Origins of Intelligence Services
II. Intelligence in the Roman Empire
1. Republican Period
Lack of Interest in Intelligence in Early Rome and Reasons for Roman Expansion — Intelligence Service of the Carthaginians, Rivals of the Romans — Hannibal's Mastery of Intelligence — Scipio the Younger Learns from Hannibal — T. Sempronius Gracchus and the Macedonian Relay Service — Cato the Elder Values the Importance of Rapid Information — Slowness of Republican Information System — Messengers and Their Status.
2. Period of Civil Wars
Roman Traders and Financial Agents in Newly Conquered Lands — Mithridates of Pontus, His Intelligence in Asia, Rome, and Spain — Cicero’s Information on Intelligence in Asia — The Pirates and Insecurity of Sea Travel — Caesar’s Understanding of Military, Political, Geographical, and Economic Intelligence— Caesar’s Information on Gallic Intelligence Service — Caesar Establishes Information Service by Relays of Horsemen — His Tragic Death.
3. Imperial Period
Rise of Octavian-Augustus and Personal Experience in Importance of Intelligence — Founding of the State Post (cursus publicus) — Oriental Influences on Its Organization-Organization of the State Post — The mansiones and Changing-Stations — Transformation of the frumentarii from Grain Dealers to Intelligence Agents — The speculatores and the frumentarii as Intelligence Agents of the Emperors — The frumentarii as Policemen and Agents in Persecution of Christians —
The frumentarii, a Roman “Gestapo”? — Their Suppression by Diocletian — Roman Intelligence from Abroad — Roman and Greek Geographical and Ethnographical Intelligence — Pliny the Elder and Tacitus — The Information Service on the limes.
1. Republican Period
When we bear in mind the rapid evolution of intelligence services in the empires of the Near East, and when we consider how greatly the rulers of Egypt. Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia valued good intelligence lor the defense of their countries, for their political expansion, and for the security of their dynasties, it is rather surprising to see that the Romans, whose domination finally extended over the greater part of the ancient Near Eastern empires, manifested in the early period of their history very little interest in intelligence. This fact is the more startling to those who believe that the Roman expansion over Italy, Western Europe, the Adriatic, Greece, the Mediterranean lands, and the Near East was directed from the beginning by ruthless imperialism and a thirst for power and domination. We have seen that a good intelligence service was, in the East, one of the most striking characteristics of absolute power and a basis for successful political expansion.
But this long-held opinion concerning the expansion of Roman power over the ancient world seems to need radical correction. Tim Roman Empire began as a small city-state similar in extent and organization to the Greek city republics. The first conquests which made Rome the dominant power in Latium and southern Etruria were made by powerful Etruscan lords who had established themselves in the city and ruled it as absolute kings. After the expulsion of the alien dynasty and the establishment of a republic, ruled by two consuls elected every year by the Senate, Rome shrank again to a comparatively small state, surrounded by hostile and independent neighbors. In spite of their alliance with the Latins, the Romans made little progress in their campaigns against the Etruscan states that threatened their independence. The Etruscans were weakened by the Greeks advancing from Sicily who wrested from them the mastery of the seas, and by the Celts — the Gauls — who, after establishing themselves in the lands bordering the Adriatic, crossed the Apennines and invaded Etruria proper. Only then were the Romans able to defeat the southern Etrurian states and add their lands to the Roman territory.
All these campaigns were waged by the Romans not so much with a view to conquering new lands as to defending their own independence and very existence. One of the reasons for this slow progress might have been the almost complete lack of any organized intelligence service. We find much evidence of this in the Roman historian Livy’s description of these events. On one occasion, when the Etruscans made a razzia against Rome, according to Livy (Bk. I, 14), only the “. . . sudden stampede [of the farmers from] the fields into the city brought the first tidings of war.” On another occasion (Livy, Bk. I, 37), the city learned of a victorious battle only when the waters of the Tiber brought the shields of fallen enemies inside the walls. The army of the Etruscans, trying to re-establish their expelled king in Rome, seems also to have taken the Romans completely by surprise, although the Senate of the city was, according to Livy (Bk. II, 9-10), aware of the danger from this quarter threatening the existence of the new Republic. Nevertheless, apparently no precautions were taken, and the citizens hastily withdrew from their fields to the city when the enemy appeared. And the enemy would have captured the Capitol but for the bravery of Horatius Codes who, singlehanded, stopped the onrush of the Etruscans from the Janiculum. He gave his friends time to demolish the bridge over the Tiber, then swam across the river in full armor, a feat forever remembered in Rome.
As the territory of the Roman state in its early evolution could easily be crossed in a one-day march, it would not have been difficult to establish a kind of information service, but the Romans do not seem to have thought of it. According to Livy, the Romans were also surprised in 390 b.c., when the Gauls, enraged by the fact that Roman envoys, contrary to international custom, had taken up arms to fight on the side of their enemies, marched against the city. Although this report of Livy (Bk. V, 37) seems exaggerated, the disastrous defeat which the Romans suffered would have resulted in a complete destruction of the city, had the defenders of the Roman Capitol not withstood the long siege. This again leads us to the conclusion that the Romans underestimated the necessity of securing good information as to the nature, the intentions, and the movements of their neighbors and rivals. The famous incident during the siege of the Capitol by the Gauls (Livy, Bk. V, 47), when the cackling of geese awakened the sleeping defenders who, thanks to this lucky incident, were able to drive away the Gauls scaling the walls, can be quoted as another example of the Roman lack of experience in basic principles of intelligence in the early stages of their history.
Rome recovered after the withdrawal of the Gauls and continued the warfare against southern Etruria which, at that time, was her most dangerous foe. She succeeded not only in subjugating the southern Etrurian tribes, but also in re-establishing her prestige among the Latins; by 343 b.c. the first stage in the Roman conquest of Italy was closed. The discord among the Samnites and Apulians, the two mighty Etruscan tribes in southern Italy, was of assistance to Rome, then acting as protector of Latium and Campania, not only in pacifying these and other hostile tribes, but in extending her supremacy over a great part of southern Italy, and in putting her in direct touch with the Greeks who had advanced thither from Sicily.
These rapid advances in southern Italy alarmed the northern Etruscans, who then attacked Roman territory. This incident opened a new period in the Roman conquest of Italy and led to the defeat of the Etruscans and their new allies, the Gauls, established in the Po Valley. Further Roman progress in the south was again inaugurated, not by Roman lust for power, but by the appeal for help from the Greek cities on the southern coast of Italy, harassed by the Sabellian tribes on their borders. When Tarentum. the most powerful of the Greek cities, later changed its policy towards Rome and appealed for help to Pyrrhus, King of Epirus and one of the most brilliant Greek generals produced by the age of Alexander the Great and his successors, the Romans for the first time crossed swords with the Greeks. Only the stubborn determination of the Senate saved the Romans, twice defeated by the adventurous king. The conflict ended with the submission of Tarentum and the retreat of Pyrrhus to Greece. This conflict brought the Romans into contact with the Phoenicians or Carthaginians, who were masters of a great part of Sicily. The first contact was friendly-an alliance against the common danger coming from Pyrrhus.
Conflict with Carthage became inevitable, however, when Rome tried to protect her own interests and those of her allies in Italy. Carthaginian power was established in Sicily, in Sardinia, and in Corsica. It was evident that the Phoenicians were aiming at complete supremacy of the seas and the monopolization of all commerce in the Mediterranean Sea, the realization of which would have been disastrous for both Rome and Italy. The struggle which ensued between the two most powerful cities of that time became a fight for life or death. It resulted first in the annexation of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia by the Romans, but it could also have ended the role of Rome as a great power in Italy. The struggle for the Po Valley, where the Gauls were established and which was conquered after the first so-called Punic War, was renewed by the unruly Gauls themselves,
who in 225 b.c. had once more crossed the Apennines and come within three days’ journey of Rome. Spain became a great menace to Rome when the Carthaginians, trying to compensate for the loss of the great Italian islands, established themselves there and began to use Spain as the base for the invasion of Italy and the destruction of Rome itself.
The defense of Italy, and of its commerce in the Adriatic Sea, brought the Roman legions into the neighborhood of Macedonia and Greece following the destruction by the Roman navy of the vessels of the Illyrian pirates (228 b.c.); the pirates had endangered the seas with their raids, and the Roman envoys were welcomed as friends by the Greek city-states.
The destruction of Carthage, weakened by the ruinous wars with Rome, was perhaps unnecessary, but this cruel vengeance on a defeated enemy is explained by the anxiety to risk no longer the danger from Africa, which generations of Romans had had to face. Finally, the conquest of Macedonia was undertaken in order to protect Italy and Rome from that quarter. The Romans had not forgotten that Philip V of Macedon concluded an alliance with Hannibal, that most dreaded Carthaginian leader, and the Senate had good reason to mistrust the ambitious King Philip and his successor, Perseus. Similar reasons caused the wars with the Seleucids, which finally brought the Romans into Asia Minor and Syria.
All this resulted in an immense expansion of Roman power, an achievement never imagined by the first rulers of the small city-state on the Tiber. It was not the realization of plans elaborated upon in advance by generations of Roman leaders envisaging the greatest political expansion of the Republic; rather, it was brought about by a series of incidents unforeseen, mostly unprovoked and unexpected. All these successes were the fruit of a stubborn and indomitable will on the part of the Romans who, even in their darkest moments when Rome’s walls echoed the cries of the approaching enemy, never lost courage, by the individual genius of great leaders, descendants of the old Roman families, and by the compactness of the Italian confederacy forged by Roman statesmen. In the hour of its greatest danger, the inhabitants of the peninsula perceived clearly that their safety would be secured only under Rome’s leadership.
We are entitled to think that the climb to this supremacy would have been easier and less costly for the Romans had they paid more attention to the importance of a good information service. But it seems that the simple, straightforward, unspoiled Roman peasant stock, the basis of the proud Roman race, looked with supreme disdain upon anything which appeared artificial and disingenuous.
During the whole existence of the Roman Republic, we find no single trace of any organized system for obtaining information on developments among neighboring peoples, or of the plans of the enemy. We look in vain for evidence that the Romans used even the most primitive means of transmitting intelligence as, for example, by fire or smoke signals. They seem to have relied, in the early Republican period, on information given them by their allies of the movements of dangerous neighbors. We find numerous pieces of evidence of this kind in Livy’s historical work. From the manner in which he describes this kind of information, we have the impression that the Romans themselves had not even thought of establishing a systematic intelligence service and that they possessed no special agents among the befriended and allied tribes. They left it entirely to their allies to keep them informed of events which might endanger their common interests. Livy’s description tells us that this voluntary information service worked quite well as long as it was in the interest of the befriended tribes to keep Rome informed. It naturally collapsed when the tribe became hostile to Rome and succeeded in persuading its neighbors to its own plans. Other sources of political information were the Roman and Latin colonists who settled in important places in the conquered territories. But no systematic service was organized there either, and it was left to the colonists themselves to find means by which the capital could be kept informed of dangerous developments in their area. It was the reputation of Roman toughness and energy and the trust in Roman fidelity to her allies — the fides Romana — which kept this primitive information service going.
Moreover, we do not see any marked progress in military intelligence. The Roman legions of course used the basic strategic ruses and arts common to all peoples, and often profited from information elicited from traitors and deserters, but the Senate and its consuls in the field experienced difficulty keeping in touch, as there was no organized courier service between the fighting forces and the homeland.
It is easy to understand that such a situation was full of danger and often put a great strain on Roman diplomacy and the military forces. This neglect of an intelligence service by the Romans was outweighed by diplomatic and military superiority only as long as they were dealing with the disunited tribes in Italy. But once they faced an enemy who himself knew the advantages of good intelligence and used it shrewdly, they were obviously placed in a very unpleasant situation, and this they realized during their prolonged struggle with the Phoenicians of Carthage.
The so-called Punic Wars were a hard school in which the Romans learned the importance of intelligence, and they paid for it heavily.
Owing to their frequent commercial intercourse with Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor, the Carthaginian Phoenicians — the city of Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians of Tyre in Syria — were well acquainted with all that took place in the Near Eastern countries. They knew of the elaborate information services which had been developed in those lands, and they were shrewd enough to apply for their own benefit the methods used by Near Eastern monarchies. The Carthaginians were daring seafarers and applied the principles of good information service to their foreign trade. They explored the Spanish coast and the west African coast, and founded settlements in modern Senegal and Guinea, in Madeira and the Canary Islands.
Herodotus’s History (Bk. IV, 196) provides an interesting report on the Carthaginian use of the signal service in their commercial dealings with the natives of the west African coast. When the Carthaginian merchants disembarked, they put up smoke signals to announce their arrival to the natives with whom they wished to exchange their merchandise. The natives replied to the signals and deposited at a certain distance from the sailors the amount of gold they were willing to offer for the merchandise brought by the Carthaginians, and then withdrew. The merchants inspected the gold and, if they judged it to be sufficient, unloaded their merchandise from the vessels. If the quantity of gold was judged to be insufficient, further signals were made until both sides were satisfied, and the transaction concluded.
The Carthaginians jealously guarded their trading monopoly; after establishing themselves in Sardinia and Corsica, their squadrons watched for the vessels of other nations, and seized every ship which ventured into the Mediterranean between Sardinia and the Straits of Gibraltar. They appear to have discovered tin mines in northwestern Spain and guarded their secret so well that the Greeks never learned their location, and thought that the tin came by sea from tiny islands somewhere off the northwestern coast of Spain. Strabo, the geographer of the first century b.c., describes in his Geography (Bk. III, 5.11) the method used by the Carthaginians to keep their secret: “In former times it was the Phoenicians alone who carried on this commerce . . . ,” for they kept the voyage hidden from everyone else.
Carthaginian Possessions ~218 b.c.
And when once the Romans were closely following a certain ship-captain in order that they too might learn of the markets in question, the ship-captain out of cunning purposely drove his ship from its course into shoal water; after he had lured the followers to the same ruin, he himself escaped by holding on to a piece of wreckage. He received from the state the value of the cargo he had lost. This incident, which impressed the Greeks very much, does indicate that the Carthaginian senate was aware of the value of secrecy in foreign trade relations and jealously watched over the monopoly of important commercial information.
The Carthaginians availed themselves of their knowledge of the Eastern information system for the first time in their warfare in Sicily. There is some evidence that they established a reliable intelligence service from the theater of war in Sicily to the coast of Africa. The author of an essay on strategy — Polyaenus. who lived in the second century of our era — gives us the following data in Book VI, 16.2, of his work:
When the Carthaginians were devastating Sicily, they made, in order that all they needed would be sent to them quickly from Libya, two waterclocks of the same size, on which they marked circles with appropriate inscriptions. These were the inscriptions: “We need war ships, cargo boats, machines for besieging, foodstuffs, cattle, arms, infantry, cavalry.” When they had put these inscriptions on the clocks, they kept one of them in Sicily and the other they sent to Carthage with the following instruction: “They [the Carthaginians] must watch and when they see a fire signal in Sicily, they should let the water flow from the water-clock in Carthage. When they see another fire signal, then they should stop the flowing of water and see which circle it had reached. When they had read the inscription they should send in the quickest way the things they had been asked for by these signals.” And so it came about that the Carthaginians were always provided in the most rapid way with what they needed in their warfare.
The system described by Polyaenus resembles in almost every detail that minutely depicted by Aeneas, the first Greek writer on strategy. It is possible that Polyaenus simply copied verbatim from Aeneas. It is also possible, however, that the system described by Aeneas was not invented by him but was known to the Creeks and Carthaginians before his time. Nevertheless, even if it were true that Polyaenus had simply copied the water telegraphic system from Aeneas, it remains evident from his report that the Carthaginians had established, during their invasion of Sicily, a satisfactory system of information service which functioned well across the sea.
Further interesting information on Carthaginian military intelligence during the first Punic War is given by Polybius in his Histories (Bk. I. 19.6), where he describes how the Carthaginians used fire signals and messengers.
