Roman Empire to the NSA: A world history of government spying

The NSA surveillance program is the latest chapter in a long history of government surveillance

The NSA surveillance program is the latest chapter in a long history of government surveillance

Revelations about the US National Security Agency’s spying have provoked global outrage. But government snooping is nothing new.

Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote in his famous treatise The Art of War: “Enlightened rulers and good generals who are able to obtain intelligent agents as spies are certain for great achievements.”

Purloined letters, intercepted communications, official eavesdropping – here are some examples of spying over the ages, by enlightened rulers and not-so-enlightened ones.

Roman Colosseum

Roman Colosseum

Caesar’s spies

In Ancient Rome, major political players had their own surveillance networks, which provided them with information about the schemes of those in power.

Politician and orator Cicero frequently lamented that his letters were being intercepted.

“I cannot find a faithful message-bearer,” he wrote to his friend, the scholar Atticus. “How few are they who are able to carry a rather weighty letter without lightening it by reading.”

Julius Caesar put together an elaborate spy network to keep himself apprised of the various plots against him. In fact, Caesar may have known about the Senate-led conspiracy that culminated in his assassination.

Even the best spy network sometimes cannot stop a dagger.

In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was more powerful than most governments – and it had a powerful surveillance network to match.

French Bishop Bernard Gui was a noted author and one of the leading architects of the Inquisition in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries. For 15 years, he served as head inquisitor of Toulouse, where he convicted more than 900 individuals of heresy.

A noted author and historian, Gui was best known for the Conduct of the Inquisition into Heretical Depravity, written in 1323-24, in which he outlined the means for identifying, interrogating and punishing heretics.

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