Diplomat, trader, messenger, client, spy Rome’s eyes and ears in the East

When Rome made peace with Carthage in 201 bc, it could be thought that the Romans would be ready for a long period of peace with no major international commitments. Large parts of Italy had been devastated during the Hannibalic war and needed to be reorganized, and the Roman people were exhausted by the long conflict. Yet, it was precisely at this moment that the Roman government chose to become embroiled in a series of wars in the East.

The war with Hannibal had taught the Romans many lessons, not the least of which was the importance of tactical intelligence on the battlefield. And Scipio himself would have been the first to acknowledge his debt to Hannibal for the tactics he used at Zama. Yet no organizational changes were made in Rome’s political and military systems to facilitate the collection of such intelligence. No formal intelligence service was established, and yet here were the Romans leaping into the political maelstrom of the Hellenistic world. More than ever the Romans needed intelligence for the delicate and complicated negotiations these contacts entailed. A long series of wars in the East would give them ample opportunity to study and copy the intelligence techniques used by eastern rulers. Yet surprisingly little was adopted during the late Republic. The Romans continued to rely on their traditional means of intelligence gathering through envoys, traders, and allies. Rome’s military intelligence activities encompassed field reconnaissance, a measure of clandestine collection, and liaison with allied armies. These activities were supplemented on the civilian side by four categories of sources through which information could be obtained: diplomats, traders, messengers, and spies – the eyes and ears of the Romans abroad. As primitive as these methods were, they were all Rome had at its disposal, in order to cope with the requirements of a burgeoning world empire.


As Erich Gruen has argued so convincingly in his monumental work on Rome and the Hellenistic world, the Romans had nothing resembling a diplomatic corps.1 They did not appoint permanent representatives abroad, nor did they set up offices for foreign-area specialists at home. In fact, they did not even install occupation forces in the East prior to the late second century bc. Commanders and officers carried out their tours of duty, but did not stay on to form a permanent presence. The government had neither professional diplomats nor professional soldiers. Under such a system, no diplomatic presence existed abroad to implement a consistent foreign policy, nor to procure intelligence for the government in Rome.2

While the Greeks were accustomed to constant political maneuvering and using diplomacy as a weapon, the Romans remained naive in the subtle game of international politics. Not until the Pyrrhic War (280–278 bc) were they brought into contact with eastern powers, and that war helped to widen Rome’s political and cultural horizons. In the opening decades of the second century bc the Romans began to acquire experience in the Hellenistic style of diplomacy, as Greek states tried to enlist Roman help for their various interests, policies, and wars. Their early ventures into Greek diplomacy were careless. They seemed ignorant of simple rules, such as the courtesy of sending counterembassies, which they often did not do.3 There is no sign that they were familiar with the custom of embassies exchanging gifts with a ruler. There is an often quoted story that when a Roman embassy reached Egypt, the envoys had to ask for a special decision of the Senate before accepting a gift from the king, Ptolemy Philadelphus.4 The Romans seem to have been equally untrained in the ways of adjudication and arbitration of international disputes.5

One of the reasons the Roman takeover of the East in the second century bc was a period of such great activity and complexity in foreign affairs was that the Romans at this time rarely annexed the lands they had conquered.6 Both before and after great military victories, embassies streamed to Rome, and the Senate issued a succession of decrees concerning these foreign states. As an intelligence-gathering device or diplomatic tool, these embassies varied in quality from province to province. When the Senate was particularly interested in a specific situation, it showed great energy in briefing missions and in encouraging the envoys to do their work. When the senior policy makers did not view Roman interest in an area to be great, the envoys might be interviewed routinely and ineffectively before being dismissed. Polybius’s books on the wars in the East are replete with tales of Greek envoys successfully lying to the Roman Senate, an indication that the Senate could well be misled by disinformation.

Roman expansion in the East took on a distinct pattern. A faction appealed to Rome for support, embassies were sent out, and a judgment was made. When a peaceful settlement could not be reached, armed forces were sometimes deployed, the offending parties punished, and the Romans withdrew until they were summoned again to adjudicate another dispute.7 Effective or not, these embassies became the primary instrument by which Rome could assess problems overseas. The method was rudimentary but adequate to the task when energetically applied. The Senate dispatched small missions of inquiry or advice, ordinarily composed of three to five senators of varying qualifications and experience, traveling in naval vessels but without military forces.8 These men were Rome’s only official agents abroad, and they were by no means permanently in place. The embassies were temporary missions sent out as the occasion arose. They regularly journeyed to confer with kings whose own deputations had previously visited Rome to solicit assistance. More rarely, in times of crisis the Senate would dispatch a mission of inquiry on its own initiative, rather than in response to petitions from abroad. The Romans’ envoys were briefed with particular instructions to deliver warnings, give advice, arbitrate settlements, check reports, or simply to investigate a situation and “look around.”