Generally speaking, the Carthaginians must have been regarded by the ancients as past masters in the methods used by intelligence agents and spies. For example, the invention of the clever stratagem of sending secret information by writing on a wooden tablet before it was covered with wax, in order to give the impression that the traveller possessed only a wax tablet for his own use, is ascribed to the Carthaginians by the ancient historian Justin (Bk. XXI. 6.6) who ascribes it to Hamilcar Barcas. In fact, this way of sending secret intelligence might have been known before their time but its invention may have been credited to the Phoenicians from the Syrian coast from whom Carthaginians and Greeks might have learned it. We shall see, however, that Hannibal was familiar with the use of secret signs and symbols, agreed upon beforehand, by which his secret messengers could be recognized as bearing a message from him. Plutarch, moreover, in his Life of Fabius Maximus (ch. 19) describes Hannibal’s custom of sending forged letters containing false information to mislead his political and military opponents.
This is not all. It seems that the Carthaginians possessed an elaborate system of relays and speedy messengers, at least on the coast, by which the capital was kept informed of any complications that might endanger its security. We find evidence for it again in Livy, who reports (Bk. XXIX, 3.8) that when Laelius had effected the night landing of a Roman army near Hippo in Africa in 205 b.c., the senate of Carthage was informed of this occurrence the very next day. As the distance between Hippo and Carthage is about 250 km., the news could not have reached the capital in so short a time without an elaborate organization of messengers and numerous relays established in advance. We do not know whether this service was a permanent institution, as in Persia, or whether it functioned only during time of war. In any case, the Carthaginians were well aware of the importance of reliable intelligence being rapidly communicated to responsible political authorities.
All forms of fast and shrewd intelligence known to the Carthaginians were developed in the cleverest way by the greatest Punic hero, Hannibal, during the second Punic War. The information service which the Carthaginians had established during their campaign in Sicily must have been extended to Spain when the Carthaginians, under Hamilcar and his son-in-law Hasdrubal had begun its conquest.
At least, we learn from the Greek historian Appian that Hannibal, who succeeded Hasdrubal as commander in Spain after the latter’s death, constantly sent messages to the Carthaginian senate endeavoring to acquaint its members with his plan of launching a conflict with Rome. As we gather from the reports of Livy, Appian, and Cornelius Nepos that the Carthaginians were always well informed as to the events in Spain, so we must suppose that they had established a well-organized information service between Spain and Libya, perhaps a combined service of messengers sent both by land and by sea.
From Livy we learn a few interesting details about this service which was probably perfected by Hannibal. When describing the encounter of the Romans with the Carthaginians led by Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother, Livy discloses how the Roman fleet was sighted by the enemy (Bk. XXII, 19):
The Spaniards have numerous towers built on heights, which they use both as watch-towers and also for protection against pirates. From one of these the hostile ships were first descried, and on a signal being made to Hasdrubal, the alarm broke out on land and in camp before it reached the sea and the ships; for no one had yet heard the beat of the oars or other nautical sounds, nor had the promontories yet disclosed the fleet to view, when suddenly horsemen, sent off by Hasdrubal, one after another galloped up to the sailors, who were strolling about the beach or resting in their tents and thinking of nothing so little as of the enemy or of fighting on that day, and bade them board their ships in haste and arm themselves, for the Roman tleet was even then close to the harbor.
This rapid transmission of military intelligence saved them from disaster. Be it said that the Romans, in this particular case, owed their own information as to the possibility of a surprise attack to Greek sailors in the service of the city of Marseilles (Massilia), their ally. This intelligence service organized in Spain by the Carthaginians must have greatly impressed the Romans, since Pliny the Elder mentions it in his Natural History (Bk. 35, xlviii. 169) and ascribes the organization to Hannibal.
Hannibal made full use of this information service. His messengers were faster than the envoys from the Roman Senate who met him under the walls of Saguntum. which had put itself under Roman protection. When the Punic general refused to abandon the siege of the city, the Romans sailed to Carthage with the Saguntine envoys who had come with them from Rome. But, although the Romans held supremacy of the sea at that time, Hannibal’s messengers reached Libya before them and still had time before the arrival of the
Roman envoys “so that they might prepare the minds of Hannibal’s adherents to prevent the opposing party from affording any satisfaction to the Roman people,” as Livy himself reports (Bk. XXI, 9). The Roman envoys appear to have been very poorly informed of the political situation in Carthage, and lost time when they naively asked the Carthaginians to deliver Hannibal to them as a violator of the treaty concerning Spain concluded between Rome and Carthage.
The further development of the conflict proved once more how much the Romans lost by neglecting their intelligence service. Immediately after the capture of Saguntum, Hannibal, by peaceful means or by force, subdued most of the Spanish tribes and made preparations to invade Italy from Spain, through Caul and the Alps. Agents were dispatched to the different tribes of Caul, and most of them were won over before the Romans had any knowledge of what was happening. According to Appian (Bk. VI, 3.13), Hannibal “sent his agents also to the Alps and caused an examination to be made of the passes of the Alps, which he traversed later”; leaving his brother Hasdrubal in command in Spain, he started his Italian expedition. This prior exploration of the passes through the Alps, also reported by Livy (Bk. XXI, 23) is an interesting detail. We know that the geographical knowledge of the ancients was very poor. Although the Phoenicians were certainly familiar with the coastal areas of Spain and Gaul, their information about the Alpine passes which led from the Rhone Valley in Caul to the Po Valley in northern Italy was deficient. Hannibal neglected nothing, and, before embarking on this difficult expedition, he endeavored to learn as much as possible about the country his army would cross.
The Punic general kept his preparations for battle so secret that Rome did not even consider the possibility that Italy might become the theater of war between their troops and the Carthaginians. How poor their information service was can be seen from the account given by Livy (Bk. XXI, chs. 19, 20). The Roman Senate instructed its legates, who were returning from Carthage to Spain, to get into touch with the different Spanish and Gallic tribes and to win them over to the Roman cause. But Hannibal’s agents had been quicker, and the Roman legates, “Being then bidden straightway to depart out of the borders of the Volciani, they received from that day forth no kinder response from any Spanish council. Accordingly, having traversed that country to no purpose, they passed over into Gaul.”
But Hannibal’s agents had already done their work in Gaul. Let us read Livy’s description of the reception given to the Roman envoys:
When the envoys, boasting of the renown and valor of the Roman people and the extent of their dominion, requested the Gauls to deny the Phoenician a passage through their lands and cities, if he should attempt to carry the war into Italy, it is said that they burst into such peals of laughter that the magistrates and elders could scarcely reduce the younger men to order, so stupid and impudent a thing it seemed to propose that the Gauls should not suffer the invaders to pass into Italy, but bring down the war on their own heads and offer their own fields to be pillaged in place of other men’s.
The envoys’ mission to Gaul ended in a complete failure, “nor did they hear a single word of a truly friendly or peaceable tenor until they reached Massilia [Marseilles].” And here the old story was repeated. The Greek colonists of Marseilles, being Roman allies and aware that a victory by the Carthaginians could spell complete ruin for their trade and reduce their city to poverty, tried on their own, and in their own interests, to obtain all possible intelligence as to Hannibal’s plans. It was from their allies that the Roman envoys learned the truth, as is reported by Livy: “Here [in Marseilles] they learned of all that had happened from their allies, who had made inquiries with faithful diligence. They reported that Hannibal had been beforehand with the Romans in gaining the good will of the Gauls, but that even he would find them hardly tractable . . . unless from time to time he should make use of gold, of which the race is very covetous, to secure the favor of their principal men.”
In the meantime, let us again quote from Appian [Bk. VI, 3.14): “[The Romans, thinking that] Spain and Africa would be the scene of the war — for they never dreamed of an incursion of Africans into Italy — sent ... 160 ships and two legions into Africa. . . . They also ordered Publius Cornelius Scipio to Spain with sixty ships, 10,000 foot, and 700 horse. . . .” Thus nothing was known in Rome of Hannibal’s daring plans. The Roman envoys apparently made no attempt to send to Rome as rapidly as possible the information they had gathered in Gaul and in Marseilles. So it came about that when the envoys reached Rome, the two armies were already on their way to Spain and Africa. “They found,” says Livy, “the citizens all on tip-toe with expectation of the war, for the rumor persisted that the Phoenicians had already crossed the Ebro” in Spain. In reality, while these rumors were circulating in Rome, Hannibal had crossed the Pyrenees and was on his way through Gaul to the Alps.
Again it was the Massilian Greeks who proved to be better informed and who transmitted their intelligence to their allies. When Publius Cornelius Scipio reached the harbor of Marseilles with his fleet,
he was informed by the Massilian merchants that Hannibal had already crossed the Pyrenees and was about to ford the river Rhone. Publius sent a contingent of his cavalry together with Gallic auxiliaries in the service of the Massilians with the Massilian guides to investigate the situation. According to Livy (Bk. XXI, 29). Hannibal very quickly received intelligence that a Roman army was in Marseilles, and his horsemen, sent to reconnoiter the whereabouts of the Romans, clashed with a Roman detachment. Although the Roman consul would have welcomed a battle with the Phoenicians before the latter crossed the Alps, so as to stop their advance, or at least to weaken the enemy and make him less formidable should he reach Italian soil, Hannibal avoided battle and marched towards the Alps. And here again we find evidence of the insufficiency of Roman intelligence. According to Livy (Bk. XXI, 32), the consul learned of the departure of the Phoenicians towards the Alps only “some three days after Hannibal had left the bank of the Rhone.” Unaware of what happened, “he marched in fighting order to the enemy’s camp, intending to offer battle without delay. But finding the works deserted, and perceiving that he could not readily overtake the enemy, who had got so long a start ahead of him, he returned to the sea, where he had left his ships.” Publius Scipio had good reason to be afraid that Hannibal might take the Romans completely unawares on the other side of the Alps. He knew that no one in Rome expected anything of this sort and that no precautions had been taken. The attitude of the Gauls, mostly friendly to Hannibal, must have given him the impression that the Phoenicians might have come to an understanding also with the Gauls in the Po Valley. He therefore sent his brother with the army to Spain, and himself returned to Pisa, his port of embarkation, in order to alert the Roman troops stationed on the other side of the Apennines.
These details, chosen on purpose, show us more clearly than anything else the inferiority of the Roman intelligence service. The Persians, or the ancient Egyptians, would hardly have been taken so off guard by the sudden invasion of an enemy as were the Romans when Hannibal invaded Italy proper. It is almost incredible that the Romans had not introduced at least the basic methods of transmitting intelligence after their experiences during the first Punic War. According to Livy (Bk. XXI, 33), even the Gauls possessed a kind of signal service and put it into use in order to warn their countrymen and to announce Hannibal’s approach. Hannibal, of course, used this kind of signalling, familiar to the Carthaginians, during his campaign.
Livy (Bk. XXI, 27.7) and Polybius (Bk. III, 43.6), describing the fording of the Rhone by Hannibal, confess that this kind of signalling worked perfectly. To our surprise we find nothing of this kind on the Roman side.
It seems obvious from Livy’s report (Bk. XXVII, chs. 39, 43) that Hannibal, during his prolonged stay in Italy, kept in touch by messenger with his brother Hasd rubai who was fighting the Romans in Spain. Again, an incident which proved fatal to the Carthaginians shows the carelessness of the Romans even when they intercepted the enemy’s intelligence in their own country, although they were fighting for their very existence. When Hasdrubal, called by his brother to come to his help in Italy, had crossed the Alps and had abandoned the siege of the city of Placentia, he sent four Gallic horsemen and two Carthaginians with a letter to Hannibal announcing his arrival. The six riders traversed the whole of Italy without difficulty, although they must have been conspicuous as strangers to many. Only the fact that they were not familiar with the roads in southern Italy attracted the attention of Roman soldiers who roamed about the country foraging, and they were brought before the Roman military authorities. Hasdrubal’s letter was discovered, saved Rome from a very unpleasant situation, and became one of the causes of Hannibal’s final defeat in Italy. Thanks to the interception of this letter, the Romans were able to surprise Hasdrubal and destroy his army. Hannibal learned of this great misfortune only when the Romans sent him the head of his unfortunate brother, slain in the battle.
We learn, again from Livy (Bk. XXIII, chs. 33, 34), of another similar incident which shows once more how slow and awkward the Romans were in learning the secrets of intelligence. Hannibal’s initial success in his Italian campaign induced Philip V, King of Macedonia, to listen to the Phoenician’s exhortations and to conclude an alliance against Rome, their common enemy. He sent an embassy to Hannibal. These ambassadors reached Italy safely but on their way to Hannibal’s camp in southern Italy were intercepted by the Romans near Capua and conducted to a Roman praetor. Asked about the object of their journey, they declared impudently and with great emphasis that they were sent by the King of Macedonia to the Roman Senate with warmest greetings and an offer of alliance between Macedonia and Rome against Carthage. The praetor, pleased with such a discovery and eager to be useful to the ambassadors and to the Roman Senate, received them with great honor and lavishly provided them with all they needed for their long journey, instructed them which route to take and disclosed to them in detail the position of the Roman and Carthaginian armies.
The ambassadors, making use of this information, had no difficulty in reaching Hannibal’s camp and of informing Hannibal of Philip’s plans. The Phoenician was, of course, delighted and sent them back to Philip with his own proposals. The legates safely reached the vessel which had brought them to Italy and had lain hidden on the coast undiscovered by the Romans, but they were intercepted on the high seas by a Roman squadron. They would have escaped safely even this time. Their explanation seemed quite plausible to the Roman admiral. They said they were on their way to Rome and that, after having left the praetor, they were afraid of falling into the hands of the Phoenicians if they continued by land, and therefore were trying to return to Rome by sea. Unfortunately, Hannibal had sent with them two of his own men and it was their Punic appearance which aroused the suspicion of the admiral and brought the whole project to an unhappy end.
Hannibal owed the astounding success of his armies in Italy not only to his military genius, but also to this skillful use and shrewd application of every item of political and military intelligence. He invented a series of new strategies by which he again and again outwitted the Roman generals. He was able to communicate with his sympathizers in Italy behind the backs of the Romans; he had the means of learning the enemy’s plans quickly; and the rapidity of his movements was often so astounding that in spite of its final lack of success, his campaign in Italy remains the greatest achievement of military strategy and intelligence in the classical period. It is highly interesting, for example, to read Polybius's account (Bk. VIII, chs. 24-33) of the maneuvers by which Hannibal first kept secret his negotiations with his young sympathizers in the city of Tarentum, then in Roman hands, and by which he directed the occupation of the city without any losses. The whole operation was a triumph of military tactics combined with the shrewdest sense for intelligence. The same can be said of the operations by which he tried to relieve his besieged allies in Capua, and his sudden and absolutely unexpected appearance before the walls of Rome. Polybius’s description fBk. IX. chs. 4-8J of these events is very vivid. The universal panic and consternation which his appearance caused among the population of Rome again bears testimony not so much to the poor state of the Roman intelligence service — although Polybius seems to believe that Rome was taken completely unawares — as to the dread which the name of Hannibal inspired among the Roman populace.
In this case, Rome was not altogether surprised. According to Livy (Bk. XXVI, chs. 8, 9), intelligence of Hannibal’s plan was obtained by the besiegers of Capua from deserters and sent to the Senate. Furthermore, a messenger was dispatched from Fregellae by the proconsul Fulvius, who was following Hannibal, to report that the Phoenicians were marching on Rome. The messenger covered the distance from Fregellae to Rome — 100 km. — in one day and night, a remarkable achievement. But Hannibal eluded the enemy, as he took an unexpected route and surprised everyone by the suddenness of his appearance under the walls of Rome. It was Roman stubbornness in refusing to abandon the siege of Capua and the arrival of Fulvius’s legion at Rome that spoiled Hannibal’s plans.
Livy’s report shows that the Romans had begun to learn the importance of rapid intelligence in the hard school of fighting Hannibal, but they made slow progress. At the beginning of the second Punic War, as we have already seen, for example, they relied on the Greeks from Marseilles. Scipio the Elder clearly saw the superiority of the Massilians in this field, and during his Spanish expedition rapid Massilian cruisers rendered the Romans great service in this respect. This is duly acknowledged by Polybius (Bk. III, 95).
