions are on so many things, and the reason the devil has horns. All of these things in our culture are because of Alexander and the greatest propaganda campaign the world has ever seen.

It is not that different than a winning formula today.

And it all starts with some rocking hair.

In advertising, branding is important. We know the ancients had brand name items, because they talk about it. Alexander may have been the first to pull of a signature hairstyle.

Alexander’s lional mane was an iconic feature of his. Focusing in the Mediterranean where lion iconography was associated with Heracles (commonly known as Hercules), Alexander’s image became inseperably tied with the image of Heracles, who he claimed was his brother because he was secretly the son of Zeus. This is a bit like getting everyone to picture you as Superman and think it’s awesome instead of dorky. People know Superman is powerful, they know he protects the American people and American ideology. Heracles was a similar figure. See Heracles wore a lion skin, which was his equivalent of a red cape or the S shield. It was iconic.

Heracles in his Iconic lion headpiece
A coin depicting Alexander the Great

Alexander lathered his face all over everything he could with religious and powerful iconography. Above not only is he in the lional head dress, on the back multiple symbols of the Pharaoh and Egyptian royal divinity are depicted.

As he travelled east, iconography was used to present Alexander as the natural leader of whatever culture they were in, sometimes to surprising effect. It even earns him a mention in the Quran that may be the source of the horned Devil.

Coin depicting Alexander the Great with Goat Horns

The iconic depiction of Alexander the Great with goat horns linked him to a number of ruling gods in the Mediterranean and Middle East’s pagan pantheons, which were overlapping and somewhat fluid connected webs of deities. However this iconography clearly struck a chord with early Muslims who ran afoul with the war lord, as his mention in the Quran includes a passage about Alexander’s father confessing that Alexander was born with these goat horns, an confession that Alexander is not human but a demon. This is the only mention of horns being associated with demons and evil in the Quran, yet it is clearly prominent. One of the things iconography and branding does is establish an “us” and a “them”. Here we see the horns being used for that on both sides. As Alexander used the horns to associate himself with the people of his empire, the Quran uses the horns to label Alexander a “them”, a evil “them”. (one can hardly blame them, Alexander’s merciless slaughter of the nomadic Muslim tribes of the time was perhaps some of his bloodiest conquering.

It’s the kind of marketing advertisers both dream of and fear. Similarly he brought the authoritarian sash and pants into western culture as he adopted them to project an air of rightful rule over the Persians. In doing so he brought his brands into such a strong mental and emotional association with the cultures of both regions that he forever changed both his own image and people’s image of the iconography itself. That is the hallmark of good advertising, not just getting your brand associated with an icon, but creating an icon that means something in the greater context of culture. How we view lions, and authoritarian sashes, and pants, and goat horns were all carved by how ancient culture viewed Alexander himself. It’s an exchange of emotional association any advertising giant can only dream of making on the subconscious of the world.


People love things

People do. We especially love neat things. Clever things. We like to surround ourselves with them. Curios, or knick knacks are commonly found around the world.

Which is why it is weird that one of the first things people ask when finding an artefact is “what is it for?”. Often they ask this from behind a desk which may contain a variety of knick knacks to which exist simply because they are interesting or amusing.

One object we have been asking “what is it for” for a very long time is this:

Sator Square

The Sator square is an odd object found in many Roman households. What is it for? People have many theories. Maybe it’s a secret coded message of Christianity. Maybe it’s folk magic.

Or maybe it’s a knick knack of the amusing literary variety. See the Sator Square can be read left to right, right to left, up to down, and down to up and in every combination it makes words. Which is a pretty neat literary trick. It’s like a little poem, in a square. It ticks every box of a knick knack. It’s clever, to the literary inclined it’s amusing, and it’s easily displayed for enjoyment.

So, perhaps it is an early example of another long standing literary tradition, the love of putting words we like on a wall, which recently came back into fashion in a big way. Let’s be honest. If you were in bed, bath, and beyond and you found a hanging plaque containing letters that no matter how you read them made words, you know at least one person who would love to have that in their house.

