Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.03.14


N.J.E. Austin and N.B. Rankov, Exploratio. Military and Political Intelligence in the Roman World from the Second Punic War to the Battle of Adrianople. New York: Routledge, 1995. Pp. xiv+292. $59.95. ISBN 0-415-04945-8.


Reviewed by Frank Russell, Dartmouth College.

Austin and Rankov have done an admirable job in filling a serious gap in the study of Roman history: a comprehensive study of how Roman intelligence worked. While they have been preceded by articles on specific topics within their scope (especially those by Gichon and Sinnigen), and by Riepl's book length treatment of the communication of information, theirs is the first published work aspiring to present the evolution and mechanics of the process in detail. Moreover, A.'s and R.'s accomplishment is by no means limited to a synthesis of existing research. They have tilled much new ground, and the yield is rich and abundant.

As significant as their contribution is, it is felt more in some periods and spheres than others. A. and R. might more accurately have titled their book Military Intelligence in the Roman Empire, with some notes on its origins in the Republic. While they do not neglect political intelligence, they treat it primarily in the context of military concerns. They favor foreign intelligence to the near exclusion of domestic. They spill little ink on the Republic, and real discussion begins with Caesar and Cicero. The Macedonian Wars are all but neglected in spite of the wealth of material they contain (the battle of Cynocephelae, for instance, contains lessons in reconnaissance practice), as are affairs with the east generally. Sicily is not mentioned, and the Carthaginians have only walk on roles. The stars of the show are the second and fourth centuries AD.

The organization of the book is clear and well managed in light of the dilemma which one inevitably faces when writing about intelligence: a chronological development leaves no coherent discussion of types of agents and sources, a treatment by topic leaves one jumping back and forth in time, with no synthesis of the overall process and its development. A. and R. have reached a happy compromise: an overview of agents in chapters 2-3, followed by analyses of the flow of information, its users and their resources in chapters 4-9.

The opening chapter is indicative of the boundaries which the authors have set for themselves. It explicitly informs the reader upon which primary sources A. and R. rely, viz. those historians who at some time in their careers commanded troops. Other sources, such as Livy (p. 2), are de-emphasized. It implicitly illustrates that modern scholarship on intelligence and its history will be largely ignored. Both of these choices are, in my opinion, unfortunate. The first leads to inevitable gaps in the record. Fortunately, A. and R. are more liberal in their range of citations than the introduction leads one to expect -- indeed R. in particular is quite thorough -- but valuable information is ignored. One of many examples is the story of Sertorius and his counterfeit divine deer (Plut. Sert. 11.2-4). This is hardly to be compared with Arrian's depictions of reconnaissance, but nevertheless is indicative of a need to conceal sources of information lest they be compromised. As noted above, the Republic especially suffers, even though lip service is paid to Polybius in the introduction. The second boundary, the divorce from pertinent comparative scholarship, is visible in the presentation of the intelligence cycle. A. and R. cite no source other than an allusion to "Modern military training manuals". The omission is unfortunate, since descriptions of the intelligence cycle vary -- while some are indeed "five point", others distinguish only four stages, in which collation is not considered a distinct stage (e.g. Lt. Col. I. Heymont, Combat Intelligence in Modern Warfare [Harrisburg: 1960] p. 7). Which model is more applicable to Roman practice? Further research into modern literature on problems involved in intelligence (e.g. distortions in the afore-mentioned cycle), and comparisons with intelligence in other pre-electronic time periods, might well have been fruitful. A. and R. do rightly (if briefly) mention A.D. Lee's work; otherwise there are only gratuitous references to Napoleon (230) and the term "humint" (244).

After the first chapter, there is far more to approve than censure. The categorization of type of agent by Latin name in the second and third chapters is eminently sensible, given the ambiguities inherent in equating terms (e.g. an explorator is not exactly the same thing as the modern conception of a scout -- if, indeed, a definition for "scout" can be agreed upon among English speakers!). The time devoted to establishing definitions is well spent, particularly with respect to Greek terms for Roman agents (e.g. kataskopos for explorator). A. did well to include a section on negative intelligence. On the whole, the coverage is thorough and scholarly, with numerous examples, although once again Ammianus and the fourth century are better covered than other sources and periods. But there are gaps. Legati are not well treated, and heralds are largely overlooked. One must presume that A. felt that camp security measures were so well known that it was not necessary to treat them at any length. More important is the neglect of the role of divination in information gathering and its influence on decision making. Later (151), R. mentions in passing a haruspex as a member of a governor's officium. What is this man doing on a staff so patently devoted to intelligence? What were the roles of augury and divination in military and political decisions? Such questions are not answered in this work, and the very omission is indicative of the intelligence cycle: intelligence goals are influenced by the cultural values of the person who sets them, even in this case of two obviously thoughtful scholars.