The first evidence we have that the Romans had begun to apply the system of relays in signalling military intelligence is found in Livy’s account (Bk. XXIV, 46) of the capture of Arpi, in Apulia, in 213 b.c. during the second Punic War, by the consul Fabius. It was the first lesson learned by the Romans from Hannibal.
Another example of the progress made by the Romans is the precautions taken by them in 208 b.c. when their consul Marcellus was defeated by Hannibal and slain in battle. Hannibal took possession of the consul’s seal ring. This time the Romans, knowing Hannibal’s habit of using forged letters, acted surprisingly fast. According to Livy (Bk. XXV11, 28), the other consul Crispinus “fearing some trickery might be contrived by the Carthaginian through a fraudulent use of that seal, sent word around to the nearest city-states that his colleague had been slain and the enemy was in possession of his ring; that they should not trust any letters written in the name of Marcellus." It was a timely warning, for hardly had this intelligence reached the city of Salapia before a Roman deserter, impersonating the late consul’s messenger, brought Hannibal’s forged letter sealed with Marcellus’s ring, asking the citizens to be ready for the reception of the consul. This timely warning saved the city and brought about the slaying of Roman deserters who preceded Hannibal’s army to give the impression that Romans were approaching:
they were let into the city and, when the gates were closed, were massacred.
In spite of the progress made by the Romans during the second Punic War in the appreciation and organization of intelligence, they still remained inferior to their teacher for a long time. Hannibal proved superior in this respect until his death. When he had returned to Africa after his unsuccessful campaign in Italy, Carthage achieved a new prosperity under his direction in spite of the ruinous conditions of peace imposed on the city. The Romans, alarmed at this, demanded Hannibal’s extradition, but the Phoenician hero made a theatrical escape which was a great feat of planning and shrewd intelligence. It is worth reading the account of this escape as related in Livy (Bk. XXXIII, chs. 47, 48).
The Roman historian cannot hide his admiration for this exploit, and it was an achievement. In one night, on horseback, Hannibal rode about 226 km. to his castle by the sea, probably using the relay system of the state post; in spite of his fatigue, he crossed from there by boat to the island of Cercina. He was able to think fast, to outwit the wily Phoenician merchants in the port, to outdrink their sailors, and to escape secretly during the night.
Hannibal went to Antioch where he was well received by the Seleucid King Antiochus III. The king was hostile to the Romans and listened to Hannibal’s plans for a new attack against them with the help of Syrian and Carthaginian forces. Following the king’s acquiescence to this plan, Hannibal sent his agent Aristo, a Phoenician from Tyre, with precise instructions, but no written document, to Carthage. This was brilliant, because Aristo, when questioned by the Carthaginian authorities as to whether he had brought any secret letters to Hannibal’s friends, could declare in good conscience that he had delivered no written secret document to anyone in Carthage, a statement which could be confirmed again with emphasis by all concerned. But Hannibal, forgetting nothing, disclosed to Aristo some secret signs by which the members of his political party in Carthage would undoubtedly recognize that he enjoyed plenary powers from their leader.
In Carthage, the real purpose of Aristo’s mission soon became known in political circles. Although, according to Livy (Bk. XXXIV, 61), Aristo’s negotiations with Hannibal’s friends lasted for some time and finally led to an official investigation by the authorities, the Romans knowing nothing of what was brewing. If Aristo’s mission had been successful, they would have been surprised again, as they seem to have had no secret agents either in Syria or Carthage,
although both countries had been recently conquered and were still regarded with great distrust. But the peace-loving party in Carthage won the day and the Carthaginians sent their own embassy to Rome to inform the Senate of the plot that was brewing, at the same time assuring them that Carthage did not wish to have any part of it. The affair was also reported to Rome by Carthage’s neighbor and rival, King Masinissa, a Roman ally whose information service in Africa was better than that of the Romans. Roman wrath pursued Hannihal in his exile and finally, in order to escape extradition to his mortal enemies, the great Phoenician hero took poison.
The second Punic War certainly would not have been so costly for the Romans had they learned more quickly the need for a rapid intelligence service. It must be said that the hero — Scipio Africanus the Younger — who played a decisive part in the Roman victory of the third Punic War which definitively sealed the fate of Carthage, made the greatest progress in the art of military and political intelligence. It seems that he had not only profited from the lessons given by Hannibal and the Carthaginians, but also from those of the Greek historian Polybius. During the Roman campaign against Philip V of Macedonia which followed the second Punic War, this Greek became a great admirer of the Romans and later a personal friend of Scipio. He regarded it as his patriotic duty to reconcile his compatriots to the necessity of accepting Roman supremacy. In his historical work he tried to explain that because of its fine constitution, its great moral qualities and military valor, the Roman people was predestined by Fate to rule the world. He studied the Punic Wars in detail, and it was not hard for him to discover the reasons for the initial success of the Carthaginians. He was well acquainted with the organization of the intelligence service in the states created by Alexander’s successors, and he had the opportunity of studying on the spot the system used by Philip of Macedon during his campaign in this country on the side of the Romans. In this respect also, as in so many other things, he appears to have been Scipio’s teacher.
And Scipio seems to have put into practice what he had learned in this school during his victorious campaign against the Carthaginians in the third Punic War. Polybius may have given him many suggestions in this respect as he accompanied his friend to Africa and together with him witnessed the flames which destroyed the conquered city. How Scipio applied the methods of the old Persian information service to military intelligence we learn from the description of the siege of Numantia (134-133 b.c.), an important city in northern Spain.
Polybius was there with his friend under the walls of this city and seems to have described this memorable siege in a work, now lost, which was intended as a supplement to his Histories. Fortunately the tactician Appian was so much impressed by the new methods employed by Scipio on this occasion that he appears to have copied its most characteristic features.
We learn from his description (Bk. VI, chs. 90-93) that Scipio combined very cleverly the system of information transmitted by relays, posts, messengers, fire signals, and, during the day, signals by red flags — which replaced smoke signals and were a great improvement-and vocal announcements. The service functioned perfectly; thanks to this highly developed method of military intelligence, all the attempts made by the valiant Spaniards to break through the Roman lines were beaten back and Numantia forced into surrender. We can see in this description all the main elements of the Persian method of rapid transmission of important intelligence here applied to a particular military problem. Only Polybius could have suggested such an idea, as he was well acquainted with the Greek literature which describes the Persian invention.
Although the practical application of the method met with full success and made a great impression on their contemporaries, the Romans failed nevertheless at that time to grasp the whole idea and to apply it to their political intelligence. This is the more curious as the Romans became acquainted, in the second century b.c., with the institutions providing rapid communication of intelligence and made use of them for other purposes. One of these instances is reported by Livy. When in 190 b.c. Scipio Africanus the Elder was planning to strike through Thrace at Antiochus III, the Seleucid king with whom the Romans were at war over the Dardanelles in Asia, he found it became imperative, first of all, to discover the intentions of Philip V of Macedonia. The king was, at that time, on friendly terms with Rome and so far had supported the Romans in their war with Antiochus. With his help the Romans had defeated the Syrian troops in 191 b.c. at Thermopylae and had driven Antiochus from Greece hack into Asia Minor. This was also in the interests of Macedonia but it was questionable whether Philip would agree to the passage of Roman troops through his territory. The attack against Antiochus on Asiatic soil could be made only if Philip remained friendly and cooperative. Livy relates (Bk. XXXVII. 7) how this important political and military intelligence was obtained:
Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, by far the most energetic of the young men at the time, was chosen for this errand and, using relays of horses, with almost unbelievable speed, from Amphissa — for he was sent from there — on the third day reached Pella. The king was at a banquet and had gone far with his drinking; this very cheerfulness of mind relieved all anxiety that Philip planned to make any new trouble. And at that time the guest was graciously welcomed, and the next day he saw supplies in abundance prepared for the army, bridges built over the rivers, roads constructed where travel was difficult. Taking back this information with the same speed as on his journey thither, he met the consul at Thaumaci. From there the army, rejoicing to find its hopes surer and greater, reached Macedonia where everything was in readiness.
It is evident that, in this case, the young Roman messenger availed himself of the relay service instituted by the King of Macedonia. As he was an envoy to the king in a diplomatic affair, Macedonian authorities put the royal service at his disposal. Pella was the king’s residence, and Amphissa was situated near Thermopylae. The Romans must have been impressed by this service and, according to Livy, they admired its rapidity. But it seems that the Roman envoy did not travel with unusual speed. The distance of about 201 km. could be covered easily in three days with average speed as travelled by the Macedonian messengers when delivering routine intelligence. In spite of all this, we hear of no attempt on the part of the Romans to introduce anything similar under the Republic.
This is the more astonishing as there were statesmen in Rome who had fully grasped the importance of a reliable and speedy intelligence service in the conduct of state affairs. The most prominent among them, besides Scipio the Younger, was the celebrated Cato the Elder. This stern, energetic, and intelligent statesman was in some ways the incarnation of the old Roman Republican spirit, a valiant defender of Roman national traditions and an uncompromising opponent of the encroachment of the Greek culture on Roman and Latin intellectual life. But this Roman “isolationist” in cultural traditions was both an intelligent statesman and a good general, and he understood the importance of a rapid information service; he proved it himself upon one occasion. He was with the Roman army when campaigning against Antiochus in Greece and seems to have contributed by a courageous act of military intelligence to the great victory won at Thermopylae. The Roman Senate was following with anxiety the outcome of this encounter. Cato realized that it would be of great value, for his own political career as well, if he were able to inform the Senate as quickly as possible as to what occurred. Livy reports (Bk. XXXVI, 21) how he accomplished this,
and the report is interesting because it also gives us indications of the manner in which communications between Greece and Italy were made:
. . . the consul sent Marcus Cato to Rome, that from him, a thoroughly trustworthy source, the Senate and the Roman people might learn what had happened. From Creusa -this is the trading port of the Thespians, lying deep in the Corinthian Gulf—he made for Patrae in Achaea; from Patrae he skirted the shores of Aetolia and Arcanania right up to Corcyra and thence crossed to Hydruntum in Italy. On the fifth day from there in hurried progress by land he arrived in Rome. Entering the City before daybreak he went from the gate straight to the praetor Marcus Junius. Junius at daybreak summoned the Senate; Lucius Cornelius Scipio, who had been sent some days before by the consul, learning upon his arrival that Cato had reached ihere first and was in the Senate, came in while he was recounting what had happened.
This report is confirmed in the main by Plutarch in his Life of Cato the Elder (ch. 14), except that he gives another route by sea to Brundisium (Brindisi), instead of Hydruntum, from which Cato went in one day to Tarentum. reaching Rome in four days. From Livy’s account it is clear that Cato succeeded in arriving before the official messenger—it may not have been Cornelius Scipio — and deserved the distinction of being the first to report to the Senate.
Cato, as we shall see presently, also proved his interest in a better organization of the information service upon another occasion. Although we have seen that the principle of a good, rapid information service was appreciated by several prominent Roman statesmen during the Republican period, they were unable to overcome the apathy of the Senate and induce them to organize such a service in a more systematic way.
The envoys and messengers of the Senate were still using the old-fashioned system of requisitioning horses and other necessities for travelling in the cities through which they passed and which were Roman subjects or allies. The existence of this custom is evidenced by Cato’s report on his activity as praetor in Sardinia in 198 b.c., in one of his orations, preserved only in fragments (fragment II). He stresses that he never gave any such permission for the requisitioning of horses for travelling (he calls it evectio) to his friends for private purposes. This indicates that this custom must have been in force in Rome for a long period, and that it was sometimes abused by Republican officials for private purposes as well as for commercial and other journeys of their friends.
This means of transporting information was certainly not as rapid as the system used in the East. Requisitioning of horses and vehicles undoubtedly slowed down the journey of the officials concerned and was a burden on the cities and provinces, the more so as the evectio was often misused for private and lucrative purposes both by officials and their protégés.
Cato’s activity in Sardinia is mentioned also by Livy (Bk. XXXII, 27, of his History), who says that during Cato’s administration “the expenses which the allies were accustomed to incur for the comfort of the praetors were cut down or abolished.” By this Livy completes what Cato himself says. Livy’s report thus presents another piece of evidence confirming the fact that the Romans simply imposed upon their allies the burden of providing expenses for the information service of the Republic.
In another passage, Livy (Bk. XLII, 1) discloses additional details as to the origins of this custom and the manner in which this obligation became more and more onerous for both provinces and allies. When relating how Consul Postumius became angry in 178 b.c. at the allied city of Praeneste because it did nothing to facilitate his private voyage through its territory, Livy says, “. . . before he set out from Rome [he] sent a message to Praeneste to the effect that the magistrate should come out to meet him, that they should engage at public expense quarters for his entertainment, and that when he should leave there transport-animals should be in readiness. Before his consulship no one had ever put the allies to any trouble or expense in any respect.” Here Livy seems to exaggerate, because he himself mentions elsewhere, as we have seen, that the allies were expected to facilitate official voyages of the Republican magistrates. Then Livy explains how, at the beginning of the Republic, the state provided the magistrates with all things necessary for their official voyage, or — if we may rightly add — messengers sent out for necessary information:
Magistrates were supplied with mules and tents and all other military equipment, precisely in order that they might not give any such command [as did Postumius] to the allies. The senators generally had private relations of hospitality, which they generously and courteously cultivated, and their homes at Rome were open to the guests at whose houses they themselves were wont to lodge. Ambassadors who were sent on short notice to any place would call upon the towns through which their route took them, for one pack-animal each: no other expense did the allies incur in behalf of Roman officials. The anger of the consul, even if it was justifiable, should nevertheless not have found vent while he was in office, and
its silent acceptance by Praenestines, whether too modest or too fearful, established, as by an approved precedent, the right of magistrates to make demands of this sort, which grew more and more burdensome day by day.
Livy is right in relating how oppressive this service had become. He probably had in mind an abuse which had spread long before his time, which consisted in the Senate’s giving to some of its members from time to time a privilege of so-called free embassy — legatio libera — by virtue of which they were entitled to request from the allies every facility lor their voyage, even when undertaken only for private reasons. It is important to bear in mind this custom dating from the Republican period, as it became the basis of the further development of the official information service during the imperial period.
The Roman Senate found many opportunities to discover the unsatisfactory nature of this method of transporting embassies which were often the bearers of important intelligence. Much valuable time was lost in requisitioning, and more than once the embassies were late. Two incidents may be quoted which took place during the last Macedonian war with Philip V’s son, Perseus. Livy (Bk. XLIV, chs. 19, 20) reports that in March 168 b.c. the Senate awaited anxiously the return of a Roman embassy from Macedonia. Much depended on the nature of the intelligence they were bringing. They were not fortunate, however, for the stormy wind had forced them twice to turn back to Durazzo. At last they reached Brindisi on the Italian coast, but their journey from there to Rome lasted eight days. They could have done it easily in five.
The official delegation bringing the news of the final victory over Perseus at Pydna, won in September of the same year, took exactly three weeks to make the journey from Macedonia to Rome (Livy, Bk. XLIV, 45), although the unofficial announcement reached Rome in twelve days and was regarded as a record in rapid intelligence. But, from the subsequent book of Livy’s History, we gather that the intelligence of this victory had been transmitted to Africa sooner than to Rome. A few days after the news had reached Rome, the son of Masinissa, a Roman ally in Africa, came with congratulations from his father. The latter was able to give this instruction to his son by a special messenger who reached him just at the very moment he was embarking for Rome. This is another illustration of the slowness of Roman intelligence and of the superiority of the Africans in this respect.
For the transport of official letters containing information for the Senate and the magistrates in Rome, the magistrates in the provinces were bound to use special messengers called stcrtores, who were attached to their bureaus. We have very little evidence as to their functions, how they discharged their duties, or when they were first employed. But from the way in which Cicero, who in 51 b.c. was proconsul of Cilicia in Asia Minor, speaks of them in the letters written during the tenure of his office, we can conclude, however, that they must have existed for a considerable period and that their main function was to act as carriers of official information to Rome and to the magistrates of other provinces.