Most of this activity was carried out openly, but there was always the possibility of information being slipped to the envoys clandestinely by interested parties. We do not know how many retainers they brought with them that might skulk about while the envoys were conducting their diplomatic business. There certainly was no doubt in the minds of those who received these “diplomats” that spying was one of their functions. Tiberius Gracchus and other inspectors on their grand tour of the East in 166 bc were referred to by Polybius as kataskopoi, which may be translated as “spies” or “inquirers.” Notwithstanding such labels, these so-called spies seem to have been rather ingenuous and could be manipulated by their hosts. Antiochus IV was so adroit and courteous to them that, far from acquiring any real intelligence, they brought home uniformly glowing reports concerning his friendly intentions toward Rome. Polybius concludes that Gracchus was fooled by the warmth of his reception. If so, then his competence was questionable in both a diplomatic and an intelligence capacity.9 The historian Diodorus confirms that Antiochus’s true policy was not what it appeared to be. On the contrary, he harbored a great deal of antipathy toward the Romans.10

Diplomats of any kind, either Romans sent to foreign communities or foreigners sent to Rome, were sacred and inviolate. Mistreatment of them was sacrilegious and a source of ritual pollution.11 The Romans exacted a severe penalty for mistreatment of their envoys. Yet, if a foreign power believed it was being spied upon by the Romans, it would not hesitate to take action. And rightly or wrongly, Roman diplomats were liable to be thought of as spies wherever they went. Genthius, the Illyrian king, put Roman envoys in chains, charging them with espionage. Other examples are not hard to find of Roman ambassadors being suspected, arrested, or executed on espionage charges. Even traders were not spared such treatment. Appian states flatly that the Roman envoys sent to Antiochus, ostensibly to bring about a reconciliation between him and Ptolemy, in reality were instructed to find out his plans and to check up on him as much as they could.12 The Romans themselves complained of a degeneration in the style of international politics. The Roman negotiations with Perseus in 172 bc were compared to trickery, not old-fashioned “honest” Roman diplomacy; a clear sign to many of the declining standards and morals of the Republic.13 But in reality, it was the growing sophistication of international affairs and the increased willingness to use clandestine methods.

Not only were these simple embassies unequal to the task of collecting everything Rome needed to know, but also the Senate was not up to the task of analysis. It was ill-suited in size, structure, and method of operation to formulate long-term policies of any complexity, let alone implement them in detail, effectively, and consistently over a protracted period.14 The slowness of communications itself discouraged the Romans from conducting prolonged negotiations with distant parties, and the embassy system reflects this slowness. The Senate was required, on regular annual occasions, to formulate decisions speedily. For example, the month of February was reserved for hearing foreign embassies that might be relevant in the assignment of duties to provincial commanders.15 Rome’s limited military resources could best be allotted if the senators had advance information about the situation in each area demanding attention. The embassies and senior senators with past experience in foreign operations combined their knowledge to make what they hoped were wise decisions.

The Roman senators who acted as diplomats never “specialized” in Hellenic affairs nor devised a commitment to an eastern policy.16 The Romans had a certain aversion to professionalism which held true for the sphere of diplomacy. The Roman Senate, proud of its corporate identity and jealous of individual accomplishment, did not foster the development of a corps of experts. Senators did not want their hands tied by dependence on a narrow circle with specialized knowledge and particular commitments.17 Because of this approach, Roman policy in the East, and elsewhere, often lacked continuity or methodical direction. At most, the Romans could acquire “fragmentary impressions.” Roman supervision over these policies was limited by the weakness of the diplomatic mission as an institutional form. The system was neither permanent nor ubiquitous, and it lacked any territorial base or executive substructure. The Romans hoped that, in great crises, by demonstrating that the Senate meant business, envoys would secure obedience and prompt execution of Roman policy without the support of a military force. If the Senate and its envoys left events in a given area to take their own course, or intervened briefly and ineffectively, this suggested that the Senate as a whole, and especially its senior members who initiated the policy, did not attach high priority to Roman interests in that region. Indeed, embassies sent to places of secondary importance may only have been symbolic gestures, not intended to have immediate pragmatic effect.


After the conquest of the East, opportunities for collecting information from civilian sources improved dramatically. The conquered lands were soon swarming with Roman merchants, land speculators, tax collectors, and agents of Roman financial magnates. It was in the interests of these men to keep themselves informed of the political situation where they resided and to report any threatening developments to the appropriate provincial authorities.

Previously the publicans, or tax collectors, had had charge of the commissariat for the Hannibalic war, and had provided the logistics and organization that enabled the Roman legions to win.18 Now, more than a half-century later, the publicans moved east to collect direct taxes from Asia and other eastern provinces. They also farmed rents from public lands, exploited the mines, and collected harbor taxes. Although the principals of these publican companies resided in Rome or Italy, they employed Italians as local managers in the provinces.19 The largest class of Italians resident in the East were still the businessmen, or negoti-atores,20 who were dispersed through Greece and the Aegean islands, the western part of Asia Minor, and to a lesser extent in the Levant, Syria, and Egypt.21 Scattered inscriptions show Italians already in Hellenic lands by the early and middle third century bc. The economic stature of these businessmen is self-evident, but they were also productive sources of information.

Negotiatores did not work for the government and were not under official control. Nevertheless, the wealth generated by their businesses and the pressure they consequently could exert on the government were considerable. With Carthage and Corinth destroyed in 146 bc, still greater wealth was amassed from booty, and the Mediterranean more than ever was thrown wide open to commercial shipping. Italian negotiatores set up shop at the free port of Delos (see Map 14), which assumed increasing importance in the following decades. Senators turned their attentions to the question of how Rome could best exploit the vastly expanded economic opportunities of this age. Such exploitation depended on a network of associates, contacts, and dependents carefully and systematically developed in order to conduct business successfully.22 The fact that this same network could provide information on foreign affairs was not overlooked by Roman officials. To give just one example, the publicani appear in the plays of Plautus in the second century bc, opening seals and nosing through the letters of people who have recently returned from abroad.23

Map 14 The eastern Mediterranean.