The chronological chapters set into context the material on the agents and sources. The exempla of Caesar in Gaul and Cicero in Cilicia are both instructive and entertaining. The point which R. derives from them -- that the intelligence burden was on the local commander -- is well taken, although he ought to have further explored personal (as opposed to public) networks. The discussion of the impact of personalities is worthwhile. The exemplum of Britain suffers somewhat from the large scale in time and space, which impaired detailed analysis. The characterization of the sources of the Senate's information is quite good, but the characterization of the Republic as a brawny but blind giant groping towards empire is rather harsh. How many U.S. Senators had heard of a small island called Gaudalcanal in 1941, or for that matter knew much about it in 1943? The comments about the time lag from frontier to Rome are instructive, and should have been applied more clearly to the Empire, since later improvements in communication were hardly revolutionary. There are nice points of detail, such as Caesar's post-battle enquiries (cf. Richardson 32, cited below, who goes further to suggest that Caesar did this with an eye to composing the Commentarii), and the derivation of the slang "theta-ed" for "died" from records-keeping. The sections on the principate and the third century are all too brief (the latter is covered in only three pages [212-14]), but the second and fourth centuries are covered in detail. R. makes excellent use of inscriptions and archaeology. His reconstructions of the officia and their physical environs are among the better features of the book, as are his attempts to locate exploratores and beneficiarii geographically about the empire. R. convincingly argues that the intelligence function was initially the responsibility of provincial governors, while the emperors were somewhat isolated; as pressures on the borders grew more urgent and demanded the emperors' personal attention, an overlapping intelligence hierarchy developed.

In the final chapter (entitled "Full Cycle", no doubt with a smile), A. and R. restate the conclusions reached earlier: (1) there was little evolution in tactical intelligence since the nature of warfare had not radically changed; (2) there was some evolution in strategic intelligence because of the movement from a diffused through a central to a joint authority and because the ossification of boundaries allowed continuity and development. A. and R. also recapitulate the more important stages in the evolution of intelligence in the Roman world. The conclusions are well grounded in previous arguments, although the attribution of a mechanistic role to frontier ossification is not without problems. One might suspect that a border in flux would demand intelligence at least as much as a stable one.

The bibliography is detailed, but there are omissions, chiefly further articles by W. Sinnigen ("Chiefs of Staff of the Secret Service." Byz. Zeit. LVII (1964) 78-105. ii. "The Roman Secret Service." CJ LVII (1961) 65-72. iii. "Two Branches of the Late Roman Secret Service." AJPh LXXX (1959) 238-254), which, although perhaps late, are certainly relevant. The following articles should also be mentioned: A. Ferrill's "Roman Military Intelligence" in K. Neilson and B.J.C. McKercher, edd. Go Spy the Land. Military Intelligence in History (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), W. Gauld's "Vegetius on Roman scout-boats." Antiquity LXIV (1990) 402-406, and P. Culham's "Documents and Domus" Libraries and Culture 26 (1991) 119 ff. There are also two master's theses which, if unsophisticated, nevertheless contain excellent ideas from which A. and R. might have benefitted: M.A. Richardson's Julius Caesar's Use of Intelligence (MS Thesis, Defense Intelligence College, 1984) and R.P. Semmet's Intelligence Activity in the Classical World (MA Thesis, Wright State University, 1984). Also, as noted above, there is a lack of reference to useful modern studies.

The general index, after cursory spot checks, seems accurate and is helpful. For those more familiar with military intelligence than Latin, more cross-references to English near-equivalents would be of assistance. The index fontium is an excellent addition to the work. It is a pity that Polyaenus is not included either here or in the text itself.

A few minor quibbles: (1) the high gloss of the paper makes reading less than comfortable, since care had to be taken that the light reflect away from the reader's eyes; (2) the method of annotation could be improved. The end notes are sparse and largely disappointing. They might have included some of the more technical matters treated in the text. The notes within the text, although illustrating an impressive and thorough basis in primary sources, are in some places so dense as to distract from the flow of argument (e.g. pp. 191, 196, 202, 203, 207, 218, 227); (3) the term "intelligence" is used where "information" is warranted. The former term distinguishes evaluated information; (4) some repetition is the inevitable price paid for a split organization -- in most cases it is easily borne (e. g. discussion of embassies and foreign clients reoccurs at 22-25, 89-91, 98, 107, and 120-123), although repeated allusions to the message hidden in the scabbard do wear thin.

There were very few typographical errors, and only one which caused some confusion. On page 152, one ought to read "those ex frumentariis" rather than "frumentariis"; "frumentarii" is possible, but the former reading accords better with the argument.

In sum, A. and R. have created a sound, ground-breaking piece of scholarship, of considerable value not only to the military historian but also to those interested in the mechanics of history and, by extension, to those concerned with the collection of information by historians. It is well worth the candle.