Why haven't Etruscan texts survived?

Why haven't Etruscan texts survived?

In Wikipedia it's claimed that Etruscan Civilization had a rich literature, but only one Etruscan text has survived.

And AFAIK at the same moment we have many Ancient Greeks texts roughly from the same historical period as Etruscans. And we know that Greeks and Etruscans communicated and traded at that time (Etruscans even used the part of Greek alphabet). So why the Etruscan literature left no trace as it never existed?

Greek was in wide usage as the lingua franca of the Near East. It also has the benefit of actually surviving Roman rule, in the same capacity, all the way till the Late Antiquity. The Romans themselves read and spoke Greek. Thus, Greek works have had a much greater chance of surviving simply from a great, wider, and more durable distribution.

The Etruscan language, on the other hand, was never that widespread. It also reached its height much earlier than Greek; most surviving Etruscan dates from around 700 B.C. Having been conquered by Rome since the third century B.C., the Etruscan heartland was completely subsumed into the Latin civilisation at time when Greece was thriving.

The Etruscan language had largely gone extinct by the time of Claudius. Apart from perhaps some priests/scholars, Etruscan works would have been unintelligible to almost anyone who might possess Greek books.

Given the highly limited, if not outright extinct, readership, it is unsurprising that Etruscan literature were mostly lost. It would happen both from natural attrition over the centuries, as well as in the ravages of Late Antiquity wars in Italy. The (better preserved) religious Etruscan texts were lost in warfare around the same time.

So in summary:

  • Written Etruscan is confined to more ancient, and shorter, times than Greek
  • Etruscan was not nearly as widely spoken
  • Etruscan actually went extinct
  • Etruscan texts were more exposed to destructive forces

'Extraordinary Find': Rare Religious Text Written in Lost Etruscan Language

A newly unearthed stone slab from Tuscany bears a rare Etruscan religious text that may reveal how early members of this theocratic society worshipped.

And it's written in a language that went out of use some 2,500 years ago, archaeologists said.

The slab was found in the last week of the last planned field season at Poggio Colla, a site in Italy that archaeologists have been excavating for 21 years. It dates back to the sixth century B.C. and weighs around 500 pounds (227 kilograms). Made of sandstone, the slab measures 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide (1.2 by 0.6 meters), and is chiseled with a lengthy inscription.

"It's going to take months, if not years, of probably some rather heated discussion among experts to unravel the text," said Gregory Warden, an archaeologist at Franklin University Switzerland and the principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeology Project, where the Poggio Colla excavations take place. But both the slab's context &mdash it was found at the foot of a temple &mdash and a preliminary look at its contents, suggest that it is religious in nature.

Lost civilization

The Etruscans flourished in what is today northern and eastern Italy, starting around 700 B.C. They had a major influence on Roman culture and religion, and were absorbed by Rome by about 500 B.C. Much of their language is known from short funerary inscriptions on graves, but few longer texts survive, Warden told Live Science. One exception is a linen book written in Etruscan that somehow made its way to Egypt and was turned into a mummy wrapping. [Photos: The Tomb of an Etruscan Prince]

That makes the new text exciting. The slab was found in the foundations of a temple dated to 500 B.C., meaning it could shed light on the worship of gods. Though much is known about the Etruscan polytheistic religion &mdash which had deities equivalent to the Greek and Roman gods &mdash little is known about the gods or goddesses worshipped at the Poggio Colla site.

The slab could also reveal another view of the religious rituals the culture practiced. Etruscans were known even by contemporary historians as extremely religious, and were described as obsessed with rituals, Ward said.

The Poggio Colla sanctuary has turned up remarkable ritual material over the years, Warden said. The oldest representation of childbirth in Western art was found there, depicting the head of a baby emerging from the body of a squatting woman, possibly a goddess.

"What I'm hoping is that this inscription will provide a different view of what is going on there," Warden said.

"Extraordinary find"

Archaeologists just finished cleaning the new slab last week, and now will begin the painstaking process of identifying every letter. Translation may prove challenging, as there will likely be many words on the slab that haven't been seen since the Etruscan language fell out of use.

"Even making out the letters is not easy," Ward said. "It's carved in sandstone, and it's worn and abraded."

The researchers are taking photographs of the slab to apply photogrammetry, a method of turning 2D images into 3D models. They're also using lasers to scan the slab's surface. The plan is to make that data available so that anyone interested could 3D-print a copy of the slab for study.

"A text of this kind, where the Etruscans speak for themselves, is really an extraordinary find," Warden said.


According to the Roman tradition, the oldest collection of Sibylline books appears to have been made about the time of Solon and Cyrus at Gergis on Mount Ida in the Troad it was attributed to the Hellespontine Sibyl and was preserved in the temple of Apollo at Gergis. From Gergis the collection passed to Erythrae, where it became famous as the oracles of the Erythraean Sibyl. It would appear to have been this very collection that found its way to Cumae (see the Cumaean Sibyl) and from Cumae to Rome.

