Wednesday Words – Spying Romans


Roman Soldiers by Jori Avlis on Flickr. He graciously granted a license under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic.

I’ve always wished Latin had been taught in my middle school and high school. Many of our words are based upon Latin. I’ve studied Latin and can often tease out meanings from seeing the Latin root. So when writing a fantasy world with spies I went looking in Latin for spies. My thoughts were I’d base the word or name of the spy network on the Latin root. Well the story is still in development but here’s what I found about spying in the Roman Empire.

Like most things in Latin the Romans categorized spies.  There were three main types:

Explaoratores – These were scouts and spies on wartime enemies.  They went to gain intelligence that would help in wartime tactics mostly on the battlefield. These operatives while needed weren’t seen as heroes because they didn’t earn their way on the battlefield but they were invaluable.  They were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.  Romans didn’t have a romantic view of spies like we do with say James Bond.

Speculatores – These were personal spies for the Emperor within the palace and Senate.  Think of Game of Throne type spies, go out and get information to help the Emperor keep power and stay alive.  The law be damned in this case.  Feared because if they wanted they could put you and your family in the Emperor’s sites just because they didn’t like you.  If you suspected someone was a speculatore you were very nice to them and just loved the current Emporer even if he was Caligula.

Frumentarii – These were internal spies in the empire.  They were usually taking cover in the supply branch of the legion.  Think how intelligence agents might take cover in a post at an embassy kind of thing. These spies were spying on Roman citizens and others living in the empire.  They were hated by all the legion and the populace.  Sadly due to commonly hiding in the supply side of the legion they gave the real supply guys a bad name.  If the upper class feared the speculatores all classes feared the frumentarii.

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