The rapid technological advances over the 20th century changed how states carry out diplomacy in the 21st century. While nations traditionally communicated with each other and their populations via print and broadcast media, the information age gave us digital diplomacy together with all of its positive and negative consequences.
The 20th-century methods of communicating with people were one-sided: While populations could receive messages, there was virtually no way for people to respond to the leadership. Digital diplomacy allows for direct communication between states and their populations regardless of physical location. This creates an environment where it easier for states to both spread their message and influence a wider audience with less effort than in the past. On the one hand, heads of state are now able to have much more positive interaction and diplomatic relations with populations around the world. On the other hand, however, some states use digital diplomacy for less than benevolent reasons. Furthermore, electronic communications—from presidential tweeting to the “Putin-ization” of Facebook—are far more difficult to control, since they are sent directly to Internet users with or without consent of either the state and/or its population.
But this is not the first time in history that new methods of government communications have seriously impacted heads of state, entire nations, foreign relations, or the population. Two thousand years ago, the first Roman emperor, Augustus, instituted a revolution in government infrastructure and diplomacy that, unfortunately, could be considered an ancestor of the NSA’s communications surveillance program.
Remember the “Information Superhighway,” a phrase coined by Vice President Al Gore in 1994 to refer to worldwide, digital communications systems? This sounds quaint today, but it is still a useful way to visualize the unfathomable increase in the size and speed of communications. In fact, a type of “information superhighway” was exactly what Emperor Augustus had in mind when he made sweeping changes to the Roman Empire’s communications infrastructure 2,000 years ago. The famous cursus publicus (“the public way”) was a state-controlled, information and transportation system, initiated by Augustus, that consisted of an overland road network for couriers to rapidly convey information across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The cursus publicus, often referred to as a “postal service,” was actually far more—a remarkable, interstate information highway system that transported correspondence, critical news, officials, diplomats, spies, tax revenues, and goods. A 13th-century copy of a Roman itinerary map of the cursus publicus illustrates just how big the road network was since the map is 22 feet long and divided into 11 sections. Of relevance to us today is that, in the process of establishing this multi-continental communications network, Augustus had also created an internal security and government surveillance apparatus.
Emperor Augustus observed the decline, and finalized the collapse of the Roman Republic—after almost 500 years of a representative form of government. During the first century BC/BCE, the Roman Senate became embroiled in civil wars and divisive factionalism (what we could call “party politics”). There was no central administration, no policy (fiscal, social or otherwise), and a failing infrastructure. A government that, for hundreds of years, allowed unchecked, imperial expansionism could not effectively govern an area of 1.7 to 1.9 million square miles (from Britain in the west, Germany in the north, Arabia in the east, and Africa in the south) or manage a population estimated at 50 million people and growing (about 20% of the world’s population). Augustus could see that a communications infrastructure was desperately needed not only to stabilize the empire, but also to protect his own security, as a monarchical dictator who superseded a republic.
Courier systems had existed earlier under Caesar, in ancient Egypt, and in ancient Persia, all of which were well known at the time. Augustus introduced a relay system that operated at a much faster rate, using different messengers who passed information from town to town. However, the last courier was unable to answer any questions about circumstances at the originating location. The emperor needed to read the documents and also be able to question the couriers. So the cursus publicus was changed so that couriers would travel the entire route by carriage, rather than piecemeal on horseback. All official roads included a system of rest stations, about 45 miles apart, which included hotel lodging for couriers, additional carriages, and up to 40 transport animals together with a staff of veterinarians, wheelwrights, and guards. In between the rest stations, were smaller change stations with stables for fresh horses and mules. A typical journey could cover 40 to 60 miles per day under normal circumstances, or a 100 miles per day in an emergency. If part of the route included sea travel, vessels could sail 120 miles per day in favorable winds and 50 miles per day in bad weather.
The costs for maintaining the cursus publicus and its services were enormous and increased over the centuries. The emperors developed various schemes for managing the system, which in reality meant “passing the buck” onto the communities along the routes. Local officials were responsible for requisitioning (i.e., demanding) animals, food, supplies, and labor to maintain the system. In the 2nd century AD/CE, a hundred years after Augustus, the communications system was reorganized as a state-controlled bureaucracy and the management of each station was auctioned off to sub-contractors, who again passed the costs to the local population. At the beginning of the 3rd century, Emperor Septimius Severus used the cursus publicus to transport supplies for the army with legions stationed throughout the empire. However, this caused the size, costs, staffing, bureaucracy, and utilization of the network to swell astronomically. He also transferred the costs from the provincial populations to the state (which made him very popular, but almost bankrupted the treasury).