The story of the acquisition of the Sibylline Books by the seventh and last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus ("Tarquinius", ruled 534 to 509 B.C., d. 495 B.C.), is one of the famous legendary elements of Roman history. An old woman, possibly a Cumaean Sibyl, offered to Tarquinius nine books of these prophecies at an exorbitant price when the king declined to purchase them, she burned three and offered the remaining six to Tarquinius at the same price, which he again refused. Thereupon, she burned three more and repeated her offer, maintaining the same price. Tarquinius then consulted the Augurs whose importance in Roman history is averred by Livy. The Augurs deplored the loss of the six books and urged purchase of the remaining three. Tarquinius then purchased the last three at the full original price, and had them preserved in a sacred vault beneath the Capitoline temple of Jupiter. The story is alluded to in Varro's lost books quoted in Lactantius Institutiones Divinae (I: 6) and by Origen, and told by Aulus Gellius (Noctes Atticae 1, 19). [1]

The Roman Senate kept tight control over the Sibylline Books, [2] and entrusted them to the care of two patricians. In 367 BC, the number of custodians was increased to ten, five patricians and five plebeians, who were called the decemviri sacris faciundis. Subsequently, probably in the time of Sulla, their number was increased to fifteen, the quindecimviri sacris faciundis. They were usually ex-consuls or ex-praetors. They held office for life, and were exempt from all other public duties. They had the responsibility of keeping the books in safety and secrecy. These officials, at the command of the Senate, consulted the Sibylline Books in order to discover not exact predictions of definite future events in the form of prophecy, but the religious observances necessary to avert extraordinary calamities and to expiate ominous prodigies (comets and earthquakes, showers of stones, plague, and the like). It was only the rites of expiation prescribed by the Sibylline Books, according to the interpretation of the oracle that were communicated to the public, and not the oracles themselves, which left ample opportunity for abuses.

In particular, the keepers of the Sibylline Books had the superintendence of the worship of Apollo, of the "Great Mother" Cybele or Magna Mater, and of Ceres, which had been introduced upon recommendations as interpreted from the Sibylline Books. The Sibylline Books motivated the construction of eight temples in ancient Rome, aside from those cults that have been interpreted as mediated by the Sibylline Books simply by the Greek nature of the deity. [3] Thus, one important effect of the Sibylline Books was their influence on applying Greek cult practice and Greek conceptions of deities to indigenous Roman religion, which was already indirectly influenced through Etruscan religion. As the Sibylline Books had been collected in Anatolia, in the neighborhood of Troy, they recognized the gods and goddesses and the rites observed there and helped introduce them into Roman state worship, a syncretic amalgamation of national deities with the corresponding deities of Greece, and a general modification of the Roman religion.

Since they were written in hexameter verse and in Greek, the college of curators was always assisted by two Greek interpreters. The books were kept in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, and, when the temple burned in 83 BC, they were lost. The Roman Senate sent envoys in 76 BC to replace them with a collection of similar oracular sayings, in particular collected from Ilium, Erythrae, Samos, Sicily, and Africa. [4] This new Sibylline collection was deposited in the restored temple, together with similar sayings of native origin, e.g. those of the Sibyl at Tibur (the 'Tiburtine Sibyl') of the brothers Marcius, and others, which had been circulating in private hands but which were called in, to be delivered to the Urban Praetor, private ownership of such works being declared illicit, and to be evaluated by the Quindecimviri, who then sorted them, retaining only those that appeared true to them. [5]

From the Capitol they were transferred by Augustus as pontifex maximus in 12 BC, to the Temple of Apollo Palatinus, after they had been examined and copied there they remained until about AD 405. According to the poet Rutilius Claudius Namatianus, the general Flavius Stilicho (died AD 408) burned them, as they were being used to attack his government. The last known consultation was in 363 CE. [6]

Some supposedly genuine Sibylline verses are preserved in the Book of Marvels or Memorabilia of Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century AD). These represent an oracle, or a combination of two oracles, of seventy hexameters in all. They report the birth of an androgyne, and prescribe a long list of rituals and offerings to the gods. [ citation needed ] Their authenticity has been questioned. [7]

Relationship with the "Sibylline Oracles" Edit

The Sibylline Oracles were quoted by the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus (late 1st century) as well as by numerous Christian writers of the second century, including Athenagoras of Athens who, in a letter addressed to Marcus Aurelius in ca. AD 176, quoted verbatim a section of the extant Oracles, in the midst of a lengthy series of other classical and pagan references such as Homer and Hesiod, stating several times that all these works should already be familiar to the Roman Emperor. Copies of the actual Sibylline Books (as reconstituted in 76 BC) were still in the Roman Temple at this time. The Oracles are nevertheless thought by modern scholars to be anonymous compilations that assumed their final form in the fifth century, after the Sibylline Books perished. They are a miscellaneous collection of Jewish and Christian portents of future disasters, that may illustrate the confusions about sibyls that were accumulating among Christians of Late Antiquity. [8]

An incomplete list of consultations of the Sibylline Books recorded by historians:

Why do we read in English from left to right?

The simple answer is that we read from left to right because we write from left to right. And why do we write from left to right? Written English is derived from Latin (written from left to right) which was derived from Greek (also written from left to right). Okay, so why did the Greeks write from left to right? There are lots of theories, but no one knows for sure.

The first Western written words were probably written in mud more than 5,000 years ago. They haven’t survived. However, there was also writing in stone thousands of years ago (the Ten Commandments, for example). For a chiseler chipping away, the writing was probably from right to left. A right-handed chiseler could chip with his right hand and brush away debris with his left hand without putting down his chisel. Semitic-derived languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, Farsi, Yiddish and Urdu continued in a right to left pattern, and still do, except for the writing of numbers, which are usually written left to right.

To enlarge, click on the picture.

Another way of writing, called boustrophedon, meaning “as the bull walks,” alternated the direction of the writing. One line would go from left to right but the next would go from right to left. This kind of writing can be found in some ancient religious texts. It was used in the oldest Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek and Latin writings.

