Were there really agents of Rome?
The basic answer – as I discovered while researching ancient Rome for my first novel – is yes. The frumentarii were army officers employed by what is sometimes referred to as the “Roman secret service”. Although the term (which literally translates as “grain-men”) doesn’t even merit a mention in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, numerous historians have investigated the organisation’s activities. The name derives from the officers’ original duty – the purchase and distribution of grain for the imperial armies. Under Domitian, these soldiers (who were well placed to observe the army, the imperial bureaucracy and the local populace) became the emperor’s intelligence service, with its own headquarters on the Caelia Hill in Rome. What I found intriguing was that as well as being involved in tax collection, religious persecution and various imperial scandals, these men also acted as messengers, spies, agents provocateurs, investigators, even assassins.
My protagonist, Cassius Corbulo, was always intended to be a rather unconventional military man, and I realised that if I made him a member of what I decided to term the “Imperial Security Service”, the potential for interesting, dramatic stories was vast. In The Siege he has to masquerade as a centurion, but in the second novel he finds himself in the employ of Aulus Abascantius: sly, ruthless head of the Service’s eastern division. My young, naive, well-intentioned hero is far from a typical “grain-man”, whereas Abascantius represents the more likely historical reality. We know that by the end of the third century (my stories begin in 270 AD), these feared agents had acquired a notorious reputation as corrupt spies and informers. Recently, novelists such as Harry Sidebottom and Anthony Riches have featured frumentarii as vicious, shadowy figures pitted against their heroes.
Call me a hopeless optimist if you will, but I don’t believe they could have all been bad; and individual officers must have had their own particular methods and motivations. In Cassius’ case, he has been forced to join the army by his father after bringing shame to his family, and hopes to avoid front-line service while still fulfilling his duty to the Empire. Certainly the agents’ undercover activities would have endeared them to few, but as they were dedicated to serving the emperor’s interests, their conduct surely often reflected the nature of the man at the top. From AD 222 to 235 that man was Alexander Severus, who was praised for choosing only honest individuals for his “grain men”. Cassius’ adventures take place during the eventful reign of Aurelian, a remarkable leader noted for restoring the fortunes of the Empire and his restraint in dealing with those he defeated.
The Agent of Rome series is predicated on the idea that some of the frumentarii’s assignments would have been noble ones, carried out in the name of a well-loved, inspirational commander-in-chief. Armed with their symbolic spear-heads, these men acted outside the traditional hierarchies of the imperial administration and army, with their orders often coming directly from the emperor himself. We know very little of the individual tasks they undertook, but there are tantalising glimpses of involvement in almost every sphere of Roman life, and dangerous missions to far-flung corners of the Empire.
In short, the stuff of which historical novelists’ dreams are made.