Spying in Ancient Greece
Tradecraft and Trickery in the Aegean World
The classical Greeks were good at many things—philosophy, poetry, tragedy, warfare—but spying was not one of them. Considering their sophistication in so many other fields, it’s perhaps surprising how little attention they paid to acquiring, organizing, and evaluating intelligence. Put it this way, the colossal 84-volume Pauly-Wissowa encyclopedia of the ancient world—that high point of German scholarship—devotes a mere ten lines to Greek spying.
Other civilizational heavyweights as Egypt and Persia devoted much more time and effort to the subject. The Persians, for instance, developed an extraordinary system of roads designed to speed important communications between the periphery and the imperial capital. This kind of early-warning arrangement was supplemented by a network of specially built towers through which orders could be sent via fire signals. The king of all kings knew of border incursions, brewing desert raids, and approaching armies faster than anyone else on earth.
As early as the 14th century BC, the Egyptians were operating a network of correspondents in key ports and along trade routes whose task was to report whatever they heard from the merchants, sailors, and soldiers passing through.
At one point, Pharaoh Akhenaten was tipped off by a non-Egyptian source that a vassal, Aziru, king of Amurru (Lebanon), had treacherously made a secret peace deal with the ruler of Qidša. A displeased Pharaoh said that his well-placed palace spy had informed him that “the two of you take food and strong drink together,” which would have really put the wind up Aziru, since Egypt was warring with Qidša at the time. Break the pact and come to Egypt for a frank chat, Aziru was warned, or you and your family will be decapitated by axe when my generals are victorious. (For those interested, Aziru shrugged off the threat and allied himself with the Hittites.)
You’ll notice that I used “system” and “network” in relation to Persia and Egypt, but not to Greece. Those kinds of descriptors imply a grand scheme, a big plan, a thought-out project. The Greeks had nothing like that. They relied instead on ad hoc improvisations and one-time ruses: off-the-cuff tradecraft, not a structured intelligence-gathering process.
Greek spying was directed exclusively towards gaining an immediate military advantage. With good reason, they used the same word for both spies and scouts—the two were synonymous in their minds, though in other cultures these were distinct occupations.
The ultimate Greek, in this respect, was the Iliadic warrior Odysseus, he of legendary cunning. In Book Ten, he and Diomedes were probing a Trojan encampment in the hopes of capturing some luckless sentry when they encountered Dolon, a Trojan scout/spy, who was intending to slither through the Greek lines. They deceived him into divulging details of Trojan strength, cut off his head, then sneaked into the enemy camp, performed the usual slaughtering, and returned with booty and horses.
Not for the Greeks the patient accumulation of evidence or the infiltration of agents into hostile areas to acquire information for strategic reasons. For this reason, Odysseus’s reputation for cunning certainly did not stem from his so-called espionage activities, which were thoroughly conventional. He was responsible for the Trojan Horse scheme, of course, but that was more of a covert infiltration operation than an intelligence coup, and neither did he ever think of recruiting a spy among King Priam’s advisers, which might have knocked a few years off the decade-long war.
The Greek method was practical and short-termist. Yes, snippets and snatches of political intelligence—what was happening in some other polises—would arrive sporadically via merchants, emissaries, or visiting aristocrats, but it was always immediate tactical information and reconnaissance of the ground ahead that truly interested the Greeks. To this end, the most “actionable” intelligence came from deserters, fugitives, the occasional turncoat (among spy connoisseurs, Alcibiades is a legend), and one’s scouts.
Not until the mid-4th century BC do we find the first, and almost only, surviving Greek handbook covering the dark arts. Written by a figure known as Aeneas Tacticus, possibly an Arcadian mercenary commander, Poliorketika was a manual of How-To instructions.
Whoever he was, Aeneas had no time for high-falutin’ theory—none of that pseudy Sun Tzu and chinstroking Clausewitz stuff—and instead included no fewer than eighteen methods of sending secret messages between one’s own forces and through enemy lines.
Some of these proposals were bizarre or ludicrously overcomplicated—or both, in the case of his suggestion to write a message on an inflated animal bladder, deflate it and stuff it into a flask, then filled with oil and corked. The recipient poured out the oil and reinflated the bladder to read the message. It sounds much easier, as Aeneas mentions elsewhere, to compose such a message on a strip of papyrus, then conceal it in a horse’s bridle or sew it into a man’s shoe.
But some are sensible and were no doubt used at various times. Citing an example that appears in Herodotus’s great history, you can write a message on a wooden slate, then cover it with a layer of wax upon which is scratched some innocuous text. Another technique is to mark certain letters in an otherwise banal scroll with a tiny dot so that the recipient can collate them to read the real message.
Keep in mind, though, that Aeneas Tacticus’s main focus was not the gathering of intelligence, but to give pointers on siege-craft, organizing troops for guard duty, dealing with night attacks, stopping miscreants from sabotaging gate locks, and battering-ram technology. The intelligence stuff was only there to supplement the purely military material.
