"The Spy Through the Ages" by Hamil Grant

9 mins read

Editor’s note:  The following is extracted from Spies and Secret Service, by Hamil Grant (published 1915).  All spelling in the original.
The spy, as we have seen, has been given mention in the Old Testament, Joshua, David and Absalom having employed their services, and most of us remember that passage in Genesis in which his brothers answer Joseph saying: “We are true men, thy servants are not spies.” The protracted peregrinations of the Israelites necessarily called for the employment of emissaries who should learn the qualities and dispositions of the many peoples whom they encountered on their way to the Promised Land, and your anthropologist might possibly not be far wrong in concluding that it was the experience gained in the course of his ever-perilous wanderings which made the Jew so apt an exponent of the arts of spying as he most certainly proved himself to be in the days of consular and early imperial Rome. In the New Testament, too, we hear of the spy when the high priests, having Christ under suspicion, sent forth spies who should feign friendship with Him for the purposes of extracting information. Every commander of antiquity was accustomed to employ the services of spies, as the Greek historian Polyænus tells us in the course of that marvellous compilation of his in which he gives details of some nine hundred stratagems, serviceable, it is noteworthy, not only in war, but also in civil and political life. If we are to judge by what the Romans say of themselves, their character was incapable of stooping to the baseness of common spying or studied treachery of any sort. The view is, of course, open to criticism, and when we reflect upon the treatment which triumphing generals were wont to accord to their most illustrious captives, not easily acceptable. One of the most formidable spirits of antiquity, Mithridates, King of Pontus, a prince regarding whose exploits writers have been strangely neglectful, was himself the chief spy of his army, and for the purposes of this work had made himself master, Pliny tells, of some five and twenty languages and dialects, by means of which, as well as fitting disguises, he was enabled to penetrate every region of Asia Minor. It is written that from the time of his succession to the throne of Pontus at the age of fourteen, he spent seven years wandering through and spying out the countries which he eventually conquered, and for the possession of which he waged a lifelong war against the power of Rome.
In the course of a work entitled Stratagems, Frontinus, a military writer in the time of Vespasian, records how Cornelius Lelius, having been sent by Scipio Africanus in the capacity of envoy to Syphax, King of Numidia, but in reality for the purposes of espionage, took with him several officers of high rank in the Roman army, all disguised. A general in the camp of Syphax, recognising one of these companions, Manlius, as having studied with him at Corinth, and well knowing him to be an officer in the Roman army, began to put awkward questions. Thereupon Lelius fell upon Manlius and thrashed him, declaring the fellow to be a pushful valet and nothing better. On the same occasion, the envoy allowed a high-spirited and richly caparisoned horse to escape from his suite in order to be given the opportunity of going through the camp to recover it. Again there was Tarquin the Proud who, failing to capture the city of Gabii to which he was laying siege, had his son flogged till the blood ran from his body and then sent him a refugee into the midst of the enemy, with instructions to procure by bribery the surrender of the place, all of which the youth accomplished. Polyænus tells how Sertorius, the Roman general in Spain, was the owner of a white fawn that he had trained to follow him everywhere, even to the steps of the tribunal which the animal had been taught, at a given signal, to approach as Sertorius was about to deliver sentence in judicial cases. The commander allowed it to be made known that he derived much information from this fawn. Meanwhile his spies were very active all over the country and the tribes all marvelled at the knowledge of the general, who attributed it to the little beast for which he claimed supernatural powers.
Polyænus also teaches the necessity of “psychologising”—a term not unknown to American experts in that form of police torture which is known as the Third Degree—the leader to whom one may be opposed. “One must exert oneself,” says the Greek, “to find out the character of one’s enemy as well as his disposition; whether he is impetuous and spirited at the first shock, or patient and apt to await the onslaught.” Every general should know all there is to be known about the business of opponents, and he goes on to tell the tale in point, showing that what we know to-day as the Black Cabinet—that is, the spying of private correspondence in the post—was practised by Alexander the Great who lived some three hundred years before Christ. “Being in Carmania, he was informed that the Macedonians and Greeks in his army were speaking badly about him. Alexander thereupon assembled his friends and told them that as he intended writing home they should do likewise. Accordingly, they all wrote home and Alexander saw to it that the couriers were recalled with the mails before they had gone very far on their journey.” Recurring to the same authority, we learn that cipher was well known to the Greeks under the name skutate and to the Romans as scutula, meaning a wooden cylinder around which an inscribed papyrus was rolled. He also records the story of Histiæus, a tyrant of Miletus who wished to incite Ionia to rebel against Darius; fearing however to send letters to the Ionians in those perilous times, he thought out the ruse of having the head of a trusted slave clean shaved and a message written on the scalp, addressed to Aristagoras in the simple words: “Rouse Ionia to revolt.” The slave was then sent on his way to Ionia, and, his hair having grown over the fateful message by the time hostile camps were reached, he passed safely through to Aristagoras, who had the poll shaved once more and so learned his general’s design. Altogether it would seem that during antiquity, ruse rather than real ability was the cause of many loud-famed successes and victories. Frontinus tells how the Consul Hirtius used to send carrier-pigeons to his friend Decimus Brutus, and Justus Lipsius is responsible for the statement that swallows were trained for purposes of military and other espionage, the same authority informing us that it was the custom among Eastern nations for birds to be trained as long-distance messengers, more especially between lovers. It may be certain, too, that postal communications were not all entrusted to the famous relay runners, regarding whose marvellous stamina the Roman records tell us.