In the offices of the central magistrates the function of the provincial statores was occupied by the tabellarii, or letter bearers. These should be distinguished from the tabellarii employed by the publicani or tax collectors, whose letter bearers also exercised the function of modern tax collectors, and from letter bearers who were employed by private people, or who hired themselves out to individuals unable to afford their own letter hearer.
The letter bearers in official or private service were mostly slaves. They performed their duty on foot and, naturally, were expected to deliver the letters as quickly as possible. It seems to have been a hard job, making great demands on the physical endurance of the individual; and there was certainly no competition among the slaves for this doubtful honor. It is characteristic that the tribes which had supported Hannibal during his Italian campaign were, after their submission, as we read in Strabo’s Geography (Bk. V. 4.13), “appointed to serve the state as couriers and letter-carriers.” This was regarded as a punishment, a degradation from the military service in which they were engaged before their revolt, to the humble and difficult service of tabellarii. It seems strange that in the third century b.c., after the second Punic War, the information service was so little valued in Rome that to serve as tabellarius was regarded as degrading. On the other hand, this particular instance can be cited as proof that in the third century b.c. the need for numerous messengers to transport information from Sicily to Rome and back had increased considerably.
It seems, however, that this special class of Roman “civil servant” was slowly rising in the estimation of the Romans. It was realized that, besides physical capacity, certain moral and intellectual qualities were required of a good tabellarius, as the outcome of important political and military measures often depended upon the intelligent fulfillment of his mission.
We notice, therefore, that slaves or freedmen belonging to races regarded as intelligent, such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, Illyrians, and Gauls, were chosen for this function. Perhaps they acquired, at the end of this evolution, a kind of uniform. At least, in one of his letters (letter XV, 17.1) Cicero calls them petaseti, which expression seems to correspond to the Greek word pterophoroi which we find in Plutarch’s biography of Otho (ch. 4.1). This could indicate that the messengers wore feathers in their hats to identify themselves with Hermes, the divine messenger whose disciples and protégés they pretended to be. This would be quite suitable, as the speed reached by seasoned messengers was rather remarkable. From the study of Cicero’s rich correspondence, in which we often find meticulous details about the date a letter was expected or received, the average daily performance of a private tabellarius could be about 60-75 km. (37-47 miles).
We may suppose that the state tahellarii and the provincial statores were expected to give similar performances. But this is all; there is no trace, during the Republican period, of any organized information service.
The roads which the Romans had built were intended primarily for expediting the movement of troops. The messengers were bound to use them, of course, but no special provisions were made to facilitate their travel on the military roads, although their duties were important to the administration and for the security of the provinces as well as the whole state. In the second century b.c. there is only one instance which seems to suggest that a kind of postal and information service on the eastern model was developing. A Latin inscription from 132 b.c., commemorating the building of a road from Regia to Gapua, discloses that the magistrate who supervised the construction had put on the road not only milestones, indicating the distances, but also the tabelaarii. This wording was interpreted by A. M. Ramsay as evidence for the existence of a kind of postal service during the period of the Roman Republic. This, however, seems unproven. The evidence is too scanty, and one may rightly question the assumption that the word tabellarii used here in connection with miliarii, or milestone, and placed, so to speak, on the same footing, means in this context, messenger. It could be taken as a synonym of miliarii and mean an older kind of milestone, in the form of a tablet— tabula — on which written indications were placed. But, as the road was intended for military purposes, it would perhaps be more indicative to see in this special case the practical application of what Strabo had said about the degradation of some southern Italian tribes to tabellarii. The consul who constructed the road opened it also to State messengers travelling from Rome to Sicily.
The use of the tabellarii on the road, like its very construction, would have a military purpose. We cannot conclude from this slender evidence that the Romans had, during the Republican period, organized a postal information service, of the eastern type, in order to provide a more rapid transmission of intelligence.
2. Period of Civil Wars
A new period in the history of the Roman intelligence service opens towards the end of the Republic. In the first century b.c., Roman power had reached an unheard-of expansion on all sides. At that time Rome was already well on the way to world domination. Not only was Roman power firmly implanted in North Africa, Spain, and Gaul, but in the East Roman legions had advanced far on the road traced some centuries before by Alexander the Great. The protracted conflict with the Macedonians, under their kings Philip V and his son Perseus, ended finally in 168 b.c. with the destruction of the Macedonian Empire, the establishment of the Roman province of Macedonia, the extension of Roman influence over the Greek citystates federated in the so-called Athenian League, and finally in the complete submission of Greece. In Asia, the conflict with Antiochus III, former ally of Philip V and Hannibal, ended in the destruction of the Seleucid empire and the creation of two Roman provinces, that of Asia (129-126 b.c.) and that of Bithynia (74 b.c.). The conquest of the East was completed by the subjection of Syria in 64 b.c. and of Egypt in 30 b.c.
During the negotiations and fighting with the Macedonians and the easterners, the Romans had the opportunity of obtaining firsthand knowledge of the different systems of information services which had been established in Macedonia and the Eastern empires. With the advance of Roman troops conditions had changed and opportunities for a better information service were improved. The conquered lands were soon swarming with Roman merchants, land speculators, tax collectors, and agents of Roman financial magnates. It was, naturally, in their own interests to be well informed of the political situation in conquered or befriended lands and to report to the provincial magistrates any dangerous move likely to imperil their own and Roman interests.
That Roman traders might be at the same time intelligence agents was fully realized by the neighbors of Rome. Even in the early period, in 492-491 b.c., Roman buyers of corn from the southern
Italian tribes and from Sicily were suspected of being spies, treated with extreme caution, and were even in great danger of their lives, as is reported by the Greek historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Bk. VII, 2) and partly confirmed by Livy (Bk. II, 34). The Carthaginians were also very well aware of the fact that Roman merchants could be the most dangerous agents of Roman intelligence. Therefore, when concluding their peace treaties with Rome after the iirst and second Punic Wars, they took great precautions to eliminate such a danger. According to Polybius’s description (Bk. III, 22 ff.) of these first treaties, they contained a clause that sales could be concluded only “in the presence of a herald or town-clerk, and the price of whatever is sold in the presence of such shall be secured to the vendor by the state, if the sale takes place in Libya or Sardinia.” The presence of Roman traders beyond the Fair Promontory in Libya was not allowed. The second treaty was even more explicit: “No Roman shall . . . trade or found a city in Sardinia and Libya or remain in a Sardinian or Libyan port longer than is required for taking in provisions or repairing his ship. If he be driven there by stress of weather, he shall depart within five days. In the Carthaginian province of Sicily and at Carthage he may do and sell anything that is permitted to a citizen. A Carthaginian in Rome may do likewise.” The wording is interesting. It is clear that the Carthaginians, always well aware of the importance of intelligence, were doing their utmost to prevent the Romans from sending their agents into their country under the guise of traders. But, on the other hand, they succeeded in opening up to their own merchants and disguised agents free access to the Roman market.
The conquests in Asia Minor seem, more than any others, to have stirred Roman financiers, merchants, and speculators. The fabulous riches of the eastern empires attracted them, but in Asia Minor the situation was particularly delicate and tense. Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, the greatest enemy of Rome in the East, was disputing their conquests in Asia with considerable success. Again, following the example of ancient Persia from whence his ancestors came, not only did he count on a good fighting force in this struggle but also on good intelligence. He must have had his agents in Rome because he was always well informed as to the political situation in the city, at that time in the throes of civil war between the aristocratic and democratic parties. He learned of the sad fate of one of the best men Republican Rome had produced — Sertorius. A convinced but moderate democrat, Sertorius had proved that he possessed the highest qualities of an excellent general and a skillful diplomat.
But he was politically out-maneuvered in Rome by Sulla, who later became the leader of the aristocratic party. Sertorius was sent to Spain, where he continued fighting against the armies of his political opponents. He continued this struggle even after the democrats were ousted from power in Rome. Invited by the Lusitanians, a mighty Iberian tribe living in modern Portugal, to join them, he became their leader in the struggle with the armies sent by the new masters of Rome, his political opponents.
In spite of this, he remained an ardent Roman patriot and a convinced republican. His intention seems to have been to found an Ibero-Roman state in Spain, to conquer Italy and Rome from there, and restore democratic principles in Rome. Like Cato and Scipio he valued the importance of good intelligence and proved it when, at the beginning of his military career, fighting the Teutons who had invaded Gaul, he himself undertook “to spy out the enemy," as Plutarch says in his biography of Sertorius (ch. 3). “So putting on Celtic dress and acquiring the commonest expressions of that language for such conversation as might be necessary, he mingled with the barbarians; and after seeing or hearing what was necessary, he came back." This deed was so uncommon among the Romans that for it “he received a prize for valor.”
It may have been the pirates of the Cilician coast in Asia Minor who divulged the deeds of Sertorius in the East, as Sertorius was in touch with them, their fleet being at that time more powerful than that of the Republic, which had been greatly neglected during the civil wars. At least, this is suggested by a passage in his biography by Plutarch (ch. 23), where it is stated that “sailors from the west had filled the kingdom of Pontus full of tales about Sertorius, like so many foreign wares.” Mithridates decided to approach him and offer an alliance against the victorious party ruling in Rome, and an animated correspondence developed between the two men. We learn from Cicero’s second oration against Verres (chs. 86, 87) how these communications were transmitted. Verres was the most corrupt man of the period. His plundering of the provinces of Asia Minor which he had administered for several years caused great scandal in Republican Rome, accustomed though it was to such ugly affairs. It appears that Verres extorted from the city of Miletus not only valuable merchandise and costly entertainment, but, also, under the pretext of the right to the evectio in official voyage, one of their best cruisers for his journey to Myndus. Upon his arrival, instead of returning the cruiser, he ordered the sailors to return by land to their city and sold the cruiser to two intelligence agents entrusted by Mithridates with carrying messages to Spain.
The Miletians were famous for the solidity and swiftness of their naval constructions; they needed such vessels for their dangerous mission and were willing to pay the price.
We learn further from Appian’s description of the wars with Mithridates (Bk. XII, chs. 26, 79J that the king made frequent use of fire signals and of advanced posts signalling intelligence by relays on the movement of enemy troops. How well Mithridates controlled the highly efficient intelligence service in his lands was demonstrated by the massacres of Roman merchants and other Roman citizens who entered Asia Minor for business and other purposes. Mithridates, well informed about the endless dissensions in Rome and the progress of the civil war. chose his moment well for the subordination of the whole of Asia Minor to his rule. Well acquainted with the activities of the Roman citizens in the country, and aware of their unpopularity among the native populace, he decided, first of all, to rid himself on one day of all possible fifth columnists who feigned friendship with him, and who at the same time would send intelligence to the enemy to sabotage his war plans.
He made his arrangements thoroughly and with oriental cruelty, as Appian (Bk. XII, 22) describes it:
Mithridates . . . wrote secretly to all his satraps and city governors that on the thirtieth day thereafter they should set upon all Romans and Italians in their towns, and upon their wives and children and their freedmen of Italian birth, kill them and throw their bodies out unburied. ... He threatened to punish any who should bury the dead or conceal the living, and proclaimed rewards to informers and to those who should kill persons in hiding. To slaves who killed or betrayed their masters he offered freedom, to debtors, who did the same thing to their creditors, the remission of half their debt. These secret orders Mithridates sent to all the cities at the same time. When the appointed day came disasters of the most varied kinds occurred throughout Asia. . . .
Appian then goes on to describe the frightful scenes which were witnessed in the main cities of Asia Minor. This happened in 88 b.c. The number of Romans killed on one day is estimated at eighty thousand to one hundred thousand people.
When in 66 b.c., after long years of wars in Asia Minor with varying degrees of success, the people demanded that the liquidation of the worst enemy of the Romans in Asia be entrusted to Pompey, the new star in the political and military firmament of Rome, Cicero pronounced his famous speech in the Senate on the “Appointment of Gnaeus Pompeius.”
Cicero (ch. 3) described this massacre in the following words, which express at the same time the admiration felt by Romans for the efficiency of the eastern intelligence service:
I call upon you to wipe out that stain incurred in the first Mithridatic war, which is now so deeply ingrained and has so long been left upon the honor of the Roman people: in that he who, upon o single day throughout the ivhole of Asia and in many states, by a single message and by one dispatch marked out our citizens for butchery and slaughter, has hitherto not only failed to pay any penalty adequate to his crime but has remained on the throne for two and twenty years from that date.
This speech is interesting also in another respect. In the preceding chapter Cicero testifies that the massacre of so many Roman merchants and agents did not deter others from venturing into the land which at that time was regarded in Rome as fabulously rich. Scarcely had the Romans reconquered some of the Asiatic provinces than new crowds of traders, speculators, and publicans (tax collectors) settled there. It was these men who gathered their own intelligence on the plans of Mithridates who, at that time, was in alliance with the Armenian King Tigranes. Because it was in their own interests, they also found ways to transmit their information to Rome. In numerous letters to their representatives and senators they pressed for decisive action. Here is Cicero’s exclamation:
Every day letters arrive from Asia for my good friends the Roman knights who are concerned for the great sums they have invested in the farming of your revenues; on the strength of my close connection with that order they have represented to me the position of the public interests and the danger of their private fortunes.
And then Cicero goes on to enumerate the news sent from Asia by the agents of Roman financial speculators and tax farmers. All the political and military intelligence was transmitted to Rome by private letter-bearers on private expense accounts. In some of his letters Cicero praises the reliability of this private post: when he was in Asia Minor as proconsul administering Cilicia, he advised his brother Atticus (Bk. V, letter 15) to use the private post of the tax collectors when sending him political news from Rome.
Cicero’s letters to his friends during his administration of Cilicia in Asia Minor give us, at the same time, a clear picture of how the governors of the provinces gathered their intelligence. In this respect the most informative is Cicero’s first letter of the fifteenth book, in which he warns his friends,
the consuls, and the Senate of the possible danger threatening Cilicia and Syria from the Parthians, who seemed about to invade Roman territory. Again we learn that the most trustworthy intelligence came from the Roman allies whose national interests would be endangered by invasion from hostile troops. In Cicero's case it was the King of Commagene, the northeasterly district of Syria, and King Deiotarus, the principal chief of the Celtic tribes that had invaded Asia Minor in the third century b.c., to settle in the heart of the peninsula in the land which, since then, has been called Calatia after the Gauls. This king had rendered valuable services to the Romans during their struggle with Mithridates. He combined an alert Gallic intelligence with oriental shrewdness and, during the Mithridatic Wars, was the main intelligence agent of the Romans. For his services he was rewarded, after the liquidation of Mithridates by Pompev (66 b.c.), with a grant of territory and the title of King of Armenia Minor. He continued to play the same role against the Parthians during Cicero’s tenure of office in Cilicia.
We can infer from all this that in the organization of rapid intelligence service very slow progress was made during the last period of the Roman Republic. In the conquered provinces the Romans still relied mainly on the services of their allies, who were more or less politically important and reliable. But this policy of making allies when advancing against a powerful enemy rendered enormous service to the Romans, helped them to disguise their advance, and made their wars less costly. In this period, a new factor entered into the evolution of Roman intelligence service, that of private enterprise on the part of Roman financial speculators, exporters, and traders. We have seen that, especially during the Mithridatic Wars in Asia Minor, the Roman intelligence service was financed by private citizens who were, in this respect, in advance of the State as such and were protecting by their own means, and on their own initiative, both their interests and those of the State, at the risk of their lives. It is an interesting phenomenon showing how, in a democracy, private citizens take the initiative and further their country's interests because they see that they are identical with their own.
The case is the more instructive as we observe how these private citizens, businessmen, financiers, and colonists, through frequent intervention in Rome, tried and succeeded in moving the Senate to take important political action. From Cicero’s speech in favor of Pompey’s military leadership in Asia, we may infer that the letters and information of the self-appointed intelligence agents in Asia
Minor were ultimately responsible for the sending of Pompey to Asia, the liquidation of Mithridates, and the firm implanting of Roman power in Asia Minor, from which it could extend over Armenia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.
