BMCR 2000.07.15

Information Gathering in Classical Greece

, Information Gathering in Classical Greece. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. 267. $49.50.

Russell’s study is part of a growing body of work on the processes of information in the ancient world, Greek and Roman (e.g. Rankov and Austin, Exploratio (1995), Lee , Information and Frontiers (1993), Lewis, News and Society (1996)).1 Scholars are increasingly interested in the level of intelligence which ancient societies and institutions could command, and Russell’s book draws together existing work to offer a timely overview of intelligence activity in fifth and fourth century Greece. Modern opinions of the usefulness of intelligence are perhaps becoming more jaundiced, in the UK at least — it was recently said by four heads of intelligence, one Eastern and three Western, that there is no significant event of the last fifty years on which intelligence activity had the slightest effect — but Russell’s aim is to demonstrate that intelligence was a matter of concern to the Greek states, and that the Greeks had as clear an understanding of the virtues of intelligence as we do, applying attention and ingenuity to its processes. He does so in a meticulously researched study, which is exhaustive in documenting incidences of intelligence sought or passed. Russell’s interest is in parallels between modern and ancient intelligence: he is widely read on theoretical intelligence, and makes liberal use of modern handbooks. Perhaps consequently, his focus is primarily military.

In his introduction Russell defines the goals of intelligence in general terms then moves progressively outward in perspective, examining intelligence at ground-level in the army, then intelligence gathering in the polis, overt and secret. The fourth chapter analyses the potential difficulties in sending and interpretation of messages, and the fifth counter-intelligence and methods to retain information. The book contains an impressive amount of material, mined largely from historians and tactical writers, particularly Xenophon, Aeneas Tacticus and Polyaenus. In part the perception of intelligence may be a question of semantics — one can refer to night watchmen as ‘surveillance agents’, to Themistocles’ messages to the Ionians inscribed on the rocks (Hdt. 8.22) as a ‘drop’, or to manteis as ‘professional intelligence agents with a long-term specialisation in their trade’, and make Greek practices appear very modern; or one can concentrate on the silences and botched episodes which make them appear primitive. Russell is keen to apply the vocabulary of modern intelligence to the Greek world, and the picture he draws is of strong organisation and efficacy.

Early discussion of the sources highlights two problematic features: the lack of relevant sources for the fifth century and the accuracy of those from the fourth. Russell devotes several pages early on to a rejection of Pritchett’s contention that military intelligence, in particular reconnaissance, was not a habit of Greek armies in the fifth century, noting the gap which exists between Homeric examples and Thucydides. He accepts Pritchett’s thesis in a modified form, agreeing that organised intelligence became more common after 400, yet maintains that the use of intelligence was common in the fifth century, though hidden by the nature of our sources. This is somewhat undermined by the examples in the body of the text, which are almost entirely post-430; it is difficult to say whether the growth in examples of military intelligence in Thucydides and his successors is a consequence of greater interest in pre-existing processes or the result of a new perception of the importance of intelligence. From this springs the second question: how accurate is the image of intelligence in Xenophon and Aeneas Tacticus’ treatises? Are their works merely theoretical, or were the methods that they discuss ever applied systematically in practice? Russell would like to believe that they were but admits that often this can be no more than speculation. The difficulty of treating sources is emphasised by the case of Polyaenus, introduced as ‘tenuous but exciting evidence’, but whose importance gradually increases in the text. One of the stratagems attributed to an otherwise unknown general Pompiscus is presented in chapter 3 as an important episode for the study of covert agents. In a note, however, Russell comments that Pompiscus cannot be dated to any period, and is included because he ‘is said to be an Arcadian, and the Arcadians were quite active in the fourth century’ (p.136 n.105). When the most interesting sources are also the least reliable, it becomes difficult to treat them dispassionately, and there is quite a high rate of argument from likelihood or lack of explicit denial.