We find evidence of a surge in business activities and a migration of Italians to the East.24 But did the boom in commercial and banking activities and the movement of private individuals to Hellenic lands bring in more intelligence to help determine senatorial policy in the East? Did they form some sort of a lobby? Roman senators did not make policy at the behest of the business communities; on the contrary, the Senate could well find itself in conflict with financiers, moneylenders, and contractors. Examples are recorded of attempts by the Senate to crack down on usurious practices and to curb moneylenders.25 Still, when resident Roman or Italian businessmen in a foreign or provincial city were able to organize and act out of common interest, they could pressure the government of Rome. Cicero asserts twice that Rome had on many occasions gone to war on behalf of her merchants and seamen.26 This, however, was probably not the primary reason for intervention.27 The Roman government would not act solely in defense of commercial interests, but an issue like interference with shipping lanes could justify immediate intervention, whether or not other motives were involved, as in the case of the Illyrian pirates.28 Traders would sometimes trust naively in their Roman citizenship, if such were their status, believing that it would protect them, and indeed sometimes it did. Some five hundred traders were imprisoned in Carthage after sailing from Italy, carrying supplies for mercenaries who had rebelled when unpaid by Carthage after the First Punic War. An embassy from Rome successfully negotiated the release of these captives in exchange for 3,000 Carthaginian prisoners of war still being held by the Romans in 240 bc, since Carthage did not have the funds to pay for their ransom.29 This episode proves that the Senate was prepared at times to protect Romans who engaged in foreign trade. Thus, without getting into a detailed discussion of the economic motives in Roman imperialism, we should be aware of the increasing influence of monied but nonsenatorial classes on Roman external policy in the years following the conquests of the East.

Provincials themselves knew that Roman traders might also act as intelligence agents for their government. In earlier periods, Roman grain buyers from the southern Italian tribes and from Sicily were suspected of being spies and were treated with extreme hostility by the locals, even to the point of finding their lives in danger. Dionysius of Halicarnassus tells us:

those who had been sent to the Pomptine plain came very near being put to death by the Volscians as spies, the Roman exiles having accused them of being such. And having with very great difficulty been able to escape with their lives, through the zealous efforts of their personal friends there, they returned to Rome without having effected anything. The same fate happened to those who went to Cumae.30

The Carthaginians had always suspected that Roman merchants in the Mediterranean could be in the business of acquiring economic intelligence and, as a byproduct, perhaps political or military intelligence as well. Therefore, when concluding their prewar treaties with Rome, the Carthaginians sought to obviate the danger, or at least to limit the risk. According to Polybius, these first treaties 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.”31 Roman traders were not allowed beyond the Fair Promontory in Libya. While such treaties were presumably meant to serve as economic instruments by which to regulate international commerce and mercantile shipping, it is safe to assume that the likelihood of intelligence collection by merchants and seamen in foreign ports was not lost on the treaty negotiators. The second treaty was even more explicit: “no Roman shall… trade or found a city in Sardinia or 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 or 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 implies that the Carthaginians succeeded in preventing the Romans from sending their agents into certain Punic territory, while at the same time securing the right of free access by Carthaginian agents to Roman markets.32

That resident Roman traders, whether or not engaged in espionage, were often in danger emerges clearly in Sallust’s account of the war with Jugurtha (111–105 bc). The Numidian rebel indiscriminately massacred all the Italian traders he found armed.33 Not surprisingly, a harsh policy toward Jugurtha had wide popular appeal, and much of this sentiment emanated from negotiatores in Africa and from their connections and sympathizers at Rome. Such public feelings played a vital role in the election of Marius as consul, to bring the war to a conclusion and to direct Rome’s policy in the region.34 In the East, Italian trade rapidly followed military occupation. In Greece, soldiers serving in Roman expeditionary forces were already trading on a small scale when they were in winter quarters after the Second Macedonian War (200–197 bc) and the war with Antiochus (192–189 bc).35 In 183–182 bc in Greece, the Achaeans feared that Italian businessmen might sell grain and arms to their enemy.36

Political and military entanglements with the East put Rome in competition with powers that had formidable intelligence methods of their own. About the year 90 bc we find Rome’s greatest enemy in the East, Mithridates VI, king of Pontus, resisting Roman conquests in Asia with considerable success. True to Near Eastern practices, he depended on both an effective fighting force and a competent intelligence service. Only by having agents in Rome or in the provinces, can we explain how he was always well informed about the political situation in the Roman capital. We know he learned of the revolt of Sertorius, for instance, from pirates off the Cilician coast, whose fleet maintained contact with him.37 Mithridates approached Sertorius and offered him an alliance against the ruling party in Rome, and an animated correspondence ensued between them.38 In the Second Verrine oration, Cicero describes how these communications were transmitted. The story involves Verres, one of the more corrupt officials Rome had ever seen, who extorted from Miletus not only valuable merchandise and costly entertainment but also, under the pretext of formal requisition for an official voyage, one of their best warships. (The Milesians were famous for the solidity and swiftness of their ships.) Upon his arrival in Myndus, instead of returning the ship, Verres ordered the sailors to travel back to Miletus by land, and he sold the ship to two intelligence couriers assigned by Mithridates to carry messages to Spain.39

In his account of the war between Rome and Mithridates, Appian notes that the king frequently used fire signals and advanced posts to relay intelligence on the movement of enemy troops.40 No incident better illustrates how well Mithridates controlled the highly effective intelligence network in his lands than the massacres of Roman merchants and other Roman citizens who had entered Asia Minor for business. Mithridates, fully aware of the Romans’ endless dissensions and their civil war, timed the massacre well, since he also knew both of the activities of the Roman traders in his country and of their unpopularity among the native populace. He contrived to rid himself in one day of all the suspected fifth-columnists who, while feigning friendship, might be forwarding intelligence to Rome so as to sabotage his plans. Appian describes the king’s secret orders in some detail.

