The ancient history of espionage

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A bamboo version of The Art of War, written by Sun Tzu in ancient China explores espionage tactics.

Espionage or spying is the act of receiving confidential or secret information or disclosing the same without the holder’s consent. A person who performs espionage is called a spy or an espionage agent. Spies help governments reveal secret information. Any individual can commit espionage in the service of a company, government, or independent operation. The practice is sneaky, as it is by description unwelcome. In some cases, it may be a constitutional tool of law enforcement, and in others, it may be punishable by law and illegal. Espionage is a gathering process, which includes information and secret news collection from mostly non-disclosed sources.

Spying, as well as other intelligence charges, has endured since the pre-medieval times. In the 1980s, researchers identified foreign intelligence as “the missing dimension” of historical scholarship.” Since then, a large scholarly and popular literature has emerged. Special consideration has been paid to the World Wars, as well as the Cold War era (1947–1990) that was a favorite for filmmakers and novelists.

Ancient History of Spying

Attempts to employ espionage for military and strategic advantage are well-recorded throughout history. Sun Tzu, a scholar in ancient China who was the main influence for Asian military thinking, still has numerous followers in the 21st century. He suggested, “One who knows the opposition and knows himself will not be compromised in a hundred battles.” He emphasized the need to know yourself and your opponent for military intelligence. He recognized different spy roles. 

In modern terms, they included: 

  1. the secret agent or informant in place (who presents copies of enemy secrets), 
  2. The infiltration agent who has direct access to the enemy’s administrators, and 
  3. The disinformation agent who serves a mix of real and false details to point the opponent in the wrong direction, to distract the enemy). 

He considered the need for a well-organized system and noted counterintelligence roles, double agents (selected from the ranks of enemy spies), and tough psychological warfare. Sun Tzu continued to directly influence the Chinese espionage system in the 21st century, emphasizing using the information to design a powerful revolution.

Chanakya, who is also called Kautilya in India, wrote his Arthashastra in India in the 4th century BCE. It was a ‘Textbook of Political and Statecraft Economy’ that presents a comprehensive account of intelligence collection, consumption, processing, and covert operations as necessary means for expanding and maintaining the state’s power and security.

Ancient Egypt had an entirely developed system for intelligence acquisition. The Hebrews used scouts as well, as in the tale of Rahab. Thanks to the Bible (Joshua 2:1–24), we have in this account of the spies sent by Hebrews to Jericho before striking the city one of the earliest detailed reports of a very advanced intelligence operation.

Spies were also common in the Roman and Ancient Greek kingdoms. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongols relied profoundly on surveillance in Europe and Asia’s conquests. Feudal Japan often used shinobi to collect intelligence.

A notable milestone was establishing an effective intelligence army under King David IV of Georgia at the start of the 12th century or perhaps even earlier. Called mstovaris, these classified spies executed crucial tasks, like conducting counterintelligence against enemy spies, uncovering feudal conspiracies, and penetrating key locations, e.g., fortresses, castles, and mansions.

Aztecs used Pochtecas, leaders in charge of commerce, as diplomats and spies, and had strict diplomatic immunity. Along with the pochteca, before a war or battle, undercover agents, quimitchin, were sent to spy amongst opponents, usually speaking the local language, or wearing the local costume, methods similar to contemporary secret agents.

Ancient Targets of espionage

In the Ancient Era, Espionage agents were usually trained experts in a targeted field to distinguish mundane information from value targets to their own organizational expansion. 

  • Natural resources: diplomatic production assessment and identification (energy, livestock, food). Agents were usually found among armies who manage these resources in their own kingdoms.
  • Religious Sentiment: Religious sentiment towards foreign and domestic kingdoms (religious minorities, middle class, elites). Agents were often recruited from church and other places of worship.
  • Army: Army capability intelligence (defensive, offensive, naval, land). Prisoners of wars trained agents from the soon-to-be invaded kingdoms for vital army information, including the number of horses and garrison strategy.

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