8.1 Spies in the Pre-Modern World

Spies in the Pre-Modern World

Espionage has been called the world’s second oldest profession, and women were in the thick of it from the very beginning. Unfortunately, a spy’s default mode is to hide her tracks, which means that in the ancient and medieval world I found hint after tantalizing hint, but very few fully-fleshed histories of female spies. So today’s episode is a round up of those hints, along with a brief history of the profession itself.

This episode is part of Series 8: Women in Espionage.

Full Transcript

What I really like about history is the connections you can make across time and space, seeing how different people in very different cultures handled what often amounts to the same problems. And for that reason, I’m always looking to have a wide variety of time periods and locations represented in each of my series. This is often a problem since lots of times and locales didn’t keep very good records, or maybe they did, but they didn’t survive into the present day in a format I can access and a language I can read.

That’s just business as usual around here, but the problem was compounded when I wanted to look into women whose whole goal in life was to hide, to deceive, and maybe to remain unnoticed. So when I looked through the ancient world and the medieval world and even into the modern era, I found hint after tantalizing hint of some amazing female spy, only to find that the hint was literally all the information there was, or even on occasion, that said woman fell into the probably-didn’t-really-exist category, which is always a letdown for a podcaster who is supposed to be doing nonfiction.

So here’s what we’re going to do. Today’s episode will be a brief history of espionage with particular emphasis on the various women I could find hints about, and then next week we’ll start the bios in the modern world where there’s a bit more information.

The earliest records of spying come from the time of Hammurabi. He wrote the famous legal codes. But it was his ally Zimri-Lim, King of the Amorite Kingdom called Mari, who left us the tablets that mention espionage.

The Investiture of Zimri-Lim (source)

Zimri-Lim had 23 daughters (not from the same wife) and as per usual these girls were farmed out in politically advantageous marriages. As not really per usual, these women either could read and write or they had scribes who could and there is evidence that some of the scribes were women (Sasson, 2015, 3). Several hundred of their letters to and from their father survived (Sabloff, 61).

Some of them are real tearjerkers, desperate girls begging to be allowed to return home. But others are more political in nature. Their job, so far as Zimri-Lim was concerned, was to send back information (that is to say, spy on their new husband’s courts). They sent him news, threats, messages, and warnings, One called Šimātum, in particular, was queen of Ilanşurā, but according to researcher Jack Sasson, she still considered herself a Mari princess (Sasson, 1973, 69-70).

Zimri-Lim also set up a bureau specifically for capturing enemy documents, copying supposedly secret dispatches, and generally spying on everyone including his queen. Basically what would be called the Cabinet Noir or Black Chamber in future centuries. One of the tablets from this bureau is marked TOP SECRET. And my source on this dryly declares that the contents have still never been published, and “one can conclude that, after 3000 years, the document remains classified “(Sheldon, 12). I admit that that particular comment was published in 1989, so I’m hoping that someone, somewhere has declassified it since.

Zimri-Lim’s obsession with spies was probably justified in the world he lived in, but in the end they didn’t help him. Hammurabi, once an ally, turned on him and sacked Mari. Zimri-Lim did not survive, or at least he did not survive as king. We don’t hear from him again.

If we hang out in the Middle East a little longer, extensive spying may have been a regional quality because the Old Testament is riddled with spies. If you are interested in whether the Bible counts as a historical source, I covered that in episode 5.1, The Historical Mary. The answer is occasionally, but I have to say, this is not one of those occasions. The books of the Old Testament were written down around 600 BCE, well over a thousand years after the earliest events they describe, but that has not stopped several of my sources from describing Moses as the original spymaster. That’s in the Book of Numbers, chapter 13, and incidentally, it’s part of the Christian, and the Jewish, and the Muslim versions of the text. The fact that the stories seemed plausible to their middle-Eastern audience says that something similar may have happened multiple times, even if the exact details of this account are unverifiable.

None of the spies appointed by Moses or his successor Joshua appear to be women, but the spies themselves found a woman. According to Joshua, chapter 2, Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho. Two of Joshua’s spies were seen entering her house, and the king of Jericho told her to give them up.

But Rahab did not. She took the men up to her roof and hid them in her stalks of flax until the pursuit passed by. Her house was on the city wall, so she let them down outside the city with a rope after telling them she knew the Israelites would destroy her city and begging safety for her own household. They promised that if she would gather her family into her house and hang a scarlet thread from the window, then no harm would come to that house. So Rahab saved her family and everyone else was massacred (Joshua 6). Since the Israelites wrote the book, Rahab is a great hero. Hooray! One imagines that the Jerichoans (if that’s the right word) would have written it differently, and that is a problem we will return to again in this series.

