How Did Government Propaganda Develop

Figure 1. Roman triumphs were intended to show the glory of the leader and Rome as a great spectacle to the public

Official propaganda promulgated by governments has existed since the earliest writing and government-sponsored art since the 3rd millennium BCE. Early forms of propaganda were intended to show the ruler and government in the favor of the gods. While this has changed, the general purpose of propaganda has been to convince a ruler's population on the efficacy of a ruler's destiny or relevance in the ruling.

When was Government Propaganda first created?

Early forms of propaganda in the Near East and Egypt took the form of visual, often official art such as statues, inscriptions, and monumental art. Sometimes the art was small-scale objects, such as cylinder seals. Other times, propaganda included formal statements on public works such as temples created. A consistent theme in history is as new media became invented, governments used those as vehicles of official propaganda and writing and art became among the earliest forms governments used to portray their central messages. In particular, propaganda often focused on war or serving the gods. In both cases, the favor of the gods is demonstrated through propaganda by showing the ruler's power and favor.

Inscriptions in buildings, such as temples, and steles would commemorate great acts by kings. These were often intended to demonstrate that kings' accomplishments and fulfilling their sacred duties by upholding the local religion or belief. This also was the case in war, where defending one's people and demonstrating the power of gods through warfare success was also part of the propaganda literature in the Near East, Egypt, and up to China from the 3rd to 1st millennium BCE.[1]

In the Roman period, Roman politicians began to compete with other leading politicians for political power. Roman leaders, such as Caesar or Dio Cassius, began the art of creating auto-biographies where the authors wrote accounts of battles in wildlands and tribes, such as in Gaul (France) and Caledonian (Scotland). These works were not just historical accounts, although they provide historical detail, they are intended to serve as propaganda for their vision of Rome and the leadership they provided. They also portrayed those outsides of Rome as savages who were unenlightened and helping to justify the Roman invasion.

Whether it was the Roman standard or other official art, Rome was generally shown as the civilizing power that brought light and justice to those who were conquered. Even well-known literature, such as the Aeneid, was written at a time of propaganda, in that it was written during the reign of Augustus (the first emperor), where Rome was increasing its Mediterranean authority. In Aeneid, the works of the Greeks are described as great achievements, but even the Greeks needed Roman authority to govern. These works justified the emperor's actions as well as Roman conquest and subsequent governing.

Roman triumphs were used to show the glory of the emperor or leader as well as the power of Rome to the wider public through a large spectacle that demonstrated Rome's great military and civilizing power (Figure 1). The emperor cult also began during the time of Augustus, where emperors were worshiped as demi-gods or rulers who were divinely approved. Propaganda did shift over time, from the 1st century CE to 2nd century CE, conquests were critical, thus propaganda justified this. From the 2nd century CE, civil authority and benefit were part of the propaganda. Emperors demonstrating their achievement in public works was just as critical as those who were successful on the battlefield. Roman propaganda often had different audiences.

Often, military propaganda focused on the army, as they helped to command influence and building reputation among the rulers, which helped rulers to solidify their power. As Roman citizenship expanded, Rome portrayed itself as the civilizing power where imperialism and gaining citizenship helped bring order in an otherwise chaotic world. Thus, becoming a Roman citizen was a pinnacle of achievement.[2]

Medieval Propaganda and Early Modern

Medieval European propaganda can be divided into chronicles, hagiography, which was a type of reporting of what was happening around a narrator, and a type of monograph or book. Visual arts were also used as in previous periods. This time, most visual arts about leaders or governments focused on demonstrating them as having divine benefaction and that their governing was part of an ordained process. Chronicles provided a more dry, descriptive accounting of events in a type of linear process that describes events from year to year. By being somewhat dry, the voice sounded neutral but in reality, portrayed an official government account. A good example of this is the Chronicles of Alfred the Great. These, although often useful historically, were propaganda at their core because they often focused on events that could be shaped to help the ruler or show support that the ruler received from God.

Hagiography was a type of the first-person perspective given about events occurring around a narrator. These often intersect divine intervention or interpreted events in a divine manner that could help the ruler. Descriptive monographs often were portrayed as works for a more sophisticated audience and were often quite long. The Antapodosis is a good example of such a work that also demonstrates that these works often attempted to guide their audience by telling them how to interpret and understand events. These works were a type of historical analysis as well as a guide to audiences in understanding events from the point of view of, more often, the governing bodies.[3]

With the printing press becoming widely available after the 16th century, propaganda began to take a different dimension in the Early Modern period. Now, we begin to find newspapers being used for the first time to help sway the masses in government positioning or about current affairs such as the debate between Protestants and Catholics. The Habsburg Dynasty began to use newspapers to publish daily or near-daily war accounts, all of which favored the crown. With the printing press, posters and newspapers became more common and factions within governments or rivals to power also equally used these media to promote their messages.

