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Invisible women: spies in Ancient Rome, Greece and Persia

The Roman Republic had no secret service. I’ll just let that sink in for a moment. This vast, complex, heavily militarised state had no spies of its own.

That’s not to say it didn’t need them. Every war is at least partly an information and psychological war. It’s not to say that the Roman Republic’s most powerful men and women didn’t employ spies on their behalf, including when they were on official Republic business. But those spies reported to those private individuals, and the intelligence they gathered was the property of those paymasters. It didn’t belong to the Roman state, and there was no-one spying on Rome’s behalf.

Dolon, a famous but not very good spy from the Iliad. Image WikiCommons.

That’s because it didn’t really have much of a centralised bureaucracy outside the army. The whole point of a republic is that it is a voluntary association of private citizens. In the Roman Republican mind, large bureaucracies, spy networks and even standing armies were the tools of a tyrant, a disturbing concentration of power in the hands of one person or – even worse – in the superstitious idea of a divinely ordained kingdom.

Contrast this with what we know about their great adversary Pontos. Not only did Mithradates the Great and his predecessors have spies, they had large networks of them that spanned international borders. They spied on foreigners and they spied on their subjects. They regarded espionage as essential to any war planning, and we know that they were used extensively throughout the great clash between Rome and Pontos, the Mithradatic Wars, when my novel is set.

As soon as I heard about the shadow war between Rome and Pontos, I knew that was what I wanted to write about.

This wasn’t just because espionage is inherently pretty awesome. It’s also because as I read further I realised that a spy was a complicated person to be in the ancient world, both powerful and vulnerable, and no doubt because of that women were surprisingly important to ancient espionage. How a society spies, who it uses as spies, who it spies upon and who owns the intelligence that creates tells us so much about a time and place.

No other fault line so elegantly summed up the strengths and weaknesses, paranoias and virtues of those two major powers, Rome and Pontos, than the ways they did their spying.

The Second Oldest Profession

There may not be much detail about what ancient spies actually got up to, but their existence is well-documented by Ancient Greek sources. The most common word for them is “kataskopoi”: those who see everything. It's still the Modern Standard Greek word for a spy, actully.

Some scholars have suggested that the Greek concept of a kataskopos was derived from the poorly-documented Achaemenid Persian role of the “King’s Eyes”, travelling supervisors who toured the Persian Empire’s regions and nations and reported back to the King directly. They were a check on the more direct and overt power of the satraps and fratarakahs and other official appointments. The Empire’s subjects great and small knew that the King was watching them and what they got up to.

We don’t know exactly what they were called in the original Old Persian, but it’s been speculated it might be something like “spasaka”: he who watches.

It has to be stressed that all sprawling and complex states need something like the spasakas, someone to check that local rulers are following the law and to keep the central authorities informed of what was going on elsewhere. They provide an important way to bring justice to bear on local abusers of power. It’s not inherently a secretive or sinister job.

But it is obvious that in the Persian context there would need to be an element of spycraft involved in this role. Miscreants rarely volunteer their crimes to inspectors, and one distinctive responsibility of the spasakas was to put down insurrections and uprisings. Still, we ought to be mindful that it could be that the “public interest” was conceived differently in an absolute monarchy to the democracies of Athens or Rome.

The Kings Eyes were satirised by the playwright Aristophanes who, after a big build up about the Eye’s power, plonked a giant eye onstage for his audience to laugh at. Like the Romans a few centuries later, the Athenians saw an officer like that as an absurd, intrusive tyranny. But when the Athenians came to run their own empire, they based the office of “episkopos” on the spasakas. These were officials whose role was to be the central authority’s presence on earth in the provinces, a direct appointment free of local politics who could liaise between Athens and its clients.

Although there were many differences between ancient and modern societies, warfare and espionage, there are plenty of things that are familiar.

Keep mum, she's not so dumb: women were often used in Ancient Greek espionage.

The first big similarity between now and then is that the line between diplomacy, trade and espionage was always blurred. This still happens now, where it can be hard to draw a firm line between standard diplomatic work and spying. I did the screening test for MI5 (which I failed miserably) and it asked you to sift vast amounts of data about a consulate employee’s comings and goings and decide whether to cause a diplomatic hoo-hah by accusing him of espionage. It’s a really difficult call to make.

