Ancient Intelligence

Encyclopedia of Intelligence and Counterintelligence. Editor: Rodney P Carlisle. Volume 1. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2005.

Intelligence gathering is nearly as old as written history. Excavations at the palace of the ancient city of Mari in modern Syria, for example, have produced an archive filled with evidence of the shadow trade, dating to around 1800 B.C.E. The use of spies for both political and military espionage was quite common, and evidence of ancient recruiting techniques is plentiful. Spies worked for money, for ideological motivations, for retribution against their own government, or for the sheer excitement and intrigue of the business and the love of gossip. Both city-dwellers and nomadic tribesmen engaged in espionage activities. One text speaks of Hammurabi never running out of “mouths willing to talk.” In 1985, when archaeologists uncovered tablets in the palace of Tell Leilan (the ancient Shubat Enlil) in Syria, the first 12 tablets mentioned spy exchanges.

Among the most intriguing items in the Mari archive was a tablet that had inscribed across the top “This Is A Secret Tablet,” making it possibly the earliest extant classified document. The marking probably restricted access to the document by unauthorized readers and guaranteed that it would be carried by a trusted messenger. The heading let the reader know it was “For Your Eyes Only.” Why all the secrecy surrounding this document? Because it was an execution order. Loosely translated it says: “Locate this man. If there is a ditch in the countryside or in the city, make this man disappear, whether he climbs to heaven or sinks into hell, let no one see him anymore.”

Such documents were handled in a special room set off from the main archive where scribes could translate and analyze captured documents and generally keep the king up-to-date on intelligence matters. The bureau is thought to have been headed by trusted officials, and intelligence poured in from every possible source.

We know the name of at least one director of this intelligence bureau, “little knat.” Reports from every source including the queen were collected, evaluated and filed. Information was extracted from gossipy merchants, wandering artisans, messengers, soldiers and sailors, and refugees. On a more official level, there were reports sent by ambassadors of the courts of allied and neutral powers. Thus far, well over 2,000 documents have been recovered from the palace. All the local kings in Mesopotamia appear to have engaged in subversive activities intended to weaken their enemies’ resistance or to overthrow the leaders of other city-states. Kings dispatched propagandists known as “men of rumors” to discourage resistance. Such men were successful in causing desertions that severely weakened the defense at Mari.

In one example, mere rumors of an advancing Assyrian army were enough to encourage the defenders to abandon their positions. The king of Mari, Yasmakh-Adad, wrote to his father Shamshi-Adad King of Shubat Enlil: “Who has caused the troops to revolt? Two soldiers. And these two men, in creating fear, caused the troops to revolt.”

Accurate and timely intelligence allowed the army of Mari to surprise its enemies, usually in the form of ambush or deception operations. Armies are likened to wrestlers trying to trick one another. Each side tried to out-maneuver its opponent with an ambush. Correspondence from Hammurabi in Babylon made a clear statement about the importance of intelligence to his military operations; he simply would not make a move until he had “information concerning the enemy.” Deception operations were common in situations where an army had been lulled into security and then attacked, or lured into unfavorable territory for an ambush. Texts also mention guerrilla attacks by men in disguise.

Internal security was of the utmost importance. Political assassinations and palace intrigues were commonplace in the second millennium B.C.E. Kings often lost their thrones to internal revolts if they were not vigilant. The texts make numerous references to assassination attempts. However, a king was not a hopeless victim, waiting to be picked off. He had spies to test people’s loyalty and punishments in place for those whose loyalty was suspect. Texts speak of “ringleaders who have caused a disturbance” being rounded up, and their fate was not enviable. One conspirator was beheaded, and another had his skull crushed. Punishment was extended to include the plotter’s household and his companions in crime. One judgment decreed: “the one who has thought up or knows of a plot, let him and his household be burnt.”

The Mari and Tell Leilan tablets disclose how rulers of the second millennium B.C.E. deployed spies, scouts, and “eyes” to check up on each other’s activities. These texts show what happened when spies were captured, and how treaties were negotiated for their return through the payment of ransom.

The rulers of Mesopotamian city-states were clever strategists and master spy-runners, and because the destruction of their palaces by fire baked the clay tablets and preserved them indefinitely, we are able to excavate the intelligence history of the ancient Near East with relative ease. When archaeologists can find tablets to document their political and military activities, so too they find evidence of intelligence operations.

Ancient Near Eastern empires. Any ruler aspiring to empire in the ancient Near East needed a large army with an intelligence gathering capacity to effectively conquer foreign territories and their populations. Once established, the smooth running of an empire relied upon intelligence gathering, analysis, and the proper dissemination of that intelligence to ensure stability and security. In this way, we witness the birth of large and intricate intelligence services run by centralized bureaucracies.

