The Eyes and Ears of the King

In these days when the US Intelligence services are receiving more scrutiny than they probably enjoy, I thought it might be interesting to look at how such things were handled in the Persian Empire.

The Persians had an intelligence service called The Eyes And Ears Of The King, which is a far more interesting and poetic name than the bland monikers you get these days. It sounds like some romantic, made-up thing, but I promise the Eyes and Ears of the King was a for-real organization, and not one you would want to mess with.

The Persian social structure was very hierarchical. At the top was the Great King. Directly below him were the Satraps, chosen almost always from Persian nobility. Each Satrap ruled a Satrapy, being a province, of which there were many. Each Satrap in turn had many officers in his province.

Everyone lived within the social heirarchy, obeying the next guy up the line, except for the Eyes and Ears. If you were a member of this elite organization, then your job was to keep an eye on how the Empire was ticking over, and report directly to the Great King, bypassing the entire system. Most important of all, the local Satrap had no power over you.

You kept an eye on how the local Satrap managed the army and put down rebellions.

You watched how tribute was collected from client states to make sure it all made its way to the King's coffers. (Satraps who enriched themselves were liable to rebel.)

If the taxation didn't add up, you investigated to find out who was diddling the accounts.

If a Satrap broke the law, you reported it to the Great King.

Any evil-doing going unchecked, you investigated, then let the Great King know.

The Eyes and Ears of the King was, in essence, the Persian FBI.

Xenophon tells us that in an emergency, an Eyes and Ears man had the power to command an army to move against a Satrap. I.e. to directly exercise the power of the Great King if he deemed it necessary for the safety of the state.

The Eyes and Ears were probably recruited from the most competent of the minor nobility, and surely were selected for their utmost loyalty. There are plenty of instances of Satraps moving against their King, but not a single record of an Eyes and Ears man turning rotten. To which it must be added, not a great deal was written about them in any case; they probably preferred to stay out of view.

I don't know of any Eyes and Ears man having an unfortunate accident while in a Satrapy, though you'd have to guess a lot of Satraps would have been quite happy to see the local agent drop dead. It's a fair bet that if it happened, the Great King would have an army on that Satrap's doorstep quick smart.

The Persians also used spies outside their empire. Herodotus says Darius sent a Phoenician spy ship to scout Greece before he invaded. On the ship were 15 Persian men of distinction. Some of those will have been young but highly competent military officers from noble families - their equivalent of today's special forces - and probably some of them were Eyes and Ears men, whose job was to notice things.

22 comments:

Merry Monteleone said...

Interesting, Gary. I wonder how many Eyes and Ears Men were on the take... (well, it's not like they had to worry about random people passing by with cell phone cameras. :-)

Gary Corby said...

Hi Merry!

Minor corruption seems likely, doesn't it? Major corruption...well, there's simply no record of it happening amongst the Eyes and Ears, but there's lots recorded about Satraps and military officers.

If I had to guess I'd say the local Eyes and Ears would ignore minor naughtiness in return for a cut, but at some well-understood threshold a line was drawn.

Merry Monteleone said...

I do think corruption seems likely, but then, I think that's human nature - we haven't come up with a system yet that's without it in some form or another. Anywhere there's power, there's the temptation to abuse it.

I do wonder, though, how complete the records could be or how much of a chance there might be of major intrigue that was never recorded... which of course, would be a great plot point for one of your future novels :-)

By the way, do you have a release date yet?

Gary Corby said...

Release date: remains Fall 2010, which is anywhere between September to December. I don't believe St Martin's have worked out their release schedule for that period yet. (Or else I simply don't know it...)

Dan Krokos said...

How cool!

Seriously, Gary, your posts deliver.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Dan, you're very kind.

Carrie said...

Dropping by to say hello and great post. If your books are as well-drawn, we're going to thrilled with you stories. Very excited. Curious as to what led you to look this up?

Matthew Delman said...

It's cool information like this that makes me love reading your blog, sir.

