Cyber security in the Ancient World — Part 2

This article relates to episode 2 in the series ‘Cyber Security in the Ancient World’. Since there will be two videos on Herodotus, this article provides background information on Herodotus’ life and work. The next article will focus on the four examples of secret communication that Herodotus discussed.

The earliest Greco-Roman source which provides us with unambiguous examples of secret communication is not Homer’s Iliad, but Herodotus’ Histories. We can find at least 61 instances of trickery and deceit in Herodotus’ work.[1] To be more precise: all but three instances of written communication in Herodotus’ work – fourteen letters (Histories, 1.123; 1.125; 1.187; 3.40; 3.42; 3.122; 3.128 (2x); 5.14; 5.35; 6.4; 7.239; 8.22; 8.128) and two other written messages (5.28 (a message written on a slave’s head); and 8.22 (an inscription)) – are related to trickery and deceit, and four of these sixteen instances of communication are clear examples of secret communication or hidden confidential messaging: that is, steganography (1.123; 5.28; 7.239; 8.128).[2]

Very little is known about Herodotus’ life. He was born around 485 BCE in Halicarnassus, a Greek city which lay on the extreme eastern edge of the Greek world. By Herodotus’ time (the early 5th century BCE) it was subject to Persian control.[3] According to the Suda, as a boy Herodotus spent time at island of Samos, to which he had fled with his family from the oppressions of Lygdamis, ruler of Halicarnassus (Suda s.v. Herodotos). Later, he returned to Halicarnassus where he seems to have taken part in political struggles against the Persian rules Lygdamis. These struggles ended in the death of Herodotus’ cousin (or uncle) Panyassis and in Herodotus’ own exile (Suda s.v. Herodotos; Panuassis).[4] Lateiner suggests that Herodotus especially supported cases in which an otherwise defenceless individual attempted to outwit or out-manoeuvre a powerful tyrannical autocrat because of this personal experience which led to a strong aversion to despotic regimes, something we see in his Histories.[5] However, it is not as black and white as that. Our source for this, the Suda, is a 10th-century Byzantine encyclopaedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, written about 1500 years after Herodotus lived. And even though Herodotus may have disliked of even fought against Lygdamis, he does not only see Persia at ‘the enemy’. In book I of his Histories, we find an interesting passage on the differences between the behaviour and values of the Persians with those of the Greeks (1.131-140). Here Herodotus even seems to be in favour of Persia when he said that there was no nation which so readily adopted foreign customs as the Persians (1.135).

Yet, the Histories stands as one of the earliest accounts of the rise of the Persian Empire, as well as the events and causes of the Greco-Persian Wars between Persia and the Greek city-states in the 5th century BCE (mainly Athens and its allies). As the historian opened the work himself:

Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks (Herodotus, Histories, 1.1)

In other words, Herodotus wrote his work to make sure that historical events were not forgotten. In these events the Persians invaded Greece. Therefore, it is only logical that all eastern rulers mentioned in the Histories are depicted as despotic invaders.[6] Moreover, Herodotus’ narrative is full of stories about characters who used various forms of trickery and deceit either to gain power as despotic leaders (negatively portrayed) or to deceive these leaders.[7] We can also find various examples of political treachery,[8] and of military deceit that Herodotus appears to have admired for its effectiveness or intellectual ingenuity.[9] Such acts of deception necessarily had to be hidden from what Greek sources (including Herodotus) call the ‘King’s Eyes and Ears’, apparently a sort of ancient ‘secret service’, most likely in the form of a group of high ranking officials through whom (in the view of the Greeks) the Persian king received all sorts of information on agitation throughout his kingdom.[10] That fact that the Greeks potentially saw the ‘King’s Eyes and Ears’ as some sort of secret police or intelligence agency becomes most clear from a passage in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia where the author told us that Cyrus had men spying for him:

[He] acquired the so-called “king’s eyes” and “king’s ears” in no other way than by bestowing presents and honours; for by rewarding liberally those who reported to him whatever it was to his interest to hear, he prompted many men to make it their business to use their eyes and ears to spy out what they could report to the king to his advantage (Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.2.10)

We cannot know what Herodotus thought of the’ King’s Eyes’ since he discussed it in a fairly neutral way, by simply saying that Cyrus appointed one person as the ‘King’s Eye’, and various other men as this person’s assistants (Herodotus, Histories, 1.114.2). Yet, the passage shows that Herodotus saw a connection between oriental states and kings spying on their people.