Cuneiform writing went from left to right, perhaps so right-handed scribes would not smudge their work in clay with the heel of their hands. For the same reason, languages that were written with brushes (Chinese and Japanese) might have been written from top to bottom. The painter/scribe held his brush differently from the way we hold a pen, but to avoid smudges, he went down the page, giving the writing at the top time to dry before a second column was started.

That explains the top to bottom format, but not the right to left format.

As for the Greeks, they wrote on papyrus, a precursor to paper. With most people being right-handed, a Greek writer could see what he had written without his hand smudging it or covering it if he wrote from left to right. We inherited that tradition in the English language. Until ball point pens came along, our ancestors wrote with fountain pens and before that with quill pens, both of which required blotting to absorb the excess ink and to prevent smudging. Smudging was common in the past, but has become a problem we rarely have any more.

Perhaps the reason we write—and read—from left to right is as simple as to reduce smudging.

Whatever the reason, it is important to acclimate your child to reading from left to right. More on how to do that in a later blog.

7 Etruscan

The last alleged fluent speaker of the Etruscan language was Caesar Claudius, who compiled a history of the Etruscans that has been unfortunately lost. It was a sad but proper end for the language that had dominated central Italy for centuries in fierce competition with Latin.

Much of the difficulty of reconstructing Etruscan is its isolation and the scarcity of texts longer than short inscriptions. The only one found so far is a linen book that was reused as wrappings for a mummy. What we do know is that the Etruscans developed their own alphabet based on Euboean Greek and had an elaborate literary tradition, but since it has been lost to history, much of it is open to speculation. They also gave us place names such as Rome, from the age when the Etruscans ruled over the Latin.

Why an Ancient Theory?

When people encounter our work on the life-cycle of democracy and the theory of anacyclosis they often ask us, “Why are you taking inspiration from an ancient theory? Haven’t modern historians come up with better models for how democracies evolve?”

If only they had! Unfortunately, as we’ve written elsewhere , modern historians have all but stopped trying to understand patterns in history. In fact, the dominant schools of thought in academic history departments (e.g. the “Cambridge School” and the “New Historicism”) reject or ignore the existence of historical patterns altogether.

While historians of earlier generations, such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, did make attempts at identifying long-term trends, they did not offer much by way of concrete models that can be tested against historical data-sets. And if we go back to even earlier historians, they didn’t offer models for how democracies evolve because they lived in a world with hardly any democracies in it.

Thus, in order to find historians who offered models for how democracies evolve, we need to go all the way back to the last time in history when there were a lot of democracies in existence: the ancient Mediterranean of the 5th – 2nd centuries BC. This is the historical period to which the Framers of the US Constitution turned to for historical models, and for good reason. The ancient Mediterranean gives us the most expansive, varied, and long-term data-set on the rise and fall of constitutional states (including democracy) in all of pre-modern history.

Here’s why: the period from around 800 BC until the first century BC witnessed the flourishing of a vast, interconnected ecosystem of small, independent states scattered all around the Mediterranean and Black Sea coast-lines. This vast network of polities included not only Greek city-states (of which there were over a thousand) but also Etruscan city-states, various Italic city-states (including Rome), and Phoenician settlements, including the republic of Carthage. Together these sovereign polities numbered over 1,500.

All of these micro-states were connected to each other by the sea, through complex networks of trade and communication. And across this expansive ecosystem we see, over time, similar trends of political evolution and revolution, as if the entire system were somehow synchronized. For example, most of these micro-states in the 700s BC were ruled by kings and queens. By the 400s BC, many of them, if not the majority of them, had experimented with non-monarchical rule of various forms, including democracy, oligarchy, and republican government. By the 200s BC, several groups of constitutional states were experimenting with federalism (which is what we have in the US today). This unique ecosystem effectively ended with the meteoric rise of Rome and the consolidation of Roman imperial authority over the entire Mediterranean region in the first century BC.

There has never been, in any other period of pre-modern history, such a large number of sovereign states covering such a wide geographic area and all in contact with one another. At any give time, there were dozens of new city-states being founded and dozens of others being destroyed by civil war or conquest. Thus, the Mediterranean world of the first millennium BC was likely the biggest hotbed of political experimentation in history. That’s probably one of the major reasons why the Greeks and Romans produced so many great political philosophers. It’s not because they were smarter than us, but because they saw so many hundreds of political experiments happening all around them.

We know all this because a lot of written information has survived from those times. To be sure, we only have a tiny fraction of the texts that filled the great ancient libraries, such as that of Alexandria. But compared to the writings of all other ancient civilizations, we have orders of magnitude more texts from Greece and Rome. Furthermore, we are fortunate to have the writings of several of the best political thinkers from those cultures, thinkers who had access to (now lost) historical data on hundreds of ancient states that experimented with democracy and republicanism. For example, Aristotle sent off his students to research and compile detailed descriptions of the constitutions of over 160 notable city-states around the Mediterranean. Only one of those descriptions survives in full (On the Constitution of the Athenians), but we can reliably assume that Aristotle’s work called Politics (which we do have) distilled many of the insights he gained from the empirical studies his students conducted on those 100+ constitutions that have since been lost to history.

Bearing all this in mind, we can now answer the question that prompted this discussion (why we are taking inspiration from an ancient theory). The challenge in building historical models is that they can only be as good as the data-sets they are trained on. And the fact is that modern history does not provide a long-term and complete data-set on how democracies evolve over time and how they fare during crises. Most democracies in the modern world are relatively young, and none of the major ones has yet to suffer a tumultuous revolution or military/economic upset. Thus, it is hard for anyone to predict, based solely on recent history, what will happen to our current democracies over time.