Hannibal, it is certain, could never have performed that wondrous march from the edge of Andalusia right up through Spain, over the Pyrenees, across France and beyond the Alps into the plains of Piedmont, where he fought his most artistic battle in 218 B.C., at the Trebia, had it not been for an organisation of spies and informers who prepared the way by ruse and diplomacy for the advance of his hordes. Of him Polybius writes: “For years before he undertook his campaign against Rome, he had sent his agents into Italy and they were observing everyone and everything. He charged them with transmitting to him exact and positive information regarding the fertility of the trans-Alpine plains and the valley of the Po, their populations, their military spirit and preparations and, above all, their disposition towards the government at Rome. There was nothing too large in promises that the Carthaginian was not ready to make in return for their support against the hated City.” Cæsar too employed spies to the undoing of his adversaries in Egypt, in Gaul and also in Britain, and although in his Commentaries he records his employment of emissaries of this kind, history remains generally blank as to special details, leaving us to conclude that, like Napoleon, he relied mainly on the exigencies of the moment to produce the required information through the bribery of individuals in the opposite camp. In his early political career, especially during his tenure of the office of Pontifex Maximus, it seems clear that he then laid the leading lines, through the employment of many informers, of that vast political network of which he subsequently became the master, while his later association with Marcus Crassus, who mainly owed both wealth and power to the army of spies which he controlled, was in every way to Cæsar’s advantage in respect of the means of procuring important information. Had he employed the services of a spy system on his attainment to supreme power, it is unlikely that he would have come to his destruction at the hands of a group of the best-known men in Rome, the fact leaving us to infer that he had ceased to use a secret service after the Civil War.
On the passing of Constantine to the Bosporus in the fourth century, Rome, in the process of the ages, became the centre of a vast ecclesiastical power. The work of the spy then reached the honours of a kind of consecration. Writers like Lachesnaie and Deville emphasise the view that ecclesiastics are especially fitted for the business of spying. Fouché and Talleyrand had been clerics in their early days and certainly both were masters in the business of organising special-information corps. In his works, too, the Prussian General, Karl von Decker, declares that “a secret which cannot be penetrated by a woman or a priest will never be penetrated.” To tell the story of Church espionage would exhaust the capacity of a large library, and in this connection it may be said that adversaries of the Church of Rome have ever held that the Confessional was a purely political invention, the object of which was to spy upon the community. Whether this be so or not, it is fortunately not our business to decide; it is fair, however, to mention the prevalence of the view. In any case, clerics have ever proved themselves apt for the work of espionage, and in a collection of ordinances issued and signed by Louis XIV in 1652, a certain Father Berthoud, “although an ecclesiastic, is authorised to disguise himself in any way he likes in Paris, Bordeaux, Blaye and elsewhere,” for the purposes of spy work among the political and social enemies of the Crown. Cardinal Richelieu and his understudy, Père Joseph, practically inaugurated in France the system of opening private communications, a practice which was carried to its extreme under Napoleon, of whose daily budget of private letters, his fourth secretary, Fain, has told us much.
That the system of espionage persists to our own day in Continental colleges and convents under the control of congregational clerics, is a fact which is well known. Each division of a school is invariably placed under the chronic vigilance of a “surveillant,” or watcher, who in his turn employs his own corps of spies, privileged boys moving among the masses of their congeners, marking their intentions, noting the relations of the younger boys with the older, getting information as to unlawful programmes to be carried out, ferreting out secret testimony as to the habits of suspect characters and, if possible, intercepting amorous billets which pass between elder boys in other divisions and the younger fry. In regard to these unwholesome liaisons the vigilance of the spies is certainly justified; but the system goes much deeper than this in foreign schools, its objects being to inquire into the most intimate details regarding the private character of a boy—heaven only knows why, if it is not for the pure love of finding out. Indeed, it must be allowed that the baser tendencies which are to be noted in the case of all spies, here display themselves in the form of a pruriency which often touches the indecent and always the unwholesome.
The real founder of the business of organised spying in modern times was Frederick the Great, who was wont to boast that his spies exceeded his cooks in the proportion of a hundred to one. It is impossible closely to read the story of Frederick, or even to study minutely his face as pictured, say, by Meyn, without becoming conscious of the fact that here was a being who realised in his personality the claim of the psychologists that great ability and criminal tendencies are often closely affiliated. Apart from what we know of his perverse eccentricities, it is certain that his deliberate elimination of all the higher ideals of humanity from a place in his political philosophy had the effect of making him as impersonal as an automaton where his material ambitions were concerned, and he knew no other. Like the true pragmatist he was, Frederick considered all things good in themselves which served his ends, and his policies were invariably conceived on his pet principle: “If honesty fails us, we have always dishonesty to fall back upon.” He it was who laid the foundations of that policy of Prussianisation of which our story of Stieber tells in its turn, and in which no measure was to be considered too extreme or base, nor turpitude too abhorrent, provided it advanced the interests of his House and furthered its ambition to play in Europe that rôle which had passed to the Habsburgs by inheritance from the Cæsars. For Prussia Frederick sought a permanent predominance in Europe equal to all which Louis XIV had exercised between 1661 and 1715. An understanding of these facts is really the condition of grasping the significance of the elaborate Prussian spy system of our own time.
Lastly comes the age of Napoleon, in which we find that, for all the essential militarism of the imperial regime, the spy really played a more prominent rôle in the social and political drama than in that of the camp, the great soldier, except in extraordinary cases of long-laid plans, as in the Austerlitz campaign, relying mainly on human cupidity touched by the magic of his gold, to find, as the occasion demanded, willing perverts to provide him with the information necessary to the success of his combinations.

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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