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Espionage and military intelligence in ancient Rome
Espionage and military intelligence in ancient Rome

During the time of the Roman Empire, its military units - legions, were reputed to be invincible throughout the then civilized world. The training of soldiers, weaponry, and tactics with strategy did not leave any chance for the opponents of Rome. However, the Roman armies, and other power structures, could not have been so successful without the clear functioning of intelligence and espionage.

In this article, we will tell you about the special services of Ancient Rome, which not only engaged in military intelligence in enemy territory, but also watched over their own citizens, and even committed political assassinations to please the rulers.

Military intelligence originally from Carthage

The military intelligence of Ancient Rome owes its appearance directly to the Punic Wars and Carthage. It was among the troops of Hannibal that the Romans "plagiarized" the idea of ​​military spies. The Carthaginians often infiltrated their agents into the Roman legions. After "gathering information", the spy simply fled to Hannibal's camp, where he laid out all the intelligence.

The ruler of Carthage Hannibal had his spies in the Roman legions

Some historians cite facts confirming that the Carthaginian scouts had a whole system of gestures. With the help of which they identified each other, and also shared important information with each other. And it seems that at some point the Romans found out about it. After all, for some time, everyone who was accused of spying for Carthage was first chopped off their hands.

The Roman armies did not have their own intelligence. Until that time, until the command of the legions passed to the legendary Publius Cornelius Scipio, who received the honorary nickname "African" after the victory over Carthage. It was this commander who, not by hearsay knowing about the effectiveness of spies in the enemy ranks, having analyzed and studied their activities, began to create his own military intelligence.

The father of ancient Roman military intelligence

Publius Cornelius Scipio, taking as a basis the methods of Carthaginian espionage, significantly improved it in the Roman army. Now the scouts during their "work" were obliged to sacrifice everything, even their status in Roman society. So, in ancient Roman documents, a case is described when Publius decided, under the guise of slaves, to send his best centurions with a delegation of diplomats to the king of Numidia Sifax.

Episode from the life of Publius Cornelius Scipio in the painting by Giovanni Bellini, detail, 1506-1516

At the same time, a "freelance situation" arose. The command of the army was very much afraid that one of the "slaves" - the centurion Lucius Statorius, could be identified by Sifax himself, since he had already been with the king at an audience with the emissaries of Rome. The way out of the situation was found rather non-standard - it was decided to publicly punish the allegedly guilty "servant" with canes. After all, so no one would have doubted his lowest social status. And for the sake of his conspiracy, Lucius Statorius endured such humiliation.

Publius Cornelius Africanus Scipio

Posing as obedient slaves, the Roman centurions looked out for the number and location of the sentries, determined the most fortified areas, and identified the weakest points of the Numidian camp. After several visits by diplomats with such "slaves" Publius Cornelius Scipio already knew the positions of his enemies as his own.

Part-time diplomats and spies

The more the possessions of Rome expanded, the more acute the question arose of maintaining control over the enemy or conquered states, and over the allies of the empire. It was decided to entrust this mission to the Roman ambassadors. They, as direct representatives of local authorities, were obliged not only to monitor popular sentiments and report everything to the Senate or the emperor, but also to resolve some situations themselves.

At the trial of the Roman procurator

The ambassadors were instructed, either independently or with the help of servants, to obtain various secret information, as well as compromising evidence on local politicians of interest to Rome. An interesting fact is that many Roman henchmen in the colonies or allied states knew very well what else, in addition to diplomacy, the ambassadors from the metropolis were doing. Thus, the Greek historian and diplomat Polybius in his notes openly calls the Roman attachés headed by the tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus kataskopoi - "spies".

Brothers Tiberius and Guy Gracchi

In addition to ambassadors and diplomats, Roman merchants and traders also fell under suspicion of espionage in some countries. So, for example, the king of Parthia, Mithridates IV, after uncovering a conspiracy against himself in his close circle and executing all those involved in it, began with the help of spies to look for the true "customers" of the coup. According to espionage denunciations in the entire western part of the Parthian Empire, which was ruled by Mithridates, more than one and a half thousand Roman citizens were killed. Most of them were simple traders.

Intelligence without headquarters

Despite the fact that espionage in Rome became more and more progressive every year, the official state intelligence agency in the empire did not exist for a long time. All due to the fact that the Roman senators themselves were terrified that such an organization would be used to spy on them. And these fears were not unfounded.

Debates in the Roman Senate

The Roman Senate was almost entirely composed of wealthy and noble aristocrats. And most of them would absolutely not mind realizing their political ambitions, or significantly increasing their capital. Senators treated each other very cautiously, realizing that they could very well become "bargaining chips" in someone's political game.