By contrast, Plato and Polybius had a phenomenal data-set to work with, comprised of over a thousand city-states (including hundreds of democracies) and stretching over many centuries of evolution and political turbulences. The theory of anacyclosis was distilled from this uniquely rich data set. And we at the Anacyclosis Institute think that the theory largely fits with the trajectory of modern democracies so far.

In sum, the theory of anacyclosis isn’t just some antiquated theory or an intellectual curiosity from the ancient world. It is, in fact, the only concrete model of political evolution ever created based on an extensive data-set of democracies. We’re not saying it’s perfect. But it’s a useful starting point.


Callenbach, Ernest. Bring Back the Buffalo!: A Sustainable Future for America's Great Plains. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1996.

Dary, David A. The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1989.

Josephy, Alvin M. Now That the Buffalo's Gone: A Study of Today's American Indians. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984.

Milner, Clyde A., II, Carol A. O'Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss, eds. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Paul, Rodman W. The Far West and the Great Plains in Transition, 1859 – 1900. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Espionage in Ancient Rome

The Romans prided themselves on being a people who won their battles the hard way. Roman writers claimed that their army did not defeat its enemies by trickery or deceit but by superior force of arms, and for the most part they were right. The Roman legions could outstrip almost any opponent in maneuverability and discipline. By relying on sound tactics, strategic methods, and superior logistics, the Roman army made itself the most reliable killing machine in the history of pre-mechanized warfare. It has been estimated that the Romans’ standard weapon, the gladius, or Spanish short sword, accounted for more deaths than any other weapon before the invention of firearms.

What need would such a people have for spying or covert action? Were the Romans exactly as they portrayed themselves–too noble and upright to resort to subterfuge? Was it only their enemies who relied on dirty tricks and clandestine operations? Although they wanted others to believe this, the historical record shows that, on the contrary, the Romans used a full range of covert intelligence techniques, as we would expect from any power that aspired to world empire.

Discovering traces of intelligence operations that occurred two thousand years ago–which even then were meant to be secret–is no small task. But it is not an impossible one. The intelligence business is as old as civilization itself, and once the steps in the process have been identified, they can be traced in almost any civilization that left historical records.

In the days preceding modern ‘technical’ collection–whereby sound recording devices, hidden cameras, and satellites gather data–people were the only means commanders and political leaders had to collect the vital information they needed to survive the plots of their enemies. Before bugging devices, there were eavesdroppers behind curtains, and the toga and dagger might indeed have been symbols for the way the Romans carried out their domestic and foreign policy objectives.

The modern process of intelligence gathering has four elements: direction or targeting, collection of data, analysis of data, and dissemination to the users of the information. Good intelligence analysts know that not all information is ‘intelligence.’ Intelligence is restricted to crucial information about the target or enemy–his strength, location, likely intentions, and capabilities. Also, good intelligence has a time factor it must be quickly collected, analyzed, and delivered in time for the user to act upon it. The last step is dissemination. Even if intelligence is collected and analyzed correctly, it will be of no value if the product is not conveyed to the end user in sufficient time for him to act upon it. A famous example in the Roman context was the episode in which a list of conspirators was thrust into Julius Caesar’s hand shortly before he was assassinated. Caesar’s intelligence network had done its job. Had the dictator read the message and acted upon it, he might have survived. Taking advantage of the intelligence product–the decision to act–is not a function of the intelligence apparatus. If the commander or statesman has all the information yet makes a bad decision, it is not an intelligence failure but incompetence or poor judgment on the part of the intelligence consumer.

Rome certainly did not lack enemies to target. Neighboring clans like the Aequi and Volsci, and later the Etruscans, Samnites, and Gauls, kept the Romans constantly at war during the early and middle republics. Collecting intelligence about these surrounding tribes and discerning whether they would be friendly or hostile in a given situation was probably a full-time job, and instances of such intelligence gathering appear in Livy’s stories. Around 300 b.c., for example, during the Etruscan wars, the consul Q. Fabius Maximus sent his brother disguised as an Etruscan peasant into the Ciminian forest to win over the local Umbrians to the Roman cause. The brother was both fluent in Etruscan and a master of disguise. He was sent to reconnoiter areas into which Roman agents were said never to have penetrated. The mission was a resounding success, and Rome was able to bring Umbrian tribes into an alliance.

The Romans continued to use intelligence as they conquered the peoples of the Italian Peninsula. We see them using scouts on regular assignments against the Samnites and Gauls, and because of advance intelligence they could often catch their enemies by launching surprise attacks and rout their camps.

When Rome leaped into the international arena against the Carthaginians, however, it learned a lesson about how effective advance intelligence could be in the hands of a skilled opponent such as the Carthaginian leader Hannibal. During the Second Punic War (218­201 b.c.), Hannibal placed spies in Roman camps and in Rome itself. We know this because one of those spies whom the Romans caught had his hands cut off, then was released as a warning to other spies. The Carthaginian general’s ability to disguise himself, to forge documents, to send secret communications, and to surprise the Romans became legendary. And his agents are said to have had secret hand gestures that they used as a means of recognizing one another. Hannibal used such ingenuity to lure the Romans into traps, as at Lake Trasimene, where he caught the Roman army between the lake and the surrounding mountains. This ruse cost the Romans fifteen thousand killed and an equal number taken prisoner. His famous victory at the Battle of Cannae was another trap–a victory for Hannibal that cost the Romans dearly in lost manpower. Although historians have argued over exact figures, when Livy tells us that the rings taken from dead Roman aristocrats filled three bushels, we get some idea of the loss to the Roman upper classes.