Blog Highlight-iClassics and Whatshouldwecallhomer

iClassics is a fun blog for those who are casually in the know about classical history. This is a great blog because it mostly features works about classical history/people/myths made by modern fans, and thus can have a very lighthearted, informal, and modern approach to looking at ancient history.

However it really is more looking at than informing:


but it is a great way to get interacting with one of the online communities of classic fans and get an idea of who is out there because it hosts so many various fans work and links you directly to the creator’s blog. If you are casually aware of ancient myths or history, it tends to be an awesome place for a contemporary, and often funny look at history.

Motivational Polyphemus- Art by Violet Magician

One of the awesome parts of this blog, and another similar blog called What should we call Homer, is that it is on tumblr, a medium which allows for posts to go viral even outside the communities it was originally broadcast to with ease, thanks to it’s dashboard system which allows viewers to see everything that those they follow have reblogged. Thus popular images like these go viral reaching a much wider audience while still being linked to the owners, allowing for a digital trail of interests and interested parties to develop.



One of the lovely things about digital media is that it allows people who are formally studying classics to break down that academic barrier for us and also wade through the dull bits to bring us some total gems.

Alcibiades is one of those gems, just kinda all over. Thankfully we have wonderful people who are happy and willing to tell us all about his antics. Sometimes they can make you curious through the sheer depth of their passion about the subject which can give birth to some entertaining explanations

In the interest of not plagiarizing I am going to encourage you to go here before you continue, because Elenchus is an awesome pseudo-classicist who deserves traffic for their awesome post

(BTW, those little screencaps I keep posting at the top? Like the one at the top of this post? If you click on them it should take you to their source, except in the rare occasion that their source has disappeared off the internet. Anyway, just some housekeeping.)

So now you should have the low down on the rock star of Ancient Greek, a man who may or may not have been solely responsible for the end of the classical era and the rise of the Macedonians (which was a big deal because, well, Alexander the Great).

You have to wonder how people have honored this famous (or infamous) man who so colorfully splashed himself all over history and thanks to google I can reliably tell you they did it by painting.

They drew the scene mentioned at the very top of this post, where he shows up totally hammered at the symposium.

and of course being dragged out of brothels by Socrates

Which may have been a fairly prevalent theme

"AspasiaAlcibiades". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“AspasiaAlcibiades”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Stuff we can’t do on paper

Here is something awesome that I found

Animated Grecian Vase
Animated Grecian Vase

Just to repeat myself again, one of the awesome things digital media lets us do is bring the past to life. For example, above someone (I was not able to track down the original source, but if you know it please mention it in the comments).

From animating Grecian Vases, which were a medium used to tell stories through images to this awesome search engine that allows you to explore Pompeii’s graffiti as if you are wandering the streets, digital media allows us a new way to see the ancient past.

Fancy a wander around Augustan Rome?

Want to climb the Grecian god’s family tree?

Want to do… um… well… a whole lot of things like play games, read up on ancient history, learn to make a Grecian vase,  learn about  ancient myth, and/or have a very high pitched Hermes squeak in your ear at random intervals? (seriously if your speakers are up turn them down, this whole program is at a very high pitch squeak, but it’s an awesome site for kids)

Through digital media passionate classicists are able to breath life back into the long dead and create a history that is more interesting to interact with and can return some of the vibrancy objects people might have had back when they were made.

Fans, Literary Critism and LARPing: Ancient addition


Hey! Remember back in this post when I mentioned that really boring example about old philosophers argueing about whether Achilles and Patroclus were doing it? Remember how I said I would explain more? Because holy cow, people have always been really big fans of things.

Yeah this is that post.

Achilles and Patroclus depicted on a vase-Image pilfered from wikipedia

This is Achilles and Patroclus. They are two characters from the Illiad. Achilles was kinda a big deal. Patroclus may or may not have been his lover. Either way, when you are two main characters in the Ancient Greek’s favorite story of all time, you get some attention.