Rulers also developed intelligence services for the defense of their kingdoms, and for political expansion. They protected themselves against domestic and foreign threats, and used internal spying as the basic method of controlling their subjects.

Egypt. From ancient Egypt we have records on both papyrus and clay that detail the military campaigns of the Egyptians as they spread their hegemony into Nubia to the south and Palestine and Syria to the north. Egyptian intelligence gatherers could be messengers, diplomats, soldiers, governors, or any official who might have stumbled across information of interest to the pharaoh.

As an example of their efficiency, we know of a series of intelligence reports from the Middle Kingdom fortress at Semnah, the southern border of Egyptian-held territory in Nubia. These dispatches, which date to the reign of Amenemhet III circa 1844 to 1841 B.C.E., deal with the comings and goings of a group of nomads known as the Medjay people. Attempts were being made to keep track of the movements of tribes in the desert; some of the Medjay were later recruited into the Egyptian army. These are some of the earliest extant intelligence documents.

Two of our very first detailed descriptions of Bronze Age battles also come from Egypt, and not surprisingly both of them rely on intelligence operations. The Battle of Megiddo was the first military campaign in recorded history from which any kind of detailed account has survived.

The 18th Dynasty pharaoh, Thutmose III, had abstracts from the records of his campaign inscribed on the temple walls. Megiddo was his first victory and it was recorded in more detail than his later campaigns. Thutmose sent out his reconnaissance people to find out which was the best way to attack the fortress of Megiddo. Thutmose also engaged in a common but dangerous practice of ignoring the advice of his intelligence staff, once the information had been collected and analyzed.

In a daring attack on the fortress, he took the direct route that his intelligence people had warned him against. By choosing a daring frontal assault, he was able to take the Syrian forces by surprise, and the result was a resounding victory for the Egyptians.

Similarly, intelligence-gathering played a significant part in the story of the Battle of Kadesh that nearly ended in disaster for the Egyptians. The pharaoh, Ramses II, was fed disinformation by a spy working for the Hittites and was led into a trap. By torturing more accurate intelligence out of some local bedouin, he was able to recover somewhat and fight his way out through the surrounding Hittite forces. This example shows that even a militarily talented leader like Ramses could falter when given inaccurate intelligence.

Assyria. As empire builders, the Assyrians had the advantage of being able to build upon the work of their predecessors, the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians. They realized that the defense and security of their empire depended upon both good communications and reliable intelligence.

The first great Assyrian conqueror, TiglathPileser I (1115-1077 B.C.E.) considered the provision of good roads for his troops and messengers as the first condition of success. Assyrian roads were said to be protected by a special divinity, and royal guards were posted at certain distances to assure rapid transmission of urgent messages. Along the main roads, a special royal postal service was established to secure rapid intelligence from all points of the Assyrian empire. The royal messengers held a particular place at court among the minor officials.

The Babylonian name for these messengers was angaroi, and its adoption by the Persians shows the continuity of the concept. The Assyrian communications system seems to have been completed during the reign of Assurbanipal (668-627 B.C.E.) and the measurements between the different stations were definitely fixed. Whenever royal armies went out against rebels, scribes would record the distances so that they could calculate the time it would take to put down a revolt should they have to return.

The Assyrian system seems to have been quite successful since we have many accounts of revolts being detected and stamped out in their early stages. A text from the reign of Esarhaddon (668-627 B.C.E.) tells of the treachery of the king of Sidon and how the Assyrian king caught him up “like a fish in the sea.” Assyrian agents even worked on the borders of the empire and in foreign lands not yet subject to Assyria.

A text of Esarhaddon’s provides instructions on how to debrief defectors coming over the borders. Important intelligence, such as news of plots, was sent back to the capital by means of fire signals. These signals had to be pre-arranged, but they would be followed by a fast courier who could give more details of the events announced by the fire post. Although we do not have a great amount of information about how the Assyrian intelligence service functioned, or by what means the kings obtained necessary information of political and military value, the longevity of their empire suggests that the system was successful for a very long time.

Persia. The Persians, too, built upon the system of their predecessors. As heirs to the work of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Hittites, they set up an immense empire that could function effectively only if the central government was in touch with the remotest provinces and had a system that could warn of all dangers from both outside and inside their borders. The founders of the Persian empire created an important office that oversaw the entire administration. The head of this office was named “The Eye of the King” and he controlled all the provincial governors and royal functionaries.

The Greek historian Xenophon describes in his Cyropaediawhat seems like the benevolent functioning of this system, but in reality what he is describing, if his text is reliable, is a Persian secret service. The running of this office depended upon an efficient intelligence service. A postal/military intelligence network was built that operated on the royal road from Persepolis to Susa and out to Sardis and Ephesus on the coast of Asia Minor.