Not only did Hannibal emphasize good intelligence, he exacted a high price from agents who did not perform well. A scout who had mistakenly taken him to Casilinum and into a trap, when he had been directed to take him to Casinum, was crucified as punishment for his error.

Hannibal had the advantage of being sole commander of his forces. As leader of the Carthaginian army and its allies, he was his own chief of intelligence for fourteen years. It was not until the Romans put a single commander, Scipio Africanus, in charge of their armies that they were able to emulate Hannibal’s efficient tactics and win the Second Punic War.

Among other ploys, Scipio directed spies to reconnoiter enemy camps. When his siege of Utica stalled, he sent a legation to the camp of the Numidian king, Syphax. Centurians disguised as slaves accompanied Scipio’s emissaries. The legate Gaius Laelius was fearful the plan would be exposed–that one of the disguised centurians, Lucius Statorius, might be recognized since he had previously visited the camp. To protect his agent’s cover, Laelius had him publicly caned. The persuasiveness of the deceptive action hinged upon the known fact that the Romans subjected only persons low on the social scale to corporal punishment. To the historian, the episode is of particular interest because it specifically identifies centurions and tribunes as active participants in espionage missions. While the legates were in conference, the’slaves’ were to wander about the camp and reconnoiter the premises, making note of entrances, exits, and the location of each division. They were to look for the outposts and sentries and determine whether the camp was more vulnerable to attack by day or by night. On each visit, a different group of’slaves’ made the trip, so that every centurion would have an opportunity to familiarize himself with the encampments.

When all the information was at hand, Scipio concluded that a night attack would be the most effective way to take the camp, and in addition, he ordered the Carthaginian and Numidian camps burned. The Carthaginians, thinking these were accidental fires, ran out unarmed only to be slaughtered by the Roman column that was ready and waiting. In this case, intelligence collection had made possible a successful clandestine operation. Scipio had delivered a crippling blow to a superior force.

By the time Rome conquered the Hellenistic kingdoms in the East and fought the Third Punic War (149-146 b.c.), the republic on the Tiber had become the center of a Mediterranean empire. Historians still marvel at how much territory Rome ruled during the middle republic with the sparse infrastructure that it had. For example, there was no postal-communications system, no government intelligence service, no permanent foreign service, and no decision-making body other than the cumbersome three-hundred-man Senate. The Romans had nothing resembling a diplomatic corps. They did not send permanent representatives abroad, nor did they establish offices for foreign-area specialists at home. In fact, they did not even install occupying forces in the East prior to the late second century b.c. There was no diplomatic presence abroad to implement foreign policy, to provide cover for covert operators, or to act as intelligence gatherers for the government back in Rome.

The primary means of assessing problems overseas became the embassy. The Senate dispatched small missions of inquiry or advice, composed usually of three to five senators of varying qualifications and experience. They traveled in naval vessels but without military escort. These men acted as Roman agents but were by no means permanently stationed abroad. Embassies were usually sent to visit kings who had previously sent deputations to Rome to ask for assistance. Only in times of crisis would the Senate initiate a mission of inquiry on its own.

Roman envoys were briefed with instructions and told to deliver warnings, to give advice, to arbitrate settlements, to check reports, or simply to look around. Most of this was done in the open, but there was always the possibility of information being clandestinely slipped to the envoys by interested parties. We do not know how many retainers they brought with them who, unnoticed, could eavesdrop.

While it is reasonable to assume the Romans sent the emissaries to collect intelligence, there is no question that the emissaries were considered spies by their targets. On his grand tour of the East in 166 b.c., Tiberius Gracchus and his entourage were referred to as kataskopoi (spies) by the Greek historian Polybius. Appian, another Greek historian, bluntly stated that envoys sent to Antiochus IV, ostensibly to bring about reconciliation between him and Ptolemy, really intended to find out his plans. Antiochus gave these spies such a warm reception that they sent back glowing reports. Yet we know from other records that Antiochus in fact harbored a great deal of antipathy toward Rome and pursued a policy quite different from the one he confided to the envoys.

Because rulers in the East had a long history of using formal intelligence services, they often assumed the Romans were playing the same game. Genthius, an Illyrian king, sometimes chained ambassadors sent by Rome and charged them with espionage. Other examples of Roman ambassadors or traders being suspected, arrested, or executed on espionage charges are not hard to find. Even Romans traveling in a non-official capacity were mistrusted by provincials. Roman grain buyers making purchases from Cumae and Sicily were accused of spying, and consequently were treated with extreme hostility by the local authorities, even to the point of finding their lives in danger. When Mithridates VI, king of Pontus, went to war against the Romans, the first thing he did was kill all the Romans and Italians in the main cities of Asia Minor as members of a possible fifth column. An estimated eighty thousand Roman and Italian casualties show how seriously Mithridates took his security problems.

Part of Rome’s reluctance to develop a formal intelligence service stemmed from the unique way its republican government had developed. The Senate, composed of scions of wealthy, upper-class families, acted with a certain amount of class loyalty that allowed the state to push its interests and expand overseas. But the senate was not of one mind. There was always tremendous personal competition among individuals and families for the wealth and glory that such conquest created. In order to further their parochial ends, these men needed to know what others were doing and planning, and so they used their private intelligence networks to advance their own careers. Much of the behind the scenes cloak-and-dagger work of senatorial politics is forever lost to us, but it is not hard to imagine what forms it took. Certainly political scandal played its part in launching as well as sinking the careers of numerous senators.

