Frumentarii were a intelligence gathering force in ancient Rome. Their legacy was fascinating to view compared to early espionage practices
Unofficially speaking, and as the semi-well-known yet somewhat niche cliché goes, “espionage is the world’s second oldest profession”.
From ancient Mesopotamia onwards, the intelligence craft has changed with the ebbs and flows of history. The contemporary lens of that we often use to recollect history can deliver us to the eras of World War II and the Cold War as being the real turning point in the modernization and formalization of intelligence gathering, but even the commonly used idiom “cloak and dagger” has its origins in 18th century French dramas, where stories were told of clandestine identities and harrowing assassination plots.
In an older CIA publication about the early days of espionage, author Rose Mary Sheldon writes:
“A soon as man learned to create documents, he began to classify them. This is another indication that gathering intelligence is as old as civilization itself. Techniques regarded as completely modern have actually existed for thousands of years. Archaeological discoveries in the Near East, especially in Syria, have uncovered evidence of societies where espionage activities were rampant. Intelligence gathering was second nature to any ruler who wanted to protect the safety and independence of his city and who valued his own life.”Rose Mary Sheldon
With this in frame of reference in mind, we can set our sights on the days of the Roman Empire and take a look at one of their lesser known yet equally fascinating intelligence gathering forces: the Frumentarii.
Frumentarii: Of Grain and Espionage
Hadrian was one of the Roman Empires “Five Good Emperors”. His reign lasted 21 years (117-138 AD) and was marked with positive accounts of empire unification and cultural reforms. In a more relative to the central topic sense, he is known to have modified the use of the Roman secret service, or Frumentarii.
The Frumentarii existed before Hadrian’s reign. According to scholar William G. Sinnegan:
“Domitian was probably the first to recognize that they could be an excellent liaison between the provinces and the general staff at the capital, and to detach some of them from their legionary headquarters for temporary duty as couriers in the service of ‘G-4’ at Rome.”
Grain purchasing and distribution amongst Roman military personnel was the early task of the Frumentarii, which placed them in a position of constant travel across the empire, and with regular interactions with roman officials, military leaders, and civilians. Both Domitian and in a greater degree Hadrian realized the intelligence gathering potential of the force, with the later converting them into his own Praetorian guard. It is claimed “he wanted to know the things he shouldn’t know”, and the Frumentarii were the perfect storm for that cause.
The Frumentarii are Coming!
As the utilization and development of the unit advanced, so did fear and paranoia amongst the residents of the Roman provinces. According to HistoryNet:
“Their activities did not endear the Frumentarii to the general public. Roman administrators could be arbitrary, authoritarian, and corrupt. When they became involved in tax collecting and detecting subversion, the temptations to corruption were even greater. A third-century writer described the provinces as ‘enslaved by fear,’ since spies were everywhere. Many Romans and people in the provinces found it impossible to think or speak freely for fear of being spied upon. The snooping of the Frumentarii became rampant by the late third century, and their behavior was compared to that of a plundering army. They would enter villages ostensibly in pursuit of political criminals, search homes, and then demand bribes from the locals.”
In that regard, it is interesting to draw parallels between the Frumentarii and more modern renditions of secret police, such as the Nazi Gestapo, the East German Stasi, and Mao’s Keng Sheng. Power classically brings corruption, and a secret police force can easily go down a slippery slope when such power is held over an entire population.
Apart from monitoring the actions of political actors and civilians, the Frumentarii were also prolific in the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.
The Frumentarii in the New Testament
A selection of texts from Christian New Testament scriptures (Gospel of Mark, Acts) reference Roman officials who some scholars attribute to be part of the unit. The contexts in which they are mentioned in these scriptures usually coincide with the actions taken against Christians at the time, by the direction of the Roman government. HistoryNet writes:
“Secret police agents, the frumentarii participated in the persecution of Christians. They were among the chief agents who spied on Christians and had them arrested. The soldier who supervised Saint Paul in Rome while he was awaiting trial was a frumentarius. Early Church historian Eusebius reports the tale of a Christian named Dionysius who was being hunted by the secret police. He hid in his house for four days. Meanwhile the frumentarius was searching high and low but never thought to search the man’s house. Dionysius made his escape with the help of the Christian underground.”
Disbandment & Legacy
A slew of abuses of power and public disdain for the Frumentarii led to their eventual disbandment during the time of Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD). Instead of completely abandoning the idea of a secret police/intelligence gathering unit, Diocletian restructured and reformed the Frumentarii into the “agentes in rebus” – general agents of the empire – who took on similar duties as their predecessors, albeit with a tighter leash on.
It is said that on his death bed, Hadrian wrote a poem titled “Little Soul”:
Little soul little stray
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone
after the way
you used to make fun of things
It may be a bit of a stretch, but in a way that poem can be used to describe the Frumentarii, as straying drifters traveling across the empire, perhaps even making fun of things like spying, intelligence gathering, and the persecution of enemies of the state.
Nevertheless, the Frumentarii left behind a tainted legacy, despite being known as having a great deal of social status in the empire. Not only were they a fascinating example of early espionage practices but were also a prime example of the potential for abuse of power and corruption within more contemporary units that share a similar nomenclature.