During the Napoleonic wars, Napoleon moved away from religious symbolism and propaganda to a more secular approach. Heroism and success on the battlefield were given as reason enough to promote success and his portrayal as a great leader. Sweeping paintings that show heroic conquests and portrayals created a personality cult around the leader. Napoleon famously used paintings from well-known artists to portray himself as the secular savior of France, although interestingly sometimes this utilized religious symbolism or symbolism from the Roman period.[4]

Modern Propaganda

Figure 2. Allied propaganda showed the Germans in World War I as brutish to help compel the population in supporting the war effort.

World War I began the era of military and government propaganda that de-emphasized the ruler and focused more on the people. In this case, propaganda tried to make people feel compelled that it was their duty to serve the state in times of peril or war (Figure 2). Increasingly, stories of the enemy conducting atrocities, whether real or imagined, were portrayed in the wider media. With the rise of film and radio, propaganda began to move to these new media. Propaganda could now reach not only the entire country easily but it could be broadcast beyond. This opened up new forms of propaganda in World War 2 with radio personalities such as Tokyo Rose that attempted to discourage American soldiers.

Thus enemy states also started using more propaganda on each other. The war effort was also fully mobilized in the population, with different forms of propaganda geared towards men and women. For women, it was about serving their country in the factories or helping produce enough to fight. For men, it was about encouraging them to fight and serve in the military. [5]

Since the Cold War, films have increasingly were used as propaganda, where villainous individuals serving countries that were considered the enemy would fight heroic figures from a country that protects humanity. This began to transcend purely adult-based propaganda. Cartoons and superheroes (e.g., Captain America) began to emerge as individuals who would serve their country in a greater cause to protect democratic principles and the free world. While this reflected American-style propaganda, Soviet propaganda was more focused on the virtues of Communism and Leninism, including liberating workers from an oppressive capitalist system. Countries were shown as 'filthy' and corrupt and the virtues of Communism could save them from enslaving people.

Often, the past was used to conjure a heroic era of people serving their countries and was ready to die for it in times of great peril. The use of the past, heroic individuals, and espousing virtues became prevalent not only in film but on posters, statues, and even theater and performances within the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, overt propaganda among the great Western powers has diminished, although some would argue that the medium has now shifted towards news channels, editorials, or even online sites pushing given ideas to audiences, with propaganda more focused on messages for specific parts of the population rather than the wider country or even beyond.[6]


Propaganda reflects shifting technologies, media, and ideas that leaders have attempted to portray in different periods and states. Propaganda has often including the bending of truth or even invention, but the target of propaganda has also shifted. Technological shifts have often resulted in shifts in the style of how propaganda is portrayed. Initially, propaganda was often limited in its appearance and audience, as the medium of art or writing was only understood by a relatively small number of people. With the printing press, this shifted to a more mass audience, resulting in a transformation in how propaganda was portrayed. By the 20th century, propaganda spread globally through radio and even television such as through films. The World Wars and Cold War greatly accelerated the use of new media and sometimes not only state institutions but also private institutions, such as the film industry, into supporting a wider message that became global.


  1. For more on early propaganda in Egypt and Near East, see: Pu, M., 2005. Enemies of civilization: attitudes toward foreigners in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China . SUNY series in Chinese philosophy and culture. State University of New York Press, Albany.
  2. For more on Roman propaganda, see: Jowett, G., O’Donnell, V., 1999. Propaganda and persuasion. 3rd ed. ed. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, pg. 54.
  3. For more on early Medieval propaganda, see: Geary, P.J., 2013. Language & power in the early Middle ages. The Menahem Stern Jerusalem lectures. Brandeis University Press, Waltham, Mass.
  4. For more on how the Thirty-year war and early modern period shaped propaganda in Europe, see: Hobbes, T., Malcolm, N. (Eds.), 2007. Reason of state, propaganda, and the Thirty Years’ War. Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, Oxford : New York.
  5. For more on World War I and World War II propaganda, see: Welch, D., 2015. Propaganda, power and persuasion: from World War I to Wikileaks. International Library of Historical Studies. IB Tauris.
  6. For more on Cold War and more recent propaganda, see: Belmonte, L.A., 2010. Selling the American way: U.S. propaganda and the Cold War. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.