The Persians maintained fixed remount stations where royal messengers who carried royal orders, could rest and change horses. Reports from satraps(provincial governors), and confidential intelligence on the behavior of hostile or subjected tribes could be sped along with great efficiency. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us of the system’s speed when he writes that “nothing mortal accomplishes a course more swiftly” than do these messengers who are stayed “neither by snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness” from accomplishing their appointed rounds.

The fact that the messengers were still called angaroishows the system was adapted from the Babylonians through the Assyrians. Like the Assyrians, the Persians used fire signals for rapid intelligence. And like the Assyrians, the size and longevity of their empire suggests that the head of this secret service was successful in keeping the Persian kings informed of possible threats to the empire through counterintelligence efforts.

Roman Empire. It was once fashionable to believe that because the Greeks had a democracy and the Romans a republic, that neither of them needed an intelligence service. But representative government and intelligence-gathering and counterintelligence activities are by no means mutually exclusive. States rely upon information gathered from friends and enemies for the formation of their foreign policy, and the Romans were no exception. Granted that in the early days of the republic, when one could cross the entire city in a day on foot, intelligence-gathering was not as complicated a task as it would be when Rome ruled the entire Mediterranean world. But even in the beginning, Rome certainly did not lack enemies to target. Their early conflicts with the neighboring tribes, the Aequi and the Volsci, were followed by major wars with the Samnites, Etruscans, and Gauls. Collecting intelligence on these peoples was a full-time job. The Romans learned to infiltrate neighboring tribes, develop bilingual agents, and launch surprise attacks with great success. Institutions such as the exploratores (cavalry scouts) were created to ride out ahead of the army and search out camp sites, battle grounds, and to locate the enemy. Similarly, the speculatores were created as mounted couriers who sometimes acted as spies and undercover agents.

After Rome had conquered most of the Italian peninsula, the Romans became entangled in Sicily with a major foreign enemy, the Carthaginians. An intelligence war ensued during which Hannibal surprised the Romans by invading through the Alps, and the Romans, in turn, attempted to cut off supplies and communications between Hannibal’s army and his capital in Carthage. Both sides had their spies, and both could be brutal when dealing with captured enemy agents, or even with their own operatives who did not perform well. When the Romans caught two Carthaginian spies in Rome they had their right hands cut off. When Hannibal was given inaccurate information about the route to Casinum, he had his scout crucified.

Rome never developed one single organization to collect intelligence during the republican era. For political intelligence from overseas, the main source of intelligence was the embassy. Small missions of inquiry were sent to visit kings who had requested assistance. Most of this was done in the open, although retainers brought along with the embassy staff often snooped around and reported back to the ambassadors. On his grand tour of the East in 166 B.C.E., Tiberius Gracchus and his entourage were referred to as kataskopoi (spies) by the Greek historian Polybius. Because rulers in the East had a long history of playing this diplomatic game, they often assumed the Romans were doing the same thing. Information might be gathered informally by traders, messengers, or military personnel overseas. Even Romans traveling in non-official capacities were mistrusted by provincials. For example, Roman grain buyers making purchases in Cumae and Sicily were accused of spying and treated with great hostility.

Much of the behind-the-scenes, cloak-and-dagger work of senatorial politics is lost to us, but the various political factions all had their personal retinue of spies, if for no other reason than to collect gossip that might launch or sink a political career. The Romans had no qualms about using espionage on a personal level. Every Roman aristocrat had his private network of business associates, informers, clansmen, slaves or agents (male or female) who could keep him informed on the latest happenings in the Senate or elsewhere in the city. The famous conspiracy of Catiline was detected and put down by Cicero by using a female spy who was the lover of one of the conspirators. In non-political situations, even Roman builders worked with counterintelligence in mind. Livius Drusus’s architect, as an example, asked him whether he would like his house built in such a way that he would be “free from public gaze, safe from all espionage and that no one could look down on it.”

Espionage on this small scale became espionage on a national scale when the nobility took their family interests into the foreign-policy arena. Because each senatorial family had its own private intelligence network, no one group would have sanctioned the creation of a single intelligence office that might have fallen into the hands of a rival faction. This large collection of individual interests was simply not fertile ground for spawning a centralized intelligence service that would both monitor Rome’s overseas interests and watch over Roman society at home.

Julius Caesar was a Roman commander who understood well the importance of good intelligence assets and who used the republican system to its best advantage. He established a rapid message and information transport system using couriers. His Commentaries are filled with stories of spies and scouts who used codes and ciphers to prevent his military plans from falling into the hands of the enemy. Plutarch states that he traveled very swiftly in carriages, and kept two scribes busy at the same time taking down his dictation. The truly ironic fact is, however, that this man who valued intelligence so highly and whose spies worked so efficiently, died with a list of the conspirators who would kill him still in his hand. His spy network had done its job of uncovering his enemies, and it did so in good time, but Caesar never read the message and walked into the trap.