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.41

There were evidently frightful scenes in the main cities of Asia Minor in 88 bc. The number of Romans killed was reported at 80,000 although this is probably an inflated figure.42

After long years of war in Asia Minor, with varying success, the Roman people demanded in 66 bc that the liquidation of Mithridates be entrusted to Pompey, Rome’s new star in the political and military firmament. On that subject, Cicero delivered his famous speech in the Senate, “On the appointment of Gnaeus Pompeius.” In it he describes the massacre in words that express the Roman admiration for the efficiency of Mithridates’s operation and the intelligence it required.

[Y] ou have to wipe out that stain, received in the former Mithridatic War, which has now fixed itself deeply and eaten its way into the Roman name, the stain arising from the fact that he, who in one day marked down by one order, and one single letter, all the Roman citizens in all Asia, scattered as they were over so many cities, for slaughter and butchery, has not only never suffered any chastisement worthy of his wickedness, but now, twenty-three years after that time, is still king, and a king in such a way that he is not content to hide himself in Pontus, or in the recesses of Cappadocia, but he seeks to emerge from his hereditary kingdom, and to range among your revenues, in the broad light of Asia.43

This speech is interesting in another respect relating to Rome’s ability to collect intelligence against Mithridates. In the preceding chapter of his speech, Cicero notes that the massacre of so many Roman merchants and agents did not deter others from venturing into a land then regarded as fabulously rich. Scarcely had the Romans reconquered some of the Asiatic provinces than new crowds of traders, speculators, and publicans settled there. These men gathered their own intelligence on the plans of Mithridates, who was then allied to the Armenian king, Tigranes. Because it was in their own interests, they found ways to transmit their information to Rome. In numerous letters to their private representatives and senators, they pressed for decisive action.44 Cicero reported that every day letters arrived from Asia for his good friends, the Roman knights, who were concerned about the large sums they had invested in the farming of revenues and the danger to their private fortunes 45 Cicero goes on to relate the news sent from Asia by the agents of Roman financial speculators and tax farmers. All this political and military intelligence reached Rome by publican agents or private letter-bearers. In some of his own letters Cicero praises the reliability of his private post. When he was in Asia Minor as proconsul administering Cilicia, he advised his friend Atticus to use the private post of the tax collectors when sending him political news from Rome.46 Of course, efficiency of transmission is no indication of the veracity of its contents, especially where publicans are the source, and we have no way of telling how Cicero or anyone else evaluated what they read.

Cicero’s letters to his friends during his administration of Cilicia also paint a clear picture of what intelligence sources were available to provincial governors. Most informative is Cicero’s first letter of the fifteenth book, in which he warns his friends, the consuls, and also the Senate of possible dangers to Cilicia and Syria from the Parthians, who seemed ready to invade Roman territory.47 The most trustworthy intelligence was that received from Rome’s allies, whose national interests would be endangered by an invasion of hostile troops. Just as two hundred years earlier, the Roman administration is passively dependent on gratuitous intelligence volunteered by its allies. In Cicero’s case, it was Antiochus, 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 bc.48 The king had rendered valuable services to the Romans during the struggle with Mithridates, and remained one of Rome’s most productive agents. For his labors he was rewarded, after the liquidation of Mithridates by Pompey in 66 bc, 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 in Cilicia.

Thus, Roman intelligence collection efforts, especially during the Mithridatic Wars in Asia Minor, were financed by private citizens who, in this respect, were ahead of their government. By their own means and on their own initiative, they were protecting both their own interests and those of the state, which were not always synonymous. In doing so they sometimes risked their lives. It is instructive to observe how these private citizens – businessmen, financiers, and colonists – by frequently interceding with Rome, tried and succeeded in moving the Senate to take important political action. As Cicero’s speech in favor of Pompey’s military leadership in Asia makes clear, the letters and information of the self-appointed intelligence agents in Asia Minor were ultimately responsible for sending Pompey to Asia, for the final defeat of Mithridates, and for the firm implantation of Roman power in Asia Minor, from where it eventually extended over Armenia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.


After diplomats and traders, the third channel for communicating intelligence was by messenger. Throughout the history of the Roman Republic three basic types of messenger service existed. The appropriate medium of transit in each case was determined by the status of the person dispatching the message. When a general in the field wanted to relay a high-priority message to the Senate, a mounted soldier, probably a speculator, would be detached to carry it. Otherwise, the duty might fall to an official’s personal attendants or slaves, all the more so in times of trouble, when it was considered desirable to have one’s own trusted letter-carriers to ensure confidentiality.49 The magistrates in Rome used tabellarii,50 who were freedmen or slaves employed as couriers. These should not be confused with the tabellarii employed by the publicani, whose letter-bearers also exercised the function of modem tax collectors.51 These latter tabellarii often carried private mail for important men, and, to reduce costs, friends often shared the services of a courier.52 Eminent Romans going abroad would authorize someone in Rome to forward their correspondence. Provincial magistrates retained special messengers called statores for the transport of official letters containing information for the Senate and the magistrates in Rome.53 We know very little about their precise function or how they discharged their duties, but Cicero, in his letters from Cilicia, speaks of them in a manner that suggests they had been around for quite some time. A governor might have several statores at his disposal. In the absence of a state-sponsored postal and transport system they were obliged, when traveling long distances, to wait for suitable means of conveyance or to requisition alternative transportation as best they could. Even governors faced such difficulties with transport arrangements when journeying to or from their provinces.