Unfortunately, the transmission of information from provinces overseas was greatly handicapped during the civil wars by the insecurity of sea travel. The Romans had destroyed the sea power of the Carthaginians, but were slow in building up their own and in taking the responsibility for making secure the Mediterranean sea routes. At the same time, the decline of the empires of the Seleucids in Syria and Asia Minor, and of the Ptolemies in Egypt, each previously commanding an important and well-organized navy, resulted in the relaxation of control over navigation in the Aegean Sea. These circumstances were exploited by numerous adventurers, and piracy flourished. The pirates on the Cilician coast of Asia Minor were the most daring and the most dangerous and. as we have seen, had political ambitions as well, as they had cooperated for some time with Sertorius in Spain. Of course, Mithridates was on friendly terms with them and enjoyed their help in his anti-Roman campaigns. So it happened that the transmission of messages from Asia Minor to Rome was considerably slowed down during this whole period. We learn from Cicero’s voluminous correspondence from Cilicia that letters, which normally should have reached Rome in a fortnight, took fifty days. In his speech on the “Appointment of Cnaeus Pompeius," Cicero (chs. 11, 12, 17) depicts the insecurity of the seas during the civil wars. According to him, Roman envoys, quaestors, and praetors were taken prisoner by the pirates, an experience suffered even by Caesar in his earlier years, and army transports dared venture on the seas only during the winter, the most dangerous season for navigation. Rome was “barred from communication both private and public with any one of its provinces.” The situation was often so bad that, in Cicero’s words, “we were actually unable to transact either our private or our public business overseas.” This situation was remedied by Pompey, who put an end to piracy on all the seas and secured the sea routes once more. It is remarkable — and this is the shady side of the struggle between political parties ending in bloodshed — that the only political information which travelled with extreme rapidity through the empire during the civil wars was the news of alliances formed by prominent political opponents.
But, although Pompey was mainly responsible for reopening the seas to more secure traffic, a circumstance which was of importance in the transmission of information, he did nothing about the reorganization of the Roman intelligence service.
In this respect his political rival Caesar had more foresight. Caesar certainly owed his great military success not only to his extraordinary generalship but also to his understanding of the importance of a good intelligence service. Before embarking on any of his enterprises, Caesar first did his utmost to obtain the best information he could about the country in which he was to operate, the customs of the people living there, their political institutions, their history, and their economic situation. He had a keen sense of the importance of political and military intelligence, as well as of geographical and economic intelligence. We have only to open the first book of his history of the Gallic Wars. He begins by recounting all that he had learned of the geography and ethnography of Gaul and comes afterward to the “modern” history of Gallic tribes. His knowledge of this enabled him to take his first military measures as rapidly as possible against the migration of the Helvetii from modern Switzerland into Roman Gaul.
In Book IV of Gallic War Caesar again relates to us all that his intelligence agents had gathered about the situation on the other side of the Rhine, among the German tribes. It is astonishing to see how this seasoned soldier was able to estimate the military valor of his enemy. He studied their habits, their food, their simple life, their clothing, and, from all these observations, was able to size up the sturdy endurance of the German fighting man. His phrases are short, terse, concise, crisp, but we can see clearly that they represent the results of a long study, and that they give evidence of a great talent for keen observation. Caesar’s appraisal of the German cavalry reads like a description of an attack by Red Indians riding their ponies against the white settlers at the time of the American “Wild West.” Caesar began the exploration of Germany and of Gaul, and the results of his geographical, anthropological, political, and economic intelligence on these countries, although later proved inaccurate in some details, constitute an important contribution to the early history of those countries.
But Caesar’s interest did not stop there. After the conquest of Gaul he began to prepare for the conquest of Britain and again, as a preliminary, he gathered all the available intelligence concerning this country before embarking on the expedition. This country was almost unknowm to the Romans. If we can give credit to Plutarch’s words in chapter 23 of his Life of Caesar, geographical knowledge concerning the more northerly countries must have been very poor in Rome in Caesar’s time. Plutarch says, “The island was of incredible magnitude and furnished much in the way of dispute to a multitude of writers,
some of whom averred that its name and story had been fabricated, since it had never existed and did not exist then.”
Caesar bad learned during his campaigns in Gaul not only that this country really existed, but that it spelled danger to Roman interests in Gaul, because military help was often sent to the Celts in Gaul by the Celts in Britain. Let us quote Caesar’s own words — speaking in the third person — of the wavs by which he tried to obtain reliable intelligence about this mysterious country. In chapter 20 of Book IV of his Gallic War we read:
Only a small part of the summer was left, and in these regions, as all Gaul has a northerly aspect, the winters are early; but for all this Caesar was intent upon starting for Britain. He understood that in almost all the Gallic campaigns succor had been furnished for our enemy from that quarter; and he supposed that, if the season left no time for actual campaigning, it would still he of great advantage to him merely to have entered the island, observed the character of the natives, and obtained some knowledge of the localities, the harbors, and the landing-places; for almost all these matters were unknown to the Gauls. In fact, nobody except traders journey thither without good cause; and even traders know nothing except the sea coast and the district opposite Gaul. Therefore, although he summoned to his quarters traders from all parts, he could discover neither the size of the island, nor the number or the strength of the tribes inhabiting 'it, nor their manner of warfare, nor the ordinances they observed, nor the harbors suitable for a number of large ships,
In order to explore the island, Caesar first sent an officer, probably to find a suitable landing place. His intention of invading Britain became known iu the meantime through the intermediary of the traders w'hom he had so thoroughly questioned. Caesar might have counted upon this possibility. He seems, howrever, to have impressed the traders in such a manner that they unwittingly became his agents among the natives. He reports that after the traders had divulged his intention in Britain, “. . . deputies came to him from several states in the island with promises to give hostages and to accept the empire of Rome.” He profited from this opportunity and sent with them to Britain a chief of one of the Gallic tribes, loyal to Rome, and “. . . his influence was reckoned to be of great account in those parts.” We gather from Caesar’s description that his first expedition to Britain had for its main object a first-hand exploration of the country for possible future action, because it was so difficult to obtain reliable intelligence on the country and its inhabitants.
Besides this direct method, Caesar during his campaigns in Gaul utilized the old method so familiar to the Romans, namely, intelligence with the help of the allies. We can quote two particular cases of this kind: of information received from one Belgian tribe which joined him (Gallic War, Bk. II, 3), and, during his renewed campaign in Britain, intelligence received from some friendly British tribes (Bk. V, 21).
Caesar also followed his own method of direct intelligence during the civil war against his former ally, Pompey. We read in his history of the Civil Wars (Bk. I, 38 ff.) how he gathered information on the forces of the enemy in Spain and then again (Bk. III, 3 ff.) on the mobilization carried out by Pompey in Greece and Asia. The latter report is particularly detailed and presents an impressive picture of Caesar’s ability to gather reliable information about the military strength of the enemy and his financial resources.
The fighting in Gaul was not easy. The Gauls, as we have seen, were not only daring warriors, but also possessed a good basic knowledge of the importance of intelligence service in warfare. Caesar was well aware of this. He himself increases our knowledge of Gallic intelligence service when reporting how they were accustomed to gather their information (Bk. IV, 5): “It is indeed a regular habit of the Gauls to compel travellers to halt, even against their will, and to ascertain what each of them may have heard or learnt upon every subject; and in the towns the common folk surround the traders compelling them to declare from what districts they come and what they have learned there.” T his common curiosity was often dangerous, continues Caesar, as conflicting rumors spread in this way and caused panic among the people. Therefore the magistrates of better-organized tribes were compelled to take measures accordingly in order to control the spread of information. Caesar describes these measures in the following way (Bk. VI, 20):
Those states which are supposed to conduct their public administration to greater advantage have it prescribed by law that anyone who has learned anything of public concern from his neighbors by rumor or report must bring the information to a magistrate and not impart it to anyone else; for it is recognized that oftentimes hasty and inexperienced men are terrified by false rumors and so are driven to crime or to decide supreme issues. Magistrates conceal what they choose, and make known what they think proper for the public. Speech on state questions, except by means of an assembly, is not allowed.
This was certainly a remarkable achievement of an attempt at official control of information and at the monopolization of intelligence in the hands of the magistrates.
It is rather surprising to find, in the first century b.c. in Gaul, the basic elements of institutions which earned a doubtful fame and which flourish in the middle of the twentieth century — the ministries of information, the most powerful organs for controlling and influencing public opinion in despotic states.
Gallic military intelligence must have succeeded quite well also, for Gaesar himself mentions how, in some instances, his operations were hampered by the enemy’s spies and military intelligence agents (Bk. V, 49; Bk. VI, 7; Bk. VII, chs. 18, 61). The Germanic Suebi (Bk. IV, 19) had their own scouts and messengers charged to transmit rapidly to all tribesmen the order of “mobilization” decided upon by their chiefs. It was therefore often a war of wits. Gaesar adapted himself quickly to the situation and, as we can see from his description, made use of spies and military intelligence agents on a scale unusual at that time in Roman warfare. He proved superior to his enemies and won.
Caesar was also a man who appreciated the importance of swiftness and rapidity of movement. He moved his armies with an astonishing speed which became proverbial in Rome and which is another secret of his military prowess. He was indefatigable in spite of delicate health. He worked and slept in his carriage while campaigning. Plutarch, in his biography of Caesar (ch. 17), is full of admiration for his endurance and speed of travel:
Most of his sleep, at least, he got in cars or litters, making his rest conduce to action, and in the daytime he would have himself conveyed to garrisons, cities, or camps, one slave who was accustomed to write from dictation as he travelled sitting by his side, and one soldier standing behind him with a sword. And he drove so rapidly that, on his first journey from Rome to Gaul he reached the Rhone in seven days. . . . And in the Gallic campaigns he practised dictating letters on horseback and keeping two scribes at once busy, or . . . even more.
Suetonius in his Life of the Caesars (Bk. I, 57) also praises his astonishing rapidity: “He covered great distances with incredible speed, making a hundred miles (150 km.) a day in a hired carriage and with little baggage, swimming the rivers which barred his path or crossing them on inflated skins, and very often arriving before the messengers sent to announce his coming.”
Such a man was certainly appreciative of a rapid information service and can be expected to have tried to reorganize the Roman intelligence service.
But it was not easy to break the old habits. As we have seen from the passage quoted from Suetonius, since there was no state post, Caesar made use of private carriages on his journeys, hired from enterprising citizens who made it a profitable business to supply such equipment to private travellers. And again, as we have seen from Plutarch’s and Suetonius’s descriptions of Caesar’s journeyings, he was able to obtain the greatest amount of efficiency in his private enterprises. This means of transport also served him, as we learn from Plutarch (ch. 32), on his fateful journey from Ravenna to the river Rubicon which, at that time, formed the boundary of Italy proper. Its crossing symbolized Caesar’s declaration of war on Pompey, his former ally who, backed by the Senate, intended to put a definite stop to Caesar’s ambition and to grasp in his own hands all power in the state.
When crossing the Rubicon Caesar began to realize an ambition, an idea similar to that which had inspired the democrat Sertorius, namely, the conquest of Italy and Rome from the new western provinces. In Caesar’s case it was not Spain — then administered by Pompey’s men — but Gaul which became the starting point and basis of the enterprise. The régime which Caesar intended to impose on Rome was not a democratic government — of which Sertorius had dreamed — but his own will and absolute power. The die was cast, in Caesar’s own words, and in this hazardous game defeat was inevitable for what was left of the old Roman democracy, long since transformed into a government by powerful Roman aristocrats.
Unable to prevent Pompey’s departure with his troops to the East, Caesar went to Spain, outmaneuvered Pompey’s generals, and, after receiving their submission, like that of all the western provinces, entered Rome. The Senate had to capitulate. After being elected consul for the year 48 b.c., Caesar crossed the Adriatic to Greece, where Pompey had concentrated his forces near Durazzo (Dyrrachium).
The situation was one of great danger for Caesar. Pompey was very popular in the East, and the Senate, although it had had to invest Caesar with the consulship, was still nervous. Senators were far from praying for Caesar’s victory, as they foresaw a greater decline of the Senate’s influence on public affairs should Caesar succeed in defeating his rival. They were ready to embrace the cause of Pompey should the latter show any chance of success. For Caesar it was of paramount importance to act quickly and to control and influence public opinion both in Rome and in the western provinces, and he saw this very clearly.
He embarked from Brindisi in January, in the worst season for navigation in this part of the Adriatic because of the ill-famed "bora,” a stormy, northerly wind which still sweeps over the seas of the Adriatic in winter. He laid siege to the camp of Durazzo where Pompey’s superior forces were concentrated, and used an elaborate system of military intelligence similar to that put into practice for the first time by Scipio Africanus in Spain when beleaguering Numantia, in order to enforce the blockade of enemy forces and to prevent them from breaking through. He signalled by smoke from one of his fortifications to another, in addition to reports, as he himself narrates in his history of the Civil Wars (Bk. III, chs. 65, 67). At the same time, appreciating greatly the importance which a timely report of his victory would have in the eastern and western provinces of the Empire, he held messengers in readiness, as he himself confesses (Bk. III, 43), to divulge the news that Pompey “was beleaguered by Caesar and did not dare to fight a pitched battle.” We can suppose that he tried to spread this news in the near eastern provinces and in Rome, in order to weaken Pompey’s position.
But this time Caesar was unlucky, and he suffered a major defeat. It was Pompey who "by reports and dispatches proceeded to celebrate throughout the world the victory of that day” (Bk. III, 72). This war of rapid intelligence reports in order to influence public opinion is highly characteristic and illustrates the nervous strain of the Roman population during the civil war.
In the end, however, Caesar won by endurance and firm will. Undismayed by ill luck, he pursued the campaign and cut his enemy’s forces literally to pieces at Pharsalus in Thessaly. Pompey fled to Egypt, but Caesar won the war of rapid intelligence also. Well aware of the consequences which good or bad news from the battlefield could have in Rome, during his later campaign he organized for the first time in Roman history a regular information service by messengers on horseback posted in advance at regular distances. So it happened that timely intelligence concerning Caesar’s victory in Thessaly was brought in this way to Messina in Sicily, threatened by the Pompeian fleet, which gave new courage to the defenders and spoiled the plans of the attackers. We can rightly suppose that the news of the victory and the further progress of the victorious campaign was reported by the same means to Rome, and that Caesar also established his relays of horsemen in Italy from Brindisi to Rome. Prom there, in similar fashion, the news had to be dispatched to all the important centers of the western provinces. This is not actually stated by Caesar but is clearly suggested by his intention,
reported above, to spread everywhere the news of his expected success at Durazzo, and by his report that Pompey did the same after having defeated Caesar.
It is interesting to see how much Caesar valued the importance of speedy intelligence. He must have feared the ill effect in Rome of Pompey’s boastful report of his success. Therefore, although very short of cavalry in his campaign in Greece, lie did not hesitate to detach a considerable number of his horse in order to establish his relay system of dispatch riders.
It should be stressed that this first instance of a kind of regular, pre-arranged information service in Roman history was put into effect in the former Macedonian Empire. This circumstance seems to suggest that the example of Philip V of Macedonia might have inspired Caesar to establish his own service. It might also be that traces of this system still existed in Macedonia after Philip’s and Perseus's downfall. We find the last evidence of the existence of a Macedonian post in Livy’s report (Bk. XL. 56) of how Perseus, hiding in Thrace, received the news of his father’s death from Macedonia.
Caesar seems to have had knowledge of such possibilities. He himself reports in his Civil Wars (Bk. III, 11) that, before starting on his campaign, he had sent Yibulius, his own and Pompey’s trusted man, to the latter with proposals of peace, and that Vibulius travelled on his mission “night and day changing horses at every town.” These stations with fresh horses were certainly not run by the state. But the fact that they existed even after the disintegration of the Macedonian Empire suggests that enterprising private citizens had taken over the institution established by the Macedonian kings and continued the service, which promised a good profit as there was no other means of rapid transport. As we have seen, Caesar himself used this private means of transport which had developed along Roman military roads, but it is to his merit, that he introduced into the Roman information service an official post for the transportation of intelligence, paid for by the state and. in this first case, run by Roman cavalrymen.