A 15th century French view of Rahab and her story (source)

Over in Egypt, I do not have a female spy, I have a woman who fell afoul of a spy. This is Queen Ankhesenamen, the young wife of the famous King Tut. She was also probably his half-sister, but that was normal for Egyptian royalty. Of far greater importance was the fact that Tut was dead. Royal widow is sometimes a sweet position to be in, but more often it’s an extremely precarious situation to be in, especially if you have no son. Ankhesenamen wrote to the Hittite King proposing to marry one of his sons (any one of his sons, apparently) so she’d have a man to install on the Egyptian throne. King Suppiluliuma seems a bit surprised and says “Are you sure?” and she says, “Yeah, I’m sure”. And Suppiluliuma says, “Yeah, okay I’ll send the youngest over.” And he does, only someone has intercepted these letters and the poor kid gets assassinated on his way to his own wedding. To this day, no one knows for sure who did it. But the most obvious suspect is the Egyptian vizier Ay, who managed to install himself as the next Pharoah. Very suspicious. Ankhesenamen died within a year. No record of why (Andrew, 21).

Ankhesenamen on the left, facing her husband Tutankhamen (source)

Spies were at work over in China too. If we start with the legendary, there is the Chinese princess who was sent to marry a prince of Khotan in India. China guarded its silk secrets very closely, but this princess ensured her ready welcome in her new home by stashing the silk worms and the mulberry seeds they required into her elaborate hair style. Chinese guards searched her belongings, but no one dared search the princess’s hair. Thus the secret of silk production was betrayed.

A wood painted plaque of the Silk Princess from hundreds (and maybe thousands) of years after the fact, if she existed at all (source)

Whether that story has a kernel of truth in it, I don’t know, but what is absolutely historical is the book The Art of War. It’s attributed to Sun Tzu, a Chinese general in 6th century BCE. Some people think it was actually written several centuries later by someone else, but even if so, it’s old and hugely influential. even into the modern day.

A copy of the Art of War on bamboo (source)

Among other things, The Art of War places spies at the heart of successful warfare. “Know thy enemy” is Sun Tzu’s idea. “Secret operations are essential in war; upon them the army relies to make its every move.” More remarkably for the time, Sun Tzu rejects the idea that you can get the intelligence from the gods or the soothsayers. The Mesopotamians had liked that method. But nope, he says “it must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation” (quoted in Andrew, 55). What a thought.

The Indian manual on spy craft is about as old as The Art of War, but less famous. It’s called the Arthashastra. It goes a step further than The Art of War and recommends establishing a permanent intelligence service, complete with incredibly detailed instructions for doing so. Some of the agents should be women. For example, it says a king should find out who would dare to seduce the queen by this method: Get a nun and send her to tell prominent men that that the queen is in love with them and will make them wealthy, among other things. If the said man fails to respond, then he must be virtuous and upstanding. If he does respond, he’s guilty of treason with suitably horrible punishments to follow.

Or in another situation, suppose the king needs to assassinate an official. One of the possible methods is to send a female agent to the man’s wife. The agent will pose as a seller of love potions. Only some of said love potions will actually be poison, so the wife will unknowingly poison her own husband. Job done (Andrew, 61-62).

How many times were these suggestions put into practice? I don’t know. I have no actual accounts to relate, unfortunately.

Back in the West, the Greeks were significantly less developed. No Greek general ever employed an intelligence officer. Because obviously the best way to know if your campaign will go well is to ask the gods. The Greek generals did have personal seers (Andrew, 30).

In the modern world, we are inclined to scoff at this idea and regard the seers as lying manipulators, and probably some of them were. But there is another way to view them. One study of sub-Saharan cultures who still have seers and diviners found that they tended to be wise, experienced observers of human nature, with personal integrity and valuable insight (Andrew, 31). They didn’t necessarily have to have a direct line to the gods in order to say something worth hearing.

If you want to take this more charitable view, then the most famous practitioner in Greece was always a woman: the oracle at Delphi. But she was hardly a spy.

The Oracle at Delphi, approx. 440 BCE (source)

Athenians in particular were unlikely to make use of spies because they celebrated openness and honesty. Pericles announced that “the freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also into our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes . . . We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality” (quoted in Andrew, 33).

This is all very noble and honorable and all that, but it was also dumb. Sparta won the upcoming war, in part because Athens had no idea what they were up against. “Know thy enemy” would have helped the Athenians a lot, but they had never heard of Sun Tzu.

By the time Aristotle came along, the high ideals of Pericles were out the door. Aristotle recommended a ruler spy even on his own subjects, partly by making use of potagogides, who were women, probably recruited from the musicians and prostitutes who frequented the homes of prominent citizens (Andrew, 37).

The Roman Republic started out as unsuspicious or you might say superstitious as the Greeks. Oracles were good. Spies were so nonexistent that Rome didn’t even know Hannibal was marching elephants through the Alps. Seems like that would be hard to miss, but if you have no informants, I guess you miss it.