The Romans had no qualms about using espionage on a personal level. Every Roman aristocrat had his private network of business associates, informers, clansmen, slaves, or agents (male or female) who could keep him informed on the latest happenings in the Senate or his own home. Even Roman architects built private homes with counterintelligence in mind. Livius Drusus’ architect asked him whether he would like his house built ‘in such a way that he would be free from public gaze, safe from all espionage and that no one could look down on it.’

Espionage on a small scale became espionage on a national scale when the nobility took its family interests into the foreign-policy arena. But because each senatorial family had its own private intelligence network, no one group would have sanctioned the creation of a single central intelligence organization that might fall into the hands of a rival faction. Such a collection of individual interests was simply not fertile ground for spawning a single institution that would monitor Rome’s overseas interests plus segments of Roman society itself. Even if such a centralized intelligence body were assigned only foreign targets, there might have remained a residual fear that sooner or later such an apparatus would be used to advance the interests of one group over another.

The fact that the intelligence networks were privately owned and operated can be seen clearly in the late republic. Sallust, who wrote an account of the Catiline conspiracy, one of the most notorious threats to the late republic, said it was put down by Cicero using bodyguards, who learned of it through the consul’s wide-ranging espionage network that included bodyguards. Pompey and Caesar each had intelligence networks that they used against each other in the civil war that ultimately brought down the republic.

Caesar’s agents in Rome kept a close watch on his enemies. Cicero, for example, mentions in a letter that his epigrams were reported to Caesar, who could distinguish between the authentic ones and those falsely attributed to him. As long as Caesar held control of Rome during the civil war, the city’s population rejoiced with his victories and mourned his losses, at least publicly. They knew full well there were spies and eavesdroppers prowling about, observing all that was said and done. Caesar’s military couriers, the speculatores, were kept busy delivering intelligence but were also given espionage assignments.

Caesar coordinated his intelligence assets well. In this he stands out as an individual who could make the best of the republican system. He established a rapid message and information transport system via couriers, and he also had scouts and spies who used counterintelligence techniques, such as codes and ciphers, to prevent his military plans from falling into the hands of the enemy. His successor Augustus had a better opportunity to develop the system Caesar had started. Augustus may have been heir to Caesar’s ideas, or perhaps he just instinctively knew what the new empire needed. But in any case, he was shrewd enough to realize that such intelligence reforms were long overdue. Augustus’ first intelligence-gathering and dissemination-related innovation was the establishment of a state postal and messenger service called the cursus publicus, which replaced the inadequate republican system of private messengers.

By furnishing a means of transport and communications, Augustus built the rudiments of what was to become the imperial security service. Now there would be an official, permanent, and reliable way to communicate political and military intelligence. Like the Babylonians and Persians before them, the Romans combined their road network with a centrally administered communications system to help ensure the security of the emperor and the stability of the empire.

Although the cursus publicus provided a reliable means of transmitting important intelligence, sending dispatches by this method did not ensure sufficient security if there was a traitor within the system. Secret and not-so-secret communications often played a critical role in political events.

The emperor Caracalla (a.d. 211-217) was warned of a plot against his life as the scheme was being hatched by his successor Macrinus (217-218). The warning came from Materianus, the officer in charge of the urban cohorts during Caracalla’s frequent absences from Rome on campaign. The message was sealed and given with other letters to the courier of the imperial post. The courier completed his journey at normal speed, not realizing what he was carrying. Caracalla received the mail, but instead of reading it himself, turned the daily dispatches, including the warning from Materianus, over to Macrinus, who promptly disposed of the incriminating letter. Because he was afraid Materianus might try a second communication, Macrinus also decided to dispose of Caracalla.

Quite frequently intelligence couriers doubled as political assassins. The emperor Gordian sent a secret letter that is described by the historian Herodian as having been folded in a manner that was ‘the normal method used by the emperor to send private, secret messages.’ No further details are given, but evidently such messages were sealed in a certain way and carried by special messengers. In Gordian’s case, the message was sent to the governor of Mauretania Caesariensis as part of a covert operation. The agents were disguised as messengers from Maximinus, the emperor’s enemy. The governor, Vitalianus, usually went to a small room, off the public court, where he could scrutinize the dispatches carefully. The agents then were instructed to inform him that they were bringing secret instructions from Maximinus and to request a private audience in order to pass these secret instructions on personally. While Vitalianus was examining the seals, they killed him with swords hidden under their cloaks.

As the system of the cursus publicus developed, the couriers were drawn increasingly from the army, especially from the speculatores. The duties of the speculatores were not limited simply to carrying messages. They could also be used for undercover activities such as spying, arresting political figures, guarding suspects and detainees, or executing condemned men. The Gospel of St. Mark 6:27 indicates that it was a speculator who was sent to the prison with an execution order for John the Baptist.

With the reign of Domitian (a.d. 81-96), or possibly Hadrian (117-138), came another innovation that added more manpower to this intelligence network. The supply section of the imperial general staff provided personnel who could work as intelligence agents. Supply sergeants, called frumentarii, whose original functions had included the purchase and distribution of grain, were now turned into intelligence officers. Because these men were constantly traveling on logistical assignments, they were in a position to watch over the army, the imperial bureaucracy, and the local population. They could report back on any situation that was of interest to the emperors. That emperors came to rely on this system is shown by the fact that the frumentarii began to replace the speculatores as intelligence couriers and eventually as secret police. Although their three main duties were as couriers, tax collectors, and policemen, like the speculatores before them these officers were used in many capacities involving state security. By the third century there is extensive evidence of their use as spies. No one seemed to be immune–prominent generals, lowly Christians, senators, and subversives all came under their scrutiny.

