I’m quite a fan of the UK television drama “Spooks” about the British secret service MI5 whose function is to protect Britain from internal and external threats. In some episodes previously-loyal MI5 operatives turn rogue and start working for the enemy (usually the Russian secret service). This type of double-agent storyline has a curiously similar parallel from early Scottish history, from the final years of Roman rule in Britain.
In the 4th century Rome had long since given up any hope of conquering Scotland, a country whose landscape and people provided serious obstacles to ambitious Roman generals and their armies. The imperial frontier lay instead along Hadrian’s Wall whose forts were supported by others in the hinterland behind. Beyond the wall, in what is now the Anglo-Scottish border region, only four outpost forts remained in use. This area was effectively a buffer zone between Hadrian’s Wall and the long-disused Antonine Wall further north. Its inhabitants were tribes of native Britons ruled by their own kings under the watchful eye of the outpost forts. These kings were probably paid by Rome to serve as a first line of defence in the event of enemy raids from the far north where, in the wild highlands beyond the decaying turf ramparts of the Antonine Wall, lurked the Picts – a confederacy of warlike tribes who posed the greatest threat to Roman Britain.
The Romans were not, however, content to merely wait for a Pictish attack and react to it when it happened. They needed advance warning so that they could muster their troops in the right places or send out a squadron of warships to ambush a pirate raid. To this end they relied on a “secret service” called the arcani or areani whose role was described thus by the contemporary historian Ammianus Marcellinus: ‘Their function was to circulate over a wide area and report to our generals any threatening movements among the neighbouring tribes.’ This is clearly a job description for secret agents operating undercover behind enemy lines and would not look out of place today in an MI5 mission statement. Little wonder, then, that some modern historians refer to the arcani/areani as the Roman CIA.
So, why the uncertainty over the name? The problem arises from two possible readings of the only surviving text of Ammianus, a somewhat corrupt and incomplete copy written in the 9th century. Editors of this text are unsure as to whether arcani or areani is the original form as used by the author. Some prefer to read the word as arcani with its connotations of secrecy as represented in modern English by the term arcane; others suggest areani as the correct reading, translating it as a Latin word meaning “men of the sheepfolds” which might fit the image of covert military agents disguised as shepherds or farmers. Unless by some miraculous chance another manuscript of Ammianus appears, or a relevant inscription is unearthed at a Roman fort, we will never be certain which spelling is correct.
Unfortunately for this shadowy organisation its sole mention in the contemporary literary record is a negative one. Its agents, Ammianus tells us, were in league with the Picts and passed on vital information about the disposition of Roman troops on the northern frontier. Armed with this knowledge the Picts got together with other fierce peoples – including the Scots and Saxons – to plan a wave of simultaneous attacks on Roman Britain. The result was the infamous Barbarian Conspiracy of AD 367 which took the imperial forces completely by surprise and plunged the Romanised south of the island into turmoil.
To deal with the crisis Rome sent the renowned general Count Theodosius to Britain at the head of an elite force. He soon restored order and, after expelling the barbarian marauders, swiftly identified the traitors among the secret service. According to Ammianus these double-agents ‘were clearly convicted of having been bribed by gifts or promises of large rewards to pass to the barbarians regular information about what we were doing.’ Surprisingly, given the depth of their treachery, they received a fairly light punishment: Theodosius merely kicked them out of their jobs. What happened to these “Roman Spooks” afterwards is unknown but I imagine them turning up eventually in the Highlands to sup a few drams of Speyside malt with their old Pictish buddies.
Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire, AD 354-378. Translation by Walter Hamilton (Harmondsworth, 1986), Book 28:3 (at pages 357-8 in this edition)