The letter-bearers in official or private service were mostly slaves, and their work was evidently looked down upon during the early centuries of the Republic, as an undignified or even debasing occupation. Members of Italian communities that had supported Hannibal during his occupation of Italy, by way of punishment, were forced to serve as couriers for Roman magistrates traveling to their provinces.54 The peoples specifically mentioned are the Bruttii, the Lucani, and the Picentini of Salemum in Campania. We are told this was done to humiliate them, since it was a degradation from the military service in which they had been engaged before the revolt.55 A postal system would seem the natural outgrowth of the completed road system that played such an important part in the conquest of Italy. It would seem virtually implicit in the conception of a road system that it would carry not merely troops but also diverse information and other traffic. Yet, in the period after the Second Punic War, the business of conveying information still was so little valued that service as a tabellarius was regarded as penal duty. Ironically, in the last century of the Republic, the need for numerous messengers to carry information between Rome and Sicily increased markedly. Roman underrating of such a utility stands in stark contrast to the importance Hannibal had attached to his courier networks a century earlier.

This negative attitude toward messengers changed somewhat over time. As the pivotal role of communications became more apparent, so was the status of this peculiar class of Roman civil servant elevated. It was realized slowly that responsible errands could not be entrusted to people who were hostile or stupid. A good tabellarius needed not only physical stamina, but also certain moral and intellectual qualities as well. The slaves or freedmen of races considered intelligent by the Romans – Phoenicians, Greeks, Illyrians, and Gauls – were eventually assigned to this function.56 The Romans came to recognize that the outcome of crucial political and military ventures often hinged on the intelligent fulfillment of a courier’s mission. Their professionalism had evolved to the point that we think they adopted a uniform.57 This inference is based on a letter from Cicero,58 which refers to the couriers as petaseti, the Latin equivalent of the Greek term pterophoroi or “feather bearers”, which might indicate that messengers wore feathers in their caps and identified themselves with Hermes, the divine messenger.

A capable messenger, under optimum conditions, could travel with considerable speed. By piecing together references in Cicero’s correspondence, which mention the dates letters were sent or received, we learn that the average daily rate of a private tabellarius could be as high as 37–47 miles.59 The state tabellarii and provincial stator es might equal that performance. One of the impediments which slowed down the movement of official messengers was their dependence on the old-fashioned system of requisitioning horses and other necessities in the cities through which they passed. Subject states and allies were required to furnish this service, and private citizens were not to avail themselves of these arrangements except by special permission. Cato, in a letter describing his praetorship in Sardinia, stresses that he never authorized his friends to requisition horses for private purposes.60 This statement implies that the procedure was not only used, but sometimes abused, by Republican officials who requisitioned horses for the private and commercial journeys of their friends. Insofar as transmittal of intelligence was concerned, this facility was not only slow but also a burden to the cities and provinces obliged to provide it, especially when various officials or their cronies exploited the system to their own lucrative ends.

Livy relates the origins of this practice, and notes how the obligation became more and more onerous for both the provinces and the allies. As a notorious example of misappropriation, he tells the story of the consul Postumius, who was enraged when the people of Praeneste, an allied city, did nothing to facilitate his private visit there in 178 bc. He had expected the magistrates to come out and meet him, arrange for room and board at public expense, and have pack animals ready to transport him when he left. Although Livy ends by saying, “Before his consulship no one had ever put the allies to any trouble or expense in any respect,”61 this is simply not true. Many other references confirm that the allies were constrained to underwrite the transit of Republican magistrates and to supply all the goods and services they considered necessary en route, as well as to assist in the passage of messengers carrying dispatches. The scope for misuse of these relationships had already been broadened when the Senate granted some of its members a privilege called “free embassy,” legatio libera, by which they were entitled to requisition from the allies whatever they wanted for their trips, whether on official or private business. This Republican custom would remain a basis of further abuse under the Empire.

During the diplomatic negotiations with the East, the Roman Senate had numerous opportunities to discover how unsatisfactory these travel arrangements were. Embassies lost valuable time in requisitioning transportation and supplies; on more than one occasion, the embassy was exceedingly late. Travel was also plagued by the common problems of inclement weather or natural disaster. In the course of the war against Perseus, two incidents stand out as vivid examples of how slow official communications could be. In March 168 bc the Senate was anxiously awaiting the return of a Roman embassy from Macedonia. A great deal hinged on the intelligence it was bringing. But the envoys’ homeward-bound sailing was retarded by gales that forced them to turn back to Dyrrachium. Even after they had finally put into port at Brundisium on the southeast coast of Italy, their journey from there to Rome by land took eight days, although they could have easily made it in five.62 The second incident involved an official delegation bearing the announcement of victory at Pydna, won in September of the same year. The embassy took three weeks to make the journey from Macedonia to Rome; by comparison, unofficial news had already reached Rome in twelve days, said to be a record speed for the transit of intelligence.63 Still more surprising, we find that tidings of this victory had been received in Africa earlier than at Rome.64 We know this because a few days after the news had arrived at Rome, the son of King Massinissa of Numidia, an ally of Rome, brought congratulations to the Romans from his father. Massinissa had delivered the information to his son by a special messenger, who had reached the boy just as he was embarking for Rome. Once again, the North Africans proved superior to the Romans in the field of communications, and this episode underscores the slowness and inefficiency of the Roman embassy as couriers of official information.