But Julius Caesar appreciated espionage and also ciphers. He sent messages in code and troops on reconnaissance and set up rapid messenger systems to relay the info. And he was very, very successful (Andrew, 47). His history of the Gallic Wars has a lot to say about intelligence and doesn’t mention divination at all (Andrew, 50). So it’s ironic that one of the best known bits of divination was directed at him: “Beware the ides of March.”

After his death, the Roman emperors learned to be suspicious. They had to or get assassinated, which was precisely what many of them proceeded to do.

In contrast, the Islamic states understood espionage from the very beginning, starting right at the top with Muhammad. He was both a prophet and a military commander, and he used many spies and agents. He also condemned brutality during interrogation. He was probably not the first to do so on ethical grounds. But he was maybe the first to do so on practical grounds, pointing out that the info you got that way just wasn’t true. It was whatever the victim thought would stop the pain (Andrew, 89).

Subsequent Arabic writers fully developed the related disciplines, including the mathematics needed to break Caesar’s ciphers and the need for a ruler to watch her own subjects. One writer published a book called The Art of Keeping One’s Mouth Shut which I think is a perfect title, applicable to more than just espionage. It’s almost as perfect the method of his death: he died when a large pile of books in his personal library fell on him. I have to say, of all the possible ways to die, I could go for that one (Andrew, 97).

If you have noticed a distressing lack of women in my last few paragraphs, that ends now. Because having entered the medieval period, I have a few more names.

When the Fatimid dynasty ruled Egypt, a certain princess named Sitt al-Mulk was pretty much in charge for a few years. She inherited from her mother a slave girl named Taqurrub. We tend to think of a slave as the very lowest of the low, but that wasn’t necessarily true in the Islamic world. Taqurrub handled petitions for Sitt al-Mulk, a position of considerable importance and power (Rustow, 12). She amassed a large fortune of her own (Cortese, 155). She was also Sitt al-Mulk’s chief informant, basically the spymaster (Cortese, 118). Altogether, a fascinating character and I so wanted to give her an episode all her own, except that I’ve just told you 100% of what I was able to find out about her. I could find nothing else accessible, which was a serious letdown.

Another intriguing lead was Mochizuki Chiyome, a 16th-century Japanese ninja, commissioned to create a spy network of female spies. It has all the right elements of intrigue and empowerment, so it is just a crying shame that she probably never actually existed. Maybe there were real female ninja spies, but there are certainly no details if there were. And if you search on her name, most of what you get is video game character stuff, where apparently Mochizuki is big.

Also in the 16th century was Kunigunde of Austria who proved that not all espionage is about war. Kunigunde had been the Duchess of Bavaria, but when her husband died, she joined a convent. She still took an interest in the world though. In particular she was interested in a famous holy woman called Anna Laminit. Laminit was a living miracle because she survived for years without eating or drinking anything. Obviously chosen by God, Laminit traveled around providing healings and advice in exchange for donations. Kunigunde thought all this was extremely fishy, but she didn’t let on. She invited Laminit to come to her convent as an honored guest. She gave her a fancy private room. Except Kunigunde had already drilled some spyholes in the door. On the very first night, Laminit pulled some food out and ate it, all while being observed. Further spywork revealed a stash under the bed and excrement outside the window. Lovely.

Kunigunde of Austria (source)

The charade was over. Laminit was expelled from the city. I think she was fortunate not to be executed, and Kunigunde goes down in history as a successful spy (Stevenson).

Renaissance Italy was overflowing with spies, and at least in Venice, they were helped by the fact that it was fashionable to wear masks anyway. To keep things secret was an obsession, even when they didn’t need to be secret. And yes, women were definitely involved. Here are just two examples.

First, we have a classic femme fatale story about the young and beautiful Laura. I don’t have a last name. Her lover was the 70-year-old Chancery Secretary, Antonio Di Lando. She discovered that he was illegally revealing secrets to a man now in the pay of Mantua, a different city-state, best known to many of you as the place where Romeo was banished to. Anyway, Laura apparently thought her word would not be good enough to convict and therefore collect on the enormous monetary reward for informing. So she invited her other lover (yes, she had at least one other) to hide out under the bed during one of her trysts with di Lando, which sounds extremely awkward to me, but that’s what my source says. She led di Lando into treasonous pillow talk, and the next morning the good citizens of Venice woke up to see di Lando’s body swinging in the Piazza San Marco. The Venetian justice system apparently worked fast. And yet not fast enough in some ways. Di Lando has the dubious honor of having been hanged twice in one night because the rope snapped the first time. He fell and broke his arm but was nothing like as dead as he was supposed to be, so they strung him up again (Andrew, 118-119, Howard, 186).

