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Imperial Spies and Intercepted Letters in the Late Roman Empire

Kathryn Langenfeld

Rice University

Although concerns over digital privacy and government surveillance may seem to be a modern phenomenon related to age of wikileaks and cyber warfare, this paper demonstrates that anxieties about personal privacy and government overreach can be detected as early as the Early and Late Roman Empire. As this paper notes, while rulers like Julius Caesar and Marcus Aurelius publically burned the unread letters of their rivals as a gesture of clemency (Dowling), these occasions were the exception rather than the rule. Many more emperors regularly intercepted and investigated the private correspondence of the Roman elite to identify threats, root out conspiracies, and undermine potential rivals (Sheldon).

            While scholars have known that emperors used this tactic against their potential rivals, few have considered the wider impact of this practice in exacerbating the tensions between the imperial throne and the Roman aristocracy across the course of the High and Late Empire. Former studies of imperial intelligence gathering have almost solely focused on the frumentarii’s evolution from supply men and message couriers into the “secret police” and “spies” in the second century CE (Sinnigen, Mann, Rankov). In contrast, by examining passages from Suetonius, Herodian, Ammianus Marcellinus, and the Historia Augusta, this paper analyzes how these historians express unease over the extent of imperial surveillance and considers how these practices contributed to an overarching climate of political anxiety and disaffection in the third and fourth centuries CE.

            This study begins by briefly examining several passages from Suetonius, Herodian, and the Historia Augusta in which these practices were turned against the Roman aristocratic elite. This paper argues that the Historia Augusta paints Hadrian’s regular scrutiny of the aristocracy’s correspondence to unearth gossip about the aristocracy’s affairs as beneath the dignity of a bonus princeps or “good emperor” (HA Hadr. 11.4-7). So too, this paper presents passages from Herodian (III.8.6) and the Historia Augusta that detail how Septimius Severus confiscated letters of the senators to determine who had supported his rival, Clodius Albinus. This paper demonstrates that the HA in particular expresses shock and horror at how Severus used these letters to denounce senators as public enemies and justify the execution of nearly four dozen senators (HA Sev. 11.7-9, 10.2, HA Clod. Alb. 12.2-4).

            Then, this paper then turns to consider this phenomenon in the larger context of the political instability and repeated usurpation attempts of the Late Empire. This paper presents evidence from the Theodosian Code and the writings of Aurelius Victor, Ammianus, and Jerome to examine the growing extent of this practice during the endemic instability and attempted usurpations of the third and fourth centuries CE. This paper presents evidence from Ammianus’ account of the magic and treason trials under Valentinian I to argue that the fear that correspondence could be intercepted and used as incriminating evidence led aristocrats to preemptively burn their letters and books before they could be searched (Amm. Marc. 28.2.1-57). In addition, this study examines evidence that writers were becoming increasingly concerned that their correspondence could be tampered with or even forged, by examining Ammianus’ account of the rebellion of Silvanus, in which two letters were forged to portray Silvanus as the ringleader of a conspiracy against Constantius II (Amm. Marc. 15.2.3).

In conclusion, this paper posits that these practices and other forms of imperial oversight actually increased, rather than mitigating, threats to the imperial throne by leading the Roman aristocracy to support usurpers multiple times in the last quarter of the fourth century (Magnus Maximus in the 380s and Eugenius in the 390s). Therefore, this paper not only contributes new insights into forms of political disillusionment and disaffection in the Late Empire but also adds to ongoing discussions bout epistolography in the Roman world (Corcoran, Morello et al.) and growing interest in forgeries and the authenticity of written works in the fourth and fifth centuries CE (McGill, Ehrman, Peirano).

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Letters in the Ancient World

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