Whether Achilles and Patroclus were every real people isn’t really know. We used to assume they were made up, but then again we used to assume Troy was a made up place but then we found it in 1871. So maybe they were real people, who knows.

Either way many people had a hell of a lot of opinions on them and their maybe/maybe not couple state. People felt very passionately about it too. In what is sometimes called an extremely early example of literary critism,

From Classics Enthusiast
From Classics Enthusiast


who is responding to this guy

These are the people fighting about who topped when two fictional characters slept with each other. Publically.

Which sat poorly with Xenophon who has his own whole treaty that basically goes “Eww! No! They never had sex, gross. You are all pervs and I hate you.” (that’s basically what they were saying in the really boring excerpt I showed before.)

Alexander reading Homer by Ciro Ferri (1634-1689)

But perhaps the biggest fanboy in all of history of these two was Alexander the Great. No one loved these two more than he did. In fact he was such a big fanboy of Homer that fanboys of his made paintings of him reading the Illiad. He loved them so much he actually slept with an annotated copy of the Illiad. If you think you know a dedicated LARPer, well have they ever conquered an entire region so they could run around the graves of their literary heros naked? No?

To bad Alexander did.

The sacrifices at Achilles’ Tomb in Troy by Andre Castaigne (1898-1899).

In fact much of Alexander’s life may have been modelled around Achilles, including several times he tried Achilles’ “sulk in my tent until everyone feels bad that they made me sad” routine (which it turns out works less well on living Macedonians than on literary Greeks)

So if you ever think that people who dress up as characters from books or argue about the newest Game of Thrones episodes, well at least they have some very prestiges company.


And it sounds super swank!

A five-hour documentary, seven thematic units, 304 objects which will serve as a starting point to unfold aspects of the Hellenistic world and 3,500 texts make up the virtual museum that will run through the centuries, from the beginning of Macedonia until the modern time references to Alexander the Great.

Sounds amazing, not to mention ideal for a legacy that spread itself across three continents! It should be finished at the end of 2015 along with a new IRL museum! Follow the link for more information. Learn all about Alexander the Great and his great big smug head.

“Hell yeah you want to come see my museum! I am the best”- Alexander if he was around to say it, most definitely

Technology in Ancient History

One of the simplest myths we must dispel about history is that progress is linear in any way. The Ancient world was surprisingly advanced, followed by a collapse and loss of technology that set back our knowledge by millenium.

The Roman Empire, for example, probably had more in common with the 19th century than it did with the middle ages, technology wise.

Hero’s Aeolipile, Source: Wikipedia

What is pictured above is a steam engine. We do not know when it was developed, but it’s earliest mention was in the first century AD. The ancients had steam engines and they knew how they worked.

So it is important to realise what these people where. The Ancient Romans were, in the first century AD, a culture on the cusp of an industrial revolution. 

Almost 400 years before, Ctesibius, an inventor in Ptolemaic Egypt was writing the first treaties on primative hydrolic pumps, and how compressed air can be used in pumps and other industrial processing.  New discoveries have shown that the ancient Roman’s ability to shape the land around them boarders on what now a days would be considered impressive scale projects, including a massive canal that transformed Rome into a city connected to the sea, via a 2 mile long 100 meter wide canal.

So how does this all relate to what we have been talking about as far as how people communicate and how technology changes it? Well it brings to light how little we know about the technology they had.

The Phaistos Disk (which was recently partially translated!), a circular disk which is the only known documentation of an entire langauge, is an interesting piece, because the writing on it is stamped. How close was it’s manufacture to the earliest printing press? We don’t know.

Phaistos Disk-Front- Image from Getty Images via Huffington Post

While the reasons that we see technologies of the industrial revolution, yet no industrial revolution in Ancient Rome, mainly has to to with socio-economic factors, ones which we still see in play today. Slave labor is almost always cheaper than manufactured machines. There is a reason that the industrial revolution followed the heels of the social disowning of slavery in the Western world. It’s the same reason many carpets, clothing and sports equipment are made by hand or semi-by hand over seas instead of fully automated. We are perfectly capable of making machines that can make clothes at every stage without a human needed, but a slave or extremely cheap labourer with a simple sewing machine is cheaper. In Ancient Rome, with a plethora of prisoners of war as slaves, the tools of the industrial revolution were expensive toys.