If you like your stories less grisly, there is also the heiress Camilla Pallavicino. She was rich, intelligent, and respected. But in 1542 she was anonymously accused of conspiring with the French ambassador. Was it true? I have no idea, but compared with what happened to di Lando, she was lucky only to be banished from Venice. She went on to marry, have children, run a wine business, write many surviving letters, and establish two charitable foundations, one to provide for young unmarried women and one to help the poor (McIver, 179-183).

If we hop over the pond, it is also about this time that La Malinche was helping Cortes against the Aztecs. I actually wrote a blog post about her during series 4 on slaves because she was originally given to Cortes as a slave. To be honest, I had not thought of her as a spy, but she is listed as that in some of my sources and it is true that her ability to translate and report on what the locals of various tribes were saying was crucial to Cortes’s success (Mohammad, Andrew, 134).

She is, perhaps, my most obvious example of the mixed views with which we view spies. I noticed in researching this whole series that the methods that spies use almost always involve deception, theft, trickery, and betrayal. When they are doing it for a cause we admire, they are heroes. Hooray! But when we do not admire the cause, they are the worst of all villains. (Boo and hiss!) La Malinche gets very respectful treatment by the contemporary Spanish chroniclers. But in Mexican history in general, she is the arch-demons. who betrayed her own people and led to the catastrophic loss of life and culture. To that I can muster two defenses. First, her own people had sold her into slavery. Why should they expect her loyalty? And two, she cannot have known how thoroughly devastating the Spanish conquest would be because no one did. She may have been a villain. But she may also have simply been a tragic figure, trying to survive in a historic moment that was not under her control. As are we all, when it comes right down to it.

A picture from the Codex Azcatitlan of La Malinche (far right) followed by Cortes and his army (source)

So that brings us not only to the modern era, but also a little bit into it. In the popular culture, female spies are almost always young, gorgeous, and use their sex appeal to collect their information. In real history, that kind of female spy certainly existed, but there were many others as well, and I’d say that the majority of them do not fall into the femme fatale category. I hope you stick around for the next ten or so weeks to hear their stories!

My major source for this week is Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World: A History of Intelligence. Come visit the website at herhalfofhistory.com for all the other sources, plus a transcript and pictures. You should follow me on Twitter @her_half or on Facebook at Her Half of History. Next week I’ll start the full length bios of spies in the modern era with Aphra Behn, a Royalist spy.

Selected Sources

Andrew, Christopher. The Secret World : A History of Intelligence. London, Penguin Books, 2019.

Cortese, Delia., Calderini, Simonetta. Women And the Fatimids in the World of Islam. United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Howard, Deborah. “Contextualising Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love: The Cultural World of the Venetian Chancery in the Early Sixteenth Century.” Academia.edu, pp. 185–199, http://www.academia.edu/22257743/Contextualising_Titian_s_Sacred_and_Profane_Love_The_Cultural_World_of_the_Venetian_Chancery_in_the_Early_Sixteenth_Century. Accessed 12 Aug. 2022.

McIver, Katherine A.. Women, Art, and Architecture in Northern Italy, 1520–1580: Negotiating Power. United Kingdom, Taylor and Francis, 2017.

Mohammed, Farah. “Who Was La Malinche? | JSTOR Daily.” JSTOR Daily, 1 Mar. 2019, daily.jstor.org/who-was-la-malinche/. Accessed 12 Aug. 2022.

Rustow, Marina. “A Petition to a Woman at the Fatimid Court (413–414 A.H./1022–23 C.E.).” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 73, no. 1 (2010): 1–27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25702987.

Sabloff, Paula L. W. “The Political Agency of Royal Women: A Comparative Analysis of Eight Premodern States According to Societal Rules and Roles.” Journal of Archaeological Research 28.1 (2020): 53-97.

Sasson, Jack M. “Biographical Notices on Some Royal Ladies from Mari.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 25, no. 2, 1973, pp. 59–78. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1359419. Accessed 13 Aug. 2022.

Sasson, Jack M. From the Mari Archives: An Anthology of Old Babylonian Letters. Germany: Penn State University Press, 2015.

Sheldon, Rose Mary. “Spying in Mesopotamia.” CIA Historical Review Program, vol. 33, no. Spring, 1989, http://www.csus.edu/indiv/c/carrollt/site/Optional%20Readings_files/Spying%20in%20Mesopotamia.pdf. Accessed 8 Aug. 2022.

Stevenson, Cait. “Medieval Women You Should Know: Anna Laminit – Medieval Studies Research Blog: Meet Us at the Crossroads of Everything.” Sites.nd.edu, 2 Mar. 2022, sites.nd.edu/manuscript-studies/2022/03/02/medieval-women-you-should-know-anna-laminit/. Accessed 11 Aug. 2022.


    • It’s a difficult one to cover when you’re trying to find the moral take-home message! I mean the story paints her as a great hero, but when you think it through, the morality here is seriously questionable. Glad you liked it though!


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