The Spies of Ancient Athens

The index of posts in this series can be read here
Athens’ period of dominance in Greek affairs ended with her defeat to Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC). Despite this, she continued to play an important part in the internecine conflicts that bedevilled Greece until 338 when Philip II of Macedon defeated a joint Athenian-Theban army at Chaeronea. Athens – like every other Greek city – was now a pawn to be moved about wherever the Macedonian king wished.
However, although down, Athens was not out. Demosthenes continued to rage with all his oratorical might against Philip, and at the beginning of Alexander’s reign, the city successfully persuaded the new king to forgive her for not immediately recognising his authority over the Greeks.
Athens’ strength was not limited to fulminating and reacting to events. She also sought to change them.
After Philip’s murder, Alexander ordered the assassination of anyone who he feared might oppose his rule. Amongst those killed was Philip’s last wife, Cleopatra Euridike, and her children, Europa and Caranus. Europa and (especially) Caranus had to die as their bloodline made them too dangerous for Alexander to let live. Cleopatra didn’t but – according to Peter Green – was murdered by Olympias anyway out of spite.
The deaths of Philip’s last family put the future of Cleopatra Euridike’s guardian, the general Attalus, into question. He was in Asia Minor when Philip was killed, waiting for the arrival of the king and the start of the campaign against the Persian Empire.
Attalus had no claim of his own to the Macedonian throne, but it is not hard to imagine that on hearing of the death of his ward and her children, he would seek to take revenge by making common cause with Alexander’s Greek enemies, and lead a Greek army into Macedon. Diodorus tells us that this is exactly what Alexander did fear. And indeed, it might have happened as Athens sent secret agents to Asia Minor to discuss a possible alliance with the general.
As we know, Attalus was assassinated. What really intrigues me about this moment in history, though, is Athens’ use of ‘secret agents’. In truth, they are probably more accurately called envoys rather than spies but there was definitely a cloak and dagger feel to their mission. As Diodorus says, the city ‘[c]ommunicated secretly’ with him. I would be very surprised if the agents did not bring back to Athens intelligence relating to the size and state of the Macedonian army under Attalus’ command.
These questions have lead me to ask myself (whimsically, I admit) what if Athens had a secret intelligence service? What if she had agents in foreign courts sending reports back to the city? What would those reports say? For all I know, this is exactly what did happen; if so, I confess it is not an element of ancient Greek history I know anything about. These posts, therefore, are my imagining of what those reports would say. To give them a little context, the posts are presented as if they were extracts from a book titled ‘The Spies of Ancient Athens’.

  • The chief inspiration for this series of posts is a book titled Russian Roulette on how British spies took on Bolshevik Russia following the 1917 Revolution there. I have not enjoyed reading a book so much recently and heartily recommend it. It’s Amazon page is here but I am sure it will be available from all good bookshops.
Categories: The Spies of Ancient Athens | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The Spies of Ancient Athens

  1. Thanks for the reports AOS, Speaking of assassinations, Darius III died leaving a young prince, wife and mother. The wife died shortly after. The mother adopted Alexander. Do the sources say if the boy was allowed to grow up?


  2. Hello Penina,

    I shall consult my book and let you know in the next post 😉



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