by | Feb 22, 2017 | Gayle Lynds | 9 comments

Artist’s reconstruction of the ancient Acropolis in Athens

By Gayle Lynds 
True or false? … In the 19th century, Austria and Russia were on the verge of war.  In hopes of working out an agreement, the emperor of Austria and the czar of Russia agreed to meet secretly one foggy night on a barge in the middle of the Vistula River.  Concerned about security — and that nothing would leak out about their meeting — each took only one trusted attendant.

Still, despite all of their precautions, the very next day the entire conversation appeared in The London Times.  Why?  Because both of the attendants were British spies.

Are you smiling?  That’s because we’re somehow not surprised.  I doubt it’s a factual story — I’ve never been able to validate it.  But doesn’t it somehow ring true?  We live in a world that accepts espionage as a given.

But then, intelligence gathering — espionage — dates back thousands of years.

Here are five ancient leaders whose use of intelligence changed the course of history, and sometimes not to their benefit…..

1.  Moses – likely born between 1391 and 1592 BCE   Moses was not only the founder of Israel, he made the earliest recorded covert assignment, according to the Old Testament:  “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, send thou men that they may search the land of Canaan.”

Moses sends spies into Canaan

So Moses picked twelve, one from each of the tribes, and ordered them into Canaan, “the Promised Land,” on an undercover mission to collect intel. 

After being gone quite some time, the spies returned.  Only two claimed Canaan was a land of milk and honey, the Canaanites had grown fat and lazy, and God would help the Israelites defeat them.  But a vast majority of the spies — ten — reported fearfully that the Canaanites were too strong to be conquered.  The Israelites believed the majority, refused to invade, and, as God’s punishment, spent the next forty years wandering in the desert. 

Moses the Spymaster had made a costly mistake — he’d chosen his spies on the basis of tribe not on skill and determination.  And then he hadn’t sent another round into Canaan for a more nuanced and thorough investigation.  Verdict: Moses was learning, the hard way.

2.  Darius the Great, born c. 550 BCE

Darius I, imagined by Greek painter

Back in the day, Darius the Great conquered and ruled most of the ancient world.  He was well known for employing spies called “the eyes and ears of the king.”  They kept watch over the civilian and military leaders who ran his vast empire, sending their reports through his postal service on roads he’d built to connect his vast empire.

When he captured a major Ionian city called Miletus, Darius gave it to a Greek named Histiaeus to rule.  As time passed, Histiaeus grew wealthy and powerful, which made Darius nervous.  So Darius ‘invited’ Histiaeus to live with him in Persia. 

That continued a while, until Darius gave the city away again.  Furious, Histiaeus wanted his city back.  So he concocted a clandestine plan, which began with shaving the head of his most faithful slave and tattooing a message on the skin.  It was an early form of steganography, or secret writing.  As soon as the hair grew back, he sent the man off to the city’s new ruler, who also happened to be his son-in-law. 

The son-in-law ordered the hair shaved and read the Histiaeus’s command to go to war.  The result was the Ionian Revolt.  Be careful what you wish for.  The Ionians’ ingenious secret messaging worked, but Darius’s spies figured out what was about to happen, and he won the rebellion.

3.  Aristides the Just, born c. 530 BCE  Darius wasn’t satisfied with winning the Ionian Revolt.  
He wanted to punish the Athenians and other Greeks for 
helping the Ionians.  So in 490 BCE he assembled a 
massive force and invaded, landing just north of Athens.

Aristides the Just

One of Greece’s commanding generals was Aristides, who was also a statesman.  Naturally, he employed spies.  One of them heard that a Persian undercover agent had sneaked into camp.  So Aristides ordered every soldier, shield-maker, doctor, and cook to account for another person there.  In that way he uncovered the infiltrator.