But it remains. These were people with the industrial capabilities and the knowledge and understanding to create electricity and everything they needed to enter the industrial revolution and there is barely any evidence left. What else did they have that simply no longer remains?

The myth of the past


Asinius Marrucinus, you don’t employ

your left hand too well: in wine and jest

you take neglected table-linen.

Do you think that’s witty? Get lost, you fool:

it’s such a sordid and such an unattractive thing.

Don’t you believe me? Believe Pollionus

your brother, who wishes your thefts

could be fixed by money: he’s a boy

truly stuffed with wit and humour.

So expect three hundred hendecasyllables

or return my napkin, whose value

doesn’t disturb me, truly,

it’s a remembrance of my friends.

Fabullus and Veranius sent me the gift,

napkins from Spain: they must be cherished

as my Veranius and Fabullus must be.

-Catullus 12 (translation provided by

One of the greatest lies about history is that people were somehow different than they are today. Especially literature and written communication. One of my favourite subjects that I have gotten to study in university is how that is very much not true. People have always been very silly, for example they might publicly publish a poem threatening you with 300 more poems if you don’t give back the napkins you stole.

That brings us to Catullus. Catullus was a poet in Ancient Rome. He’s not a well known poet today, despite a surprising amount of his works surviving, but then again he is not really what we think about when we think “poets of the classical era”. However Catullus was not actually a poet by trade, but by hobby, and his poems bring an interesting glimpse into how written language was used in the day to day of the Ancients.

As authors like Douglas Ruskoff insist we must slow down and look at how technology is changing how we communicate, I think one of the important things to do is first break down the inncorrect assumptions we have about literature and writing in the past. What we are presented in secondary school is a highly edited version of the lives of real people, who operated socially much like we do today. They had the same fear of new technologies and sureness that it was bringing an end to real thought and the production of drivel. They also had a large amount of penis jokes. Some boys never change.

One of the things a classicist must keep in mind is that our knowledge is fragmentary. Catullus is a widely studied poet simply because his poetry survived for study. When it comes to ancient works we know the ancients were reading and writing far more than we have evidence for. Yet in certain places, such as Pompeii, we have been inordinately lucky and have had some of the most precious writings survive. Graffiti. One of the things graffiti has taught us is that even if the mediums change, what people are writing about is pretty common. What now is written on your facebook wall was once literally written on the wall of your house (slightly more obnoxious to remove your ex’s drunken laments when he carves it into your door)

Above is the link to a site which has faithfully documented some of the graffiti of Pompeii. Unsurprisingly a large amount of it is crude. Surprisingly it’s not anything you wouldn’t expect to see in a public bathroom or on the streets of New York, Leicester, or any other city. It’s riddled with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and hosts everything from ads for buildings to rent to announcing everyday mundane activities. Writing was not limited to the elite or few, and it did not exist only in books and rigid announcements of the wealthy. It was an active living part of these people’s culture, deeply interactive in that it existed in 3-D spaces in a way that you do not see now because those conversations have moved onto the digital sphere instead of being carved into tables and walls.

While people certainly didn’t get this information directly into their pocket, it shows something different than the plan great literary works, it shows everyday use of written language by everyday people, whores and soldiers and tradesmen and young boys in love, food critics and advertisers, all who used the written word in a way that seems very familiar and even modern. In the end that is what much of social media is. It’s graffiti. It’s the impulsive spontaneous little bits of writing humans cannot seem to help but leave everywhere, whether it be all over your twitter feed or written all over the streets. People have always being “checking into locations” for centuries, they just would physically carve their name into it. While it is true that you can learn much about what is on a culture’s mind by seeing what they are scribbling, and it certainly is much easier to search with tags and digital organization, what people are doing and writing about has not actually changed much. So it is important to remember that, especially when comparing the present “everyday scribblings” to the edited and fragmented writings of the past.