Caesar’s initiative must have greatly impressed his contemporaries. We have no direct evidence that his example was followed in this respect after his death, but it seems likely that his idea was put into practice during the struggles which followed his assassination. We can say with confidence that Caesar who, after Pompey’s death lived for several months in Egypt and may there have acquired additional experience in the usefulness of a regular information
service, would have reorganized the whole Roman system of obtaining and transmitting intelligence, had he lived longer.
But fate denied Caesar the fulfillment of his plans. This great statesman saw clearly that the old Republican institutions by which Rome had hitherto ruled over Italy and the western lands would not succeed in the East, which had been accustomed for centuries to despotic monarchy and to the theory of divine kingship. The continuous political crisis, which for almost the entire last century had troubled Rome and had ended in ruinous civil wars, revealed to him the unpleasant fact that these institutions were equally unable to assure the smooth functioning of a state which had outgrown its Republican proportions. He came to the conclusion that only a monarch could curb the greed of the proud and unruly senators, unable to resist the temptation to regard the new provinces as sources for their own enrichment. Therefore Caesar made a firm decision to transform the Roman aristocratic democracy into a Hellenistic absolute monarchy. But he was too hasty and impatient in the realization of his project. It is possible that if he had lived one generation later, he would have had a fair chance of succeeding. In his time the conviction was growing among the leading citizens of Rome that something needed to be done to adapt the old Roman constitution to the new situation, and many were inclined to think that the executive power in the empire should be concentrated in the hands of one able man. But, again, in Caesar’s time the Romans were not yet ready to accept all the Hellenistic ideas of government. Caesar ignored this and, not content with a monarchy disguised in Republican garb, he endeavored to introduce a monarchy with a king at its head, an idea intolerable to the aristocratic circles of Roman Republicans. As a result of their conspiracy, Caesar paid with his life for his bold endeavor to destroy the old Roman Republican constitution.
3. Imperial Period
His tragic death was a stern warning, and Caesar’s heir and adopted son Octavian-Augustus learned the lesson. Although deeply imbued with Roman national traditions, he was well aware of the fact that the old Roman polity was in need of radical change in order to fit the new situation. He also looked to the Hellenistic East for inspiration, but he did not follow the path of his rival, Anthony. Anthony was consul in the year of Caesar’s murder and desired to become Caesar’s successor. It was necessary to cooperate with Octavian-Augustus in crushing Caesar’s murderers;
but, when their ways parted, Anthony made Egypt his headquarters from which he hoped to reconquer Rome and transform the empire into an oriental monarchy, with himself as divine king and the passionate Cleopatra, the last scion of the Ptolemies, as queen. It was the third attempt in a century to conquer Rome from an imperial province. But only Caesar had succeeded. Anthony failed even more dismally than Sertorius. Octavian-Augustus stirred up against him the national feeling of the whole of Italy, and, after their armies had been annihilated by those of Octavian, both Anthony and Cleopatra committed suicide.
Now complete master of the immense empire, Octavian-Augustus began to reorganize the state machine. Keeping in mind Caesar's end as a stern warning. Octavian contented himself with the nominal restoration of the old Republican order, a restoration which was hardly anything more than a disguised monarchy. He ruled Rome and the empire, invested by the Senate with powers which were derived from republican magistracies but were in reality powers exercised by absolute rulers. Repudiating the title of king, he wisely contented himself with that of Princeps — first citizen.
It is now established that in his reorganization of Roman administration and finances, Octavian-Augustus was more inspired by oriental institutions than has been so far admitted by specialists. It seemed inevitable. The empire had grown enormously and so far only the oriental and Hellenistic monarchies had developed ideologies and organizations that coidd successfully hold a world empire together and enable it to expand. We have seen that a good intelligence service was one of the most important defensive weapons of the oriental monarchies against sudden attack from outside and against internal revolts and troubles. In Alexandria, after the defeat of Anthony, Octavian-Augustus could have had the opportunity of studying personally the surviving features of an intelligence service and royal post in Ptolemaic Egypt. He was too shrewd a statesman to overlook the fact that the world empire he administered would need something of this kind to ensure its security and stability.
But what is even more relevant, during the wars with the Republican fanatics who were Caesar’s murderers, and during his campaign against Anthony declared a traitor to the Roman people, Augustus had many opportunities of gaining personal experience in the matter of the possible importance of a rapid, reliable transmission of intelligence. He still remembered the anxious hours when, hard pressed by the well-entrenched Republican troops, he received the news that the ships which he had expected to bring him
reinforcements had been annihilated by the Republican fleet in the Ionian Sea. Then the only way out of that unpleasant situation was to provoke the enemy to a decisive battle in the near future. Had Brutus, the leader of the plot against Caesar, and commander of the Republican troops, known as early as did Octavian of the good news of his victorious fleet, he would have avoided battle. This victory had assured him of complete mastery of the sea, so he could simply have waited for the army to be weakened during the hard winter with all its provisions cut off. In his Life of Brutus (ch. 47) Plutarch reports this incident, and sees in the fact that Brutus learned of his naval victory too late, twenty days after it had happened, a direct intervention of divine Providence:
But, since, as it would seem, the government of Rome could no longer be a democracy, and a monarchy was necessary, Heaven, wishing to remove from the scene the only man who stood in the way of him who was able to be sole master, cut off from Brutus the knowledge of that good fortune, although it very nearly reached him in time; for only one day before the battle which he was about to fight, late in the day, a certain Clodius deserted from the enemy, and brought word that Octavius had learned of the destruction of his fleet and was therefore eager for a decisive battle. The man found no credence for his story, nor did he even come into the presence of Brutus, but was altogether despised; it was thought that either he had heard an idle tale or was bringing false tidings in order to win favor.
This incident became decisive for the whole war. Octavian knew well that if intelligence of his victory had reached Brutus in time, the fate of the Roman empire might have been quite different.
He remembered also that in 36 b.c., when he was still in alliance with Anthony, a gross irregularity in Anthony’s messenger service had cost the life of Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey. Anthony, dissatisfied with Sextus’s conduct, sent a messenger to his general, Marcus Titius, with the command to kill the son of Pompey. But soon, regretting his decision, he dispatched another courier with the order that the life of Sextus be spared. According to Dio (Bk. XLIX, 18) the bearer of the second letter arrived before the first. When later the bearer of that first letter arrived with the order to put Sextus to death, Titius, thinking that this was a new order, executed Sextus. Octavian expressed satisfaction when he heard the news, but was intelligent enough to understand the real cause of Sextus’s execution.
And then, again, when Octavian was fighting Anthony, he profited at least twice from the defective functioning of the latter’s intelligence service. After the naval battle at Actium in 31 b.c., Anthony fled to Libya where he learned from the men following him in cargo boats that the army was still intact and that there might still be hope of saving it. Anthony dispatched messengers with appropriate orders, but it was too late. The messengers missed Canidius, Anthony’s general, who was on his way to Anthony with the news that the army too, was lost. Plutarch, who gives us this information in his Life of Anthony (chs. 67, 68), says lurther that the army held out for seven days before going over to Octavian. If Anthony had made arrangements to obtain information more rapidly, he could have made things more difficult for his victorious rival.
Another similar opportunity was offered to Anthony. Soon afterwards, when Octavian was pursuing his campaign against Anthony in Asia and was still uncertain about the further moves which Anthony — who had in the meantime joined Cleopatra in Egypt — intended to make, he was suddenly recalled to Italy. Troubles and unrest arose among the veterans, who were dissatisfied because they had not been allowed to accompany Octavian, or, rather, because they regretted that they would not participate in the plundering of Egypt after the final victory.
Fearing that Anthony might profit from this unpleasant incident, Octavian hurried to Italy, appeased the veterans with lavish presents and grants and, in a month's time, was back in Greece. In order to avoid the dangerous passage to Asia around Cape Malea, the furthermost point of the Peloponnesus, for it was wintertime and a dangerous season for navigation, he guided his ships across the isthmus of the Peloponnesus. As Dio has it (Bk. LI, 5), “. . . [hej got back to Asia so quickly that Anthony and Cleopatra learned at one and the same time both of his departure and of his return.” Thus it happened that Anthony lost his last chance of prolonging the struggle.
All this explains why Augustus understood the importance of rapidity and regularity in transmitting intelligence, and why he made a revolutionary step in the history of Roman intelligence by founding a regular service assured by special messengers. His biographer Suetonius is, however, very brief in reporting this important innovation (ch. 49):
To enable what was going on in each of the provinces to he reported and known more speedily and promptly, he at first stationed young men at short intervals along the military roads, and afterwards post-chaises [carriages].
The latter has seemed the more convenient arrangement, since the same men who bring the dispatches from any place can. if occasion demands, be questioned as well.
Octavian-Augustus’s first step was thus to post on the main Roman military roads relays of messengers handing on their messages to each other, and thus speeding delivery to Rome’s political headquarters. This was contrary to the practice introduced during the Republic when a messenger (strator) sent from a province covered the whole journey to Rome itself as best he could. The practice first introduced by Octavian assured greater rapidity of delivery, and enabled messages to be sent more frequently. But Octavian misused one advantage which the old practice had. The messenger coming directly from the province bearing intelligence could be interrogated and, as the man himself lived in the place in question, was able to offer additional information which may have been important for a better understanding of the message he had brought. Octavian, therefore, soon changed his first scheme and stationed at the relay posts carriages with animals instead of messengers, which brought the bearer of intelligence as rapidly as possible from the province to Rome. In ordering this change Octavian was aware that this kind of imperial post would at the same time serve as a convenient means of transportation tor magistrates on official missions and replace the old-fashioned right to evectio, or the requisitioning of horses and carriages from the municipalities through which they passed. This was the beginning of the famous Roman cursus publicus, or state post, which existed up to the end of the Roman Empire, and was the forerunner of our modern fast methods of passing information and of transportation in Europe and America.
There is still controversy concerning the origin of this organization among the few specialists who have dealt fully with this problem. Did it evolve from the old Roman custom of the right to evectio, or is the whole idea of the Roman state post of Eastern origin? Did Augustus take his inspiration from Xenophon’s description of the Persian information service? Did he imitate the system introduced by the Seleucids in Syria, or that of Ptolemaic Egypt?
From what we have said above concerning the Roman information service during the Republic, it can hardly be concluded that Augustus s state post was basically of Roman origin. There is no trace of an attempt at such an institution in the Republican period. The only man who established a rapid information service was Caesar, and his dispatch riders functioned only for a short time.
His example might have been imitated in some way by Octavian. Brutus, and Anthony during the civil war following Caesar’s assassination. We have seen that Octavian had a fairly reliable information service. But all this was provoked by the emergencies of the time, and the main purpose of ah such initiative was of a military nature.
We cannot say that the example of the Macedonians made a marked impression on the Romans, although Caesar might have been spurred by the Macedonian example to organize his relay service of dispatch riders. There is no indication that Octavian was acquainted with, or impressed by, the organization which he might have found in Syria. Neither can we say with certainty that Augustus had studied Xenophon’s reports on the Persian state post and information service. It is conjecture for which there is no evidence.
The most likely explanation is that Octavian was inspired first of all by the example of his adoptive father, Caesar, and was then spurred on by his own personal experience. The oriental influence, however, cannot be ruled out. It was often believed that Octavian-Augustus was hostile in principle to oriental and Hellenistic infiltrations into Roman life. This opinion has influenced some scholars and has induced them to look exclusively for a Roman inspiration in Octavian’s initiative. But this opinion is incorrect; it was an American scholar, M. Hammond, who realized that Augustus was influenced much more by Hellenistic ideas in the reconstruction of Roman policy and administration than had been thought heretofore. It is established that Augustus was most impressed by the political and financial system of Ptolemaic Egypt. He extended a number of taxes imposed by the Ptolemies on their subjects in Egypt to the whole empire. Another imitation of a Ptolemaic institution was the survey of the empire which Augustus imitated, and which is quoted in the Gospel of St. Luke (ch. 2) as an explanation of the journey of St. Joseph with the Lord’s mother from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Augustus’s purpose was not the military conscription of able-bodied men, but a precise financial assessment of taxable property in the empire. It is, however, possible that this latter measure had already been introduced by Caesar and that here Augustus was simply following, as in many other matters, the footsteps of his adoptive father.
Another institution taken over from Egypt is worth mentioning, as it has a certain relevance to our subject. It is the founding of a kind of fire brigade in Rome. These are fire-pickets, called vigiles. The vigilantes are an imitation of a similar institution known in Alexandria under the Ptolemies. These vigiles, commanded by a special prefect,
developed in time into a kind of imperial police who, besides fire-fighting, ensured the security of the streets and reported all dangerous movements among the Roman population. All this seems to indicate that Augustus, following here the example of Caesar, took inspiration from him and found in Egypt an example for his own organization of the information service.
There is an important argument in favor of this thesis. A Latin inscription from the reign of the Emperor Claudius (a.d. 41-54) reveals that this emperor tried to alleviate the burden of providing for all the needs of the cursus publicus, or state post, imposed on his subjects. We know that the Egyptian state post was supported by the contributions of the inhabitants of the regions through which the royal post ran. As the inscription indicates that this was an old custom, it seems logical to conclude that it was introduced by the founder of the state post when Augustus decided to replace the messengers with post-chaises. The population was accustomed to the requisitionings of magistrates appointed by the Senate, who had the right of evectio or legatio libera, and therefore Augustus’s decision was accepted without difficulty. In Augustus’s time the state post was in its initial stage. It functioned only on some of the main roads, and the use of carriages and beasts for transport cannot have been heavy. At that time it could not have been foreseen how fast the institution would develop and how burdensome it would become to the population.
As we have seen, the Emperor Claudius tried to lighten this burden, but with no great success. The inhabitants of Italy probably suffered the most, so it seems, under Caligula, Claudius’s predecessor, when the state post was already in operation along all major roads of Italy. Traffic was frequent, so the need for carriages and animals was very great, since messengers from other provinces were bound to converge on Italian roads on their way to Rome. The Emperor Nerva (a.d. 96-98) felt the need to dispense with the obligation, imposed by the Italian municipalities, of supplying the necessary animals and vehicles, and he ordered the cost of the state post in Italy to be paid by the imperial fisc. He seems to have commemorated this deed with the issue of special coins on which a carriage was represented with the mules grazing contentedly behind it. The inscription, Vehiculatione Italiae Remissa (“The obligation of caring for post suppressed in Italy”), interprets eloquently the emperor’s deed and the scene.
Nerva’s successor Trajan (a.d. 98-117) seems to have extended the postal and intelligence service to the provinces.
The Sestertius of Nerva, bearing the inscription “VEHICVLATIONE ITALIAE REMISSA” (actual size). Obverse: Head of the Emperor Nerva. Reverse: Mules grazing before a carriage, with the above inscription. Courtesy American Numismatic Society.
Rheda (or Raeda, a travelling carriage or wagon) passing a milestone on the cursus publicus; relief from Igel, near Trier (U. Kahrstedt, Kulturgeschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit).
Hadrian (a.d.117-138), who succeeded him, apparently strengthened the structure of the whole institution by founding a special “prefecture of the post” responsible directly to the emperor, or his representative the Prefect of the Life-guard, and by instituting special officials, or mancipes, at each station who were responsible for the smooth functioning of the post in their districts.
Severus (a.d. 193-211), the founder of a new imperial dynasty, “wishing to ingratiate himself with the people,” according to the “Imperial History” — Historia Augusta (ch. XI, 2) — “took the postal service out of private hands and transferred its costs to the privy purse.” But this reform, although welcomed by the people, was ruinous to the fisc, and the former practice was soon reinstated. We find in Justinian’s great legislative collection, the Corpus of Civil Law (Digesta, L, 5.10), a quotation from a work of the Roman jurist Julius Paulus, written under Severus’s successor Caracalla (a.d. 211-217), particularizing the duties of the citizens, and among them is the obligation to contribute to the sustenance of the imperial post. Only soldiers and teachers in the humanities were exempt from this obligation.
This passage of Julius Paulus is the more interesting as he describes the obligation by the words praestatio angariorum. Again we find here the Persian word for postal messenger — angaros — which had been borrowed from the Persians by Greek writers in describing the royal post. The expression became popular in the Hellenistic period in Syria and in Egypt. We find this expression also in the original Greek text of the Gospel (St. Matthew, 5:41; 27:32). Here it appears also in Latin, taken probably from Egypt, which is another indication of the oriental origin of a regular postal and information service.