In the city of Rome the frumentarii worked closely with the urban police force. Their secret service duties, besides investigating and arresting, eventually came to include political assassination. Not only did the emperor avail himself of their services, but pretenders to the throne, such as Macrinus, used the frumentarii to further their careers. How the service was used or abused depended on the emperor. Alexander Severus is praised for choosing only honest men, but at other times complaints arrived about their corruption.

Secret police agents, the frumentarii participated in the persecution of Christians. They were among the chief agents who spied on Christians and had them arrested. The soldier who supervised Saint Paul in Rome while he was awaiting trial was a frumentarius. Early Church historian Eusebius reports the tale of a Christian named Dionysius who was being hunted by the secret police. He hid in his house for four days. Meanwhile the frumentarius was searching high and low but never thought to search the man’s house. Dionysius made his escape with the help of the Christian underground.

In another incident, a frumentarius was sent to arrest Cyprian, later sainted, but the Christians, who had their own intelligence network during the persecutions, found out about the arrest order and warned him to go into hiding.

Many ancient sources mention’soldiers without uniforms’ arresting Christians or performing other secret service duties, but it is not always possible to know if these were frumentarii. Since any soldier could be seconded for police duties, the imperial government had a large range of personnel from which to choose for these kinds of duties.

Their activities did not endear the frumentarii to the general public. Roman administrators could be arbitrary, authoritarian, and corrupt. When they became involved in tax collecting and detecting subversion, the temptations to corruption were even greater. A third-century writer described the provinces as ‘enslaved by fear,’ since spies were everywhere. Many Romans and people in the provinces found it impossible to think or speak freely for fear of being spied upon. The snooping of the frumentarii became rampant by the late third century, and their behavior was compared to that of a plundering army. They would enter villages ostensibly in pursuit of political criminals, search homes, and then demand bribes from the locals.

The emperor Diocletian disbanded the frumentarii because of the massive number of complaints he received from his subjects, but he actually had no intention of giving up such an essential intelligence source. He simply replaced them with members of another organization, who would perform the same counterintelligence and security tasks but under a different name. These new men were called agentes in rebus–general agents. The blandness of the title belies their actual secret functions. They performed a wide range of intelligence activities almost identical to those of the frumentarii. The two major differences were that the agentes were civilians, not soldiers, and they were not under the jurisdiction of the praetorian prefect, the commander of the Praetorian Guard rather they were directed by an official called the ‘master of offices.’ Since the master of offices controlled other groups that had intelligence functions–such as the notarii, the imperial secretaries–by the mid-fourth century the master of offices became, in effect, the minister of information. The new corps of agents was also more numerous than it had been under the previous system, reaching as many as twelve hundred men.

The growth of bureaucracy in the late empire created another use for spies: surveillance of other ministries of state. The central government would send intelligence officers from the imperial court to other departments of the bureaucracy to spy on both their superiors and subordinates alike. Instead of remaining loyal to the emperor, they cooperated with, rather than spied on, the superiors they thought could help their careers. Often charges of treason were hurled at political rivals rather than real traitors, with the consequence that the security of the empire was compromised.

During the late empire, the Roman government institutionalized its information services and espionage activities to an extent unknown during Augustus’ time. And yet can we say intelligence activities kept the emperor any safer? Probably not. Only a minority of emperors died a natural death. Seventy-five percent of them fell to assassins or pretenders to the throne. In order to be safe, the emperor relied on many groups to provide him with intelligence. The distinguishing characteristic of espionage in the late empire is that no one department carried it out alone. Many groups, civilian and military, were assigned tasks that involved some surveillance.

Did all this spying make Rome more secure on its borders or make its leaders well informed about its enemies? Again the answer is no. Foreign intelligence continued to be collected by the traditional means, that is, by the military scouts–the exploratores and speculatores. Large mobile units of exploratores were stationed in border areas, where they were used to monitor enemy activity beyond the empire’s limits. This was straightforward military reconnaissance. There is little evidence to suggest that the Romans placed their own agents among foreign powers. The one exception is a passage from the fourth-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus in which he talks about a group called the Arcani who evidently were paid by the Romans to’snoop among the savages’ and report what they saw. Even they eventually became corrupt and had to be removed. Unfortunately for us, the detailed description of these activities was lost with Ammianus’ history of Constans, which has not survived.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, the Romans were heavily involved in espionage, but it cannot be said that they ever established a formal intelligence service. The closest they came was in using groups like the frumentarii and the agentes in rebus for various internal security tasks. Protecting the emperor and keeping him on the throne became so crucial after the third century that most of Rome’s intelligence activities were focused inward. Ironically, for all their reputation as empire builders, the Romans were never as good at watching their enemies as they were at watching each other.

The Description of Giants in Ancient Literature

As Xaviant Haze notes in his recent work Ancient Giants , tales and stories of giants are a universal phenomenon found in nearly every human culture throughout recorded human history. When these various accounts are examined, one common theme emerges, namely that the giants and the civilizations they created were defined by violence and bloodshed. While a comprehensive examination of giants in ancient oral and written traditions is well beyond the scope of this article, it is possible to narrow our focus here to the treatment of giants within a particular culture and their body of literature.

As someone with a background in biblical studies, the ancient Israelites immediately came to mind as the best candidates for such an examination. In contrast to many other ancient Near Eastern societies, the history of ancient Israel is very well documented in both biblical (i.e. the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible) and extra-biblical sources.