The cursus publicus and its considerable amenities were intended for the emperor’s communications, not for the general population. Private citizens could get access but only with the permission of the emperor, someone authorized by him, or the provincial governor by obtaining a special permit for travel during a specific period of time, with an expiration date. The couriers did not need such a permit for each trip, but carried a special insignia while travelling, which was returned to a station official at the end of the trip. Security for these travel permits and couriers’ insignia was very tight.
From its very beginning and throughout successive centuries of the Roman Empire, the intended purpose for this “information superhighway” was for official communications, internal security, and confidential intelligence gathering. Knowledge about revolts, plots to overthrow the emperor, the machinations of government officials everywhere and at all levels, the loyalty of the military, theft of state property, counterfeiting, non-payment of taxes—never mind the continuous foreign relations problems (warfare, diplomacy, invasions)—was absolutely necessary.
With increased government centralization and absolutism over the centuries, the Roman emperors established several different state networks for spying and intelligence gathering, among which were the speculatores, frumentarii, and agentes in rebus. Speculatores worked in small numbers on clandestine spy operations at night to observe the enemy. But they also served as special couriers on the cursus publicus for the transmission of highly sensitive intelligence information, carrying especially the emperor’s correspondence with governors in all the provinces.
Emperor Domitian (ruled 81-96 AD/CE) instituted another information network (sometimes called the “Roman Secret Service”). Known as the frumentarii, these men were originally recruited from the supply division of the Roman army that purchased and distributed grain (frumentum) to the troops (who were required to bake their own bread!). Constantly travelling by necessity all over the empire to provision the soldiers, the frumentarii could conduct espionage on the army, the bureaucracy, and local populations and report everything to the emperor. They replaced the speculatores and became the most frequent users of the cursus publicus. Their duties, as couriers, spies, secret police, and tax collectors (together with the right to investigate and arrest) expanded in the 3rd century to include political assassinations.
The frumentarii were the most despised arm of the Roman government—for their duties, uncontrollable abuse of power, and unprecedented levels of corruption. Therefore, Emperor Diocletian (ruled 284-305) created a new internal security network, with an omnibus title that did not improve anything, the agentes in rebus (“general agents”). Administratively, however, these agents were civilians, no longer recruited from the military, and were placed under a new bureaucrat, who was basically a minister of information. And the number of men increased considerably, from 400 frumentarii to 1,200 agentes in rebus.
Like their predecessors, these general agents primarily carried dispatches with intelligence. But in addition, their new role included policing both the overland road system as well as the ports to control maritime traffic. Ever since the 1st century BC/BCE, there had always been tight security over the cursus publicus (stations had their own guards), but 300 years later, inspectors were now being sent to all the provinces, making sure that no one used the roads or amenities without signed permission, nor misused the system by demanding more animals, carriages, or extra services beyond what was approved. However, exploiting both power and the public continued as before.
In the 4th century, after Emperor Constantine converted to and legalized Christianity, the agentes in rebus also became messengers between the emperor and church officials throughout the empire and enforced church regulations. When orthodox Christianity became the state religion under Emperor Theodosius I (ruled 379-395), these agents informed on and testified against religious dissenters and were used to persecute minority Christian sects. With unchecked inflation of the government bureaucracy, the surveillance network was also extended to spy on imperial ministries. General agents were assigned as employees in all branches of the government to spy on both administrators and employees—a surveillance system repeated by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.
An effective transportation and communications infrastructure is absolutely essential to govern any political entity (whether cities or multi-continental empires), its population, and external/diplomatic relations. Information superhighways, however, regardless of the historical period to which they belong, become particularly insidious when an increasing number of “on-ramps” are added to the system, such as surveillance of a nation’s own citizens, taxation enforcement, or curtailment of freedoms of speech and religion.
In the 21st century, these types of hyper-surveillance and communication systems have given rise to the Fifth Estate (social and political use of the Internet to criticize governments), communal publication sites for secret government and diplomatic documents (such as WikiLeaks), and government whistleblowers against intelligence agencies (like Edward Snowden of the NSA). Rose Mary Sheldon, in her excellent book, Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust in the Gods but Verify, warns that the consolidation of “powers that might in modern times be shared by military intelligence, the Post Office, the FBI, and the IRS … is a frightening prospect.”