Thus it happened that the population remained responsible for the maintenance of the post, even in the later imperial period. Even Diocletian (a.d. 284-305), who made great changes in the organization of this service, did not dare to disturb this arrangement. The Roman postal service was thus a state institution, paid for by the population which, however, was denied the benefit of using its services. The whole institution was restricted to state business; only state messengers and officials in the service of the state were permitted to make use of it.
The state post functioned also on important rivers, especially in the Po Valley, the boats being called naves cursoriae, the Latin translation of the Greek word dromones, also used to designate the boats in this service.
This service was organized in the same way as the cursus publicus, with landing stages for change of boats and with personnel called dromonarii, or pilots. Communication by sea with overseas provinces was effected by ships in the service of the state, put at the disposal of the state by the cities from which the messengers sailed. However, we learn from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts, 27 ff.) that messengers and officials also used for their official journeys the first available private cargo ship. The centurion who brought St. Paul and the other prisoners to Rome travelled, finally, in three successive merchant vessels.
In order to prevent abuses and alleviate somewhat the burden on the population, the emperors reserved to themselves the right to grant permission to use the state post, providing persons entitled to this privilege with a special diploma, which was issued sparingly. Aside from the emperors, only the Prefect of the Life-guard, the supreme chief of the post, was granted the same privilege of issuing the diploma. The administrators of the provinces were given a limited number of such diplomas with the strict injunction to use them only for important matters concerning the security of the state. How strict the emperors were in this matter is illustrated by the correspondence between the Emperor Trajan and his friend Pliny, governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor (a.d. 111) who gave this diploma to his wife hurrying to her aunt in Rome after the death of her grandfather. He immediately informed the emperor of his action and asked his pardon (Letters, 120, 121).
The diplomas were valid only for a specified period, and on the death of an emperor the validity of all diplomas issued by him expired automatically. In the imperial chancellery, a diplomatibus, or special secretary, was responsible for the delivery of the diplomas. All of which explains the great importance attributed by the emperors to the institution of the state post.
The use of the post was granted more liberally to messengers bringing information to and from Rome. They were still called tabellarii and, as they were numerous, they soon began to form guilds, not only in Rome, but also in the important postal stations of the provinces. They were called Augustus’s or Caesar’s messengers, or messengers with the diploma. It seems, however, that they were not provided with a special diploma for each voyage, but were given a special tessera, an insignia showing that they were “on duty"; but, when the mission was completed, the tessera was returned to the proper authority at their station. The keeper of the tessera, or the tesserarius at each station, ranked second to the chief of the messengers, called optio.
(Top) Air view of a part of the cursus publicus in Syria.
(Bottom) Ground view of the cursus publicus, showing its massive construction. (U. Kahrstedt, Kulturgeschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit.)
In Rome, these messengers were placed in the various departments of administrations, such as justice, supply, administration of provinces; and special messengers, the tabellarii castrenses, were at the disposal of the commanders of the armies.
Errands in Rome, its outskirts, and in the main cities of the provinces were performed by another category of messengers called cursores, or runners. As their name implies, they discharged their duties on foot. They were also organized on a military basis with a prefect and a special instructor at each station. Most of these details concerning the functions and organizations of the tabellarii and cursores are found in numerous Latin inscriptions, preserved from the early imperial period.
Information about the organization of the post in general during this period is scarce. However, we learn many particulars in this respect from imperial decrees and laws, published in the third and fourth centuries and preserved in the two greatest collections of Roman law, that of Theodosius II and the Corpus of Civil Law of Justinian. We may assume that the organization of the state post outlined in these decrees and other documents from that time already existed in the early imperial period, all of which allows us to draw in a few strokes the following picture. Postal stations were constructed at given distances of from 60 to 75 km.; at every 100 km. along all roads on which the cursus publicus functioned, mansiones, or resting places, were built, furnished with all that was necessary to meet the immediate needs of both travellers and beasts, and serving, at the same time, as state hotels for the lodging of persons provided with the imperial diploma. The carriages were state property and the cost of their repairs was recovered from the state budget. They were driven by mules, the horses being reserved for riding. It appears that at each relay station about forty beasts were cared for, some of them always ready for service. Each station maintained a large personnel of grooms and muleteers for every three beasts, veterinarians, wheelwrights, conductors, and guards. The beasts were furnished by the local population, the local authorities also being responsible for the upkeep of the buildings and stables. The fodder, however, although provided by the local population, was paid for by the government. Between the main stations were a certain number of changing-stations or mutationes at a distance of about 15 km., which stabled fresh horses and mules, but with a reduced personnel and a smaller number of beasts, perhaps twenty, but without carriages and without lodging. The passengers were required to change the carriages at each mansio as the vehicles were returned to the home station in order to prevent confusion.
Imperial decrees gave very minute instructions as to the number of beasts to which the travellers were entitled, the number of persons each carriage should accommodate, the weight with which it was permissible to load the post-chaises and horses, specifications indicating when messengers were entitled to an extra horse or donkey for their baggage, etc. The Emperor Diocletian did his utmost to perfect the organization of the postal service. It is most probably due to him that the cursus was divided into two services: the cursus velox — rapid postal service, and the cursus clabularius — for the conveyance of merchandise of considerable weight, belonging to the fisc. Oxen were the only beasts employed for this latter kind of transport.
The imperial post was not only a means of rapid transport for officials and for the transmission of information, but it became also the most convenient instrument for policing the population, and controlling and influencing public opinion. In the early imperial period, the main agents in this respect were the frumentarii. It sounds strange, but, as their name suggests, they seem to have been grain-dealers, assuring the smooth provision of grain and food to the cities and to the army. They are mentioned as performing this function by Livy (Bk. XXXVIII. 35) for the year 189 b.c. Cicero (De Officiis, Bk. III, chs. 50, 51) speaks of frumentarii as grain-dealers providing the island of Rhodes with grain from Alexandria. Caesar, in his description of the Gallic War (Bk. VIII, 35) also speaks of grain-dealers, and we may conclude from his words that he found the presence of grain-dealers, or frumentarii, connected with the army a common thing.
How can their change of occupation to become the main intelligence agents of the emperors and of the army be explained? Was it because of the opportunities provided by their business, enabling them to gather information from many sources, which suggested to the authorities that these men could fulfill a double role? It is plausible enough. And we know that the army intelligence service, at least from Caesar’s time, was performed by the speculatores, or scouts. Their role was similar to that of the scouts employed by the United States Army in the “Wild West” during the Indian wars. They were attached to the staff of a commander and they seem to have been employed by him also as bearers of his orders. It is possible that they were assisted in their missions by the frumentarii.
We read in Appian’s History of the Civil Wars (Bk. III, chs. 31, 40, 43) an interesting remark which illustrates the success with which traders, or agents disguised as traders, could be used for political propaganda and as spies in the army.
It was Octavian-Augustus himself who conceived the idea when he discovered that Mark Anthony, although apparently his ally in preparing the punishment of Caesar’s murderers, was undermining the growing popularity of Octavian with the Roman people. “Octavian, thus at last openly attacked, sent numerous agents to the towns colonized by his father [i.e. Caesar] to tell how he had been treated and to learn the state of feeling in each. He also sent certain persons in the guise of traders into Anthony’s camp [which was near Brindisi] to mingle with the soldiers, to work upon the boldest of them, and secretly distribute handbills among the rank and file."
We might find here the first evidence of the employment as spies and political agents of the frumentarii, or grain-dealers, and peddlers, mingling freely with the soldiers and offering their merchandise. We learn from the further chapters of Appian’s History how effective this propaganda was and how difficult it was to distinguish between the genuine dealers and disguised political agents.
The usefulness of traders as spies in distributing political pamphlets and divulging news as a propaganda device was understood not only by Octavian-Augustus but also by other military chiefs and emperors. Thus we can explain why the frumentarii appear in the early imperial period side by side with the speculatores exercising in the army the same functions as the scouts. The complete transformation of the frumentarii into speculatores may have been effected under the Emperor Trajan. At least it is evident that from the second century of our era on, the activity of the frumentarii becomes more noticeable than that of the speculatores and, at last, their name is given exclusively to soldiers who formerly exercised the functions of the speculatores. We learn from numerous Latin inscriptions that every legion had its own body of frumentarii.
A similar evolution can he seen at the courts of the emperors. In the beginning each emperor had his own speculatores who were attached to the formations of his bodyguard. He employed them in a fashion similar to that of the army, as his own intelligence agents, and as messengers carrying confidential letters and orders. The governors of the provinces must also have used the speculatores for similar purposes. We read, for example, in the Gospel of St. Mark (6:27) that Herod sent a speculator to the prison with the order to execute St. John the Baptist. As the original Greek text has the Latin word speculator, it would seem that, when the Gospel was written, this kind of service was generally still performed by the speculatores, and not the frumentarii.
St. Mark, the author of the Gospel, here describes Herod’s executioner by the name which was familiar to him.
But here again, at the emperor’s court, we see that in the second century the speculatores were being replaced by the frumentarii. From that period on, the frumentarii flourished and became the main agents in the intelligence service of the emperors also. We learn in the “Imperial History” (Historia Augusta) interesting details illustrating their duties. Hadrian (a.d. 117-138) used them to spy on the private lives of his friends, as described in the following charming story (Hadrian XI, 6):
“The wife of a certain man wrote to her husband, complaining that he was so preoccupied by pleasures and baths that he would not return home to her, and Hadrian found this out through his private agents (per frumenturios). And so, when the husband asked for a furlough, Hadrian reproached him with his fondness for his baths and his pleasures. Whereupon the man exclaimed: ‘What, did my wife write you just what she wrote to me?’ ”
Under Commodus (a.d. 180 —192), however, the prefects of the guards (Commodus IV, 5) had less innocent employment for the frumentarii: they ordered them to assassinate one of the emperor’s favorites. In the same work (XXIII, 1) Alexander Severus is praised for having chosen his agents only among honest and reliable men. The usurper Macrinus (a.d. 217-218) was particularly appreciative of the frumentarii and used their services to promote his own career before becoming emperor. We find an interesting report on Macrinus in Dio’s Roman History (Bk. LXXIX, chs. 14, 15). As this passage gives us, at the same time, an insight into the dark background of the emperors’ courts where the activity of the imperial secret agents quite often became ominous, and into the milieu from which the imperial agents sprang, we quote it verbatim:
Another thing for which many criticized him [Macrinus] was his elevation of Advent us. This man had first served in the mercenary force among the spies and scouts, and upon quitting that position had been made one of the couriers [grammatoforos for the Latin frumentarius] and appointed their leader, and still later had been advanced to procuratorship; and now the emperor appointed him senator, fellow-consul and prefect of the city, though he could neither see by reason of old age nor read for lack of education nor accomplish anything for want of experience. . . . Indeed, it looked as though he had made Adventus city prefect with the sole purpose of polluting the senate-chamber, inasmuch as the man had only served in the mercenary force and had performed the various duties of executioners, scouts, and centurions. . . .
The Roman Empire - circa A.D. 112
But these were not the only acts for which he [Macrinus] met with well-deserved censure; he was also blamed for appointing as prefects Ulpius Julianus and Julianus Nestor, men who possessed no excellence at all and had not been widely tested in affairs, hut had become quite notorious for knavery in Caracalla’s reign; for being in command of his couriers [angeliaforoi = bearers of messages, i.e. frumentarii] they had been of great assistance to him [i.e. Macrinus] in satisfying his unholy curiosity.
This passage illustrates better than any other the kind of services the imperial secret agents performed at the court where intrigues of the palace camarilla flourished. Macrinus, after becoming emperor, also employed his secret agents to spy on the private lives of his soldiers, as we are told in the Historici Augusta (Macrinus XII, 4). From the same source we learn that the Emperor Gallienus (Claudius XVII, 1) employed his frumentarii as secret agents instructed to report to him all that other high officials said of him. It was a precaution taken against possible conspirators, but it is not difficult to see how easily this confidential mission could be misused. Under Maximinus and Balbinus, according to the Historici Augusta (X, 2), the frumentarii are mentioned as dispatch riders.
Besides these functions they seem to have been employed also as policemen to whose care were entrusted those Roman citizens who had appealed to the supreme court of the Caesar. St. Paul appears to have had a personal acquaintance with them, for the soldier who supervised him in Rome (Acts 28.16) pending the decision of the emperor to whom he had appealed, was evidently one of the frumentarii. In extant Latin inscriptions, they appear also as prison guards, and supervisors in Roman “concentration camps,” which were usually erected near important mines in which worked those men condemned to forced labor. We know, for instance, that in A.D. 200 the concentration camp in the famous war-like work of Caracalla was commanded by a captain (cen turio) of the frumentarii.
As it was their duty to report to the emperor, or to his supreme officer, the Prefect of the Life-guard, what was being said and done in Rome, it was natural for them to be in close touch with the fire brigade in Rome, the vigiles who, as we have already mentioned, had been transformed into a kind of imperial police. It might be that one or more frumentarii were attached to every fire station. These details also are obtained from Latin inscriptions.
Naturally, the frumentarii, as secret police agents, must have played a leading role in the persecution of the Christians, as they seem to have been the chief agents who spied on the Christians and arrested them.
We read in the first Ecclesiastical History, written by Eusebius in the fourth century, a report of how the martyr Dionysius was being sought by a frumentarius. The passage (Bk. VI, 40) is a vivid reflection of the dread with which the Christians awaited the unwelcome visit of a frumentarius:
Now I for my part speak also before God, and He knows if I lie. Acting not on my own judgment nor apart from God have I taken flight; but on a former occasion also, when the persecution under Decius was publicly proclaimed, that selfsame hour Sabinus sent a frumentarius to seek me out, and on my part I remained four days at my house expecting the arrival of the frumentarius; büt he went around searching everything, the roads, the rivers, the fields, where he suspected I was hidden or walking, but was holden with blindness and did not find the house. For he did not believe that, pursued as I was. I was staying at home; and after the fourth day, when God bade me depart, and miraculously made a way, with difficulty did I and the boys and many of the brethren set out together.
St. Cyprian also speaks in one of his letters (Letter 81) of frumentarii who had been sent to arrest him and to bring him into the presence of the magistrate. When he learned this from his faithful followers — it is an example of a kind of intelligence introduced by the Christians during the persecution — the bishop went into hiding. In the Acts of the martyrs we read sometimes that they were arrested or guarded by soldiers: in many instances this might mean the frumentarii because they were soldiers, attached to each legion as a special corps. Even when commanded to serve in Rome or at the headquarters of the provincial governors, or elsewhere, they still remained members of their former military detachments.
Besides their Roman headquarters, which were most probably in the castra peregrinorum, or camp of the foreigners, there were stations in the Roman port of Ostia from which prisoners sent from the provinces by sea were conducted to Rome. For the same reasons there were stations on the roads served by the cursus publions to facilitate the authorities in gleaning information. In the execution of their office, the frumentarii freely used the state post, and 'they naturally supervised the functioning of this valuable institution. It seems, moreover, that in the third century they took over the functions of the tabellarii in many cases, and became couriers. This role could have served at least as a good smoke-screen for their main function as secret agents, spies, reporters of all gossip and dangerous movements to their supreme authority, the Prefect of the Life-guard.
At least, from this period on, the tabellarii cease to be mentioned in the documents at our disposal.
It is a very interesting evolution. A corps which in the very beginning was intended to be a special detachment of the legions for the purpose of military intelligence, gradually became a police corps used by the emperors for their own intelligence service, its members exercising the duties of criminal policemen, assisting the governors in policing the population, spying on the movements of subject elements, controlling the state post — so important in the administration of the empire and for its information service — and sometimes even acting as executioners. In spite of all this, they still remained soldiers, boasting of the number of the legion to which they belonged. At first glance there seems to be an analogy between the Roman frumentarii and the ill-famed Gestapo, the secret police of Adolf Hitler. Both were organized on a military pattern, and the functions of the frumentarii were often the same as those of the infamous secret police of the German Third Reich. But there the analogy stops. The imperial frumentarii were not a true secret state police in the modern sense. In Rome this interesting evolution did not go so far as that. The frumentarii were not grouped strictly into one corps with a particular chief directing their activities and giving them his own instructions. They were soldiers, trained in military intelligence, borrowed by the central and provincial authorities for special purposes which they could accomplish more effectively than the ordinary police or regular army.