The ‘Book of Giants’ tells the story of pre-diluvian origins of evil and the fate of the Watchers and their giant offspring. (Chauvelin2000 / Public Domain )

One of the earliest references to giants in Israel comes from the Yahwist account of the great deluge found in Genesis chapter 6. (The Yahwist being one of the four authors or sources for the material in the first five books of the Old Testament commonly referred to as the Torah or Pentateuch. The four source theory was popularized in the late 19th century in the work of the famous German biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen.) Here they are linked to the “ sons of God ” (Hebrew: bene ‘elohim ) who forcefully take the “daughters of men” ( banot ‘anashim ) as wives.

The Latin translation of the Genesis 6 passage reads:

Gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis: postquam enim ingress sunt filii Dei ad filias hominum illaeque genuerunt isti sunt potentes a saeculo viri famosi

But giants were over the earth in those days. For after the sons of God entered into the daughters of men and these (women) gave birth. These are the powerful ones from long ago, the famous men. (Genesis 6:4)

(All translations of Latin or Hebrew texts are mine unless noted as otherwise.)

The Old Testament shares stories about giants taking human women. (JarektUploadBot / Public Domain )

Though the flood account suggests that the giants were exterminated with the rest of the inhabitants of the earth, sans Noah and his family, they appear again much later in the biblical timeline in what scholars refer to as the Deuteronomic history. (In biblical studies, the Deuteronomic history refers to the material from Joshua to 2 Kings in the Old Testament. The history begins with Israel’s entry into the Promised Land and ends with the destruction of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, in 586 BC.)

Within this history is undoubtedly the most famous account of a giant in biblical literature and possibly in Western culture: the (violent) encounter between the Israelite David and the giant Goliath from Gath (1 Samuel 17).

David holding the head of the giant Goliath. (Fæ / Public Domain )

It should be noted that in both the Deuteronomic history and in the earlier Yahwist source, the giants are associated with heightened violence. As the Hebrew term laqach suggests, they forcibly take (i.e. sexually assault) the “daughters of men” leading to the birth of hybrid, super-human offspring which extra-biblical tradition identifies with the Greek gods and heroes . (In the first volume of his Antiquities of the Jews , the 1 st century AD Jewish historian Josephus links the giants of Genesis to Greek demigods such as Hercules.)

In later encounters between the giants and Israel the outcome is always violent leading to warfare and bloodshed between the two groups. It is this particular feature of the giants that yields us insight into what may have happened to them not only in ancient Israel but throughout the world.

On the coat-tails of empire

Ultimately, Latin has Rome to thank for its enduring success, although it long outlived the vehicle that sped it to greatness. Without Rome, Latin quite possibly would have died out millennia ago, and the linguistic landscape as we know it would be drastically different. Though there were a variety of factors that contributed to Latin’s success, nearly all of them stemmed from Rome’s military conquests and remarkable feats of infrastructure, although conquest alone has rarely throughout the course of history been sufficient to propagate a language with any lasting success. The relationship was by no means commensalistic, though—having this well-established central language became a tremendous asset to the Empire. It was a source of national pride, and having a single language spoken in the military promoted unity and camaraderie.

As it turns out, having a military that spoke Latin was integral to the language’s success. In his book Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, Dr. Ostler identifies three reasons why Latin succeeded where Etruscan and Oscan ultimately failed: “it was a farmers’ language, a soldiers’ language, and a city language,” he asserts [7]. The seeds of Latin were sown throughout the Italian peninsula with every Roman conquest. Rather than destroying the fields of their enemies, Rome seized fertile tracts of land on which to settle retired soldiers. Soon, well-situated farmers throughout the peninsula were speaking Latin, which increasingly came to be regarded as a language of prestige. Another Roman policy was to compel the youth of the tribes they conquered to enlist in the well-regulated Roman army, where it would become necessary for them to learn Latin, which they would then bring back to their families or wherever they retired. Finally, Latin was spoken in Rome and in the cities that the Romans were establishing in conquered territories.

Etruscan had the benefit of being spoken in a cosmopolitan and civil urban environment, among some of most the wealthy and influential individuals in the region, and it was most likely spoken in the fields as well. The Etruscans had long controlled vast swathes of north Italy and later a large portion of the western coast, and their language appeared to be firmly rooted in many of these areas. Yet for all their wealth and advantages, the Etruscans were not equipped to defend themselves against the growing power of Rome. One by one, Etruscan cities were forced to yield to the very people they had once ruled.

Oscan, on the other hand, was a language of both farmers and soldiers. Its weakness lay in the fact that most Oscan speakers were rural tribes, with no central seat of power. Rome, on the other hand, had a well-organised urban command structure that allowed it to cement its authority in Latium and the colonies beyond. The Oscan-speaking tribes, even when they formed alliances with one another, could never hope to match a power such as this. One by one, they too fell to the encroaching power of Rome.

By the first century AD, Latin—the language of farmers, cities, and soldiers—had conquered the Apennine peninsula.

[1] Devlin, F. (2001, June 14). U.S. Study of “Dead” Latin Is Making a Comeback. In National Geographic News.

[2] Ostler, N. (2007). Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (p. 22). New York: Walker & Company.

[4] Ostler, N. (2007). Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (p. 30). New York: Walker & Company.

[5] Ostler, N. (2007). Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (p. 31). New York: Walker & Company.

[6] Ostler, N. (2007). Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (p. 25). New York: Walker & Company.

[7] Ostler, N. (2007). Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (p. 56-57). New York: Walker & Company.

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