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Frumentarii – The Roman Emperor’s Eyes and Ears

Throughout the world’s historical past, lots of the kingdoms, empires, and rulers trusted some type of a secretive help. Powerful realms are like intricate machines – stuffed with secrets and techniques. To uncover these secrets and techniques, the rulers relied on spies, secret police, assassins, and all kinds of henchmen that needed to conceal and use deception. The Roman Empire was no exception. In its historical past, the emperors of Rome utilized the Frumentarii, the Roman “intelligence agency”. Without them, lots of the shrewd strikes made by emperors wouldn’t have been doable.

The Frumentarii Lurk from the Shadows

In virtually all types of authorities, the necessity for particular providers and secret brokers could be very excessive. Ancient kingdoms and empires weren’t an exception, as they too had been a posh internet of intrigues and feuds, and rulers had many enemies – each inside and with out. “The walls have ears”, the traditional saying goes, and generally it was precisely like this. In the Roman Empire , the Emperor needed to know his enemies and his allies. The former generally lurked so near him, maybe even on the court docket. And the way to discover them out? Spies and deception, in fact!

The Frumentarii, secret informers and spies in the military force. Espionage was not only of the enemy but for revealing traitors and defeatists.  (Public Domain)

The Frumentarii, secret informers and spies within the navy power. Espionage was not solely of the enemy however for revealing traitors and defeatists.  ( Public Domain )

The Frumentarii have very distant origins. For ages it was the Roman navy observe to make the most of the providers of informers, spies, and assassins. However, they had been by no means an organized unit. This was seemingly modified through the reign of Emperor Domitian , who was on the throne from 81 to 96 AD. The identify “Frumentarii” started showing in data simply shortly after his reign. Originally, nevertheless, they had been described as easy “messengers”, in addition to collectors of tax cash. This might have been a less complicated position that hid their true nature.

Either approach, after the top of the Flavian Dynasty , whose final ruler was Domitian, the Frumentarii obtained their true id – a strict and secretive police power. From the beginning, they had been part of the navy, and just about all of their members had been as soon as legionaries, recruited from the ranks. The Frumentarii had been based mostly in Castra Peregrina, “The Camp of the Strangers”, their very own barracks located on the Caelian Hill in Rome.

The Gestapo of Ancient Rome

Very early on the Frumentarii gained an notorious fame. Originally tasked with policing the inhabitants, they rapidly started adopting a extra secretive and spying position. Being involved with so many locals of all courses, the Frumentarii might study many secrets and techniques, and hear many whispers. This potential was acknowledged by Emperor Hadrian (who reigned from 117 to 138 AD), who lastly utilized the Frumentarii as an precise secret service, a spying company. It was his approach of particularly spying on influential residents all throughout the Roman Empire, which in fact, helped him to solidify his reign.

Frumentarii acted as assassins as effectively. The dagger was used to do away with the emperor’s enemy.  ( nikhg/ AdobeStock)

The roles of the Frumentarii had been numerous – and all had been nefarious. Through them, the federal government spied on their pals, enemies, bizarre residents, and influential nobles. Even officers and troopers had been spied on, revealing traitors and defeatists. And nobody even knew they had been being noticed and listened to.

The Frumentarii had been grasp spies, usually hidden or disguised. They had been usually employed as assassins as effectively, as spying and assassination usually go hand in hand. If the emperor had a specific enemy that wanted to vanish, the Frumentarii would resolve the problem – with a dagger. Letters too had been intercepted, and their secrets and techniques revealed to the emperor. In brief – no secret was secure in Rome, town that was crammed to the brim with intrigues and lies.

A Burden Upon the Citizens

The Frumentarii had a very dangerous fame and had been hated far and broad by all Romans. The poorest courses had a specific dislike for them, due to the false arrests and accusations made in opposition to them. Dealing with the commoners, the Frumentarii had been tough and ruthless, and confirmed little mercy when suspicious. All this earned them the nasty epithet of being the “tyrannical plague” of the empire. So disliked had been they, that solely after a couple of centuries, their group was totally disbanded.

During the reign of Diocletian, with the anger of the individuals swiftly rising, the Frumentarii had been formally disbanded in 312 AD, as part of the emperor’s reforms. The motion was so detested that a wholly new group needed to be made, with new guidelines. The new group was named Agentes in Rebus – “Those Active in Matters” – and labored virtually solely in another way than the earlier secret police.

When the Walls Have Ears

Living within the early days of the Roman Empire was actually not splendid – should you had an opinion of your individual. Didn’t like the brand new ruler? You’d be greatest off preserving quiet about it, or else you’d end up in loads of hassle. That seemingly drunk patron within the tavern might very effectively be a grasp spy, a Frumentarius in disguise listening to each phrase you say.

We can solely speculate on what number of disloyal residents and enemies of the emperor had been “taken away by the shadows” due to the phrases they uttered, once they thought nobody was listening. But they had been mistaken, for the Frumentarii at all times listened.

Top picture: The Frumentarii had been the eyes and ears of the Roman Emperor. Source: oz/AdobeStock

By Aleksa Vučković


Bunson, M. 2014. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. Infobase Publishing.

Crowdy, T. 2011. The Enemy Within: A History of Spies, Spymasters and Espionage. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Russell, F. 2013. Finding the Enemy: Military Intelligence. Oxford Academic.


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