Another factor slowing down Roman messengers was a lack of suitable provisions along the roads to facilitate their travel. The Romans built roads to expedite the movement of troops, but not necessarily to help messengers, even if these were important to the state’s administrative functions or crucial to the conveyance of intelligence relating to the security of the provinces.65 The late and sudden development of the Roman road system is hard to account for historically. Comparisons have been drawn to the late introduction of Roman coined money early in the third century bc, and to the building of the Roman war fleet in 261–260 bc.66 Such innovations took place when the sudden expansion of Roman power in Italy presented new problems that required new solutions, and thus it is not surprising that the Romans started planning and building their roads within that time frame. With the dramatic increase in public wealth after the eastern wars in the first half of the second century bc, a more grandiose conception of road-building became possible, as reflected in the programs of 174 and 123 bc and the revamping of the Via Latina and the Via Aurelia. But an information system along those roads was not yet a reality.

The absence of a postal and transport service under the Republic has puzzled many historians. Latin literature makes no mention of such a service, and Suetonius, in recounting the establishment of the imperial post by Augustus, speaks as if it were a new departure in the history of Roman administration.67 The many incidental references in Cicero’s correspondence make it clear that, in his time, no governmental postal service was available to state officials.68 The only piece of evidence put forward to show that vestiges of a postal service existed in the second century bc is an inscription which mentions the word tabellarios in connection with the word miliarios or “milestone”. These words are taken by the scholar A.M. Ramsay to mean “messenger.”69 Ramsay concludes that this inscription corroborates what Strabo said about the southern Italian tribes being made into tabellarii. The consul who constructed the road opened it also to messengers traveling between Rome and Sicily. The use of tabellarii on the road, like the construction of the road itself, had a military purpose. The problem with Ramsay’s interpretation is that the word tabellarii could simply denote an older kind of milestone in the form of a tablet or tabula, the equivalent of the modem French hundred-meter stone.70 They have also been interpreted as mounting-stones for horsemen.71 Early road builders did not aspire to, nor could they afford, full inscriptions of name, affiliation, and magistracy every mile along the way. In all likelihood the stones ordinarily bore just a number marking the mileage and nothing else.72 The more elaborate inscriptions with which later ages would be familiar with must have become standard practice in the second century bc.73 So the miliarii and tabellarii were then simply the old and the new type of milestone. Later, when all milestones were tabellarii that displayed the full name and office of the road constructor, the new term was dropped and the old word miliarius was used for all milestones.74 At any rate, since this stone is the sole piece of evidence to suggest that the Romans had a postal system, the case remains unproven.

A closer look at Roman intelligence and communications system reveals a curious neglect of both political and military realities.75 Oddly enough, this neglect may have been a conscious one. Educated Romans, and certainly those with foreign travel experience, could not possibly be ignorant of the fact that postal/intelligence systems had already existed, and had been functioning well elsewhere in the ancient world.76 They plainly chose not to copy eastern models of state-controlled road systems with their integrated messenger networks, transportation services, and the security of traffic and communications.


A word should be added about another well-known and much discussed form of relations between Romans and foreigners, that is clientela or clientship. Great Romans such as Flamininus and the Scipios were patrons to individual families and even entire countries abroad. As executors of policy, these men used their personal links to further Roman supremacy in the Mediterranean. The possession of such ties gave noble Romans power in both domestic politics and foreign affairs. As patrons, it was the duty of the noble to facilitate diplomatic relations between Rome and the client state. When a mission abroad required political tact, it was quite common for the Senate to entrust the mission to a man with extensive contacts, local knowledge, and thus intelligence resources in the area.77

These contacts abroad, while they acted as conduits of information, were no substitute for having one’s own people in place. These contacts were still, after all, foreigners who might put their self-interest over Rome’s at any time. Flamininus may have used his auctoritas to control the Greeks, but he also complained when they failed to consult him.78 An even more dramatic example is Jugurtha, who exploited all his Roman contacts to his own advantage while planning anti-Roman activities.79 Whether in an official or unofficial capacity, intelligence activity that relies on foreigners is a tenuous one at best. Such activities may work in times of peace, but in times of war the result may be no intelligence at all.

The pervasive nature of clientela was extremely important for holding together Roman rule through generations of trial and error in policy and administration. But, in the end, Rome came to prefer force over friendship. As Ernst Badian put it, the Romans preferred reliance on force to trust in the effects of a beneficium.80 Having friends overseas was useful, but having your own military or civilian intelligence operatives was better.

Rome's eyes and ears

Before the Punic Wars, the close link between the Senate and the upper classes in the cities of Italy had provided the Senate with its main sources of information. When regional emphases shifted, targets and requirements subsequently changed, and Rome began to seek intelligence from Greek states overseas through a variety of sources. Soon realizing that information volunteered by foreign governments and rulers, however friendly they may be, was not always reliable, the Senate came to rely increasingly on its own legates and missions to return home in due course with some useful intelligence. More than ever the Romans needed steady and reliable sources of information, and the ability to both analyze this intelligence and to act upon it. Propitiously, the growth of Rome’s external commerce offered a solution, or at least some progress in the right direction. A new range of intelligence assets was now available, well placed and suitably spread in many lands: private entrepreneurs, financial speculators, exporters, traders, and tax farmers.