The activity of the frumentarii in the service of the emperor reveals, as we have seen, some of the less admirable aspects of imperial Rome which grew more and more unseemly as the Principate — the rule of the first citizen, the Princeps — founded by Augustus was transformed into an oriental monarchy. These aspects dimmed the light and the splendor with which the oriental and Hellenistic political ideas surrounded the person of the absolute and deified monarch. It was unfortunate that Augustus and his successors, when creating the central administrative bureaus of the empire, did not do so with clerks active in the administration during the Republican period, but entrusted important and responsible offices in their chanceries to their own slaves and freedmen. As a result, the slaves, or men of low origin, exercised a decisive influence on state affairs, and the emperors themselves, unapproachable by the ordinary citizen, depended on that which their favorites, slaves, anti freedmen chose to report to them. The palace became a nest of intrigues and plots. Courtesans, and wives of dubious character, often played a disastrous role.
But this is sufficiently known and we do not need to dwell on the description of this sad transformation. We mention it only to illustrate how easy it was for the imperial frumentarii to take part in these intrigues, to misuse for their own ends their confidential and prominent role in the intelligence service, to enrich themselves and to sell their services and confidential reports to adventurers, and to others who sought the ruin of personal or political enemies at any price. This disastrous activity of the frumentarii must have flourished particularly during the third century, following the extinction of the Severan dynasty (a.d. 235), when civil war broke out anew and the army controlled the election and disposition of the emperors. The frumentarii as a body became so dreaded and hated by the citizens that, when the Emperor Diocletian (a.d. 284-305) at last put an end to the disorders and began to reorganize the whole state machinery, he decided to suppress the frumentarii altogether.
But Diocletian soon realized that he could not govern successfully so immense an empire without an organized intelligence service. It was under his reign that the transformation of the Roman Empire into an absolute monarchy was completed. The Hellenistic and oriental influences which, from the time of Caesar and Augustus had become more and more evident in Roman life and thought, reached their peak under Diocletian. One of the most outstanding features of the Hellenistic age was its polity. In the time of Alexander the Great the Greek idea that the ablest men should govern the city states — an idea expressed so forcibly by Plato and Aristotle, the greatest philosophers and political thinkers of Greece — was fused with the oriental idea of kingship. The result was that absolute government by one man. considered to be the best because of his divine character, became the only form of rulership. The Roman Republican policy, already strongly aristocratic in the last period of the Roman Republic, at last succumbed to this mighty current. Diocletian, who took the last step, saw that an absolute monarchy could not rule without strict surveillance of the activities of its subjects. After the suppression of the frumentarii, he therefore founded a special intelligence service which he entrusted to a new corps — the agentes in rebus — men with a special mission, also organized on a military basis, but this time forming a special department in the imperial service.
Our information about the activities and the organization of this new body is derived from the Gonstantinian and post-Constantinopolitan period, when the capital of the Roman Empire was transferred to Byzantium-Constantinople.
Therefore we shall deal with this new intelligence service in the following chapter.
Since the documentary evidence is very scarce, we can only study in general outline the methods by which the Romans in the imperial period secured information from abroad concerning events taking place in the countries on the borderlands of the empire. First, they continued the old method of relying on the reports of their allies. The system of allied, protected, or befriended kings and chiefs was maintained by the Romans during the imperial period, especially in Asia and Africa. One of these kings is well known to us from the Gospels, namely, Herod Agrippa. In the correspondence of Pliny the Younger we find an interesting piece of evidence revealing how eager these allies were to inform the emperors on matters of political or military importance. Pliny writes to Trajan (Bk. X, lxiv):
“King Sauromates wrote to me that there were some things which you should know without delay. Therefore to speed up his journey I provided the messenger (tabellarius) whom he had sent to you with a letter, with a diploma,” i.e. to enable him to use the state post.
From a further letter of Pliny to Trajan (Bk. X, lxxiv) we learn another interesting detail illustrating how the emperors tried to obtain intelligence about those countries unfriendly to their empire. Pliny reports that a soldier from the police station of Nicomedia had arrested a slave who, after deserting from his master’s household, sought the asylum of the emperor’s statue. He was first brought before the magistrate of Nicomedia and then to Pliny, the governor of Bithynia. Pliny questioned him and learned from him that he had first been in the service of the governor of Moesia, one of the Danubian provinces, and that he became a prisoner of the king of the Dacians — the ancestors of the modern Rumanians — probably during a raid by the latter on the Roman province. The Dacian king sent the unfortunate slave as a special present to the king of Parthia, a clear indication that the Dacians were hoping for support from the Parthians in their struggle with Rome. He spent several years in Parthia, but succeeded in escaping, taking with him as a souvenir a ring bearing the image of the Parthian king in full regalia. The slave was probably an intelligent man — as otherwise the Dacian king would not have sent him as a gift to the Parthian king. Pliny realized this and thought that his experiences might be useful to the emperor, and he therefore sent him to Trajan. The latter, at that time, had decided to renew the warfare with the Parthians, and his friend Pliny knew that information about the Parthians, their king, and their lands would be welcome to the emperor.
We know little about a more systematic Roman intelligence service among or concerning the nations adjacent to the Roman Empire. It seems that here the old Roman dislike of such practices persisted also during the imperial period. This attitude is suggested by the erection of the so-called limes, the fortified frontier lines on the most exposed sides, especially in Britain, in Germany, on the Danube, in Armenia, and in Africa. The erection of such defensive fortifications indicates that the Romans were not interested in the barbarians surrounding their empire. When they fought against them, it was to defend their empire and to punish them for their incursions beyond the limes. We look in vain in Roman literature tor works on exploration among foreign people before the imperial period, whereas the Greeks, particularly during the Hellenistic period, were eager to learn about the barbarians.
This difference in the mentality of the two peoples is illustrated in a particularly striking way by their attitude toward the geographical exploration of the world. We have seen how eager was Alexander the Great to encourage geographical discoveries, appreciating the importance of such intelligence in the advancement of his political and military plans. The great mass of Greek geographical writings is lost and only a few fragments have survived of the many descriptions of roads, coasts, and countries, sometimes with particular information as to distances. The most important of the ancient Greek geographers was Eratosthenes, director of the Library of Alexandria in 230-195 b.c. who wrote the first systematic work dealing with geography from a mathematical, physical, and historical angle. He is therefore rightly looked upon as the father of ancient and modern geography.
Only at the beginning of the imperial era did the Romans begin to be interested in geographical and ethnographical intelligence and discoveries for practical military and administrative purposes. Here, again, Gaesar and Augustus led the way. Augustus realized Caesar’s plan of mapping the roads and recording the distances between the different military stations which later became mostly those of the state post. The work was done by Agrippa. Pliny the Elder gives us in his Natural History (Bk. III, ii.17) the following information of the first written survey of the world made by the Romans:
Agrippa was a very painstaking man. and also a very careful geographer; who therefore could believe that when intending to set before the eyes of Rome a survey of the world, he made a mistake, and with him the late lamented Augustus? For it was Augustus who completed the portico containing a plan of the world that had been begun by his sister in accordance with the design and memoranda of Marcus Agrippa.
The cursus publicus in Constantinople, western Asia Minor, and North Africa, as depicted in Segment IX of the Tabula Peutingeriana, a 12th-century copy of an original Roman Imperial map (K. Miller, Die Peutingersche Tafel oder Weltkarte des Cassorius).
This fact reveals once more how much Augustus valued the importance of intelligence of all kinds for the administration and welfare of the empire. This first map was later copied and publicly displayed in all the major cities of the empire. Reduced copies — called itineraria — were made of it for the use of governors and army commanders. We are fortunate in possessing a medieval copy of a map from the imperial period (perhaps based on Augustus’s map) — the Peutinger Table in the Library of Vienna — and the so-called Antonine itinerary.
Practical purposes directed further Roman geographical research. We learn again from Pliny the Elder (Bk. VI, xv.40) that generals fighting on the borders of the empire were requested to obtain as much geographical intelligence as possible on hostile countries and to send it to Rome. This was done by Corbulo, fighting in Armenia, and maps containing such intelligence were sent home from the front. Other sources of this kind of intelligence were provided by the embassies of foreign nations and the hostages of defeated kings and chiefs. Pliny (Bk. IX, viii.24) confesses that he diligently used all these sources of information to complete the knowledge of Armenia possessed by the Romans.
Another interesting story of this kind is told by Pliny when describing the geography and people of Ceylon (Bk. VI, xxiv.84 ff.):
We obtained more accurate information [on Ceylon] during the principate of Claudius [a.d. 41-54] when an embassy actually came to Rome from the island of Ceylon. The circumstances were as follows: Annius Plocamus had obtained a contract from the Treasury to collect the taxes from the Red Sea; a freedman of his. while sailing around Arabia, was carried by gales from the north beyond the coast of Carmania, and after a fortnight made the harbor of Hippuri in Ceylon, where he was entertained with kindly hospitality by the king, and in a period of six months acquired a thorough knowledge of the language; and afterwards in reply to the king’s inquiries he gave him an account of the Romans and their Emperor. The king among all that he heard was remarkably struck with admiration for Roman honesty, on the ground that among the money found on the captive the denarii were all equal in weight, although the various ligures on them showed that they had been coined by several emperors. This strongly attracted his friendship, and he sent four envoys, the chief of whom was Rachias. From them we learnt the following facts about Ceylon.
Pliny must have misunderstood certain indications of the ambassadors, as some of the facts he relates are very inaccurate.
Pliny marks an amazing progress in Roman geographical intelligence. He is far superior to the first Roman geographer Pomponius Mela, but he cannot be compared with his Greek predecessor Strabo (born about 64/63 b.c., died about a.d. 21). Pliny, who died in a.d. 79 as one of the victims of the great eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Herculaneum and Pompeii, can be characterized only as a statistical geographer. Only on Asia is he able to give us fresh geographical intelligence.
And, again, in this respect, we find that the best geographical, ethnographical, and economic intelligence was obtained by traders in the imperial period. The best evidence of this is given by an unknown Greek trader who, ten years after Pliny’s death, published his experiences in a book known as Periplus Maris Erythraei — .“Navigation in the Erythraean Sea.” This is a description of the coasts of Africa, Arabia, and India with very detailed information about the harbors and trading stations, giving important information concerning their exports and imports with the greatest accuracy, all of which has been verified by modern researches.
Ceylon and India were not the farthest points reached by traders during the imperial period. Under Marcus Aurelius merchants are said to have reached China through Tonkin, and the famous Greek geographer Ptolemy, whose work became the chief source of geographical information for the ancient and early medieval world, gives us details about the caravan routes bringing silk from China.
But these explorations were made by Greek merchants and travellers in the imperial era. The Ko maji s hunted themselves in their intormation service about foreign countries to the regions bordering their limes. But here, too, especially in so far as geographical accuracy is concerned, the Romans lacked the keen sense of observation and the imagination of the Greeks. This is illustrated by the description of Britain, Scotland, and Germany given by Tacitus (about a.d. 55-120) in his Life of Agricola and Germania. Although Tacitus, when writing of Britain and Scotland, could have learned from the experiences of his father-in-law, Agricola, who fought in that country, he simply follows Strabo in his geographical descriptions as if no progress had been made in the survey of Britain during the century which lay between the time of Strabo and his own. His geographical description of Germany is also rather vague. More interesting is the ethnographical part of this book, although his moralizing tendency may have led him to exaggerate when comparing the simple life of the Germans to the luxurious and libertine life of Imperial Rome.
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The Romans must have had their own agents among the neighboring populations, whose duty it was to inform the commanders of the limes stations of any dangerous moves among those nations which had come to their knowledge. There is only one single piece of evidence from the fourth century, preserved by Ammianus Marcellinus (Bk. XXVIII, chs. 3, 8), from which we may conclude that agents existed. The historian mentions them for the year a.d. 368, when he speaks of their suppression in Britain by Count Theodosius. This is what he says, according to the text:
In the midst of such important events the Arcani, a class of men established in early times, about which I said something in the history of Constans, had gradually become corrupted, and consequently he [Theodosius] removed them from their posts. For they were clearly convicted of having been led by the receipt, or the promise, of great booty at various times to betray to the savages what was going on among us. For it was their duty to hasten about hither and thither over long spaces, to give information to our generals of the clashes of rebellion among neighboring peoples.
It is a pity that Ammianus’s histoty of the Emperor Coustans is lost, for we surely would have learned more about this type of Roman intelligence agent, as Ammianus seems to have spoken in detail about them in that work. But, because he says that these agents were “established in early times,” we can presume that they existed at least in the later imperial period also. They might have been chosen first from among the frumentarii and later, after their suppression, from among the agentes in rebus.
We can imagine that it was their duty to report to the commanders of the nearest garrison or of the nearest tower of the limes fortifications concerning their observations among the natives. These fortifications were provided with towers placed at given distances and laid with good roads. At certain points other towers linked the limes with the headquarters of the reserve troops. These towers were used not only for defense, but also for sending signals. However, there is little evidence concerning the existence and the functioning of this Roman signalling service. On the famous columns of the Emperors Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, on which their victories are pictured, we see soldiers signalling with flaming torches from the towers of the limes as a warning of the approach of the barbarians.
This can be considered sufficient evidence that fire signals were introduced at last on a large scale in the Roman army during the imperial period.
The soldiers on the frontiers did not have a very attractive life when on duty. Doubtful characters gathered near the borders — again the analogy with the “bad lands” in the “Wild West” comes to mind — and we have several inscriptions from along the Roman borders in Asia which commemorate border guards who had been killed, not by the enemy, but by bandits. In order to prevent such incidents and the dangerous incursions of barbarians along the Danube and in Germany, great precautions were taken. Cassius Dio (Rk. LXXI, chs. 15, 16; I, XXII, 3) discloses that the Sarmatian and Germanic tribes bordering on the Danube were asked to leave several square miles near the Roman border uninhabited and deserted, and that they were forbidden to put boats on the river. From Tacitus’s Histories (Bk. IV. chs. 63-65) we conclude that foreigners were free to cross the frontier only in daytime, that they were asked to leave their arms at the frontier post, and that they could proceed further only under military escort for which they had to pay. Dio again tells us that trade with these tribes was permitted only at certain places and at specified times. Ammianus Marcellinus (Bk. XVIII, 8) confirms that similar arrangements existed on the Persian and Roman borders as well.
All these were security measures which betray, at the same time, that the Romans were reluctant to extend their intelligence service to foreign countries on a large scale. What took place some miles beyond the limes was unknown to them, unless a befriended tribe, for the sake of its own security, disclosed to the Romans the activities of the barbarians moving closer and closer to the limes, eager to partake of the riches which had accumulated in Roman provinces where i îvilization flourished. This lack of interest in detailed information as to the barbarian world was fatal to Rome, and here we find an additional reason contributing to the sudden collapse of the limes before the final invasion of the Germanic tribes.
CHAPTER II: BIBLIOGRAPHY
All classical references are quoted from the edition and translation of The Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press) unless otherwise stated.
Ammianus Marcellinus, Books of the History; Appian. Roman History; Caesar. The Civil Wars; The Gallic War; Cicero. Letters to Atticus; The Letters to his Friends; The Verrine Orations; De Officiis;
Cassius Dio Cocceianus, Historiarum romanonum quae supersunt. ed. U. P. Boissevain (Berlin, 1895-1931); Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities; Herodotus, History of the Persian Wars; Livy, History; Pliny the Elder, Natural History; Pliny the Younger, Letters; Polybius, The Histories; Plutarch, Lives; Scriptores historiae Augustae; Strabo, Geography; Suetonius, Life of the Caesars; Tacitus, The Histories.
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Tozer, H. F., A History of Ancient Geography (Cambridge, 1879), 2 vols.
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