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History Unplugged Podcast

with Scott Rank

Spies in the Ancient World, Part 2: On His Roman Emperor's Secret Service

00:00 49:33
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In this episode we are looking at ancient Greek cryptography and the Roman frumentarii, a group of wheat sellers who turned into the empire's premier intelligence outfit in the second century.

In the fourth century BC, Aeneas Tacticus wrote “How to Survive Under Siege.” He goes into considerable detail on cryptography and steganography—the art of concealing a message. Methods of steganography included writing on strips of papyrus and hiding them either on the body of a person or on a horse. The strip could be hidden in a soldier’s tunic or cuirass, or under a horse’s bridle. More creative methods included a message placed on the leaves that were used to bind a wounded soldier’s leg. Most inspectors would not be so thorough in their investigation that they would want to look upon an infected wound or tear away layers of bloodied bandages.

We will also explore the Roman Frumentarii, originally collectors of wheat (frumentum), who also acted as the secret service of the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The organization was founded by Emperor Hadrian. He pictured a large-scale operation and turned to the frumentarius, the collector of wheat in a province, a position that brought the official into contact with enough locals and natives to acquire considerable intelligence about any given territory. Hadrian put them to use as his spies, and thus had a ready-made service and a large body to act as a courier system.
July 04, 2019
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Meet Your Host
Scott Rank is the host of the History Unplugged Podcast and a PhD in history who specialized in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. Before going down the academic route he worked as a journalist in Istanbul. He has written 12 history books on topics ranging from lost Bronze Age civilizations to the Age of Discovery. Some of his books include The Age of Illumination: Science, Technology, and Reason in the Middle Ages and History’s 9 Most Insane Rulers.. Learn more about him by going to scottrankphd.com.
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