The Roman Forum, the political, economic, cultural, and religious center of the city during the Republic and later Empire. Credit: Saiko / CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED. Cropped.

Espionage played a significant role in the rise of ancient Rome, one of the greatest military powers in history. Despite the Roman army’s reputation for winning battles through superior force of arms, the historical record reveals that the Romans also relied on a full range of covert intelligence techniques.

The Romans prided themselves on their military prowess, with their legions known for their discipline and maneuverability. However, they also recognized the value of intelligence in achieving their objectives. The intelligence business is as old as civilization itself, and the Romans were no exception to this rule. Espionage in Ancient Rome evolved significantly over time, adapting to the changing needs of the empire and its rulers.

Modern depiction of Roman legionnaires.

The Role of Espionage

In the early days of Rome, espionage was primarily used as a tool for political and military advantage. The Romans used a full range of covert intelligence techniques, including eavesdropping, secret messages, and clandestine operations. The intelligence process involved direction or targeting, collection of data, analysis of data, and dissemination to the users of the information. The Romans understood that not all information is ‘intelligence.’ Intelligence is restricted to crucial information about the target or enemyhis strength, location, likely intentions, and capabilities.

Political Intelligence Networks

In Ancient Rome, major political players had their own surveillance networks, which provided them with information about the schemes of those in power. Julius Caesar, one of the most renowned figures in Roman history, recognized the importance of intelligence and established an extensive spy network to keep himself informed of various plots against him.

Caesar’s intelligence network was so effective that a list of conspirators was thrust into his hand shortly before he was assassinated. His intelligence network had done its job. Had Caesar read the message and acted upon it, he might have survived.

However, even the best spy network sometimes cannot stop a dagger. Despite having an extensive spy network, Caesar was assassinated in a Senate-led conspiracy. This event underscores the fact that while intelligence can provide crucial information, it cannot always prevent adverse events.

Representation of a sitting of the Roman senate: Cicero attacks Catiline, from a 19th-century fresco in Palazzo Madama, Rome, house of the Italian Senate. It is worth noting that idealistic medieval and subsequent artistic depictions of the Senate in session are almost uniformly inaccurate.

The Speculatores

The Speculatores, also referred to as the Speculatores Augusti, were a crucial component of the Roman military and intelligence system. Their roles often intersected with those of the Exploratores, who were scouts in the Roman military tasked with extensive reconnaissance. The Speculatores were successors to earlier Greek military spies and scouts.

Historical records indicate the existence of a Roman scouting agency during the Samnite Wars, and the deployment of the Speculatores during the Roman conflict with the Aequi. Emperor Augustus revamped the Roman communications system and incorporated 10 Speculatores into each legion. This suggests that the Speculatores were formally organized as a distinct group within the Roman military during Augustus’s reign (27 BC – 14 AD).

The Speculatores operated under the authority of the consul, one of the highest elected positions in the Roman Republic. The consul wielded military, judicial, and executive powers. The Speculatores collected intelligence about the enemy, their troops, and their activities through secret operations. This intelligence was vital for the consul to make informed strategic decisions.

The Speculatores were based in the Castra Peregrina, a military barracks in Rome located on the Caelian Hill. Known as the “camp of the strangers,” it housed various military units during the later part of the Roman Empire. The barracks were centrally located on a hill known for its affluent Roman residents. This location was strategic, providing easy access to different parts of the city and a vantage point for monitoring activities.

Map of the center of Rome during the time of the Roman Empire

The Speculatores were trained by an official known as a centurio exercitator to become proficient in combat, horseriding, parading, and escorting. Three other officials played significant roles in the Speculatores: the centurio, the centurio speculatorum, the centurio trecenarius, and the centurio speculatorum equitarum.

The Speculatores consisted of around 300 members, selected for their discretion and loyalty. They operated in small groups, usually in pairs or individually. They fulfilled various roles, including scouts, executioners, torturers, and assassins. Their duties led to them being feared and despised by the public. They also served as political police but were replaced by the Frumentarii in this role in the third century. Many Speculatores would later become couriers.

The Frumentarii

The Frumentarii were also a crucial component of the Roman intelligence system, playing a significant role in the empire’s military and political strategies. They too were based in the Castra Peregrina. They were overseen by the princeps peregrinorum. Over time, they took over certain roles from the Speculatores.

Originally, the Frumentarii functioned as a courier service, delivering messages across the empire and supplying grain to the military. They also served as public tax collectors. Their frequent travels allowed them to gain knowledge about local customs, languages, and road networks. This knowledge, along with their ability to blend in with locals, led to an expansion of their duties.

The Frumentarii were likely established by Emperor Domitian in the first century AD, although the first written records of their existence appear after his reign, in the early second century. Some sources suggest they may have been formed during the reign of either Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96) or Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138).

By the 2nd century, the need for a comprehensive intelligence service across the empire was evident. Emperor Hadrian utilized the Frumentarii as a spying agency due to their extensive contact with locals and natives, enabling them to gather substantial intelligence about any given territory. In addition to gathering intelligence, the Frumentarii also performed assassinations, making them a formidable force within the Roman Empire.

Despite their significant contributions to the Roman Empire, the Frumentarii were disbanded under the reign of Diocletian due to their poor reputation among the populace. However, their legacy as one of the most notable intelligence agencies in Ancient Rome remains.

Inscription about a frumentarius from Legio VII Gemina.

Changes Over Time

As the Roman Empire expanded, the need for more sophisticated intelligence operations grew. The Romans developed the extensive use of poisons, including toxins derived from plants and snakes, to carry out assassinations or acts of sabotage. They also developed codes, disguised writing, trick inks, and hidden compartments in clothing to hide communications.

By the third century, Roman authors noted the pervasiveness and excessive censorship of the secret police forces, likening them to an authoritative force or an occupational army. Political espionage was not limited to the more contentious parts of the Roman periphery, but was also practiced in Rome itself by rival factions of the government

In Conclusion

Espionage was a critical component of Rome’s rise to power. Despite their military might, the Romans understood the value of intelligence and covert operations in achieving their objectives. This understanding led to the creation of sophisticated intelligence agencies like the Frumentarii, which played a crucial role in the empire’s domestic and foreign policy.

It is important to note that the historical records from this period are not always complete or accurate. The role of spies and intelligence in ancient Rome is a complex subject with many areas of ongoing research.

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

By Eugene Nielsen

Eugene Nielsen provides intelligence and security consulting services. He has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of California. His byline has appeared in numerous national and international journals and magazines.

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