Trust in God, but Watch Your Back! Ancient Christians and Roman Intelligence Networks
My two careers have been in military intelligence and priest-theologian. I don’t often get to combine them, but in this blog post I’m glad to say that I finally have. I’ve been reading Rose Mary Sheldon on Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods, But Verify (London: Frank Crass, 2005).
For those who don’t know, spying is the second oldest profession, with fewer scruples and inhibitions than the first oldest profession. The Romans learned, often the hard way, about the value of having good intelligence about one’s external and internal enemies.
The Romans suffered catastrophic defeats at Allia (390 BC), Cannae (216 BC), Carrhae (53 BC), Teutoburg Forrest (9 CE), and Adrianople (378 CE). They also experienced various conspiracies to overthrow the republic or emperor in the Tarquinian (509 BC), Catilinarian (63 CE), and Pisonian (65 CE) conspiracies, as well as the assassination of several emperors beginning with Caligula (41 CE), Galba (69 CE), and Domitian (96 CE). If you were an emperor, you had to watch the people around you, and you had to watch the people you sent to watch the people around you.
Sheldon argues that during the republican era, security was handled by consuls and magistrates, but “Once the Empire was established, however, and the Roman government became more autocratic, their preoccupation with internal security increased” (p. 4). The republic had no lack of political intrigue, even conspiracies, but the somewhat open nature of government with elections and senatorial oversight meant that internal espionage was neither necessary nor even desirable. Roman generals relied on the exploratores who were cavalry scouts in battle and civic leaders utilized speculators who were couriers and informants about valuable information.
Things changed markedly with the transformation of the republic into the empire. The Augustan revolution was a fiscal and administrative transformation that required secure lines of communication and exchange of official and secret correspondence. Precisely because power was concentrated in the hands of one man, the one man and his entourage had to adopt new measures to secure it. Power breeds suspicion and suspicion requires vigilance and vigilant means trying to stay two steps ahead of one’s enemies. Beginning with Augustus, Roman agents were required to surveil powerful elites, successful generals, political dissenters, and even religious fanatics.
According to Sheldon:
This tendency toward surveillance worsened through the imperial period. Politically significant persons of wealth, family, or culture had to watch carefully their words and actions. Cassius Dio, two centuries later, expressed the opinion that the Romans never again had complete freedom of speech after the Battle of Philippi. … An emperor opposed to the Senate had only to make his attitude known and the senators would bury each other in mutual accusations trying to protect themselves at someone else’s expense. Tacitus complains frequently complains about the delatores and agents provocateurs who laid traps for the unwary. Under Nero, the great nobles had to endure unceasing scrutiny by their associates and their own household staffs. … As one historian has pointed out, the only difference among the Tiberian trials for treason, or the Neronian trials after the Pisonian conspiracy, and the Stalinist purges of 1936-38 was scale (p. 153).
The golden age of Augustus was not very golden from the viewpoint of Republican liberties. Advances in communication, improvements in the armed forces, and tightened security along the borders were accompanied by eroding individual rights and the emergence of an internal security mechanism to monitor the activities of all citizens. What at first seemed like casual abuses of important principles actually foreshadowed later excesses. The Romans had begun looking inward for enemies instead of looking beyond their borders. This abuse would abate under some emperors, but get worse under others. It would never again be entirely absent from Roman life (p. 158).
Would the first Christians in Rome have come to the attention of the Roman networks of informants and spies? Would Paul’s letter to the Romans have been considered subversive literature with its messianic eschatology? Would it have been dangerous to imply that “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not,” or to quote Isaiah 11:10 as Paul does in Romans 15:12: “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope”? Given the expulsion of Jewish Christians from Rome in AD 49, the persecution by Nero in the early AD 60s, and the accusation that Christians in Thessalonica were “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17.7) an affirmative answer is certainly possible.
In light of Sheldon’s observations, you could argue that the censors would have confiscated Paul’s letter to the Romans and perhaps burned all copies:
Thus there is ample documentation for political and intellectual opposition under Augustus’s successors, and the result was an increasing amount of censorship, especially in the form of maiestas trials. Censorship was extended to any form of communication that challenged the established order. Recent scholarship on first-century poetry has even detected opposition among the Augustan poets. Disloyal writings, abusive speeches, unsettling predictions by soothsayers, and maleficent magic were all forbidden by the law. As the scholar Ramsay Macmullen has pointed out: “Their instruments were invisible, ideas, fears, beliefs, beyond the competence of the village constable to repress or even understand. They were not like ordinary crimes, violent; they threatened neither life nor property.” Indeed, he continues, “Had Augustus established an un-Roman Activities Committee they would have hunted down these people who expressed active treason, latent disaffection, brigandage, organized protest and cultural deviation.” Ronald Syme talks about “stern measures against noxious literature” and “public bonfires.” Such documents were considered to have constituted threats to the established order (p. 157).
Who were the Roman informants, spies, and secret police? Sheldon explains how during the imperial period, there were delatores or “informants,” used especially for accusations of treason or insulting the majesty of the emperor. They were used with notorious effect, perhaps even lying, to secure the prosecution of Roman elites during the reign of Tiberius.
There was also the frumentarri, soldiers who acted as couriers, tax-collectors, assassins, and spies. Think of it as a cross between the mailman, an FBI agent, IRS agent, a prison guard, and a hit man all at the same time. We are not sure when they were formed, certainly by time of Domitian, but perhaps even earlier.
Sheldon points out that the frumentarri were very notorious and were often the imperial agents sent to find, surveil, arrest, and imprison Christians.
No one, high or low, escaped the surveillance of the frumentarii, and they lived up to their reputation as snoops. Prominent generals, lowly Christians, senators, subversives – they all came under the scrutiny of these dreaded agents. In Rome, the frumentarii appear to have worked closely with the urban police force. In fact, their headquarters on the Caelian Hill was across the street from a station of the vigils (p. 253).
The frumentarii were employed as policemen to watch over those Roman citizens who had made a legal appeal to the emperor. The soldier who watched over St Paul in Rome when he was awaiting trial was a frumentarius. As secret police agents, the frumentarii participated in the persecution of Christians. They were among the chief agents who spied on them and had them arrested. In a passage that vividly reflects the Christian dread of the secret service agent, Eusebius reports how a frumentarius hunted down a Christian named Dionysius, who was later martyred. Dionysius waited at home for four days expecting the arrival of the arresting agent. Meanwhile, the frumentarius searched high and low, including the roads, rivers, and fields – anywhere he suspected the Christian was hidden or walking – but never thought of checking his house and thus never found him. Dionysius was able to escape with the help of the Christian underground. In one of his letters, St Cyprian writes of the frumentarii sent to arrest him and to bring him before the magistrate. Cyprian learned this from his faithful followers, who operated their own intelligence network during the persecutions, and went into hiding (p. 254).
Anyways, Sheldon’s book is quite fascinating, it explains how many Roman military defeats were caused by a lack of intelligence and how the Roman Empire developed its own intelligence networks. Often these networks, in particular, the delatores and frumentarii, were the imperial agents who spied on Christians and took them into custody.