Although the empire under Augustus pretended to preserve the republic, the government had, in reality, evolved into one-man rule. New institutions were introduced such as the cursus publicus, the postal system, that was set up on Roman roads to deliver intelligence between the provinces and the capital. For the first time, there was a reliable means of transmitting important intelligence. Like the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians before them, the Romans combined their road network with a communications system to help ensure the security of the emperor and the stability of the empire.

Not long after the cursus publicus had been established, an emperor, possibly Domitian or Hadrian, came up with another innovation that added more manpower to the Roman intelligence apparatus. The supply section of the army provided personnel who also served as intelligence agents. Because they had worked with the grain supply they retained the name frumentarii (frumentum means grain). These intelligence officers were constantly traveling on logistical assignments and were in a position to watch over the army, the imperial bureaucracy, and the local populace. They reported back to the emperor on any situation that was of interest to national security, so the emperors came to heavily rely upon the system. We can see this in the fact that the frumentarii came to replace the speculatores as the primary intelligence couriers and eventually took on the work of secret police. Although their three main duties were as couriers, tax collectors, and policemen, like the speculatores before them, these officers were used in many capacities involving state security.

In their capacity as spies, they were quite efficient; certainly no one high or low seems to have escaped their scrutiny. As secret police agents, the frumentarii participated in the persecution of the Christians and were often the agents who ordered their arrest. The soldier who supervised Saint Paul in Rome while he was awaiting trial was a frumentarius. The activities of the frumentarii did not endear them to the general public. Roman administrators, under the best of circumstances, could be arbitrary, authoritarian, and corrupt. When they became involved in collecting taxes and hunting down subversives, the temptations to corruption were even greater.

A 3rd-century writer describes the provinces as “enslaved by fear” because spies were everywhere. Their snooping became so pervasive by the third century that their behavior was compared to a plundering army, and they were frequently compared to a swarm of locusts. They descended upon villages ostensibly in pursuit of political criminals, but then they demanded bribes from the locals. The complaints became so numerous and frequent that the emperor Diocletian disbanded the frumentarii; however, he had no intention of giving up such a valuable intelligence asset. In place of thefrumentarii, he simply set up a new organization that would perform the same tasks but under a different name. These new men were called agentes in rebus, general agents.

The blandness of the title belies their insidious function. Like their predecessors, they performed a wide range of intelligence and security functions. The two major differences were that these new agentes were civilians, not soldiers, and they were not under the jurisdiction of the Praetorian Prefect like the frumentarii, but rather were directed by an official called the master of offices. Since the master of offices controlled other groups that had intelligence functions, such as the notarii (the imperial secretaries), he became, in effect, a minister of information. The new corps of agents also became more numerous than it had been under military control, numbering as many as 1,200 men.

The growth of bureaucracy in the late empire created another use for spies: the surveillance of other ministries of state. The central government used intelligence officers from the imperial court to serve in other departments of government and there they could spy on both their superiors and subordinates alike. Sometimes they remained loyal to the emperor, but at other times they cooperated with their superiors with the aim of advancing their own careers. Charges of treason were often hurled at political rivals, rather than real traitors, with the consequence that the security of the empire was not really served.

During the late empire, the Roman government institutionalized its intelligence activities to an extent unknown during Augustus’s reign. In order to remain safe, the emperors relied on many different groups to provide them with intelligence. The distinguishing characteristic of espionage in the late empire is that no one department carried it out alone. Many groups, both civilian and military, were assigned tasks that involved surveillance, transmission, or security functions.

Yet, ironically, all this espionage and counterintelligence did not seem to keep the emperor any safer. Seventy-five percent of Roman emperors fell to assassins or pretenders to the throne. Nor was there very much innovation in the types of intelligence work done. Foreign intelligence continued to be collected by diplomats visiting foreign courts, or by military scouts such as the exploratores. In the late empire, large mobile units of exploratores were deployed along the border where they were used to monitor enemy activity beyond the empire’s limits. This was straightforward military reconnaissance.

In spite of their corruption and frequent inefficiency, the Roman government considered the agentes in rebus indispensable. Even after the fall of the western empire in 476 C.E., these agents continued to be used by the Ostrogothic government well into the 6th century. In the eastern part of the empire, which did not suffer the catastrophic invasions of the West, they continued to function until the central administration was reorganized shortly after 700 C.E. No government in the ancient world was without its intelligence collectors, analyzers and disseminators.

Although the forms of government varied immensely over time, the one thing they all had in common was that no leader, civilian or military, made strategic decisions without first collecting as much accurate intelligence as possible.