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13 May 2007

Ancient and classical Western intelligence

While we greatly encourage research into comparative intelligence studies focusing on non-Western traditions, we also recognize that too often the earlier predecessors of the art and science in the ancient and classical worlds are ignored due to the general lack of interest in the history of non-politically correct cultures.

This is a great disservice to the field – particularly as intelligence traditions in Europe and the Mediterranean stretch back nearly as far as recorded warfare, and their evolution and development through the Renaissance is a fascinating example of continued innovations, frequently forgotten and re-discovered, that gives a more universal truth to the recurring patterns of intelligence activities languishing after their critical contributions to major conflicts, and the transition of amateur intelligence contributions to a professional and disciplined structure.

There are many lessons to be learned from this body of history, and the intelligence studies field has for the most part ignored this rather specialized line of inquiry despite the inherent suitability for unclassified academic research in the area. After all, there is no classification system that survives hundreds, if not thousands of years of history.

We also find that by expanding one’s concept of intelligence history (beyond even the typical Revolutionary War inception cited in most US centered studies) helps contribute to a more strategic level perspective for new analysts than might otherwise be the case. It especially serves to keep many a new professional more humble to know that their products may long survive not only their lifetime, but the historical epoch in which they have been written.

No better example of this can be found than in the fragment of Roman intelligence report on display at the British Museum. This document, dating from the 1st or early 2nd century AD, is an assessment of local military capabilities, which translates as follows:
'... the Britons are unprotected by armour. There are very many cavalry. The cavalry do not use swords nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.'

For those interested in a more comprehensive overview of Roman intelligence, we highly recommend Rose Mary Sheldon’s “Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods But Verify”. COL Sheldon, a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, has a distinguished list of other publications on similar historical intelligence topics, which are all well worth one’s investment of time – especially given that she is one of the few researchers working in this important but neglected area of the field.

There are plenty of other areas of the history for young scholars to contribute unique research to the literature with distinction, however, and we would love to see new publications focusing on primary sources provide new insights and interpretations from those nearly forgotten swaths of the profession’s collective past.

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