The Romans always had some sort of spies or espionage agents, albeit usually decentralized and directed by individual generals or politicians. Wherever the Roman legions went, the military leadership needed to get a lay of the land and to find out information about enemy positions and numbers. Roman Senators and politicians, too, had their own private informant networks that allowed them to get the latest gossip about their rivals. Therefore, there were always spies all over the Roman Empire, yet these earliest spies were usually only reporting to their direct employer (the specific senator or general), not the army or country, as a whole.
In the early days, the Roman military used its more subtle soldiers for intelligence gathering. Eventually, early military commanders, such as Julius Caesar, began to rely on a specific group of soldiers for work that needed to be done in the shadows. These were the speculatores, or speculators, which were used as couriers, spies and secret police.
Yet, when the Republic of Rome submitted to the rule of authoritarian dictators, a new generation of spies was introduced into the population. During either the reign of Emperor Domitian (r. 81-96) or Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138), the frumentarii were formed. These men were military logistics officers that specialized in gathering, distributing and escorting supplies of wheat, or other resources, throughout the empire. Their headquarters was located at Castra Peregrina, in Rome, but their work brought them into constant contact with the average population in the countryside of the Roman Empire. The job description of these logistical officers was eventually expanded far beyond searching the empire for wheat; soon they were also couriers, spies, tax collectors, and police.
The frumentarii eventually became a hated presence in the provinces of Rome. The unpopularity of the organization grew to such an extent that Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) had the frumentarii disbanded. That is not to say he gave up on a more centralized form of intelligence gathering. Quite the opposite—he created the agentes in rebus, translated as something akin to “general agents.” These agents were a bigger and better iteration of the frumentarii, but had a few different key characteristics. While the frumentarii were considered soldiers, the agentes in rebus were deemed to be civilians. Similarly, the agents did not report to a military leader, but answered to an interesting official known as the Master of Offices. Another key difference was that the agents were a bit more open about having a role in gathering intelligence.
The agentes in rebus expanded on the work done previously by the frumentarii. As well as working the usual jobs, such as fulfilling the roles of couriers, spies, tax collectors and police, the agents also worked as construction supervisors and even ambassadors.
Interestingly, the Roman leadership focused their more professional intelligence organizations mainly on their own population in the empire, rather than on foreign threats. Generals and military leaders on the frontiers of the empire usually kept using their personal scouts and speculators to gain information about the enemy. The more organized groups of spies, like the frumentarii and the agentes in rebus, however, seemed to have been primarily directed at searching for dissent in the empire and uncovering internal conspiracies.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Relief of Trajan’s Column attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus (50–130), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel by Michael C. Howard. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.