Indeed, this idea of spying and eavesdropping on one’s subordinates in oriental states can also be found in Herodotus’ discussion of how Deioces the Mede had spies and eavesdroppers throughout his lands (Herodotus, Histories, 1.100.2). Through its association with these closed societies and non-democratic Near Eastern states, later ancient sources attribute to Sparta a similar sort of secret service, known as the krypteia.[11] Significantly, as Bowie and Briant point out, descriptions of the ‘King’s Eyes and Ears’ can only be found in Greek sources, but not in Persian sources.[12] The same is the case for our sources on the Spartan krypteia and the scytale: all sources are non-Spartan, and accordingly unreliable and liable to (anti-Spartan, pro-Athenian) bias. In fact, Herodotus argued that the Spartans are more like the Persians and the Egyptians than they are like the other Greeks – at least in their constitution:

The Lacedaemonians have the same custom at the deaths of their kings as have the foreign people of Asia; for the most of the foreigners use the same custom at their kings’ deaths […] When one king is dead and another takes his office, this successor releases from debt what Spartan so ever owed anything to the king or the commonwealth; so too among the Persians the king at the beginning of his reign forgives all cities their arrears of tribute […] Moreover, the Lacedaemonians are like the Egyptians (Herodotus, Histories, 6.58-60):

However, it must be kept in mind that Sparta was one of the few poleis in Greece ruled by a king. The section quoted here discusses kingship, and rituals related to the death of the king. There is not a reference here that Sparta emulated the Persian spying regime in Herodotus or that the krypteia was considered the same. Yet, the passage shows that Herodotus linked Sparta to the Near Eastern kingdoms, and we have seen that Herodotus wrote about Greeks writing secret message in an oriental context. Moreover, in passage 1.152 Herodotus tells us that the Spartans refused to aid the Ionians (their fellow Greeks) in the Greek struggle against the Persian occupation (1.152), while in the next passage Cyrus (according to Herodotus) argued that one should never be afraid of a people (in this case the Spartans) who perjured themselves and deceived each other (Herodotus, Histories, 1.153.1). This clearly shows the bias surrounding Persia as being particularly ‘non-Greek’, and the Spartans as being untrustworthy and different from other Greeks. Moreover, like the Persians, the Spartans supposedly used non-Greek methods of secret communication (Herodotus, Histories, 1.123; 5.28; 7.239; 8.128). Indeed, Herodotus’ bias against the Spartans is evident in this context too, and introduces a contradiction that we see playing out in several post-Herodotean sources as well with the Spartans on the one hand being cunning, but on the other hand, being illiterate and foolish.

  1. Herodotus, Histories, 1.21.1-22.3; 1.59.3-6; 1.60.3-5; 1.80.2; 1.96.2-98.2; 1.123; 1.125; 1.187; 1.191; 1.207.6-7; 2.100.2-4; 2.121A.1; 2.121D; 2.121E; 2.133; 2.162.1; 2.172; 3.1.3-5; 3.4; 3.16.6; 3.61; 3.69.3-6; 3.85-86.2; 3.122; 3.123.2; 3.128 (2x); 3.130.1-2; 3.153-158.2; 4.134.3; 4.139.2; 4.146.4; 4.154.3-4; 4.201; 5.12-13; 5.20; 5.24-25.1; 5.35; 5.49-50; 5.63.1; 6.4; 7.239; 8.5; 8.22; 8.24-25.2; 8.27.3; 8.28; 8.75-76; 8.87; 8.109; 8.128-129.1; 8.137; 9.33.4-5; 9.34; 9.94; 9.98.2-4; 9.110.2-112; 9.116.2-3; 9.120.2-4. ↩︎

  2. The three letters that did not involve trickery and deceit are two letters sent between Amasis and Polycrates (Herodotus, Histories, 3.40-42), and a letter from Darius to Megabyzus instructing the latter to attack Paeonia (Herodotus, Histories, 5.14.1). ↩︎