It wasn’t uncommon in the Roman and Hellenistic world for suspicion to fall on a diplomatic mission, and as a modern reader it’s very hard to say whether that was justified or not. Livy reports a story of the Carthaginian embassy to Rome being expelled for spying in 203. They were marched down to their ships under armed guard after being denounced in the Senate. It’s impossible to know if this was true or just paranoia.

Mithradates’ diplomats were often implicated in similar plots by Roman writers, and again it is usually hard to tell propaganda from fiction. It was widely suspected that he was in contact with various factions in the Social Wars, and he certainly received a delegation from them at his Court in Sinope. Much later he was sure to keep in touch with the Slave Revolt led by Spartacus, according to Appian, and it would be sensible for him to be thinking of how he might turn this to his advantage at the very least.

There are two well-documented and credible accounts of how Mithradates’ agents and diplomats attempted to undermine Roman institutions and sovereignty to promote his interests.

The first was in around 102 BC, when a Tribune of the Plebs denounced Senators for taking bribes from a Pontian delegation in a public trial. This caused a huge scandal, understandably: imagine a similar revelation about senior politicians in your own country taking money to promote a foreign leader’s interests in Congress or Parliament. The second came about a decade later, when the leader of the Senate was accused – and ultimately acquitted – of taking bribes from Pontian delegates. In both cases, the details that came out about Roman graft and Pontian bribes were almost as bad as the accusations themselves.

Spying has always had human intelligence at its core, that’s to say intelligence that comes from one person interacting with another person rather than technical intercept or surveillance. We associate modern spy fiction with gizmos, gadgets and ticking bombs, but from Eric Ambler to John le Carré to Le Bureau des Legendes, really great spy fiction knows that it’s the humans involved that bring the drama. Who to trust and who to hang out to dry aren’t just intellectual puzzles, they’re emotional judgements. Ancient spycraft deployed the usual gamut of broad techniques – spreading disinformation, recruiting informers, stealing military and political secrets – but it did it primarily through face-to-face dealings.

The most conclusive piece of evidence that Mithradates had an astounding spy network is also the most remarkable, precisely because it relied on HUMINT. One night in the Summer of 88 BCE, a massacre of Latin speakers in Asia Minor took place on Mithradates’ orders. It is estimated at least 80,000 men, women and children died on the same day.

In one stroke it destroyed Roman resistance to the Pontian liberation/ occupation of Asia Minor, prevented Roman refugees from lending support to cities and islands that refused to surrender, devastated the Roman economy and delivered a potentially catastrophic blow to Rome’s political and social order. It marked Mithradates out as a mind-blowingly brilliant, ruthless and amoral leader, even by the low standards of the Late Republic.

There is no way that this could have been done effectively without a large and sophisticated secret service to coordinate it, along with secure means of communication. Indeed Appian reports that it was achieved by ‘secret orders sent by Mithradates to all the cities at the same time’.

For this to have worked, Mithradates must have had a fully operational system of couriers and operatives, including among the newly garrisoned cities as well as his satraps and governors. They would have needed established and secure ways of receiving orders. They would also have needed to be skilled enough (or feared enough) to enlist citizens’ help in murdering their neighbours without fomenting open opposition. Plus Mithradates and his officers needed to be sure that both the message and its recipients were completely reliable. The idea that this was all done the old-fashioned way, with simple encryption and exemplary human intelligence, is horribly remarkable.

My protagonist Makaria, the woman spying on Pontos' enemies in The Very Wolf.

The final big similarity between modern espionage and the ancient world is that – with a few surprising exceptions like the Roman Republic – secret services were carefully structured and embedded in the state. By the time we get to the Mithradatic Wars in the 1st Century BCE, the idea of both episkopoi and kataskopoi were firmly embedded in Hellenised societies. They were common to the smaller tyrannies like Syracuse (of which more in a moment) or Halicarnassus and the sprawling empires of the Seleucids and the Mithradatids of Kappadokia Pontika. They funnelled their intelligence towards a central actor – the State, or the ruler of that state – and all their actions reflected its interests.

