How was the intelligence service among the ancient empires? (Part one)

There is a consistent evidence for intelligence service in the East with a corresponding late development of such services in the West. The earliest history of Rome, from the historian Livy portrays the simple, straightforward Latin peasants as having a disdain for anything that appeared artificial. However this had disastrous results for their Citizen militia at the beginning of their expansion.


When the Etruscans made a raid against Rome for example, they only found out about the enemy’s approach when the farmers stampeded in from the fields for shelter. On a similar occasion the city learned of a victorious battle only when the waters of the Tiber brought the shields of their fallen enemies inside the city walls. It would have been an easy task to set up a primitive signalling system to prevent surprise Attacks. Instead, a formidable enemy as the Gauls were able to take Rome by surprise in 390 B.C. and totally destroy the city.


By the Greek, running messengers were used. The message was usually written and it was advantageous so that the messenger was unaware of the contents of his missive. Some of those individuals such as Pheidippides became amazingly adept at long-distance running. Herodotus mentioned that in 490 B.C. he covered 160 miles between Athens and Sparta, over montainous terrain in less than 48 hours. He was the first known Marathon runner.

Rome went on to conquer the rest of the Italian peninsula, yet there seems to have been little marked progress in communications or intelligence gathering. As Rome became more powerful, this weakness became more obvious, in particular when it came to face with a fully developed Eastern intelligence service when she went to war with the Carthaginians. Hannibal, Rome’s most formidable opponent had a signalling system, messenger relays by land and sea, spies placed in Roman camps and agents abroad who would help efficiently. A highly-developed system made of hidden spies, false documents, encrypted codes, and camouflaged expeditions.

The Carthaginian Hannibal Barca is considered one of the greatest military commander in history. The young general used wigs and used disguises of every kind to move among the military camps, to probe the morale of the soldiers and to prevent riots among the military. Before attacking the Romans, he was able to place spies in Italy everywhere so as to receive as many information as possible before the invasion. He was so well informed about the Roman’s military plans that he managed to avoid the Roman army near the Rhone, when the army landed to attack him in Marseilles and to cross the Alpes with 26,000 men and 37 elephants when the snow already started to fall. His intelligence service was so good that he could send messages to his allied countries even when he was in the cities controlled by the Romans.

Only after having learned the lesson with Hannibal, Julius Caesar developed introduced the principles of tactical and strategic organization. During his campaigns in Gaul in 54 B.C. Julius Caesar, having learned the lesson, was able to send word to the besieged Quintus Cicero by having a javelin with a message attached, Flying against the wall of Cicero’s camp.


End of part one.


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Former National Triathlon athlete, now ancient and forgotten sites hunter, mountain biker and open waters swimmer. Love ancient Romans and Etruscan civilizations. Follow my discoveries!


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