Collection of intelligence abroad remained an assortment of uncoordinated activities by disparate sources for some time. Diplomats, traders, messengers, and clients who engaged in espionage were not controlled by any central authority in Rome. These sources were cultivated at different times and in different places, and for different reasons, yet together they constituted what little independent foreign intelligence-gathering capability the Romans had. Coupled with the continuing receipt of intelligence provided by allied states, these private and public individuals were all parts of what, in total, amounted to Rome’s international intelligence presence. Eastern models of state systems would have seemed too radical, too foreign, too totalitarian for the Roman psyche, since those had evolved under despotic regimes. Rome was in the process of acquiring an empire, yet it still adhered to Republican ideals for generations. The notion of creating anew institution that would combine the various collection efforts did not emerge until the early ventures of Caesar, and later during the establishment of the principate by Augustus.


1. Gruen, Hellenistic World.

2. Website: Ibid., pp. 203ff.

3. The embassy from Apollonia after 270 bc reported in Livy, Per. 15, Zonaras 8.7.3. For Rome’s first diplomatic contact with Greece, see Polybius 2.12.7; Gruen, Hellenistic World, pp. 437–70.

4. Dion, of Hal. 20.14.1; Zonaras 8.6.11.

5. Rome’s lack of experience in this area has been clearly delineated by Gruen, Hellenistic World, Ch. 3.

6. Rome’s reluctance to transform defeated eastern nations into garrisoned provinces is a controversial point among historians. See Gruen, Hellenistic World, p. 287, citing Veyne, “Y-a-t-il eu un impérialisme romain?,” pp. 804–17 and Harris, War and Imperialism, pp. 1–15.

7. See Gruen, Hellenistic World, pp. 126–31.

8. In Livy 42.37.1, the envoys sent to Greece after the declaration of war took an escort of 200 infantrymen each. For the attendant quinqueremes of legati, see Livy 44.29.1 and Polybius 33.11.6.

9. Polybius 30.27.1–2 and 30.30.7–8. Polybius’s picture of Gracchus as a naive diplomatist has been questioned by Walbank, Commentary, vol. 3, p. 454. Walbank doubts that Gracchus was as simple or Antiochus as Machiavellian as they appear.

10. Diodorus 31.17; cf. 31.28.

11. The Romans considered their status part of the ius gentium. See T.R.S. Broughton, “Mistreatment of Foreign Legates and Fetial Priests: Three Roman Cases,” Phoenix 61 (1987), p. 50.

12. Appian, Syr. 2; see also Syr. 9.

13. Livy 42.47.1–9; Polybius 13.3. The passage may also be a reflection of Polybius’s personal dislike for one of the envoys, Q. Marcius Philippus.

14. Astin, Politics and Policies, p. 15. Eckstein, Senate and General, introduction, pp. xviii-xx.

15. Sherwin-White, Roman Foreign Policy in the East, p. 3.

16. See esp. Gruen, Hellenistic World, pp. 244–9.

17. This problem was recognized by Brizzi, I sistemi, pp. 258–67, who, however, misconceives its solution to be an increase in the number of “experts.”

18. E. Badian, Publicans and Sinners (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), esp. pp. 27–30, who contrasts their organization during the Hannibalic war to Alexander’s army, which managed to win an empire with only the most rudimentary supplies and communications. On Alexander’s intelligence operations, see D. Engels, “Alexander’s Intelligence System,” CQ 30 (1980), pp. 327–40; D. Engels, Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980), Ch. 1.

19. 19 The mancipes, praedes, and socii. See Brunt, Italian Manpower, p. 209. They are not to be treated as a Roman commercial middle class, as per H. Hill, Roman Middle Class in the Republican Period (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974).

20. In the East, where no colonies were founded before Augustus, Italian residents were more likely to be moneylenders who acquired their estates by foreclosing mortgages. For the social distinctions between negotiatores, mercatores, etc., see J.H. d’Arms, Commerce and Social Standing in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 1–11.

21. J. Hatzfeld, Les Trafiquants italiens dans Vorient héllenique (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1919), pp. 51, 142–7.

22. See Gruen, Hellenistic World, pp. 299–308 for families with overseas connections.

23. Plautus, Trinumus 794.

24. See especially Gruen, Hellenistic World, pp. 299–305.

25. Website: Ibid., “Private Gain and Public Interest,” pp. 299–308 with examples.

26. Cicero, II Verr. 5.149; De Gn. Pomp. 11.

27. Harris, War and Imperialism, pp. 100–1.

28. Polybius 2.8.2–4; Livy 40.42.1–5; Harris, War and Imperialism, pp. 195–7; Gruen, Hellenistic World, pp. 359–62.

29. Polybius 1.83.7–11.

30. Dion. Hal. 7.2. This is partly confirmed by Livy 2.34.

31. Polybius 3.228, W.R. Paton translation, Loeb Classical Library edition; see also Harris, War and Imperialism, p. 59.

32. Polybius 3.24.4; cf. Harris, War and Imperialism, p. 59. Rome had stripped Carthage of most of its other territory. The Romans were quite specifically allowed in Carthaginian Sicily and in Carthage itself. Nothing is said explicitly about other Roman territory.

33. Sallust, Jugurthine War, p. 26.

34. Harris, War and Imperialism, pp. 97–8.

35. Livy 33.29; 42.32. We do not know whether these Italian soldiers/traders were of Roman or allied origin, but it does not really matter.