One of the interesting features of the book is the refinement of the theory as it progresses. At first, Russell is adamant that the Greeks cannot have been so lacking in foresight as to neglect the processes of intelligence and is keen to establish that democratic states in Greece participated in intelligence gathering too — on p. 9 he comments that the Greek states have often been characterised as successful without the use of intelligence, ‘unfairly, one must add — in part because of modern perceptions of democratic virtue and vice.’ Similarly he says that an inability to credit the use of spies or secrecy in a democracy is the result of an idealised view of democracy, ancient and modern. Yet these contentions are gradually modified by the nature of the evidence. The chapter on spies and agents finds a lot of material relating to tyrannies (in Syracuse and Cyprus, much of it late), which Russell accepts as evidence for the existence of ‘organised permanent … intelligence networks in the fourth and fifth centuries’. The examination of other states, however, demonstrates that there is no evidence available from which to posit an internal spy service in Athens. By the conclusion, the study proposes not one model of Greek intelligence, but two — type A, centred on an autocratic ruler, where information is effectively gathered and presented, and type B, diffused command, which was less effective and is found in democratic states. Russell develops his model to include in type A armies on campaign as well as tyrannical and monarchic states but ultimately ends up with a view of Greek application of intelligence which is split according to political ideology, with democracies more passive than autocracies.

The same assertion that democracies were just as given to intelligence activity as autocracies also comes to the fore in considering counterintelligence — the second chapter, on the possibilities for overt intelligence gathering between states, emphasises the amount of information available in a democracy, from public inscriptions, official documents, announcements and published accounts, and Athens provides most of the examples. Yet the chapter on counterintelligence makes the apparently contradictory point that democracies were easily capable of secrecy — that steps were regularly taken to limit access to information. The decree recording the original decision in 415 to send sixty Athenian ships to Sicily is a case in point: this is presented as an example of the accessibility of information, suggesting that it must have been published within a few days of the decision, before a revision to the plan was passed. I do not think this is necessarily the case — the practice was to record decisions as made, even if they had been changed subsequent to their ratification, as in IG i 3 110, the proxenia decree for Oiniades — but later Russell suggests that campaigns involving only Athenian troops could easily be kept secret from the outside world. In fact I think the argument underplays the tensions created within a democracy like Athens by the competing requirements for openness and for discretion: leaders were always conscious of the sometimes irreconcilable demands of military security and public accountability. But equally not all aspects of Athenian public life were driven by purely pragmatic military concerns; for instance, when Aristophanes fell foul of the assembly, it was criticism of named political figures that attracted censure, not making jokes about future military plans before an international audience ( Knights 1302-4). The military could not be divorced from the same religious and social constraints as governed the rest of Athenian life.

There are some points (especially on Sparta) where one might have expected more discussion: the skytale is dismissed very rapidly, some interesting comments on the Agathoergoi could be taken further, and there is very little made of xenelasia as a peculiarly Spartan preoccupation, particularly given its presence in the philosophers’ ideal states. Russell also has a rather Thucydidean attitude towards the divine — both manteis and oracles are treated as loci for hard information rather than the intervention of the gods. This does less than justice to Xenophon’s comments on the need for a commander to be skilled in divination ( Cyropaedia 1.6.2). Undoubtedly there were practical reasons for a general not to put himself at the mercy of a mantis who might have an agenda of his own, but Xenophon also sees it as essential for the general to understand the will of the gods, which must be a factor in decision-making. The ways in which divine information interacted with human in classical times is a theme which deserves further examination.

Information Gathering in Classical Greece is a hugely informative book, and Russell has found much that is valuable, especially in his early chapter on day-to-day military concerns: signalling, treatment of captives and deserters, the use of guides, and generals’ creation of networks of information. He sometimes seems optimistic on how much can be wrung from the sources, for instance on spy systems under tyrannies, but the book considers a very wide range of topics and writers, and brings some salutary insights from comparisons with modern practice. Part of the purpose of such a study is to reveal familiar events in a new light, and Russell’s book will offer a new perspectives both to military historians, and those studying the processes of information flow in antiquity.


1. 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 (London 1995); A.D. Lee, Information and Frontiers: Roman foreign relations in late Antiquity (Cambridge 1993); S. Lewis, News and Society in the Greek Polis (London 1996).