Now compare Poliorketika with the Indian Sanskrit treatise, the Arthashastra, which contained a section on espionage. It is near-contemporaneous with Aeneas Tacticus, but incredibly more sophisticated in how it conceives intelligence—among many other things (I’m paraphrasing, but Max Weber once said the Arthashastra made Machiavelli’s Prince look like a comic book.)
I’ll delve into this subject more deeply in a future newsletter, but for now let’s keep it short and say only that the Arthashastra describes a formal, checks-and-balances system of intelligence-gathering and -evaluation, and precisely defines numerous ranks, types, and specialties of agents and managers.
Most importantly, it links espionage to the pursuit of statecraft and to maintaining internal security. In other words, in the Hindu tradition, spying had a long-term purpose: Achieving state objectives and ensuring domestic stability. Such high-level thinking goes far, far beyond the tricks of Aeneas Tacticus and his fellow Greeks.
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Why the Greek Unenthusiasm for Spying?
There were a couple of reasons. First, intelligence-gathering was not a priority owing to their unshakeable belief in the power of oracles. These magicians had insights into the very minds of the gods, the beings that determined fates. Thus, if the omens were good, triumph was assured and there was no need to spy on the enemy. As the Spartan seer Tisamenus of Elis sagely warned on the eve of the battle of Plataea (479 BC), all would go well “for the Greeks if they remained on the defensive,” but if they crossed the Asopus river to attack the Persians the omens were bad.
Instead of sending scouts to probe the enemy positions or to kidnap a few scared sentries for interrogation to confirm whether this was the optimal approach, the Greeks piously stayed put and the Persian general Mardonius was killed leading an attack across the river—just as Tisamenus had predicted.
Even the veteran Xenophon, one of the very few commanders to advise doing sensible things like sending bogus deserters to the enemy to feed him disinformation—a trick he’d picked up from the Persians—believed that sacrifices and divinations were a more effective means of eliciting foreknowledge of a foe’s plans than scouts and light cavalry. Alexander the Great, too, no military slouch, similarly preferred the counsel of his personal seer, Aristander of Telmessus, to that of his generals when it came to sieges and battles.
Second, the nature of the Greek city-state was inhospitable to organized spying. Unlike Persia and Egypt—huge unitary territories of ancient pedigree—in the Greek world there were many small self-contained entities, all jostling for power. Despite their modest size, not one kept the kind of records on its treasury, manpower, or armaments that, say, the Assyrians did, so there was no point in trying to acquire secret strategic intelligence to gain an advantage.
In Athens, there was so little to hide that, as reported/embellished by Thucydides, the statesman Pericles went so far as to invite foreigners, hostile or not, to come for a look-see and a sniff about. Sparta was famously more hostile to outsiders and occasionally mass-expelled “strangers,” making it more difficult still to acquire valuable information on a sustained or timely basis.
Despite these idiosyncrasies, the key thing is that, economically and technologically speaking, the polises were more or less at the same level of development, and ethnically they were quite homogenous.
All in all, they understood each other pretty well, existed within a common-cultured Aegean world, and their moves were predictable, geopolitically and militarily. When they warred, they used the same tactics, wielded similar weapons, generally met in open battle, and fought on familiar ground during a customary campaign season.
Consequently, there were very few surprises in Greek-on-Greek warfare, and since spying is an activity mostly undertaken to prevent surprises, there wasn’t any need for an organized intelligence system.
Nearly 25 years ago, the historian Victor Davis Hanson surveyed the corpus of “ancient military history” for a bibliographical review of “traditional work, recent research, and on-going controversies.” Though I disagree with Hanson on certain things—see my book, Men of War—it’s an excellent and wide-ranging summary by a preeminent classicist. Yet in his section on “Tactics, Strategy, and Military Intelligence,” even Hanson couldn’t cite any works focused on Greek intelligence, military or otherwise. Little has changed in the interim.
That odd omission seems more explicable once we realize there was no Spartan James Bond, no Athenian CIA, nothing but the occasional bit of tricky tradecraft.
Further Reading: R. Cohen, “Intelligence in the Amarna Letters,” in R. Cohen and R. Westbrook (eds.), Amarna Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations (Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 85-98; V.D. Hanson, “The Status of Ancient Military History: Traditional Work, Recent Research, and On-going Controversies,” Journal of Military History, 63 (1999), 2, pp. 379-413; A.C. Leighton, “Secret Communication among the Greeks and Romans,” Technology and Culture, 10 (1969), 2, pp. 139-54; J.A. Richmond, “Spies in Ancient Greece,” Greece & Rome, 45 (1998), 1, pp. 1-18; R.M. Sheldon, “Tradecraft in Ancient Greece,” Studies In Intelligence, 30 (1986), pp. 39-47; C.G. Starr, Political Intelligence in Classical Greece (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1974).