Even the houses of their senators and tribunes were designed in such a way as to hide their private life as best as possible, not only from the eyes, but also from the ears of strangers. So, in his "Roman History" Guy Velley Paterculus describes how the architect, who is building the house of Mark Livy Druzu, suggested that he design the building in such a way that it would be "invisible and inaccessible to witnesses."

Everyday life of wealthy citizens of the Roman Empire

Another reason that centralized state intelligence services did not exist in Rome for a long time was the presence of a wide staff of personal spies and informants for almost every local nobleman. For example, it is known for certain from historical documents that Cicero discovered and suppressed a conspiracy against himself exclusively with the help of his own spies and bodyguards.

However, the most famous lover of private espionage in ancient Rome was Gaius Julius Caesar. While still a military leader, he established the positions of military couriers in the ranks of his troops. Which, in addition to their direct responsibilities for the delivery of military correspondence, also performed intelligence functions. These couriers were called speculatores, which means "spies" in Latin.

Spies: messengers and postmen

Under Emperor Octavian Augustus, the cursus publicus, a new postal and courier department, appears. This service was engaged not only in the delivery and transmission of information, but also in the verification of correspondence with the subsequent report "upward" of all the information read. However, most senators preferred to use their verified secret couriers to deliver important letters and documents.

Courier Routes of Ancient Rome

One of the truly pernicious habits of the Roman nobles was handing over letters to servants for reading and subsequent report. Indicative in this regard is the story of the emperor Caracalla (reigned from 211 to 217), who once received an anonymous letter. Instead of personally familiarizing himself with the contents of the message, Caracalla gave it to his prefect Mark Opellius Macrinus for study.

Thus, the emperor did not find out that an assassination attempt was being prepared on him. At the beginning of April 217, on the way from Edessa to Karra, Caracalla was killed by a group of conspirators. The next ruler of the Roman Empire was none other than Mark Opellius Macrinus.

Mark Opellius Macrin

Over time, the military intelligence of the speculatores completely "absorbed" the cursus publicus, taking over its functions of delivering and monitoring correspondence. However, now the powers of "spies" were not limited only to intelligence and courier services. The speculatores' agents were also involved in escorting convicted criminals, arresting politically objectionable citizens, and even carrying out death sentences.

Frumentarii: KGB of Ancient Rome

During the reign of Titus Flavius ​​Domitian (81-96), a centralized spy agency numerus frumentariorum appeared in Rome. It was organized on the basis of the military commissary service, which was engaged in the purchase of grain for the needs of the army. Everything is very simple - the quartermasters perfectly knew all the routes, as well as the customs and language of the inhabitants of the area where they were stationed. Most of them were good trading partners for the locals, which means they could easily get very interesting information for the "center".

Antique sculptural composition

It would be difficult to find the best candidates for the role of "sexists". And although the entire staff of Frumentarii was no more than 100 people, the service was not only in demand among those in power, but also provided its employees with the opportunity to make a breathtaking military and political career. And many did it.

The famous story of Mark Oklatina Advent, who in the beginning was a simple ordinary soldier. Feeling the ability and strength in himself, the young man was transferred to scouts, and then became a frustration. After serving in this department, already in the rank of commander, the young Mark Oklatina Advent was appointed procurator (Roman governor) of Britain.

Roman emperor Caracalla

The Emperor Caracalla, knowing about the talents of Mark Oklatian, in 212 appoints him as his first assistant - the prefect of the Praetorian Guard. Thus, Advent could well become the next emperor of the Holy Roman Empire after Caracalla. However, Mark Oklatian voluntarily renounced all claims to the throne, thereby ensuring himself a long life.

From frumentariums to agentes in rebus

Quite often, the emperors of Rome used the Frumentarii as secret personal killers to deal with unwanted senators, or political rivals. Such almost limitless powers, as expected, led to the fact that numerus frumentariorum gradually became too independent. And very often they used the power granted to them for purely personal selfish purposes.

Roman Frumentarii often exceeded their powers

Often, under the guise of political investigations and related searches, the Frumentarii were engaged in the usual robbery of respected Roman citizens, and even senators. Naturally, this state of affairs could not but worry the supreme power of Rome. The result of all this was the reformation of the “grain service” numerus frumentariorum by the emperor Dioctelian in 320 into “agents for things” - agentes in rebus.

In the new special service they took not only the military, but also the civilians of the Roman Empire. Although the functions of the new agency were the same as those of their predecessors, the Frumentarii - accompanying correspondence, intelligence, espionage and arrests of officials and politicians suspected of high treason.

Agent agentes in rebus in ancient Rome

Interestingly, the agentes in rebus, created in Rome, was able to outlive the Holy Roman Empire for at least a couple of centuries. Continuing its existence in another empire - the Byzantine. The last documentary mention of this secret intelligence service is dated 678. Then the agentes in rebus employee was on the staff of the diplomatic embassy of Byzantium to Mu'awiya ibn Abu Sufyan, the great caliph of Damascus.

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