  3. Gould 2012, 674. ↩︎

  4. Gould 2012, 674; Waters 1972, 138. ↩︎

  5. Lateiner 1990, 231; Gould 2012, 674; Waters 1972, 138. ↩︎

  6. Croesus (Book 1); Cyrus (Book 1); Deioces the Mede (Book 1); Cambyses (Book 2-3); Darius (Book 3-4); Xerxes (Book 7-9). The rulers are depicted in what calls the ‘despotic template’ (Dewald 2003, 28-33). In this version of the template, a tyrannis (the rule of a tyrant = sole ruler) is a bureaucratic autocracy, and it is marked by an institutional harshness and distance between ruler and ruled (Dewald 2003, 28-33; Ferrill 1978, 385-398). ↩︎

  7. Herodotus, Histories, 1.8-12; 1.47-49; 1.60; 1.63; 3.72; 3.85-88; 3.154-60; 8.24-25. ↩︎

  8. Herodotus, Histories, 1.205.2; 4.78.2; 5.37.1; 3.65.6; 9.85. ↩︎

  9. Herodotus, Histories, 1.21; 1.91.1; 1.212.2; 2.100.2; 3.72; 4.146.3; 4.160.4; 4.201-202; 6.77.-79; 8.27.3-4; 9.90.3. See 3.85-88 on Darius using lies, trickery, and deceit to become the king (negatively portrayed); and 3.150-160 on how the Persian nobleman Zopyrus played a decisive role in Darius’ siege of Babylon by mutilating himself and convincing the Babylonians that he was deserting from Darius’ camp and requesting shelter in the city, while he then opened the city’s gates to the Persians. See also Dewald 1993, 55-70; Hollmann 2005, 316-323. Hollmann provides us with a list of 69 instances of trickery and deceit in Herodotus. ↩︎

  10. Aeschylus, The Persians, 979; Herodotus, Histories, 1.114.2; Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.2.10-12; 8.6.17-18; Bowie 2007, 160. ↩︎

  11. Aeschylus, The Persians, 979; The Suppliants; Aristotle, On the Universe, 398a; Herodotus, Histories, 1.114.2; 8.8.1-2; Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, 3.3; Plato, Laws, 1.633b-c; 6.763b; a Scholia on Plato’s Laws 1.633b-c; 6.763b, Edition De Forest Allen, Burnet, et al.; Plutarch, Life of Cleomenes, 28.4; Life of Lycurgus, 28.1-7; Pseudo-Heraclitus of Pontus (Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum, 2 = Aristotle, Fragment 538; Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.2.10-12; 8.6.17-18); Cartledge 2003, 70; Ross 2012. ↩︎

  12. Bowie 2007, 160; Briant 2002, 343-344; Sheldon 2008, 79. ↩︎


Bowie, A. M. (2007). Histories: Book VIII. Cambridge/ New York: Cambridge University Press.

Briant, P. (2002). From Cyrus to Alexander: a History of the Persian Empire. Winona Lake (Indiana): Eisenbrauns.

Dewald, C. (2003). Form and Content: The Question of Tyranny in Herodotus. In K. A. Morgan, Popular Tyranny: Sovereignty and Its Discontents in Ancient Greece (pp. 29-58). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gould, J. P. (2012). Herodotus (1). In S. Hornblower, A. Spawforth, & E. Eidinow, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (pp. 674-676). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ferrill, A. (1978). Herodotus on Tyranny. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, 27 (3), 385-398.

Lateiner, D. (1990). Deceptions and Delusions in Herodotus. Classical Antiquity, 9 (2), 230-246.

Sheldon, R. M. (2008). Espionage in the Ancient World: An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles in Western Languages. Jefferson/ London: McFarland and Company Incorporated Publishers.Waters, K. H. (1972). Herodotos and Politics. Greece & Rome, 19 (2), 136-150.

Cyber security in the Ancient World — Part 1
Ancient governments, like modern ones, realized that to keep their borders safe, control their populations and keep abreast of political developments abroad, they needed the means to collect the intelligence which enabled them to make informed decisions.
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