Barely a day passes without yet another Russian explanation for the Salisbury nerve agent attack. What’s new? Such disinformation has a very ancient history.
After Caesar’s assassination in 44 bc, his old friend Mark Antony and the 18-year-old Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and heir, emerged as the two contenders for power. In 32 bc, it had become clear that it war between them was inevitable. At this critical juncture, two allies of Antony deserted to Octavian, and revealed that Antony had a will, which had been lodged with the Vestal Virgins. It was illegal to open the will of a living man, and the Virgins told Octavian that they would not touch it. So Octavian simply seized it, looked over it — alone and unsupervised — marked some incriminating passages and read it out to the senate.
It was dynamite: he could have written it himself, though no ancient source said it was forged. Its provisions included: recognising that Caesarion, Cleopatra’s son, was truly the son of Caesar (thus cocking a snook at the merely adopted Octavian); vast legacies to Antony’s children by Cleopatra; and Antony to be buried in Alexandria beside Cleopatra. It was also rumoured that if Antony won, he would locate his seat of power not in Rome but in Alexandria; Cleopatra had Roman soldiers to guard her; she had ambitions to rule Rome; and her favourite oath was ‘May I dispense justice on the Capitol [in Rome]!’ And much more in similar vein.
Later historians of Rome — Plutarch, Suetonius and Dio — picked over this juicy bonanza, selecting according to their take on the matter. Plutarch, for example, was keen to emphasise an Antony enslaved by passion for Cleopatra. And that was, of course, the point: Octavian knew that the more accusations he could pump out, the greater the chance of people swallowing some of them.
Which is precisely Russia’s purpose. An innocent Vladimir Putin would have expressed outrage and promised help to find the culprits. But his aim was to humiliate: we will murder whomever we want, whenever we want, on your soil, and you can do nothing about it. And we will ridicule you too, with hysterically witty comments about causing the ‘Beast from the East’.