And you're right ... the name of the organization does sound like something that belongs in a fantasy novel instead of the historical record. Of course, most things that are in the historical record for that period sound like they belong in fantasy novels.

Amalia T. said...

Were they communicating by letter, sent by trusted courier? Or did they send trusted messengers in person to deliver news to the Great King? Or perhaps relay it through the Eyes and Ears men across the country? I can't imagine that information traveled all that quickly, regardless, but if it's secret information that would make it even harder, right? Letters could easily be intercepted, or never arrive...

Loretta Ross said...

Interesting post (as usual!) Gary. :) And an interesting question, Amalia.

As an old school, die-hard Man From U.N.C.L.E. fan, I'd guess the Persians probably had some sort of communications network in place just for the Eyes and Ears men. You could use small mirrors to flash coded messages over long distances, carrier pigeons, maybe signal fires, and, of course, there's always Channel D. *G*

You know, the bad guys in that show were organized in satrapys headed by Satraps too. I wonder if the creators were influenced at all by Persian history?

TrishaleighKC said...

Gary, your blog puts great info out there for geeky minds like mine to soak up! Seriously, great topic!

Gary Corby said...

Hi Amalia!

Official messages were usually sent using the horse-courier relay system known as The King's Messengers. The Persians had excellent roads, including a backbone highway running east-west.

Steganography (secret writing) was quite tricky for the time and probably good enough for all but the most sensitive messages, in which case you'd go yourself.

Gary Corby said...

Matthew, I could say the same for your very cool steampunk stuff.

Couldn't agree more about the romance of the times. You could actually write a totally accurate historical adventure set in this period and it would read just like epic fantasy.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta, Satrapy is a purely Persian term, so I would have to guess you're right about the U.N.C.L.E. inspiration.

Amalia T. said...

I'm curious how long it would take to get from one side of the Persian Empire to the other, by horse relay--even with the good roads. That Steganography sounds pretty fascinating too. Do we have records of secretly-written messages that have been decoded?

Gary Corby said...

The backbone highway was called the Royal Road, and it was 2,500km = 1550 miles long from Sardis to Susa, and about 6 meters wide.

Estimates for number of staging posts is always greater than 100.

So since the messengers worked by relay post 24x7 the answer is however long it takes a top horse to gallop 1550 miles (remembering they can frequently swap mounts for fresh).

I've seen multiple texts saying it was regularly done in 7 days. Wikipedia also says 7 days, which normally would cause me to think 7 is definitely wrong. It might be all the texts are repeating a blind guess. I can't off-hand think of a primary source giving a reliable number.

Gary Corby said...

There are some for-real tales of secret writing from this period. I'll pop them in a post.

Thanks for the idea, Amalia!

Stephanie Thornton said...

Huh, and I thought Theodore Roosevelt and his administration had earned credit for the creation of the FBI. It seems they weren't the first!

Interesting research, Gary. I love these informative posts.

Loretta Ross said...

I can't off-hand think of a primary source giving a reliable number

I've seen several sources give an average speed of 10 MPH for the US Pony Express. Surely it would have been comparable for your guys?

The claimed average for the P.E. was ten days for the 2000-mile journey so 200 miles per day. That would put your 1500-mile trip in the seven-and-a-half-day range, which is pretty close to what you've got.

Gary Corby said...

You're a genius Loretta! The Pony Express is a perfect analogy.

Thanks so much!

T. Anne said...

Sounds like it would make for a terrific novel, Gary. Is this something you might write perhaps? I've got tons of history buffs in my family who probably haven't heard of this. Thanx for making me sound cool around them ;)

Gary Corby said...

Since T. Anne asked...

Athens had no detective force whatsoever, except for my young, untrained, hapless amateur hero who has a little bit of talent and some bright friends. The Persians on the other hand, mortal enemies of Athens, had this well oiled, highly trained machine spanning an empire.

It would be a reasonable guess that at some time in the indeterminate future, Nicolaos is going to have a run in with the Eyes and Ears.