Soon the two armies met on the Plain of Marathon.  In a straight line and at a dead run, the Greek warriors attacked the overwhelming Persian force.  As the Greek generals expected, the middle of their line weakened and gave way, while their flanks encircled and butchered the trapped Persians.  The Persians had been completely surprised — none of their spies had uncovered the unusual military plan.  An estimated 6,400 Persians died that day, while the Greeks lost 192. 

The victory gave the fledgling Greek city states confidence in their ability to defend themselves and belief in their continued existence. The battle is considered a defining moment in the development of European culture, and of course espionage played an important role.

4. Hannibal of Carthage, born 247 BCE
Hannibal was one of the greatest spymasters in history.  He created an intelligence network that infiltrated enemy Roman camps and used secret hand signals to identify themselves to one another.  He was also a renowned military commander.  His most famous campaign was during the Second Punic War (218-202), when his army crossed the Alps on elephants and fought its way toward the biggest, glitziest prize of all — Rome.

Marble bust reputedly of Hanniba

At the time, Rome’s dictator was Fabius — AKA: Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus.  Fabius refused to meet Hannibal in battle because of Hannibal’s military superiority.  Instead, Fabius chose harassment and guerrilla assaults to wear down the intruder’s forces while conserving his own.

Frustrated, Hannibal was unable to close in on Rome.  Then his spies reported the city was filled with rumors because of Fabius’s refusal to fight.  They were saying Fabius was in Hannibal’s pay.  Hannibal must have smiled at the news.  He sent his soldiers on a rampage across the countryside, destroying and burning everything in their path — except Fabius’s properties. 

As soon as the news reached Rome, Fabius issued proclamations he was no traitor.  But his people didn’t believe him, and Hannibal gained valuable psychological advantage and respite from Fabius’s delaying tactics.  Still, Hannibal never conquered Rome.  He returned to Carthage unscathed — and also legendary.

5.  Julius Caesar, born 100 BCE
In Ancient Rome, major political players built their own surveillance systems to provide intel about the schemes of their fellow movers and shakers.  Politician and orator Cicero complained frequently

Julius Caesar, in British Museum

 that his letters were the prey of others:  “I cannot find a faithful message-bearer,” he wrote to a friend. “How few are they who are able to carry a rather weighty letter without lightening it by reading?”

It’s no surprise that Julius Caesar put together an elaborate covert network to keep himself informed about the plots against him.  On March 15th, 44 AD, he was walking to the Curia of Pompeii when a note from one of his spies was urgently thrust into his hand.  It contained a list of senators and their plans to kill him. 

But Caesar was in such a hurry that he didn’t stop to read it.  Within the hour, he was assassinated.  Lesson:  What good is first-rate intel if you don’t read it!

Do you have a favorite spymaster from the ancient world?  Please leave a comment and tell us all about him or her.

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  1. S. Lee Manning

    Love the list. Espionage is indeed the world's second oldest profession. Great post.

  2. Karna Bodman

    Oh, Gayle, what a great history lesson of spies, espionage, techniques and intrigue! I learned so much! Thanks for this great post.

  3. Sonja Stone

    Gayle, this is wonderful! My favorite is the tattooed message. What a clever idea!

  4. Gayle Lynds

    Thanks, everyone. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Our species has a remarkable ability to be devious! All of the spymasters I mentioned were also woven into the stories of my The Last Spymaster and The Book of Spies. I've enjoyed those ancients a long time!

  5. John Sheldon

    I'm willing to bet that, even if Caesar had had access to Fox News, he would have been smart enough to rely on his own intelligence agencies' reports about alleged disturbances in Sweden.

  6. John Sheldon

    I meant to add that I loved the story about the guy who had his head tattooed. Too bad it didn't work!

  7. Gayle Lynds

    LOL, John! Thanks for the political analysis. Caesar did indeed trust his spies, but then he was a smart dude. Just terribly busy. Work, work, work. Etc. Forgot to prioritize the cables. 🙂

  8. Chris Goff

    Great post. What Sandy said!

  9. DP Lyle

    Greta article, Gayle. As always. Love this blog.

    DP Lyle