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A Knife in the Dark: the Arcani

archeo-regionale6
Missorium of Emperor Valentinian I, surrounded by his bodyguards. From left to right, the second and fifth guard appear to be from the Lanciarii division. The Arcani were disbanded during the reign of Valentinian. Photo credit to MAH, photo J.- M. Yersin, inv. C1241.

The Arcani or Areani were a Roman paramilitary group which acted as a secret police force for the state. Their name means “the hidden ones” or “the secret ones” in Latin, which in and of itself, suggest a role of secrecy. The lack of information about the Arcani is another confirmation of their secretive role. The Arcani were mostly tasked with reconnaissance duties and intelligence missions around the frontiers, giving detailed reports about enemy forces and leaders. The majority of them most likely had military experience, especially “field agents”, whose mission it was to infiltrate enemy territory. We don’t know much about their techniques of subterfuge, but most of their covert operations probably took place during diplomatic gatherings, military expeditions or hostage exchanges. During the late Roman period, they were probably responsible for multiple assassinations of foreign chieftains and kings. They may have worked alongside the Exploratores and Praeventores in supervising the frontier. According to late Roman author and military officer, Ammianus Marcellinus, by the second half of the 4th century AD, the Arcani had become an old and corrupt institution. After being accused of collaborating with the enemy, particularly in regards to the Great Conspiracy, a joint invasion of Britain which included the Attacotti, the Franks, the Saxons and the Picts, the Arcani were disbanded by Count Theodosius the elder, father of future emperor Theodosius I. The Arcani were, and continue to be, often subject of romanticized depictions and wild speculation, especially because very little is known about them. Perhaps the mystery surrounding the Arcani was meant from the beginning?

 

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The Persian Sassanid Army

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Mail armoured cataphract.

The Persian army under the Sassanid dynasty of Late antiquity was an extremely efficient force, more loyal and reliable than its Parthian predecessor. The heavy cavalry or cataphracts, taken from the Azadan or minor Persian nobility (feudal nobles) were its core divisions. The 10.000 knights guarding the King of Kings, the Zhayedan or Immortals, were cataphracts as well.

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Persian mounted Zhayedan or Immortal.

The 1.000 elite Pushtigban were the same type of heavy cavalry and were based at the capital Ctesiphon. The charge of a shock unit like the cataphracts in battle produced massive damage to enemy divisions and also had great psychological impact on the enemy. In fact, these knights were completely encased in armor, including their faces. According to roman officer and author Amianus Marcellinus, cataphracts looked like “moving iron statues”. The military officers of the Sassanid army were drawn from the Wuzurgan nobility. Light cavalry such as skirmishers and horse archers was mostly supplied by the bellicose tribes of Central Asia like the Hepthalites and the Massagetae. Regiments of light Arab cavalry, mostly provided by the Lakhmids, were always present in Persian armies. The Sassanids also had infantry, though most of their footmen were not trained or professional soldiers but levied and seasonal troops, mostly being armed with spears and large wicker shields. However, an elite body of infantry troops also existed: the Daylamite warriors, Daylamig in Middle Persian.

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Daylamites and Sogdian were elite soldiers of the Sassanid army.

 

These warriors were drawn from the mountainous regions of Northern Iran, the Southern shores of the Caspian Sea. They reached such a high status that 4.000 of them were chosen as private bodyguards by Shah Khosrow II, thereby forming the Gond-i Shahanshah or Army of the King of Kings. The Sassanid army was a very efficient sieging force, using mining techniques, siege towers, catapults and battering rams to siege walled and well fortified cities like the roman fortress of Dura Europos. War elephants from India carried little fortified towers with archer support on top. The elephant corps was under a special chief, known as the Zend-hapet, or “Commander of the Indians”.

 

High Ranking Officers:

  • Erahn Spahbed – Commander in chief of the army, the equivalent of a Roman Magister Militum.
  • Spahbed – Army commander and field general, Middle Persian Spahpat.
  • Pushtigban Salar – Commander of the Pushtigban bodyguards based in Ctesiphon, Mesopotamia.
  • Eran Anbaraghdad – Officer responsible for the army supplies, of crucial importance while campaigning.
  • Stor-Bizeshk – Senior officer responsible for the health of the steeds, essential for the cataphracts and very knoledgiable about herbs.
  • Arghbed – Commander of a fort or castle.
  • Payghan Salar – Chief of an infantry division, guarded by elite Daylamites, Northern Iranian warriors.
  • Savaran Sardar – Head of a cavalry division.
  • Varhranighan Khvadhay – Commander of the 10.000 Zhayedan bodyguards (the Immortals).

 

Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome

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Mounted Praetorian wearing a masked helmet usually used in the hippica gymnasia.

In Roman times, intelligence activities were performed by various units whose functions often overlapped. Originally, the Frumentarii, Beneficiarii,  Speculatores and Exploratores were specialized body of troops who provided supplies to the Roman legions and gave them detailed reports about enemy forces. In Imperial times, particularly during the reign of emperor Hadrian, these units gradually became part of a secret service body who loyally served the Princeps. These elite troops were headquartered in the Castra Peregrina on the Mons Caelius in Rome and operated under the command of the Princeps Peregrinorum, a powerful officer responsible for the security of the roman State who answered directly to the emperor.

As displayed on the low reliefs of the Trajan’s Column in Rome, the Frumentarii were, in origin, concerned with the supply of frumentum or corn to the Roman legions. They acted as internal secret police, couriers and security enforcers, carrying out undercover activities both in Rome and in the provinces. We have evidence of collaboration between the Frumentarii and the Cohors Praetoriae or Praetorians in police and security operations in Rome. Most probably, during the 3rd century AD crisis, the Frumentarii played a crucial role in breaching the personal security of emperors, as they had a privileged connection to the Praetorian Guard.

The Speculatores gathered information on Rome’s external enemies and functioned as elite reconnaissance units, messengers and collectors of intellingence. At times, they also acted as assassins and torturers on behalf of the emperor. However, the use of Speculatores was not limited to the Princeps. Provincial guards also employed them for similar purposes. Evidence shows that Speculatores often operated alone, in pairs or small groups and were executed if captured. The Speculatores operated alongside of the Cohors Praetoriae in Rome, in particular of the Equites  Singulares Augusti, the cavalry arm of the Praetorian Guard, and were led by a Centurio Speculatorum Augustorum, a powerful Praetorian officer. The Praetorian Guard or Cohors Praetoriae, were used by emperors as means of terror tactics, assassination and gathering of intelligence, similarly to the Frumentarii. The Speculatores continued to be employed throughout the empire.

The Exploratores were a trained scouting unit to be found in every roman legio. They were sent forward in screening operations and reconnaissance missions, providing excellent situational awareness to roman legions. As evidence from the panels of the Trajan’s Column in Rome shows, they were given first-class horses and equipment in order to increase their mobility when carrying out combat intelligence missions behind enemy lines such as raids, attacks on enemy outposts and foraging operations.

To conclude, the Beneficiarii were specialized soldiers who served under military commanders and governors and had administrative and logistical tasks. At times, even diplomats and courtiers were sent off to foreign courts to spy on enemy kings or rival emperors.

The Frumentarii, Beneficiarii, Speculatores and Exploratores were heavily involved in the violent persecutions of Christians and were most probably the ones who carried out assassinations and tortures.

 

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