In my book the spy Makaria reports to her handler, Youras, who has an official position in the Pontian Kingdom’s bureaucracy. But ultimately she is employed by, reports to and answers to Mithradates himself. She has no other masters, no other agenda. Assuming he can trust his bureaucracy (a big if) Mithradates does indeed have eyes and ears everywhere. Throughout his kingdom, throughout his allies’ territories, even in the heart of power in Rome itself. There is no comparable centre of gravity in Roman society.

One obvious big difference between modern and ancient spycraft is the technologies used. There are no mobile phones, communications satellites or computer chips in the world of The Very Wolf. No laser beams for anyone to dangle over by remote-controlled winch here. That’s not to say that there was no technology involved in ancient espionage. I don’t have time to go into the fascinating history of encryption here, for example, but let’s say that it plays a major part in the story of The Very Wolf.

Women spies in the Greek East

We don’t have any records of Ancient Greek women as inciting agents in war or peacetime. Women spies certainly existed, though, and could actually have advantages over men in some ways.

The obvious one is that in a society with plenty of gender segregated spaces and lots of taboos about being overly familiar with the opposite sex, women could spy on other women in ways men couldn’t. In fact, any good spymaster ought to have at least some reliable women on his books for that purpose alone.

The other, less obvious reason is that because of women’s status they were less visible, less noticed and taken less seriously than their male counterparts. They did the caring and domestic labouring jobs that give them intimate access to powerful families without really even being registered as more than furniture. And as the vast majority of sex workers, women had opportunities for getting information out of their clients few other vulnerable people might.

Because women were more vulnerable in that society than men, and that’s another key component of why you might want a woman spy around. It’s not good practice to recruit agents through coercion, but their vulnerabilities can make it easier to keep their loyalty once they’re hired. Hellenistic women had fewer options for keeping the authorities on side or for seeking redress for abuses than men. Once they were spies, they were less likely to turn on their masters or become whistleblowers.

Hiero of Syracuse. Image WikiCommons.

Hiero of Syracuse was a tyrant in both the ancient Greek sense of being an authoritarian ruler and the modern sense of being an oppressive one at that. But as Aristotle’s Politics points out, the two naturally go together because a tyrant does not rule by consent: ‘[he] must see to it that nothing his subjects say or do escapes his notice.’ And Hiero knew that women were very effective spies in that way.

Aristotle mentions two types of women spies: potagogides and otakoustai. They were dispatched to public gatherings and private parties to overhear on Hiero’s behalf. Aristotle is clear why women were used: ‘when men fear such as these they speak less freely’. Women were not feared in themselves, and as the servants, flute girls and prostitutes at these events they were not taken seriously as political agents in any case.

More fool the men of Syracuse.

It’s interesting that one of these names for female spies, otakoustai, literally means something like “listening ears”. From late antiquity, there’s been speculation among historians that there may have been separate Eyes and Ears of the King in Ancient Persia, with the Ears the more secret wing of the King’s intelligence network. I have never found an argument for that which felt more than speculative.

But Hellenistic writers did draw the connection between contemporary tyrants’ fondness for spies and earlier Persian traditions, however poorly they understood them. Plutarch and Aristotle believed that authoritarian regimes such as that of Cyprus borrowed their internal espionage practices from their former Persian overlords (Cyprus became part of the Satrapy of Yauna in about 525 BCE). It is improbable that Greek or Anatolian tyrants would not have adopted useful intelligence methods from the Persian rulers. In Pontos, there had never really been a break in Persian rule.

If true, that would make Hellenistic Greek women spies the inheritors of an ancient and dangerous tradition.

Read More:

Ñaco del Hoyo, Toni. “Roman and Pontic Intelligence Strategies: Politics and War in the Time of Mithradates VI.” War in History 21, no. 4 (November 2014): 401–21. doi:10.1177/0968344513505528.

Richmond, J. A. "Spies in Ancient Greece." Greece & Rome 45, no. 1 (1998): 1-18.

Santi Russell, F. (1999) "Beyond the Pale: Spies (Kataskopoi, Otakoustai)" in Information Gathering in Classical Greece (Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press )

Balcer, J. M. "The Athenian Episkopos and the Achaemenid 'Kings Eye'" The American Journal of Philology 98, No. 3 (Autumn 1977) 252-263

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