36. Polybius 23.9 and 12.

37. This is suggested in a passage in Plutarch, Sertorius 23: “sailors from the west had filled the kingdom of Pontus full of tales about him [Sertorius], like so many foreign wares.” Bemadotte Perrin translation, Loeb Classical Library edition.

38. Sertorius was no newcomer to espionage either. At the beginning of his career, when he was fighting the Teutons, he undertook to “spy out the enemy”: Plutarch, Sertorius 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 of importance, he came back to Marius.” Bemadotte Perrin translation, Loeb Classical Library edition. This presumably was so uncommon among the Romans that he received a prize for valor.

39. Cicero, II Verr. 86–7.

40. Appian 12.26.79.

41. Appian 12.22. Cf. Cicero, de Imp. Pompei 7.

42. See Brunt, Italian Manpower, pp. 224–7, who discusses the figures but does not offer an estimate. For other accounts of the massacre, see: Val. Max. 9.2; Cicero, De imp. Gn. Pomp. 3,7; Veil. Pat. 2.18.1–2; Tacitus, Annals 4.14; Appian, Mith. 22–23; Florus 1.40.7; Dio Cassius, frag. 101.1, 109.8; Eutropius 4.5.2; Orosius 6.2.2; Aug., Civ. Dei 3.22.

43. Cicero, On the Appointment of Gnaeus Pompeius, Ch. 3, p. 7, Yonge translation, Perseus.

44. Dvomik, Origins of Intelligence Services, p. 78.

45. Cicero, On the Appointment of Gnaeus Pompeius, Ch. 3.

46. Website: Cicero, Letters to Atticus 5.15.

47. Cicero, Letters from Cilicia 15.1.

48. Website: Cicero, Letters to his Friends 15.1.

49. For letters carried by personal attendants, see Cicero, Letters to Atticus 5.4.1, letter carried by his secretary Tullius. For private letters carried by merchants, see Plautus, Miles Gloriosus 131.

50. Livy 45.1.6 where a tabellarius comes from Macedonia carrying dispatches wreathed with laurel.

51. Website: Cicero, Letters to Atticus 5.15.3 tells Atticus to have his letters forwarded through the tax-gatherers’ messengers tabellariis publicanorum. Cicero, Letters to his Friends 10.21 shows Lepidus, governor of Hither Spain and Narbonensis in 43, sending by his stator an important letter to Planchus, governor of Gaul.

52. For examples of private tabellarii carrying letters, see Cicero, Verrine Orations 3.183; Cicero, Letters to his Friends 12.12.1, 14.22, 15.17.1; Cicero, Phillippics 2.77.

53. Bernhard Kübler, “Statores,” R-E, vol. 3, A. cols. 2228–9.

54. Strabo, Geography 5.4.13.

55. Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.3.19.

56. J.P.V.D. Balsdon, Romans and Aliens (London: Duckworth, 1979), pp. 59–71.

57. Dvomik, Origins of Intelligence Services, p. 73.

58. Website: Cicero, Letters to his Friends 15.17.1; as in Plutarch, Otho 4: swift couriers (pteropho-roi) were continually coming with accounts.

59. Dvornik, Origins of Intelligence Services, p. 73. Cf. L. Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (London: Allen & Unwin, 1974), p. 188.

60. Cato, Frag. II.

61. Livy 42.1.

62. Website: Ibid., 44.19.20.

63. Website: Ibid., 45.1; 44.45.3.

64. Website: Ibid., 45.13.17.

65. Josephus, BJ 3.6.2 on Vespasian’s march to Galilee in AD 67, speaks of Roman Army engineers who “were to make the road even and straight, and if it were anywhere rough and hard to be passed over, to plane it, and to cut down the wood that hindered their march, that the army might not be in distress, or tired with their march.” William Whiston translation (Philadelphia: John Winston & Co., 1856). Cf. R.J. Forbes, Ancient Roads (Amsterdam: North Holland Publishing, 1964), p. 122.

66. T.P. Wiseman, “Roman Republican Road Building,” PBSR 25 (1970), p. 144.

67. Suetonius, Div. Aug. 49.

68. Website: Cicero, Letters to his Friends 11.19; 10.21; 2.17.

69. A.M. Ramsay, “A Roman Postal Service Under the Republic,” Journal of Roman Studies 10 (1920), pp. 79–86. The stone is from the road between Capua and Reggio, known as the milestone of Polilius Laenas, consul in 132 bc. It is a limestone tablet with an elogium in archaic language: CIL 12.638 = 10.6950.

70. R. Chevallier, Roman Roads (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976), p. 43.

71. Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus 7.2.

72. E.g. CIL 10.6848, 6857, 6860. These were the type of milestones Polybius described as being on the roads of C. Gracchus. He implies that they were introduced then for the first time. Plutarch, Gaius Gracchus 7.2.

73. Wiseman, “Roman Republican Road Building,” p. 151, esp. n. 232.

74. Website: Ibid.

75. On the weakness of Roman state mechanisms and overall passivity of the Roman government, see A.M. Eckstein, “Two Interpretations of Caesar,” AJAH 9, 2 (1984), pp. 143^4, and Eckstein, Senate and General, p. xxii.

76. The postal system of the Persians, for example, is described by Herodotus and Xenophon. See Dvomik, Origins of Intelligence Services, pp. 23–35.

77. E. Badian, Foreign Clientelae (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pp. 154–67.

78. Livy 36.3Iff.

79. Badian, Foreign Clientelae, Ch. 9, pp. 192–5.

80. Website: Ibid., p. 164.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!